Atheism, some believers say, is responsible for the atrocities committed by communist regimes like those of Stalin and Mao.
But the wording in this claim gives the game away: communism is not atheism.
Before I discuss this any further, let me define atheism, since many theists see it as far more than it really is.
Atheism is the belief that no gods exist.
That is all it is.
To get from this belief to anything else, you need to bring additional beliefs to the table. For instance, to believe that religion should be eradicated, you must first harbor the belief that religion is harmful, either to its participants or to yourself (and your ambitions). You must also harbor the belief that you have a say in what other people choose to believe.
Neither of these two latter beliefs follows inexorably from the belief that no gods exist.
In fact, it’s perfectly logical to believe that no gods exist, but that religion is a positive cultural phenomenon that benefits its practitioners (a position that I personally hold to be at least partially true). It is also logical to believe that no gods exist but that every person has a right to choose her own beliefs (a position I wholeheartedly endorse).
Conversely, it is perfectly logical to believe in gods, yet to regard much of traditional religious practice as irrelevant or even harmful. Some Christians I’ve spoken to believe this very thing.
Sadly, Karl Marx, one of the founding fathers of communism, took the negative stance. He believed that all religion was a detriment to society because it blinded people to reality and prevented them from fulfilling their true potential. Both Marx and his ideological successor, Vladimir Lenin, therefore believed that the eradication of religion would be in the best interests of the people. It is sad indeed that this concern for the well-being of the people was trampled on so violently by later communist leaders.
There are, however, a large number of well known atheists who have not taken the route of Marx and Lenin.
Indeed, many (most) communists haven’t taken the route of Marx and Lenin. One of the most famous in my world is Joe Slovo, who was a member of the South African Communist Party during the last years of apartheid. Slovo had no desire to go on a rampage against religion. His aim was to bring an end to his country’s oppressive, racist regime, and he is a hero among South Africans today because of his efforts.
Atheist leaders also include those of several European countries, all of which respect religious freedom, and many of which are among the happiest nations in the world. (Unsurprisingly, those Christians who bring up the communist examples of atheism always fail to mention the successes of modern Europe.)
Is it fair, then, to put blame on atheism for the actions of tyrants like Stalin and Mao?
To answer this final question, I’ll ask if it’s fair to blame the polar opposite of atheism, namely the belief in gods, for religious wars like the Crusades.
My answer would be absolutely not.
There is nothing inherent in the belief in gods that leads directly to violence. Instead, religious violence arises due to combative ideas that are added to the basic belief.
In the same way, then, there is nothing inherent in atheism – in the belief that no gods exist – that leads directly to violence. For violence to arise, violent ideas need to be added to atheism, ideas like those of Marx and certain of his communist successors.
So, let’s be fair and blame the proper ideology, namely Marxism-Leninism, for the atrocities of communism. Indeed, to get to Stalin’s gulags, you need even more beliefs added to communism, for instance the belief that it’s OK to work prisoners to death.
None of this can be reached from the simple premise of atheism alone.