Those of us who are perhaps past our best can only sympathise with Richard Dawkins, who suffered an embarrassing ‘senior moment’ the other day on Radio 4. Dawkins could not remember the full title of Darwin’s Origin of Species – tricky to live down for the world’s best-known follower of Darwin, but understandable. The cheap jokes in the national press were unjustified.
There is another kind of forgetfulness, however, that is more serious. I am always surprised how little religious believers seem to know about the history of atheism in the last few centuries. Because the ‘new atheists’ claim to be scientific, we seem to shy away from going on the attack. The atheist figureheads in our culture know about this history but choose to forget, diverting attention with attacks on religion.
Modern atheism originated in eighteenth-century France. It promoted some of the worst excesses of the French Revolution and the “reign of terror.” After the Napoleonic Wars atheists were leading lights in the growth of anti-Semitism, particularly in Germany. Darwin’s work on evolution was twisted in the same direction through the ideas of eugenics, again with a strong atheist subtext. The atheist principles of Communism are well known.
Add it all up, and it becomes clear that atheism provided a large part of the impetus for the immense suffering of the twentieth century, at the hands of both Nazism and Communism. This is not to exonerate religion from all faults, far from it. Neither is it to claim that individual atheists are bad people, especially when they hold to humanitarian principles. But these historical connections cannot be denied. We should not let them be forgotten, however much atheists would like us to do so.
There are a few issues here.
First–and perhaps most predictably–there is no tie between any two atheists. Atheists are not linked by a Book or a specific belief or any positive assertion what so ever. (That’s right, I’m over looked that you think Nazism was an atheist movement.) If I described myself not as an atheist, but instead as a ‘Rejecter of Dogma’ (there is no one word for it, as rejecting dogma does not immediately make one pragmatic), then perhaps why I can’t see my association with communism or Nazism is more clear.
Second–and a little repetitively–if religion is linked with other dogmas then we can see how both religion and political ideologies like communism and Nazism actually surmount the same vulnerabilities in the human psychology. To be put in another way, it is precisely because these dogmas are so much like a religion that they were able to commit such atrocities.
Mark Silversides said:
From my reading of atheists they are united by several books and ideas so I will just have to disagree with your first point. I do not say that Nazism was an atheist movement, but I do believe it flourished as it did because of the development of an atheistic world view. BTW rejection of dogma is itself a dogma.
As regards your second point, I go along with G K Chesterton. When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything.