Monthly Archives: February 2009

Christian apologist and historian David Aikman, debunked

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.

On the variance of suffering

The problem of evil (PoE) is one of the thorniest for believers in an omnipotent, all-loving god, like the Christian god.  As one Christian philosopher, Dr. James Sennett put it, “I tell my philosophy of religion students that, if they are Christians and the problem of evil does not keep them up at night, then they don’t understand it.”  It’s confounded the faith of many, like New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, turning them from committed believers into agnostics, deists, and atheists.  I think the only Christian theology that has solved the problem of evil is Calvinism, but it does so at the cost of turning God into a monster (or even more of a monster, depending on your perspective).

I’m not going to rehash all the challenges to faith presented by the PoE, but to discuss one that, for me personally, has always been the biggest obstacle to believing in God.  That obstacle is how evil affects everyone not equally, but in vastly different ways.  Traditional theological explanations for this make even less sense than attempts to resolve the PoE as a whole.  And before someone trots out the traditional objection that I, as an atheist, possess no objective standard for determining good or evil, I’ll point out that this is an internal theological problem, and not one for those who believe in naturalism.

As the cliché goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, so here’s one that frames my point.  This is Dede Kosawa, aka “the Treeman,” an individual who’s afflicted with a perfect storm of disabilities and diseases which produce the condition you see in the photo.  As far as afflictions go, Kosawa’s is not the worst ever experienced by a human, but it’s probably among the most visually striking.  In times past, Kosawa would likely have quickly succumbed to his condition or been destroyed without a moment’s hesitation by superstitious neighbors.  He is fortunate-if you can call him that-in living in an age when there is widespread awareness of the natural causes of such afflictions, so he’s been able to eke out a living as a carnival freak and the charity of his family.   Still, it is indisputable that the quality of Kosawa’s life is vastly lower than the norm.  No one in their right mind would willingly switch places with him.  I even doubt that most would be ok with it as a form of punishment for the most reprobate among us.

Theists come up with some of the looniest rationalizations to explain the suffering of individuals like Kosawa.  Some say, for example, that God uses it to draw people to himself.  Well, are some, like Kosawa, so exceptionally resistant that they need particularly harsh suffering to achieve this result?  What about children who yet lack the mental development to fully appreciate the wonderful gift of suffering that God has bestowed on them?  Of course, this all presumes that the poor individual is sufficiently cognizant of the theological game plan that’s behind their suffering in the first place.  And if becoming closer to God is the natural consequence of suffering, why don’t theists everywhere regularly seek to increase it for themselves?

Another rationalization offered by theists, the only one that really gets to the heart of my objection, is that personal suffering is meant to bring others to God.  If this is so, then it’s exploitation in the most awful sense.  To be used against one’s will for the benefit of others is a notion that theists normally reject in every other instance.  It also demonstrates a callous disregard for life, one that theists further rationalize by citing the alleged inherent depravity of man and his justifiable annihilation.  In other words, suffering is our fault, something we simply deserve.

I suppose non-believers should be grateful that most theists hold a different morality than the one shown by their gods.  The bizarre thing is how they’re commanded to alleviate suffering, even as they justify its utility.

The theistic moral dilemma

A criticism atheists often hear is that nothing in the belief says why we should act good.  The criticism is easily dismissed by merely noting that atheism doesn’t pretend to offer a system of morality. For that, one needs to rely on other belief systems, such as Humanism or Confucianism, our social instincts, and reason.

But the criticism got me thinking about moral instruction from the standpoint theistic faith, which maintains that such instruction comes from an all good, perfectly moral being.  But this seems to raise a dilemma for the believer.  With apologies to Plato…

Does the theist do good because he sees the inherent value in it, or because he is commanded to?

The answer is implied by their criticism of atheism: they do good because they’re commanded to.  Loving one’s neighbor, it turns out, is simply the love of one who’s following orders, which makes you wonder just how sincere or deep that love is.  When closely examined, however, the implications of this moral system become far more disquieting.  Take a real life example, that of the woman who murdered her children in 2003, claiming that God told her to.  What, in theism, condemns her act?  Nothing at all.  In fact, she should be exalted and praised for obeying the Lord in spite of the heavy cost she bore.  That she wasn’t hailed as a saint by believers indicates that they’re appealing to a morality outside their theology.  If they concede that, then they must concede non-believers can as well, and their objection fails.

Some random thoughts on sin

As I mentioned earlier last month, I’ve begun to wonder about sin.  No, sorry, not in the sense that I need to be “saved” from it, but as a natural sociological phenomenon.  Why was it invented?  What has it endured?  What is so useful about in the religious context?

I’ve tried with little success to do some research on the topic, but either sociologists and anthropologists have basically ignored it, or I’m looking in the wrong places.  I don’t know.  Perhaps it’s simply too broad a concept to make any definite sense out of.  Or too taboo.  Maybe Daniel Dennett, who’s written on the natural origins of religion, has a few ideas, but here are a couple of my own.  I apologize if they come out in a scattershot manner. 

We know a lot about how sin is understood by believers, at least, because it’s one of their favorite subjects. As a general matter, most describe sin as some kind of act which violates the edicts of a moral lawgiver.  But not all religions recognize the existence of sin, and the ones that do obviously do not agree on precise categorizations.  Most maintain that sin produces negative consequences, though they acknowledge there is no immediate cause-and-effect.  The best that can be expected is that sinners will one day get their just desserts, which appeals to our common notions of justice.

What I’ve found difficult understanding is why sin was invented.  If anyone has an article, link, or book recommendation which sheds light on this question, please share!  In the meantime, I’ve come up with my own theory.

It seems to me that sin is one of our ways for trying to make sense of calamity that befalls us, individually or collectively.  One sees this theme repeatedly in the Jewish Tanakh, for example, where sin is invoked as the cause for the ever-recurring troubles experienced by the Jewish people, believed to actually be punishments from their god.   The roots of viewing calamity as a consequence of wrong-doing are found, I think, in the concept of retribution – the return of harm to those who’ve harmed us.  When ancient peoples met disaster in some manner, they did not have the benefit of modern knowledge to help them understand its true causes, though that didn’t stop them from seeking to understand why nonetheless.  Their attempts followed instincts that evolution has bred within us, e.g., the well-known tendency to anthropomorphize forces of unknown origin.  Since humans seek revenge when they’ve been wronged, these anthropomorphized forces did the same.

One benefit to viewing calamity in this way is that it gives the afflicted a sense that amends can be made, that normalcy can be restored.  This thought struck me as I was watching a documentary on the devastating 14th century black plague, during which groups of devout believers, called “Flagellants”, whipped themselves raw in a vain attempt to “atone” for the sins that they believed provoked God to cause it.  The Indians of the south and central American continents took this idea a bit further by sacrificing all manner of living things, including humans, as a way to pre-empt calamity and ensure the continued favor of the gods.  Even though such measures obviously have no impact on the vagaries of nature, the mere fact that “something is being done” could have a beneficial palliative effect and can help a people endure calamity by giving them hope.

So that’s my theory on the origins of sin, for what it’s worth 🙂  It doesn’t explain why certain behaviors or practices were ever categorized as sins in the first place.  Some obviously have a utilitarian purpose.  For example, prohibitions against murder and theft (at least against your own people) tend to promote healthier societies.  But what’s the point in prohibiting things like the blending of specific fabrics in clothing (Lev. 19:19)?  I’ve read such sins relate to purity, though this simply raises another question: why is it considered impure, when eating different foods at once is not?

I read somewhere that esoteric prohibitions like this strengthen a community by signaling commitment.  If you’re willing to abide by the community’s costliest laws, this shows you’re vested in it and can be “trusted,” enhancing cooperation.  Plausible I guess, but again, it doesn’t explain why some things become a sin while others don’t.  Perhaps such a question is beside the point.

Another unresolved issue is how sin became so intertwined with religion.  Perhaps it’s because, as my theory suggests, the concept of sin emerged alongside the concept of gods.  In any case, religion and sin I think are in a symbiotic relationship, like co-dependent memes.  Christianity, it seems to me, has been particularly effective at exploiting the relationship, where sin’s reach attained such profound lengths that it infused our very selves from the moment of existence.  Incidentally, a monopoly on absolving sin didn’t exactly impede the growth of the Christian church, nor hinder its political power.

Today, sin seems to have lost much of its potency as a fuel for religion.  Perhaps it’s because what constitutes sin has become so muddled, coupled with the fact that we possess a far better understanding about the nature of our existence than we did millennia ago.  It seems that sin is returning full circle to what it was understood originally as: “missing the mark.”

In what image?

Yesterday was the bicentennial anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth.  Darwin, as you know, was the author of a satanic religion intended to lead people astray from God.  Or at least that’s what many believers claim.  *snicker*

Though I think they’re bat-shit crazy, I actually sympathize with these folks.  Darwin’s theory of evolution completely upends (fatally, in my opinion) many of their core beliefs.  Easier, by far, to simply deny evolution than to go through the mental gymnastics necessary to reconcile the theory and their theology.

Fortunately for the human race, there are a number of believers who have made the leap.  It’s fascinating to me to read how they do it.  A recent article which explores just that was published by The New Republic titled, Seeing and Believing: The Never-Ending Attempt to Reconcile Science and Religion, and Why It Is Doomed to Fail.  It examines a couple books by theistic evolutionists that seek to bridge the divide between evolution and traditional religious doctrines.  The author of the article is a scientist who happens to be an atheist too, Jeffrey Coyne.

Dr. Coyne does a great job of undercutting the arguments of the theistic evolutionists (at least one of whom has responded).  But one thing I’ve never seen a theistic evolutionist address is an observation I read some time ago by conservative writer and columnist John Derbyshire.  He wondered, if evolution is true and we’re made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), then what image would that be?  Humans have not always looked like we do today.  At one point, we had a lot more hair, among other things.  Nor is our present image likely to be the same one thousands or even millions of years hence.

I suppose for the theistic evolutionists who’ve allegorized pretty much all of Genesis, allegorizing “image” too shouldn’t be a problem.  “Image” could be beauty, truth, knowledge, love, etc. Though why “image” couldn’t just as well mean hatred, ignorance, prejudice, jealously, etc., too should probably be explained.  I’d imagine, however, for the lay believer that an amorphous, formless God is not the kind of god they’d worship, much less accept.  We prefer our deities like we prefer our neighbors – pretty much like us.

Why do Christians want to save America?

One of the perennial laments of today’s Christians, particularly those on the right, is the decline of society.  Secular liberals, they say, are whitewashing America’s Christian heritage, taking God out of schools, and imbuing children with moral relativist values.  The results are inevitable: violence, drug use, abortion, failed families, and tolerance.  And when I say inevitable, I mean it.  Many Christians believe this was all foreseen in the Bible.

Now you’d think that Christians would be absolutely delighted to see the world fall apart.  Not only would that confirm what they’ve been saying about man’s inherent depravity, but it heralds the last days before Jesus’s return to restore Truth, Justice, and Apple Pie.  Or something like that.  Hallelujah, right?

Not so fast!  Christians aren’t pleased.  In fact, they’re downright indignant that this “Christian nation” has turned its back on God.  And, by gum, they’re not standing for it.  From scrapping evolution to banning gay marriage, Christians today are fighting to restore Christian values back to the centerpiece of public life. 

Well, pardon me for asking, but why?  Even if you do accomplish all that you seek to do, what’s the intended result?  A postponement of Armageddon?  Jesus didn’t say, “If you’re really, really good, maybe I’ll show back up.”  No!  He said, “Things are going to get really bad, and THEN (and only then) will I make an encore appearance.”

Look guys, face the music, the world is lost.  It’s done for.  It has a one way ticket to oblivion.  The only unknown is the timing, which you have absolutely no control over (God’s Plan, remember?).  Might I suggest simply hunkering down?  You know, try that whole “in the world, but not of it” tactic you say you follow.  What’s the point in forcing others to adhere to God’s law?  Preach the Gospel, and move on already.  It seems you have enough of a hard time following your own rules for you to be worrying about what everyone else is doing.

The incoherency of the anti-atheists

I have a good time debating theists on the subject of communism, the Soviet Union, and atheism.  As regular visitors know, it’s a subject I have a formal background in, and have written about on this blog.  Anti-atheists try to pin the atrocities committed by communist regimes on atheism, but I’ve demonstrated why that view is not in evidence, and they search in vain for an expert to support it.  Their argument deflated, these anti-atheists try to resuscitate it with more bad argument and wholly ignorant and risible assertions.  Case in point: Michael Eden of the “Start Thinking Right” blog.

Michael’s outlook is garden-variety fundamentalist Christian. With a background in divinity and philosophical theology, he’s better educated than the average Christian, but he exhibits the same immunity from evidence and reasoned thinking all too many of his fellow theists share.  His hostility toward evolutionary theory exemplifies this tendency. 

In a recent discussion on communism and atheism, Michael repeated the same canards we’ve come to expect from his type.  When challenged to provide to cite scholars who support his view, Michael noted some Soviet dissidents like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a Romanian evangelical Christian, and Rudolph Rummel.  I was particularly grateful for the latter reference, with whom I’m already acquainted.  Rummel is an actual scholar of totalitarianism, with a Ph.D. in Political Science (Northwestern University, 1963), and who writes on the deadly nexus of government and excessive power.  Michael, who erroneously conflates communism with atheism, is unfortunately not as familiar with Rummel as I, for here is what he had to say specifically on the subject on atheism’s role in the last century’s murderous regimes:

Q: Is atheism the principal factor in democide, such as that committed by the “Big Three,” Stalin, Mao, and Hitler?

A: No. I find that religion or its lack – atheism – have hardly anything to do in general with wide-scale democide. The most important factor is totalitarian power. Whether a church, atheists, or agnostics have that power is incidental – it is having the power that is a condition of democide. Incidentally, some ideologies, such as communism, function psychologically and sociologically as though a religion. The only distinction is whether the subject is a god or a man, such as Marx, Lenin, Hirohito, Hitler, Mohammed, Kim Ill sung, Mao, etc.

For further reinforcement, I pointed out that Hannah Arendt, one of the most widely recognized experts on totalitarianism, mentions not a word about atheism in her seminole work, The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Decisively refuted in this way, reasonable individuals usually react by modifying their views, or at least become a tad skeptical.  But most theists, in my experience, are not reasonable individuals.  Michael’s response to the scholarly citations is instructive of their mindset.  He wrote,

The fact that someone like Robert is able to find atheists and communists (or post-Marxist, or whatever these fools are calling themselves these days) – whether “scholars” or not – to say that atheism and communism are actually good things not responsible for anything awful really amounts to a gigantic mountain of crap.

I see.  When those you cite are shown to disagree with you, suddenly they become “fools” and “atheists/communists” themselves (Arendt was a secular Jew and Michael continues to cite Rummel later!).  Laughable!  And notice the strawman thrown in for good measure.  The opportunity to demonstrate the mental quackery of theists like Michael makes my time well spent.

Michael is reduced to extensively citing Solzhenitsyn, who – surprise! – was another anti-atheist Christian.  Solzhenitsyn was also anti-west, anti-freedom, anti-democracy, and anti-semitic.  He opposed letting non-Orthodox Christians like Michael into Russia.  Nonetheless, Michael believes, “Solzhenitsyn is [sic] a greater scholar than you and all the moral idiots you cite as ‘experts’ times 1000.” (emphasis in the original)

Solzhenitsyn’s thesis, with which Michael wholeheartedly agrees, is

God is the only legitimate source of our human rights and freedoms, and the removal of God will ultimately remove the rights and freedoms, resulting in the Gulags.

Funny.  Countries like Japan, whose population currently consists of just 1% of Christians, appears to lack any gulags, last I checked.  Michael says that’s because our superior Judeo-Christian values were imposed on Japan after WWII.  Constitutional democracy is a Judeo-Christian value now?  Is sliced bread too?

The fact of the matter is, history simply doesn’t bear Solzhenitsyn out.  Europe’s ever increasing political and social secularization has not resulted in a repeat of the communist experience, while its deeply Christian past resulted in the very tragedies a belief in God is supposed to make impossible.  Michael further writes,

 Atheism has a 100% track record. In every single society in which a government was officially atheist – EVERY SINGLE ONE – unimaginable atrocity, totalitarian nightmare, and the crushing of human dignity followed.

Governments can believe in God or not?  Nonsense.  Perhaps Michael refers instead to governments that proclaim the promotion of atheism as a state policy.  What he neglects to mention is that these governments proclaim other policies as well.  Policies like…nationalization, class warfare, suppression of “enemies of the state,” forced collectivization.  Could they, possibly, have anything to do with social violence and atrocity?  It’s doubtful Michael is even aware of such things. The historical myopia of the anti-atheists is breathtaking to behold at times. 

What the anti-atheists fail to show is how atheism is the intellectual and philosophical seed of the ideologies and policies that end in atrocity.  In contrast, I have shown how the Bible was a direct influence on the criticism of private property that formed the basis of most forms of communism, Marx’s and Engels’ included.  It is thus little surprise that the earliest communists were religious believers.  The famous Communist League, for example, was initially the League of the Just, a Christian communist organization.  The anti-atheist’s argument rests purely on the debunked notion that without a belief in God (by which they mean their god), moral depravity is the inevitable result.  What’s more, the argument isn’t even Biblical, since the Apostle Paul claims the moral law is written on every man’s heart (Romans 2:14-15), regardless of belief.

Michael thinks he’s got the killer argument when he writes,

And I note for at least the 3rd time that you STILL haven’t told me why Joseph Stalin – murderer of so many millions of people – was a ‘bad atheist’ for his acts.

Simple, Michael.  When you can tell me why you’re a bad (or good) a-unicornist, I’ll tell you why Stalin was a bad (or good) atheist.