Atheists like to point out the evil and atrocities committed by religious people in the name of faith. Theists like to point out the evil and atrocities committed by atheists.
The common examples that atheists present are: the Crusades, Northern Ireland conflicts, 9/11, Rwanda, infighting between Christian and Islam sects over the centuries, Spanish Inquisitions etc. The usual counter-examples that theists produce are: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pat, Mao, Enver Hoxha.
It is not my intention now to weigh the crimes of both sets and see which way the scales tilt. I want to make a few observations, and point out that this ongoing battle is futile and irrelevant.
First, in defence of atheism: it is hardly certain that Hitler was an atheist. It is certain that the others mentioned above were. Atheists usually like to say that no one has committed an evil action in the name of atheism. But I don’t think this is true. Atheists who use this weapon to attack theism will discover it is a two-edged sword. The truth is, atheists have committed evil, and Enver Hoxha ruthlessly persecuted the religious in Albania and tried to eradicate religion. In 1967 he declared his nation to be the first and only official atheist state in history.
Whilst there is no denying the link between communism and atheism, I have never seen a compelling argument to logically connect the two. That Communism is atheistic I will grant, given the history of communists. I deny that atheism leads to Communism. In fact, if one follows the philosophy of atheists like Ayn Rand, a rational worldview would lead to Capitalism. So, the fact that evil communists were atheists I maintain is irrelevant in and of itself for this very important reason: would these evil dictators have committed the actions they did if they didn’t subscribe to an extreme political ideology? I haven’t met one person who would say yes. To phrase it another way: out of the two elements, atheism and political extremism, which of them removed would change the actions of the perpetrators in question? Again, you must answer political ideology, not atheism. Even if atheism is linked to their political ideology (which itself was almost religious in nature), and which I deny, it is too nebulous to draw any conclusions.
Similarly, atheists who attack religion just because religious people have committed evil acts are just as guilty of flogging a dead horse as theists who attack non-believers for the crimes of people who were incidentally atheists.
Let’s say Hitler was a Christian. Is this a legitimate attack against Christianity? No. Granted, Hitler attributed many of his actions to Providence and referred to God and his Christian beliefs occasionally, but he was also an opportunist and manipulated people by using religion. The Church’s collaboration with Hitler is well-known and I will not reiterate it here. Suffice it to say that although Christianity has much to answer for when it comes to Nazism, I would not use Hitler as an argument against Christianity, because I don’t believe he committed any actions in the name of religion.
No one could fail to cite an example of a religious person who committed evil actions in the name of religion. There are so many to choose from I don’t need to list them in this article. There were atheists who committed their actions in the name of atheism. Whether the connection to belief or non-belief and evil is strong or weak, both sides have to concede the point. I am not particularly interested in weighing up the numbers and seeing how much each side has killed. (And let’s remember the dictators of the 20th century had 20th century weapons. Would anyone truly trust a thermonuclear device in the hands of any religious fundamentalist?)
Even if I grant generously that both sides are equally culpable, (which the history of religion and oppression makes incredibly dubious) the theist must concede there is something amiss here. What it means is that religious belief and faith makes no one any more likely to act more morally or less evil. Now, this makes perfect sense if you accept religion is man-made. If you think your religion is a gift from god that supposedly makes people act better, you have quite a burden to square the circle.
One final point about harm done by faith, and this speaks to suffering in an incalculable way. What about the emotional baggage and guilt that religion imposes on people? What about the morbid terror of hell, and the commandment to simultaneously fear and love a galactic dictator? What about the indoctrination of children’s minds with lies about how the world is? What about the genital mutilation of boys and (worse still), girls? What about lying to potential AIDS victims about the efficacy of condoms? What about treating women as second or even third class citizens and as the property of the male? All these things and more are done, as a direct result of faith. They simply wouldn’t happen if the perpetrators didn’t believe.
Rather than get into a slanging match between atheism and theism, and rather than repeat the same tired (and often flawed) attacks on theism, the purpose of this is to point out that the battle between atheism and theism is a non-event. It is not the right battle that atheists should be engaging in, and it is a pointless battle even if the theists win.
I am not trying to win people over to atheism. Atheism isn’t a worldview. It isn’t a guide to morality. It isn’t a philosophy. It is a term for those people who answer the question “Does god exist?” with a negative. That’s all. Most atheists I know have come to that conclusion through rational means, and their atheism is a corollary of their rationalism. However, one can be an atheist and be irrational. One could be an atheist and be an evil depraved irrational nihilist. It is irrelevant. This is why atheists who battle on such parochial simplicities as atheism versus theism are wasting their time, and fighting a battle they cannot win (unless of course the debate is simply which position is correct, which leads me to say…)
Being a theist or an atheist is important, because ultimately only one side is correct. But as far as truth goes, it doesn’t matter one jot which side causes the most suffering or evil, or who are the most immoral. Which position is actually true? I believe atheism is the rational position to take. Even if I didn’t like the idea of atheism (or theism for that matter, which I do dislike), I would still have to concede it is the correct position.
The real battle is much broader and grander than divine ontology though. The war is between rationalism and irrationalism; between interpreting the world rationally or taking some things on faith. What we need is a self-consistent worldview based on rational critical thinking and logic. Once rationalism wins, communism dies, chi is destroyed, reincarnation is obliterated, New Age nonsense goes the way of the Dodo, astrology is eviscerated, conspiracy cults are extirpated, and faith along with religion are deracinated.
I encourage atheists to distance themselves from atheism versus theism battles. Whilst it is true that only one position is truthful, counting the dead and citing history won’t ultimately achieve anything. Theists must take a step back and see that their religion is just another branch on the tree of irrationalism, and atheists must realise that atheism in itself is just a result of a greater broader rational worldview. Let’s fight on those terms, and let’s see who wins.