(I wrote this a few years ago. A magazine said they would probably print it but then held on to it for over two years before deciding not to use it. I’ve just now gone quickly through it and changed it slightly in several places.)
If there’s anything new about the New Atheism which erupted in 2004, it’s the strident proclamation that belief in God is a powerful force for evil. All kinds of atrocities are laid at the door of “religion,” equated with belief in God.
The central message of the New Atheism is that 9/11 and similar outrages have occurred because their perpetrators believed in God. This is explicitly stated and reiterated many times by Sam Harris, but the same tune has been hummed and whistled in several keys by Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens.
If you believe in God, then you have been infected and (twenty-eight days or years later) this belief is going to prompt you to kill yourself and your fellow-humans. So the New Atheists tell us. I view this as a fairytale, just as far-fetched as anything in the Bible or the Quran.
Atheists Do It Better (Mass Murder, That Is)
There’s an obvious problem with the New Atheist claim that theistic religion is peculiarly conducive to atrocities. The last hundred years have seen the rise to power of secular, in some cases overtly atheistic, ideological movements, and these movements have been responsible for the killing, torture, enslavement, and terrorizing of many millions of people.
By any measure, the evil deeds done by these secular regimes within a few decades have vastly outweighed the evil deeds done by Christianity and Islam combined, throughout their entire history—not by a factor of just two or three, but by a factor of hundreds, if not thousands. Institutions claiming to embody Christianity or Islam have murdered thousands. Institutions claiming to embody Marxism, National Socialism, or other types of socialism, have murdered tens of millions.
Since this factual point is so conspicuous, the New Atheists have naturally attempted to account for it. Their most common response is that whereas theists (like Torquemada) committed atrocities because they believed in God, atheists (like Stalin or Mao) did not commit their atrocities because they disbelieved in God. This strikes me as a very strange claim.
Even if this strange claim were true, it would not address the difficult point. The New Atheists maintain that “religious,” meaning theistic, ideologies generate atrocities. History shows that non-theistic or secular ideologies have generated atrocities on a vastly greater scale than theistic ideologies. Now, even if the religious atrocities were committed because the perpetrators believed in God while the secular atrocities were not committed because the perpetrators disbelieved in God, this does nothing to get around the stark fact that ideologies without belief in God have motivated more and bigger atrocities than ideologies incorporating belief in God, and that therefore it looks dubious to single out belief in God as an especially virulent intellectual source of atrocities.
However, the strange claim, if we can make any sense of it at all, can only be false. Belief in God is an integral part of Christianity and disbelief in God is an integral part of Marxism. Torquemada committed his atrocities because of a belief system which included belief in God. Stalin and Mao committed their immensely more ambitious atrocities because of a belief system which included disbelief in God. I can’t imagine how you extract from these facts the conclusion that theists committed their atrocities “because” they believed in God while atheists did not commit their atrocities “because” they disbelieved in God.
Another argument offered by the New Atheists is to cite ways in which the churches were complicit in the crimes against humanity committed by Fascist and National Socialist regimes. The New Atheists don’t seem equally concerned about the complicity of atheist intellectuals in the greater crimes against humanity committed by Communist regimes.
But, in any case, what do such examples really show? Fascism and National Socialism were not Christian movements. The distinctive elements in their ideologies and policies were not derived from what the churches were teaching. When the Fascists and the Nazis were new, small parties with little following, they did not seek, nor did they get, the slightest bit of support from the churches. Until 1933, for instance, Catholics were forbidden by the German bishops to join the Nazi Party.
By the time Fascism and National Socialism became contenders for power, and then achieved power, many people compromised with them, including most of the churches. So did other groups, for example, the majority of scientists, scholars, and journalists in the affected countries. Both totalitarian movements, Fascism in Italy and National Socialism in Germany, gained electoral support at the expense of specifically Christian political parties, which were closed down when the Fascist and National Socialist parties came to power.
It’s also true that some Christians, motivated at least in part by their Christianity, resisted these regimes and paid for it. The truly heroic Claus von Stauffenberg, leader of Operation Valkyrie, the plot to assassinate Hitler, was a devout Catholic.
As well as the Soviet repression of theists, both Christian and Muslim, and such well-known instances as the mass killings directed by the atheist Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, it’s worth mentioning a couple of other, lesser-known cases where specifically atheist persons or groups were responsible for horrible acts of violence.
In 1924, the Mexican government ramped up its already severe restrictions on the activities of the Catholic church. Hundreds of priests and other Catholics were imprisoned or executed because they refused to comply with new regulations (requiring, for example, that priests not criticize government officials and not wear clerical garb outside a church). The brutal repression of Catholics led to the “Cristero war” between Catholic rebels and the government, followed by further government assaults on Catholics. The government hunted down and killed priests, just because they would not give up being priests. Graham Greene wrote about this in a documentary work, The Lawless Roads (1939), and then in a novel, The Power and the Glory (1940). The former president and de facto ruler of Mexico at this time, Plutarco Elias Calles, was a highly enthusiastic atheist.
The traditional anticlericalism, often atheism, of Mexico’s ruling elite stems mainly from Positivism, the atheist belief system promulgated by Auguste Comte, a form of pre-Marxist socialism which took root among the Mexican intelligentsia in the nineteenth century. Vicente Fox Quesada, elected in 2000, was the first Mexican president for ninety years who could openly admit to being a Catholic, and even today, a few remnants of the old restrictions remain, for example ministers of religion are banned from holding political office in Mexico.
In another example, the Spanish anarchists, atheistic followers of Mikhail Bakunin (“If God existed, it would be necessary to abolish him”), had come to control some regions of rural Spain by the 1930s. They committed numerous outrages against Catholics, not just the desecration of churches, but also occasionally the killing and mutilation of priests and nuns. These atheist-inspired attacks alarmed many Spaniards, and stimulated support for rightwing enemies of the Republic, helping prepare the way for extraordinary brutality by both sides in the Spanish Civil War. Numerous leftist supporters of the Spanish Republic, like George Orwell, were fully aware of these anti-Catholic crimes and never uttered one word of criticism. Yes, it’s true that these atrocities were “exaggerated by the right for their own purposes.” But the right had something to exaggerate.
Harris’s explanation for the current spate of suicide terrorism is that the terrorists believe they will be rewarded as martyrs in Heaven. The religious zeal of fundamentalist Muslims is the explanation for suicide attacks. This entertaining story has been continually reiterated by journalists, but it will not withstand scrutiny.
Harris, and following him Dawkins, have asked, rhetorically, whether we can imagine any atheist group conducting suicide terrorism. In actuality, a rather high proportion of suicide terrorists have been atheists. In the years up to 2009, the pre-eminent perpetrator of suicide bombings in the world was the group known as the Tamil Tigers, in Sri Lanka. They were of Hindu background but led by atheists. Opinions differ on whether the Tamil Tigers could accurately be described as “Marxist-Leninist,” but it is not disputed that they were belligerently anti-religion.
Another atheist group responsible for suicide terrorism was the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish nationalist and Marxist-Leninist group active in Turkey. These suicide bombers were atheists and their victims were mostly Muslims. Around 1999 the PKK leadership abandoned its Marxism-Leninism and its practice of suicide bombings, and later changed its name.
Suicide terrorism is primarily political in its aims and rationale. Suicide bombers have political objectives which provide the reason for their actions. Suicide terrorism is the recourse of members of ethnic populations who find themselves completely outmatched by vastly stronger military might. It’s their way of hitting back at the occupying troops, whom they are too feeble to confront directly. It is particularly effective if the occupying power is a democracy. Robert Pape’s study of the backgrounds of Muslim suicide terrorists (Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, 2005) shows that many of them are not especially religious.
If suicide bombers knew of a way to kill an equal number of the enemy without also killing themselves, they would act upon it. The reason that suicide bombing has become much more frequent since 1983 is that it works. The Israeli government, for example, while usually unmoved by peaceful overtures or by (comparatively ineffective) non-suicide attacks, has made concessions to the Palestinians following suicide bombings. Reagan pulled the troops out of Lebanon because of suicide attacks, intended precisely to get US troops pulled out of Lebanon. Pape, who made a thorough study of all cases of suicide terrorism (up to 2003), calculated that about fifty percent of suicide attacks had some demonstrable success in achieving their political objectives—an amazingly high success rate for terrorism, or indeed for any form of political operation by small groups not in control of a government.
This is not to say that suicide terrorism has any moral justification. It is merely to say that it works extremely well. Suicide terrorism is far more effective than any of the alternatives open to militant political groups acting, as they see it, on behalf of comparatively powerless ethnic communities under foreign military occupation. It’s a highly rational, expertly calibrated activity which delivers the political goods.
Some readers will no doubt protest that some of the Muslim suicide bombers really do believe they will enjoy the attentions of seventy-two virgins in paradise. (Some Muslims have told me this is a mistranslation and it should read “seventy-two raisins,” which confirms my view that Islam isn’t much fun.) It wouldn’t astound me to learn that one or two members of IRA-Sinn Fein did believe they would have a friendly chat with St. Peter at the Pearly Gates before being issued with harps. But Al-Qaeda, like the IRA, is an organization all of whose activities are strictly determined by its assessment of how these activities will serve its political objectives. Being prepared to give up one’s life for a great cause is a commonplace of all national cultures, and always positively valued when done for the side we favor.
It’s understandable that someone who picks up his knowledge of Christianity and Islam from the TV news would be innocent of the above facts. (In the wake of 9/11, an operation carried out by Saudis, I kept hearing about seventy-two virgins, but not once did I hear a single murmur on the major TV networks about US troops stationed in Saudi Arabia. These troops were pulled out eighteen months after 9/11, rendering that operation a brilliant success.) Still, anyone of a curious disposition might pause to wonder why, if belief in God explains 9/11, the first fifteen centuries of Islam passed by without a single suicide bombing or anything comparable, whereas suicide bombings (usually assassinations of public figures) were well-known in nineteenth-century Europe. We see this awareness reflected in such stories as The Secret Agent by Conrad and ‘The Stolen Bacillus’ by Wells. Again, we can generally assume that the “anarchists” who committed suicide bombings in nineteenth-century Europe were atheists.
What Makes Religion Dangerous?
Confronted by the fact that atheists have been implicated in both state repression and terrorism to an extent hugely disproportionate to their numbers, the New Atheists offer the rejoinder that these dictators and terrorists, though they may not believe in God, still think in ways that are unreasonable. In one formulation of this rejoinder, Harris says that “although these tyrants [Stalin and Mao] paid lip service to rationality, communism was little more than a political religion” (End of Faith, p. 79).
The first thing to note about this is that in making such a move, the New Atheists casually abandon what had been their central claim—and continues to be their central claim, because they don’t acknowledge that they have abandoned it, but go right back to repeating it. They keep drumming into their readers that religion must be defined as belief in God (or occasionally, the supernatural), and that specifically belief in God is the pathological meme which causes terrorism and mass murder.
If “religion” is to be used to characterize all belief systems which have ever led to terrorism and mass murder, then in shifting from religion-defined-as-theism to religion-which-may-just-as-well-be-atheistic, the New Atheists have tacitly accepted that their original claim is false.
The second thing to note is that while Harris will not apply the term “religion” to his own beliefs, he does not give us a litmus test to distinguish “religion” from non-religious beliefs. But a favorite rhetorical trope of his is to assert that people he disagrees with accept things without evidence, and so I think we can assume that Harris defines “religion” as accepting things without evidence, or, as he sometimes says, without justification.
However, virtually all spokespersons for Christianity, Islam, Communism, or even National Socialism, would hasten to insist that they do not, repeat not, accept anything without evidence. They would go on to assert that Harris ignores the relevant evidence for their doctrines. Harris would naturally reply that he’s not very impressed with their evidence, and interprets it differently. On this point I agree with Harris (as I have unpacked at length in my Atheism Explained: From Folly to Philosophy).
But the crucial thing to remember here is that anyone who takes up any point of view on any subject whatsoever will always claim that the evidence supports this point of view and that the evidence goes against people who espouse a different point of view. So what Harris is saying is that he is right and the theists are wrong. But we are all right about some things and wrong about others, and, while we ought to strive to increase the ratio of our true beliefs to our false beliefs, this in itself says nothing about which false beliefs have the effect of increasing the predisposition to kill people.
And so we find that, in practice, what Harris is saying amounts to the claim that “religion” means belief systems he disagrees with, and people who think precisely the way he does would never commit atrocities. Any Marxist around the year 1900 would have said the same thing.
Why Atheists Have More Blood on Their Hands
While I point out that atheists have perpetrated more and bigger atrocities than theists, I do not attribute this to an inherently greater tendency on the part of atheists to commit atrocities. If the historical facts were the other way round, with theists having committed more and bigger atrocities than atheists, I would then be pointing out that it is a logical error to conclude that theism is inherently more inclined than atheism to perpetrate atrocities.
As I see it, there’s no direct causal link between atheism and atrocities or between theism and atrocities. Neither theism nor atheism is significantly conducive or unconducive to atrocities (or to happiness or health, as I argued in Atheism Explained). But I do have a historical theory explaining why atrocities by atheists in the twentieth century vastly exceeded the far smaller-scale atrocities perpetrated by Christians and Muslims in all centuries up to and including the twentieth.
Enthusiastic ideologies or belief systems, especially when they are able to capture a monopoly of governmental authority, are liable to give rise to atrocities. It doesn’t make any difference to the body count whether such a belief system encompasses theism or atheism. The rise of secular belief systems such as Positivism, Marxism, Fascism, and National Socialism coincided historically with the greatly enhanced technology for committing atrocities. If Torquemada had possessed the administrative and personnel resources of Stalin, he might have more nearly approached Stalin as a superstar of mass murder.
Modern capitalism produces improved techniques and it also produces secularization. But secularization does not mean the disappearance of belief systems with fanatical adherents. Spiritual religions are replaced by purportedly scientific religions, from Mesmerism to Global Warming. Socialism has come and gone, and has now been replaced by Environmentalism. When Environmentalism passes away, it will be replaced by some new enthusiastic belief system, perhaps one associated with Mental Health or the need for contact with space aliens.
In the “third world,” the poorer half of the world, which is now the stronghold of both Christianity and Islam, there remains some danger of atrocities perpetrated in the name of Christianity or Islam, but in the advanced industrial countries, most of the danger of future holocausts arises from secular-minded and pseudoscientific belief systems.
The New Illiberalism
Do we have anything to fear from the New Atheists themselves? Some of the things they say aren’t very reassuring.
Harris informs us that “belief is not a private matter.” (p. 44). The phrase “a private matter” has a specific meaning in the history of liberal thought. It means an area which is none of the business of the authorities, an area where whatever you may choose to do will not cause you to fall into the hands of the police. Hence the chilling quality, to any liberal, of the phrase, “Thought Police.”
Maybe this was just a slip by Harris? Not a bit of it. “Some propositions are so dangerous,” he explains, “that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them” (pp. 52–53). The whole thrust of his book conveys the message that belief in God is the most dangerous of the dangerous ideas for which it is ethically permissible to kill people who have done absolutely nothing wrong. Harris reasons that since thoughts give rise to actions, it’s okay to coerce people on account of their dangerous thoughts alone. The rhetorical tone of The End of Faith suggests that Christian fundamentalists have the moral standing of insect pests. Just imagine the fuss the New Atheists would be making if Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson had so much as hinted that it might be ethically permissible to kill people simply for believing there is no God. But the late Reverend Falwell said: “We [meaning traditional-minded Americans] honor the unbeliever.” You can’t imagine Harris saying anything this nice about Christians.
Commenting on the fact that most Muslims living in the West are tolerant of the non-Muslim beliefs of their neighbors, Harris points out that Muslims in the West are in a small minority, so their seeming tolerance may be just a sham (p. 115).
Quite possibly. And if the New Atheists today, when atheists constitute about two percent of the US population, can cheerfully entertain the ethically permissible liquidation of some unspecified segment of the dangerous eighty-plus percent who believe in God, what should we expect from the New Atheists when atheists have increased their following to forty, fifty, or sixty percent of the population?