The Stalin terror was an argument used against communism or socialism but now it’s atheists who are getting the blame. To an extent this is a reaction by some Christians to the recognised role of religion in modern terrorism (especially after the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the USA). Maybe its also a Christian reaction to recent atheist writings on this. I can’t help thinking, though, that the motivation behind this blame is the old religious argument that one cannot be moral without religion and a new attempt to demonise atheists.
Some of the atheist writing on the role of religion in terrorism need criticism (see my post Sources of evil?). However, I want to deal with arguments about Stalin and Mao Zedong here because, though inappropriate, these arguments are getting some traction.
In a sense, the crimes of Stalin, Mao and the Christian Inquisition are problems for all of us.
Firstly, these questions should rightly be addressed to communists or Marxists because the crimes of Stalin and speech at its 1956 Congress. Discussion became more analytical during the 1980s with articles and debate in Soviet newspapers dealing with the responsibility of aspects of ’sMarxist and Leninist ideology for the Stalin terror, his personality cult and other problems of Soviet society. This preceded the loss of power by communists in the countries of the former USSR.occurred in regimes under their ideological and political rule. The Soviet Communist Party did confront some of these issues with
Unfortunately, the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese people are yet to have this discussion.
Secondly, part of the argument involves manipulation of numbers. The numbers of victims of communism are inflated by including deaths through famine and social disruption together with the direct victims of the terror – those arrested, imprisoned and killed directly. The numbers of victims of religious violence are usually restricted to the direct victims. We thus get figures of around 20 million victims of Stalin and 75 million victims of Mao, while quoting numbers in the thousands for victims of the inquisition, for example.
Persecution of heretics
Thirdly, there is a tendency to imply that the victims of Stalin and Mao were religious – that they were persecuted by atheists for their beliefs. Of course religious organisations did have a difficult position in these regimes (after all, the Russian Orthodox Church was on the wrong side in the revolution) and there were many religious leaders among the victims. However, consider that during the height of the Stalin terror about one half of the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee were eliminated. Presumably this was reflected in persecution of ordinary members of the party. Communists may well have been the largest proportion of those directly persecuted and killed in this period. Similarly, communists were probably the largest proportion of those directly victimised and killed during Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” in China. This is understandable considering the internal political conflicts within these communist parties and the paranoia of their leaders and the times.
I suggest that a similar situation existed during the Christian Inquisition – most of the victims were Christian “heretics,” rather than atheists. Actually, the more I read about the Stalin terror and the Christian Inquisition the more similar they seem.
So, at one level responsibility lies with the specific ideology. Communists must examine their own ideology to find reasons for the inhumanities committed in their name. Similarly Christians must do the same for the inquisition and Muslims for Islamic jihads and terror. Religious ideologists should also look for the causes of other inhumanities such as indoctrination of children, homophobia, genital mutilation, interference in scientific endeavor, and so on.
Responsibility of the species
But at another level we should recognise that these are problems for our species, not just one or another ideological group. Why is it that we so strongly and so dangerously adhere to ideology? Why are we so prone to extremism? And why is it that even good people, people who are not pathologically abnormal, can commit evil acts and atrocities. This is true for theists and non-theists alike.
After all, the atrocities of the inquisition, the Stalin terror and the Maoist “Cultural Revolution” were not all committed by the political and ideological leaders or even just their organisations. They were also committed by the ordinary men and women caught up in the system and the hysteria of the times. This didn’t necessarily require the appropriate ideological commitment. For example, often petty jealousies or personal ambition were enough for individuals to participate in the Stalinist denunciations. Given the reality of political and personal power at the time (the Soviet Communist Party was the only legal political organisation) I expect that many religious people were participants in the political structure and participated in the Stalin terror.
As a species we evolved to survive and reproduce – not to be the ideal creatures that some would like. So it’s not surprising that violence and the capability of committing evil is part of human nature. Andy Thomson discussed this in his presentation on Suicide Terrorism (“We Few, We Happy Few, We Band of Brothers.”) at the AAI Convention. (see videos below). Research carried out by (Stanford Prison Experiments and see also his book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil), (electrical shock experiments) and (conformity experiments) showed that even ordinary moral people can commit inhuman acts given the appropriate conditions (demonisation and dehumanisation of opponents, creating a “them” and “us” mentality, ideological or religious justification, etc.).
A personal morality
But the human species is a product of history and social evolution as well as biological evolution. This has produce positive ethical and moral qualities as well as leaving us with our violent characteristics. Consequently it is possible for humanity to control and rise above these negative and dangerous aspects of our nature. This is the positive message coming out of the research.
Zimbardo, for example, describes positive moral examples of whistle blowers, of people prepared to stand against the ideological and conformational pressures surrounding them. People who end up being heroes. A recent film about an agent in the East German Stasi (The Lives of Others) shows how individuals can exert their own positive morality at times when the group or social morality becomes inhuman. This requires people to think for themselves, to assess social and political ideas critically, and be prepared to stand up against even their own social and ideological groups when things go wrong.
We probably all agree that such an individual position is laudable. But doesn’t such an individual stand require critical thinking and reason? Isn’t blind faith more likely to make us go along with irrational and inhumane actions of our group – whether it is a political party or a religion?
Andy Thomson on Suicide Terrorism: Part 1 (24 min)
Andy Thomson on Suicide Terrorism: Part 2 (28 min)
Andy Thomson on Suicide Terrorism: Part 3 (25 min)
From faith to reason
Sources of evil?
Morals, values and the limits of science
Society’s ” Christian values”
Religious diversity includes “non-believers”
Destiny of Christian privilege?
Common values, common action?
Special rights for religion?
Family planning and the inhumanity of religion
Is religion the source of morality?
Religion and violence