Atheist Boogeymen - Part 2: Joseph Stalin

Just another "atheist" devil!
Just another "atheist" devil!

With regard to “atheist boogeymen,” there are always two necessary questions: First, was the person actually an atheist? Second, did his supposed atheism motivate his atrocities? Unlike in the case of Adolf Hitler (who was demonstrably NOT an atheist), the question of Joseph Stalin's 'atheism' is not as cut and dried as some would have us believe.

If Stalin WERE an atheist, what is it about atheism that could have possibly provoked his evil? After all, there is no atheist dogma or doctrine (as there always is in religion). The apologist might argue that Stalin's (supposed) lack of belief simply removed any moral inhibitions and freed him from any fear of eventual retribution. But if this were true for Stalin, how does one explain away atheists who are benign and benevolent, or believers who are malicious? Is Stalin some sort of anomaly, whereby any de facto connection between his supposed 'atheism' and his evil is immediately invalidated?

State Atheism

Apologists routinely assert that there IS an atheist “dogma” -- Communism (though they would be hard pressed to find anything in Marx's doctrine that dictates the killing of millions of proletarians!). But how integral is atheism to Communism? According to Marx, in the pursuit of Communism both religion and atheism are secondary concerns at best, and ultimately irrelevant.

From his “opium of the people” quote:

“...The abolition of religion, as the illusory happiness of the people, is the demand for their real happiness. The demand to abandon the illusions about their condition is a demand to abandon a condition which requires illusions...”

From another essay:

“...atheism as a denial of this unreality; has no longer any meaning, for atheism is a denial of God and tries to assert through this negation the existence of man; but socialism as such no longer needs this mediation...and communism is the position as the negation of the negation...”

In other words, true happiness can arise only when people abandon the ILLUSION of happiness (offered by religion) and set about improving their actual condition (through socialism). And Communism negates the need for atheism's affirmation of man's existence. So (according to Marx) if a regime IS “communist,” atheism is no longer a relevant aspect of the system, and therefore cannot be blamed for the atrocities committed by the regime -- at least not in any doctrinal sense.

Stalin clearly presided over a system that was officially hostile to religion, and apologists often note that he closed numerous churches and theological schools and persecuted priests. But in the wake of the 1941 German invasion he began reversing that policy, and churches were reopened. It's obvious to both skeptics and apologists that Stalin recognized religion's value to public war morale.

However, if we can make such a critical and clear-eyed assessment of this later reversal, we can make a similar (and equally valid) assessment of the original policy -- that it was merely political expediency and not some atheist vendetta. Indeed, a compelling argument can be made that Stalin's personal hostility was borne of religion's competition to his own cult of personality.

The Evidence

But was Stalin actually an atheist? In the end, the question must be decided upon the evidence. Unfortunately, there are no first-hand quotes from Stalin that confirm either belief or non-belief. In speeches and essays he occasionally used phrases like “God knows,” “God forbid” and “thank God,” but such colloquialisms are hardly conclusive (then again, if Stalin were as ideologically opposed to God as some claim, it follows that he would take greater care in avoiding such remarks).

There ARE more pointed references supporting either side of the argument, but they are all second-hand. For example, apologists frequently recite the famous quote from a young Stalin (in seminary school) who supposedly told a classmate: “...You know, they are fooling us, there is no God...”

There are other quotes attributed to a more mature Stalin that paint quite a different picture. In his World War II history volume, “The Hinge Of Fate,” Winston Churchill recounts how he explained Allied plans for the North African invasion, and Stalin reportedly replied, “...May God prosper this undertaking...” Later, when Churchill reaffirmed his own involvement in Britain's intervention in the Russian civil war, asking Stalin, “Have you forgiven me?” Stalin reportedly replied, “...all that is in the past, and the past belongs to God...”

Even more dramatic is the story told by a priest's son in Stalin's home village to Tina Egnatashvili, a Stalin family friend. From the documentary, “Stalin: Inside The Terror:

“...He said...'Do you know that Stalin took confession?' I said, 'Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin?' I was amazed! 'He confessed in 1941, 43, 45 and 48. He made these confessions to my father.' And he told me that his father took the secret of the confession with him to the grave. But he had told his son, 'remember, Stalin took confession four times'...”

These quotes (along with others I, unfortunately, couldn't verify) strongly undermine the presumption that Joseph Stalin was an atheist, and that it was this supposed 'atheism' that motivated him to send millions to their doom.

While millions of deaths through starvation and privation can be blamed on the callous execution of incompetent and incohorent economic and social policies, the origin of Stalin's murders and purges are obviously more psychological than ideological. The only known professional analysis of Stalin occurred in 1927, when noted psychologist Vladimir Bekhterev concluded a personal examination with a one-word diagnosis -- “paranoiac.” Later professionals have offered second-hand diagnoses, adding schizophrenia, delirium, narcissism and megalomania to the mix. And psychopathy -- simply, the absense of empathy.

Ultimately, empathy -- NOT religion -- is the ONLY genuine foundation for human morality, and it seems utterly absent from most of Stalin's adult life, with obvious consequences. In the final analysis, while his paranoia and narcissism doubtless were the prime motivations for much of his murderous behavior, his psychopathy -- NOT atheism -- is the only reasonable explanation for the merciless cruelty with which he indulged them.

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11 comments

Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 7 months ago from Somewhere in the universe

Every religionist points to Stalin as the worst "atheist" ever. But, how many religionists can we point to who are the worst humans ever? Quite a few, naturally. Christians have a long history of "killing for god", Muslims have a huge initiative to "kill for god". Atheists do not have this compulsion. Just the opposite. Atheists are usually the ones standing up for human rights, against the death penalty, and definitely against "religious" wars.

And the religionist's insistence on equating atheism/agnosticism with "communism" and "socialism" (like they are dirty words also) is just bizarre.

I wonder if it will ever come to pass that religious people see atheism for what it actually is - we simply do not believe there is proof (or even a need) of a god or gods. We are all of the human species and we ALL live on one planet.


Paladin_ profile image

Paladin_ 7 months ago from Michigan, USA Author

Thanks for visiting and commenting, Star!

You're correct to note that it's erroneous to EQUATE atheism with either socialism or communism. There IS an historical association among them, and it's reasonable to point that out. But it's a mistake to use the three terms interchangeably (an error I've even seen ATHEISTS make!).

Obviously, apologists do so because it serves their theological or philosophical purposes, but atheists too often concede the point without knowing the actual doctrinal context (as I've explained in the hub).


lawrence01 profile image

lawrence01 6 months ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

Paladin

Sorry I haven't visited this hub before now but been 'kinda busy' recently.

I'll admit I'm one who thought Stalin an atheist who abandoned faith in seminary!

I knew of some of the later things he did and said (including having the picture of the Madonna and child flown around Moscow just before the battle of Moscow)

He credited the victory to the protection of the picture.

Stalin was paranoid of that there's no doubt but was he an atheist?

They do say there are no Atheists on a battlefield and maybe that's what changed things, but we'll never really know for sure.

Enjoyed the hub.

Lawrence


Paladin_ profile image

Paladin_ 6 months ago from Michigan, USA Author

Thanks for visiting and commenting, Lawrence! There was a lot of other material suggesting Stalin may have still been a believer, but I don't like sources I can't verify for myself. In any case, one thing upon which I'm certain we can all agree is that he was a first-class a-hole!

I'm sorry I haven't visited your more recent hubs -- installments of your fictional story, "Sting Of The Scorpion" -- but I pretty much stick to non-fiction in my reading (I know, I'm weird). I'll be sure to stop by when you publish your next non-fiction hub!


lawrence01 profile image

lawrence01 6 months ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

Paladin

No worries. It's a dream of mine to publish books, that's why I'm writing the story (with the intent to publish).

I agree with the 'first class a hole' comment.

It's also interesting that Churchill hated communism enough to seriously propose re-arming the German Wehrmacht to join in a joint American, British and German assault on the Soviets.

Naturally the Americans thought the plan was too risky so it never got off the ground.

Have a good weekend

Lawrence


Wild Bill 6 months ago

As usual, you have expressed your thought in an eloquent manner. Bravo for a well written Hub. And as usual, I have a few critiques.

Paladin said: "After all, there is no atheist dogma or doctrine (as there always is in religion)."

I have always said that this is the advantage of being an atheist; they have no specific atheist written rules that others can hold against them. I have also always found it funny that there must be a label for a lack of belief. This defies all odds to me and I haven't quite found anything else like it, but I could be wrong.

Paladin said: "The apologist might argue that Stalin's (supposed) lack of belief simply removed any moral inhibitions and freed him from any fear of eventual retribution. But if this were true for Stalin, how does one explain away atheists who are benign and benevolent, or believers who are malicious?"

Ok, then by using your logic, those who say that Religion is evil are also wrong because if that were the case, then why are there so many good religionists. As a matter of fact, the vast majority of religionist are good moral people.


Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 6 months ago from Somewhere in the universe

"I have also always found it funny that there must be a label for a lack of belief."

Atheist isn't a "label", it's a noun. Try the dictionary.

and

nobody is saying that "religion is evil". We are saying - that it SOME religionists use religion for destructive and harmful behavior. Just as SOME non-religionists do.

What we are saying - and this is all we are saying, is that there is NO PROVABLE EVIDENCE FOR A GOD OR GODS.

It is YOU that uses definitions and "labels".

It is YOU that wants to inspect peoples genitals or sex lives before they can use a bathroom or get married or buy a damn cake.

It is YOU that wants religion to rule our lives.

Why can't you understand these things?


Paladin_ profile image

Paladin_ 6 months ago from Michigan, USA Author

Thanks for visiting and commenting, Bill and Star!

Bill, it's funny that you question the need for a label (or a "noun," if you prefer) for lack of belief, because it's one of the points that well-known atheist Sam Harris makes regularly in his talks. You can probably find a YouTube video of him addressing that specific issue. I don't necessarily agree, because such labels (as long as they're correct) make things easier to discuss, but that's just me.

Also, I agree with your argument regarding the logic of people acting contrary to the characterization of their religious belief (or lack of, in the case of Stalin). We can't rightly make a broad assumption that a person will act in a particular way because he is an atheist or because he is a believer. We must take the individual actions and the individual beliefs, one at a time, and determine if there is a cause and effect or correlation.

Obviously, I addressed this argument in only one direction because my topic was Joseph Stalin, who apologists are CONSTANTLY accusing of being evil solely because he was (supposedly) an atheist. And I used it to counter a very specific potential claim (lack of fear of retribution) regarding that (supposed) lack of belief that might support the larger accusation.

I also agree that most people -- atheist and believer alike -- are "moral" people. And I do believe that religion is evil, for a multitude of reasons, but that's for another hub!


Wild Bill 6 months ago

Paladin,

Thanks for your response.

Like I said, the reason I question the need to label something that is a lack of belief is because I can't really say that I have heard any other similar case. Even anarchist is defined as a person who believes in or tries to bring about anarchy. I don't think that is funny that I question that because I think I have a pretty good point. Is there a specific label for people who don't believe in Santa Claus? Is there a label for people who don't believe in aliens? I mean, could you provide me with an example?

As for Sam Harris, I have no idea who that is. If he is some kind of atheist preacher on You Tube, there is probably a good reason I don't know him.

As for people labelling Stalin evil SOLELY because he was an atheist, I have never heard this accusation. I have people say he was an atheist and he committed a lot of atrocities, but in the name of Communism. I don't buy this, just like I don't think Christianity is bad because of the Crusades. People sound pretty stupid when they make these idiotic remarks. I think there are bad people and there are good people. I think there are greedy people and I think there are selfless people. I don't think we can pinpoint why people are like this by attaching a label to it.


Paladin_ profile image

Paladin_ 6 months ago from Michigan, USA Author

If you're curious, I managed to find a very short video of Dr. Harris (a little over two minutes) where he briefly explains his aversion to the term "atheist":

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m8wK1lmiNXM

As for who he is, he's a well-known (among skeptics and atheists) author, debater and neuroscientist. With the passing of the late, great Christopher Hitchens, he is arguably the most eloquent and persuasive public spokesman for non-belief -- as you can see if you view some of his other videos, with prepared remarks. He has an almost zen-like approach to such discussions, contrasted with the more acerbic Richard Dawkins (who is probably more well-known among non-believers).


Wild Bill 6 months ago

;-) gotcha

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