Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Hitler and Stalin Cliche

A quick note: that I will be on “Faith and Freethought” tomorrow evening at 6:00 eastern time.

Okay, now, I want to rant just a little bit more on the clichés surrounding atheism and ethics, then I'll move on.

I promise.

This is the Hitler and Stalin Cliché. It is the argument that there is something fundamentally and foundationally wrong with atheism because Hitler and Stalin were atheists – and look what they did.

The reason that I want to address this argument is that I often see atheists discuss it outside of its proper context.

The typical response that I see to this claim involves a history lecture.

There are two tactical problems with history lectures. The first is that it puts the audience to sleep. They do not care about these arguments enough to be persuaded by them. The second is that you are asking the listener to trust that the claims that you make about history are true – when the listener has already been told that people such as you are not to be trusted. What reason do they have to take your word for these historic events, as opposed to the word of your opponent?

There is also one logic problem. It assumes that the Hitler and Stalin Cliché is valid, so that one has to prove that one of the premises (e.g., “Hitler was an atheist”) is false.

The argument is not valid.

My sound-byte answer: "I'm sorry, but blaming me for the crimes of Hitler and Stalin is like blaming the Amish – or blaming you, my honorable adversary – for 9-11.”

The Irrelevance of Atheism

If my opponent will grant me a few more seconds, I would add, “You would certainly object if I were to accuse you of being responsible for these crimes. You would scream that any who would make such an assertion is bigoted and unjust. You would be right. Such a person is, in fact, bigoted and unjust. So is the person who blames all atheists for the crimes of Stalin.”

I have seen atheists scramble for evidence that Hitler was not an atheist. Perhaps it is true. It does not matter to the moral argument. Assume that somebody were to assert that Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy were white males, and as such all white males are to be regarded with contempt. One possible answer would be to try to prove that Dahmer and Gacy were not white males. However, this would be fruitless. A better response would be to say that justice demands that each person be judged by his own actions, and that no person shall be judged guilty of the crimes of Dahmer and Gacy but Dahmer and Gacy themselves.

By the way, Hitler and Stalin were also both white males. I sense a pattern.

It is also the case that both Hitler and Stalin wore a mustache. Maybe it is the wearing of a mustache that disposes one to tyranny, and the wearing of mustaches should be prohibited.

They both (almost certainly) believed that the Sun was at the center of the solar system. In fact, if you take a look at history, you will discover that heliocentrists (those who assert that the sun is at the center of the solar system) have killed and maimed far more people than geocentrists (those who believe that the earth is at the center of the solar system). Obviously, heliocentrists are evil and despicable creatures! We must immediately take action to remove the doctrine of heliocentrism from our schools before this view that the Earth is not the center of the solar system . . . that humans live on just another planet orbiting just another star . . . destroys the very moral fiber of our civilization!

Hitler and Stalin were both born in Europe. They both had six letters in their first and last names.

Of all of the traits that define Hitler and Stalin, why attribute their evil deeds to atheism? Why not the mustache, or their European birth, or their heliocentrism, or the number of letters in their name, or their gender, or their race?

The answer, at least for a great many people, is that they are looking for reasons to market in hatred and bigotry of atheists, and references to Hitler and Stalin are very popular among those who sell hate for a living. If not for the love of hate, or the business of selling hate, atheism would be seen just as irrelevant as these other traits. This is because it is just as irrelevant as those other traits.

The Crusades and Inquisitions Cliché

So, just as there are theists who love to use the Hitler and Stalin Cliché, there are atheists who love to use the Crusades and Inquisitions Cliché. This is the same form of argument. Just as theists attempt to blame all atheists for the crimes of Hitler and Stalin, some atheists attempt to blame all theists for the Crusades and Inquisitions.

When their argument takes the form, "The Crusades and Inquisitions were lead by theists; therefore, all forms of theism are evil,” then they are making an argument that is as flawed as, “The Holocaust and Stalin’s Purges were lead by atheists; therefore, all forms of atheism are evil.” A consistent person cannot condemn one argument without condemning the other.

However, there is a second use for the Crusades and Inquisitions argument. If a theist were to say, “By turning to the Bible, an individual can find perfect moral guidance,” then it would be legitimate to answer, “What about the crusades, inquisitions, slavery, the divine right of kings, slavery, torture, censorship, forced tithing, and the like? Clearly, if it were possible to find perfect moral guidance in the Bible, either we would not have had these things, or one would have to argue that they were moral.

It is just as legitimate to make the same use of the Hitler and Stalin cliché. If an atheist were to say, “By turning to atheism, an individual can find perfect moral guidance,” then it would be legitimate to answer, “What about Stalin?”

(Note: Hitler makes a poor example. His religion is a matter of ambiguity. However, and more importantly, he was able to sell his program to a nation that was largely Christian without asking that they give up their religion. The German people themselves were able to reconcile Hitler with their religion and regarded Hitler as a hero up to the end of the war. This is hardly effective testimony for the virtue of religion.)

However, find me the person who says that, in turning to atheism, one can find perfect moral virtue. Find me the person who makes a claim that would make the Hitler and Stalin cliché appropriate. If one looked hard enough, it may be possible to find one or two. However, if one looks at the way the Hitler and Stalin Cliché is actually used, one would think that this assertion is a part of mainstream atheism.

In fact, atheism says nothing about moral values, other than to say that certain premises in moral arguments (those that take the form, 'there exists a God such that . . .') are false and play no role in sound moral reasoning. Atheism says nothing about what remains after this error is removed.

"That’s it!” shouts the theist. "That is precisely what is wrong with atheism. It offers no moral guidance!"

Well, chemistry offers no moral guidance either. I have yet to find a moral principle that I can derive out of the fact that xenon is an inert gas and that water is made up of H2O. Is chemistry to be condemned for its lack of guidance? What about physics? Geology? What moral guidance can we draw from the fact that quartz is an igneous rock? None? Then be rid of it!

This is yet another nonsense argument.

True, atheism says nothing about ethics other than that no God is involved. Atheism also says nothing about astronomy other than that no God is involved. Atheism says that if you want to study the stars and planets, you do not study atheism – you study astronomy. Atheism also says that if you want to study right, wrong, good, and evil, you do not study atheism – you study moral philosophy (ethics).

That is what I studied through 12 years of college. I did not study atheism. I studied moral philosophy.

Mistakes and Character

In earlier posts, I argued that you can tell something about a person’s moral character by the mistakes he makes – by the invalid arguments he is all too willing to embrace, and the false premises he is far to eager to accept. When a person makes a mistake, we can ask, “Why did he make that mistake, and not some other?”

The answer to the question “why” often leads to the agent’s desires. If he embraces a conclusion without evidence then we have reason to suspect that he wanted to believe that conclusion. This “desire to believe” tells us something about what the person likes and dislikes – about his virtues and his vices.

We have good reason to suspect that the people who make the types of mistakes I have written about desire (love) to hate. Hate is important to them. In order to protect and to serve their hatred, they need to cover it in a cloak of legitimacy. No sound argument supports their hate, so they embrace unsound arguments and false premises. They too eagerly adopt claims that a person free of hate would easily see as flawed.

This is why there are people who love to see atheism ‘to blame’ for Hitler and Stalin, but can instantly see the absurdity of blaming their mustaches, and why they can instantly recognize the injustice of attributing their evils to all white males.

These are people who profit in the marketing of hate. They sell hate for cash contributions, so that they can manufacture more hate, and sell it to raise more money. It does not matter to the hate monger whether his advertising campaign contains truth or fiction. It only matters whether it is useful – whether it increases sales, revenue, and profits – profits that come in the form of money and power.

This we get from people who claim that their religion gives them true virtue.


bpabbott said...

Alonzo remarked: "Hitler and Stalin were also both white males. I sense a pattern."

hey ... I resemble that remark! ;-)

If I had a ranking of your posts, this one would presently be at the top. Thanks

tedlove said...

Alonzo wrote:
"So, just as there are theists who love to use the Hitler and Stalin Cliché, there are atheists who love to use the Crusades and Inquisitions Cliché. This is the same form of argument."

While blaming atheism for the crimes of Stalin and Hitler is bigoted and utterly inaccurate (as you mention: it is tantamount to blaming mustaches or white-males), the same cannot be said for theism (at least in some cases).

There is an important distinction that should be established. The crimes of Hitler and Stalin were not direct consequences of a non-belief in God. However, such is not the case for the Crusades - for example. There were explicit theological justifications for the actions of the Christians. Without those justifications, there couldn't have a been a Crusade, I think.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

What would happen if a group of people got together and actually did slaughter a large number of people in the name of no God? They simply decided that the world would be better off without theists, rounded up all they could get ahold of who did not commit blaspheme, and executed them.

Would this justify a condemnation of atheism itself?

Answer: No.

I would still insist that I be judged on my beliefs and my actions, and the fact that somebody else committed attrocities in the name of no God is entirely irrelevant to how I be judged.

tedlove said...

Would this justify a condemnation of atheism itself?

Answer: No.

I completely agree.

Because of the nature of atheism, no crime an atheist commits implies that he/she did it because of his/her atheism... And this includes situations where someone kills others because they aren’t atheists. This is because killing someone who isn’t an atheist isn’t a consequence of atheistic belief. The same is not true for theism. Some forms of theism contain a God who rewards obedience, and this obedience might include killing others.

I would still insist that I be judged on my beliefs and my actions, and the fact that somebody else committed attrocities in the name of no God is entirely irrelevant to how I be judged.

Okay... I am not disagreeing here.

The martyr who kills a dozen children in a suicide attack is obviously to blame for his actions. BUT we should not discount the role that his religious belief played.

If some religion were to preach that killing infants is some sort of holy act, and a follower goes off and starts killing children, we should condemn not only the person and their actions, but the justification they have for their actions (religious belief). Would the hypothetical follower above had killed infants if not for his religion?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


If you think that I am downplaying the role of belief in action, you are mistaken.

Intentional action is the result of a person attempting to fulfill the more and the stronger of his desires, given his beliefs.

Killing somebody who is not an atheist is not a necessary part of the belief that no God exists. However, it can play a causal role.

Killing somebody who is not a theist is not a necessary part of the belief that God exists. Many theists do not kill anybody.

They do not even want to kill anybody.

You say 'some forms of theism' might result in killing others.

Well, some forms of atheism might result in killing others as well.

If you answer the latter charge by saying that 'the literal definition of atheism does not imply killing others'. To get to killing others, you need to add additional beliefs that some atheists might not share.

Well, the literal definition of theism does not imply killing others as well. To get to killing others you have to add additional beliefs that other theists might not share.

All who share the beliefs that the dangerous theist has is also dangerous - that is true.

All who share the beliefs that the dangerous atheists has is also dangerous - that, too, is true.

The two cases are parallel.

tedlove said...

Agreed. Both atheism and theism, on their own, do not entail violence.

But, you need to be a theist to be a Christian, and you need to be a Christian to take the words of the Bible literally enough to think it's o.k. to stone people to death because they are heretics.

There is no such causal relationship involved with atheism, I think. Maybe I am wrong though?

Brian Parra said...

But but but...Hitler wasn't an atheist. He was raised catholic. I'm not blaming catholics, but people that attribute Hitler to atheists are merely ignorant. Plain and simple.

Hitler's books and polices were FULL of plany stated christian ideology. Its not even contoversial among historians, just unknown to modern ignorant belivers.

I'm all for pointing out errors of people's logic in blaming Hiter's reign of terror on atheism, but it's not even a valid point in this context.

And about atheism and communism...I refer to my own blog post:



Shawn Wilkinson said...

Bravo, Alonzo. Bravo. You have states so eloquently what I have attempted to say to all my friends from both sides of the fence (atheism and theism) that the atrocities in the past should not be attributable to individuals who share a commonality. This is akin to because I have a pot belly and Sadam Hussein during his reign over Iraq had a pot belly, I am just as evil as Hussein. Social and poltiical identifiers are hardly justifiable elements to conivct certain indidivuals of thought crimes. Bravo.

I do wish to make a comment. Do you not find it ironic that in the Abrahamic faiths, Justice bequethed by God is determined by ones actions? In Christianity and Islam, salvaltion is granted to those who paid tribute to God via following his commandments. To the Jews, God bestowed plenty of bounty and good fortune when they were obedient. Justice is based off the actions of the individual, not of his predeccessor. Yet, the cliche often promoted by such individuals who believe in this flies in the face of how they obtain Providence themseleves. I sense irony in their thoughts and words.

Anonymous said...

I resent the mustache, pot belly, and particularly the white male analogy analogies. Most religions, as far as I can tell, touch solidly upon how one ought to interact with other people, be it being unflinchingly kind to them (and how one goes about doing that) or mercilessly killing them (and how one goes about doing that, too). Most barbers and personal trainers... well, they might touch upon it in conversation, but unless they're particularly sensitive, it isn't going to have any bearing on your hair or your pot belly.

A religion overlaps in many places with philosophy in general (regardless of whether a deity is involved in that philosophy, I mean) and thus it is logically sound to suspect that a religion, or a philosophy, may have tenets that influence kindness, as well as murderous, behavior, whereas it is anything but logically sound to suspect the same of mustaches.

I think tedlove presented a very good argument for the rejection of the Hitler and Stalin cliché.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Anonymous, Tedlove

Your arguments fail to distinguish between being an atheist or a theist and being a good or bad person, and being a particular type of theist or atheist and being a good or bad person.

Neither atheism nor theism itself entails any type of moral virtue or vice. It is simply a belief about whether the proposition "One or more gods exist" is true or false. It tells us nothing about the nature or the demands of that God, or nothing about the values that exist in a godless universe.

You have to add specifics before you make any moral judgments.

On this level, some specific theist philosophies are better than others, and some specific atheist philosophies are better than others. On this level, we still have no basis to judge theism as better than atheism in itself. We have to look at the specifics to make that judgment.

The crimes of Hitler and Stalin were not the direct result ofa non-belief in God. But, then, the Crusades and the Inquisitions were not the direct results of a belief in God. The Crusades and the Inquisitions were the direct result of a belief in a specific brand of theism. But, Stalin's crimes were the direct result of a belief in a specific brand of atheism.

The only way to get the claim that theism is evil in itself is through equivocation - by comparing general atheism against specific theism. Yet, the same argument can be made by comparing general theism to specific atheism.

So, those who hold that the fault is in being a theist, or an atheist, independent of any other consideration (without considering the specifics of that person's beliefs), are mistaken.

Anonymous said...


You note that neither atheism nor theism can be inherently good or bad and that, therefore, the followers of atheism and theism cannot be branded according to the good or bad actions of others. While I do think that every individual should be judged on their own actions and merits, I don't think this disqualifies the validity of saying that a particular belief is beneficial or detrimental for humanity. Consequently, adherents to these beliefs may be beneficial or detrimental to humanity based on their degree of adherence to that belief.

The key difference between theism and atheism, as you've mentioned, is a belief in god/s or a lack thereof. But from this difference, further general differences can be inferred without making specific judgments. Notably, because a deity is a supernatural being of some greater authority than that of any mortal, a belief that includes a deity will result in a code based on the stated or perceived preferences of this deity. This is dogma.

It is an adherence to some unchangeable dogma that resulted in the atrocities mentioned in earlier posts. Dogma is inherent in all forms of theism, and also in the philosophies of Mao, Stalin, and Hitler, but is not inherent in atheism.

So, no, theism in and of itself isn't bad. It's just belief in theism, or any other system in which dogma is inherent, that is detrimental to humanity.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Actually, you are building some assumptions into your analysis.

During the Enlightenment, there were those who held that God created the universe with certain moral laws, just as he created the universe with certain physical laws. Yet, those laws were discoverable through reason.

This lead to works like that of John Locke who, though he was a theist, believed that he could derive moral rules by reasoning about man in a state of nature, without reference to biblical text.

Locke made some mistakes in this pursuit. His arguments against suicide require the assumptions that there is a God. But, for the most part, his belief in God did not interfere with his ability to make a significant contribution to moral philosophy.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate this discussion a great deal. I think about these kinds of topics regularly, and it's nice to find an intelligent conversation in the blogosphere.

I'd like to address the following statement made in the comments, "The only way to get the claim that theism is evil in itself is through equivocation - by comparing general atheism against specific theism. Yet, the same argument can be made by comparing general theism to specific atheism." I disagree with that because you don't have to compare theism to atheism to assess theism's proclivity to help or harm humanity. One can use the specifics of the various theistic systems to determine the overall impact of theism on humanity, and then to answer the question, "Is theism a help or hindrance?" Then after that assesment is done, the natural tendency is to then ask what else is there besides theism.

And so, is theism evil in and of itself? I would answer no, because it's about the specific implementation. I have long made a comment about Communism that it's a really nice theory, it simply fell down in practice. And, following the arugment in the original post, it doesn't necessarily follow that all political systems are bad simply because the manifestations of Communism in the 20th century didn't work. I would say the same about theism, eventhough the majority of cultures who practice theism in some form, use their specific implementation to control, belittle, and kill others, that does not mean that atheism is therefore the better option. It just means that we haven't found the "right" form of theism. (Jainism is a good front runner in my opinion, although there are too many food rules for my taste ;).) After ~10,000 years of recorded human history, I would think that the jury is in - the vast majority of theistic practices lead humans to harm each other in the name of those deities. And therefore we should find some other system for help and guidance in how to navigate through life and the universe. (Yes, people should be judged for their own actions, but a system that leads people to certain actions can also be judged.)

I personally believe theism has lost its utility for humanity, and that atheism is the better option but it still will come down to the specific implementation. I would argue that regardless of Stalin's personal beliefs, he created a cult of personality and a religion of the state which the general population believed in just like any specific brand of theism. So for the masses there was still theistic religion with Stalin as God.

As I reread this, I was reminded of the quote, "Guns don't kill people, people kill people." Which is true in my opinion. Humans have the innate desire to kill each other, and theistic religion has often been the simplest way for people of power to convince others to do their bidding.

Anonymous said...

when i read Dawkins' challenge of finding a single case of specifically atheism-inspired violence, at least one instance does come to mind:

The year 1967 saw Enver Hoxha, Albania's leader, declared the country to be the world's first atheist state -- and proudly so. In fact, Hoxha decreed a ban on religion, religious names being given to newborns, ordered the demolishing of places of worship and imprisoned those found in possession of holy texts.

Needless to say, his human rights record drew widespread international condemnation. Critics of this example will attempt to tie it in with the communist ideology shackling eastern European states at the time, but it is clear that Hoxha was determined to carry out his anti-religious campaign specifically for atheism's sake.
Captain awesome here on youtube has even admitted that there have been atrocities commited in the name of atheism.

Mao himself also spoke at times against religion specifically, rather than merely in favour of his own brand of political ideology. Famously he stated that "religion is poison. It has two great defects: It undermines the race ...(and) retards the progress of the country." We see in this all the hallmarks of atheism joined with a fanatical dedication to eliminate its perceived opposition. After his annexation of Tibet (which has, to their shame, remained unopposed by western governments to this day) Mao openly endorsed the destruction of Tibetan cultural heritage, including Buddhist monasteries, in part as a campaign to eliminate "theocratic authority". It has been estimated that the number of Tibetan monasteries was reduced by the Chinese from some 2,500 to "only just over 70" in the period 1959-1961. The number of monks and nuns fell from 100,000 to just 7,000 in the same period. Hundreds of thousands have died as a result of the invasion and the suffering goes on today. And, it should be noted, Mao's attack on religion in China was equally forceful.

who can deny that Stalin and Mao, Pol Pot and a host of others, all committed atrocities in the name of a Communist ideology that was explicitly atheistic? Who can dispute that they did their bloody deeds by claiming to be establishing a "new man" and a religion-free utopia? These were mass murders performed with atheism as a central part of their ideological inspiration, they were not mass murders done by people who simply happened to be atheist.

Stalin was also an atheist:

The Pope? How many divisions has he got?
— Josef Stalin, to French Foreign Minister Pierre Laval, in reply to a suggestion that the Soviet Union should encourage Catholicism in order to propitiate the Pope, in Winston Churchill, The Second World War, vol. 1, "The Gathering Storm," ch. 8, (1948), said, 13 May 1935, quoted from, The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations

Stalin is quoted as saying "You know, they are fooling us, there is no God...all this talk about God is sheer nonsense" in E. Yaroslavsky, Landmarks in the Life of Stalin, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow 1940

But of course how can a lack of belief motivate people to do bad?...One feels you are neglecting to acknowledge the subtle distinction between the absence of a belief in God, and the firm belief that God is absent. The former is a rather placid position which results from merely failing to be persuaded of the positive case for God. By contrast the latter is positively invested in the idea that God is non-existent, and it is this that presumably comes prior to the atheism-inspired atrocities

More than this, some call themselves overtly "anti-theist", which suggests an opposition to religion and possibly the determination to erradicate it to the fullest possible extent.

Robespierre said...

I agree with the general idea of the post,
but i think that a more honest answer would be that appeal to consequence is irrelevant.

Atheism is a set of convictions about a natural state of things - the nonexistence of gods. One supported by the lack of gods in our -admittedly limited- set of experience.

If atheism made atheists into raving, homicidal lunatics, that would still bear no relation to the actual existence of gods.