I’ve argued that for propaganda purposes, many New Atheists whitewash the social consequences of atheism, ignoring more pessimistic forms like Nietzsche’s existentialism and Lovecraft’s cosmicism. Moreover, scientific atheists lack respect for philosophy and thus have low standards of argument in nonscientific debates, including the inevitably philosophical debate between atheists and theists. These two deficits combine to produce the howler that is the New Atheist’s frequent response to the theist’s tedious rejoinder to the Problem of Evil, the rejoinder being that in the last century atheists are responsible for their own horrifying measure of evil (Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, etc). This response to the classic theistic problem of evil, that a benevolent God wouldn’t allow so much natural and human suffering and therefore doesn’t exist as defined, takes the form of the Tu quoque fallacy, amounting to the childish outburst, “Yeah? Well so are you!” The problem of evil for theists isn’t just the pragmatic one, that religion has caused much violence and is thus especially dangerous given advances in weapons of mass destruction. The heart of the problem is that exoteric definitions of God, which rely on weak metaphors, are bound to be absurd. The facts that not all evil derives from religion and that atheists too can be evil have no bearing on that problem.
But one New Atheistic response to this counter-charge is highly revealing and annoying. The response seems to originate from Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, in which he says that even were Stalin and Hitler both atheists, their atheism would have been as causally relevant to their evil as the fact that they both had moustaches. “What matters,” he says, “is not whether Hitler and Stalin were atheists, but whether atheism systematically influences people to do bad things. There is not the smallest evidence that it does” (309). And at the end of that section, Dawkins, the brilliant writer that he is, might have birthed the meme so often repeated in these discussions, that “Individual atheists may do evil things, but they don’t do evil things in the name of atheism” (315, my emphasis).
Note the difference in Sam Harris’ handling of the issue in his book, The End of Faith, in which he blames evil on faith in irrational dogmas. Either secular or religious ideologies, he says, can turn people into depraved killing machines, but this just testifies “to the dangers of not thinking critically enough” about either sort of ideology (231). Indeed, Harris avers, “Genocidal projects tend not to reflect the rationality of their perpetrators simply because there are no good reasons to kill peaceful people indiscriminately” (79). In its own way, this response is just as wrongheaded as Dawkins’.
The Path from Atheism to Evil
Return, though, to Dawkins’ declaration that there’s no evidence that atheism influences people to do bad things. The fallacy here is the assumption that the theist’s comparison of atheism and religion as full-fledged causes of evil points only to the axioms of either way of thinking. Take the Crusades, the Inquisition, or al Qaeda terrorism. Those evils don’t follow just from the most elementary religious beliefs of either faith. Just because Jesus rose from the dead, doesn’t mean Muslims should be exterminated, and just because God is Great and Muhammad was his prophet, doesn’t mean Jews and Americans should be slaughtered. You’ve got to add many implications and natural consequences of basic beliefs about God or his absence to find causes of specific acts of religious or nonreligious violence. With regard to Christianity, you have the Catholic destruction of pagan society and thus of the local rationalist tradition, as well as the literalists’ victory over the Christian Gnostics and the exploitation of the religion by the Roman Empire, and thus the elevation of the pope as an absolute power. These developments laid the groundwork for a Christian form of totalitarianism, and thus ushered in the corresponding horrors. In cases of recent Muslims’ terrorism, riots, and oppression of women, you have the rise of secular and Christian nations coupled with the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th C., and the subjugation of Muslims by dictators allied with the non-Muslim powers. Recent Islamist violence and retreat to fundamentalist certainties are obviously flailing retaliations against the humiliation of proud Muslims.
As for atheism, the connection between violence and atheism’s mere basic assumptions is particularly irrelevant, since atheism is defined negatively as the denial of theism. This hardly means that there’s no natural path, though, from atheism to ways of thinking that cause atheists to perform evil acts. The fact that atheists have diverse ways of culturally applying their rejection of theism is also of no consequence, since theism, too, manifests in a diversity of religions. What, then, is the path from atheism to evil? It’s just the Nietzschean and cosmicist path I’ve been discussing at length in this blog. From atheism follows the rejection of our more naïve wishes and delusions about perfect justice, a happy afterlife, an ultimately meaningful life, and a home for humanity in the arms of a personal cause of the physical universe. Once those delusions are done away with, the atheist faces the threats of existential angst and horror in the face of our evident predicament. (See Happiness.)
We’re merely clever mammals. Therefore, some of us are lucky to live well, others are not and they suffer horribly; some of us are selfless, others are predatory. Both nature at large and human societies in particular are only partly hospitable to what most of us would call the good life, because life evolved mindlessly from non-life and thus is guaranteed no security, and that very mindless process now involves the mutation of genes which creates a variety of body-types to survive in various environmental conditions. So nature is unfair and far from ideal, from a naïve human perspective. There’s no deus ex machina, given atheism, and we can hardly anticipate salvation from our own virtues since those are as natural as the universe that contains black holes which swallow whole galaxies and that hurled a meteor into the Earth and annihilated billions of creatures. If we’re made of stardust and not of some transcendent spirit that belongs in another realm, our history is bound to exhibit the same mysterious pattern of creativity and destruction that bespeaks the horror of our source.
To be sure, most atheists optimistically set about creating a secular society as a refuge of laws for those interested in peace and happiness. Few atheists dwell on thoughts of the Nietzschean implication of atheism, that morality is foolish without God, or of the cosmicist one that if the universe isn’t fundamentally friendly to us, we’re all horribly alienated whether we know it or not. But other implications of atheism are that the universe is likely natural and thus that the brain is crucial to our identity. If we look at a person’s brain, we find much activity of which she’s not remotely conscious, and this activity can still affect her behaviour. Thus, the path from atheism to evil needn’t follow along mere conscious lines of thought, let alone ending with the atheist’s most fundamental assumptions. An atheist doesn’t have to be thinking explicitly of atheism when she acts evilly, for atheism to be the root cause.
Take, for example, the role of individualism in modern societies. As the political philosopher John Gray argues, the idea that each individual has inherent worth may derive from the theistic principle that we each have an immaterial essence made in God’s image. (See his book, Black Mass.) At any rate, modernists put a rationalist spin on individualism, inspired by the Scientific Revolution. But the point I want to stress is that individualistic societies can develop in opposite ways, depending on whether the individuals are theists or atheists. In medieval Christian societies, an individual’s worth was attributed to the everlasting spirit’s relationship to God. Any concession to freedom of thought or action in the present life would have paled in significance to the need to ensure the spirit’s safe passage to heaven after physical death, which latter task in Europe was thought to require the regulation of earthly life by the Catholic Church. Even were there more freethinking traditions in medieval Europe (beyond heresies like Catharism), the rational calculation for theists would have been to suffer in the present life for great reward in the hereafter--and suffer most medieval Christians did, in great abundance.
Now turn to modern individualism in its purest expression, which is the New World culture of the United States. Here we find not asceticism but hedonism, libertinism, pragmatism, and what Morris Berman calls the hucksterism of the American identity, the infantile and self-destructive expectation of infinite progress in the form of material wealth, delivered by technoscience. (See Berman’s book, Why America Failed.) Americans hold their individual freedoms to be sacred, but they interpret their right to live as they personally choose without any recourse to theistic principles. That is, they calculate that it’s best to live for happiness in the here and now rather than living in anything like a Christ-like fashion, and this must be because, regardless of their politically correct lies to pollsters, they don’t actually have theistic beliefs. (See Christian Chutzpah. There are some exceptions, such as the Mennonites, but they’re vastly outnumbered by this-worldly individualists who merely pretend to be Christian theists.) What this means is that all the business-oriented evils done by Americans, such as the genocide of Native Americans, the slave trade of Africans, the mass imprisonment of African-Americans, the torture and exploitation of nonhuman animals, the export of weapons around the world, the patronage of foreign oppressive regimes, and the overuse of the world’s nonrenewable resources are attributable not just to the faith in personal liberty, but to a nontheistic version of that faith.
Or consider Hitler’s pseudo-Nietzschean spin on Darwinism. Whether Hitler was privately a Christian or an atheist is relatively unimportant. Nazism as a whole may have inherited its anti-Judaism from Christianity, but the Nazi quest for earthly power, to celebrate the strong’s triumph over the weak, is perfectly legitimate as an expression of atheism. Atheism, of course, is just the belief that there are no gods, but the reasons atheists give against theistic religions are scientific and philosophical, the greatest fruit of which is the naturalistic worldview. There are no gods because gods are supernatural, and modern knowledge is based on sense experience and reason, not on revelation, wish fulfillment, or the authority of ancient tradition. According to the positive definition of atheism, as a scientific, rationalistic, naturalistic worldview, all known living things are animals, as explained by biologists and chemists. Darwin added the evolutionary theory of biological design, which emphasized the role of death in the environment’s “selection” of viable species. Rather than in an Edenic paradise or a best of all possible worlds, life occurs under harsh conditions in which animals must struggle for survival to pass on their genes.
Nietzsche and Herbert Spencer extrapolated from Darwin’s biological theory to the social sphere, with Spencer in particular praising the virtues of unregulated economic competition as those of the most natural way of organizing society. To be sure, his inference committed what’s now called the naturalistic fallacy, but this is neither here nor there since there’s no need for the path from atheism to evil to be a logically rigorous one. Remember, according to the atheist’s naturalism, we’re just animals; therefore, reason for us isn’t necessarily sovereign. An atheist is free to be irrationally inspired by Darwinism to justify a pitiless view of the best society as one that lets nature take its course, just as the whole irrational rigmarole of exoteric theism is needed to get religious violence off the ground. (See Theism.) After all, if natural selection has the power to design the panoply of biological wonders, why not let that same power rule in the formation of societies? Why not dispense with Christian, slave morality and submit to nature, like the ancient pagans? Nazi rhetoric, about the glory of war and of the obligation to eliminate the weak, derived its emotional power from atheistic wonder at the magnificent inhumanity of natural evolution’s creativity. Once again, then, atheism is the ultimate source of Nazism. I hasten to clarify that my point isn’t that atheism and Nazism are equivalent or that all atheists should be Nazis. No, my point is just that, like hedonistic individualism, Nazism is one potent way of avoiding the angst and the horror that haunt any atheist who confronts the fact of our existential predicament which atheism does entail.
Evil “in the Name of” Atheism?
What of Dawkins’ assurance that secular dictators don’t commit their evil acts “in the name of atheism”? This is just sophistry, benefiting from the evasively negative formulation of atheism. The reason why a Christian crusader thanked Jesus as he plunged his sword into a Muslim child’s belly or why a Muslim terrorist chants his mantra that God is great as he flies a plane into a building full of civilians, is that the theistic cause of violence works by encouraging egoism in light of anthropocentric projections. Theistic evildoers are proud because they believe they’re mighty children of God, destined to spend eternity in paradise. By contrast, the atheistic cause of violence works by necessitating schemes to retain the atheist’s sanity in light of the ever-present threat of confronting atheism’s existential implications. While theists childishly bang away at their pots and pans, overjoyed that they should be so lucky to have a divinely written life manual, atheists need to conceal from themselves and from others atheism’s destructive potential. That’s one reason Nietzsche is such a controversial figure even in atheist circles: defying the convention that secular humanists can freely borrow Christian values while trashing their theological basis, he proclaimed that atheism has socially revolutionary consequences--and as if to prove his point, he even lost his sanity shortly before he died.
So of course atheistic evildoers don’t shout that they murder or plunder the environment for selfish profit in the glorious name of Atheism; atheists are at least unconsciously horrified if not consciously terrified by our existential plight, given that there are no supernatural gods, and their evil is accomplished in the name of fleeing from the truth of atheism. Postmodern, secular individualists distract themselves with material goods, to avoid contemplating the unfairness of life and our greater alienation. The Nazis devised a pantheistic religion, worshipping the champions of natural forces, the mightiest beasts who conquer the weak to achieve a sort of Taoist unity with cosmic creativity. (Similarly, current libertarians deify the free market and worship oligarchs as the freest individuals. See Liberalism and Libertarianism.) By deifying and celebrating the evolutionary forces that make life a heroic struggle, Nazi pagans likewise distracted themselves from the grimmer implication of atheism, that organisms are absurd byproducts of mindless forces and nothing more. In Nietzschean terms, Nazis sought to overcome that harsh fact by inventing an original system of values that affirms the brutal reality of natural life. But like Nietzsche himself, who outlined a substitute religion of the Übermensch, the Nazis didn’t affirm so much as flee from atheistic naturalism. (Contrast their arrogant and deluded secular religions, for example, with the more tragic one I sketch in Postmodern Religion.)
Does Rationalism Prevent Atheistic Evil?
What of Sam Harris’ diagnosis of evil as caused by irrationality? In the first place, reason can be bent to the service of evil. For example, social Darwinian economics, which encourages the despoliation of the environment and thus potentially causes the extinction of all life, consists of mathematical models, often concocted literally by rocket engineers. The greedy Wall Street bankers, who in 2008 nearly sank the globally-integrated economy, are among the smartest, most highly educated Americans. The Nazis, too, boasted plenty of scientific justifications for their eugenic exploits. Just as psychiatrists today are biased by the pharmaceutical companies, and economists by the Wall Street institutions that fund think tanks and academic programs, and many engineers by weapons manufacturers, all selling their coveted intelligence to the highest bidder, scientists in the 1930s were biased by Nazi propaganda, tilting their research for powerful positions in their social hierarchy.
This raises a second point, which is that an atheist, and thus most likely a naturalist, has no business preaching pure rationality except as a sort of fairytale for children’s bedtime stories. Harris is surely well aware of the findings in the cognitive sciences, that our powers of reason are flawed by their evolutionary roles. David Hume was closer to the truth when he intuited that reason is the slave of emotions. So even were rational evil impossible, which isn’t the case, the ideal of peace through rationality would be irrelevant to the question of whether there’s a path from atheism to evil. Given atheism, humans are largely irrational animals. As I said, then, an atheist is free to devalue reason and to celebrate instinct, as did Hume and Nietzsche. That naturalistic psychology can lead logically to the evils of laissez-faire economics, of Nazi social Darwinism, or indeed of any secular dictatorship. Of course, scientific atheists are rationalists, but they exaggerate the extent of human rationality by way of outfitting their scientistic religion with myths and propaganda. The Enlightenment idea is that Reason conquers Superstition and leads to Progress through Science and Technology. But that modern metanarrative is an exoteric article of faith for secular humanists that’s especially useful in the secular whitewash of atheism. (See Cosmicism and Pragmatism.)
Nietzschean atheists have the esoteric insight to see through secular substitutes for religion and to appreciate that atheism poses the great danger not just of causing evil but of explaining why evil is inevitable for creatures in our existential predicament. An atheist dispenses with gross fantasies about the human identity and understands that we’re thoroughly natural creatures. Thus, the atheist appreciates that, as Harris says, people will commit evil acts because we’re desperate, selfish, irrational, and otherwise often vicious beasts. But an atheist must go further than just understanding the harsh natural facts, and create a fitting set of values. Again, scientific atheists laud Reason as our salvation, but there’s no necessary connection between atheism and rationalism. All that atheism guarantees is the more likely awareness of our actual existential plight, and as I said, the atheist must then choose how to respond to that likelihood. Many New Atheists flee to a relatively peaceful, science-centered religion (Scientism), which values democracy and capitalism and thus can be complicit in the sins of materialistic individualism. Many other atheists turn to pagan authoritarianism and revel in the drama of life as a heroic struggle for power, and their irrationalism is complicit in the horrors of corrupt secular dictatorships. As I say above, I personally opt for a different set of atheistic values.
But my point is that a scientific atheist merely begs the question when she says that atheism doesn’t cause violence because atheists value reason and reason is the antidote to evil. Reason is no such antidote, but even if it were, an atheist needn’t be a rationalist. Rationalistic atheists aren’t necessarily superior to Humean or to Nietzschean ones. Indeed, all atheistic values are rather desperate schemes to avoid the existential angst and horror that flow from the full appreciation that there are no supernatural gods.
The Folly of Theism
Recently, I’ve been highly critical of certain forms of atheism. I want to close, though, with an assurance that in my view, however disappointing scientific atheism may be, little appalls me more than exoteric theism. The cowardice, gullibility, self-righteousness, and narcissism of theists are palpable and repellent. Many centuries ago, when rationalist traditions were scarcer and less spectacularly confirmed, naïve theism could be forgiven as much less grotesque and ridiculous. Today, in wealthy, educated countries, there’s no such excuse. Indeed, within the last several decades, traditional monotheistic religions have had to retreat from those places, with Christianity especially spreading to the global South, where people are poorer and less informed about scientific naturalism. Without the oppressive dictatorships in the Muslim world, which thrive on the ignorance of their populations, Islam might already have reformed, which is to say secularized, itself. With technologically-driven globalization, the Arab Spring and the great concentrations of youths in contemporary Muslim populations might still indicate an imminent emasculation of that religion.
You’d think that the shame of being so transparently retrograde would dissuade Christians and Muslims from clinging to their outdated creeds and worthless religious practices. But the Churches have responded to their growing irrelevance in Europe, East Asian democracies, and North America by spreading their outrageous bastardization of Jesus’ “gospel” to Sub-Saharan Africa (Jesus’ “good news” being actually the terrible news of Gnosticism). Dishonouring yourself with the personal weaknesses required for the more inane theistic expressions is one thing, but actually taking to the streets to protest anything on such religious grounds, publicly professing your faith by means of archaic jibber jabber, or killing in the name of your fictional god is an abominable crime against good taste, if nothing else.
As I’ve said elsewhere, Eastern religions are more mystical, philosophical, and naturalistic, and therefore less objectionable. (See Scientific and Philosophical Atheism). What’s praiseworthy about mysticism? Well, mystics are humbler than the theists who lean on anthropocentric images of the divine. Mystics are what Western philosophers call mysterians, which means they’re dubious of the potential for rationally understanding everything there is to know. Mystics stay true to the religious dread of our perilous and lowly position in the universe, an attitude that fosters the highly praiseworthy virtue of humility. Mystics have a lofty perspective on life, often detaching themselves from worldly concerns and living ascetically, demonstrating their freedom from egoistic delusions. These aspects of mysticism aren’t wholly laudatory, but at least mystics have a modicum of intellectual integrity, whereas exoteric, literalistic theists carve their minds into a thousand walled-off fragments for fear of the reckoning were they to strive harder to prove the consistency of their implicit naturalistic postmodernism and their premodern monotheism.