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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.

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