In a recent discussion, Arizona Atheist pointed me to one Dr. David Aikman, a Christian author and Russian history expert. Dr. Aikman has written probably the most extensive case why atheism is to be blamed for all the nasty deeds of the 20th century’s murderous dictators. Since I’ve never come across any such expert during my Russia studies – or the years after – I was eager to read what Dr. Aikman had to say.
I was not impressed. In fact, I think Dr. Aikman is purposely misleading. Incensed at his (ab)use of history for apologetic ends, I’ve decided to write and let him know exactly why his case is so bad, if not fraudulent. And because my posts on the topic of atheism, communism and the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century remain the most popular by far here, I’m posting my letter below for all to read.
Dear Dr. Aikman,
Because I have a background in Russian studies (Master of Arts, Georgetown University, 1996) and have written on the alleged link between atheism and the atrocities committed by the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, your work has been pointed out to me as establishing such a link. During my studies at Georgetown, the notion that atheism was the basis of it all was never brought up, even within the scholarly literature, like Hannah Arendt’s classic, Totalitarianism, and I only encountered it from Christians such as yourself some years later. But unlike your theological counterparts, you have the distinction as someone who has a scholarly background in the field of Russian studies, so I was very interested in your arguments. Though I know you’re a committed Christian, which would certainly color your writings, I expected a respectable treatment of the question.
The only place I can find where you lay out your arguments in some depth is in your book The Delusion of Disbelief, particularly the chapter entitled, “The Problem of Wicked Atheists: Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot”. After reading it, I was so disappointed that I can only ponder your credentials as a scholar. It seems to me, Dr. Aikman, that your work is simply a continuation of that hoary age-old Christian known as pious fraud.
While your arguments may contain a facade of credibility to the layman, to one with any degree of knowledge of Russian history and communist ideology, it’s abundantly clear it is nothing more than a Potemkin Village. Specifically, you cherry-pick bit and pieces of history to build your case, ignoring vast other swathes of evidence which fatally weaken it. It can be readily debunked by pointing out a few arguments and facts which you conveniently leave out. While such is to be expected from someone who possesses only the barest knowledge of Russian history, like Dinesh D’Souza, it simply boggles the mind that you, as a purported expert in this subject, would pass this effort off as a serious treatment.
Your key error is to conflate irreligious sentiment and atheism. Indeed, this is a linkage that undergirds your entire chapter. “[T]he greatest totalitarian evils, communism and Nazism, both grew out of a sustained philosophical rebellion against religious faith-in essence, atheism.” (pg. 101) This is ridiculous. As you acknowledge, even deists were irreligious. And while you-falsely–attempt to portray the Reign of Terror as aimed chiefly at believers, you fail to inform the reader that its chief instigator was a committed deist, Maximillian Robespierre. Whenever a communist or Nazi says something bad about religion, you reflexively categorize it as an atheist sentiment (e.g., p. 109). By that logic, Thomas Jefferson was an atheist for observing that, “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.”
In support of this canard, you do what many other Christians do: focus on the persecution of believers. For shame! You know full well that believers were but a subset of the entire category of the murdered and oppressed. The civil war? The Ukrainian famine? The purges? Collectivization? Is your memory beginning to recollect now, Dr. Aikman? Or were these merely irrelevant sideshows? Atheists killing other atheists; rather difficult to explain under your narrative of atheism=irreligion.
Emblematic of your myopia is your kid-gloves treatment of the Russian Orthodox Church, which you portray as some innocent whipping boy of the Bolsheviks. Again, the full truth is inconvenient to your tale. You’re undoubtedly aware that the Church was a practical subsidiary of the tsars, supporting the regime in its every reaction against modernity. And then there is the little matter of the Church’s support for the Whites during the Russian civil war (1917-1921). A little relevant to the Bolshevik’s animosity toward the Church, don’t you think? Apparently not, for you baldly state “Lenin would not let up on religion, even when it was quite obvious that religious opposition in no way posed any kind of threat to his regime.” (emphasis mine) Perhaps it’s time to re-take Russian History 101.
Your treatment of the origins of Marxian communism suffers from the same amnesia. It stuns me that you, an expert on Marxism, spare nary a word on the central organizing idea behind communism: the elimination of private property. As Engels wrote, “In fact, the abolition of private property is, doubtless, the shortest and most significant way to characterize the revolution in the whole social order which has been made necessary by the development of industry – and for this reason it is rightly advanced by communists as their main demand.” Actually, once we begin to uncover the basis of this “main demand,” the mystery of your amnesia is revealed. Remember Pierre-Joseph Proudhon? He’s the guy who wrote What is Property?, a tremendously influential work not just on Marx and Engels but on the whole communist movement. You don’t discuss him in your chapter, and for good reason, for his belief that “property is theft” comes from a familiar source. As he wrote, “My real masters, those who have caused fertile ideas to spring up in my mind, are three in number: first, the Bible; next, Adam Smith; and last, Hegel.” (emphasis mine)
Many of the world’s most renowned political theorists, economists, and philosophers-even our own Founding Fathers–have remarked on the indelible link between private property and freedom. To completely ignore the topic in any discussion on totalitarian tyranny strongly suggests you disagree with their sentiments, like the one expressed by John Adams, who said,
The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If ‘Thou shalt not covet” and ‘Thou shalt not steal’ were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society before it can be civilized or made free.
Who is right? Proudhon or Adams? Never mind; we need not know the answer. Agreeing with either fatally destroys your case.
If there remains a doubt in anyone’s mind how foolish your case actually is, allow me to erase it with one final quote (pg. 114): “The Soviet experience thoroughly demonstrates that if God is eliminated from public life, a much worse deity inevitably is erected in his [sic] place.” What is this “worse deity” you speak of in Sweden? Japan? Denmark? Perhaps this is true on whatever planet you inhabit, but on planet Earth, reality is far different.
Dr. Aikman, your case is built on a tendentious recollection of history, one made worse by the fact it was purposely done, in full awareness of facts which contradict your argument. That objective scholars have never supported your view is a glaring silence you must address. “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” Dr. Aikman. It seems there are some things you need remind yourself beyond just history.