Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal has written a comic that attempts to rebut a common criticism of atheism: the link between atheistic regimes and crimes against humanity. The dialogue proceeds as follows:
A: You argue that some of the worst atrocities in history were done in the name of religion, but plenty of atheists did terrible things too! My pastor told me that Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin were BOTH atheists!* [Author’s note: Hitler wasn’t actually an atheist. He was a Christian.] What does that tell you about atheism?
B: First off, just because they were both atheists doesn’t mean that their atheism caused them to do terrible things. They both had mustaches too. Does that mean that having a mustache turns you into a mass murderer? And second, saying you believe in atheism is like saying you believe in math. Hitler and Stalin didn’t go to war in the name of atheism, just like they wouldn’t go to war in the name of fractions or prime numbers. They went to war because they were twisted little a**holes. [I’ve inserted asterisks here, as this is a family-friendly blog – VJT.]
If Matthew Inman seriously believes that Hitler was a Christian, he should read this article here. But let us leave that aside. What are the fallacies in the atheists’s reply? I can spot several.
1. The atheist’s argument that “correlation does not equal causation” is factually mistaken. Hitler and Stalin may have both had mustaches, but Mao Zedong and Pol Pot, who were both totalitarian atheistic dictators that killed millions of people, did not. (Mao, by the way, is estimated to have killed 70 million people, making him the worst killer of all time.)
2. Although it is true that correlation does not equal causation, a robust, reliable correlation between A and B that holds in a variety of different circumstances does strongly support the hypothesis of a causal link between A and B. The question we then have to ask is whether A is causing B, B is causing A, or something else (call it C) is causing both A and B, together.
3. The atheist’s argument proves too much. I could say that amoralism, or moral nihilism (defined as the belief that nothing is intrinsically moral or immoral) hasn’t caused any wars either, insofar as no-one has gone to war in the name of amoralism. Is anyone going to seriously argue that amoralism doesn’t cause human rights atrocities?
4. The atheist in Inman’s cartoon uses the word “cause” in too narrow a sense: according to him, A causes B if and only if A makes B happen. But A can be the cause of B in another sense: as an enabler of B, which makes the occurrence of B more likely. It is in this sense that amoralism can legitimately be said to cause violations of human rights: someone who thinks that nothing is inherently wrong will have no problem with the idea of perpetrating a crimes against humanity, whereas someone who believes in objective moral values will. The question at stake then boils down to whether atheism functions as a similar enabler. And one could argue that it does: someone who does not believe there is a God Who punishes wicked deeds will have one reason less than a theist would for refraining from performing these deeds. Of course, the atheist may be a very well brought up person who would never dream of doing such a thing – but not all atheists (or theists) are well brought up!
5. The track record of atheistic regimes in the twentieth century has been pretty appalling. One could plausibly argue, on the basis of that track record, that atheism has been an enabling cause of violence.
6. If atheism is a vital ingredient of an ideology (such as Marxist Communism) that causes violence, then it logically follows that atheism is at least a contributing cause of that ideology’s violence.
7. Citing largely atheistic countries like Sweden and Denmark as counter-instances to the claim that atheism causes human rights atrocities is a bad move: while these countries may have a preponderance of atheists, their governments don’t make any systematic attempts to indoctrinate their citizens with atheism. Regimes that endeavor to turn their subjects (especially children) into atheists have (by and large) been the most horrific violators of human rights.
8. The fact that certain toxic forms of religion can cause terrible acts of violence (see here for one author’s highly controversial take on the subject) in no way undermines the thesis that atheism is capable of enabling equally bad acts of violence.
9. In any case, the logical way to establish whether atheism causes acts of violence is to compare the suffering caused by governments that promote atheism with the suffering caused by governments that don’t, using as large a historical database as possible, and then attempting to remove any anomalous complicating factors, so that the ceteribus paribus assumption (“other things being equal”) holds properly.
I might conclude with some comments from atrocitologist Matthew White, author of Atrocities: the 100 Deadliest Episodes in Human History, who is certainly no fan of religion:
Q: Is religion responsible for more more violent deaths than any other cause?
A: No, of course not — unless you define religion so broadly as to be meaningless. Just take the four deadliest events of the 20th Century — Two World Wars, Red China and the Soviet Union — no religious motivation there, unless you consider every belief system to be a religion.
Q: So, what you’re saying is that religion has never killed anyone.
A: Arrgh… You all-or-nothing people drive me crazy. There are many documented examples where members of one religion try to exterminate the members of another religion. Causation is always complex, but if the only difference between two warring groups is religion, then that certainly sounds like a religious conflict to me. Is it the number one cause of mass homicide in human history? No. Of the 22 worst episodes of mass killing, maybe four were primarily religious. Is that a lot? Well, it’s more than the number of wars fought over soccer, or sex (The Trojan and Sabine Wars don’t even make the list.), but less than the number fought over land, money, glory or prestige.
In my Index, I list 41 religious conflicts compared with 27 oppressions under “Communism”, 24 under Colonialism, 2 under “Railroads” and 2 under “Scapegoats”. Make of that what you will.
Readers might also enjoy Matthew White’s humorous article, Which has killed more people? Christianity or gun control?
What do readers think? Can you spot any more fallacies?