Absence of belief can motivate
The relationship between atheistic State regimes (e.g. Stalin’s communism) and human atrocities is often discussed. There is little question that the atheistic States under dictators such as atheist Stalin committed monstrous crimes against humanity. This presents a problem to modern atheists who criticise ‘religion’ for being immoral for it seems the atheistic alternative is little better.
Yet modern atheists wish to absolve ‘atheism’ of any guilt associated with the mass murders of Stalin by suggesting that because atheism is an absence of belief – a non-belief – it doesn’t motivate to action. Hence Stalin might have been an atheist, but it wasn’t his atheism motivating him to murder.
Richard Dawkins claims this in the God Delusion. He says, “Individual atheists may do evil things by they don’t do evil things in the name of atheism”. Dawkins attempts to remove any link or association with atheism and Stalin’s actions by stating, ‘Why would anyone go to war for the sake of an absence of belief?’
The logic seems to be that only positive beliefs (i.e. religious beliefs) motivate to action – i.e. I believe my God is superior to yours, so I’ll kill you and wipe out your tribe, or God told me to invade Iraq – hence I will do this. The logic shows that ‘religion’, which is a positive belief, can and does motivate to appalling actions. Whereas atheism is morally neutral because there is no clear relationship between belief and action – no-one is ever motivated by ‘a lack of belief’. Hence atheists might have been immoral and have done evil things, but it is not ‘atheism’ which is driving them, it is something else. Hence “atheism” is innocent.
Now, apart from the insipid and uninspiring way this portrays atheism – in this view atheism doesn’t appear to motivate anything – the logic is in fact deeply flawed. It is flawed because absence of belief can and does motivate action
For example a person is motivated to commit a crime because of the ‘lack of belief’ in getting caught. A burglar does not commit the crime with the belief or expectation of getting caught, they commit the crime precisely because there is an ‘absence of belief’. Hence a criminal is motivated by ‘lack of belief’.
This same ‘lack of belief’ can and has motivated atheists to appalling crimes. An atheists lack of belief in any final judgement or reckoning has freed them to enact appalling crimes against humanity. These atheists were motivated by exactly the same ‘lack of belief’ as the common criminal. So atheism cannot be absolved. The motivation of ‘not getting caught’ can and has motivated atheists to appalling crimes.
David Berlinski made exactly this observation commenting on the atheist regimes of the 20th century…
“What Hitler did not believe and what Stalin did not believe and what Mao did not believe and what the SS did not believe and what the Gestapo did not believe and what the NKVD did not believe and what the commissars, functionaries, swaggering executioners, Nazi doctors, Communist Party theoreticians, intellectuals, Brown Shirts, Black Shirts, gauleiters, and a thousand party hacks did not believe was that God was watching what they were doing.
And as far as we can tell, very few of those carrying out the horrors of the twentieth century worried overmuch that God was watching what they were doing either.”
Lack of belief can and has motivated. These people did these actions precisely because of an ‘absence of belief’.
Why would someone go to war for an absence of belief? Because that very absence motivates unspeakable crime!