Only the Most Fashionable Myths Allowed

greekgoddessFailing to make a case that religion is bad for people in the present, the New Atheists often turn to (their version of) history. Atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell does the same:

You find this curious fact, that the more intense has been the religion of any period and the more profound has been the dogmatic belief, the greater has been the cruelty and the worse has been the state of affairs.

The mention of this complete falsehood makes it all but required that theists point out the mass slaughter committed by officially atheist governments. Richard Dawkins, however, waves the atrocities of Communism off as “old hat” (apparently much “older” than the Crusades, which he cites against religion).

Others try to claim that the gulags were “a breakdown in rationality”, which is not nearly so true as they think. The Communists were being rational, assuming one grants the lack of a God and the absolute power of the state. But, even if one accepts the “breakdown of rationality” theory, all this shows is that secularism does not automatically encourage rationality (which directly contradicts the New Atheist platform).

There are still others (such as Christopher Hitchens) who claim that these governments were religions unto themselves. But, if one can call Stalin’s governing religious, one can certainly call the New Atheist movement a religion in the same sense.

And, of course, Russell has conspicuously overlooked the Reign of Terror in his own warped version of history.

In fact, the idea that periods of great belief in God were somehow particularly cruel rests much more heavily on the Enlightenment era propaganda that helped to fuel the Reign of Terror than actual historical fact. The idea that the peoples of the middle ages, for instance, were simply barbaric makes for excellent movies, but doesn’t reflect reality.

By my reading, the historian finds the New Atheists as exasperating as the theologian and the philosopher. Once one understands more than the glib caricatures popular culture gives to various historical periods, it becomes obvious that their view is a secular myth, rather than reality.

The New Atheists’ version of history, then, affirms their beliefs, but doesn’t fit the facts. For a group that is constantly (and wrongly) accusing others of venerating myths, this is a deep problem with their platform.

13 responses to “Only the Most Fashionable Myths Allowed

  • Chris

    I think the point Dawkins was trying to make is that yes, Stalin was an atheist, but he didn’t do what he did in the name of atheism. I think it’s an important distinction. If you have a look at the way his dictatorship and government was set up, it kind of sort of reminds one of Orwell’s totalitarian Big Brother in 1984, or to a greater extent, North Korea, in that the government becomes the church and the head of state becomes god as a means to totally dominate every aspect of life for it’s people, so I’m in agreeance with Hitchens there.

    And I would agree with you that being secular, or atheist, does not mean necessarily that you came to those conclusions or others via rationality. I consider myself a skeptic first, which, I think, has paved the way to my atheism, not the other way ’round.

    While I do enjoy very much the debates and writings featuring the so-called 4 horsemen of “New Atheism” (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris), I don’t think they posses of all the answers and I don’t always agree with them or their methods. They are just as fallible as you or I and to put them on some sort of pedestal is hypocritical.

    Good post.

    • Debilis

      Yes, I’d agree that it is important to note that whether or not a thing is done in the name of atheism (though Stalin’s crucifying monks and nuns makes Dawkins’ claim a bit dubious).

      I can definitely agree with much of what you say, though. In fact, if I argue with Dawkins and Hitchens over this point, it is less to do with any attempt to avoid blame for acts committed by past atheists (that seems very reasonable) and more to do with their tendency to blame all religion for the acts committed by a tiny minority of religious people. I (and I suspect many others) would be more than happy to drop Communism from the discussion if they would be careful not to tar the religious with such a broad brush.

      That said, thanks for the interesting response, and best to you in general.

    • jmrgrs9

      Karl Marx fits in here somewhere, right? To isolate Stalin is to be oblivious to the archetype of the whole scheme. And Marxism and atheism are inseparably conjoined from the womb.

      • Debilis

        I suppose I should have mentioned him.

        There’s definitely an argument to be made that atheism cannot be disconnected from moral nihilism. That is one more reason why I find the accusations of immorality coming from the New Atheists so strange.

      • Chris

        Wow, Marx, really? Atheism deals with one question and one question only-Do I believe in a god? That’s it. Wherever you let the label take you from there isn’t indicative of the label as a whole. While I agree that there are Marxists atheists and atheists who do subscribe to moral nihilism, to use words similar to your own, Debilis, I’d be careful not to tar atheists with such a broad brush. You cannot hope to show that atheism necessarily leads to moral nihilism or Marxism, so I’m not even sure why the both of you are acting like they are mutually exclusive. In my opinion, it’s common sense to minimize harm to fellow humans as much as practically possible, however, that moral outlook has zero to do with atheism. It seems as though you, Debilis, are doing the exact same thing you accuse atheists of.

        Further, when speaking of the New Atheists as you call them, I can’t think of one instance where any of them advocated Marx or moral nihilism. Hitchens admits he used to be a Marxist, changed his mind later. And the point is that it wouldn’t matter if any of them did, because atheism is only the answer to one question…lol

        • katachriston

          I would agree that it “cannot be shown that atheism necessarily leads to moral nihilism”. It’s only a logical inference, IMO. Just employing reason, that’s all.
          Plus I think this order CAN be demonstrated historically and empirically: The foundation of atheism may not be Marxism, but the foundation of Marxism certainly IS atheism. It has to be or the whole concept of Marxism falls away. There IS no god, so the state must fill the void, make things “fair”.
          Only three options available in terms of socio-political order: Anarchy, the state or God.
          Again, Marx is the archetypical pattern of atheism applied to the state.
          But with this I think we’re stepping just a bit afield from the central point of the debate. It’s not about politics, but how to think about all things including politics.

        • Chris

          kata, put that way, I agree. I thought you were implying that atheism leads to Marxism. As far as moral nihilism is concerned, I don’t think that it can be justified using reason and logic. Is it an idea that some atheists have? Sure, I just don’t think it can be rationalized based on the simple fact that we are social creatures and decisions that we make more often than not have an effect on someone else in some way and because we’d mostly not like harm to come our way, it would be unwise for us to act or make decisions in such a way that would purposefully hurt someone else. Obviously, this is just my opinion and the basis on which I try to live, so I suppose you can take that with a grain of salt.

        • Debilis

          If you look over my comments, you’ll find that there is no place where I claim that the New Atheists support Marxism.

          But, yes, I do say that an argument can be made that atheism leads to moral nihilism. I’m aware that many disagree with this, but their disagreeing is not a refutation of that argument.

          I’m also aware that most atheists are very nice people, but, again, this is irrelevant. The point wasn’t about how atheists behave; they may not have followed the logic from atheism to its conclusion, or, if they have, may have realized that being a moral nihilist and being a nice person are not mutually exclusive.

          Either way, the only “tarring” I did was to point out that the idea that religion is somehow a great cause of evil is a myth (and that promoting it while claiming to follow the evidence is hypocritical).

          You’re free to disagree with my claims, but I have no idea where you got the idea that I was making some of the claims you’re arguing against.

  • gnatseyeview

    I share your concern about New Atheism–even as a non-theist. They seem at times to have the same level of hostility and anger as the very fundamentalists they oppose. This strong bias makes one wonder if they are capable of discussing the topic in an objective way, or to present information that is not slanted to support their own view.

    • Chris

      I think the hostility and anger are justified to a point. One only has to look to the Muslim world for a seemingly endless list of civil and basic human rights violations, among other things-add that to all the things we’re hearing from out of the Catholic church, and yeah, I think it’s OK to be outraged by it all. But as Debilis pointed out in his response to me above, some of the people in the NA movement are quick to lump all religions and religious people together, into one big pile of evil, which I think is dishonest. Evil people are going to do evil things and good people are going to do good things. I do not, however, as Hitchens would say, think that it *only* takes religion for good people to do evil things.

      • gnatseyeview

        Yes, there is much to be angry at. My point is that the discussions about theism are often so cloaked in rage from one group or another that people become more entrenched in their positions rather than engaging in a meaningful exchange.

  • Chris

    Deb, no I know you weren’t arguing for Marxism…lol I was sort of responding to both you and kata at the same time…my apologies for the confusion.

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