To the Editor:
An otherwise interesting article is undermined by its overreach (“Among the Disbelievers,” October). Lost to Gary Saul Morson is the inherent mistake of his conditional syllogism: If all Bolsheviks are atheists, and all Bolsheviks are evil, then all atheists are (potentially) evil. This is obviously not true.
I recall an incident from the movie Judgment at Nuremberg: Two accused Nazis awaiting trial are having a conversation. The first asks the second whether he is afraid of God’s judgment. The second replies, no, because there is no God. The first asks again, How do you know that for sure? The reply from the second: If there was a God, could we have done what we did?
New York City
To the Editor:
While it is beyond doubt that the Soviet system was atheistic and its atheism helped to legitimate a great deal of evil, as Gary Saul Morson argues, the system was not anti-religious. Bolshevik ethics cannot be reduced to atheism. The Soviet system attempted to provide a substitute religion, tried to meet the diffuse religious needs of its people, and encouraged certain beliefs similar to those of conventional religious denominations and believers.
Stalin was not an ordinary dictator but a redeemer, a divine figure who shared many attributes of traditional divinity as projected on him by propaganda. There was considerable popular receptivity to this image. The Soviet system and its ideology shared with traditional religions a future orientation—Communism was a secular version of heaven in which all known, worldly frustrations, deprivations, and conflicts were to be alleviated or altogether removed. Secular rituals imitated religious ones, including the veneration of Lenin’s embalmed body. Good and evil were sharply defined in the Communist value system (as they are in many religious beliefs), although of course they had different bases. Both conventional (or traditional) religions and secular religious ideologies (such as Marxism-Leninism) abhor moral relativism and provide grounds for righteous intolerance. Both systems of belief find support in sacred writings that are used as sources of legitimacy and cannot be challenged. Quotes from the Bible or the Koran, as those of Stalin or Mao, have been routinely used as substitutes for reasoned argument. Both religious and secular religious beliefs (such as those rooted in Marxism-Leninism) have been sources of both idealistic, selfless attitudes and behavior, and ruthless fanaticism. There is no shortage of historical examples indicating that many idealists of both types believed that hallowed ends justify sordid means and they used them with a clear conscience. Much of what Mr. Morson wrote is of course correct, but we cannot overlook the similarities between the religious and secular religious beliefs (or ideologies) noted above, and especially the basic human needs both types of belief systems seek to satisfy.
adeGary Saul Morson writes:
I want to thank Jerome Feldman and Paul Hollander for their thoughtful responses and for providing the chance to clarify what I am, and am not, claiming.
I am at a loss to understand why Mr. Feldman thinks I state that all atheists are evil. (Everyone is “potentially” evil.) I was responding to the atheist claim that religions are uniquely horrible, unlike humane atheism. But in the past century, avowedly atheist regimes have killed far more people, and killed them far more cruelly, than all religions in the course of history combined. Surely the atheists should at least stop claiming that atheism is necessarily more humane.
I know of no Jewish or Christian sect that has deemed compassion, pity, or individual conscience a vice, and taught schoolchildren as much. But Bolshevism, which inspired Marxist-Leninist regimes governing some 20 countries ruling some 40 percent of humanity, created what can only be called a reverse categorical imperative and a negative golden rule. And for reasons I outline in the article, they derived this abhorrent ethics directly and explicitly from atheism. Reading the memoirs of those who survived the Gulag, I was also struck that even atheists report that under pressure everyone except some religious people would choose survival over morality. Somehow, in an extreme situation, ethical tenets not grounded in the divine, but depending solely on one’s own reasoning, proved feeble.
Paul Hollander, whose work I greatly admire, is of course correct that Bolshevism in many respects resembled a religion. As a comprehensive worldview, there was no way it could not. Mr. Hollander correctly outlines several parallels. Indeed, it is a truism of Russian intellectual history that Russian Communism reflects the apocalyptic orientation of Russian Orthodox Christianity as well as the theories of Marx.
Nevertheless, atheism, even Bolshevik atheism, is not a religion. After all, pseudo-sciences share many features with real sciences, but that does not make them sciences. At least in the West, today the claim of absolute certainty in all matters can be sustained only by an ideology claiming not divine revelation but scientific status. Atheists claim that, unlike religious folk, they rely on empirical evidence. Why, then, do they fail to address the evidence of atheist regimes in the last century murdering at least a hundred million people, often selected entirely at random?