An atheist told me recently, ‘No one kills in the name of atheism’. In fact he was so sure he told me twice.
He’s not unique in making such a claim. Richard Dawkins writes in The God Delusion: ‘Individual atheists may do evil things but they don’t do evil things in the name of atheism’.
Dawkins won’t even allow us to think that atheism had any influence on Stalin’s murderous regime. He says: ‘The mature Stalin was scathing about the Russian Orthodox Church, and about religion in general. But there is no evidence that his atheism motivated his brutality’.
Such a conclusion is a luxury on offer only to those with absolutely no grasp of history. The reality is that it is a plain and simple, indeed brutal, fact that over the past 100 years atheism, as an ideology, has been a driving force used directly to plan, organise and carry out the mass murder of millions of people.
We will limit ourselves to a consideration of the way in which state-sponsored atheism has been used to justify the intimidation, torture and killing of those whose only crime was belief in God and who posed no other political or ideological threat.
Atheism was the ideology that lay behind state-sanctioned killing of Christians in the USSR. Karl Marx famously wrote: ‘Religion … is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion, as the illusory happiness of men, is a demand for their real happiness’.
And for Marx that meant the abolition of religion. ‘Of course, in periods when the political state as such is born violently out of civil society, … the state can and must go as far as the abolition of religion, the destruction of religion. But it can do so only in the same way that it proceeds to the abolition of private property, to the maximum, to confiscation, to progressive taxation, just as it goes as far as the abolition of life, the guillotine’.
Interestingly, so indebted to Darwin was Marx that he said of his book: ‘The Origin of Species serves me well as a basis in natural science for the struggle in history’. He actually wrote to Darwin asking if he might dedicate his next book to him. Darwin put his decision to decline down to the sensibilities of his wider family.
From the very beginnings of the Communist revolution in Russia the state set out to apply the atheism of Marx. Religion was systematically targeted as an enemy of the state, an oppressor of the people. It was something not merely to be discouraged but destroyed.
Lenin said: ‘There can be nothing more abominable than religion’.
Marx’s dogmatic atheism was used as the philosophical justification for the attack on religion beginning with Lenin, continuing under Stalin and maintained right through to the collapse of the Berlin wall. The fact that the attack on religion continued over generations demonstrates that this state-sponsored attack could hardly be blamed on the actions of one individual.
Time magazine summarised the legacy of dogmatic atheism as follows: ‘In the Bolsheviks’ first five years in power, 28 bishops and 1,200 priests were cut down by the red sickle. Stalin greatly accelerated the terror, and by the end of Khrushchev’s rule, liquidations of clergy reached an estimated 50,000. After World War II, fierce but generally less bloody persecution spread into the Ukraine and the new Soviet bloc, affecting millions of Roman Catholics and Protestants as well as Orthodox’.
Two giants’ opinions
Two Russian giants of history come to the same conclusion. Alexander N. Yakovlev was a Soviet politician and historian. He is best known as the author of perestroika and has been called ‘the godfather of glasnost’. It was he whose ideas lay behind Gorbachev’s reform of the Soviet Union. As a member of the Politburo no one can claim a greater insight into the rationale behind the workings of the Soviet Empire. In his authoritative work A century of violence in Soviet Russia he records much of the tyranny of evil committed under dogmatic atheism and he estimated that, ‘Under Stalin’s leadership in the purges of 1937-38, some 100,000 Russian Orthodox priests were executed’.
The Nobel prize-winning author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote extensively about life in the Soviet Union, having spent 11 years in the Gulag concentration camps. ‘I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution. In the process, I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own towards the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today the main cause of the ruinous revolution that has swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened”.’
When Dawkins comments, ‘I cannot think of any war that has been fought in the name of atheism’, clearly he cannot be aware of the wars within a nation that has led a state to murder on a vast scale its own citizens, all in the name of atheism.
Albania became the world’s first atheist state in 1967. Its leader, Enver Hoxha, systematically sought to wipe faith off the map by banning religion and closing all religious buildings. Young people were encouraged to attack mosques, churches and tekkes and to turn in remaining clergy to the authorities. Clergy who were still alive by 1967 and had survived 20 years of persecution, were killed or sent to hard labour camps. Most mosques had their minarets destroyed, tombstones with any religious symbols were overturned, people caught wearing religious symbols (e.g. crucifixes, medallions of the Qur’an) could be sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment.
Much as we might like to think of this as something that we can consign to the history books, the persecution of religion in the name of atheism continues today in China and North Korea.
We must not forget
Paul Johnson described the totalitarian state as ‘the greatest killer of all time’. He goes on: ‘State action had been responsible for the violent or unnatural deaths of some 125 million people during the century’. And the reality is that much of that killing was not politically but religiously motivated.
We would be shocked, horrified and concerned if people had never heard of the gas-chambers of Auschwitz, so surely we owe it to the memory of those who died in the Gulags not to forget them. How is it that the hundreds of thousands of brave men and women killed simply for being believers in God in countries such as the Soviet Union, Albania, China, Cambodia and North Korea are forgotten or at best ignored?
What is at stake?
The problem with the militant atheism propagated by Dawkins et al. is that, in an attempt to blame religion for everything, it has to obscure history to exonerate atheism. For Dawkins to claim that Stalin’s murderous actions were not informed by his atheism is beyond belief and the claim that ‘no one kills in the name of atheism’ flies in the face of all the evidence. Quite simply, atheism was used to justify evil on a massive scale.
Once we understand that neither religion nor atheism stand free from accusation, the question remains what is at work in men and women that leads them to kill in both the name of religion and non-religion? If we can’t simply blame religion, where do we go? The answer can be found in something much more fundamental to the human condition, the darkness that resides in every human heart.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote of how he discovered this very fact in his paper What I learned in the Gulag.
‘It was granted to me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.’
What he also learned in coming to faith in Jesus Christ is that Jesus did not come to establish a religion but to bring about a rescue, a rescue from ourselves through his death on the cross. A rescue necessary because of the natural condition of our hearts and a rescue that alone gives hope for the world.
I am indebted to Does God Believe in Atheists? by John Blanchard for some of the quotes.