Are atheists, in fact, responsible for more mass murder than theists?
September 21, 2015 12:25 PM   Subscribe

I'm an atheist trying to take the question of secular morality in society seriously. In debates about whether a secular society is better than a religious one, theists often allude to Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, etc -- the mass murders of the 20th century who were motivated by secular beliefs. Are theists right that atheists killed more people in the 20th century than religious leaders did? What notable examples of this exist, besides the three mentioned above?

Please! No being snarky about religion. It's fine to point out reasons you might think the question is misleading or disingenuous, but I'm not interested in New Atheist style "but it's all a crazy superstition" type invective (much as I have sympathy for this point of view).
posted by everythingyoudoisaballoon to Society & Culture (27 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
Christopher Hitchens - god is not great has a lot of discussion about this, as I recall. It may be a helpful starting point for research and citations.
posted by Suffocating Kitty at 12:29 PM on September 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


Probably depends whether you consider Hitler a Christian or an Atheist, and how you estimate how many people Stalin killed.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 12:32 PM on September 21, 2015


Are theists right that atheists killed more people in the 20th century than religious leaders did?

Note the framing of the assertion -- the 20th Century is the nadir of (overtly) religious leaders' influence over politics.
posted by Etrigan at 12:35 PM on September 21, 2015 [10 favorites]


Additionally, is this only looking at individual responsibility? Do we consider decentralized human events that killed millions, or only the short list of individuals who bear primary responsibility?

I do actually think this is answerable but you have to be so specific about the parameters that it will probably reveal nothing.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 12:49 PM on September 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


Here's an article that frames this as the "atheist atrocities fallacy", draws on Hitchens, and includes a basic list of sources. It has some new atheist invective particularly in the introduction ("brutality" of Christianity, "obstinate nature of religious faith", "wilful [sic] ignorance", etc.) but if you can get past that it should also be a useful starting point.

I think the 20th century framing is also interesting because our capacity to cause death and suffering on a massive scale has drastically increased very recently, at the same time as more of our leaders have been secular rather than religious.
posted by earth by april at 12:51 PM on September 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


Sort of grim, but to do a fair comparison you may also have to control for increases in population size and access to technology that makes mass killings easier. Or on preview, I guess what earth by april said.
posted by en forme de poire at 12:52 PM on September 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


There is a difference between being killed by a religious person and being killed in the name of religion and being killed by an atheist and being killed in the name of atheism.

Stalin killed a great many people and he was an atheist, but I don't think that he killed them because he was an atheist or because they weren't or for any reason that had anything to do with atheism or theism. He killed them because they were political enemies. IOW, it was done by someone who happened to be an atheist. He could just as easily have been a Christian or Jew or anything else and his enemies could have been atheists, Christians, or Jews. It wouldn't have made a bit of difference.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 1:09 PM on September 21, 2015 [17 favorites]


One big one would the Rwandan Genocide. Also, all the deaths that occurred related to Apartheid in South Africa. These cases were completely motivated by secular concepts of race. Religion played no role whatsoever in motivating the murderers.

But, I am not sure religious belief is the primary motive of any mass murderers, whether it is theism or atheism. Individuals may have used religion as a vehicle to achieve whatever mass murder goals they had, but they were taking their actions for personal power and ambition.

I think you could question whether Osama bin Laden was primarily motivated by religious belief. His primary motive seems to have been the creation of an Islamic super state, and while that may have religious implications, it is clearly a political goal.

My point is, if fewer mass murderers in the 20th century are using religion as a vehicle for achieving their goals, then that simply means that there are other ways to motivate people in the 20th century. In the past, religion was just the many way to move people, now you can use other conceptual frameworks.
posted by Flood at 1:24 PM on September 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


Stalin killed a great many people and he was an atheist, but I don't think that he killed them because he was an atheist or because they weren't or for any reason that had anything to do with atheism or theism.

It depends. The USSR certainly had an anti-religious campaign and many Christian priests, Muslim clerics, and others of all religions were executed under Stalin. Stalin in fact had a "five year plan" to eradicate religion from the USSR. See, e.g. this.

That said, Stalin surely also killed many without regard of their religion such as in the Holodomor, and it is absolutely a correct point that, "there is a difference between being killed by a religious person and being killed in the name of religion and being killed by an atheist and being killed in the name of atheism." The question of "did theism kill X person" is a different question than "did a theist kill X person". For example, most people in the US profess some sort of theism but I think that of all convicted US murderers, only a very few could be said to be "death by theism" as opposed to "death by a theist". President Obama professes to be a theist but I don't think anyone could fairly say that military strikes he commands as commander in chief are done in the name of his religious faith.
posted by Tanizaki at 1:27 PM on September 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm a religious person and I've had to set this question aside as being unanswerable and not especially useful, because so much of it is dependent on framing. You can say "Oh, it's the 20th century, but what about every century before that where religion dominated the league tables?" or "Oh, it's the 20th century, the first chance avowed atheists got to rule, and look what they did!" or a million unhelpful things in between.

I read a biography of Pol Pot recently that suggested the Khmer Rouge's genocide was actually (read with or without internet-guy actually inflection) a product of the cultural Buddhism in which they grew up, etc. etc. (The link earth by april posted is a good example of that—the Khmer Rouge were avowedly atheistic and avowedly anti-religion, so even if you stipulate that Pol Pot was a secret Buddhist does that make them a religious regime or an irreligious one? And if he were a secret Theravada Buddhist, does that make him a theist as western polemicists or western religious people understand them? What if he were just a big Eliezer Yudkowsky fan who vowed to put the Sequences into practice in his daily life?)

I think the easy and unsatisfying but right-ish answer is that the distinction we draw between secular and religious philosophies is a tenuous and culturally contingent one. I'm not sure there are a lot of productive conversations to be had that start from pretending there's a clear functional line between, say, Imperial Japan encouraging an explicit cult of emperor worship and North Korea declaring Kim Il-sung the eternal emperor and making people prostrate themselves quite secularly in front of his statues. And Marxism qua Marx is atheistic but is certainly not rationalist in a way that Less Wrong users would upvote in 2015.

My feeling is that people who have been given a clear idea of how the world should work (which I do not think is not a bad thing) and the power to make lots of other people agree with them by force (which I think is) will behave like theocrats even if their clear idea does not appear to be a religion. Twentieth century Communism is a convenient analogue inasmuch as it had a clear teleology like a religion and inspired true believers like a religion, but I'd imagine this sort of movement is equally likely on the right as the value of signaling you're religious wanes. (Imagine neoconservatism without the legal fiction that Norman Podhoretz and George W. Bush believe the same things about God and you're most of the way there.)
posted by Polycarp at 1:29 PM on September 21, 2015 [13 favorites]


I agree with Flood—the whole "who killed more?" debate, besides being utterly pointless (not only is it philosophically meaningless, but it will never influence anyone who disagrees with you, so what's the point?), ignores the fact that mass murders are never fundamentally about either religion or lack of religion, they're about power. Religion is just a pretext.
posted by languagehat at 1:29 PM on September 21, 2015 [5 favorites]


I think the "20th Century" qualifier is a big one.

Also, I'm a theist who considers this to be a lazy question from a theist who hasn't done that much homework; I mean, hell, all religions have blood on their hands as well. And there are so many ways to spin these figures (are you looking at raw numbers? Percentages? Raw numbers inflated for population growth overall?) So it just doesn't hold water that you can definitively prove "belief system X is more moral than belief system y" by counting the number of people who got killed.

In my experience, too, the people who say "secular systems killed more people than religious ones" are either a) trying to use raw numbers because they think it'll come across like "scientific proof", or b) are responding to a non-theist who's tried to use that same kind of attack on theism ("hurf durf crusades" or something). You strike me as neither, for the record, simply by virtue of the fact that you're examining that question.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:35 PM on September 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


If you're trying to understand whether religion, as a (set of) system(s), _causes_ conflict and killing, then you'd have to somehow control for the phenomenon of homicidally-inclined people choosing whichever belief system supports their ideas. In some times and places, that would be religion; in other times and places, that might be atheism.
posted by amtho at 1:43 PM on September 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


You can basically get whichever answer you want to this depending on how you draw the lines.
posted by PMdixon at 1:44 PM on September 21, 2015


If this is a fresh topic to you, I'd suggest to investigate the inadvertent deaths caused by bad assumptions. They aren't good talking points like the deliberate murders but the philosophy trails can be easier to connect to the specific decisions. I'd read a few history books about an interesting atrocity/regime and then get into the influential works you're unfamiliar with.
posted by michaelh at 1:55 PM on September 21, 2015


Are atheists, in fact, responsible for more mass murder than theists?

I think atheists are, in fact, more prone to mass murder than theists of proselytizing religions.

For the very simple reason that proselytizing religions tend to bias the behavior of adherents toward getting converts, and it's harder to convert a person you or your co-religionist has just killed.
posted by jamjam at 2:24 PM on September 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


One big one would the Rwandan Genocide. Also, all the deaths that occurred related to Apartheid in South Africa. These cases were completely motivated by secular concepts of race. Religion played no role whatsoever in motivating the murderers.

That doesn't mean, however, that the perpetrators were necessarily atheist. They could all be devout in their religious beliefs, but the murders themselves weren't informed by their religious beliefs.

Secular ≠ Atheist
posted by Thorzdad at 2:57 PM on September 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's an interesting question, because to me, strong atheists ARE a religion. So there's a pretty big difference to me between atheists murdering people for atheist reasons (like in the example of Stalin) or murdering them for completely non-religious reasons, in which case I don't think it would matter what the religion of the perpetrators is.

Have atheists killed more people for religious reasons than people who belong to every other religion all-together? I suspect the answer to this one is no, just based on population sizes.

Have more people been killed for secular reasons than for religious ones? I don't have the slightest clue of the answer to this one. Maybe.
posted by euphoria066 at 3:22 PM on September 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


I agree with languagehat. It's a frustrating debate because atheists will often say "but it wasn't done in the name of atheism". However, when mass murders are done in the "name" of religion, it can be argued that religion was a justification rather than an impetus. In both instances, then, the desire for power (to simplify things) was the catalyst. So as people have said, it really is how you frame things.
I've been drawn into this debate before but I basically just don't engage anymore because it's such a lost cause either way. Considering how much of a driving force our current technoscience-based global capitalist system is for cruelty and suffering, I am extremely skeptical of the New Atheists' claims that getting rid of religion = solving the world's problems, but also obviously do not support the use of religion to justify violence and oppression either.
posted by thebots at 3:25 PM on September 21, 2015


How many people have died from AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases due to a religiously-motivated lack of protection or education?
posted by Faint of Butt at 3:32 PM on September 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


I interpret Authoritarian regimes with a really strong cult of personality focused on the leader as a form of "State-Religion", especially when they make a point of discouraging previous established religions. Others may disagree.
posted by ovvl at 4:49 PM on September 21, 2015


I suppose one might also argue that the distinction between theist and atheist ideologues is a false one.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 5:19 PM on September 21, 2015


I think a better rephrasing of the question is: has more mass murder been done in the name of religion than in the name of atheism? That has an obvious answer but as per Polycarp, all mass murder is about power and politics and the discussion is not a useful one. The issue of religion or non-religion is a façade.
posted by turbid dahlia at 5:33 PM on September 21, 2015


I'm an atheist but have no problem ascribing the bulk of 20th century warfare to atheists. That's because most fighting is over strategic resources,..period. Even in situations where the fighting is along religious lines, religion only serves as a marker for ethnicity. Ethnic groups fight over local resources and statesmen fight over wider controls.

I would say that the incredible death toll of the 20th century was due to the industrialization of war.
posted by bonobothegreat at 5:49 PM on September 21, 2015


atheists will often say "but it wasn't done in the name of atheism"

I'm new to this whole idea, but wouldn't a theist just counter with the idea that many religions forbid killing, or at least include the idea of respect for life, which would probably cause most believers to kill less?

Obviously that doesn't apply to all believers (far from it), but a completely a-religious person is probably scary to people of faith because it's less clear why an atheist wouldn't kill for immediately pragmatic reasons. (I'm not arguing that atheists actually believe/behave in this way, just saying that it's a naive way to argue).
posted by amtho at 6:48 PM on September 21, 2015


There's really no way to argue with this, for the simple reason that people willing to make sweeping condemnations of atheists are also typically pretty content to conflate people who are not connected to organized religions, people who are antagonistic to particular religions, people who are not traditionally religious, and people who were inconsistent in their religious beliefs/professions as 100% dyed-in-the-wool atheists. It's the flipside of how religious apologists love to seize on individual quotes from America's Founding Fathers to portray them as traditional Christians, when the bulk of them seem to fall at various points on a spectrum between Enlightenment Age nonliteral Christianity, Deism, and Freethought. Or the repeated use of quotes from Einstein that use the word "God" to characterize him as a Judeo-Christian, despite his insistence that his belief was in "Spinoza's God."

TL;DR: there's no way to resolve this because people prone to dogma are cheerfully willing to sort "good" people from history into the godfearing camp based on the slightest evidence and terrible people from history into the godless/atheist camp based on similarly tenuous evidence.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:38 PM on September 21, 2015


Or, otherwise put, there's no way to resolve this because people prone to dogma are cheerfully willing to sort "good" people from history into the godless/atheist camp based on the slightest evidence and terrible people from history into the godfearing camp based on similarly tenuous evidence.
posted by languagehat at 11:43 AM on September 22, 2015


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