There is incessant debate about it: have theists or atheists historically caused more suffering and death? When you add up the numbers, opposing Stalin with Torquemada, the Chinese Revolution with the Crusades, have atheists or theists killed more, tortured more? And was Hitler a theist or an atheist, anyway?
Here’s a better question: who cares?
Suppose Hitler was an atheist. Suppose Stalin tortured and killed more people than all of the theists put together. What implications follow for atheism as a whole? None: few atheists are even remotely like Hitler or Stalin. Suppose Hitler was a theist. Suppose the Crusades resulted in more suffering and death of innocents than the actions of all atheists combined. What follows for theism as a whole? Nothing: the majority of theists are nothing like Hitler and despise the Crusade mentality.
Theists and atheists who spend their time trying to denounce the other side by arguing that “tyrant W was an atheist,” “racist murderer X was a theist,” “insidious philosophy Y presumes there is no God,” or “destructive dogma Z is based on the Bible,” are typically engaging in a classic act of bigotry: the demonization of an entire class of highly varied people on the basis of the actions of a few extremists. In the process, they insult and polarize the good people on each side, and trivialize the comparatively minor, yet still dangerous, elements within.
Those theists who consider atheism the root of all evil should consider: would they rather have in power an atheistic secular humanist, who is “for the defense of basic human rights, including the right to protect life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” (A Secular Humanist Declaration) or would they prefer to have in charge a theist like The Order’s Glenn Miller, who once wrote:
All 5,000 White Patriots are now honor bound and duty bound to pick up the sword and do battle against the forces of evil. Swear you’ll not put down your sword until total victory is ours. Yahweh will fill your hearts with courage and strength and confidence…Let the blood of our enemies flood the streets, rivers, and fields of the nation, in Holy vengeance and justice… The Jews are our main enemies… They are truly the children of Satan. Throw off the chain which bind us to the satanic, Jewish controlled and ruled federal government. The following point system for Aryan warriors of the Order [for each kill]: Niggers (1), White race traitors (10), Judges (50), Morris Seligman Dees [chief trial council for the Southern Poverty Law Center] (888). Let the battle axes swing smoothly and the bullets whiz true. (As quoted in Dees 1997:100-101)
Similar considerations apply for atheists. Ought an atheist really choose an atheistic latter-day Stalin, who would gladly initiate a bloodbath if he could, over a theistic pacifist who would rule with a gentle and tolerant hand?
Is theism or atheism inherently dangerous? No. Both are consistent with intolerance and violence, but neither one has intolerance and violence as a “logical conclusion.” There are those who embrace hate and violence for religious reasons, and those who embrace them for secular reasons. Likewise, there are those who reject hate and violence for religious reasons, and those who reject them for secular reasons. And in fact, the vast majority of theists and atheists share common basic moral attitudes towards their fellow men and women.
We need to transcend the divisive rhetoric set forth by radical theists and atheists, those who would condemn the entirety of religion or secularism on the basis of the actions of a few in the past, present, or future. We need to acknowledge the common moral ground that most theists and atheists in fact share today, and band together against our common enemies, the small, extremist, insidious elements that exist on both sides of the fence. We may disagree with one another about what is true, and to some extent about what is good, but most of us can, and need to, stand together against bigotry, intolerance, and violence.
So, was Hitler an atheist or a theist? As long as he wasn’t typical of either side, I could care less what he was.
I wrote this article in 1999. I don’t remember whether I actually believed at the time that there were “few” religious extremists, or whether I was just saying that few are as extreme as the worst representatives atheists tend to point to. Either way, I should clarify that my current position is the latter. I have come to appreciate that quite large numbers of folk in most religions have extreme views in the sense that they have a horrible vision for society, and that they even delight, inwardly or outwardly, in the murder of those who don’t share it. But I still think it is clear that the number who actually will themselves go out and murder someone is quite small compared to the number who will not. And yes, I do suspect that roughly the same considerations will apply to atheists, if one takes global stock of us.
M. Dees. 1997. Gathering Storm: America’s Militia Threat. New York: HarperPerennial.