Friday, November 24, 2006

The Real Force Behind the Mass Murders of History

A friend suggested I comment on a recent column by Dinesh D'Souza claiming that atheism, rather than religion, is responsible for the greatest mass murders of history. These sort of accusations pop up now and again, and they're a sign that either the accuser is playing games, or has a very limited understanding of the issues.

Just to put things in perspective for those who have never heard of D'Souza, he is one of the neoconservatives who thought invading Iraq was a pretty cool idea back in 2003. He also recently thought that a democratic Iraq would be a beacon of inspiration to other nations in the region. This isn't directly relevant to D'Souza's column, but it does establish the level of wingnuttery we're dealing with here.

At the conclusion of D'Souza's column about the evils of atheism, he writes:
It's time to abandon the mindlessly repeated mantra that religious belief has been the greatest source of human conflict and violence.
Now, hang on to your butts... this statement isn't completely untrue. It's just misleading. It's not a connection between totalitarianism and religious belief. The problem is with organized religion.

There are two kinds of dictatorships: mandated and coerced.

Coerced dictatorships emerge by overpowering the people. For instance, the Russian Civil War was lost by the liberals, leaving a radical, authoritarian, fear-mongering cabal in power. The people made their stand and were defeated militarily. In the decades that followed, millions would die at the hands of a paranoid police state. In such cases, it makes little difference whether or not the people are critical thinkers and humanitarians.

The claim that religious affiliation of the dictator would have prevented the holocausts of the 20th century is utterly preposterous. Dictators are not nice guys, and mass murder goes with the territory. That's how they get to be dictators.

When they're theistic, the dictators see themselves as God's representative on Earth, and they'll see their self-preservation as a holy cause.

Though Hitler's actions were motivated neither by Christianity nor atheism, Hitler was a Christian. The evidence is as plain as day. I quite expect that if you had asked Hitler whether God approved of his actions, he would have answered in the affirmative. It's perfectly natural when you think about it. We all create God in our own image. Hitler's propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, put it this way:
The war we are fighting until victory or the bitter end is in its deepest sense and war between Christ and Marx.
Did Saddam think Allah was on his side? I quite expect so.

So, religion won't defend us by giving us better dictators (although it might be more likely to give us less technologically sophisticated ones).

But what of the dictatorships that emerge with the consent or mandate of the people? What could compel people to willingly sacrifice their civil rights and participate in dark crimes of the state?

Fear and mob mentality. When fear strikes, people naturally seek the security of their tribe. When this happens, people naturally suspect any dissenter of treachery. The needs of the group outweigh the needs of any individual, be they man, woman or child.

Hitler was a power-hungry maniac who found something that worked: social manipulation through propaganda. The German people were encouraged to think (or, rather, not think) like a mob and be proud Christians in the process. Dissent was punished. Fear, dogma, propaganda, and ideology overruled the people's humanity, critical thinking and reason. Hermann Göring, infamous Nazi, explained why they it worked:
Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.
And he might be right. Perhaps, it is in the nature of every state, even the democratic ones, to be vulnerable in this way.

Then again, maybe there's a hope that our citizenry might one day be more than faint-hearted lemmings. Maybe they will have the courage to put their fear aside, stick to their principles of rationality, and question what they are told. Such courage would be no certain defense against totalitarianism, but it would protect us from mandated dictatorship. From the next Hitler.

Will religion help or hurt?

In the Spring 2003 issue of Free Inquiry, Dr. Lawrence Britt cataloged the identifying traits of fascist governments. A few passages stand out:
  • Fascist regimes tend to make constant use of patriotic mottoes, slogans, symbols, songs, and other paraphernalia. Flags are seen everywhere, as are flag symbols on clothing and in public displays.
  • The people are rallied into a unifying patriotic frenzy over the need to eliminate a perceived common threat or foe: racial, ethnic or religious minorities; liberals; communists; socialists, terrorists, etc.
  • The governments of fascist nations tend to be almost exclusively male-dominated. Under fascist regimes, traditional gender roles are made more rigid. Opposition to abortion is high, as is homophobia and anti-gay legislation and national policy.
  • Fascist nations tend to promote and tolerate open hostility to higher education, and academia. It is not uncommon for professors and other academics to be censored or even arrested. Free expression in the arts is openly attacked, and governments often refuse to fund the arts.
One cannot miss the parallels between fascism and organized religion. Just substitute tribalism for nationalism. The more reactionary the religion, the more fascist it looks.

The central mission of religious institutions is indoctrination to dogma. Their aim is to provide a ready tribe, and to condemn dissenting views. Religions are monuments to the ideal that there are unquestionable moral authorities, and that systems based on blind obedience are not just to be tolerated but revered. Indeed, most churches of organized religion claim that a dictator runs the universe for his pleasure and our pain.

So, how exactly is a microcosm of fascism going to teach us to eschew fascism? Of course, it will do no such thing.

Could religion's authoritarian influences be neutralized by their espousal of humanism and non-violence? This is wishful thinking. Religions actively support our wars (whether just or not), and right-wing religious groups have no problem with torture of prisoners (after all, the prisoners are obviously terrorists, or they would never have been arrested). The most prominent American religions always seek punishment, including the death penalty, even when alternatives like forgiveness might result in better social outcomes.

These are not the values of liberal democracy. They are the values of totalitarian states, like Iran. Democracy has only advanced by building a wall between church and state.

Thus, contrary to D'Souza's conclusion, most organized religions groom their flocks for dictators, whether those tyrants be atheist or religious.

1 comment:

Wakefield Tolbert said...

There are some rather odd statements in your post.

You seem to be relying on a few select men for argumentation. Richard Carrier comes up over and over though most of his points have already been answered for decades now. More than one historian has pointed out his errors.

To say that Stalin is not connected to an athiest world view would be like saying that since tires are not the direct source of energy for cares, therefore they have no connection whatsoever.

Either than man used this kind of stochastic ideology to kill millions of human beings on behalf of a putative better future.

Or he did not.

His statements indicate he certainly did. And this is what D'Souza and others have pointed out.

One can argue that a liberal democracy avoids extremes and forces moderation, but it must be remebered that the Wiemar Republic was in many ways just as sophisticated as ours, but also fell due internal contradictions.

This notion that democracy shield us from tyranny is unfounded. It might prevent a cerain type of flamboyant terror. But the practitioners of liberal democratic states, whom I already mentioned are prone to rely on the "use of force for the greater good" kind of argumentation, are not afraid of stepping on people's heads either. It's just that in this kind of force it is unneccesary to use outright terror to get one's ends. And YET, in the Fabian style force is used against erstwhile free citizens nontheless.

Such is the fluffy, Pan-European directivs that now cloud almost every asepct of life in Western Europe.

As far as executions for murderers, that seems to be on par with the punishement actually fitting the crime. A society in which there is no connectivity from point A to point B in action/reaction is one where criminality runs amock. The lower deathrates in some regions of the world speak more of cultural differences, the passivity of the citizenry, and the fact that crime is often lowered in what are mostly homogenous societies.

The Christian concept of foregiveness does not necessarily extend to civil justice, or move beyond personal interactions of insult (the actual context of turning one's cheek).

Civil order, and its maintenance, is another issue entirely.