Atheism Kills? Not So Much

I came across this great post a few days ago from a former co-worker. Generally he blogs pretty lighthearted things, but this time he let loose a bit on a ridiculous argument often employed by Christians in debates with atheists. Simply put, it is a common theme in debates for atheists to point out how much violence has been done in the name of religion. The religious person – Christian or otherwise – usually replies with one of three arguments. One common reply is that atheists have killed lots of people, too, and Stalin is usually the prime example. Another is to say that since atheists have no absolute morals, why do they think it is wrong? The third is to say that the people committing atrocities in the name of God obviously weren’t really Christians. Chris’ post deals well with the first one so I’ll largely just quote him for it, but I’ll quickly respond to the other two as well.

Chris points out the most obvious historical flaw with the “atheism kills more people” argument:

a horrid monster who happens to be atheist, is not the same thing as atheism being the driving force for the death of millions. On the other hand, religion has been used as the driving force to justify some of the greatest atrocities in history.

There’s no way to deny it: religious people have killed far more than non-religious people throughout history. The most simple explanation for that of course being that the vast majority of the world throughout history has been religious in some sense. But even beyond that, as Chris put it, “religion has the potential of creating mindless followers or people doing awful acts with the misguided hope of spiritual rewards” which atheism doesn’t. The best you can come up with against atheism is a lack of a check against violence since there are no guidelines of peace, which is usually the second argument.

It’s an argument that is equally missing the point, and for the majority of atheists not even true. Most atheists have some form of moral code, just of a different philosophical slant instead of Divine Command Ethics. Even if you think they don’t, though, and some atheist debaters I’ve heard have no problem saying there is no code morality, it is still missing the point. When an atheist challenges a Christian on our violent past, it should be the perfect time to model humility and repentance. Instead, what this response says is that it is better to have a moral code and ignore it, than to not have one at all. Debaters taking this approach to me are openly proclaiming Christian hypocrisy for all to hear. If anything we should be far more accountable to peace-keeping if we claim to follow the Prince of Peace.

The third is equally missing the point and just comes across as a cop-out. When all else fails, just say that they weren’t really a Christian like I am. I’m not saying that the apologist isn’t right in saying mass murder is unChristlike. I totally agree it’s not. But is it really up to us to decide who really was a Christian? Especially for situations like the Crusades, we are declaring that no-one in the Church doing these things were really Christians. On the flip side, we know so much better, and we wouldn’t do that of course because we’re real Christians (even though you don’t really have to go that far back into history to see it). It smacks of elitism and judgment, which I think it is fair to say is also quite unChristlike. Again we’ve not just missed the point but we’ve actually proven the atheist point that we’re a bunch of hypocrites! I actually heard somebody use this argument recently, in the same debate in which he repeatedly lumped all atheists together as having identical morality. The atheist called him out on the double-standard but he didn’t seem to get it.

Here’s my suggestion to the apologists out there: repent. Instead of trying to find ways in which we are always the good guys, admit that we’ve messed up sometimes too. Honestly, you’re only hurting the Christian message by trying to demonize your opponent – particularly when you try to do it with such weak arguments – instead of actually admitting our mistakes. Especially since the Christian message is supposed to be one of being loved despite being weak, it comes out as counter to our own point if we keep insisting that no real Christian has ever done anything wrong. There were a lot of sincere people who thought God wanted the Crusades, and a lot of people sincerely thinking God was supporting or even calling for their violence. Let’s admit that. That doesn’t mean we have to think they were right. That’s the whole point of repenting: it means to turn around. We can think differently and act differently while still being honest about what they thought and did.

Beyond the apologetics technique to the actual question, here’s what it comes down to in my opinion. With “God” in the generic sense, as most have understood him/her throughout history as a violent tribal being, you probably will become more violent because you probably see this God on your side, helping you conquer those inferior to you. If you want to kill somebody, and your concept of God allows for that, then of course you will use that extra motivation or extra excuse to do so.  It creates a sort of sad irony that we’d kill the “heathen” and in so doing we sink at the very least to the same level if not lower. That’s why the Christian elitism mentioned in the apologetics answers above is such a problem – in other cultures where Christians had more power, that is probably the exact same elitist judgmental attitude that justified killing non-Christians. If God is a fundamentally wrathful and judgmental god, then of course people claiming to follow him tend toward being wrathful and judgmental. When left as the generic tribal violent God, our perception of God’s character has encouraged our religious violence, simple as that.

But when you stop just thinking about a generic concept of “God” and you honestly look at Jesus, it is pretty hard to be violent. If you really claim to be following his example, he died at the hand of his enemies, not killed them. He said to love your enemies, to turn the other cheek, and to put the sword away even when we think we’re doing the right thing defending him (Peter in Gethsemane). I’m sure if there is such a thing as a just war then Jesus defending his sinless self would have qualified. And as Christians we affirm the incarnation, that these actions and teachings were not just those of a man but of God, so we have to radically rethink our understanding of God in that light as a nonviolent instead of the violent, tribal, wrathful, judgmental god.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.