(I wrote this a few years ago. A magazine said they would probably print it
but then held on to it for over two years before deciding not to use it. I’ve just now gone quickly through it and
changed it slightly in several places.)

If there’s anything new about the New Atheism which erupted
in 2004, it’s the strident proclamation that belief in God is a powerful force
for evil. All kinds of atrocities are
laid at the door of “religion,” equated with belief in God.

The central
message of the New Atheism is that 9/11 and similar outrages have occurred
because their perpetrators believed in God.
This is explicitly stated and reiterated many times by Sam Harris, but
the same tune has been hummed and whistled in several keys by Richard Dawkins
and the late Christopher Hitchens.

If you
believe in God, then you have been infected and (twenty-eight days or years
later) this belief is going to prompt you to kill yourself and your
fellow-humans. So the New Atheists tell
us. I view this as a fairytale, just as
far-fetched as anything in the Bible or the Quran.

Atheists Do It Better
(Mass Murder, That Is)

There’s an obvious problem with the New Atheist claim that
theistic religion is peculiarly conducive to atrocities. The last hundred years have seen the rise to
power of secular, in some cases overtly atheistic, ideological movements, and
these movements have been responsible for the killing, torture, enslavement,
and terrorizing of many millions of people.

By any measure, the evil deeds done
by these secular regimes within a few decades have vastly outweighed the evil
deeds done by Christianity and Islam combined, throughout their entire
history—not by a factor of just two or three, but by a factor of hundreds, if
not thousands. Institutions claiming to
embody Christianity or Islam have murdered thousands. Institutions claiming to embody Marxism,
National Socialism, or other types of socialism, have murdered tens of
millions.

Since this factual
point is so conspicuous, the New Atheists have naturally attempted to account
for it. Their most common response is
that whereas theists (like Torquemada) committed atrocities because they
believed in God, atheists (like Stalin or Mao) did not commit their atrocities because they
disbelieved in God. This strikes me as a
very strange claim.

Even if
this strange claim were true, it would not address the difficult point. The New Atheists maintain that “religious,”
meaning theistic, ideologies generate atrocities. History shows that non-theistic or secular
ideologies have generated atrocities on a vastly greater scale than theistic
ideologies. Now, even if the religious
atrocities were committed because the perpetrators believed in God while the
secular atrocities were not committed because the perpetrators disbelieved in
God, this does nothing to get around the stark fact that ideologies without
belief in God have motivated more and bigger atrocities than ideologies
incorporating belief in God, and that therefore it looks dubious to single out
belief in God as an especially virulent intellectual source of atrocities.

However,
the strange claim, if we can make any sense of it at all, can only be
false. Belief in God is an integral part
of Christianity and disbelief in God is an integral part of Marxism. Torquemada committed his atrocities because
of a belief system which included belief in God. Stalin and Mao committed their immensely more
ambitious atrocities because of a belief system which included disbelief in
God. I can’t imagine how you extract
from these facts the conclusion that theists committed their atrocities
“because” they believed in God while atheists did not commit their atrocities “because” they
disbelieved in God.

Another
argument offered by the New Atheists is to cite ways in which the churches were
complicit in the crimes against humanity committed by Fascist and National
Socialist regimes. The New Atheists
don’t seem equally concerned about the complicity of atheist intellectuals in
the greater crimes against humanity committed by Communist regimes.

But, in any case, what do such
examples really show? Fascism and
National Socialism were not Christian movements. The distinctive elements in their ideologies
and policies were not derived from what the churches were teaching. When the Fascists and the Nazis were new,
small parties with little following, they did not seek, nor did they get, the
slightest bit of support from the churches.
Until 1933, for instance, Catholics were forbidden by the German bishops
to join the Nazi Party.

By the time
Fascism and National Socialism became contenders for power, and then achieved
power, many people compromised with them, including most of the churches. So did other groups, for example, the
majority of scientists, scholars, and journalists in the affected
countries. Both totalitarian movements,
Fascism in Italy and
National Socialism in Germany,
gained electoral support at the expense of specifically Christian political
parties, which were closed down when the Fascist and National Socialist parties
came to power.

It’s also true that some
Christians, motivated at least in part by their Christianity, resisted these
regimes and paid for it. The truly
heroic Claus von Stauffenberg, leader of Operation Valkyrie, the plot to
assassinate Hitler, was a devout Catholic.

As well as the Soviet repression of
theists, both Christian and Muslim, and such well-known instances as the mass
killings directed by the atheist Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, it’s worth mentioning
a couple of other, lesser-known cases where specifically atheist persons or
groups were responsible for horrible acts of violence.

In 1924,
the Mexican government ramped up its already severe restrictions on the
activities of the Catholic church.
Hundreds of priests and other Catholics were imprisoned or executed
because they refused to comply with new regulations (requiring, for example,
that priests not criticize government officials and not wear clerical garb
outside a church). The brutal repression
of Catholics led to the “Cristero war” between Catholic rebels and the
government, followed by further government assaults on Catholics. The government hunted down and killed
priests, just because they would not give up being priests. Graham Greene wrote about this in a
documentary work, The Lawless Roads
(1939), and then in a novel, The Power
and the Glory
(1940). The former
president and de facto ruler of Mexico
at this time, Plutarco Elias Calles, was a highly enthusiastic atheist.

The traditional anticlericalism,
often atheism, of Mexico’s
ruling elite stems mainly from Positivism, the atheist belief system
promulgated by Auguste Comte, a form of pre-Marxist socialism which took root
among the Mexican intelligentsia in the nineteenth century. Vicente Fox Quesada, elected in 2000, was the
first Mexican president for ninety years who could openly admit to being a
Catholic, and even today, a few remnants of the old restrictions remain, for
example ministers of religion are banned from holding political office in
Mexico.

In another
example, the Spanish anarchists, atheistic followers of Mikhail Bakunin (“If
God existed, it would be necessary to abolish him”), had come to control some
regions of rural Spain by the 1930s.
They committed numerous outrages against Catholics, not just the
desecration of churches, but also occasionally the killing and mutilation of
priests and nuns. These atheist-inspired
attacks alarmed many Spaniards, and stimulated support for rightwing enemies of
the Republic, helping prepare the way for extraordinary brutality by both sides
in the Spanish Civil War. Numerous
leftist supporters of the Spanish Republic, like George Orwell, were fully
aware of these anti-Catholic crimes and never uttered one word of criticism. Yes, it’s true that these atrocities were
“exaggerated by the right for their own purposes.” But the right had something to exaggerate.

Atheist Terrorism

Harris’s explanation for the current spate of suicide
terrorism is that the terrorists believe they will be rewarded as martyrs in
Heaven. The religious zeal of
fundamentalist Muslims is the explanation for suicide attacks. This entertaining story has been continually
reiterated by journalists, but it will not withstand scrutiny.

Harris, and
following him Dawkins, have asked, rhetorically, whether we can imagine any
atheist group conducting suicide terrorism.
In actuality, a rather high proportion of suicide terrorists have been
atheists. In the years up to 2009, the
pre-eminent perpetrator of suicide bombings in the world was the group known as
the Tamil Tigers, in Sri Lanka. They were
of Hindu background but led by atheists.
Opinions differ on whether the Tamil Tigers could accurately be
described as “Marxist-Leninist,” but it is not disputed that they were belligerently
anti-religion.

Another atheist
group responsible for suicide terrorism was the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK),
a Kurdish nationalist and Marxist-Leninist group active in Turkey. These suicide bombers were atheists and their
victims were mostly Muslims. Around 1999
the PKK leadership abandoned its Marxism-Leninism and its practice of suicide
bombings, and later changed its name.

Suicide
terrorism is primarily political in its aims and rationale. Suicide bombers have political objectives
which provide the reason for their actions.
Suicide terrorism is the recourse of members of ethnic populations who
find themselves completely outmatched by vastly stronger military might. It’s their way of hitting back at the occupying
troops, whom they are too feeble to confront directly. It is particularly effective if the occupying
power is a democracy. Robert Pape’s
study of the backgrounds of Muslim suicide terrorists (Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, 2005) shows
that many of them are not especially religious.

If suicide
bombers knew of a way to kill an equal number of the enemy without also killing
themselves, they would act upon it. The
reason that suicide bombing has become much more frequent since 1983 is that it
works. The Israeli government, for
example, while usually unmoved by peaceful overtures or by (comparatively
ineffective) non-suicide attacks, has made concessions to the Palestinians
following suicide bombings. Reagan
pulled the troops out of Lebanon
because of suicide attacks, intended precisely to get US troops pulled out of Lebanon. Pape, who made a thorough study of all cases
of suicide terrorism (up to 2003), calculated that about fifty percent of
suicide attacks had some demonstrable success in achieving their political
objectives—an amazingly high success rate for terrorism, or indeed for any form
of political operation by small groups not in control of a government.

This is not
to say that suicide terrorism has any moral justification. It is merely to say that it works extremely
well. Suicide terrorism is far more
effective than any of the alternatives open to militant political groups
acting, as they see it, on behalf of comparatively powerless ethnic communities
under foreign military occupation. It’s
a highly rational, expertly calibrated activity which delivers the political
goods.

Some
readers will no doubt protest that some of the Muslim suicide bombers really do
believe they will enjoy the attentions of seventy-two virgins in paradise. (Some Muslims have told me this is a
mistranslation and it should read “seventy-two raisins,” which confirms my view
that Islam isn’t much fun.) It wouldn’t
astound me to learn that one or two members of IRA-Sinn Fein did believe they
would have a friendly chat with St. Peter at the Pearly Gates before being
issued with harps. But Al-Qaeda, like
the IRA, is an organization all of whose activities are strictly determined by
its assessment of how these activities will serve its political
objectives. Being prepared to give up
one’s life for a great cause is a commonplace of all national cultures, and always
positively valued when done for the side we favor.

It’s
understandable that someone who picks up his knowledge of Christianity and
Islam from the TV news would be innocent of the above facts. (In the wake of 9/11, an operation carried
out by Saudis, I kept hearing about seventy-two virgins, but not once did I
hear a single murmur on the major TV networks about US troops stationed in
Saudi Arabia. These troops were pulled
out eighteen months after 9/11, rendering that operation a brilliant
success.) Still, anyone of a curious
disposition might pause to wonder why, if belief in God explains 9/11, the
first fifteen centuries of Islam passed by without a single suicide bombing or
anything comparable, whereas suicide bombings (usually assassinations of public
figures) were well-known in nineteenth-century Europe. We see this awareness reflected in such
stories as The Secret Agent by Conrad
and ‘The Stolen Bacillus’ by Wells.
Again, we can generally assume that the “anarchists” who committed
suicide bombings in nineteenth-century Europe were atheists.

What Makes Religion
Dangerous?

Confronted by the fact that atheists have been implicated in
both state repression and terrorism to an extent hugely disproportionate to
their numbers, the New Atheists offer the rejoinder that these dictators and
terrorists, though they may not believe in God, still think in ways that are unreasonable. In one formulation of this rejoinder, Harris
says that “although these tyrants [Stalin and Mao] paid lip service to
rationality, communism was little more than a political religion” (End of Faith, p. 79).

The first
thing to note about this is that in making such a move, the New Atheists
casually abandon what had been their central claim—and continues to be their
central claim, because they don’t acknowledge that they have abandoned it, but
go right back to repeating it. They keep
drumming into their readers that religion must be defined as belief in God (or
occasionally, the supernatural), and that specifically belief in God is the
pathological meme which causes terrorism and mass murder.

If
“religion” is to be used to characterize all belief systems which have ever led
to terrorism and mass murder, then in shifting from religion-defined-as-theism
to religion-which-may-just-as-well-be-atheistic, the New Atheists have tacitly
accepted that their original claim is false.

The second
thing to note is that while Harris will not apply the term “religion” to his
own beliefs, he does not give us a litmus test to distinguish “religion” from
non-religious beliefs. But a favorite
rhetorical trope of his is to assert that people he disagrees with accept
things without evidence, and so I think we can assume that Harris defines
“religion” as accepting things without evidence, or, as he sometimes says,
without justification.

However,
virtually all spokespersons for Christianity, Islam, Communism, or even National
Socialism, would hasten to insist that they do not, repeat not, accept anything
without evidence. They would go on to
assert that Harris ignores the relevant evidence for their doctrines. Harris would naturally reply that he’s not
very impressed with their evidence, and interprets it differently. On this point I agree with Harris (as I have
unpacked at length in my Atheism
Explained: From Folly to Philosophy
).

But the crucial thing to remember
here is that anyone who takes up any point of view on any subject whatsoever
will always claim that the evidence supports this point of view and that the
evidence goes against people who espouse a different point of view. So what Harris is saying is that he is right
and the theists are wrong. But we are
all right about some things and wrong about others, and, while we ought to
strive to increase the ratio of our true beliefs to our false beliefs, this in
itself says nothing about which false beliefs have the effect of increasing the
predisposition to kill people.

And so we
find that, in practice, what Harris is saying amounts to the claim that
“religion” means belief systems he disagrees with, and people who think
precisely the way he does would never commit atrocities. Any Marxist around the year 1900 would have
said the same thing.

Why Atheists Have
More Blood on Their Hands

While I point out that atheists have perpetrated more and
bigger atrocities than theists, I do not attribute this to an inherently
greater tendency on the part of atheists to commit atrocities. If the historical facts were the other way
round, with theists having committed more and bigger atrocities than atheists,
I would then be pointing out that it is a logical error to conclude that theism
is inherently more inclined than atheism to perpetrate atrocities.

As I see
it, there’s no direct causal link between atheism and atrocities or between
theism and atrocities. Neither theism
nor atheism is significantly conducive or unconducive to atrocities (or to
happiness or health, as I argued in Atheism
Explained
). But I do have a
historical theory explaining why atrocities by atheists in the twentieth
century vastly exceeded the far smaller-scale atrocities perpetrated by
Christians and Muslims in all centuries up to and including the twentieth.

Enthusiastic
ideologies or belief systems, especially when they are able to capture a
monopoly of governmental authority, are liable to give rise to atrocities. It doesn’t make any difference to the body
count whether such a belief system encompasses theism or atheism. The rise of secular belief systems such as
Positivism, Marxism, Fascism, and National Socialism coincided historically
with the greatly enhanced technology for committing atrocities. If Torquemada had possessed the administrative
and personnel resources of Stalin, he might have more nearly approached Stalin
as a superstar of mass murder.

Modern
capitalism produces improved techniques and it also produces
secularization. But secularization does
not mean the disappearance of belief systems with fanatical adherents. Spiritual religions are replaced by purportedly
scientific religions, from Mesmerism to Global Warming. Socialism has come and gone, and has now been
replaced by Environmentalism. When
Environmentalism passes away, it will be replaced by some new enthusiastic
belief system, perhaps one associated with Mental Health or the need for
contact with space aliens.

In the “third
world,” the poorer half of the world, which is now the stronghold of both
Christianity and Islam, there remains some danger of atrocities perpetrated in
the name of Christianity or Islam, but in the advanced industrial countries,
most of the danger of future holocausts arises from secular-minded and pseudoscientific
belief systems.

The New Illiberalism

Do we have anything to fear from the New Atheists
themselves? Some of the things they say
aren’t very reassuring.

Harris
informs us that “belief is not a private matter.” (p. 44). The phrase “a private matter” has a specific
meaning in the history of liberal thought.
It means an area which is none of the business of the authorities, an
area where whatever you may choose to do will not cause you to fall into the
hands of the police. Hence the chilling
quality, to any liberal, of the phrase, “Thought Police.”

Maybe this
was just a slip by Harris? Not a bit of
it. “Some propositions are so
dangerous,” he explains, “that it may even be ethical to kill people for
believing them” (pp. 52–53). The whole
thrust of his book conveys the message that belief in God is the most dangerous
of the dangerous ideas for which it is ethically permissible to kill people who
have done absolutely nothing wrong.
Harris reasons that since thoughts give rise to actions, it’s okay to
coerce people on account of their dangerous thoughts alone. The rhetorical tone of The End of Faith suggests that Christian fundamentalists have the
moral standing of insect pests. Just
imagine the fuss the New Atheists would be making if Jerry Falwell or Pat
Robertson had so much as hinted that it might be ethically permissible to kill
people simply for believing there is no God.
But the late Reverend Falwell said: “We [meaning traditional-minded
Americans] honor the unbeliever.” You
can’t imagine Harris saying anything this nice about Christians.

Commenting
on the fact that most Muslims living in the West are tolerant of the non-Muslim
beliefs of their neighbors, Harris points out that Muslims in the West are in a
small minority, so their seeming tolerance may be just a sham (p. 115).

Quite
possibly. And if the New Atheists today,
when atheists constitute about two percent of the US population, can cheerfully
entertain the ethically permissible liquidation of some unspecified segment of
the dangerous eighty-plus percent who believe in God, what should we expect
from the New Atheists when atheists have increased their following to forty,
fifty, or sixty percent of the population?