in the past hundred years or so, the most powerful atheist regimes — Communist Russia, Communist China, and Nazi Germany — have wiped out people in astronomical numbers. Stalin was responsible for around twenty million deaths, produced through mass slayings, forced labor camps, show trials followed by firing squads, population relocation and starvation, and so on. Jung Chang and Jon Halli day's authoritative recent study Mao: The Unknown Story attributes to Mao Zedong's regime a staggering seventy million deaths. Some China scholars think Chang and Halli day's numbers are a bit high, but the authors present convincing evidence that Mao's atheist regime was the most murderous in world history. Stalin's and Mao's killings — unlike those of, say, the Crusades or the Thirty Years' War — were done in peacetime and were performed on their fellow countrymen. Hitler comes in a distant third with around ten million murders, six million of them Jews.
D'Souza does well to remind us that Naziism systematically removed all traces of religion from German cultural life: buildings that had been churches were used as propaganda centers for the Party; it was forbidden to read from the New Testament aloud in public; and symbols such as crosses were removed and replaced with swastikas. Hitler could not tolerate the idea that a Jewish Rabbi would provide benefits to all mankind by embracing the pacifism and non-violence which Hitler hated. The Nazis worked to remove every trace of Christianity from German life: they knew that Christians would not fit well into their plans to dominate the world and carry out genocides. The few remaining Christians were forced into hiding, where they organized underground resistance movements which would eventually save the lives of thousands of Jews by smuggling them out of Germany to safety and freedom. They also organized assassination attempts on Hitler.
So far, I haven't even counted the assassinations and slayings ordered by other Soviet dictators like Lenin, Khrushchev, Breszhnev, and so on. Nor have I included a host of "lesser" atheist tyrants: Pol Pot, Enver Hoxha, Nicolae Ceaucescu, Fidel Castro, Kim Jong-il. Even these "minor league" despots killed a lot of people. Consider Pol Pot, who was the leader of the Khmer Rouge, the Communist Party faction that rule Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Within this four-year period Pol Pot and his revolutionary ideologues engaged in the systematic mass relocations and killings that eliminated approximately one-fifth of the Cambodian population, an estimated 1.5 to 2 million people. In fact, Pol Pot killed a larger percentage of his countrymen than Stalin and Mao killed of theirs. Even so, focusing only on the big three - Stalin, Hitler, and Mao - we have to recognize that atheist regimes have in a single century murdered more than one hundred million people.
The millions of deaths in the twentieth century - mankind's bloodiest century - were fueled by various ideologies which demanded that humans pay ultimate allegiance to political formulations and leaders. Such belief systems leave no room for devotion to any type of God. Nationalism demands loyalty to the state; communism and socialism demand loyalty to the collective plan; industrialism demand loyalty to financial profit. Anyone who would give loyalty to God - and to His ideals of peace and non-violence - would run afoul of the ideologies which created the most lethal wars in the history of the world.
Religion-inspired killing simply cannot compete with the murders perpetrated by atheist regimes. I recognize that population levels were much lower in the past, and that it’s much easier to kill people today with sophisticated weapons than it was in previous centuries to kill with swords and arrows. Even taking higher populations into account, atheist violence surpasses religious violence by staggering proportions. Here is a rough calculation. The world’s population rose from around 500 million in 1450 A.D. to 2.5 billion in 1950, a fivefold increase. Taken together, the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the witch burnings killed approximately 200,000 people. Adjusting for the increase in population, that’s the equivalent of one million deaths today. Even so, these deaths caused by Christian rulers over a five-hundred-year period amount to only 1 percent of the deaths caused by Stalin, Hitler, and Mao in the space of a few decades.
Communism, whether the Leninist-Stalinist version found in the old Soviet Union, or Mao's version in China, or Castro's version in Cuba, or Pol Pot's version in Cambodia, is explicitly and essentially opposed to the freedom of religion. And in each case, mass killing was the result of this attempt to exterminate man's natural desire to think about the concept of God.
Can anyone seriously deny that Communism was an atheist ideology? Communism calls for the elimination of the exploiting class, it extols violence as a way to social progress, and it calls for using any means necessary to achieve the atheist utopia. Not only was Marx an atheist, but atheism was also a central part of the Marxist doctrine. Atheism became a central component of the Soviet Union's official ideology, it is still the official doctrine of China, and Stalin and Mao enforced atheist policies by systematically closing churches and murdering priests and religious believers. All Communist regimes have been strongly anti-religious, suggesting that their atheism is intrinsic rather than incidental to their ideology.
Although the Nazis fought against the Soviet Union, and directed their propaganda against various forms of Communism, they shared the Communist hatred of religion.
Nazism was a secular, anti-religious philosophy that, strangely enough, had a lot in common with Communism. While the Communists wanted to empower the proletariat, the Nazis wanted to empower a master race. For the Communists the enemy was the capitalist class; for the Nazis the enemy was the Jews and other races deemed inferior. The Communists and the Nazis treated the Christian churches as obstacles and enemies. Both groups proclaimed that they were engaging in revolutionary action in order to create a new type of human being and a new social order freed from the shackles of traditional religion and traditional morality.
During the nineteenth century, the concept of "social Darwinism" led to the ruthlessness that would characterize some elements of the next century. In order to regard humans as expendable at the whim of circumstances beyond their control, it was necessary for social Darwinists like Hitler to reject any notion of a Higher Power, e.g. God, who would endow humans with any innate dignity or value.
If Nazism represented the culmination of anything, it was that of the nineteenth-century and early twentieth- century ideology of social Darwinism. As historian Richard Weikart documents, both Hitler and Himmler were admirers of Darwin and often spoke of their role as enacting a "law of nature" that guaranteed the "elimination of the unfit." Weikart argues that Hitler himself "drew upon a bountiful fund of social Darwinist thought to construct his own racist philosophy" and concludes that while Darwinism is not a "sufficient" intellectual explanation for Nazism, it is a "necessary" one. Without Darwinism, there might not have been Nazism.
What lesson can the twenty-first century learn, in order to avoid mass murder and genocide?
Whatever the cause for why atheist regimes do what they do, the indisputable fact is that all the religions of the world put together have in three thousand years not managed to kill anywhere near the number of people killed in the name of atheism in the past few decades. It's time to abandon the mindlessly repeated mantra that religious belief has been the main source of human conflict and violence. Atheism, not religion, is responsible for the worst mass murders of history.