Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Crimes of Atheism vs the Crimes of Catholicism

Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, is an intensely unlikable person. It's tempting to run further with ad hominem attacks, but I'll hold off for now. Instead I will discuss his statement regarding atheists and Nazis

The pope cited Hitler today, asking everyone to "reflect on the sobering lessons of atheist extremism of the 20th century." Immediately, the British Humanist Association got its back up, accusing the pope of "a terrible libel against those who do not believe in God."
The pope did not go far enough. Radical atheists like the British Humanist Association should apologize for Hitler. But they should not stop there. They also need to issue an apology for the 67 million innocent men, women and children murdered under Stalin, and the 77 million innocent Chinese killed by Mao. Hitler, Stalin and Mao were all driven by a radical atheism, a militant and fundamentally dogmatic brand of secular extremism. It was this anti-religious impulse that allowed them to become mass murderers. By contrast, a grand total of 1,394 were killed during the 250 years of the Inquisition, most all of whom were murdered by secular authorities.
Why should atheists today apologize for the crimes of others? At one level, it makes no sense: apologies should only be given by the guilty. But on the other hand, since the fanatically anti-Catholic secularists in Britain, and elsewhere, demand that the pope—who is entirely innocent of any misconduct—apologize for the sins of others, let the atheists take some of their own medicine and start apologizing for all the crimes committed in their name. It might prove alembic.

I'm so tired of this ridiculous line of logic, this narrative that proves the dangers of atheism. On the face of it, it almost makes sense. Although the Nazi party was not founded on atheist principles (which don't exist, as I'll get to in a minute) the regimes of Russian and Cambodia were explicitly godless. So that's a perfectly fair association. And yet the fact that they were godless had nothing to do with their murderous policies. It's so easy for people to stop at that one thing and assume that it was the driving force behind their cruelty. I suppose people are generally insulted or bewildered by atheism and it makes a convenient, intuitive (to their minds) scapegoat.

But atheism has no principles. Truly it does not. Atheism is simply a response to the proposition of a god. Atheism does not, can not compel action. There is simply nothing actionable in the idea of atheism because it is not a philosophy. This all comes from seeing atheism as another flavor of religion, which it is not. Catholics, Presbyterians, Muslims, Mormons, Baptists are all different flavors of theism, yet they each have a distinct, actionable philosophy. My actions, my compassions, my social conscience is informed by Secular Humanism. Clearly Stalin and Pol Pot were not Secular Humanists. 

I want to be clear about this: although atheism cannot be blamed for the suffering and death of millions, the Catholic Church can be blamed for the Inquisition, since it was explicit church policy for centuries. I was amused by Donohue's shrugging specificity of the number of deaths by torture at the hands of the institution that he represents. I suppose we should all be glad that the Catholic Church did not manage to kill more. Now, although I believe the Catholic Church is to blame for many crimes, including complicity with the Third Reich (The Sound of Music notwithstanding) I would not expect or ask for an apology from modern Catholics. Just as I would not be willing to apologize to descendants of American slaves or Native Americans for the crimes of my ancestors. Their crimes are not my crimes.

The Pope bears no personal guilt for the inquisition, although he, like Donohue, represents the entity that mandated the actions. An apology for past crimes is not particularly useful. What is important, however, is an apology for current crimes. While sexual abuse by priests is not Catholic policy, their administration has shown a marked enthusiasm for covering it up. Those involved in the molestation as well as those involved in the cover-ups bear personal guilt. The church's policy on condom usage, however, is evil, and a crime against humanity.

I think that this is an appropriate as a closing argument:

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