Friday, January 18, 2013

Can Atheism Actually be Peaceful and Tolerant?

Background on the Existing Debate

In his book, The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason, Victor J. Stenger mentions what has become a standard riposte among religious apologists, namely, that despite the millennia of destruction and evil in the name of Christianity, these faux pas are trifling and relatively insignificant in comparison to the baleful nightmares perpetrated in the name of godless atheism. Stenger summarizes the fulmination against atheism hurled by sociologist Paul Froese: “the Soviet Union waged a relentless war on religion that he attributed to the ‘violence of atheism’ and, despite this effort, it failed to eradicate faith.”

If the monstrosity of the atheistic Soviet Union wasn’t bad enough, then, as is habitually pointed out, the world also suffered from another round of atrocities committed by Adolf Hitler and his allegedly atheistic Nazi Germany. Hector Avalos, in his article Atheism Was Not the Cause of the Holocaust, directly states the animadversion leveled against the atheists by a popular Christian apologist:

Dinesh D’Souza is able to charge atheism in Nazi Germany with some 10 million deaths, including that of 6 million Jews….altogether, D’Souza affirms that these big three atheist regimes [i.e., Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Mao Zedong’s China] have killed about 100 million people.

Avalos interprets D’Souza’s riposte to atheism as simply: Christianity may be bad, but atheism is a lot worse. “D’Souza is typical of many Christian apologists whose best response to the genocides committed by self-described Christians is that atheists have killed even more.”

Some of the atheist replies to these obloquies are as follows. Avalos, for example, turns things around by accusing Christianity of being the actual cause of the Jewish Holocaust in Nazi Germany. “Nazism, indeed,” writes Avalos, “was very much at home in a long tradition of Christian anti-Judaism.” My favorite atheist author, Christopher Hitchens, blames these problems on men getting enraptured with delusions of their own cosmic grandeur. In his book God is Not Great, Hitchens claims that “the examples most in common use—those of the Hitler and Stalin regimes—show us with terrible clarity what can happen when men usurp the role of gods.”  It is as if the cosmic North Korea that Hitchens sporadically fulminates against has descended onto the earth in the form of these presumptuous madmen. It reminds me of what the economist Ludwig von Mises wrote in his book Planned Chaos about Hitler. Warner Sombart argued that “the Führer received his orders directly from God, the supreme Führer of the Universe.” Apparently, tyrannical madmen have a proclivity to hearing voices and edicts from God himself.

Another defense of atheism that is often mentioned in discussions of Nazism and atheism is that of heavy Christian church involvement, which assisted Hitler and Nazism. Even the television Christian evangelist John C. Hagee in his tendentious work about why the United States ought to be a tool of the State of Israel points the blame for the Nazi atrocities at the Catholic Church. Hagee sees the Catholic Church as an interminable and implacable persecutor of his protagonists, the Jewish people. Writing with alacrity, Hagee says that

the world’s finest scholars have chronicled Hitler’s atrocities toward the Jews….I want you to see that church policy shaped the policy of the Third Reich. When Hitler signed the Concordant with the Roman Church, he said, “I am only continuing the work of the Catholic Church.”

The Plan for this Article

The plan for this article is to explore an alternative approach to addressing these charges of atheism being an inimical foe to peace, humanity, and civilization.

I first analyze what the Soviet Union is from an agorist or free market anarchist point of view. The essential point is that the Soviet Union is nothing but the monopoly problem coupled with an attempt to create some sort of godless religion imposed from on high for political purposes. Then I provide some recommendations for how atheists could go about achieving a workable atheism in the “real” world so to speak. At the very least, I hope that my recommendations will provide atheists with a useful way of defending themselves against apologetic accusations of the kind that say that atheism leads inevitably to violence and to tyranny.

An Agorist or Free Market Anarchist Interpretation of the Soviet Union, Its Ideology, and Its Quasi Religion

 The most striking comment made by Van Den Bercken is, with emphasis provided by me, this succinct observation: “The Soviet state is an ideological monoculture, and that is a modern variation on an old type of state: the theocracy.” According to, a theocracy may be defined as “a system of government by priests claiming a divine commission.” To me it appears as though the Soviet Union is, in an anarcho-capitalist sense, nothing but a textbook example of the problem of the divine right of kings.

“The initial article of the young [Gustave de] Molinari, here translated for the first time as ‘The Production of Security,” writes Murray N Rothbard, “was the first presentation anywhere in human history of what is now called ‘anarcho-capitalism’ or ‘free market anarchism.’” And this story of the young Molinari developing the idea of free market anarchism is inextricably tied in with the history of the divine right of kings. Molinari writes so brilliantly and perspicaciously that I feel it would be a crime not to quote his book, The Production of Security, at length:

according to this system, which embodies the will of Providence in certain men and which invests these chosen ones, these anointed ones with a quasi-divine authority, the subjects evidently have no rights at all. They must submit, without question, to the decrees of the sovereign authority, as if they were the decrees of Providence itself.

Now returning to the Soviet Union, Van Den Bercken’s portrayal of the ruling class certainly sounds similar to an agorist ruling class theory analysis.  Just as Molinari’s book querulously attacks the idea of monopoly both in public and in private versions, so too Van Den Bercken pinpoints the problem of the Soviet Union’s “ideological dictatorship” in what he calls an intellectual monopoly. “The étatistic [i.e., statist] system of values in the Soviet Union,” he astutely observes, “strives, according to its nature, towards an intellectual monopoly in society.” This “intellectual monopoly,” just like all other monopolies such as central banks and public health care provision, engages in an immutable war against its most truculent adversary, namely competition. “As an ideological monoculture, the Soviet state cannot recognize any alternative or competitive ideologies…to do so would mean intellectual pluralism and the destruction of the essence of Soviet ideology.” In the Rothbardian analysis found in his book The Anatomy of the State, the ruling class circumvents any restrictions to its power by monopolizing the interpretation function. Speaking with regard to the American Constitution, Rothbard writes that “the Constitution was designed with checks and balances to limit any one governmental power and yet had then developed a Supreme Court with the monopoly of ultimate interpreting power” (bold emphasis mine). Similarly, in the Soviet Union, according to Van Den Bercken, the “interest [of the state] is determined by the political leaders—for it is they who have the right to interpret the ideology—they also determine the choice of the means. The state leadership, in addition to being the highest ideological doctrinal authority, is also the highest moral authority in the land” (bold emphasis is mine).

Let me now recapitulate. The Soviet Union is the zenith of the monopoly problem. I have stressed a few pertinent examples such as the intellectual monopoly and the interpretation monopoly; however, it should be trivially obvious that both an economic and a political monopoly existed as well. That is, after all, the essence of where I am going with this, namely, an all-encompassing dictatorship. The concluding part mentioned above rather religious sounding terminology such as “doctrinal” and “moral” with regard to the leadership of the Soviet Union. So let me close the circle and make clear how the Soviet Union—despite being atheistic of a very special kind—is actually theocratic by emulating the divine right of kings issue, which I raised at the beginning of this particular section.

The religious nature of the Soviet Union—this apparent paradox of an “atheistic religion”—is unexceptionably illustrated by both Van Den Bercken and by Paul Froese.  First, Van Den Bercken states explicitly that Lenin gave a “pseudo-religious character” to his strident anti-religion:

Since Lenin does not possess intellectual aloofness with regard to the religious question, his atheism has that consistently strong rejection of all religions, whether real or symbolic, theistic or secular, which meant that he was no longer able to see to what extent he gave a pseudo-religious character to his own anti-religion. (bold emphasis is mine)

To fully appreciate the religious-like nature of the Soviet system, consider some of the ways in which the Soviet leadership mimicked Christianity, as documented by Paul Froese in his paper Forced Secularization in Soviet Russia: Why an Atheistic Monopoly Failed. This was all part of a deliberate campaign: “as the anti-religious campaigns grew, so did their belief that religion could only be destroyed through a clever replacement” (bold emphasis mine). I have attempted to succinctly summarize some of the major points where the Soviet system is behaving like a religion (all bold emphasis is mine).
  1. “Red” weddings mimicked religious weddings with Communist officials donning robes and sanctifying the marriage. In other words, this sounds as if Communist officials are pretending to be clergy members. 
  2. They adopted “birth rituals” in order to mimic the Christian baptism ceremony.
  3. There was a godlike worship of the Communist elite. Many “mistook scientific atheism for a new religion and not an exit from religious belief altogether so that even those few who wanted to believe in the ideals of atheistic communism simply ended up praying to the gods of Lenin and Stalin.”
  4. The writings of Lenin were treated as sacred text from a prophet and became the final justification of any act. This seems to be mimicking the famous line from the pastoral epistle 2 Timothy 3:16, which says that “all scripture is inspired by God.”
  5. Stalin also promoted himself as the “Father” of his people, which seems to be mimicking the idea expressed in, for example, Philippians 4:20, which says “to our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.”
  6. Soviets elevated political figures to transcendental status unbecoming the initial rhetoric of historical materialism. I suspect that this talk of the “transcendental,” which means “surpassing the natural plane of reality or knowledge, supernatural or mystical according to, is meant to mimic the idea that Jesus is supposed to be the supernatural creator of the universe as mentioned in the prologue to the gospel according to John.
  7. The Knowledge Society introduced a coming-of-age celebration called the “Summer Days of Youth” intended to mimic and replace church confirmations.
  8. Scientific atheists viewed any technology as evidence of atheism because it demonstrated that humans could work “miracles” that were not performed by God.
  9. Atheist preachers held “intellectual revivals” fashioned after religious revivals mimicking such things as the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19, which says “go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”
  10. Atheistic “science” in the Soviet Union became an ideology that avoided the scientific method altogether. This seems to mimic what Saint Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:7, namely, that “we walk by faith, not by sight.”
The inescapable conclusion is that the Soviet Union did create a mimicking pseudo-Christianity to function as a “replacement” religion for their enslaved subjects.

 The Implications of All of This for Achieving a Peaceful Atheism

Does the discussion above imply that atheism must ineluctably lead to violence, persecution, and a tyrannical dictatorship? It seems to me that the answer is simply that we can have a peaceful atheism despite what happened in the USSR, Nazi Germany or any of the other examples cited by Christian apologists.

The solution to this problem is irrefragably multifaceted; consequently, I do not claim to be providing exhaustive solution to the problem. Nevertheless, I do think that I can offer a respectable set of recommendations that will put atheists on the path toward achieving the goal of a peaceful atheism in real world practice.

It follows from Van Den Bercken’s discussion that two major types of atheism exist. If a person were to hold one type then he or she cannot hold the other type simultaneously. To attempt to hold both types of atheism simultaneously would inevitably lead to a situation in which this person would be holding two contradictory views of atheism. These two types of atheism are philosophical atheism and ideological atheism.

I have already covered ideological atheism at some length; this is because the Soviet Union is the textbook example of an ideological atheism. The other kind of atheism, philosophical atheism, as I will demonstrate momentarily, has a much better chance of bringing about a workable and peaceful atheism in practice. Let me summarize the two different types as presented in Van Den Bercken’s paper:

Ideological Atheism:

1.      Politically motivated
2.      Has a collective confession
3.      Categorical and intolerant of the beliefs held by others, i.e., only the “official” way of thinking is tolerated

Philosophical Atheism: 

  1. Not politically motivated; instead, scientifically motivated
  2. Does not have a collective confession; instead, is only an individual concern
  3. Not categorical or intolerant; instead, tolerant of the beliefs of others, i.e., favors intellectual pluralism 

The first recommendation, which flows naturally from the summary charts above, is to avoid the deleterious aspects of ideological atheism and to adopt the salutary elements of philosophical atheism. But notice what the defining characteristics imply. To me, the defining characteristics of philosophical atheism, which consist of science, the focus on the individual, and tolerance of contrary views while avoiding the political, the collective, and the intolerant, imply that atheism is feasible when combined with the mindset of individualistic anarchism. Consequently, my second recommendation is for atheists to embrace a non-collectivist and individualistic anarchism as the appropriate means for their desired end.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the bankruptcy of the ideological approach to atheism and to illustrate the advantageous nature of the philosophical approach is to cite a germane passage from Mohammed A. Bamyeh’s book Anarchy as Order: The History and Future of Civic Humanity in which he states that Friedrich A. Hayek’s

central theme was “spontaneous order” a much more comprehensive view of how social order arises, in ways that include but are not limited to economic life. Hayek postulated that social life is made possible not by artificial large institutions that supervise society, but precisely in their absence, whence order develops spontaneously and becomes established, over time, as culture or expected patterns of behavior. These, in turn, work only to the extent that they are accepted, and they could be accepted, in turn, only if they have developed in conditions of freedom. (all bold emphasis mine)

Notice that, according to Hayek, the conditions that make social life impossible are also the conditions that describe ideological atheism. The first major characteristic of ideological atheism—Soviet atheism—is to politicize everything. Hayek mentions this when he says that society cannot work when it is supervised by “artificial large institutions”—he means government monitoring. In his book The Road to Serfdom, Hayek brilliantly cites Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin who says that “what has always made the state a hell on earth has been precisely that man has tried to make it his heaven” (bold emphasis mine). The state becomes a “hell on earth” because man “tries to make” a heaven by means of using the total state. Notice that the idea of “trying to make something” through the state in a top down fashion is the complete opposite of the idea of spontaneous order. To put it tersely: collective planning does not work. The second major characteristic of ideological atheism is the collective confession. Hayek, on the contrary, does not want some “collective confession” to be imposed on people by some ruling class or quasi-priesthood class as was done in the Soviet Union; he wants the rules to emerge spontaneously and to be accepted by people freely. When I think of “collective confession” it reminds me of when I was forced to go to church as a child. The minister would read a short passage and the congregation was expected to recite back the correct response from the hymn book. This was called the “responsive psalm.” It always seemed to me to be a rather mindless way of acting, i.e., to just spout back perfunctorily what the official expected me to say. The third major characteristic of ideological atheism is intolerance. Hayek has implicitly ruled intolerance out of bounds by insisting that there be conditions of freedom.

Notice further that the conditions that do make social life possible are the conditions that describe philosophical atheism. The first major characteristic of philosophical atheism is that people are scientifically not politically motivated.  Hayek specifically says that he wants to get rid of the big brother approach of the surveillance society; hence, he is against politicizing everything. He wants to move decision making from the public or political sphere to the private or economic sphere. Moreover, if science is viewed as “thinking for oneself” then his idea of spontaneous order applies here as well. In a spontaneous order, individuals make choices by themselves using observable information such as prices combined with their own self-knowledge concerning their own personal tastes, their own personal preferences, and their own personal values. Notice how radically different this is from the Soviet Union’s ideological atheism. Under the Soviet model, the individual is deprived of a sense of self; the individual is deprived of the ability to make choices and is denied an individual conscience. As Van Den Bercken says of the depersonalized Soviet Union, “man has to relate his views of life, his ethical, epistemological and aesthetic systems of values to the interest of the state.” The second major characteristic of philosophical atheism is that the focus is placed on the individual not the collective. Again, Hayek’s idea is for order to emerge from the spontaneous ordering of individuals. The individual continuously adjusts his or her plan to the plans of others without institutions issuing orders from above. “It enables entrepreneurs,” Hayek writes in The Road to Serfdom, “by watching the movement of comparatively few prices, as an engineer watches the hands of a few dials, to adjust their activities to those of their fellows.” Finally, the third major characteristic of philosophical atheism is tolerance of the views of others. To me, tolerance is implied by the word freedom used by Hayek in his description of what makes for a viable social order.

Concluding Remarks

Michael Martin in his paper Atheism and Religion writes

in 1971 the prominent atheist Madelyn Murray O’Hair argued that atheism was not the religion of the future since atheists, although numerous, were unorganized and complacent and were unwilling to fight the legal and political encroachments of Christianity in the United States. Christianity is gaining more and more political power, she said, and atheists are doing nothing to stop it.

I think that I have demonstrated that the solution is not to get atheists involved in the political process. Ideological atheism as practiced in the Soviet Union was a disaster. Or to put it even more starkly, the State is the cause of war in the first place; therefore, peace will NEVER be achieved as long as the state exists, regardless of who runs it, theist, atheist, agnostic, deist, etc. I think that I have shown that philosophical atheism is compatible with the values of individualistic anarchism. Since individualistic anarchism ensures that the State does not exist, it also ensures that war cannot exist. Therefore, to establish both peace and atheism in the “real world,” one should embrace individualistic anarchism. This can only happen by rejecting ideological atheism and by embracing philosophical atheism. 

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