I would like to take this opportunity to address some frequently encountered arguments used whenever believers are attempting to convert a non-believer. I am doing this in the somewhat forlorn hope that having disposed of the arguments of the faithful here, they will actually take them onboard and non-believers will not encounter them again. But of course, who am I kidding? At the very least, when such believers roll out the same old arguments non-believers can have the pleasure of pointing out that it has been addressed elsewhere and telling them to shut up and move on.
A note about “respect”
Before I begin, I want to say a word about “respect,” and what it means in a supposedly rational, democratic, enlightened society. I feel this is necessary because invariably, some who read this will feel that their beliefs are not being “respected” in the way they feel they should. Five minutes of web surfing will show that there are any number of “weird” beliefs out there. Two easy examples are Holocaust denial and Elvis conspiracies. I will be the first to admit that people have every right hold these beliefs and to argue for them, and in that narrow sense I “respect” their right to their beliefs. Another sense of the word “respect” that comes into play when used in the context of ideas or opinions means to “defer to,” to “hold in esteem,” or to grant weight or credibility to, the content of an idea or proposition based on the idea’s or proposition’s ability to withstand critical scrutiny. In the case of Holocaust denial and Elvis conspiracies, I have no respect for the content of those ideas at all. I am reminded of Martin Luther King’s memorable phrase from his “I have a Dream” speech where he expresses his hope that one day his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."1 Just as individual human beings deserve to judged by the “content of their character,” so too ought their opinions and beliefs be judged by their contents and if necessary, mistakes, errors, fallacies pointed out and corrected.
The evil consequences of “atheism”
While many believers will admit, though somewhat reluctantly, that Christianity is guilty of excesses and atrocities in the past such as witch hunts, Inquisitions, and the Crusades, they are quick to point out the purported bloody excesses of “atheism” in the 20th Century. Commonly flouted examples are:
1. National Socialism and Evolution in Germany, c.a. 1930-1945 (Nazis)
2. The “ethnic cleansing” in the Balkan states following the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe c.a. 1991-1999.
3. Stalinist Russia
4. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, c.a. 1976-1979
Nazi anti-Semitism, Evolution, and Balkan “ethnic cleansing”
Of these four examples, I will first address numbers 1 and 2 due to the common elements these two share to the exclusion of numbers 3 and 4.
Nazi Anti-Semitism and Evolution
Hitler frequently used the language and rhetoric of Christianity and on at least one well known occasion, in Mein Kampf, favorably compared himself to the image of Jesus driving the money-changers from the Temple, saying that Jesus "made no secret of his attitude toward the Jewish people, and when necessary he even took the whip to drive from the temple of the Lord this adversary of all humanity, who then as always saw in religion nothing but an instrument for his business existence. In return, Christ was nailed to the cross." Later in Mein Kampf he wrote: "Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord."2
Hitler was not alone in his anti-Semitism either. Anti-semitism in Europe had deep roots, all pointing back to the earliest days of the Christian Church when, especially in the eyes of the Roman authorities, the Christians were merely an offshoot of Judaism.3 Given the trouble the Jews gave the Romans, after a certain point, the early Christians were eager to differentiate themselves from Judaism proper. This desire to differentiate themselves from Judaism (and thus be spared Roman reprisals against the Jews) may have been one of the reasons that Christians chose to celebrate “the Lord’s Day” as Sunday, the day Christ was said to have risen from the dead, rather than Saturday, the traditional Jewish Sabbath. 4
This hostility towards Jews on the part of some Christians did not begin to wane until the advent of “Dispensational Restorationism,” which was a subset of beliefs surrounding the Dispensationalist movement starting around 1820 in England. Dispensational Restorationism made the fate of the Jewish people an essential part of Christian eschatology and essential to the unfolding of “God’s Plan” for the “end times.” Because of this, many Christian sects took an active interest in the welfare of Jews. In the interest of intellectual honestly, a trait which is not shared by many Christians today, I will say that this likely helped to offset the harm to Jewish people done by other Christians who still thought of them as “Christ killers.” 5
I will freely admit that, in his private life, Hitler was not in any recognizable sense, a “Christian,” but Hitler’s private beliefs are not the point. The point is that he was able to reconcile his racist dogma and “Christianity” to the extent that the German people bought into his ideas and were able to square it with their Christian beliefs. Note that the ideas of Dispensational Restorationism came mainly out of England and were never that big in Germany, which was still largely Catholic or “old-school” protestant, so Dispensational Restorationism was not much of an impediment to the Germans falling for Hitler’s rhetoric, “hook, line, and sinker.”
Religionists also like to bring up Hitler’s invocation of Darwin, mostly in the context of attempting to discredit evolution – a kind of “guilt by association.” To Hitler, tying his racist ideas to Darwinian evolution was merely just one more of the many rhetorical devices he used to sell his notions of racial superiority. From childhood, he was raised and confirmed as a Catholic, so he almost certainly absorbed the anti-Semitism from his religious education and practice long before he ever heard of Darwin or Evolution by Natural Selection. Hitler’s “Darwinism” was even more of a caricature of Darwinian Evolution than his “Christianity” was a caricature of common Christianity. This leads me to the important point that anti-Semitism was very much a part of the German religious and cultural milieu in which he spent his youth. Believers’ entire argument for the Darwin-Nazi connection is a complete logical fallacy known as “unstated major premise” which happens “when one makes an argument which assumes a premise which is not explicitly stated.”6 In this case, the unstated premise is that an acceptance of Evolution by Means of Natural Selection, as explicated by Darwin, is either a sufficient or necessary cause of racism is patently absurd! For thousands of years of human history there have always been ethnic/national groups that felt that they had a special place/destiny in the Universe, like Yahweh’s personal favorites (drum roll please!)…the children of Israel! It is blatantly and obviously false that the acceptance of Darwinian evolution leads to racism or horrible crimes of genocide. The only reason Hitler was able to murder 5-6 million Jews from the late 1930’s through 1945 is technology (i.e. gas chanbers, etc)! If the ancient Israelites had 20th century technology, they would have piously slaughtered not just Canaanites, but everyone else on the planet if they could have, merely because Yahweh said they were his special race. Or what would the Middle East look like today had the pious "Christian" Crusaders had access to 20th century weapons and technology. The realization that, through a slow process of Evolution, we are related to every other living thing on this earth, is not required for such horrors, but an absolute belief that you are right, and everyone else is wrong and therefore damned, certainly is.
Race-based slavery in the United States ended (in 1864) only after Darwin published his “Origin of Species” (in 1859), and prior to the abolition of slavery in the United States, slave owners found much of their justification for slavery in the Bible. Granted, there were also biblical passages that were used by abolitionists, but that proves nothing, one could also find equally nice, or nasty, passages in the Iliad, but we no longer worship Zeus, does that mean we should start? Therefore, the religious elements of the militant anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany was not much of stretch when the starting point is the Christian anti-Semitism (and general racism) of a Germany and Austria attempting to come to grips with the humiliating terms forced upon it in the Treaty of Versailles and quite eager to find, in an ironic twist, a scapegoat. 7 I do not want to ever hear it said that the atrocities of Nazi Germany were somehow motivated by “atheism” or “evolutionism.”
Item number 2, “ethnic cleansing,” is a blatant misnomer. The Balkan conflict was religious in nature, pitting Muslims (Islamists), Serbs (Orthodox Christians), and Croats (Roman Catholics) against each other. Under Communist rule, these three groups had been intermarrying for years because their religions, which would have normally prevented such “ecumenical” behaviors, were made a “non-issue” by their communist overlords. When communism fell, age-old religiously motivated hatreds were brought back to the fore and the fighting broke out, often ripping families apart along religious lines.
Numbers 1 through 4 above are all related by what I will call “ideological absolutism.” This is any belief, religious or not, which claims to have an absolute lock on the TRUTH, forever and for all time. “We are absolutely right and therefore anyone who is not like us or does not believe as we do is damned, whether here or in some hereafter.”
The “Prove you love your _________" argument.
When confronted with the lack of any real evidence of God’s existence, a favorite riposte from believers is to challenge the non-believer to “Prove you love your ___________.” (fill in the blank with spouse, children, parents, dog, goldfish, etc.) This is a bait-and-switch of the sort only a moron (or was that a Mormon?) would make. The debate started with God’s existence, and somehow segued to how the non-believer feels about their loved ones. An argument-ending reply is to say something like “We were talking about God’s existence; I can, by DNA analysis, prove the existence of, and my genetic relationship to, my parents, children, and, through millions of years of evolution, even to the dog and goldfish. I asked you to prove the existence of God, not if you ‘love’ it. If that is the best argument you can mount, game over!”
The supposed “arrogance” of atheists
A frequent charge leveled against atheists is that of arrogance. How is it arrogant to, paraphrasing Thomas Henry Huxley, assert the truth of a proposition only to the degree that is warranted by the evidence for said proposition? That sounds more like modesty or humility to me. The ones who are arrogant are those who immodestly claim to be absolutely certain of their beliefs in the face of a deficit of confirmatory evidence and/or a prodigious amount of disconfirming evidence.
As non-believers, we must not let believers continue to trot out these idiotic arguments and go unchallenged. Nor do we have any more of an obligation to be nice or respectful of religionist beliefs than we do of the holocaust denier’s beliefs. These people need to be challenged whenever they publicly advocate that their believes be part of public policy. This does not mean that we need to resort to ad hominem attacks, but pointing out the unreason and subtle biases contained in someone else’s argument is not an ad hominem attack; they may feel as though they have been personally attacked and made to feel stupid, but that is their problem, not ours.