I recently encountered a YouTube commenter who posted: “I would never rely on the words of an atheist, no matter how much of an expert he is.”
Of course, I had to reply. “Why?” I wrote, “Is it simple religious bigotry, or your own ignorance about what it means to be an atheist? I suspect it is equal parts of both.” Yes, I fight the righteous and rational fight, even on YouTube. I am not ashamed of hovering on such sites and contributing my opinions. In this case, I feel that I exhibited just the correct amount of insolence; it was deserved, even at the risk of perpetuating the stereotype that atheists are “mean.”
That YouTube commenter confirms what we already know: there is a strange stigma attached to the word atheist. Most people seem to equate it with evil. In the popular mind, the atheist is not merely godless (also an anathema to most) but lost, perhaps pitiable, perhaps allied with forces originating from hell (a mythical place, after all).
Why Are Atheists Hated?
The majority of religious people consider believers “better” than nonbelievers. Much better. A 2011 poll by the University of British Columbia discovered that atheists are the least-trusted group in society. According to one press report, “the study found that the only group religious people distrust as much as atheists are rapists.” (On the other hand, the report continued, atheists are not similarly prejudiced: “Atheists don’t necessarily favour other atheists over Christians or anyone else. They seem to think that religion is not an important signal for who you can trust.”)
Why all this hate? I am reminded of former U.S. President George H. W. Bush, who said he doubted that atheists should be considered U.S. citizens. “This is one nation under God,” he squawked, seemingly oblivious to the Bill of Rights.
Even Sam Harris never used the word atheist in the first edition of his The End of Faith. Later printings include the word, but only in Harris’s Afterword, where he addresses antagonists who read his first printing then maligned him as a heretic who bows to no deity.
Harris generally does not speak the word in debates or presentations because he considers it meaningless. “We don’t need a word like atheist, in the same way we don’t need a word for somebody who is not an astrologer,” he declared. The word “invites a variety of misunderstandings. . . . All we need are words such as reason and evidence and common sense—and bullshit to put astrologers in their place. And so it could be with religion.” Dr. Harris believes that the label “atheist” suggests we are a “maligned and marginal and cranky interest group” and that it is a “bad strategy” to rally people under a banner of atheism.
About a decade ago, others attempted to tackle this problem by labeling us “Brights.” Richard Dawkins and Dan Dennett embraced the idea. Many other freethinkers rejected it; I know that Christopher Hitchens disliked it. How about “Pastafarian”? That label, attached to members of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, who take a lighthearted approach to religion, benefits by being cloaked in humor. It truly conjures the concept of “atheist,” or “anti-theist,” or at a minimum, “nonbeliever.” Strangely, I would rather be called a Pastafarian than an atheist. I pondered that as I embarked upon writing this article, hoping to discover why I think this way.
Freethinkers think being agnostic or atheist is a good thing: as the saying goes, we are good without God. In contrast, most religions represent artless attempts at philosophy and bad science wrapped up in superstitions: ancient guesswork bonded together by the Crazy Glue of faith. Yet religions are beloved, while atheist carries an illegitimate negative stigma. It is a stigma we should strive to annul. But how?
One of the most common–and powerful–negative characterizations of atheism argues from the examples of Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Zedong. Those evil men were atheists, and therefore atheism is evil—or so the logic goes.
This is juvenile pattern-seeking, of course—as dismal as noticing that Stalin, Hitler, and Saddam Hussein all had black mustaches and therefore black mustaches are the cause of their wickedness (an analogy memorably put forth by Richard Dawkins).
Let us examine Stalinism in particular; the same analysis can then be applied to both Chairman Mao and (may I call him this?) Mister Pot. One obvious rejoinder is that Stalin never committed his atrocities in the name of atheism. No doubt, the reader can name countless examples wherein atrocious acts of violence and murder were committed by believers solely in the name of some god. This is known as the “Hitchens Challenge” and is indeed valid reasoning, but there is much more to consider.
The system Stalin instituted was totalitarian in nature, mirroring the structure that Christian dogma perfectly defines. Stalin’s secret police conjured both the dystopia that Orwell imagined and the omniscient godhead and eternal prison at the heart of Christian doctrine. Jesus defined thoughtcrime when he proclaimed that “whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out” (Matt. 5:28–29). Your local Christian apologist will argue that Jesus spoke in metaphor, but the Jesus of the Gospels seems truly to have believed that the world would end very soon and that merely lusting after a woman would bar you from heaven, guaranteeing your relegation to, um, the second-best afterlife. (As George Carlin pointed out, “he still loves you.”)
Stalin’s biography shows how he learned to wield the tools of dictatorship. Having been inculcated from childhood with the Christian myths and belief system, young Ioseb Dzhugashvili attended Russian orthodox seminary for five years. This surely informed his worldview and probably seeded his egotistical psyche with nefarious examples of how one may gain control over weaker minds. Innumerable atheists cite just this type of inculcation as the reason they abandoned the faith. Who could blame Stalin for rejecting his Christian upbringing? Yet he seems to have learned mind-control techniques from the Bible and analogous sinister methods from Christendom itself.
Compare Stalinism to the old Catholic sociopolitical apparatus. The dictator Stalin considered himself faultless, much like the infallible pope. Moreover, the mustachioed Man of Steel was for all intents and purposes omnipotent; within his political system, Stalin was not just pope but god. Stalinism was patterned after theocracy, in truth Stalin’s own religion.
Stalin’s feared secret police resembled Orwell’s Thought Police; both are exactly analogous to the astral monarchy imposed by the god of Moses, later reinterpreted by Christianity. One hallmark affirming that Stalin’s regime was in fact both totalitarian and theocratic was its imposition of laws that cannot possibly be obeyed. Stalin may have learned this classic mind-control trick from reading his Bible. Deuteronomy 18:13 claims humans must be “perfect” and “without spot before the Lord”; the New Testament agrees. “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect,” declared Jesus (Matt. 5:48). Then there is the very notion of “sin,” consisting of nothing more than curiosity and knowledge-seeking. Our loving creator is said to have instilled these characteristics in us, then commanded us to restrain our natural urges. Impossible to obey, and thus totalitarian
. What, dear God, is sinful about seeking knowledge? As Orwell might have said, this a doubleplusgood Catch-22. Stalin’s regime was born of just such deistic and theocratic antecedents, which the dictator drew from his ancestral religion.
Lies and Censorship
Stalin’s regime is infamous for its propaganda and censorship. Much of this was prefigured by the church, which (as Stalin would surely have learned in his seminary) spent centuries hiding the Bible from Christians. Until recent centuries, church leaders typically spoon-fed their followers the few scattered “good” parts of the Bible. The absurd, the evil, and the contradictory were kept secret, often by ruthless means.
After a fair reading of the Bible, it’s difficult to blame the hierarchs. Much that the Bible contains is an embarrassment to any wise pastor or priest, and also, one would think an embarrassment to God—if he existed.
What Sunday Bible-study class would teach that Jesus harbored racism and other patently immoral beliefs? Yet he refused to heal non-Hebrews (Matt. 10 and 15) and accused others of thoughtcrimes (Matt. 5). Most Christians think that only the Old Testament condones the killing of disobedient children, unaware that Jesus does so also (Mark 7, Matt. 15). The New Testament praises genocide in Acts 13.*
Even today, the majority of Christian believers are simply unaware that they are unaware; they can read the Bible anytime they want but seldom bother. It was far worse for lay Christians in past centuries. The 1229 Council of Toulouse prohibited reading of the Bible by laity. In 1270, James I passed a law that required all people to turn in their Bibles to the bishop to be burned. The penalty for disobedience was to be declared a heretic, in those days not much different from a sentence of death.
Consider if you will the papal bull Dominici gregis custodiae, imposed upon the common laity on March 24, 1564: “translations of the New Testament . . . are allowed to no one, since little advantage, but much danger, generally arises from reading them. . . . But regulars shall neither read nor purchase such [Latin vulgate] Bibles without a special license from their superiors.”
In the sixteenth century, the church allowed a Latin “Vatablus’s Bible” to be read only by “pious and learned men.” Who could blame the snake-oil purveyors? Reading the Bible has always been dangerous for the Christian infrastructure. The daffy dogmas of the cult—its falseness, violent legacy, its absurdities—all must remain undiscovered by the flock. Stalin learned well the benefits of a policy of obscurantism enforced by brutal power. The practices of propaganda, censorship, and forgery that originated over centuries within the church were duplicated exactly by Stalin.
In sum, Stalin had learned from Christendom precisely how to control the masses. While he personally was an atheist, his reign was a religious and theocratic one. Its structure mirrored the supposed heavenly hierarchy; its practice mirrored the worst of the history of earthly Christendom. Stalin was the pope and more: he suffered from what Ernest Jones termed the “God Complex,” and he assembled his political machine according to the prototype he had learned from his youth.
Stalin’s regime killed millions, and Stalin was purportedly an atheist. But it was Christianity, not atheism, that lent his terrible regime its form and its methods. Perhaps this is why I prefer the moniker Pastafarian: Stalin was raised Christian, and later became an atheist, but not a Pastafarian. Thus, an atheist—and not a Pastafarian—was this mass-murderer.
And, if you will notice, Stalin sported a black mustache.
What’s In a Name?
So, is atheism bad because Stalin was an atheist? Stalin may have been an atheist, but Stalinism was a fascist church, a religious regime, and a theocracy—modeled explicitly on Christendom with Mr. Mustache as God. Stalin learned from religion and anticipated Orwell and his nightmarish state ministry.
These are points worth raising whenever an unctuous antagonist betrays his or her ignorance regarding the real meaning and beliefs (or lack thereof, by definition) of atheism by drawing the hackneyed parallels with Stalin, Pol Pot, or Mao. Atheists they may have been, but their reigns of totalitarian terror and subjugation were fashioned from the theocratic and not the secular.
- Cumming, John. Apocalyptic Sketches. London: Arthur Hall, Virtue & Co., 1850.
- Gavazzi, Alessandro. The Lectures Complete of Father Gavazzi, as Delivered in New York (Reported by Giovanni Battista Nicolini). New York: Dodd, 1854.
- Harris, Sam. The End of Faith. New York: Norton, 2004.
- Hitchens, Christopher. God Is Not Great. New York: Twelve, 2007.
- McClintock, John. Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1891.
- Williams, Henry Smith. Historians’ History of the World, Vol. VIII. London: Hooper and Jackson, 1909.
* I covered much of this in “Bible Bunk and Holy Horrors,” American Atheist, 1st Quarter 2012.
Michael Paulkovich’s last article, “A Tale of Two Tomes,” was published in the August/September 2012 issue of FREE INQUIRY. An engineer at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, he is also frequently published in American Atheist. He is at work on a new book titled No Meek Messiah.