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Atheism responsible for mass murder?

November 29, 2006

"Atheism, not religion, is the real force behind the mass murders of history" is the title of a recent opinion piece posted at the Christian Science Monitor. The author, Dinesh D'Souza, feels that the recent books by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and others exaggerate...

"the crimes attributed to religion, while ignoring the greater crimes of secular fanaticism."
After making that accusation, the author goes on to down-play religious atrocities while making the unsupported assertion that many more people have died in "the name of atheism". This sort of character assassination is a prime example of why I openly identify myself as an atheist and why I feel that it's important for us to vigilantly rebut the lies and misinformation spread by fearful zealots. They attempt to prop up their beliefs with fallacious appeals to the dire consequences they're certain will occur if we reject fanciful claims about gods. Consequences which every bit of evidence continues to refute.

Let's dig in and expose the lies and fallacies for what they are...

The first major claim is that atheists (specifically Harris and Dawkins) are exaggerating the crimes attributed to religion. In response to this, the author claims that fewer than 25 people were killed in the Salem witch trials and that 10-110,000 died in the Spanish inquisition. If we assume that those numbers are correct, how does that prove his assertion that these atheist authors are exaggerating? Did they use different numbers? Of course not. If they had, the author surely would have provided those numbers to show how exaggerated their claims were.

There were only 12 killed in the Columbine school shooting. Does that mean it wasn't a tragedy? Is the death toll more critical than the circumstances surrounding the incident? Why does D'Souza think his low-20's number should diminish, in any way, the nature of the vile injustice committed in Salem?

D'Souza is dangling a red herring in front of us, hoping that we'll be so distracted by the facts that he's presented that we'll completely forget what he's actually claiming - that atheists misrepresented these facts. Instead of making his case that these atheists are lying, he's completely missed all the relevant points and opted to simply down-play these injustices as "not so bad" and expands this misdirection with the tired old appeal that these incidents occurred long ago.

I'm not sure why, but when faced with undeniable evidence of the harm caused by religion one common response is that religion "isn't all bad". Neither is heroin, but we generally discourage people from becoming regular users who allow it to influence or define the decisions they make. If your most salient defense of your beliefs is that they "aren't so bad", you've already sold out. You're either a junky or supporting the dealers who supply junkies.

Does Dinesh sincerely believe that Dawkins, Harris and others are actively complaining about the Salem witch trials or Spanish inquisition? I doubt it. It's more likely that he's aware of the great social injustices and atrocities that are the direct result of religious belief and has wisely opted not to attempt to defend them. These atheist authors aren't outraged over centuries-old murders, they're railing against modern injustices which are the direct result of religious belief. They're attempting to point out the divisive, destructive and delusional mentality that religion fosters.

The second major claim is that Harris and Dawkins have ignored crimes of secular fanaticism. Based on the points that Mr. D'Souza makes on this issue, I have to conclude that he's completely in error. Both of those authors have spoken about the sort of crimes he's referring to and provided clear responses to silly accusations like the following:

"In the name of creating their version of a religion-free utopia, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong produced the kind of mass slaughter that no Inquisitor could possibly match. Collectively these atheist tyrants murdered more than 100 million people."
Whether or not Hitler was an atheist is a subject of much debate. He repeatedly identified himself as a Catholic both publicly and privately. He was supported by the Catholic church and the Pope described Hitler's opposition to Russia as "highminded gallantry in defense of the foundations of Christian culture."

Even if the author is correct about Hitler (a point we have no reason to concede) he lists those men as "atheist tyrants". Was atheism the justification for their actions? Were these murders done "in the name of atheism", as the author claims? Absolutely not.

At the beginning of his article, he blamed these murders on "secular fanaticism" and now he's blaming atheism. What is "secular fanaticism"? I'm not completely sure, but D'Souza does nothing to justify the bait-and-switch he performs by equating "atheism" with "secular fanaticism". Should we equate "religious extremist" with "Christian" or "Muslim"? As a thinking person, I certainly see a much stronger tie between the two (as I see no way to justify fanatic actions from non-belief), but I don't think it's fair to portray them as equivalent.

Atheism is, simply, the lack of belief in a god. There are no tenets, no dogma, no rituals, no common socio-political beliefs, no agendas, no ethical code, no "holier than..." or "better than" - there's nothing within atheism that could support the claims he's making. Those tyrants and murderers didn't kill people "in the name of atheism" and atheism wasn't the cause of their actions.

Without a causal link between atheism and the evil actions of these men, what we really have is coincidental correlation. The author could have labeled them "male tyrants" and come closer to a causal link than his preferred label of "atheist tyrants". The actions of those men weren't carried out on behalf of atheism or caused by atheism - they were carried out for reasons that transcend atheism.

D'Souza has done nothing to support his notion that atheism is responsible for great evil - he's simply asserted that it is true and tap-danced his way around the issue.

In the case of the Salem witch trials, the cause of the action was religious beliefs. The Bible says 'thou shalt not suffer a witch to live' and the people persecuting witches used that verse as a justification for their action - that is a causal relationship. Whether they killed 1, 25 or 25,000 hardly matters. The same holds true for other religious atrocities including the faith-based initiative we commonly refer to as 9-11.

D'Souza fails to support his accusations about Harris and Dawkins as well as the claim made in the title of his article: that atheism is the real force behind historical mass murders. Given the actual state of affairs it's clear that a much stronger case can be made for the claim that the only people who have been killed "in the name of atheism" are those people who were killed, by religious zealots, for being atheists.

Where are the atheist suicide bombers? Where is the low-quality video of a beheading carried out by an atheist activist? Where are the atheists who string up non-atheists and burn large 'A'-frames on the lawns of Christians? Where are the budget cuts and gag rules that prohibit funding to clinics that mention abstinence?

Whenever we see a prominent religious figure publicly disgraced or read about women who slaughter their children for their god, the most common excuse is that those people weren't "real" believers. In the case of Christianity, the Big Book of Multiple Choice (also known as The Bible) includes verses that serve as warnings about false believers which are conveniently tossed around on these occasions.

What we've learned is simple: If someone does something that makes a given religion look bad - they weren't a "true believer". Until they do, they're probably a true believer, but there's no way to tell. Hopefully, more people will realize this and we'll finally have a majority that stops thinking in terms of "what you claim to believe" and focuses on what we do, what is true, and what is most beneficial for the survival of our species.

This sort of 'heads I win, tails you lose' mentality is rampant among believers. It's a coping mechanism that prevents them from ever having to deal with the harsh truths of reality. Their general misconceptions about atheism are the result of a desperate need to personify evil and shift blame. Kent Hovind, in his creationist propaganda includes an entire lecture which hangs the responsibility for all of the evil in the world around the neck of Charles Darwin. Evolutionary theory is, in his mind, the root of all evil.

Dinesh D'Souza is attempting something similar here. He's desperately attempting to focus our attention on anything other than the man behind the curtain. While his attempts are as laughable and feeble as the great and powerful Oz, they're hardly as endearing. While his prose may be better, he's no different from the Internet forum troll who calls atheists evil and compares them to Hitler. His article, and the articles of those who echo his claims, may be the best evidence against his claims.

-Matt Dillahunty

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