Wednesday, January 16, 2008

What do atheist dictatorships teach us?

Not much, argues Christopher Orlet.


Alan said...


Thanks for the link, it was a very comprehensive post rebutting this common attack against atheism.

However, while I agree completely that atheism does not lead to violent atrocities and conflict, I also note that the 20th century shows that it does not prevent it either.

Too often the latter point is forgotten in atheism's zeal to rebut the unjust attack of believers.

I say this because I have noticed that in many atheist forums there tends to be this reflexive idea that supernatural, irrational religious belief is the cause of all the world's evil.

Unfortunately, as the 20th century showed, an irrational devotion to secular ideologies also caused quite a bit of evil.

I guess the problem is with us humans and our distressing ability to get caught up in ideology and tribalism.

My point being, again, that while atheism most certainly was not responsible for 20th century atrocities, the elimination of traditional supernatural beliefs did nothing to prevent them - thus eliminating the "god belief" alone it is not the pancecea many tend to think it is. Not without a heavy dose of critical thinking skills, skepticism and a solid secular moral philosophy to go with it.

Having said all that - I realize that these "atheist" states were composed of millions of people who had been exposed to religion and thus their rational, skeptical faculties may have been impaired rendering them susceptible to secular ideological indoctrination.

P.S. - keep up the good work. I have been reading all along, but too insanely busy to comment on any blogs lately.

C2H50H said...


You say: "an irrational devotion to secular ideologies also caused quite a bit of evil."

Ummm, "irrational devotion" is pretty much the definition of religion, and not something I associate with atheism. Perhaps you should reexamine the examples you think demonstrate your point.

Sheldon said...

"Ummm, "irrational devotion" is pretty much the definition of religion, and not something I associate with atheism."

Well if you think that is a definition of religion, then it is a pretty sloppy one. Without getting bogged down into much discussion of definitions of religion, I would argue there must be some supernatural/mystical component included.

I think Alan has a good point, and points to a larger issue of ideology. There certainly can be a irrational devotion to secular political ideology of both the left, center, and right.

I also agree with Alan about these simplistic knee jerk conclusions that religion is evil. Yes, there are people who do evil, and religion is part of their motivational background. Yet, there are people who do good things, and religion is also their motivational background.

C2H50H said...

If Alan has a good point, and you agree with him, you should be able to easily come up with examples to illustrate your point. Please do so.

When you do give your examples, you might not want to point out communism, because the secularism espoused by the marxists was anything but irrational. They regarded religion as a grave danger to the new order they were trying to create (and, as Poland demonstrated, they were right) and very rationally attempted to stamp out the church.

Also, please point out the prevalence of knee-jerk conclusions that religion is evil. For the record, my own opinion about the deleterious effects of religion was arrived at only after long observation. This is not a criticism of the abstract concept of religion, but a sober reflection on the harm that checking one's brains at the door has on the intellect.

As for sloppy, I'll accept the charge. In my defense I will point out that any two-word definition of religion may not be perfectly accurate. Give it a try yourself.

G-man said...

Alan - well said! I was tempted to copy/paste your comment and highlight it on my blog as an example of a good perspective. There is certainly something more to making a better world than rejecting the idea of God.

C2 - In your response, you pointed out that "the secularism espoused by the marxists was anything but irrational."

I think this is very much the case. However, Sheldon and Alan remarked about an irrational devotion to an ideology - no comment was made as to whether or not the ideology itself was irrational.

I think this is a key difference. From what I've seen, religious people can take a rational approach to an irrational ideology. Similarly, secular people can take an irrational approach to a rational ideology. I imagine we could all agree that a rational approach to a rational ideology would be excellent.

As a final comment - adopting a religion does not, necessarily, amount to checking one's brains at the door. A brief observation of history will illuminate a number of intelligent Christian thinkers. If some of their arguments were faulty - that's ok. Newton was wrong about alchemy. He certainly did not check his brains at any door, though.

C2H50H said...


Do, please, point out any secular people you can identify with an irrational approach to a rational ideology, because otherwise, your argument is without foundation. I've asked this three times. How many times does it take?

Also, I'm sorry, but "rationality" is not synonymous with "intelligence". If you thought I was maligning the intelligence of the religious, please understand that I had no intention of doing so. Please note that Newton, while a highly intelligent person, was not only a very religious person but also about as weird and vicious an individual as it is possible to imagine. Look it up. It may have been as a result of Mercury poisoning, but he "checked his brains at the church door" and he believed also in alchemy. I think he is a perfect example that surrendering one's rationality to religion may lead to irrationality in other areas.

Sheldon said...

First lets back up a little so we understand exactly what we are arguing over.

First is the response to theists that atheism (the lack of belief in God) itself is somehow the cause of various 20th century atrocities. Clearly it was not, and I think we agree on that.

Then Alan makes a valid and true point. That atheism alone has no inherent moral content, was not sufficient to prevent the relevant atrocities, and that a "solid secular moral philosophy" is needed. Do you disagree with any of that?

Then you express dislike for the phrase "irrational devotion to secular ideologies". Are you arguing that this is impossible?

I myself am quite sympathetic to the thought of Marx and some Marxists, and don't think that the secularism they advocated was neccessarily irrational. However, Lenin himself argued against the irrationalism of other extreme left ideologues.

So it could be the case that Lenin thought that some revolutionaries of his day were being irrational in their devotion to their purely secular ideology.

And then you seem to change the subject, arguing that communist's suppression of the church was rational. Ok, well maybe it was. Which is a different issue from whether it was moral.

Furthermore, Marx himslef had a much more nuanced view of religion than the one you and many others seem to recognize. As he states:

"Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people."

Given this, he might argue that to liberate people from religion requires a more rational and different approach than to just prohibit them from practiciing it.

I should also say that I may disagree with the author referenced by Hume's Ghost, Orlet, and perhaps Alan, in the view that the atrocities perpetrated by atheist Stalin can be traced back to Marx and to the "irrational devotion" to revolutionary socialism (i.e. communism).

It was Stalin that eliminated competing factions of the Bolshevik party, led by Trotsky and Bakunin in his drive for total power of the SU. He then embarked on a disastrous and highly irrational and immoral policy of forced collectivization of agriculture to which most of his atrocities are attributed.

But still one could argue that their was an irrational devotion to Stalin as an authoritarian leader. And also an irrational devotion to the Soviet state.

Then you say: "Also, please point out the prevalence of knee-jerk conclusions that religion is evil. For the record, my own opinion about the deleterious effects of religion was arrived at only after long observation."

Simplistic, knee-jerk assertions that religion is evil are a dime a dozen on blogs and elsewhere. The thing is, that "religion is evil" IS TRUE, HALF TRUE. I too have observed the negative effects of religion. But that is far different than concluding (dogmatically) that all religous institutions inevitably lead to evil, or that there are no positives to religion.

It was the black church that served as an institutional base for the civil rights movement in this country for example.

C2H50H said...


As my previous comments show, my problem with Alan's comment (which otherwise I have no problem with) was the sentence: "Unfortunately, as the 20th century showed, an irrational devotion to secular ideologies also caused quite a bit of evil."

I challenged him on that statement, and suggested he illustrate it with an example or two.

It would seem that you like to argue, and that you want to expand the argument to include morality, stalinism, random statements by Lenin, and apparently somebody who concluded (dogmatically) that all religious institutions inevitably lead to evil.

I'm just going to point out that no fair reading of my comments can produce anything similar to what you are arguing against, and let it lay.

I'm still waiting for those examples of "irrational devotion to secular ideology" leading to evil.

Sheldon said...

Look, I am just trying to figure out what you are taking issue with, making my best guess, and trying to argue the point from there. Maybe you should clarify your point. Afterall, my first response to you was to point out the rather quik and sloppy statement about "irrational devotion" being religion.

Now here is a second guess. Maybe I have found the grain of sand in the vaseline. Perhaps a simple misunderstanding. Correct me if I am wrong.

Perhaps the problem is in the interpretation of the phrase "secular ideology" vs. "secular ideologies".

Now I think the term secular simply means non-religious, or religiously nuetral. Now there are ideologies that are secular, i.e. Libertarianism, Marxism, and others. What I, (and perhaps Alan) are arguing is that there can be a dogmatic, and irrational approaches to these ideologies. Do you think that people can be irrational Libertarians or Marxists?

However, as you are using the simple definition of the term secular with ideology, then perhaps there is no irrationalism associated with it. If we simply mean to say that ideas are non-religious, or nuetral to religion.

If this does not clear things up, then please make it clear what you are taking issue with.

He didn't write a thing and this is his longest thread. Sorry for imposing on you like this.

C2H50H said...


First, sorry to both you and G-man for confusing the two of you.

Second, I completely agree that there are those who are irrationally devoted to what you refer to as secular ideologies. However, and here's one point, when they become irrationally devoted to those secular ideologies, they are effectively taking them on as a religion, because a religion is, basically, a belief which cannot be justified on entirely rational means. This applies to deism, zen, polytheism, animism, the utility of psychiatric therapy, and economics -- all based on faith, not evidence. (Well, maybe there's some evidence for some economics theories.)

Also, I would point out that the vast majority of libertarians and marxists would assert, with scientific, (or at least based on economics) and historical studies to back them up, that their beliefs are hardly based on a lack of evidence. The number of them religiously devoted to their beliefs is relatively small, I would estimate.

The second point I wish to clarify for you is that the claim was made that the "irrational devotion to secular ideologies" produced significant evil in the 20th century, but no supporting evidence or example for this claim was ever produced. Are we expected to swallow this statement without examination?

Finally, I think Hume's Ghost would be pleased to have sparked such a discussion. These comments are produced with entirely recycled bits, so they cost the environment relatively little, in the grand scheme of things, and also the discussion has been exceptionally civil. If it engenders a little doubt that faith (and especially religious faith) is, on balance, the force for good in the world that many believe, I believe the bits will have been bits well spent.

Hume's Ghost said...

"Finally, I think Hume's Ghost would be pleased to have sparked such a discussion."

Yep. A blog first.