Saturday, March 19, 2011

Some Atheists Are Wrong about Communism

In my opinion there is a large error being made my some atheists when they discuss Communism and any role atheism may have played in their actions against Christianity and other religions. One of the most notable that come to mind is Hector Avalos.

In his book Fighting Words: The Origins Of Religious Violence Avalos argues that, while political motivations were more of a factor, atheism did have a role in the actions of the Communists. Avalos writes,

Our discussion will show that Stalin’s reign of terror has as much to do with politics as it did with atheism. (325)

Despite this strong stance, Avalos later admits that,

[W]e cannot find any direct evidence that Stalin’s own personal agenda killed because of atheism [...] [h]owever, we also said that inference was also an allowable method to establish causation, and we can do the same with Stalin. Stalin did follow many antireligious policies that can reasonably be attributed to his atheism. (326)

This popular atheist is guilty of committing one of the same errors Christian apologists make when discussing this issue: the belief that anti-religious actions are inherently “atheistic” in some way.

As Avalos just admitted, there is no direct evidence that Stalin (and from my research, no other Communist) killed because he was an atheist. With atheism being a motivating factor out of the equation what else could be the cause? The Marxist Communist ideology. It is illogical to assume someone’s motivations by just looking at their actions while not taking into account how important another factor might be. This is especially true when we look at the writings of the Communists and study the ideology they supported and tried to implement, which gives us a very good insight into what the most reasonable motivating factor was: their belief that certain institutions hindered the socialist progress of man and one of those was religion.

Vladimir Lenin wrote,

The combating of religion cannot be confined to abstract ideological preaching...It must be linked up with the concrete practice of the class movement, which aims at eliminating the social roots of religion...It means that Social Democracy's atheist propaganda must be subordinated to its basic task - the development of the class struggle of the exploited masses against the exploiters. [emphasis in original] [1]

Lenin also wrote,

The deepest root of religion in the socially downtrodden condition of the working masses and their apparently complete helplessness in the face of the blind forces of capitalism, which every day and every hour inflicts upon ordinary working people the most horrible suffering and the most savage torment, a thousand times more severe than those inflicted by extraordinary events, such as wars [and] earthquakes. [emphasis mine]

- V.I. Lenin, The Attitude of the Worker's Party to Religion

Here are two more examples:

Religion is by no means the result of exceptional ignorance and darkness, just as it is not a question of simple logic, the result of false thinking. It has its roots in the social life, in the conditions of existence; it grows upon the soil of definite social relations and is determined by the class position in society of the one or the other group. - Communist Party Conference on Antireligious Propaganda, Article IX, April 1926 [2]

Here is another one:

To the query, “Does modern civilization need religion?” the Communist answer is “yes,” so far as decaying capitalist civilization is concerned. There, under the pressure of crisis, in an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear, religion serves as an escape mechanism for the classes which history has already condemned. - Julius Hecker, 1933 [3]

It was believed that religious belief was a necessary aspect of pre-socialist life but was not needed after the society transformed into a socialist one. The Communists’ attempts to create such a socialist society resulted in Stalin’s “Great Terror” and other atrocities since the population did not want to work on collective farms, and the Communists’ attempts to do away with all things they believed would hinder or be unnecessary in a socialist society, which included religion.

One thing you must ask yourself as you read through the above quotes: Do any of these mention atheism as the cause of their dislike of religion? No. It was their Communist ideology which caused them to believe that religion was a hindrance to their socialist utopia and therefore it had to go.

When I read the excellent book by Paul Gabel called And God Created Lenin: Marxism vs Religion In Russia, 1917-1929 he recounts many of the acts of persecution of religion and the murder of Christians that occurred in Russia by the Communists, and I can understand how reading these stories makes one wonder if perhaps atheism was an influence, though something Gabel does in his book that I haven’t seen in any other history book about Communism is explain Marxist ideology and how it relates to religion. This places the Communists’ actions, in a sense, in their historical and ideological contexts, rather than just telling story after story about how atheists murdered all of these religious people, which is exactly how the Christians like to frame the debate. However, to understand why the Communists did what they did you have to also understand their beliefs and then it becomes clear.

Because it’s never been demonstrated that atheism was a factor and all of the evidence points to the Communists’ ideology it’s my opinion that atheism was not a factor in motivating the Communists, and the Marxist doctrines look to be the sole cause.

Throughout the many books and websites dealing with this subject of atheism and Communism that I’ve read I don’t recall finding anyone making use of this very important and relevant information about the Communists’ ideology. With this post I hope that all atheists who wish to partake in this debate will take a little time to learn about the ideology of Marxism and Communism and this will hopefully raise the level of the debate on the issue because the subject of ideology seems mostly absent from this discussion, and I feel this argument is the best defense against this very common charge by Christian apologists.

In conclusion, I believe the error some atheists (and especially Christians) make when discussing this issue is they focus solely on the historical events of Communist Russia (the religious persecution, murder of clergy, and church closures) and not on the Communists’ ideological beliefs and how they were motivated by them. If one paid more attention to the latter subject I believe less people would be taken in by this Christian propaganda.

1. And God Created Lenin: Marxism vs. Religion in Russia, 1917-1929, by Paul Gabel, Prometheus Books, 2005; 90

2. Ibid.; 75

3. Ibid.; 75


  1. "It was their Communist ideology which caused them to believe that religion was a hindrance to their socialist utopia and therefore it had to go. "

    I am sympathetic, but the reason it could go was that the communists were atheists, even militant atheists. Your argument seems based on the vacuum of content in the atheist position.. that there is nothing there, as it were. That is the precisely the problem religious people see with atheism- that the vacuum is not only theistic, but moral, since they curiously link their ability to practice morality with their religious texts, doctrines, beliefs, institutions, and templates as official and other religious persons.

    Thus atheism, which in the communist version sought to reform or destroy each of these institutions, was also an attack on basic human morality in turn enabling the enormity of Stalin's accomplishments.

  2. Hi Mr. Braun thanks for the comment.

    “I am sympathetic, but the reason it could go was that the communists were atheists, even militant atheists.”

    I would have to disagree because as I tried to demonstrate above the belief it had to go was because of their ideology. Even the Communists themselves (as I quoted them above) said that humans needed religion, but only because society had not yet been transformed into a socialist one. As I tried to get across everything was viewed through their beliefs in the class struggle and Marx’s economic theories. They believed religion could go, not because of their atheism, but because it wouldn’t be needed anymore once socialism was in place (which I even quoted the Communists as saying).

    “Thus atheism, which in the communist version sought to reform or destroy each of these institutions, was also an attack on basic human morality in turn enabling the enormity of Stalin's accomplishments.”

    I’ve actually heard this argument before from a Christian apologist and again I disagree because it all goes back to their ideology. The Communists did not attempt to do away with morality. That seems to be a common misunderstanding. Allow me to quote historian Peter Singer from his book Marx: A Very Short Introduction:

    "The belief that Marxism contains no ethical judgment derives from some comments made by Marx and Engles. In The Communist Manifesto, for instance, morality is listed together with law and religion as 'bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests.' (CM 230). It is true that for Marx morality is part of the ideological superstructure of society, is determined by the economic basis, and serves to promote the interests of the ruling class. But it does not follow from this that all morality is to be rejected. What has to be rejected is morality that serves the interests of the ruling class. This includes all dominant moralities up to now. Once communism has been established and classes have disappeared, however, we can pass beyond class morality, to what Engles called 'a really human morality'." (82) [Emphasis mine]

    Even their view of morality was viewed through Marx’s ideas about the class struggle and economic reasons. Not atheism.

    This is exactly why I pleaded with atheists in my post to read up on Communism and Marxism so that these common misunderstandings could begin to be corrected and the entire debate could rise to a higher level. None of the reasons you gave were due to atheism once one learns about their ideology.

    Correction: This post wasn’t putting forth the argument that atheism is a negative (though I have used it elsewhere). I was simply pointing out that no one has been able to site a single piece of evidence that atheism was a motivating factor. Even such well-studied scholars as Avalos or David Aikman, a Ph.D. in Russian history, whose book I refuted, could find no link. If these well learned individuals cannot find a link then I don’t have high hopes for this argument and it’s only because of peoples’ ignorance of Communism and Marxism that this distortion of history continues to spread and is often seen as a valid argument, even by atheists.

  3. Note: I feel the need to explain that the way I used the word “scholar” to describe the Christian apologist David Aikman was simply in reference to his vast knowledge of Communism and its history since he did earn a Ph.D. in the subject after all. It’s just his cherry-picking and neglect of many historical facts seriously harms his case when he argues that atheism was responsible in Russia (not to mention the Reign of Terror).

  4. "It was their Communist ideology which caused them to believe that religion was a hindrance to their socialist utopia and therefore it had to go."
    Aren't you ignoring the fact that atheism was a central tenet of the communist ideology? A communist utopia could have been organized around Christianity(many actually have been), in which case no such anti-christian activity would have taken place.
    I will agree that it was the greater ideas of totalitarianism, not atheism, that caused them to be so militant. Militant atheism was the cause of the anti-religious violence. Without either the violence would not have happened. This is hardly an argument against atheism, after all, there have been countless militant religious organizations throughout history.

  5. Thanks for the comment Matt. Yes, atheism was a large part of Marxism, but I’d say other aspects came first, such as dialectical materialism and the idea of the abolishment of private property. Second, one would have to show how atheism by itself causes a hatred of religion. I don’t see how that’s possible. Anti-religion, after all, is not evidence that it was atheism because even religious figures have attacked other religions - even the same religion. Third, I cited a few quotes in the post to demonstrate the Communists’ reasons for their dislike of religion and not a single one mentions atheism. I’ve yet to see anyone cite a quote of any Communist arguing that it was their atheism that was the cause of the religious persecution and attempt at eradication. It’s because of all this evidence that I do not believe atheism was a factor.

    I’d also like to correct a slight historical error. You said that if Communism was built around Christianity no anti-religious activity would have taken place, however, that is false. In the 16th Century in Germany an Anabaptist sect of Christianity expelled Catholic clergy and anyone who did not share their particular religious views. Even those within their own sect who didn’t follow the party line were persecuted (Comrades: Communism: A World History, by Robert Service, Macmillan, 2007; 16).


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