Posts Tagged ‘sam harris’

Young Turks: Terrorists More Motivated by Politics than Religion, Study Finds

December 15, 2015

This is another video from The Young Turks, which is extremely relevant as it takes apart the view that terrorists and suicide bombers are motivated solely or mainly by religion. Robert Pape, a professor at the University of Chicago, and the founder of that university’s Centre for Security and Faith, studied the motives of suicide bombers and other terrorists going back to 1980. He found that in 95 per cent of cases they were far more motivated by politics, and particularly the desire to retaliation after a military intervention, often a military occupation. The attacks were an attempt to take or retake territory that was important to the terrorist. This was the dominant motivation for terror attacks, including the recent massacres in Paris.

Uygur and Iadarola point out that suicide bombing are the tactics adopted by the losing sides. America doesn’t use suicide bombers, because it has the advantage of drones, tanks and aircraft. The Japanese also turned to using suicide tactics in World War II – the Kamikaze pilots – when they were losing, not when they thought they were winning, as at Pearl Harbour. The same is true of other organisations using suicide bombers, like the Tamil Tigers.

They also make the case that while religion is part of it, like Christian fundamentalists, who hate gay people, this is more of a case of someone looking for and adopting a worldview, that confirms their existing beliefs. They also cite Lydia Wilson, a journalist for The Nation, who also interviewed ISIS terrorists. She found that they had a ‘woeful knowledge’ of even the basic tenets of Islam, and had difficulty answering questions about sharia law, jihad, or even the caliphate. But such knowledge wasn’t necessary to support the ideal of fighting for the caliphate. As could be seen from the actions of one British ISIS fighter, who ordered ‘Islam for Dummies’ on Amazon.

The Turks compare their ignorance of Islam with that of Dear, the right-wing fundamentalist Christian, who shot staff and patients in an attack on Planned Parenthood. They also point out that terrorist attacks and suicide bombings have been carried out by secular organisations and individuals. The Turks also point out that military intervention is not necessarily a bad thing. The Korean War succeeded in keeping South Korea free of Stalinism, and World War II was, obviously, a military intervention, that was exactly the right thing to do. Suicide and terrorist attacks do not necessarily make the original military action wrong. They’re just something to be expected as a consequence.

This report sounds pretty much spot on, from what I understand about terrorism. Bassam Tibi, the German-Egyptian writer on Islam and the problems it is experiencing through modernisation, states in his book Islam and the Cultural Accommodation of Social Change states that the Egyptian Islamist terrorist he personally interviewed in Egypt had only a superficial understanding of Islam. A few years ago, the anthropologist Scott Atran also pointed out that violence and terrorism were not solely the product of religion. He pointed out that the organisation that had made the most use of suicide bombings was the Tamil Tigers, who were secular organisation. Atran himself is an atheist, and he made this point as a rebuttal to the claims that religion was mainly responsible for such violence by members of the New Atheism, like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.

A~s for reading one’s own political views into a particular religion or holy book, that’s always been a problem. It’s called ‘elective affinity’, and sociologists of religion have acknowledged and studied its importance. One example I was taught at College was the declaration by a 19th century British Tory that ‘the Bible is Conservative through and through’. It’s a classic example of the way a person with strong political opinions believed he had found them in his holy book through projecting his own prejudices and opinions onto the text.

As for the political motivations of many terrorists, there’s an interesting review of a book on the Lobster site by Carol Shaye, one of the officials involved in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Shaye has since become extremely cynical about the whole process because of the massive corruption at all levels of Hamid Karzai’s regime. She found that the Taliban fighters she interviewed almost exclusively joined because they felt it was a solution to this problem.
Of course, the Taliban isn’t. It is, however, a brutal and murderous collection of genocidal maniacs and mass-murderers. But the point remains.


Sam Harris on Atheism’s Tolerance and Lack of Dogma

March 2, 2008

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.

Stalin, The Gulags and Christianity

January 11, 2008

Wakefield Tolbert, one of the great commentators on this blog, has pointed out here at that Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens have blamed Stalin’s Eastern Orthodox upbringing for the atrocities committed by his regime. Now I’ve already blogged explaining how Hitler wasn’t a Christian, and the genocide of the Nazis was not based on Christianity. Now also I’ve heard from a number of other people who’ve come across the same assertion that Christianity is somehow responsible for Stalin’s atrocities. This is demonstrably untrue, and deserves rebuttal.

Religious Nature of Communism

It is true that many researchers and scholars of Communism have noted a strong religious quality within the movement itself and the devotion it aroused in its adherents. Of 221 former Communists studied by one sociologist, almost half came from homes where religious interests were important. 1 Marxism can be seen ‘as a modern prophetic movement, proclaiming the way to justice’. 2 The search for ‘an overwhelmingly strong power’  on which the individual can rely may lead people to God can also lead others to embrace the Communist party. In the West, many of the recruits to Communism in the 1930s were highly sensitive and bewildered by modern social confusion. These idealists sought a programme that would solve the problems of modern society they felt so keenly. ‘They found in the authoritative program of communism and in its seeming dedication to justice an ‘escape from freedom’ that gave them both a sense of belonging and a sense of power. They were no longer the alienated; they had a ‘home’ and a program’. 3 Thus some of the scholars studying former Communists, concluded that the rejection of their parents’ religion by those with a devout religious background was not an antireligious statement, ‘but a redirection of interest to a movement that was embraced with religious fervor.’ 4

Stalin himself added a religious element to Soviet Communism. His oration at Lenin’s funeral was modelled on the Eastern Orthodox liturgy, and included the response ‘We vow to be faithful to they precepts, O Lenin.’ Lenin’s held the orthodox Marxist view that the individual has no importance in history. This caused him to reject any cult of personality around himself through the belief that if he had hadn’t led the revolution, it would have occurred anyway under someone else. Stalin, in opposition to this, created a distinct cult around Lenin through the establishment of Marxism-Leninism as the official Soviet ideology, and Lenin’s mausoleum as a public monument and site of pilgrimage.

Inadequacy of Religion as Explanation for Stalinism

Despite this, I have to say I’m not impressed by the argument as it’s too close to some very similar assertions I’ve come across which are very clearly wrong. Jack Chick in one of his rabidly anti-Roman Catholic comics claimed that Stalin’s regime was all a Roman Catholic plot, because Stalin had been a Roman Catholic priest. Er, no. Stalin was Georgian Orthodox, and did intend study for the priesthood, but got kicked out of the seminary for reading Adam Smith and Charles Darwin. The fact that many Communists were idealists and came from a religious background does not necessarily mean that the atrocities committed by Stalin were due to his religious upbringing. Communism is a highly idealistic political system, even if this idealism expresses itself in a brutally utilitarian attitude to human life and political strategy. The membership of people from religious backgrounds in the Communist simply shows that the type of idealistic individuals who traditionally sought meaning in religion then sought it in Communism. The religious trappings around the cult of Lenin don’t demonstrate an innate religiosity in Stalin so much as a cynical appreciation of the way the collective, corporate aspects of religion by a traditionally religious people could be used to provide a sense of community and collective purpose amongst them. However, this is a tactical development, and does not demonstrate any deeper continuity in ideology or outlook between Communism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

Communist Persecution of Orthodox Christians and Other People of Faith

 As a convinced Communist, he was certainly not a Christian. Furthermore, as Timothy Ware points out in his book on Orthodoxy under the Communists, the Soviet regime was militantly atheist, and had no compunction about killing and torturing Orthodox clergy long before Stalin came to power. In 1918 and 1919, the Communists killed 28 bishops. From 1923 to 1926 fifty more were martyred. By 1926, 2,700 priests, 2,000 monks and 3,400 nuns had been killed. It has been estimated that from 1917 to 1964 12,000 priests alone had been murdered by the regime, or died of illtreatment at their hands. And this is only Orthodox clergy.  5 It does not include the laymen and women.

Similar massacres of laypeople and clergy were also experienced by other faiths long before Stalin. Just before Christmas, for example, Channel 4 screened a fascinating programme of very early colour documentary film shot by a French traveller to China, India and Mongolia about the time of the First World War. It was excellent material documenting these nation’s way of life before the turmoil of the succeeding decades. What was particular poignant was the footage of Buddhist monks in a Mongolian lamasery. When the Communists took power, these were closed down and the monks martyred. About 15,000 were killed by the Communists. Now part of Mongolia was indeed annexed by the Soviet Union, but this also occurred in the independent part. So, Stalin was clearly not responsible, or not wholly responsible, for the atrocities committed there.

Middle Eastern Ethnic Violence and the Genocides of Stalin

In fact, some historians do consider that Stalin’s cultural background did play a role in the horror of the Gulags. The crucial factor here, however, is not his religious background, but the clan and tribal orientation of Georgian culture and society, and indeed through the peoples of the Caucasus. The Caucasus has been called ‘the mountain of tongues’ because of the wide variety of languages and dialects spoken there. There has been a history of fierce nationalist violence between the various peoples of the Caucasus. Stalin’s began his revolutionary career as a Georgian nationalist, taking the codename ‘Koba’ after the Georgian people’s great national hero, who fought for their country against the invading Turks. It’s been suggested that Stalin’s slaughter of whole families, and even whole nations, comes from this background in nationalist violence, in which clan feuding, and the slaughter of the relatives of one’s enemies as part of the feud, was practiced. Stalin applied this tactic of clan violence at the level of whole nations.

In fact state action against, including the exile and extermination of opposing subject nations, had been a policy of the Turkish and Persian Empires that dominated the area. The Turkish conquest of the Balkans in the Middle Ages included the mass deportation of the Turks subject peoples. This use of mass exile was a distinctive feature of the absolute nature of Turkish rule: ‘Equally characteristic of absolutist rule was the employment of mass deportation. Albanians, Serbs and Greeks were transferred in vast numbers to Anatolia and – after 1453 – to Constantinople, while Anatolians (often nomads) were transplanted to Thrace, Bulgaria and the border zones of the Balkans.’ 6 The great Persian historian, Muhammad-Kazim, in his Name-yi ‘Alamara-yi Nadiry, the Book of the World-Ruling Nadir, documents various pogroms against and the exile of various ethnic groups, such as the Tatars in Merv c. 1725-6. 7 This use of mass terror against subject nations continued into late 19th and early 20th century, when it culminated in the Armenian massacres of 1915, when 750,000 to 1.8 million Armenians were murdered by the Ottoman Turks in 1915. 8 The inaction of the European powers and their complete lack of interest in protecting the Armenians convinced the Nazi leadership that the great powers would also be completely indifferent over the fate of the Jews when they planned the Holocaust. Given Stalin’s own background in the Caucasus, it’s possible that the Armenian atrocities similarly convinced him of the effectiveness of genocide as an instrument of state policy.

Lenin as Founder of Communist Tyranny 

Hitchen’s and Harris’ assertion that Stalin’s atrocities came from his Eastern Orthodoxy is also similar to the Marxist and Trotskyite claim that the brutality and repression of institutional Soviet Communism was solely the result of Stalin’s psychology, rather than the product of Communism. According to this view, Lenin was the great hero who brought freedom and equality to the Soviet people, until his ideas and system was corrupted by Stalin. The socialist state created by Lenin was then twisted into a ‘state capitalist’ dictatorship.

The problem with this is that, while Lenin wasn’t the monster that Stalin was, he was certainly no democrat. Lenin established the policy of ‘democratic centralism’ which severely curtailed democratic discussion in the Communist Party, made the former Soviet Empire a one-party state, and began the creation of the labour camps that expanded so rapidly under Stalin. Contrary to the depiction of the Russian Revolution presented by the brilliant Russian cinematographer Sergei Eisenstein in his film October, the 1917 revolution wasn’t a mass uprising. It was a military coup against a democratically elected government, led by Kerensky. The biggest party in the duma – the Russian parliament – at the time were the Kadets, or Constitutional Democrats. They stood for the extension of the franchise to the ordinary people, and improving conditions for the workers and peasants, as well as welfare reforms. They were liberals, or left liberals, but not Marxists. During the coup, the Communist troops surrounded the duma and prevent the delegates from taking their seats, thus seizing power. The use of force to seize and legitimate power was thus a feature of the regime from its foundation.

Lenin also deliberately curtailed freedom of speech within the Communist through the institution of ‘democratic centralism’. This meant the process by which the free discussion of ideas on a particular topic was only possible when the leadership invited it, such as when a particular problem needed addressing, but no policy had yet been formulated to tackle it. Once the leadership made a decision, however, no further discussion was permissible. Lenin created this policy in order to centralise power in the Communist Party, and prevent the factionalism that had divided the Socialist Revolutionaries. These had been the main Russian revolutionary movement. They were agrarian socialists, rather like the Populist Party in America but without the racism. However, despite their use of violence and assassination, the Socialist Revolutionaries were deeply divided. Lenin felt this had hampered their effectiveness as a revolutionary organisation. To prevent the nascent Communist party suffering the same fate, Lenin established democratic centralism to ensure a rigid party discipline.

As for the labour camps, these too were a creation of Lenin. After the Revolution Soviet Russia experienced a famine. As an emergency measure, the government began requisitioning supplies of food. Hoarders were strictly punished. A group of 100 peasants were found guilty of hoarding food, and sentenced to imprisonment in a labour camp in the Russian north. This marked the beginning of Solzhenitsyn’s ‘Gulag Archipelago’.

Pre-Communist Origins of Soviet State Propaganda and Secret Police

Other authoritarian features of the regime were taken over from Kerensky’s government. Kerensky himself was well aware of the propaganda value of the cinema. Indeed, his government created a system of mobile cinemas that travelled the country showing propaganda movies for his regime. Lenin took this over, similar fashioning Soviet cinema as the instrument of state propaganda. Kerensky’s regime had also included a secret police, ultimately derived from the Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana, led by Felix Dzherzinsky, whose job was to guard the regime from counter-revolutionary activity. Lenin took this over too, and made Dzherzinsky the head of the new, Soviet secret police. Thus the instruments of repression Stalin used were inherited from previous regimes, including Lenin’s.

Constitutional Weakness of Pre-Fascist and Communist Nations 

Historians examining the rise of the Communist dictatorship in Russia have noticed parallels with other dictatorships, including the Fascist tyrannies of Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany. These common features are considered to be the crucial elements in the creation and perpetuation of these regimes. Common to both the Communist and Fascist dictatorships was the use of military force to seize power. Both Germany and Russia were constitutionally very weak, with very little democratic tradition, thus enabling the nascent democracies in those nations to be overthrown by its determined enemies. Stalin’s soviet dictatorship was thus the product the country’s general consititional weakness and the use of military force by secular regimes to enforce their power, rather than just the grotesque psychology of Stalin himself.

Authoritarianism and 19th Century German Constitutional Theory

One can also trace the authoritarianism of Soviet Communism back to Marx himself and the 19th century German political philosophy. Political philosophers have suggested that there is a difference between British and German philosophical views on constitutional theory. British political theory tended to view the state as a system of checks and balances to prevent one element in the state gaining too much power at the expense of the others, thus preserving their freedom. German political philosophy, on the other hand, is held to view the state as an administrative machine, and is less concerned with preserving the freedom of its citizens than with the efficient operation of that machine in governing society. This view is probably overstated, however. 19th century German constitutional theory certainly believed in the separation of power in the state, and the operation of checks and balances characteristic of British and American constitutional theory. This system was, however, limited by the power of the Wilhelminian monarchy, a fact brilliantly sent up by the German radical, Adolf Glasbrenner, in his satirical essay, Konschtitution. Deliberately written in the Berlin dialect as a father’s explanation of the German constitution to his son, the piece satirises the situation with the statement ‘Constitution, that is the separation of power. The king does what he wants, and the people, they do, what the king wants.’ 9 Nevertheless German 19th century political theory didn’t quite see the state as the monolithic governmental machine as some have considered it did.

There were also strongly authoritarian tendencies within the German Social Democrats in the 19th century. Historians of German socialism in this period have noted the strongly authoritarian nature of Ferdinand Lasalles leadership of the party. However, by the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th the German Social Democrats were far less rigid in their party discipline. Lenin, with his absolute insistence on the revolutionary struggle, could not understand how the notorious reformist, Eduard Bernstein, retained his party membership. When, during a visit to Germany, the German Social Democrat’s leading political theorist, Karl Kautsky, explained to him that they allowed dissent and discussion even of fundamental issues like that in the German party, Lenin went berserk, hurling a string of invective at him. Before then, Lenin had had great admiration for the German Social Democrats. Afterwards he had very little to say in their favour. Arguably, this shows the origin of the dictatorial nature of Russian communism as due less to the nature of German socialism, and more to the rigid and doctrinaire attitude of Lenin.

Revolutionary Leader as Strong Man 

In fact you can also see in Lenin as well as Stalin the insistence that the ruler should be personally a strong man of iron constitution. Stalin was an assumed name, meaning ‘man of steel’. Stalin’s real name was Iosip Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili. He took the name ‘Stalin’ as a deliberate statement of his personal strength and to symbolise his strong leadership. Lenin similarly believed that the true revolutionary was a man of iron following the dictum of earlier Russian revolutionaries that the true revolutionaries should physically toughen himself, metaphorically recommending that he should sleep on a bed of nails.

Sense of Personal Inadequacy Cause of Stalin’s Brutality

In fact some psychiatrists and historians have also seen the origin of Stalin’s brutality in a sense of inferiority, supposedly shared by other dictators who were similarly less than physically imposing. Stalin, like Hitler, Mussolini and Napoleon, was short, though he attempted to disguise this by wearing great coats too large for him, and selective camera work in photographs. Mussolini similarly tried to disguise his lack of height by a variety of tricks, and literally stood on soap boxes when haranguing the crowd during Fascist rallies. These were then airbrushed out in official photographs of the occasion. Stalin was also physically disabled – he had a withered arm. The German psychiatrist Adler considered that Stalin’s dominating urge to power came from a sense of ‘organ inferiority’ due to his disability and short stature. Stalin’s ruthless acquisition of power and massive destruction of human life was an attempt to compensate for this feeling of inferiority. The crucial factor in the creation of Stalin’s authoritarian and dominating personality was his sense of personal inadequacy, not his religious upbringing.

Genocide in Writings of Marx and Engels

However, one can go further and see the genocidal elements of Stalin’s regime in some of the very writings of Marx and Engels. Marx and Engels, as Hegelians, saw the dialectical process as leading society from lower levels of culture and civilisation to successively higher stages of development before culminating in socialism and finally world communism. Although bitterly critical of capitalism, they enthusiastically embraced as a liberating force from feudalism. They also took over Herder’s notion of ‘historic states’. True states were only those which had a history behind it. Thus, Marx and Engels were supportive of the desires of Polish revolutionaries to gain independence for their country, as Poland had had a history as an independent nation. Engels in his 1847 speech commemorating 17th anniversary of the Polish revolution of 1830 stated ‘German princes have profited from the partition of Poland and German solideries are still exercising oppression in Galicia and Posen. It must be the concern of us Germans, above all, of us German democrats, to remove this stain from our nation.’ 10

They were, however, bitterly opposed to the national aspirations of some of the other Slavonic peoples, whom they saw as not possessing a historic identity and thus excluded from the process of historic development towards higher stages of civilisation. These nations, like Scots Gaels and the Celtic Bretons in France, represented a lower stage of civilisation that should rightly become extinct as they were absorbed and assimilated into more advanced peoples. ‘There is no country in Europe that does not possess, in some remote corner, at least one remnant-people, left over from an earlier population, forced back and subjugated by the nation which later became the repository of historical development. These remnants of a nation, mercilessly crushed, as Hegel said, by the course of history, this national refuse, is always the fanatical representative of the counter-revolution and remains so until it is completely exterminated or de-nationalized, as its whole existence is itself a protest against a great historical revolution.

In Scotland, for example, the Gaels, supporters fot he Stuarts from 1640 to 1745.

In France the Bretons, supporters fo the Bourbons from 1792 to 1800.

In Spain the Basques, supporters of Don Carlos.

In Austria the pan-Slav South Slavs, who are nothing more than the national refuse of a thousand years of immensely confused development.’ 11 

Engels himself was vehemently opposed to the nationalist campaigns by these Slav peoples during the turmoil of 1848, the ‘year of revolutions’. He saw them as constituting a threat to true revolutionary socialism, because of what he viewed as these societies’ socially backward nature, and urged their suppression in chilling, even genocidal terms. He considered that the Slav nationalist campaigns in 1848 would lead to a global war which would exterminate the Slav nations utterly: ‘The general war which will then break out will scatter this Slav Sonderbund, and annihilate all these small  pig-headed nations even to their very names.

The next world war will not only cause reactionary classes and dynasties to disappear from the face of the earth, but also entire reactionary peoples. And that too is an advance.’ 12

‘We reply to the sentimental phrases about brotherhood which are offered to us here in the name of the most cuonter-revolutionary nations in Europe that hatred of the Russians was, and still is, the first revolutionary passion of the Germans; that since the revolution a hatred of the Czechs and the Croats has been added to this, and that, in common with the Poles and the Magyars, we can only secure the revolution against these Slav peoples by the most decisive acts of terrorism. We now know where the enemies of the revolution are concentrated: in Russia and in the Slav lands of Austria; and no phrases, no references to an indefinite democratic future of these lands will prevent us from treating our enemies as enemies … Then we shall fight ‘an implacable life-and-death-struggle’ with Slavdom, which has betrayed the revolution; a war of annihilation and ruthless terrorism, not in the interests of Germany but in the interests of the revolution!’ 13 Thus Engels himself advocated a policy of genocide in the interests of the revolution, a policy which Stalin ruthlessly implemented in his regime of terror.

Scientific Socialism and the Rejection of Moral Sentiment

One factor which may have facilitated the acceptance of this policy amongst Stalin’s colleagues in the Communist party was the ‘scientific’ nature of Marxism and its rejection of moral theory as the basis of revolutionary action and sentiment. Many of the non-Marxist European radicals and socialists had come to their views from a profound sense of moral outrage at the poverty, squalor and oppression experienced by the poor in the Europe of the time, rather than from any commitment to a philosophical or economic theory. The great British Socialist and leader of the Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris, told an interviewer that he had absolutely no interest in Marx’s theory of surplus value. Russian Marxists, on the other hand, like Lenin, saw Marxism as superior to the other forms of socialism because it was based on what they saw as objective fact – economic laws and the dialectic of history – rather than moral sentiment, and sneered at those socialists who did base their socialism on a moral critique of society. This is not to say that they didn’t have a moral sense, but it was circumscribed by their sense of the impersonal movement of history, economics and society that legitimated the revolutionary struggle aside from or against moral concerns. This sense that they were acting from entirely objective, ‘scientific’ principles, principles which would inevitably lead to a better society, acted to suppress their moral instincts that revolted at the horrors they inflicted.


Thus, despite the superficial trappings of religious ritual around Lenin, the atrocities of the Stalin era had their basis in the authoritarian nature of the Russian Communist party created by Lenin; an apparatus of state repression and propaganda inherited from Tsarism and Kerensky; a history of genocide and ethnic cleansing in Eastern Europe and the Middle East; the establishment of the true revolutionary as a physically strong man, complemented by Stalin’s own ruthless urge to power through a sense of personal inadequacy; and an advocacy of genocide by one of the founders of Marxism, Friedrich Engels himself, coupled with a notion of scientific objectivity that rejected morality in favour of impersonal societal forces as the basis for political action and commitment. This was further exacerbated by a political ideology that saw individuals as unimportant and which viewed the collective group or interest – the working class and the nation as a whole – as the centre of moral concern to whose interests the individual could be ruthlessly sacrificed.

Rather than Stalin’s atrocities arising from Christianity, they came from the brutal tactics of secular rulers in the Middle East, and authoritarian, genocidal ideologies within Russian Communism itself, based on the ideas of that ideology’s founder, magnified to truly horrific levels by Stalin’s own personal paranoia and brutality. The irony here is that Marx declared himself to be a Humanist, and Soviet Communists viewed Marxism as the only true Humanism.  


1. J.M. Yinger, ‘Secular Alternatives to Religion’ in Whitfield Foy, ed., The Religious Quest: A Reader (London, Routledge 1978), p. 548.

2. Yinger, ‘Secular Alternatives’, in Foy, Religious Quest, p. 547.

3. Yinger, ‘Secular Alternatives’, in Foy, Religious Quest, p. 547.

4. Yinger, ‘Secular Alternatives’ in Foy, Religious Quest, p. 548.

5. Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (London, Penguin Books 1964), p. 156.

6. Daniel Waley, Later Medieval Europe: From St. Louis to Luther (London, Longman 1985), p. 166.

7. N.D. Miklukho-Maklaya, ‘Introduction’, in Muhammad-Kazim, Name-yi ‘Alamara-yi Nadiry (Miroykrashayushaya Nadirova Kniga), volume 1, (Orientalist Institute of the Soviet Academy of Science, Moscow 1960), p. 6.

8. ‘Armenia’ in Andrew Wilson and Nina Bachkatov, Russia Revised: An Alphabetical Key to the Soviet Collapse and the New Republics (London, Andre Deutsch 1992), p. 17.

9. Adolf Glasbrenner, ‘ Konschtitution’ in Florian Vassen, ed., Die Deutsche Literature in Text und Darstellung: Vormarz (Stuttgart, Philipp Reklam 1979), p. 230. (My translation).

10. David Fernback, ed., Karl Marx: The Revolutions of 1848 (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1973), p. 100.

11. Friedrich Engels, ‘The Magyar Struggle, in Fernbach, ed., Karl Marx, p. 222.

12. Engels, ‘Magyar Struggle’, in Fernbach, Karl Marx, pp. 225-226.

13. Engels, ‘Democratic Pan-Slavism’, in Fernbach, ed., Karl Marx, p. 244.