A Response to the Friendly Atheist (Part 1)

It’s rare for me to get worked up anymore over statements that atheists make about Christianity. For many years now, I’ve debated and exchanged dialogs—both in person and over the Web—Hemant Mehtawith many atheists and hatetheists (there is a difference) and have gotten pretty used to the primary arguments of the former group and the flawed caricatures / misrepresentations of the latter, so I am usually not bothered by what either has to say about the Christian faith.

Then I read the July 30 CNN opinion article by Hemant Mehta, “The Friendly Atheist,”  which is entitled “Why are millennials leaving church? Try atheism.”

Maybe it was seeing so many of the tired, false assertions in one place. Maybe it was some of the poor logic and argumentation the author employed. Whatever it was, I actually got peeved.

Mr. Mehta, likely responding to another CNN Belief Blog piece on why millennials are supposedly leaving the church, declares that atheism is playing a big role in their rumored exodus from Christianity. Let’s take a look at some of his major assertions and arguments and see if there’s support for what he claims.

The Anti-Everything Church

First up is Mr. Mehta’s endorsement of the contention that the Christian church is “anti-gay, anti-women, anti-science, anti-sex-education, and anti-doubt.” In today’s culture, to be anti-anything is bad so we see Mehta employ the typical paint-your-opponent-against-something-rather-than-for-something technique right out of the chute. But that aside, the question is, are the claims true? Let’s look at just a couple of them.

Anti-doubt? If by this he means the Church at large discourages asking hard questions about God, he couldn’t be more wrong. The entire discipline of apologetics is specifically designed for tackling difficult issues and questions about the existence of God. Christian websites such as gotquestions see over 3 million unique visitors a month[1], with special sister sites having been set up by the gotquestions team just for answering the questions children and teens have about Christianity. If millennials want to have their doubts and questions about God answered, they have many places to turn.

Anti-science? Later in the article, Mehta says, “For instance, there’s been talk of finding a better way to reconcile science and religion. Whenever that battle takes place, religion loses. . . . Mixing science and religion requires a distortion of one or the other.”

Honestly, I could write thirty pages alone on the flawed logic of his last statement, but in short, good science and good religion walk hand in hand just fine. Further, if anything, science is bolstering the arguments for God, not eliminating them.

There is evidence showing that our universe most certainly had a beginning and is not eternal[2]. The proof of intelligence and specified complexity running through life itself[3], and the fine tuning of our cosmos[4] all make for excellent scientific data points favoring a Creator.[5]

Moreover, the legion of brilliant scientists who are Christians that exist today as well as those in the past demonstrate the false dichotomy that Mr. Mehta offers millennials.

Anti-women? Evidently Mr. Mehta is unaware of how Christianity elevated womanhood in the first century.[6] He also must not know that the Bible specifically states that men and women are equal in their nature (Gen. 1:27), from a life/value perspective (e.g. Ex. 21:15, 17, 28), redemptive status (Gal. 3:28), and in their abilities (Prov. 31:10-31; 1 Cor. 12:1-10). Contrast that with other faiths such as Islam.

If Mehta is referring to the normal critique of a woman submitting to a man, then he’s incorrect on at least two fronts. First, the biblical passage usually referenced is speaking about men/women in marriage only. Second, that submission goes both ways – a fact conveniently omitted by Christian opponents who never read the beginning of the famous :submission section” in Ephesians, which starts with Paul saying: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21, my emphasis). Only after that does Paul go on in detail, telling both men and women how to submit to each other (with the man getting most of the lecture).

“Look at Us”

For the majority of the article, Mr. Mehta takes a shotgun argument approach to touting atheism by citing a number of assorted statistics and making various claims that are intended to show atheism’s momentum. In truth, however, most fail to impress.

A case in point is his benevolence example:  “The Internet-based Foundation Beyond Belief, which encourages atheists to donate to charitable organizations, just celebrated raising $1 million for worthwhile causes. (Disclosure: I serve on its board of directors).”

I, for one, am glad that this organization has been formed and money is being raised to assist those in need. I’d also like to welcome them to something that the Christian church has been doing for 2,000+ years. If millennials want to see charity in action, they need look no further than Christianity.

While Mehta’s 1,452 members (as of the time of this writing) have raised $1 million, such a figure is dwarfed by the hundreds of centuries of Christian missions, orphanages, relief organizations, hospitals, food pantries, and similar entities. Would Mr. Mehta like to pull out a calculator and tally up the money raised down through history by Christians for those in need vs. pure atheistic organizations? I doubt it as the embarrassment would likely be too great for him to bear.

He also says, “And last year, an estimated 20,000 atheists turned out for the Reason Rally in Washington, a tenfold increase from the previous atheist rally in 2002.” If Mehta is impressed by his crowd size and its growth after more than a decade, he should stop by my church sometime. We have about 23,000 that attend every Sunday and that number continues to grow in multiple campuses. And ours is just one church, in one city, in one state.

Further our congregation has, on occasion taken special offerings for hurricane victims and other national tragedies that have exceeded, in a single offering, the amount his humanist organization has raised in total. I don’t relay this statistic to boast, but rather to demonstrate again that the benevolence argument employed by Mehta as to why millennials should choose atheism simply carries little weight and is not one he should use anywhere outside his atheist internet forums.

In Part 2 of this post, I’ll look at a couple more claims Mehta makes, including a few that I believe to be more on target.


[1] I help write for gotquestions and receive their monthly update. In July of 2013, over 12,000 people indicated on the site that they became Christians just by having their questions answered! This is not atypical; it is normal for 10,000+ people a month to indicate that they have received Christ through the gotquestions website.

[2] For a visual presentation on the arguments, see: http://www.slideshare.net/schumacr/origins-why-something-is-here.

[3] For a visual treatment of how information (not data) is present in life, see: http://www.slideshare.net/schumacr/origins-evolution-and-information.

[5] See John Lennox’s excellent work God’s Undertaker – Has Science Buried God? for more information.

[6] For a good treatment of the subject, see Chapter 4 of Alvin Schmidt’s How Christianity Changed the World.

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DISCLAIMER: Blog entries made by individual authors reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the view of other CAA authors, or the official position of the group at large.
About Robin Schumacher

Robin has a Master's in Christian Apologetics, a Ph.D. in New Testament, and writes for a number of Christian publications and sites. You can visit his websites at: www.powerpointapologist.org and www.confidentchristians.org.

  • tildeb

    I’m sure that by pretending there isn’t a theological problem in response to the overwhelming interest showed in Rachel’s article and publishing a rehash of long discredited and shallow arguments against the meteoric rise of the Nones and swelling ranks of those who admit to their atheism, your article will stem the tide. Keep up the good work.

    • Robin Schumacher

      “I’ll look at a couple more claims Mehta makes, including a few that I believe to be more on target”

      Perhaps you should wait for Part 2 before criticizing?

  • Joe Bruce

    Yes it is easy to find fault, much harder to propose something better. I see he is trying to paint atheists as benevolent. Didn’t work out too well in communism though, our only real-world example so far of an officially atheistic state. Hemant was on a UK Christian radio show in a sort of debate with Leah Libresco, who is a convert from atheism to Christianity. She spoke of the moral arguments which were the catalyst for her conversion and asked Hemant what his moral values were and where did they come from. He mentioned “equality” but kind of slithered away from the topic before really answering where this societal value came from. I would propose our ideals about equality and individual liberties come out of Christianity, but that was not said in the debate I just wish it would have been discussed. If you are interested in hearing this informal debate discussion (which took place about a year ago, in July 2012) it is on the radio show’s website, you just have to scroll down and look for that past show:
    http://www.premierradio.org.uk/shows/saturday/unbelievable.aspx

    • tildeb

      Love the word ‘slithered’ although I’m sure you meant it in the nicest and most respectful of ways. But I’ve been wrong before.

      As for the very bad argument about communism and atheism, why not attribute it to mustaches? It makes as much sense.

      As for the moral argument that attributes our sense of it to some divine and nebulous agency who uses some kind of POOF!ism to install it into us and other species, don’t bother to look to biology; it can’t possibly come from there by religious fiat that just so happens to favour your religious brand. Not a coincidence when we know that no one before christianity came along in the recent past exercised moral judgements about equality and individual liberties, which is why history just so happens to favour your explanation. These Enlightenment values were obviously informed and supported by today’s christianity, of course. That’s why the various sects of christianity stopped practicing support for legal discrimination moments before the Enlightenment arrived on the scene and its adherents stopped discriminating on the basis of gender and sexual preference and race and… oh, wait a moment…

      It’s a drag when reality keeps interfering with my support of your position. If not for that, I’m sure you;d be exactly right in your beliefs.

      • Joe Bruce

        Well, maybe you’re right and atheism had nothing to do with the mass killings under communism. I just thought a system of belief where there is no higher power to punish you for killing might tend to dull the conscience. Don’t you think that’s at least a plausible hypothesis? Also, doesn’t Planned Parenthood, the abortion giant, have atheism as their official belief system, although they call it secular humanism. I’m still looking for a good example of what atheism brings to the societal table. Have you ever heard one?

        • tildeb

          Take a moment and think; does it make sense for non belief to be another kind of belief… like a non bicycle to be another kind of bicycle? I sometimes wonder why the mind seems to shut down entirely when rolling out another discredited trope to try to bash and vilify and attack atheists who rely on reality to arbitrate reasoning about it. So, no, I don’t think you’re presenting a reasonable hypothesis when reality accessible to both of us shows us that pious and non pious are quite capable of mass murder. The holocaust perpetrators were chalk full of good christians as were many of those involved with the Soviet gulags.

          As for your drive-by smear of trying to link Planned Parenthood to ‘belief’ in atheism, try instead of looking to people who work hard and risk much to help others. In these ranks you will also find both the pious and non pious, those who believe in god and those who do not. You also might want to spend more than a moment before dismissing the notion that the motivation to help others for the sake of being helpful is not advanced but diminished by harboring the unspoken need for brownie points with an after-death judge.

          And yes, there are many secular organization that are ‘good’ examples of offering help for the sake of offering help. Local hospices and palliative care here in Canada are almost always purely secular and related to local health units and government for funding. But as far as international organizations go, certainly Doctors Without Borders pops into my mind even if it avoids popping into yours. Like Planned Parenthood – many organizations try to offer medical services where local governments do not suffice. What’s bizarre to me is assuming that one requires belief in a god to earnestly desire to aid others. The local emergency response teams and medical personnel are filled with ‘secular humanists’ doing the very work you presume belongs only to those motivated by some belief in some god. What the two have to do with each other exists only in your head and not in reality.

          And if you really want to reduce abortion rates and improve health care for pregnant women, then there is compelling evidence that good public sex education, the widespread availability of contraception, and free access to all local gynecological medicine will do wonders at achieving this goal. But what won’t work is promoting sexual ignorance, abusing secular law to impose legal control of women’s wombs, reducing or eliminating access to contraception, and making abortion services either illegal or very difficult and expensive to obtain. That’s a recipe for disaster and – lo and behold – when we turn to reality we find exactly this in practice: the very lowest rates of abortion are found in the moist highly educated population that has free access to healthcare. Whoda thunk?

          • Malcolm Tan

            “does it make sense for non belief to be another kind of belief”
            Yes, it does. Atheism may not believe in the divine (or a religion or anything supernatural) but it has certain philosophical assumptions and worldviews that it holds just as dogmatically.
            “The holocaust perpetrators were chalk full of good christians as were many of those involved with the Soviet gulags”
            Please substantiate this. There are many assumptions in this statement. I teach 20th century modern world history at high school. That does not make me infallible but that means I know something about this.Who do you consider as the perpetrators? Who amongst these qualifies as “good Christian”? And by “Christians”, do you mean, nominally born into the religion like in the West or practising it? Yes, sadly many who called themselves Christians in Germany voted for Hitler and did nothing to stop the “rise of evil”. Many Catholic and Protestants were more concerned with self-preservation or still held some prejudice against the Jews, but to say that there are many “good Christians perpetrators” of these atrocities is untrue. That is revisionism. As for communism in USSR having “good Christian perpetrators, that is even more incredible. Nazi Germany, despite Hitler not believing in orthodox christian beliefs, was still reluctant to declare itself atheist but communist USSR, was not just only officially atheistic but anti-theistic. And it is not by chance that atrocities were committed in almost all communist countries around the world which share this trait – Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Camobodia, Honecker’s East Germany, just to name a few. There is something systemic in communism that makes its leaders commit atrocities.
            Read the lyrics of “The Internationale”, the global communist anthem and one will sense its ideology and philosophical beliefs and assumptions. It declares “no gods nor saviours”, followed by the need to therefore use whatever means, including violence, to achieve liberation of the oppressed proliteriat. Since God does not exist, the song exhorts communists/socialists to be free to do whatever seems fit to them to achieve their own salvation and utopia.
            Moreover, the communists, like Hitler, also subscribed to social darwinism which is based on an atheistic and materialistic viewpoint. For the communists, “survival of the fittest” meant that class struggles and violence are natural and necessary to achieve their version of utopia. For Hitler, this justifies eugenics theories of superior race and ethnic cleansing of “inferior races”. One can argue that Hitler and the communists abuse darwinism to justify their means of achieving power. Perhaps. One can also argue that religionists abuse God and religion to achieve power. That would be fair.
            Atheism has better arguments to make in support of it, than to make absurd denials, generalisations, assumptions, heap insults and display lack of fairness and balance in their debates with their opponents. These do not reflect well on the stand that one argues for as it displays lack of security and merely “gives ammunition” to theists to criticise the implication of atheism.

            • tildeb

              Malcolm, I am truly sorry I missed this comment of yours months ago because it desperately needs an informed response.

              If you are truly a history teacher, then you are doing your students a huge disservice promoting this tremendously biased viewpoint filled with apologetic religious canards that are at best factually wrong.

              If you go to the towns as I have where these concentration camps operated (I went in the 60s), you’ll find the many of the very people who staffed these operations were by all local accounts fine upstanding christian citizens (in Germany) doing what they thought was their patriotic duty. Outside of Germany, you’ll find many of these camps were operated not just by sympathetic allies but also by imported Austrian, Hungarian, and German soldiers and paramilitary also considered fine upstanding christians. Assuming as you do that these fine folk were all outside of their card-carrying religious identities is factually wrong. Insisting that that they weren’t good christians of the day isn’t teaching history; it’s revising it.

              The same community standards to which the religious were a central pillar is true for those who operated the gulags in the sense that the local staff was drawn from the local population, many of whom maintained their religious identity even if they didn’t advertise it. Stalin himself, as I’m sure you’re quite aware, was trained as a orthodox priest. To attach atheism to these totalitarian regimes as if causal is more than a gross distortion; it’s simply a lie. These states were all about centralized power and anyone, any group, any threat to that power was considered an enemy of the state and dealt with accordingly. This included all kinds of people including theists as well as non theists You may as well teach that these states were caused by the facial hair of the men who collected this power so poor is your historical understanding of how these regimes came to be. It’s absurd.

              If you read Marx, you’ll find the reference to religion as the opiate of the people to be a response to terrible living conditions and a general hopelessness of improving anything, which makes the hope religion provides about a next life necessary; alter these conditions, these power imbalances, so Marx argued, alter the need for such an opiate. In this Marxist sense, religious belief is seen to be an indication of misery and hopelessness and powerlessness but, like politicians everywhere, leaders of communist ideals who wanted to harness this mass of people to their cause and imported Marxist theory as a tool to do so mistook the symptom for the disease and so legislated – like South Carolina’s ridiculous state legislature outlawing sea level rise – against its expression thinking they were eliminating at one fell swoop the cause of misery. They were wrong.

              This is good history – a way to understand today by reflecting on how the past shaped it. Teaching students that atheism caused 20th century totalitarian does not do this but its opposite; it indoctrinates to meet a religious objective rather than reveal the lessons we can learn from such gross historical tragedies. And we can test this difference by looking at any totalitarian system and seeing if the centralization of power crosses the atheist/theist divide: one look at Germany or Iran, for example, shows exactly this cross-over. Now compare and contrast the Revolutionary Council of Iran with, say, Lenin’s Worker’s Council and try to find where atheism drives one but not the other. You will fail to find any historical causal factor at work you now call atheism. It’s all about political power.

              You are remarkably undisciplined for anyone claiming to be a history teacher substituting Huxley’s social darwinism with Darwinism. That descent from common ancestry is a fact that undermines religious belief in some kind of divine POOF!ism is a problem for such theists to somehow find a middle ground between what’s true and what’s not. As a teacher, you should understand the importance of respecting what what we know, how we know, and why we inform with confidence explanations arbitrated not by some religious agenda set to indoctrinate but an independent reality based on what works. Your version of history designed to try to vilify atheists on the one hand while praising religious adherence on the other doesn’t work to explain conditions today.

              And much of this trouble comes from the kind of skewed thinking that comes from serving not what’s true and knowable but religious piety in all its various forms: to categorize non belief – a significant threat to maintaining the privilege religion now plays in the public domain – as having “certain philosophical assumptions and worldviews that it holds just as dogmatically” (as belief in the divine and supernatural). Atheism is not a ‘worldview'; it simply means non belief in gods or a god. And you exercise the same atheism I do for exactly the same reasons I do: you have no compelling reasons to believe in all kinds of divine critters and supernatural agencies. All the rest of this castigating of atheists for these ‘historical’ crimes is just so much crap and fluff. Apply it to yourself regarding your non belief in pixies or Wotan and you’ll begin to appreciate just how warped your sense of history is to blame your non belief – or mine – as the causal agent for genocides and all kinds of political nastiness in action.

              • Malcolm Tan

                If you bothered to read carefully the last few
                paragraphs in my previous post, I did acknowledge that atheism has good
                arguments in favour of it, even though Im not ultimately persuaded. I just felt
                that some atheists too often unfairly insist on a necessary link between
                religious faith and the evil deeds of religious believers, when in fairness, it
                is also plausible or even possible to argue that there is some connection between
                atheism and the evil deeds of the communist regimes. I also acknowledged that perhaps
                Hitler and the communists ABUSED Social Darwinism. I did not even assert that
                Darwinism or evolution is wrong. So why get so hostile as to make personal
                attacks and ridicules? I thought only dogmatic religious fundamentalists are
                capable of that? In the academic field, no theory or hypothesis is sacrosanct. However,
                I noticed that in an earlier post, you had written that “pious and non-pious are quite capable of mass
                murder.” I AGREE with this fair conclusion. You said in the last post that “its
                all about political power” that the communist dictators did their evil deeds. I
                would like to argue that the same can also be argued for a majority of the so-called
                “religious wars” or “religious atrocities”. Actually, it is not even literally
                true that most of them were started “in the name of God”, even when religious
                factors were undoubtedly present – what I mean is that those words need not actually
                be uttered by those culpable. Causes of wars and atrocities, religious or
                secular, are often more complex and multi-causal, which need some “peeling off”
                the surface.

                A lethal mix of hostility, hatred and
                intolerance towards those whom you disagree with, combined with the taking over
                of absolute power, are the factors that often cause wars and atrocities throughout
                history – not ideology, religion, philosophy or atheism per se. And this can characterize
                atheists or religious believers alike. It all starts with ridiculing, condemning,
                making unfair stereotypes and personal attacks on opponents. Then when power is
                won and consolidated, force re-education and propaganda on them. When this
                fails, outright persecution on them comes in. Familiar? This is the modus
                operandi of both atheist communist regimes and religious governments through
                the centuries – Im being fair here.

                Maybe your hostile response was also because
                you did not like my calling your historical assertions a “revisionist” one. The
                term “revisionism” in history means either a legitimate historical
                interpretation which is different from traditional or conventional
                interpretation or an illegitimate outright denial, distortion and wilful
                suppression of facts. Until recently, few will seriously assert that Hitler or
                Stalin were Christians. Thus, those who now attempt to argue so, like you, are
                by default “revisionists” by academic definition.

                Secularism in the academic field is necessarily
                and rightfully, non-religious but NOT anti-religious. You accuse me of trying
                to advance religious agenda into my teaching and interpretation of history. You
                also seem to be trying to advance an agenda of discrediting Christianity in
                line with your atheist and materialist worldview – in the field of humanities,
                nobody is free from worldview, as everyone interprets facts of this world, from
                the angle or perspective that we see, like as if through the lens of a
                spectacle, often in accordance with the position or stand that we take and/or
                our philosophy or assumptions about life. In discussions regarding the
                metaphysical world, classical “freethinkers” or “agnostics” rather than staunch
                atheists, are the most objective and neutral, as although they do not adhere to
                any religious belief, they do not also claim to have certainty regarding the
                existence and absence of god or the validity of any religion or atheism. Thus,
                they are more “open” to accepting and acknowledging good arguments and valid evidences
                from those who have a more definite metaphysical stand/position – staunch atheists
                and religious believers.

                I had my history graduate and masters education
                in a secular university under mostly atheist or agnostic professors who
                exemplified rationality, fair-mindedness and objectivity (as best as they can).
                In true secular spirit, they never tried to advance their metaphysical historical
                interpretations during lessons. Their fair-mindedness is such that they are
                usually respectful towards those whom they disagree with and gave credit where
                it is due. Contrary to what you accuse me of, I have followed their example of
                neutrality and never taught apologetics in lesson presentation. One of them, Dr
                Daniel Crosswell, currently lecturer in Columbus State University, is a staunch
                atheist who used to hang a list of quotes ridiculing Christianity on his office
                door. Yet in his lecture on Early Modern Europe, he was fair enough to
                acknowledge that the religious wars of the 16th and 17th
                century were nationalistic, political as well as religious in nature. He also
                acknowledged that many of the scientists responsible for the 17th
                century Scientific Revolution were either Christians or Deists and that their impetus
                to do so was due to their belief that there had to be an orderly cosmos with
                natural laws governing it, since God was creator and law giver. His moderate atheism
                is such a contrast with the increasingly radical (even militant), intolerant
                strain of atheism (as advocated by the “four horsemen” apostles of “New Atheism”)
                that arrogantly seeks to insult, ridicule and attack those whom they disagree
                with but hardly try to understand or acknowledge the valid points of their
                opponents. Sadly, some Christians can also be like that too. Adopting this hostile
                and bigoted approach takes away the credibility of one’s argument.

                A fair and objective proposition, which most
                people would agree, is that the militant or intolerant strain of ideology, religion
                or atheism, when combined with absolute power, can lead to much violence in the
                world. We know that atheists and religious believers are both capable of doing
                acts of kindness and acts of violence. Objective historians do not accept the
                simplistic view that conflict or violence is the result of one cause/factor. Since
                there need not necessarily be anything inherently in their beliefs or lack of
                beliefs to make them do so, it seems rather futile to pursue your assertion
                that “the holocaust perpetrators
                were chalk full of good Christians as were many of those involved with the
                Soviet gulags.”.
                However, for the sake of historical discussion, I will attempt to deal with this.

                • Guest

                  Before we do that, we have to first, look at
                  historiography. In dealing with sources, historians do not take what a person say
                  at face value. They commonly use three tests to help them analyse a source –
                  credibility, consistency and corroboration. Credibility test means asking if the
                  historical context or background of the originator of the source could have
                  influenced him/her to write or say something. Consistency test means asking if
                  the speech and actions of the originator of the source contradicts itself.
                  Corroboration test means comparing what the originator of the source writes or
                  says with other sources of information by others. Finally, historical
                  conclusions are always provisional and can be overturned with new facts or new
                  interpretations.

                  As to your hypothesis that “the holocaust perpetrators were chalk full of
                  good christians as were many of those involved with the Soviet gulags.”
                  Regardless of the ultimate validity of this hypothesis, it is too sweeping and
                  too subjective to be a good, viable working hypothesis. Many subjective definitions
                  are needed to make the proposition work. All these terms need definition and
                  qualification, as not everyone agrees on what they mean – “holocaust perpetrators”,
                  “chalk full of”, “good christians” and “as were many of those involved with the
                  Soviet gulags”. These are not just over semantics. These are the questions my
                  professors will raise with a hypothesis like that. Define these terms differently
                  and you will get a different conclusion. Who should be considered as the
                  holocaust perpetrators? The Nazi Party leaders or the ordinary soldiers and
                  policemen who did the “dirty work”? What about those who served in the backline
                  by driving the trucks or trains which transported the Jews? These are just some
                  of the complexities regarding culpability. The Allied War Crimes Tribunal which
                  tried the Nazis for war crimes at Nuremburg proceeded according to the
                  principle of “command responsibility”, meaning that the senior Nazi leaders
                  were much more culpable than those below who had to carry out orders and worked
                  under group conformist pressure. The same principles were used at the Tokyo and
                  Singapore trials regarding Japanese atrocities in the Far East. Similarly, historian
                  Christopher Browning in his 1992 well-researched book “Ordinary Men: Reserve
                  Police Unit 101” asserted that these “ordinary men” by profile, “killed out of
                  a basic obedience to authority and peer pressure, not out of bloodlust or
                  primal hatred.” Thus, most would agree that Hitler, Stalin and their respective
                  party leaders were most culpable. “Chalk full of” – how do you define and quantify
                  that? How do you count the numbers? “Good Christians” – even secular sociologists
                  will note the complexity of defining and accounting for “Christians”, what more
                  “good Christians”. Frankly, I don’t consider myself a “good Christian”, though
                  maybe you think I am. How about “good atheists” or “true atheists”? Some
                  atheists I know don’t even consider agnostics, communists and Theravada
                  Buddhists (I grew up as one) to be “good atheists” or even “true atheists”. They
                  charge the first group with “intellectual cowardice, the second group with
                  being too dogmatic with their ideology and the third for still believing in an
                  unproven metaphysical system, even though their branch of Buddhism does not
                  believe in gods (they see Siddhartha Gautama Buddha as only a great moral
                  teacher). “As were many of those involved with the Soviet gulags” – another statement
                  that needs to be conceptually broken down, defined and quantified similarly like
                  your assertion on the holocaust.

                  Was Stalin a Christian? Most academics,
                  including atheist ones such as Richard Dawkins, suggest that he was atheist. Of
                  course, that by itself is not authoritative but that says something. Yes, Stalin
                  was probably raised as a Russian Orthodox by his devout mother who had hoped he
                  would be a priest. He then attended seminary to be trained as a priest.
                  Interestingly, he had an anti-clerical father. We do not know if he did so
                  voluntarily or out of a desire to please his mother. Please note for now, that this
                  does not tell us about his personal religious convictions. Some context is
                  needed here, which applies to Stalin, Hitler and the European societies of their
                  time. Religion was very much institutionalized in the world then, either
                  through the state or the society – Christianity in Europe, Buddhism, Hinduism
                  or Islam in Asia. There is also a cultural element to religion too. To be
                  Russian, is to be an Orthodox Christian. For example, to be Italian, Austrian,
                  Irish or Spanish, is to be Catholic. To be German, either Catholic or Lutheran.
                  Much of European society was still rather conservative, outwardly religious and
                  conformist then. One was expected at birth to follow Christian rites, attend
                  services, pay church taxes, whether they privately believed or not. In the
                  military too, church service parades were compulsory, even though many soldiers
                  privately loathed the imposition of religion on them. That is why public
                  profession of atheism was rare up till the early 20th century. Even
                  till today, I still come across a number of people, especially from
                  predominantly “Catholic nationalities”, who personally disbelieved in the Catholic
                  faith but were baptized, got married in church and sent their kids for infant
                  baptism as that was part of their tradition and ethnicity. Are they Catholics? Sociologists
                  compiling national population statistics have always noted the problem of accurately
                  accounting for religious believers in a country, as there is a difference
                  between those who nominally belong to a religion and those who personally
                  believed in it or actively participated in it. Im sure you know of many prominent atheists or
                  agnostics who were raised as Christians but later disbelieved, even though some
                  were even seminary trained – Professor Bart Ehrman of University of North
                  Carolina for example. Are they Christians? I was born a Buddhist, became
                  convinced of the truth of this faith at age nine and even studied Buddhist
                  textbooks in teenage years. Does this mean Im Buddhist now? So to say that
                  Stalin was a Christian just because he was raised as one and went to seminary
                  is too naïve.

                  We know
                  that Stalin was later expelled from the seminary for spreading Marxist ideas to
                  his mates. We know that the Marxist ideology is atheist and materialistic and
                  irreconcilable and even hostile to Christianity. A clue about whether Stalin was
                  still a Christian at this stage can be inferred from his daughter, Svetlana
                  Alliluyeva, who wrote about her father in her book Only
                  One Year (1969).

                  From his experiences at the seminary,
                  he had come to the conclusion that men were intolerant, coarse, deceiving their
                  flocks in order to hold them in obedience; that they intrigued, lied, and as a
                  rule possessed numerous faults and very few virtues.

                  Doesn’t this sound so consistently like the
                  Marxist brand of anti-religion rhetoric? And Stalin’s actions consistently backed
                  him up as a Marxist. When in power, he subsequently persecuted Christian
                  leaders and followers and closed down religious institutions. Tens of thousands
                  of them were killed or thrown into the gulags. Through the Central Committee of
                  the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, he also set up the League of the Militant Godless in 1925,
                  whose objective, as historian Daniel Peris’
                  tells us, was to promote atheism and scientific materialism worldview. This was
                  to be achieved through re-education, propaganda, demonstrations and even
                  anti-religious museums to convince Russians of the superstitions and evils of
                  religion. Professing Christians were publicly and openly ridiculed. Some of
                  those holding governmental and professional positions also lost their posts. If
                  Stalin is a Christian, does it make sense for him to not just persecute
                  Christianity but also aggressively promote atheism? Would you as an atheist,
                  ever persecute atheists and promote religious beliefs, if you ever come to
                  power? Unthinkable, right?

                  Yes, Im aware that some claimed that
                  Stalin still held a bible in his library and may have even read it at times. I
                  believe this is possible. But this does not mean he believed in Christianity.
                  The Bible was so entrenched in Western civilisations that many read it as a
                  piece of literature only, without believing its supposed divine origins. Even militant
                  atheists possess and at times read from the bible, so that they can use it to
                  ridicule and attack Christianity! We only seem to see a shift in Stalin’s
                  persecution of religion from June 1941 onwards, as his biographers unanimously noted.
                  He began to relax the persecution, allowed churches to reopen and even allowed
                  the Moscow Patriarchate, the governing body of the Russian Orthodox Church to
                  be set up in 1943. He did on a few occasions ask for public prayers for the
                  victory of the USSR. But even here, we see inconsistencies, such as the continuation
                  of both state atheist propaganda and state religious persecution. So what are
                  we to make of this? Like all shrewd dictators, Stalin saw how religion could
                  boost morale. The timing of his religious tolerance from June 1941 onwards
                  coincided with the German invasion. We know that the Germans allowed the reopening
                  of churches in conquered territories to bolster support amongst Soviets (many
                  of whom were also not ethnically Russians) against the communist regime. Stalin’s
                  relaxation of persecution was thus an attempt to counter the German move and
                  rally all Soviets together against the common enemy. Thus, we can see that
                  there is nothing to indicate that Stalin is a Christian for most of his adult
                  life. In fact, his actions showed consistently that he could not have been one.
                  Furthermore, there is no evidence nor any suggestion thus far that any of
                  Stalin’s key communist party officials held Christian convictions. Thus, the main
                  perpetrators of Stalin’s atrocities were not definitely not Christians.

                  However, I grant that he may possibly not
                  have been a consistent atheist, maybe an agnostic or deist. Historians Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov suggested
                  that “Stalin’s atheism remained rooted in some vague idea of a God of
                  nature”. This may not be surprising considering that many World War II Far East
                  Allied Prisoners of War shared that while they were previously in peacetime
                  indifferent or even hostile to Christianity, they were “open” to it briefly
                  during the imprisonment years as it seems to offer hope. Many then went back to
                  being atheist or agnostic again after liberation. Psychologists agree that hardships
                  and uncertainties do cause many people to re-examine their worldviews, at least
                  while the hardship and uncertainty last.

                  • Malcolm Tan

                    What about
                    Hitler? Was he a Christian? He was brought up as a Catholic again by a devout
                    mother and an anti-clerical father. He was baptised and confirmed when young and
                    did not subsequently renounce his faith officially. However, he did not attend
                    church regularly nor partake of the communion for most of his adult life. Like
                    the discussion on Stalin above, I have already pointed out the difficulty of
                    discerning individual beliefs in an age where public profession of atheism is rare.
                    Societal and community norms are still very important in that era. To be
                    Austrian, is to be Catholic. Whether he officially renounced his faith or not,
                    does not help us to understand his private beliefs as I pointed above. One may
                    argue, then what about his reference to restoring Christianity in his book, “Mein
                    Kampf.” What about his claim in it that he wanted to “fight for the Lord” and
                    take revenge on the Jews who killed Jesus? What about his many speeches to the
                    German people that he supported Christianity? What about the “God with Us”
                    inscription on German military belts. What about having chaplains in the German
                    military? What about his claim that “the Reichstag Fire is a signal from God
                    that the communists are the enemies of the country”? What about his concordat
                    with the Catholic Church? What about Cardinal Faulhaber’s impression that
                    Hitler was a Christian after having met up with him?

                    Im aware that
                    that based on these points above and others, some will argue that Hitler was a Christian.
                    As good historians, when analysing shrewd and opportunistic political figures
                    such as Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin, we have to be careful not to take their
                    words or even actions at face value, especially as they all saw the value of
                    religion as morale booster and unifier. We have to critically examine the
                    historical context. Please note that Hitler also said on several occasions to
                    the German people and also to British politicians, that he was for peace and he
                    only wanted to restore the rightful territories that the Germans lost after
                    World War I. He even claimed publicly that he was not interested in bringing
                    non-Germans into the Reich. He then even signed an agreement with Chamberlain
                    in 1938 at Munich, promising “never to go to war with one another [Britain] again”
                    after he had annexed Sudetenland. Yet privately, he told his Nazi Party “inner
                    circle” leaders that the agreement was “just a piece of paper” and he did not
                    intend to abide by it. His true intentions were only revealed when he broke all
                    his public promises and invaded Czechoslovakia and Poland which led to the war.

                    So we have to
                    discern between the public statements and writings of Hitler’s and the private
                    views to his close associates. Politicians, including US presidents, say
                    different things to different people all the time to suit their political
                    purposes. Why would Hitler want to make public his supposed sympathies with Christianity?
                    After leaving prison in 1924, Hitler realised that winning elections was the
                    only way to win power. His irreconcilable opponents were mainly those on the ‘left’
                    – communists and the socialists. His brand of National Socialism was largely ‘right
                    wing’ in orientation, advocating a restoration of authoritarian rule and
                    traditional German values and nationalism. His likely supporters would have to
                    come from the conservative elements of Germany, including the military, the Junker
                    land-owning class and institutional Christianity – Catholicism and Lutheranism.
                    To slowly win power as chancellor and then consolidate absolute power, he had
                    to make deals with ‘right wing’ parties such as the German National Party and
                    the influential Catholic Centre Party. Thus, for him to say that he supported
                    Christianity and portrayed himself as some sort of a Christian, made perfect
                    sense. How else could one, who was hostile to Christianity or who was an
                    atheist at that time, hope to win support from the middle and right wing
                    Germans? To the middle and right wing Germans then – Christianity was a
                    traditional German way of life they wished to maintain – never mind if some
                    amongst them did not privately believe in Christian doctrines.

                    The most reliable
                    sources to discern Hitler’s true views of Christianity would be the private
                    conversations of those top Nazi Party leaders who were close to Hitler. The
                    memoirs of Albert Speer, the diaries of Josef Goebbels and the “Table Talk”
                    compiled by Martin Borman, recorded these. Hitler had no reasons not to be
                    truthful with them, given that he needed them to understand his vision so as to
                    effectively carry out Nazi policies. In these, Hitler is recorded as saying
                    that Christianity is a religion “fit for slaves”. Speer wrote that, “Amid his political associates in
                    Berlin, Hitler made harsh pronouncements against the church…he conceived of
                    the church as an instrument that could be useful to him”. Speer recorded
                    Hitler as saying, “You see it’s been our misfortune to have the wrong
                    religion. Why didn’t we have the religion of the
                    Japanese, who regard sacrifice for the Fatherland as the
                    highest good? The Mohammedan religion too would have been much more compatible
                    to us than Christianity. Why did it have to be Christianity with its meekness
                    and flabbiness?” Goebbels wrote on 8 April 1941 that “He hates
                    Christianity, because it has crippled all that is noble in humanity.” He
                    also wrote on 29 April 1941 that though Hitler was “a fierce opponent of
                    all that “humbug” [Vatican and Christianity], he forbids me to leave the church
                    for tactical reasons.” Borman wrote that, “there was hardly anything
                    Hitler wrote down more eagerly than deprecating comments on the church.” Borman
                    further asserted that Hitler regarded the teachings of Christianity as a “rebellion
                    against the natural law of selection by struggle and survival of the fittest.” These
                    are just some of the many quotes and incidences related which can allow us to
                    infer that Hitler has nothing but contempt for Christianity and thus cannot be
                    a Christian. In fact William Shirer, the expert historian on the Third Reich,
                    who gave witness in the trials involving “the Holocaust denials”, Hitler
                    biographers Ian Kershaw and Allan Bullock amongst others, came to the
                    conclusion from these primary sources that Hitler eventually intended to do
                    away with Christianity without replacement or replace it with a form of
                    paganised or Aryanised religion.

                    In action, the Nazi Party also tried to control what was taught in the
                    state approved Reich Churches which promoted an “Aryanisation of Christianity”
                    by removing the Jewish elements of it, such as Old Testament, and blaming Jews
                    for Jesus’ death. These are explicitly against Jesus’ teachings in the gospels.
                    After all, Jesus and all the disciples were Jews! Christian leaders who did not
                    want to conform to such controls, like Protestant Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
                    who told his congregation, “We must obey God rather than Man [Hitler]”, were
                    persecuted and thrown into prison camps. Thus, Hitler’s tolerance of churches
                    was conditional upon obedience. He merely wanted to use the churches for
                    political purposes but would act against them when they refused to be
                    controlled to teach the Nazi version of Christianity. Hitler’s concordat with
                    the Pope was also to achieve submission from Catholics throughout the Reich. Many
                    key Nazi leaders including Hitler’s deputy Martin Bormann and Minister of
                    Propaganda, Josef Goebbels, Security Chief, Heinrich Himmler and Nazi Commissar
                    for Supervision of Ideology and Intellectual Education, Alfred Rosenberg (who
                    promoted neo-paganism), were well-known anti-Christians who desired to
                    eliminate Christianity from German society. Most would argue that, next to
                    Hitler, they were the most culpable for the holocaust. So the main perpetrators
                    of the holocaust were definitely not Christians.

                    Discerning whether Hitler was an atheist or not, is more problematic.
                    Kershaw asserted that Hitler was a private person rarely expressing his views
                    beyond his inner circles. He did make many references to a kind of god or
                    higher being, which is not the same as the God of Christianity. He also did not
                    object to the promotion of neo-paganism in Germany. I grant that he might
                    indeed be a deist or agnostic of some sort rather than an atheist. But we can
                    never know for sure.

                    • Guest

                      What about the ordinary “lesser” perpetrators of Stalin’s crimes? How many
                      Russians still privately hold on to Christian beliefs despite persecution and
                      institutional atheism under Stalin is something that even the Soviet communist
                      party could not be sure of. The communist party suggested an uncertain figure
                      of 50% Christians in the whole of USSR in 1937, after two decades of
                      persecution. Doesn’t it make more sense to suggest that most Soviet prison
                      guards in gulags would be atheists, with some, I agree, perhaps still privately
                      religious? After all, atheists would be more trusted by the communists than
                      Christians as prison camp guards, especially when many of those prisoners were also
                      Christians. Since you don’t have any concrete statistic or data about these
                      prison guards, my suggestion is at least as good as yours.

                      What about the ordinary “lesser” perpetrators of Hitler’s crimes? Dr
                      Browning, whom I mentioned above, had to scour for a variety of primary sources
                      – official documents, records, personal diaries and interviews with many of the
                      policemen of Battalion 101 who did the killings, in order to come up with a reliable
                      profile of these men. He suggested that most of them were “ordinary” Germans,
                      which I take to mean, at least nominally and outwardly Christians, given the
                      cultural and societal norms then. Thus, your anecdotes have a kernel of truth
                      in that. However, personal piety and belief are harder to qualify, as I pointed
                      out above, not that it would necessarily have made a difference.

                      As Chinese by ethnicity and having lived in Asia, I have also come across a
                      number of Chinese victims of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s,
                      including my very own professor of Chinese history. In this revolution, millions
                      of people, religious or atheists, were persecuted and thousands died in prisons
                      or in the hands of the Chinese communist hardliners. The victims often spoke of
                      the anti-religious zeal of the fanatically atheist “Red Guards” students who
                      wanted to root out superstitions, traditions and religions to achieve progress
                      under Maoist communism. So should I now make political capital that “many of
                      the perpetrators of Mao’s atrocities are atheists?” I think you will rightly object
                      to that. At most, our anecdotes only show that religious believers and atheists
                      are both capable of doing horrible acts to others, when they become intolerant
                      to the point of militancy, which is my stand in this post.

                      I do not wish to waste any more time arguing this out anymore. I believe objective
                      readers can see that while I obviously can’t claim to be impartial in this, I
                      have at least bothered to marshal my facts and try arguing rationally with
                      these, acknowledging your points where they are valid, instead of stooping so
                      low as to make personal attacks, condemnations, insults and shallow rhetorics
                      against those whom I disagree with.

                    • Guest

                      I would like to supplement
                      my last post on the “lesser perpetrators” of the Holocaust and the Gulags with
                      the following which I had left out:

                      In the Soviet Gulags,
                      NKVD personnel served as camp guards. The NKVD was a law enforcement unit of
                      the Soviet communist party and was highly indoctrinated in Soviet communist
                      ideology to ensure their political reliability. Under such propaganda,
                      re-education and possible scrutiny, it is reasonable to suggest that the bulk
                      of the NKVD members would have become atheists, even if they were not
                      originally so. It would be hard, though not impossible, for any individual NKVD
                      member to be still holding on to his covet Christian faith. This is especially
                      so when we know that Christians were barred from leadership posts in the USSR. Since
                      the NKVD was also responsible for carrying out state religious persecutions, it
                      would seem even more difficult for overt Christians to be trusted to carry this
                      (and the guarding of Christian prisoners in the gulags) out dutifully. As such,
                      it is safe to suggest that most of the NKVD members were not Christians. Thus,
                      the camp guards in the gulags could not have been “chalk full of” Christians.

                      In the Holocaust, the
                      camp guards who ran the extermination camps and concentration camps were manned
                      by personnel from the SS or Schutzstaffel, controlled by Heinrich Himmler,
                      while police units (such as the Reserve Police Unit 101 which I highlighted
                      above) and auxiliary units were responsible for secondary extermination
                      operations against the Jews and others. The SS were mainly responsible for
                      carrying out most of the execution of Jews and others. You cited anecdotes of
                      your having spoken to people who knew these camp guards as “good Christians”. Except
                      for the problem of defining “good Christians”, I do not deny that Christians were
                      present as SS camp guards and were involved in the killings. What I dispute is
                      your use of “chalk full of” to quantify their presence as SS camp guards. The
                      following facts suggest that there were lesser Christians in the SS than the average
                      German army and police unit. Although the anti-Christian SS Chief, Heinrich
                      Himmler, largely failed to promote Nordic Aryan neo-pagan rites in the SS, he
                      did successfully encourage many SS members to leave their church affiliation to
                      declare belief in some vague Nazi concept of god, similar to Deism, out of
                      loyalty to the Nazi Party as an organisation. According to Professor Browder, who
                      wrote a book, “Hitler’s Enforcers: Gestapo and the SS Security Service in the
                      Nazi Revolution”, 68% of SS
                      officers officially left church after 1933, while 16% of rank and file members officially
                      left church by 1937. Figures after that were not given but were probably higher
                      given the start of the “church struggle” from 1937 onwards, when the Nazi Party
                      began to persecute and imprison more non-conforming Catholic and Protestant
                      clergy. There
                      were also reported incidences of individual SS officers ridiculing their men
                      for their Christian faith. Even
                      US Professor Richard Steigmann-Gall, considered
                      a revisionist historian on religion and Nazi Germany, also agreed that given
                      the context of Germany then, nominal church membership itself is not an
                      accurate indicator of personal belief and piety unless there is a sudden drop
                      or increase in membership which would probably reveal a downward or upward
                      trend in personal religious belief respectively. In this case, there was
                      a dramatic drop in church membership in the SS at that time, which we can
                      safely conclude to be indicative of a similar drop in the even smaller unknown numbers
                      of the personally pious as well. Wolfgang Dierker also stated that Himmler abolished Christian
                      chaplains in the SS in 1934. This would have made it difficult for existing Christian
                      members of the SS to receive guidance in the Christian faith. When taken
                      together, it is reasonable to argue that the number of Christians in the SS, whether
                      nominal or personal believers, was much lower than the national average found in
                      the army and the police. Thus, it is questionable to conclude that the SS camp
                      guards were “chalk full of” Christians.

                    • Malcolm Tan

                      What about the ordinary “lesser” perpetrators
                      of Stalin’s crimes? How many Russians still privately held on to Christian
                      beliefs despite persecution and institutional atheism under Stalin was
                      something that even the Soviet communist party could not be sure of. The
                      communist party suggested an uncertain figure of 50% Christians in the whole of
                      USSR in 1937, after two decades of persecution. In the Soviet Gulags, NKVD
                      personnel served as camp guards. The NKVD was a law enforcement unit of the
                      Soviet communist party and was highly indoctrinated in Soviet communist
                      ideology to ensure their political reliability. Under such propaganda,
                      re-education and possible scrutiny, it is reasonable to suggest that the bulk
                      of the NKVD members would have become atheists, even if they were not
                      originally so. It would be hard, though not impossible, for any individual NKVD
                      member to be still holding on to his covet Christian faith. This is especially
                      so when we know that Christians were barred from leadership posts in the USSR. Since
                      the NKVD was also responsible for carrying out state religious persecutions, it
                      would seem even more difficult for overt Christians to be trusted to carry this
                      (and the guarding of Christian prisoners in the gulags) out dutifully. As such,
                      it is safe to suggest that most of the NKVD members were not Christians. Thus,
                      the camp guards in the gulags could not have been “chalk full of” Christians.

                      What about the ordinary “lesser”
                      perpetrators of Hitler’s crimes? In the Holocaust, the camp guards who ran the
                      extermination camps and concentration camps were manned by personnel from the SS
                      or Schutzstaffel, controlled by Heinrich Himmler, while police units (such as
                      the Reserve Police Unit 101 which I highlighted above) and auxiliary units were
                      responsible for secondary extermination operations against the Jews and others.
                      The SS were mainly responsible for carrying out most of the execution of Jews
                      and others. You cited anecdotes of your having spoken to people who knew these
                      camp guards as “good Christians”. Except for the problem of defining “good
                      Christians”, I do not deny that Christians were present as SS camp guards and were
                      involved in the killings. What I dispute is your use of “chalk full of” to
                      quantify their presence as SS camp guards. The following facts suggest that
                      there were lesser Christians in the SS than the average German army and police
                      unit. Although the anti-Christian SS Chief, Heinrich Himmler, largely failed to
                      promote Nordic Aryan neo-pagan rites in the SS, he did successfully encourage many
                      SS members to leave their church affiliation to declare belief in some vague Nazi
                      concept of god, similar to Deism, out of loyalty to the Nazi Party as an
                      organisation. According to Professor Browder, who wrote a book, “Hitler’s
                      Enforcers: Gestapo and the SS Security Service in the Nazi Revolution”, 68% of SS officers officially left church
                      after 1933, while 16% of rank and file members officially left church by 1937. Figures
                      after that were not given but were probably higher given the start of the “church
                      struggle” from 1937 onwards, when the Nazi Party began to persecute and
                      imprison more non-conforming Catholic and Protestant clergy. There were also reported
                      incidences of individual SS officers ridiculing their men for their Christian
                      faith. Even US Professor Richard Steigmann-Gall, considered a
                      revisionist historian on religion and Nazi Germany, also agreed that given the
                      context of Germany then, nominal church membership itself is not an accurate
                      indicator of personal belief and piety unless there is a sudden drop or
                      increase in membership which would probably reveal a downward or upward trend
                      in personal religious belief respectively. In this case, there was a
                      dramatic drop in church membership in the SS at that time, which we can safely conclude
                      to be indicative of a similar drop in the even smaller unknown numbers of the
                      personally pious as well. Wolfgang Dierker also stated that Himmler abolished Christian
                      chaplains in the SS in 1934. This would have made it difficult for existing Christian
                      members of the SS to receive guidance in the Christian faith. When taken
                      together, it is reasonable to argue that the number of Christians in the SS, whether
                      nominal or personal believers, was much lower than the national average found in
                      the army and the police. Thus, it is questionable to conclude that the SS camp
                      guards were “chalk full of” Christians.

                      As Chinese by ethnicity and having lived in Asia, I have also come across a
                      number of Chinese victims of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s,
                      including my very own professor of Chinese history. In this revolution, millions
                      of people, religious or atheists, were persecuted and thousands died in prisons
                      or in the hands of the Chinese communist hardliners. The victims often spoke of
                      the anti-religious zeal of the fanatically atheist “Red Guards” students who
                      wanted to root out superstitions, traditions and religions to achieve progress
                      under Maoist communism. So should I now make political capital that “most of
                      the perpetrators of Mao’s atrocities were atheists?” I think you will rightly object
                      to that. At most, our anecdotes only show that religious believers and atheists
                      are both capable of doing horrible acts to others, when they become intolerant
                      to the point of militancy, which is my stand in this post.

                      I do not wish to spend more time arguing this out anymore. I believe
                      objective readers can see that while I obviously can’t claim to be impartial in
                      this, I have at least bothered to marshal my facts and try arguing rationally with
                      these, acknowledging your points where they are valid, instead of stooping so
                      low as to make personal attacks, condemnations, insults and shallow rhetorics
                      against those whom I disagree with.

                • Malcolm Tan

                  Before we do that, we have to first, look at
                  historiography. In dealing with sources, historians do not take what a person say
                  at face value. They commonly use three tests to help them analyse a source –
                  credibility, consistency and corroboration. Credibility test means asking if
                  the historical context or background of the originator of the source could have
                  influenced him/her to write or say something. Consistency test means asking if
                  the speech and actions of the originator of the source contradicts itself.
                  Corroboration test means comparing what the originator of the source writes or
                  says with other sources of information by others. Finally, historical
                  conclusions are always provisional and can be overturned with new facts or new
                  interpretations.

                  As to your hypothesis that “the holocaust perpetrators were chalk full of
                  good christians as were many of those involved with the Soviet gulags.”
                  Regardless of the ultimate validity of this hypothesis, it is too sweeping and
                  too subjective to be a good, viable working hypothesis. Many subjective
                  definitions are needed to make the proposition work. All these terms need
                  definition and qualification, as not everyone agrees on what they mean –
                  “holocaust perpetrators”, “chalk full of”, “good christians” and “as were many
                  of those involved with the Soviet gulags”. These are not just over semantics.
                  These are the questions my professors will raise with a hypothesis like that. Define
                  these terms differently and you will get a different conclusion. Who should be
                  considered as the holocaust perpetrators? The Nazi Party leaders or the
                  ordinary soldiers and policemen who did the “dirty work”? What about those who
                  served in the backline by driving the trucks or trains which transported the
                  Jews? These are just some of the complexities regarding culpability. The Allied
                  War Crimes Tribunal which tried the Nazis for war crimes at Nuremburg proceeded
                  according to the principle of “command responsibility”, meaning that the senior
                  Nazi leaders were much more culpable than those below who had to carry out
                  orders and worked under group conformist pressure. The same principles were
                  used at the Tokyo and Singapore trials regarding Japanese atrocities in the Far
                  East. Similarly, historian Christopher Browning in his 1992 well-researched book
                  “Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Unit 101” asserted that these “ordinary men” by
                  profile, “killed out of a basic obedience to authority and peer pressure, not
                  out of bloodlust or primal hatred.” Thus, most would agree that Hitler, Stalin
                  and their respective party leaders were most culpable. “Chalk full of” – how do
                  you define and quantify that? How do you count the numbers? “Good Christians” –
                  even secular sociologists will note the complexity of defining and accounting for
                  “Christians”, what more “good Christians”. Frankly, I don’t consider myself a
                  “good Christian”, though maybe you think I am. How about “good atheists” or
                  “true atheists”? Some atheists I know don’t even consider agnostics, communists
                  and Theravada Buddhists (I grew up as one) to be “good atheists” or even “true
                  atheists”. They charge the first group with “intellectual cowardice, the second
                  group with being too dogmatic with their ideology and the third for still believing
                  in an unproven metaphysical system, even though their branch of Buddhism does
                  not believe in gods (they see Siddhartha Gautama Buddha as only a great moral
                  teacher). “As were many of those involved with the Soviet gulags” – another
                  statement that needs to be conceptually broken down, defined and quantified
                  similarly like your assertion on the holocaust.

                  • Malcolm Tan

                    Was Stalin a Christian? Most academics,
                    including atheist ones such as Richard Dawkins, suggest that he was atheist. Of
                    course, that by itself is not authoritative but that says something. Yes, Stalin
                    was probably raised as a Russian Orthodox by his devout mother who had hoped he
                    would be a priest. He then attended seminary to be trained as a priest.
                    Interestingly, he had an anti-clerical father. We do not know if he did so
                    voluntarily or out of a desire to please his mother. Please note for now, that this
                    does not tell us about his personal religious convictions. Some context is
                    needed here, which applies to Stalin, Hitler and the European societies of
                    their time. Religion was very much institutionalized in the world then, either
                    through the state or the society – Christianity in Europe, Buddhism, Hinduism
                    or Islam in Asia. There is also a cultural element to religion too. For
                    example, to be Russian, is to be an Orthodox Christian. To be Italian,
                    Austrian, Irish or Spanish, is to be Catholic. To be German, either Catholic or
                    Lutheran. Much of European society was still rather conservative, outwardly
                    religious and conformist then. One was expected at birth to follow Christian
                    rites, attend services, pay church taxes, whether they privately believed or
                    not. In the military too, church service parades were compulsory, even though
                    many soldiers privately loathed the imposition of religion on them. That is why
                    public profession of atheism was rare up till the early 20th
                    century. Even till today, I still come across a number of people, especially
                    from predominantly “Catholic nationalities”, who personally disbelieved in the Catholic
                    faith but were baptized, got married in church and sent their kids for infant
                    baptism as that was part of their tradition and ethnicity. Are they Catholics? Sociologists
                    compiling national population statistics have always noted the problem of
                    accurately accounting for religious believers in a country, as there is a
                    difference between those who nominally belong to a religion and those who
                    personally believed in it or actively participated in it. Im sure you know of many prominent atheists or
                    agnostics who were raised as Christians but later disbelieved, even though some
                    were even seminary trained – Professor Bart Ehrman of University of North
                    Carolina for example. Are they Christians? I was born a Buddhist, became
                    convinced of the truth of this faith at age nine and even studied Buddhist
                    textbooks in teenage years. Does this mean Im Buddhist now? So to say that
                    Stalin was a Christian just because he was raised as one and went to seminary
                    is too naïve.

                    We know
                    that Stalin was later expelled from the seminary for spreading Marxist ideas to
                    his mates. We know that the Marxist ideology is atheist and materialistic and
                    irreconcilable and even hostile to Christianity. A clue about whether Stalin was
                    still a Christian at this stage can be inferred from his daughter, Svetlana
                    Alliluyeva, who wrote about her father in her book Only
                    One Year (1969).

                    From his experiences at the seminary,
                    he had come to the conclusion that men were intolerant, coarse, deceiving their
                    flocks in order to hold them in obedience; that they intrigued, lied, and as a
                    rule possessed numerous faults and very few virtues.

                    Doesn’t this sound so consistently like the
                    Marxist brand of anti-religion rhetoric? And Stalin’s actions consistently backed
                    him up as a Marxist. When in power, he subsequently persecuted Christian
                    leaders and followers and closed down religious institutions. Tens of thousands
                    of them were killed or thrown into the gulags. Through the Central Committee of
                    the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, he also set up the League of the Militant Godless in 1925,
                    whose objective, as historian Daniel Peris’
                    tells us, was to promote atheism and scientific materialism worldview. This was
                    to be achieved through re-education, propaganda, demonstrations and even
                    anti-religious museums to convince Russians of the superstitions and evils of
                    religion. Professing Christians were publicly and openly ridiculed. Some of
                    those holding governmental and professional positions also lost their posts. If
                    Stalin was a Christian, does it make sense for him to not just persecute
                    Christianity but also aggressively promote atheism? Would you as an atheist,
                    ever persecute atheists and promote religious beliefs, if you ever come to
                    power? Unthinkable right?

                    Yes, Im aware that some claimed that
                    Stalin still held a bible in his library and might have even read it at times.
                    I believe this is possible. But this does not mean he believed in Christianity.
                    The Bible was so entrenched in Western civilisation that many read it as a
                    piece of literature only, without believing its supposed divine origins. Even
                    atheists possess and at times read from the bible, so that they can use it to
                    ridicule and attack Christianity! We only seem to see a shift in Stalin’s
                    persecution of religion from June 1941 onwards, as his biographers unanimously noted.
                    He began to relax the persecution, allowed churches to reopen and even allowed
                    the Moscow Patriarchate, the governing body of the Russian Orthodox Church to
                    be set up in 1943. He did on a few occasions ask for public prayers for the
                    victory of the USSR. But even here, we see inconsistencies, such as the continuation
                    of both state atheist propaganda and state religious persecution. So what are
                    we to make of this? Like all shrewd dictators, Stalin saw how religion could
                    boost morale. The timing of his religious tolerance from June 1941 onwards
                    coincided with the German invasion. We know that the Germans allowed the reopening
                    of churches in conquered territories to bolster support amongst Soviets (many
                    of whom were also not ethnically Russians) against the communist regime. Stalin’s
                    relaxation of persecution was thus an attempt to counter the German move and
                    rally all Soviets together against the common enemy. Thus, we can see that
                    there is nothing to indicate that Stalin was a Christian for most of his adult
                    life. In fact, his actions showed consistently that he could not have been one.
                    Stalin’s key communist party officials were anti-Christians
                    and atheists in line with their Marxist ideology. Thus, the main perpetrators
                    of Stalin’s atrocities were definitely not Christians.

                    However, I grant that Stalin may possibly
                    not have been a consistent atheist, maybe an agnostic or deist. Historians Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov suggested
                    that “Stalin’s atheism remained rooted in some vague idea of a God of
                    nature”. This may not be surprising considering that many World War II Far East
                    Allied Prisoners of War shared that while they were previously in peacetime
                    indifferent or even hostile to Christianity, they were “open” to it briefly
                    during the imprisonment years as it seemed to offer hope. Many then went back
                    to being atheist or agnostic again after liberation. Psychologists agree that hardships
                    and uncertainties do cause many people to re-examine their worldviews, at least
                    while the hardship and uncertainty last.

  • Michael

    Mr. Mehta’s endorsement of the contention that the Christian church is “anti-gay, anti-women, anti-science, anti-sex-education, and anti-doubt” = is such an off-beam statement really worth bothering about? I think I am getting a little tired of this old rhetoric that is without foundation, and is getting pumped out by atheists at a rate of knots again. Why this sudden upsurge in their well trodden meaningless stuff?