Is Religion Evil?
- Wednesday, June 02, 2010
The rise of the Soviet Union was of particular significance. Lenin regarded the elimination of religion as central to the socialist revolution, and put in place measures designed to eradicate religious beliefs through the "protracted use of violence." One of the greatest tragedies of this dark era in human history was that those who sought to eliminate religious belief through violence and oppression believed they were justified in doing so. They were accountable to no higher authority than the state. It's a problem that was anticipated by Dostoyevsky in his great novel The Possessed. The most important character in the novel is Kirillov, who argues that the nonexistence of God legitimates all forms of actions. The importance of this theme for Dostoyevsky is best appreciated from his 1878 letter to N. L. Ozmidov, in which he sets out the implications of atheism for morality:
Now assume that there is no God, or immortality of the soul. Now tell me, why should I live righteously and do good deeds, if I am to die entirely on earth? . . . And if that is so, why shouldn't I (as long as I can rely on my cleverness and agility to avoid being caught by the law) cut another man's throat, rob and steal?5
In The Possessed Kirillov adopts a related line of argument: if there is no God, it follows that he, Kirillov, is God. This puzzles Stephanovich, who asks him to explain what he means. Kirillov responds as follows:
If God exists, then everything is His will, and I can do nothing of my own apart from His will. If there's no God, then everything is my will, and I'm bound to express my self-will.
Since the idea of God is a pure human invention, Kirillov reasons that he is free to do as he pleases. There is no higher authority to whom he is ultimately accountable or who is able to negate his totalitarian moral self-assertion.6
In one of his more bizarre creedal statements as an atheist, Dawkins insists that there is "not the smallest evidence" that atheism systematically influences people to do bad things. It's an astonishing, naive and somewhat sad statement. Dawkins is clearly an ivory tower atheist, disconnected from the real and brutal world of the twentieth century. The facts are otherwise. In their efforts to enforce their atheist ideology, the Soviet authorities systematically destroyed and eliminated the vast majority of churches and priests during the period 1918-1941. The statistics make for dreadful reading. This violence, repression and bloodshed were undertaken in pursuit of an atheist agenda—the elimination of religion. Atheists can be just as repressive, brutal and bloodthirsty as any other human ideology. Atheism is just fine when it remains nothing more than ideas, discussed in university seminar rooms. But when it grasps political power, it turns out to be just as bad as anything else.
This hardly fits in with another of Dawkins's spuzzling creedal statements: "I do not believe there is an atheist in the world who would bulldoze Mecca—or Chartres, York Minster, or Notre Dame."7 This noble sentiment is a statement about his personal credulity, not the reality of things. The history of the Soviet Union is replete with the burning and dynamiting of huge numbers of churches. So is the postwar history of the German Democratic Republic. Dawkins's special pleading that atheism is innocent of the violence and oppression that he associates with religion is simply untenable and suggests a significant blind spot.
Dawkins's childishly naive view that atheists would never carry out crimes in the name of atheism simply founders on the cruel rocks of reality. Let me give an example from the pen of another Oxford scholar who comes to very different conclusions from those asserted (not argued) by Dawkins. In his outstanding study of the Romanian Christian dissident-intellectual Petre Tutea (1902-1991), the Oxford scholar Alexandru Popescu documents the physical and mental degradation Tutea suffered as part of the systematic persecution of religion in Romania during the Soviet era until the downfall and execution of Nicolae Ceaucescu. During this period, Tutea spent thirteen years as a prisoner of conscience and twenty-eight years under house arrest. His story is enormously illuminating for those who want to understand the power of religious faith to console and maintain personal identity under precisely the forms of persecution that Dawkins believes do not exist.
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