Wakefield Tolbert, one of the greast commentators here, posted up this piece on Sam Harris’ attempts to dissociate atheism from the horrors of the crimes of atheist Fascist and Communist regimes of the 20th century. It’s at
, but I reprint it here:
‘I don’t have the direct source for this — I got it from what someone named Tom Paine whose blog I dislike but nontheless he enjoys bantering with me on stuff like this. Sam Harris replies to charges of atheism’s culpability with terror and war:
Finally, there’s this notion that atheism is responsible for the greatest crimes in the 20th century. … It is amazing how many people think that the crimes of Hitler and Pol Pot and Mao were the result of atheism. The truth is that this is a total misconstrual of what went on in those societies, and of the psychological and social forces that allow people to follow their dear leader over the brink. The problem with Fascism and communism was not that they were too critical of religion. The problem is they’re too much like religions; these are utterly dogmatic systems of thought. I recently had a debate with Rick Warren in the pages of Newsweek, and he suggested that North Korea was a model atheist society and that any atheist with the courage of his convictions should want to move there. The truth is North Korea is organized exactly like a faith based cult, centered on the worship of Kim Jong-il. The North Koreans apparently believe that the shipments of food aid that they receive from us, to keep them from starving to death, are actually devotional offerings to Kim Jong-il. Is too little faith really the problem with North Korea? Is too much skeptical inquiry, what is wrong here?
Now Beast for my part on this, I’ll tell you my initial impression here:
I agree with evolution buff but blaster of Dawkins nontheless for being sloppy, Allen Orr, who said that such arguments are contradictory when it comes to some of these cats saying that they get to disavow all bad things atheist regimes have done. Dinesh D’Souza says much the same thing, and I’ll be doing a book review on one of his latest books around the same time (I HOPE!) when I feel better and do the brain post also. just have too much on the plate. Long story short, Dinesh says basically that you can’t have it both ways.
You can’t say that deviations from the norm due to ANY reason–cults of personality, politics, evil revolutionary histories, allegations of literal insanity (not likely), and other socio-economic explanations for evil behavior are not proof of any thing for atheism and YET hold that all deviations in Christians who fall short (AMONG those who ARE truly Christians, as we don’t know this all to be the case for all “Christian murderers”) are evidence of the moral failings of Christianity.
Christianity proposes a way of salvation–not human perfection. The latter was not promised. The Church is the holding tank or repository of the sinners, not just the saints. Harris is saying that a religious type “cult of personality” is the reason you have North Korea’s nutcase who dresses like Bea Arthur in camo gear proclaim himself godlike, etc. Or that Stalin was literally insance, Mao was a cult of personality as well.
I don’t buy it. You CANNOT remove the dynamism from human personality anymore than dynamic acting from good car salesmen or Congress or Parliement or other areas of human contact that require status and presentation. This is impossible.
Harris is proposing that humans lose human presentation and chicanery from presentation of ideas. Those who’re dynamic are “religious” he seems to say. Based on culture, society, whatnot.
Atheism is thus non-falsifiable when it comes to being seen as a superior way of seeing moral issues. Point out a flaw, and they can disavow anything.
Would they accept a situation as falsification if a famous research scientist (say, Dawkins!) leaves his office one day and shoots thousands dead on campus?
No. That would be an abberation only! And since atheism proposes no world view or viewpoint according to its adherents, who’s to say what is right or wrong and who’s to say this guy it therefore “one of ours”?
Atheists are quick to say that atheism, per se means nothing, as it is a void, a null set, empty, and proposes no moral absolutes nor any moral code other than feel good stuff about nature and being nice to people. This can be done with a bumber sticker or fortune cookie. OK, so they claim you can’t assume the encoding of anything in athiesm. SO you might end up back where you started in morals. To Harris this is a blessing, it seems, since they can’t be held to some standards. YET he finds certain actions odious. WHY?
We don’t know. Athiests DO claim that they alone are in tune with Reason and Science and that TTHESE realms are the only true arbitars of peace and justice, however they define this while claiming there are no trancendent moral codes. Stalin defies this, but then they disavow him completely as a revolutionary train wreck no one could have guessed at outside the context of the hell of old Russia, which I’m sure he blames on Orthodox Christianity.
So it goes…..
D’Souza points out some other unfortunate things about Harris, such as his (Harris’s) refusal to see the political and social context of the Crusades and witch burnings, the latter being vastly overestimated while still horrific.’
This drew a response from Mark Williams, who defended atheism as being intrinsically more tolerant because of its allegedly non-dogmatic nature at
Now I have to say that I find Harris’ assertion that atheism is intrinsically more tolerant than theism, and that the horrors of the Fascist and Communist regimes were the result of them being too much like religion unconvincing. In fact, it says to me that Harris actually knows nothing about the nature of these regimes, history or human psychology generally. Here’s why.
Rejection of Accusations of Dogmatism by Intolerant Regimes
Firstly, generally speaking, in such debates dogma is something that the other fellow has, while those professing greater tolerance maintain that they don’t have dogmas, which are irrational constructs, but the truth. This does not, however, prevent them from being intolerant themselves. For Marxists, ideology is the creation of the ruling class to justify the economic relations that support their power and the exploitation of the working class. This is a ‘false consciousness’ that blinds the workers to the reality of their exploitation. Marxism, however, is not an ideology, so defined, but the truth. Of course, this did not stop Marxism itself from being exactly what it claimed other ideologies were: an ideology that supported a brutal, repressive and exploitative social order that created a ‘false consciousness’ in order to justify the new Marxist ruling class of the Communist party nomenklatura, party apparatchiks and civil servants.
Claims of Objective, Scientific Validation Common to Atheist Regimes and Movements
Furthermore, however, doctrinaire and dogmatic Marxism was, it nevertheless shared common assumptions about the world with the larger atheist worldview. It was materialist, embraced Darwinism, and considered itself not the product of intellectual speculation, but of established, empirical scientific fact.
Nor was Marxism the only atheist worldview to consider itself scientifically validated. The Futurists, a militantly avant garde Italian artistic and political movement of the first decades of the 20th century, bitterly rejected metaphysics, looked forward to the new machine age and loudly denounced what they saw as the superstition and bigotry of the Roman Catholic church. They also loudly denounced the Church’s attitude to sex, and issued a manifesto celebrating lust and attacking the Church’s attitude, amongst other things, to homosexuality. They also believed strongly in the Nietzschean ‘transvaluation of values’, looking forward to the time when their artistic and political successors would overthrow them. This did not prevent them from being fervently militarist – they declared war to be the sole hygiene of the world and vehemently misogynist. Marinetti, in his ‘The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism’, published in Le Figaro, stated that the advocated ‘scorn for woman’. There was a short-lived Futurist party after the First World War, and Marinetti and the Futurists of the second generation supported Mussolini and his regime.
Some Dictatorships Initially Apparently Undogmatic
Secondly, an apparently undogmatic character was one of the factors that made the Fascist regimes attractive to some of their country’s citizens and intellectuals. Some Italian intellectuals, for example, welcomed Mussolini’s Fascist revolution as a solution to the doctrinaire political conflicts that they felt had led merely to division and inertia in Italian politics, rather than effective social and economic change. Similarly the Fascist take-over in Bulgaria was assisted by the increasing fragmentation of the Bulgarian political scene, with parties splitting over specific points of doctrine. Democratic Bulgarian politicians had attempted to counter this through the Zveno organisation that attempted to build a links – Zveno is Bulgarian for ‘link’ – between politicians of different political parties. This was not successful, and the Fascists took power partly through the promise of creating an effective administration in contrast to democratic fragmentation and political paralysis. Similarly, Nazi rhetoric was specifically tailored to appeal to particular social groups – small businesses, industrial workers and big business – even when this led to conflicting claims and ideological contradiction.
Thus strongly ideological regimes have seen and promoted themselves as non-ideological, and the lack of a distinct ideology or party dogma has been a central tenet of Fascist ‘crisis regimes’ whose raison d’etre was to hold and maintain power and order against the threat of ideologically generated political and social fragmentation. Lack of dogma in some aspects of a regime’s ideology or political platform does not prevent that regime from being fundamentally intolerant in others.
Intolerance of Atheist and Secularist Regimes Based on Claims of Defending Intellectual Freedom
Furthermore the militantly anti-Christian regimes of the left and right justified their attacks on Christianity by claiming to defend intellectual and spiritual freedom against the intolerance of Christianity. Hitler in his Table Talk declared that he looked forward to the day when everyone could seek his own salvation, unconstrained by Christianity which he detested for its alleged intolerance, stupidity and Jewish roots. The French Revolutionaries in their murderous attacks on Christian clergy and laymen did so on the grounds that they were defending citizens’ civil, political and intellectual liberty against religious oppression. And while Marxism adopts a particular ideological stance to the world based on Hegelian dialectic, classical economics and the socialisation of property, the economic views of the French revolutionaries is closer to that of the contemporary west, based on notions of political equality and liberty for all humanity and free market economics. This did not, however, prevent revolutionaries such as Robespierre and the notorious Committee of Public Safety developing a dictatorial policy based on the central premise that the French revolutionary regime represented freedom, and so those who exercised their intellectual freedom to disagree with the regime automatically were enemies of freedom.
Roman Persecution of Christianity Based on Same Claims as Later French Revolutionary, Fascist and Marxist Claims
One can see this process in the ancient, pagan Roman persecution of Christianity. Pagan philosophers such as Celsus considered Christianity to be both barbarous – they sneered at Christians for being apparently ill educated and unscientific – and intolerant, because of monotheism’s rejection of all other gods. Indeed, Celsus praised paganism because pagans were free to seek their salvation amongst the variety of different sects and cults through the world, without constraint of particular dogma. The result of this hostility was the series of books and pamphlets by Celsus and his followers to refute and destroy Christianity. When this antichristian literature failed, philosopher magistrates like Sossianus Hierocles, who had declared that he had written his works to lead people ‘humanly’ away from Christianity, resorted to force.
Thus, the horrific persecutions suffered by Christians in ancient Rome was perpetrated through the belief of the persecutors that they were protecting freedom of religion, lack of dogma, and reason. It’s the same motives that militant atheists, such as Sam Harris, have today, although Harris and the others are keen to distance themselves from the possibility that they might use force against their ideological opponents.
Rigid Ideology Not Needed for Persecuting Mindset
This is problematic. You don’t need to have a rigid ideology or all-encompassing set of dogmas to be viciously intolerant. All you need to do is see your opponent as a terrible other, an other who represents a threat that cannot be tolerated. And there are certainly elements of that amongst the most vociferous of the New Atheists.
A few years ago Nicholas Humphries gave a speech at a gathering for Amnesty International demanding the British government legislate to prevent children being brought up in religion or other home that accepted the reality of the supernatural. This was, he stated, a form of mental child abuse. Now Humphries clearly doesn’t see himself as intolerant. He made his demands at a rally for an organisation that has done brilliant work promoting freedom of conscience and defending the victims of viciously oppressive and intolerant regimes. Yet one atheist commentator remarked that something has gone seriously wrong when such a vehemently intolerant policy is loudly embraced by an atheist who sees himself as defending freedom.
Claims that Atheism Non-Dogmatic Questionable
Now let’s examine the claim that atheism itself is undogmatic. This is problematic for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it has one central dogma: the non-existence of God. This is the defining feature of atheism and marks it off from agnosticism and theism. Now many atheists may well feel that they cannot know that God doesn’t exist, but nevertheless feel sure that He doesn’t. This epistemological agnosticism does not detract from atheism’s central claim, nor does it necessarily make atheism any the less intolerant. Someone who declares that he cannot know there isn’t a God may still demand the forcible abolition of religion on other grounds, such as the evidence for it is unconvincing and a threat to the values he feels atheism privileges, such as reason.
Now this contradicts another claim made by atheists – that atheism is simply a lack of belief in God, that does not have consequences for the rest of their worldview. Now there clearly is a consequence of a rejection of a belief in God, as it automatically rejects revelation as the basis for knowledge and stresses instead empiricism and rational inquiry. Now religion does not necessarily reject empirical experience and rational inquiry either. Indeed, the Gospels were written on the basis of reports of eye-witnesses to Christ’s ministry and resurrection. St. Paul in his letters provides the names of eye-witnesses, who were willing to testify to the reality what they personally saw and experienced. However, for the atheist empiricism and rationalism are the only basis of knowledge, which religion, because of its supernatural, revelatory character, may appear to threaten. Thus atheism may lead to an intolerant, even persecutory attitude towards religion because of a feeling religion threatens the primacy of empirical, rationalistic truth.
Atheism as Generic Term which Covers Individual Dogmatic Atheist Philosophies
Now let’s tackle Harris’ statement that atheism is undogmatic, and so more tolerant. This isn’t really convincing either. Now people can come to atheism for a variety of reasons, based on their scientific and philosophical perceptions of the world. These perceptions will also shape their response to the apparent absence of God, and what it means to live in a Godless universe. Now the history of philosophy shows that these can be elaborated to a considerable extent, to the point where it’s fair to say that there are a number of atheist sects or schools. There is considerable difference between the views of Arnold Schopenhauer, an Idealist pantheist who hated the idea of God so much that he objected to the ‘theism’ in the word ‘pantheism’, but who nevertheless seems to have held a number of vitalist beliefs, and scientific materialists like Richard Dawkins who strongly reject the notion that living matter is qualitatively different from non-living matter. Humanists like Paul Kurtz in his book The Humanist Alternative: Some Questions of Definition are keen to define Humanism both against theistic philosophies that may also claim a Humanist stance, like Christian Humanism, and other atheist philosophies such as Marxism and Existentialism. Atheism is thus a generic term that includes a number of individual atheist sects or schools, in the same way that theism simply describes a generic belief in God, covering a number of different and often contradictory religions. And ‘theism’, like ‘atheism’, as a generic term, can be similarly undogmatic because it describes general belief, rather than theological details. Voltaire in his approach to Deism declared that he shared the same fellowship towards God as the various believers of non-Christian religions around the world. He described his Deist philosophy as ‘theisme’, in other words, he felt it was a generic, inclusive belief in a deity while bitterly attacking Christian dogma and what he considered to be intolerant exclusivism. Harris in his comparison of undogmatic atheism with dogmatic theism is not comparing like with like. He compares a generic term, atheism, which covers a number of philosophical approaches that can be individually quite dogmatic, with individual religions, which he then describes as dogmatic, in order to show that Marxism, is not atheist, because it too was dogmatic. It’s a bad argument and tortured piece of logic. Dinesh D’Souza is quite right in calling it an ‘intellectual sleight of hand’ that allows Harris to disown the atrocities committed by Marxist and Fascist regimes. The problem is that Marxist and Fascist regimes committed their atrocities through particular atheist or, in the case of the Nazis, pantheist philosophies that saw themselves as scientific, rational responses to a Godless universe, or one in which the Christian God did not exist. Atheism itself as a generic term may be undogmatic, but humans as an attempt to make sense of their situation will develop dogmas, including savagely murderous dogmas, in a universe without God.
Cause of Intolerance in Human Psyche
And the problem here is indeed humanity. People can be argumentative, dogmatic and intolerant outside the intellectual milieu of religion. One only has to think of the bitter in-fighting that can occur within secular political parties or in rival intellectual movements that may loudly denounce their rivals and try to block their appointment to academic or governmental posts. Now it’s fair to say that there isn’t much physical violence between rival atheist schools, at least not on the grounds of atheism. If Marxists and Sartrean Existentialists have beaten each other up, for example, it’s probably been for political reasons, such as the Marxist creation of the gulags. Generally speaking, this might be because philosophy, and particularly metaphysics, has always been of little interest to the great mass of people, who are generally speaking more interested in concrete issues that immediately affect them here and now. It may also be because the atheist schools are generally speaking the product of a common Western intellectual climate and set of assumptions that can blur the differences between them, except to the very committed. Most of the atheists in Western society are probably so because of these generalities, having neither the time nor inclination to worry about particular points of contact and difference between Humanism, Existentialism, Anti-Humanism or Nietzschean Nihilism. Nevertheless, this does not mean that atheism cannot be dogmatic, and that violence cannot proceed from atheist dogma, if it considers that it has found the single, overriding metaphysical truth that has to be defended from an insidious, monstrous threat, like theism. Dogmas aren’t something unique to religion, that suddenly appear with religious revelation. They’re elaborated by humans investigating intellectual problems that they consider to be of supreme importance, and which are considered to give a true description of reality. For contemporary evolutionary biologists, Darwinism, or Natural Selection, has been described as ‘the central dogma’. Nevertheless, the evolutionary biologists who have described it as such do not consider it untrue, nor the product of religious revelation. Nevertheless, they consider it to be a statement about the world that has been refined through intellectual development until it has the status of unimpeachable truth. Thus dogma does not mean something purely religious or irrational, or that spuriously claims to be objective truth while being unscientific, at least, not to the majority of evolutionary biologists who support Darwin.
And rather than decrying religious intolerance as proceeding solely from the character of religion, it might benefit those atheists with such a simplistic view to look more closely at the origins of religious or political intolerance within human psychology and particular historical circumstances. The early Christians were staunchly against torture, which was illegal under canon law until the 12th century. Yet this was taken up and adopted by ecclesiastical and secular jurists and lawyers through the influence of Roman law, the same Roman law that laid the medieval foundations for the modern constitutional state, and as a response to a terrible threat – that of heresy and witchcraft – that for many of them gave no alternative except to use the most severe and horrific measures for its suppression. People react intolerantly through the flaws of human psychology and as a result of a sense of threat, sometimes despite centuries of tradition. Thus atheism, which is a human intellectual approach to the world, can be similarly corrupted to become intolerant and savagely persecutory, despite intellectual claims to openness and tolerance.
Atheism also Potentially Intolerant and Harris Creating Double Standard in Disavowing Atheist Intolerance
Thus, Harris’ claims that the atrocities committed by the atheist regimes of the 20th century weren’t due to their atheism, but their supposedly religious character as dogmatic systems is unconvincing. Religiously intolerant, secular regimes like those of Marxist Russia and revolutionary France claimed to be defending freedom of conscience and intellectual inquiry in a way that echoed the pagan campaigns against the early Christians. Some dictatorships, like those of Mussolini in Italy and the Fascists in Bulgaria, were originally supported by some ideologically non-partisan intellectuals because they appeared to be free from the divisions of party political dogma. In this case, their non-dogmatic character was an intrinsic part of these dictatorships’ constitutional base. Harris does not compare like with like when he posits atheism as undogmatic, as atheism is a general term that can cover a multiplicity of approaches, some of which can be very dogmatic, with particular religions, rather than theism as a whole, which may be similarly undogmatic. Furthermore, Harris does not seem to recognise, or minimises, how far dogmatism and intolerance are the products of human psychology and historical circumstances that can turn even faiths and philosophies that reject the use of force to violence and coercion.
Wakefield and Dinesh D’Souza are therefore entirely right in that Harris has performed an intellectual sleight of hand in order to excuse atheism from any complicity in intolerance, while setting up a double standard with which to condemn theism and religion. No such double standards can be realistically created however, and atheism must stand condemned of intolerance and horror along with religion.