28 November 2006

Communism

Whenever atheists point to the hideous history of violence and killing inspired by religion (Islamic terrorism and persecution, the brutality of the European Dark Ages, etc.), the one response theists are guaranteed to make is, "What about Communism? What about all the millions of people killed by atheistic regimes in the USSR and China?" It's a question that merits an answer -- and the answer is that, in two ways, the question's premises are subtly false.

First, atheism is not a belief system or coherent ideology the way Islam, Christianity, or for that matter Communism are; it is simply an absence of belief in one particular thing (deities). If you know that two people are both Muslims, that tells you there is at least a core set of beliefs and values they probably share. If you know that two people are atheists, that tells you nothing about what else, if anything, they have in common -- only the fact that neither of them believes a deity exists. They might well have no other values or ideas in common at all.

If Stalin didn't believe in unicorns, and Bill Clinton also doesn't believe in unicorns, then that does not mean we can infer any other similarities between the two, nor can we insist that the latter must either defend the atrocities of the former or else admit that their shared disbelief in unicorns is evil.

Second, Communism as practiced in the USSR and China, and by the groups with ties to those regimes, actually had more characteristics in common with a major organized religion than with anything else. There was a prophet (Marx), a set of sacred texts (Marx's writings), a priesthood charged with guiding mankind according to the holy writ (the Communist party), an infallible and almost superhuman leader (Lenin, Stalin, Mao, etc. depending on the time and place), a central ideology based on struggle between virtue and wickedness (the struggle to destroy capitalism and establish Communism), a welter of sects (Stalinists, Trotskyites, Maoists, etc.) denouncing each other as heretics, even an eschatology depicting a supposedly foreordained future, including an Armageddon-like struggle to overthrow capitalism followed by a Communist utopia. I would also note the extreme sexual puritanism of most Communist regimes. And despite the rhetoric about Marxism being "scientific", the whole ideology was in fact held on faith, regarded as "above" being tested against mundane evidence from the real world. This is all far, far more similar to Christianity or Islam than to the world-view of any atheist I know. The fact that the Communist system lacked a deity is a minor detail, not a key characteristic; self-proclaimed Communists in other parts of the world, notably various parts of Latin America, have adopted the whole ideology intact while keeping their traditional belief in the Christian God.

So don't assume that everyone who doesn't believe in unicorns can be tarred with the same brush.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Chell said...

You make a great point here, about true atheists not having set common beliefs. I say "true," because as with anything, atheism is worn like the latest jewelry fad by some. But I have noticed how atheism is looked on as some sort of belief system by too many people.

28 November, 2006 09:28  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

As I mentioned in an earlier posting, it's somewhat odd that we have such a word as "atheist" at all. There isn't a special word for a person who doesn't believe in unicorns, or a special word for a person who doesn't believe in flying saucers, etc. Richard Dawkins made a similar observation.

29 November, 2006 02:43  

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