Friday, July 24, 2009

There is no such thing as secular totalitarianism

I was reading another great article from the Economist, when I encountered this paragraph:

Ah, but Stalin and Hitler and Mao! Give me a break. Sure, they were atheists. But they did not kill because they were atheists. Hitler was a fanatical racist and Mao and Stalin fanatical communists, and they killed in the name of those fundamentalist philosophies.

Let's ignore Hitler for a second, because his religious beliefs are not at all clear. So let's focus on Stalin and Mao, who were both unambiguous about their nominal atheism.

I am going to one step further than The Economist, and argue (as I have in the comments on other blogs) that Stalin and Mao were not actually atheists in any useful sense of the word.

Atheism is usually defined as the lack of a belief in a god or gods. Okay, so how do we define the word "god"? Well, you could write a frikkin' book about that, but certainly some important elements would be infallibility, omnipotence/absolute control, etc. There exists another concept to which these attributes are integral: the totalitarian state.

Any useful definition of atheism -- or at least, of secularism -- has to reject the idea of a single uncompromising source of authority. Otherwise, the definition gets watered down to something almost meaningless, e.g. atheism is the lack of belief in Jesus, Buddah, Yahweh, Shiva, Brahma, Zeus, Thor, etc. In order for the definition to be useful, there must be a functional definition of what beliefs atheism rejects, rather than just a laundry list of deities.

In a totalitarianist dictatorship, the dictator is god, by any useful functional definition. He1 is all-powerful. He cannot be questioned. His command(ment)s must be obeyed. In the case of post-Mao China, there was not a single dictator but it was still a totalitarianist state, and in that case the bureaucracy fills the role of god.

Still don't believe me? North Korea has even had the good grace to formally codify the country's totalitarian ideals as a religion.

If you are skeptical about this expansive definition of god(s), consider the Heaven's Gate cultists. Certainly they did not appear to believe in god(s) in the traditional sense, but it would be laughable to refer to them as a "secular" or "atheist" group. Clearly they were not. To me, it is equally clear that Stalinist Russia could not be reasonably labeled as secular or atheist, either.

But wait, you say, even if we accept that Stalinism and Maoism are not actually atheistic belief systems, that doesn't mean that Stalin or Mao couldn't be atheist! Well, sort of. We can ask whether Stalin really believed in his heart that he had the wisdom to command all of the Soviet Union, but not only is this question unanswerable, it is ultimately irrelevant.

It is almost a surety that some fraction of the Catholic priests who have been convicted of child molestation had internally abandoned their faith prior to their despicable actions... does this mean that the molestations were now committed by atheist priests, and that atheists must answer for their actions? No, of course not. The priests were part of the Catholic infrastructure, they self-identified as Catholics, so we have little choice but to say they are Catholics.

By the same token, it's possible -- maybe even likely -- that Stalin and Mao did not actually believe in their own infallibility. But to say that this means they weren't truly totalitarianists is about as meaningful as saying that maybe David Koresh didn't literally believe he was a prophet and therefore he wasn't a Branch Davidian. That's retarded. Stalin and Mao preached totalitarianism, therefore they were totalitarianists, not atheists. End of story.

In short: It is my contention that secular totalitarianism is an oxymoron. Totalitarianism by its very nature is non-secular, because it promotes ideals of infallibility and absolute obedience that are not compatible with a secular worldview. By definition, no totalitarian dictator can be rightly termed an atheist.

1I'm normally rather careful with pronouns, to either say "he or she", or if I am writing informally, the singular "they". However, I'm not aware of any female totalitarianist dictators, so I think I am safe in using the male pronoun here. Correct me if I'm wrong!


  1. More than anything, I believe, authoritarians reject other institutions and leaders - like organised religions and their leaders - who challenge their authority in their realm. They're basically not atheist in their worldview, they're anti-organised religion.

    When authoritarians manage to become the indisputable head of organised religions, they have nog qualms accepting that role (see Egyptian pharaos or the Kings/Queens of Great Britain) and expand their power.

  2. I know we've had the discussion about authoritarian and totalitarian leaders before, about how their State-worship supplants religious devotion, which, in essence, makes them their own gods, but I did want to add that religious totalitarianism has probably resulted in more deaths throughout history.

    Of course, it's a different kind of mass murder. When the pope does it, it's considered sanctioned by God. When the State does it, it's "evil." So you can get all crusadey on anyone's ass and still be righteous if you're of the Papacy or some other globally recognized religious organization (especially if you work out of headquarters). Once you're deemed "secular" you're almost immediately labeled "atheist" as well (except in most post-War Western countries where secularism and religion coexist, although not flawlessly). This is largely due to the fact that our more notorious and recent "evil" dictators were communists, and it's widely accepted that communists don't believe in God (and who knows if that's actually true). It's strange when you think about it, though. Christianity is totally communist but to the communists, any religion is competition for loyalty.

    The reason communism and religious faith seem to be incompatible is because one's undying love for Mother Country should exist above one's love for all other things, including God and family. The North Koreans don't need Jesus. Why? Because he'd have to compete with Dear Leader. If the state defines "morality" then you become a prisoner of the state. Either way, whether you live in Riyadh or Pyongyang or Belfast or the Vatican, you're a prisoner to someone.


  3. Its not hard to see parallels between Marxism and Christianity, with both positing an inevitable "end of history" where all are brothers living in a utopia where there is no want or oppression. Marxism and its derivatives often seem to be religion stripped of a god with a sort of personified history in the god role.

  4. Indeed, it always cracks me up when conservatives try to equate their xianity with capitalism. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm a social capitalist, so the idea of untempered socialism is as abhorrent to me as laissez faire. But come on... Jesus was so obviously a commie. He made it pretty explicit in Matthew 19 when he said "go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor" and "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God". Don't get me started on Luke 14:25... So, uh, how again is there a correlation between extremist capitalists and fundamentalist Christians?!

  5. There's a lot of debate about what, exactly, defines a religion. Some sociologists say that belief in supernatural beings is incidental. Religion, in this way of looking at it, is all about the cultural practices that bind society together. In which case, communism (like Scientology or Raelism) is certainly a religion.

    But personally I think that there's a difference between being an atheist and being an individualist/skeptic/critical thinker. Although in the west the two typically go together, it ain't necessarily so.

    The question is, is it possible to build a society free from religion in the broader sense, or in the absence of gods will the herd turn instinctively to an atheist 'religion'?

  6. But personally I think that there's a difference between being an atheist and being an individualist/skeptic/critical thinker.

    This I certainly agree with. One need look no further than Bill Maher, who I suppose is definitely an individualist, but his critical thinking skills seem to, eh, have a rather large blind spot, to put it mildly.

    (And I consider Religulous to be a very important movie, FWIW)

    In regards to the contention that totalitarianism is inherently non-secular, I think I am still using a narrower definition of religion than "the cultural practices that bind society together"... A secular holiday like Mother's Day or Independence Day (in the US), let's say, would fall into this category, but it is not something where I would try to make this "it's just like religion!" argument. Now, if it were required by law and/or would cause a large fraction of the population to assume you are going to hell if you failed to see a fireworks display on Independence Day (as is the custom in the US), then I might call it religious.