Killing in the name of no God

If we blame faith for religiously inspired killing, we must not forget the hundred million or so people killed by atheist regimes in the past century.

Members of the Khmer Rouge (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Members of the Khmer Rouge
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In our militantly secular culture, students often lack the most basic knowledge about religion. Unfamiliar with the story of Abraham’s binding of Isaac or the most famous lines from the Sermon on the Mount, they readily embrace caricatured views of religion. Often, all they know is a litany of religiously inspired violence and the arguments of the “new atheists.” 
Violence justified by religion is indeed distressingly familiar, and it is easy to imagine, as John Lennon did, that the world would be a safer place if there were no religion. But as an empirical economist whose research distinguishes between causation and correlation, and as an expert on Russian literature and history, we have our doubts.
It is commonplace to argue that an especially pernicious consequence of faith is the justification for killing. The Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition are among many examples that seem to imply that it is religion that actively leads to violence. But what is lost is the fact that those deaths, however horrific, are dwarfed by the number committed in the name of no God.
Murderers, individual and state-sanctioned, have regularly justified their fervor and violence in terms of the governing philosophies of the day – only one of which happens to be faith. In the absence of any religion whatsoever, people and governments would find, and have found, other rationalizations for their actions. Is it faith that inspires killing, or is it killing that latches on to faith? Is it plausible that atrocities would stop if religion died out?
From the Khmer Rouge to Maoist extremists, an explicit rejection of faith lies at the heart of a movement’s prevailing philosophy. But an even more instructive example is the former Soviet Union. There, atheism led directly to unprecedented killing and cruelty – not just of a conquered people, as with the hordes of Genghis Khan, but also of one’s own. Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and other Bolshevik leaders explicitly derived their ethics from atheism and materialism. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, a prominent member of the “New Atheism” movement, argues that the atheism of the Bolsheviks had nothing to do with their brutality. The question, he writes, “is not whether Hitler or Stalin were atheists, but whether atheism systematically influences people to do bad things. There is not the smallest evidence that it does.” Soviet history shows this is patently false.
The bourgeoisie falsely claim we have no ethics, Lenin explained in a 1920 speech. But what we reject, he said, is any ethics based on God’s commandments or anything resembling them, such as abstract principles, timeless values, universal human rights, or any tenet of philosophical idealism. For a true materialist, notions such as the sanctity of life, Lenin insisted, are “based on extra human and extra class concepts” and so are simply religion in disguise. Anyone who hesitated before killing demonstrated an adherence to some quasi-religious belief. The result was that given a choice, the crueler method was preferred, since it, and only it, demonstrated one’s Bolshevik mentality. People were taught that compassion was a vice and that “conscience” was priest’s talk. That is one reason why, beginning in mid-1937, torture became mandatory in all interrogations, and interrogators competed to devise more creative forms. It is also why, when Stalin issued mass quotas for arrests, local officials regularly asked for permission to arrest still more. 
Of course, most people who believe in no God are peaceful, just as most believers in God are peaceful. But if we blame faith for religiously inspired killing, we must not forget the hundred million or so people killed by atheist regimes in the past century; and many not killed who were subject to tortures that astonish the imagination. Perhaps this, too, is a case of correlation rather than causation. Either way, we should stop pretending that only believers have something to answer for.
So while the excesses of faith seem on the surface to contribute to the worst of atrocities, that doesn’t mean that imagining a world without religion is the same as imagining a world at peace. Belief in God doesn’t kill any more than its absence – and perhaps less. Indeed, such argumentation only distracts us from the urgent work of exploring the real sources of – and solutions to – human rivalry, conflict and suffering. 
Gary Saul Morson is the Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities and professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Northwestern University. Morton Schapiro is professor of economics and president at Northwestern. They are the authors of
Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanities (Princeton University Press).