State Atheism

When I first started the podcast, I was dying to get to my two episodes on the 20th century. Christians have so frequently tried to pin the atrocities and genocides of the 20th century on atheism that I should’ve grown callous to it, but it still made me angry every time I heard Darwin or atheism blamed for things that were committed with the biggest armies that had ever existed using the deadliest weapons that had ever existed on a larger human population than had ever existed. I’m sure the radical social upheaval didn’t help the situation, but the idea that the death of god and Darwinism did more to contribute to the overall death toll than the plain material causes left me incredulous every time, like the fact the Nazi army had over eighteen-million members while the Roman army, at its height, barely made it to two-hundred and fifty-thousand.

And yet, I don’t know how many times I’ve heard apologists explicitly claim that it was the atheism of the Soviet Union that paved the way for the Gulag, or the atheism of any of the communist regimes that led to their infamous death tolls. And that’s what made me want to make this episode as a small addendum to the atheism and the 20th century episodes I made way back when. Not all, but most Christian apologists are economically conservative and right-leaning. So if they can attack atheism and Marxism at once, it’s two birds with one stone as far as they’re concerned.

Some friends of mine and I just finished a book called the Gulag Archipelago, which is about the author’s experience in the Soviet forced labor camps. Throughout the book, the author kept dropping not so subtle hints that he thinks the lack of religion in the Soviet Union contributed to the Orwellian state of affairs. He didn’t seem to think that the problem was that irreligion was forced on people at gunpoint — just the lack of religion by itself was enough. But there are plenty of societies that exist today that have essentially no religion. Nonbelievers make up the vast majority in Sweden, and many other European nations and former colonies of Europe have substantial nonreligious populations. If Christianity was retraining our worst tendencies and preventing us from creating forced labor camps, you would expect all of Scandinavia to be an abject dystopian wasteland.

Apologists correctly point out that Marx was a materialist and that his version of communism was officially materialistic. But if materialism was a relevant variable here and disbelieving in the supernatural was a reliable way to create societal misery, you wouldn’t expect the healthiest, happiest countries in the world to have some of the highest nonreligious populations in recorded history.

Freedom of Belief

Forcing someone to adhere to any belief is morally wrong. People should have freedom of belief and should be able to follow whatever religion they want or no religion at all if they choose. No institution of any kind should be allowed to dictate to you what you are or aren’t allowed to think. Freedom of religion is essential to human flourishing. Freedom of thought, freedom of belief, freedom of speech — these things were all absent in the Soviet Union, and are also absent in the apologists’ other favorite example, North Korea. My point is that it’s not the content of the belief that matters — it’s the fact that it’s being forced on you that’s relevant.

It’s also not how belief works. You can’t choose what you believe and you can’t actually force anyone to believe anything. You can only make them pay lip service to it or outwardly accept it. But forcing people to submit in this way has been useful to authoritarians in the past, including religious authoritarians. If you’re trying to control people, and you want them to be too afraid to speak any dissent or challenge you in any area, forcing them to pretend to have certain beliefs on threat of torture, imprisonment, or death is a good way to send that message and create a culture of fear, subservience, and obedience. Religion is also a major institution of power itself in society, and an aspiring totalitarian regime would want to eliminate any other institution of power that has sway over people. Some will always care more what religious figures say than any other powerful person, whether their power comes from the state or from capital or some other source. At the very least, religious leaders would still have some influence over a decent segment of the population, and that’s too much to tolerate for an authoritarian, totalitarian regime. My point is that the “atheism” of certain societies was motivated by the desire to control people. And apologists in my own country invoking some 20th century atheist regime, as they frequently do, should note that atheists have been some of the most consistent and strongest voices for freedom of belief.

Separation of Church and State

People should have freedom of belief, and the separation of church and state is an excellent way to ensure that they have it. The government shouldn’t promote any position on religion and no religion should have an outsized influence on the government. We only have to compare this way of doing things to the alternatives and there’s almost no need to have an argument after that. In Islamic State controlled territory, religious law is enforced by the government. They have religious police, funded by taxes, whose job it is to look for religious violations and hand out the corresponding punishments. In some Muslim-majority countries, whenever the government changes hands from Sunni to Shia or vice versa, the Muslim groups who are out of power begin to face serious oppression. And there’s nothing illegal about that because there’s no separation of church and state.

Freedom of belief ensured by religious toleration came out of Europe after centuries of Christian religious warfare. It may seem absurd to us now, but there really was a time when public resources were used to settle theological disputes. In the aftermath of the European wars of religion, John Locke argued in his Letters Concerning Toleration that human beings are not going to be able to figure out which religion is true and come to a universal agreement. Enforcing one religious viewpoint wouldn’t have the desired effect, because you can’t choose your beliefs, even if your life depends on it. Because of all this, coercing religious uniformity would lead to more social disorder than enforcing a rule of total freedom of thought. And this is as true for the Soviet Union as it is for the United States and the Middle East.

There have been countries in the past that have gotten father away from the logic of religious toleration and it still didn’t turn into something like the Soviet Union. In East Germany, a communist country with an officially atheistic government, religious people were free to worship whatever god they chose because their 1949 Constitution granted secular rights and protections. The government itself wasn’t secular; East Germany did practice state atheism. But you still had some basic freedom of religion. I’m really not comfortable with any form of state atheism. I think secularism is the optimal policy, in part for the reasons John Locke laid out. Secularism and state atheism are not even remotely the same thing, and we should never allow Christians to conflate them.

“Atheist” States

Christopher Hitchens also pointed out something that would be obvious if there weren’t dishonest apologists obscuring it. Two places that apologists love to invoke, North Korea and the Soviet Union, did not actually banish religion by any reasonable definition. Instead, they started a new religion with their leader as god. In both cases, there were dogmas, miracles, heretics, and inquisitions. And if you’ve ever seen the creepy videos of the worship of the North Korean leaders, they rival any charismatic Christian worship service.

Sam Harris pointed out, “There really is no society in human history that has suffered because its population became too reasonable.” The atheist states that apologists invoke were obviously not utopias of reason, and they certainly didn’t promote secularism. In the cases of the Soviet Union and North Korea, the state atheism wasn’t arrived at by a process of honest reason, but was motivated by the desire to control.

Christian Communism

I mentioned that Christians have pointed to Marx’s materialism and to certain passages of the Communist Manifesto to try to argue that atheism leads to communism and vice versa. Of course, you can be an atheist and anything else, politically; you can be an atheist and an anarchist, an atheist and a Republican, an atheist and a progressive. But not all Communists are godless. Just about every religion has had a sect of their faith become explicitly communist, and Christians are no exception. Christian communism has a long history, and many argue that it goes all the way back to the first Christians and is supported in the teachings of Jesus. The early church is described in Acts 4:32-35:

No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. . . . God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. . . those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

Christian communists argue that Jesus taught communism and that the Apostles and the early church practiced it. Today, in Latin America and elsewhere, Christian communism has morphed into what’s called “Liberation theology,” which connects Marxist and Christian doctrines. And I gotta say, it’s not hard to do. When you look at what Jesus said about the poor and what he said about the rich, along with the activities of the early church in Acts, it’s nearly impossible to think that the opposition to communism held by many Christian apologists is informed by the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus.


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Christopher Hitchens on Stalin [YouTube]

Church-State Separation — Christopher Hitchens [YouTube]

Michael Shermer — Intelligence Squared U.S. [YouTube]

The Gulag Archipelago — Alekandr Solzhenitsyn [Amazon]


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