Sunday, May 15, 2005

Atheism and communism

If I were to complain of how many crusades and inquisitions were launched in the name of atheism, I might get a few skeptical looks. But it’s the literal truth – revolutionaries have crusaded violently for the classless society, and they have kept themselves in power by torturing and murdering countless heretics no more guilty than the witches of the Middle Ages. But I should not say “countless”. Roger Cohen’s article in today’s New York Times puts it this way:

After all, there can now be little debate that the exercise of Communism, whatever the idealism of its origins, killed upward of 80 million people in the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, Eastern Europe, North Korea and Vietnam.

But this figure applies only to those killed in “internal” inquisitions (I beg forgiveness from Tibet and all the former Soviet republics for referring to them as "internal" territory rather than colonial conquests), quite apart from external crusades. The number goes up if you count the foreign wars that these regimes launched or engaged in – especially if we count the 15 million victims sometimes said to have been directly murdered by another atheist regime, Nazi Germany. And there is no reason not to count that regime in this discussion, since “Nazi” is short for the National Socialist German Workers Party. Nazism was not Marxist, because The Communist Manifesto defines communism as different from varieties of socialism which depend on national or ethnic identity. These things, of course, mattered centrally to German national socialism, and Hitler used them to re-order German society and its economy around a central authority, whereas Stalin simply centralized society without appealing to his people's racism and nationalism. (Mussolini likewise appealed to these things in the Italian people, after he decided that socialism could not succeed without nationalism). In short, Communism and Nazism were certainly enemies, but they were both socialist; and both despised religion. They were both atheist regimes, though admittedly Communism was quicker to destroy religious structures.

So we have something like 100 million people killed by atheism in the 20th century. An atheist might immediately object. But so do I object when it’s claimed that religion has killed several million people in the last thousand years. An atheist can say that the communist regimes killed in the name of Marx or in the name of the classless society, or that they simply killed in their own name, not in the name of atheism. Who fights or kills for atheism? Well I can only ask, who mounts a crusade in the name of theism, or even religion? Those Christians who joined the crusades of the late Middle Ages certainly did not fight in the name of “Religion”; they fought in the name of Christ, or their pope, or their homeland, or in their own names. If we want to be specific, we should be saying, "I do not believe in Marx because of the limitless violence done in his name; I do not believe in Christ because of the wars fought in his name."

Certainly we can argue that the Communist bloodletting was the result of absolute power and its corruptions, and had nothing to do with “true” socialism or Marxism. But this is no more legitimate than arguing that Christianity had nothing to do with the violence that Christians committed. Marxism had everything to do with the violence that Marxists committed; communist regimes followed Marx’s prescriptions in The Manifesto virtually to the letter. The only difference I see is that Christianity and other religions, while providing violent statements attractive to violent men, also held them back with scriptural and extra-scriptural ethics that valued stability, peace and mercy. Marx, on the other hand, says little or nothing about moderation or mercy; he asks only that Communism distinguish itself from other socialisms by being uncompromisingly radical in overthrowing the present order, however radical the means might need to be. Christianity is a double-sided phenomenon whose internal tension has given it great creativity, adaptability, and staying power. Marxism is a one-sided call to radicality that produced monoliths famously deficient in creativity and ultimately in staying power.

If an atheist tells me that atheism should not be defined according to its worst historical representatives or examples, I grant the point – if the same is granted for theism. Atheism that I do respect speaks about how wrong it is to coerce belief, and how essential it is to teach by nonviolent persuasion. That is also the sort of religion that I respect; it is the reason that I reject religious dogmatism and fundamentalism. Communism was essentially a form of atheism in that it proposed to lift up humankind without God’s help. Atheists cannot distance themselves from it entirely without lying about what they themselves wish for humanity to do. Atheists can say, however, that this sort of lifting up, by imprisoning people, fettering their minds, and extinguishing their lives, is wrong. Atheists can say that socialism was wrong to propose that society could be changed from a centralized location. In the same way, those with faith can say that religion should not do these things either and must reach people’s souls (and minds) through service and persuasion -- not by making a clergy or a scripture into a dogmatic sole authority.

Perhaps this sounds reasonable to you. Even so, I cannot leave it at that. The number of deaths and non-fatal wounds or imprisonments under Communism is so appalling that I have to ask indeed whether setting God aside really doesn’t kill more people than remaining with God. 100 million deaths is so much larger than any figure associated with “religious” regimes, either before or during the 20th century, that I have to wonder why. [A partial answer is here]. Nowhere does history provide examples of societies, except those struck by famine or another calamity, in which a person stood less of a chance of living through to a natural death than under the atheist regimes of the 20th century. No religiously fundamentalist regime has produced anything like those numbers. Atheism may be proposed as an improvement on theism, but the evidence is not there for that proposition – nor will it be there even in the humanistic secular societies of the West, until the millions of deaths by abortion, capital punishment and euthanasia are significantly reduced by nonviolent persuasion. I believe that those numbers will be reduced, but one thing is certain: atheism will not be able to say that Christianity had no role in persuasion when it comes to those issues.


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