A popular claim of the religiously devout is that atheism is a murderous philosophy. ‘Stalin killed millions and he was an atheist, so atheism is bad! He was inspired by communism, which is atheism!’
Stalin did indeed order millions of deaths, but as the thorough (as always) Michael Wong of Stardestroyer.net points out, it’s a falsehood to blame atheism for Stalin’s ideology and actions. You can see his points at the link above, but let’s quote some of what I consider to be the most relevant points:
Complex Cause Fallacy (chalking up the unprecedented size of 20th century death tolls to belief systems alone): While warfare reached unprecedented heights of destructiveness in the 20th century, it is an example of the complex cause fallacy to assume that this was due to belief systems alone, and not other factors. One rather obvious alternative cause is improved technology: humanity’s methods of killing reached new heights in the 20th century, thanks to the development of aerial bombing, nuclear weapons, mechanized logistics, modern artillery, etc. Historical butchers like Napoleon, Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, and Alexander the Great were utterly ruthless, but their death tolls were limited by the technology available to them (not to mention the limited size of populations in their day).
This is a point I should have raised in a discussion on this very subject. The historical figures Mike mentions all held religious beliefs, so by the logic of the anti-atheist, religion has been responsible for a huge number of deaths, and if modern weapons had been available during say, the Crusades, or during Roman times, those professing their faith would have inflicted far more casualties upon one another.
Mike follows on with a related point:
Ignoring proportions: following from the previous point, the huge death tolls of 20th century warfare, while shocking and unprecedented in sheer magnitude, are not proportionally unprecedented. You can’t look at numbers without looking at the size of the population they come from: one hundred murders per year in a city with a population of 5 million are proportionally far less than five murders per year in a town with a population of only 20 thousand. In 1940, the population of the USSR was roughly 190 million people. If we were to accept the popular (but most likely exaggerated) estimates of Stalin killing at least 20 million of his own countrymen, that adds up to a bit more than 10% deaths: a horrible figure to be sure, but nowhere close to what Julius Caesar did in his conquest of Gaul, where he was estimated to have exterminated roughly one third of the population of Gaul. Not to mention the fate of the Native Americans, whose population was reduced by more than 95%: a truly incredible death toll the likes of which we rarely see in history, and which was definitely perpetrated by Christians.
You see that? Proportion matters. With higher populations come higher death tolls in times of war (especially seeing as urbanisation means the population is packed together a lot more, making it far easier to inflict huge casualties these days). Mike’s examples further prove his point. The faithful inflicted proportionally much higher death tolls upon enemy populations. He then goes on to point out a huge flaw in the Stalin argument…
Inaccurate Data: the “20 million dead” figure has been widely reported, but it was reported at a time when western scholars had almost no access to actual data from behind the “Iron Curtain”, so they engaged in a lot of speculation. After the fall of communism, much more data has been made available, and scholars have revised their estimates downward. For example, estimates of Ukrainian famine deaths have been lowered from 12 million to 2-4 million. Meanwhile, Russia lost at least 25 million dead to Nazi Germany during World War 2. If we compare Stalin to Hitler, Hitler has a much larger death toll, so the claim that Stalin is history’s greatest butcher is false (even if we ignore point #4 above). It’s also worth noting that Imperial Japan’s butchery of Chinese civilians (estimated at 12 million dead) is usually ignored when making these comparisons, and that both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were religious (Hitler even appointed himself head of the church).
Emphasis mine. As Mike points out, the two largest Axis powers were religious societies. They inflicted huge violence upon their enemies. This is quietly ignored.
None of this is an effort to excuse the folly of communism and the deaths caused by this idea. However, as Mike himself points out, communism is not atheism. Atheism is the absence of an ideology. An atheist can be a humanist, a communist, a populist, a far-right lunatic, a centrist, a naturalist, an environmentalist… and above all else, there is no indication that atheism kills.
Updated on 3rd October 21
Paul Williams of Blogging Theology posted a video that relates to this very subject, and he falls for the same logical mistakes, or at least, he agrees with the mistakes of the book he uses as his source material, War and Peace in Islam. It remains to be seen if he will share the comment I posted, the gist of which is to ask him if the book takes into account changing human populations, changes to population density (as we have moved increasingly towards urbanisation) and changes to weapons of war. Unsurprisingly Paul also conflates (as do the authors of the book) atheism with communism, a common mistake. Perhaps unwittingly, Paul does confirm (via the book) that organised religion is responsible for a lot more deaths than atheism is falsely attributed with.