How to be an Atheist: Rule #4

Rule #4: Learn how to defend against the Stalin Argument.

Any atheist who has dealt with Christian supremacists for long enough has encountered the Stalin Argument. It goes like this: “Stalin was an atheist, and he killed 20 million people, making him history’s greatest butcher. Atheism has killed more people than religion.” Some Christian supremacists falsely claim that Hitler was an atheist, and add him into this argument as well, but that one is easily refuted (all of Hitler’s anti-Christian quotes are uncorroborated claims from third-party sources, while Hitler’s pro-Christian quotes are in Mein Kampf, which is indisputably authentic, and the German people, who enthusiastically supported Hitler, were definitely Christian). In any case, returning to Stalin, can you spot the logic problems here? Let’s go through them one at a time:

1) False Cause Fallacy (specifically, assuming that coincidence = causality): if you claim that Andrea Yates’ religious beliefs led to her terrible crime (she drowned her own children), a Christian supremacist would immediately point out that her Christian faith and her crimes are not necessarily connected just by virtue of cohabiting in the same person. Why do they not see that the same is true for Stalin and his megalomania? Stalin never even claimed that atheism had anything to do with his policies, unlike Andrea Yates who actually did claim that her religious beliefs led to her actions (she even explained how; apparently, she wanted her children to enter Heaven in a state of grace, before being corrupted by the materialistic and sinful world).

2) Strawman Fallacy (specifically, assuming that atheism teaches personal conduct): in order for Stalin to be motivated by atheism, atheism would have teach a code of behaviour, just as religion does. In fact, that is not true at all; atheism does not have any particular set of moral teachings. It is merely the absence of a particular kind of belief, and as such, it does not tell you how to live. When someone claims that Stalin was motivated by atheism, he is implicitly assuming that atheism actually teaches people how to live and what to do. In fact, it does no such thing. By pretending otherwise, Christian supremacists are grossly misrepresenting what atheism is. In reality, atheism is not a religion. It does not tell you how to live, or who is good or who is evil (or even that there is such a thing as good and evil), or who you can marry, or when you’re allowed to have sex. Let’s put this another way: Christians do not believe in Zeus; does disbelief in Zeus motivate them to do anything in particular, other than resist when people try to make them worship Zeus? Of course not. So why should disbelief in God motivate anyone to do anything, other than resisting when people try to make them worship God? Since atheism has no moral code of its own, an atheist could be a communist, a humanist, an objectivist, a utilitarian, or a subscriber to any number of other moral value systems.

3) 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).

4) 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.

5) 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).

The more thoughtful Christians usually don’t use the Stalin Argument, but Christian supremacists always use it, so it would behoove any atheist to know it in advance, and be ready for it.

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6 Responses to How to be an Atheist: Rule #4

  1. Eric Shear says:

    Interesting. I appreciate the new information on Stalin. I was under the impression he was the 20th century’s #1 mass murderer.

  2. Michael Wong says:

    Well, he was our mortal enemy, so we had no particular interest in making sure he got a fair hearing when we wrote history textbooks in the aftermath of World War 2. An entire generation grew up taking the statements in those 1950s textbooks at face value. Even today, there is little inclination to set the record straight since Stalin was still a terrible person by any stretch of the imagination.

  3. Joe Wallace says:

    For that matter, I would not even allow anti-atheists to proceed as far as allowing the debate to get started without challenging the unfounded axiom that Stalin was an atheist.

    Would someone hellbent on enforcing atheism in their own country have done this:

    “Except from protocol of the council of the CC politbureau, 11.11.39

    Questions of religion

    Regarding religion, the Russian Othrodox Church (capitalization from text – SB) priests the CC concludes:

    1) The practice of arresting priests by departments of NKVD USSR should be stopped henceforth.

    2) Lenin’s order of 1st May 1919 #13666-2 “Combating the popes and religion” adressed to c. Dzerzhinsky and all the follwoing instructions to the VCHK-OGPU-NKVD pertaining the otrodox Church (capitalization from text – SB) – overturned.

    3) NKVD should immediately revise all judged and arrested citizens because of Church service. Immediately release them from custody and change their sentence to one without detainment if their actions have not harmed the state.

    4) Questions about believers of other confessions who are detained in custody shall be solved by the CC separately.

    Secretary of the CC

    J. Stalin”

    Patriarch Alexiy II of the Russian Orthodox Church gave Stalin a burial with the highest honors their traditions had to offer upon his passing. Would an atheist oppressor desire such a thing in their will?

    Of course, this is not specifically about Stalin as such; I realize the “Stalin Argument” refers broadly to the practice of tying atheism to oppression and murder, and that a suitably educated/slippery Christian apologist can simply substitute Albania for the USSR if they so desire. However, even on principle alone, I fail to see why atheism should just quietly and unquestioningly accept Stalin as one of it’s own.

  4. Mike says:

    Prior to his career in revolution and politics Stalin was a seminary student. Not that he couldn’t have abandoned faith at a later date, but studying to be a priest is hardly a sign of atheism. The extermination of clergy and various other anti-church activities started long before he was in charge.

    However, I would not hold up his warming of policy towards the Orthodox church as a sign that he was not an atheist. He had plenty of other motives to reinstate it, with the two prime ones being internal intelligence gathering and control of the population. Many priests were either NKVD informers or even outright state employees.

  5. Marcus says:

    I wouldn’t go to far with the technology limited death tolls argument. The simplest way to kill huge masses of people has always been to take their food and let them starve, in the past it was actually easier to kill off people this way – they had to keep back a higher portion of the crop as seed for the next year, they could not preserve as much food, more people were chronically malnourished, and transportation networks simply couldn’t move food in from areas with a surplus afterwards. Burning the fields, stealing grain stored for the winter, etc. are all dirt simple ways to kill the masses and remain common ways of killing people in mass (Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Mengitsu, Okamura, Kim, etc. all killed many of their victims simply by denying them food).

    Back in the day, you didn’t kill the peons because you couldn’t, but because you didn’t want to. Agricultural land in Gaul, or wherever, wasn’t worth a lot without people to farm it. Far better to conquer it, make enough bloody examples to scare the peons into submission, and then tax your new subjects.

    On the direct killing side, the preferred instruments for mass killings have still been low tech and well within the means of Greek despots. The weapon of choice for despotic thugs has always been large mobs (more or less organized depending) armed with blades and the odd small arm. Rwanda showed quite easily that you rack up a quite impressive body count with just farm implements (in some places just 16% of the murders used firearms or heavier weaponry). Farm implements, like machetes, have been the favored weapons for mass killings in Haiti, Rwanda, Cambodia, and China.

    A much better point is about the size of populations, it really is too easy to kill huge numbers of people when you control the army and you have a million followers – technology just doesn’t add all that much.

  6. Mark Perera says:

    Hi Mike,

    Found your site while looking for a way to rationalise the Stalin argument in my own head. Was a few years back when I was discussing this at university that a religious person brought it up over dinner and I found myself unaware and surprised of Stalin’s case. Their argument collapsed way before I got to even respond to this and so I thought nothing of it.

    However, I just saw an old YouTube clip of someone attacking Bill Maher over it so, like most atheists, I wanted to challenge my beliefs and understand the argument more. SO GLAD I googled it and came across your page (written in 2011 but still very much relevant today – thank you!).

    Such an interesting blog man, really enjoyed reading some of your pages. Got to admit, the porn review section came as a bit of a surprise but true to your style, it’s well written and insightful.

    The Facebook generation I am from would love to join any fan page you may have or add you on twitter but sadly, you don’t seem to have any social media links to this. Hope this little comment lets you know that how happy I am to have stumbled upon your work.

    You have been bookmarked so please keep the articles coming. With love. Mark.

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