Dean Esmay has resurrected (no pun intended) one of his favorite chestnuts, this time with the query,

So what is atheism’s great contribution to the welfare of man?

In the comments thread, he and Rosemary make the argument that a lot of the really bad people in world history (Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot) were atheists and they collectively killed a lot of people, so therefore atheism is bad. Even aside from the fact that it’s not entirely clear Hitler was an atheist, that atheism didn’t motivate any of the killings for which they were responsible, and that the actual people who carried out the killing were likely Christians of one flavor or another (in the case of the people of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia) or practitioners of Buddism or other Asian religions (in the case of China and Cambodia), this seems a strained argument.

Most of the wars and other violence attributed to religion have roots in political or ethnic conflicts, with religion used as a tool by leaders with an agenda to stoke the fires. But atheism, or more generally the lack of religion, lacks the capacity to generate that kind of zeal. People don’t get up early on Sunday mornings and drive across town to practice atheism. It’s by and large just not a mass movement but rather a personal vision–or just the lack of a religious convinction.

A goodly number of the philosophers of the Enlightenment were atheists or, at most, Deists. This includes many of the Founding Fathers. Ditto many if not most scientists. Lots of great things have been accomplished by non-theists. But little has been done in the name of non-theism.

“D” is for “Dean’s at it again”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Rosemary Esmay says:

    Actually, I did not say Hitler was an atheist. I did however point out this quote :”Religion in its very essence is the mortal enemy of Communism.” —Leon Trotskii, Pravda, June 24, 1923

    I have some personal reference. My parents lived through Stalin’s oppression. Stalin’s regime targeted religious believers and the clergy very specifically.

  2. Dave says:

    An atheist society has no moral basis to enforce laws. Ultimately, such a society relies on the barrel of the gun to enforce the law. There’s also a strong tendency to deify their human leaders – Mao, Stalin, Kim Il Sung, etc…
    Man can not live by bread alone.

  3. Meezer says:

    Actually, many scientists are religious. Oddly, in polls taken breaking them down by specialty, physicists are the most religious. Hmmmmmmm.

  4. Kenneth T. Tellis says:

    While many can deny religion, they cannot deny the existence of a supernatural being who created the Heavens and everything else. Religions are manmade and cannot be without flaws. Man’s religions are the cause of that troubles the world today. One should not mix atheists with agnostics, that would be a blunder. Thomas Paine saw all this around him and gave up manmade religion. In a world such as ours let us do the best we can as humans to use those faculties we have in being honest instead of being judgmental, and seek ways to ease man’s sufferings. That is true religion.