In their attempts to demonize atheism, many believers insist on equating atheism with communism. This tactic, which originated in the days of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist hysteria in the 1950s, is as unfounded today as it was then. Atheism is a philosophical view stating that one does not believe in gods, while communism is a collectivist economic and social doctrine. The two have nothing in common, though there certainly are some atheists who are communists and some communists who are not atheists. Mark Twain, Thomas Edison, Luther Burbank, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Katherine Hepburn, and countless others were/are atheists, yet in no way associated with communism. Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin are examples of communists who were not atheists. Moreover, there are entire countries in Europe and elsewhere that were/are communistic without being atheist. These include Roman Catholic Italy, Hungary and Poland, and Lutheran Germany.
No one would deny that Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union was a totalitarian dictatorship, or that he focused much of his enmity on the church. However, this does not by any stretch of the imagination mean that his persecutions were the result of his atheist philosophy. Quite the contrary, as we will see.
Historically, Russia has always been one of the most mystically-oriented countries in the world. Its mystical traditions extend far back in history, to the time of the first Slav settlements over a thousand years ago. By the year 1000 CE, due to the conversion of Vladimir I, Russia became officially Christian. The Russian people lived and breathed religion, even before this, and it would play a crucial role in their lives until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
Stalin (1878-1953) was the product of a seminary upbringing, and he learned its lessons of manipulation and mind control well. He knew that the best way to stifle dissent and break the will of the people was to deprive them of that which they value the most. Religion was obviously central to the Russian state, inexorably tied in with the overthrown Romanov dynasty, and when Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) succeeded in overthrowing the Kerensky government in October of 1917, he wanted to make certain that all vestiges of the dynasty were discarded. After his death, Stalin, his successor, knew that by beginning an active campaign against the church, he could break the will of the people by crushing their spirit.
There are no elements of atheist philosophy in the Soviet Union. Stalin does not seem to have been at all familiar with the history of freethought and probably never read any atheist literature. The massacres of Stalin’s time were committed in the name of statism, even though the state was officially atheistic. Atheism, properly understood, is arrived at by choice; there is no coercion in freethought (which should always be the foundation behind atheism), hence the name. This of course stands in stark contrast to the bloody history of organized religion and the countless horrors committed, past and present, in the name of god.
Stalin did not want to share his power with anyone. This man, one of the most thoroughly evil in world history, was many things to many people, but perhaps the best one word description of his psyche is paranoid. His twenty-nine year dictatorship somberly illustrates what can happen when a paranoid individual attains unquestioned authority: enemies appear everywhere to such a person, who then seeks ways to have them eliminated. Recognizing the power the church had wielded for centuries, he attacked it. This was not done because of ideological or moral differences of opinion, but simply because Stalin could not tolerate any competition. And, as a bonus for him, it left the Russian people broken in spirit. People broken in spirit are much more easy to manipulate and control.
Final proof that Stalin was not acting on freethought principles can be seen at the opening of the Barbarossa campaign during the Second World War, when Hitler copied Napoleon’s mistake of a century earlier and attacked the Soviet Union. Things were not going well for the Russian army at that point and Stalin, facing a possible revolution on the home front was searching for ways of amassing a broad base of support for the war effort. To achieve this, he reinstated the Orthodox Church hierarchy to serve the soldiers in their fight for “mother Russia.” Moreover, the Russian army was retreating on all fronts and who did Stalin call on for assistance? The capitalist countries, of course. This, perhaps more than anything else, proved that a state-run economy, so admired by liberals in the 1930s, proved to be an abject failure when it came to protecting the country. Stalin was by no means averse to promoting religion and endorsing capitalist enterprises if it served his purposes to do so.
We see then that Stalin’s tyranny was based on totalitarian principles, which he learned from his seminary days, fueled by his innate paranoia. No one has ever claimed that the Soviet Government was based on, or even tolerated, freedom of thought, much less freedom of action. Stalin’s policies were the very antithesis of atheist freethought philosophy.
In fact, a much more convincing indictment can be made against religion as the source of troubles in the Soviet Union than atheism. Even a superficial reading of the New Testament will show that Jesus advocated a sort of communistic lifestyle. And communism, like Christianity, is collectivist in nature. What is the connection, and how does this fit in with our examination of atheism and communism?
The fundamental definition of collectivism is that the group, rather than the individual, becomes the standard of value. If an individual wants to pursue a given option, this must not conflict with the interests of the group. Thus, freedom and collectivism are opposites. Historically and sociologically, we see the evils of collectivism in all its multi-faceted manifestations. In religious cults, the group’s collectivist ideology pre-empts individual thought processes, which must conform to the accepted texts, ideologies, and/or pronouncements of the cult’s leader. The individual possesses no rights of his/her own; his life and work belongs to the group, and the group or its leader may decide at any time that a particular individual is expendable. The same obviously applies to communism which may therefore properly be viewed as a form of religion.
How can collectivist doctrines be maintained? There are only two ways. One of these is by destroying the individual’s self-esteem and individuality. The second is by destroying the individual him/herself. Both organized religion and communistic governments have employed both methods. In both cases, the individual must be convinced that his/her own mind, values, family, self-worth, originality and creativity are worthless and that only the group and/or its leader can provide meaning for the individual. Breaking away from the family is one manifestation of this; we certainly see it in the New Testament, as when Jesus tells his followers to love him more than his family (Luke 14: 26) or that he will set every man against his own family (Matt. 10: 35-36). When one of his followers asked for some time to attend his father’s funeral, Jesus is reported as saying: “Let the dead bury their dead” (Matt. 8: 22). While Christianity has certainly led the way, other cult leaders have picked up on the Bible’s lead and spouted similar hatred of the family. Were Jim Jones and Philip Applewhite products of religion or of atheism? Any honest individual knows the answer. And yet it is the Religious Right wing that harps incessantly on “family values!”
In addition, communism’s leaders, religious leaders, cult leaders, and right-wing politicians all have something else in common: a markedly conservative nature marked by a desire to return to some perceived halcyon time when things were allegedly better, everyone knew their place, their particular religion or ideology dominated, and everybody lived in bliss. The garden of Eden story is the most obvious example of this notion in the Bible, but there are many other examples: conservative politicians love to invoke the “happy time” of the 1950s, conveniently ignoring the racism and lack of rights for women, gays and other minority groups that also typified that period.
The connection of religion with communism should be obvious at this point; both are indelibly connected with collectivism. Communism is not, as its adherents would have us believe, an “inevitable” next step after capitalism, but rather a retrogressive sociological and moral system that would take humanity backward to a time any thinking person would want to avoid.
During the October Revolution (more accurately, the October Putsch) of 1917, the communist leaders continually stated that humans must exist for the state. Once in power, they did not hesitate to put this concept into practice. Slavery cannot survive in laissez-faire capitalism; it thrives under totalitarian regimes, whether communistic, fascistic, or some other form of collectivist evil. The communists actively sought out and attempted to destroy any sign of individualism, whether manifested as an individual’s private property, his non-conforming thoughts, or anything else that did not coincide with the perceived needs of the collective, as dictated from above. So, in order for communism to flourish, unquestioning obedience, submission, and conformity must be the prevailing social order. This mirrors exactly the thinking of the Christian Dark Ages.
And of course, there must be a common enemy in any collectivist system. Satan was the original Evil One in Christianity, although Muslims, Jews, and, more recently, Secular Humanists have all served as an ersatz for the devil. In Stalin’s Russia, it was the Kulaks. Anyone who questions the prevailing doctrines and dogmas of the group is ostracized and blamed for all the evils that have befallen society.
By contrast, atheism, properly understood, is open to all different groups, races and individuals of all persuasions. Atheism arrived at by force or anger is a contradiction in terms; one cannot be a true atheist if he/she decides to be one just to “get back” at god out of anger. Likewise, no one can be a true atheist because the state tells him he must be one. Non-belief in deities, or in any form of the supernatural, cannot be forced on anyone. It can be forced on a society, as was the case in Soviet Russia, but, divorced from freethought, it becomes simply another form of totalitarian control.
Finally, all religions and totalitarian ideologies hold death as the standard of value, although they attempt to sell it as “eternal life.” Any reading of early Christian literature will fully disclose this. By contrast, atheism holds that it is we humans who must solve our own problems; no god is going to rescue us from our own errors and evils; the Second World War alone proves the total absence of a loving deity. Atheists recognize that life is the standard of value; it is the main value that all of our other values stem from. If one is dead, one can have no values. However, when one perceives that life is a sewer, that one has no value, that one is a miserable, unworthy sinner, then one tends to be at the mercy of the next slick supernaturalist he comes across, be it a Christian, a Socialist, a Communist, a fascist, or anyone else who tells him to reject his mind and “just believe.” Just believe that there is a better world coming—after death. Just believe that your reason cannot solve life’s answers. Just believe that a man could walk on water, or that your leader can make the world a paradise, if only everyone would listen to him. Ignore all the obvious contradictions—and just believe. Thus communism, like religion, is inherently anti-rational, and to reject rationalism is the very antithesis of what it means to be a freethinker. To continue to believe in a religion or in communism despite their having caused more suffering and death than any other ideology in the twentieth century is more than just an immoral leap of faith—it is a slap in the face of all moral sentiment.
Communism, like fascism and, yes, like Christianity is a philosophy of death. There are, to be sure, a small number of atheists who are socialists or communists. There are even a very few who are inclined to fascism. These people do not understand what atheism and free thought are all about and certainly are not representative of the atheist community at large, which, if it wants to present itself as a moral alternative to religious dogma and hatred, should likewise reject communism in no uncertain terms.
Atheism and communism are philosophically and morally incompatible. The former is based on freedom of thought and action, while the latter is diametrically opposed to both. If there is one lesson to be learned from communism’s history in the twentieth century, it is this. Atheists who embrace and espouse totalitarian ideologies need to do their homework and discover the true foundations of morality. Until they do so, they are no better than the religionists they oppose.