Sam Harris – Myth Buster or Myth Maker? Part 2 of 10

“2) Atheism is responsible for the greatest crimes in human history”:

Sam Harris makes some interesting points in making reference to the personality cults and dogmatism that were inherent in regimes such as Hitler’s, Stalin’s, Mao’s and Pol Pot’s. He reasonably states, “Auschwitz, the gulag and the killing fields were not examples of what happens when human beings reject religious dogma; they are examples of political, racial and nationalistic dogma run amok.”

Moreover, he actually blames the brutality of people who were atheists on religion:

“2) Atheism is responsible for the greatest crimes in human history”:

Sam Harris makes some interesting points in making reference to the personality cults and dogmatism that were inherent in regimes such as Hitler’s, Stalin’s, Mao’s and Pol Pot’s. He reasonably states, “Auschwitz, the gulag and the killing fields were not examples of what happens when human beings reject religious dogma; they are examples of political, racial and nationalistic dogma run amok.”

Moreover, he actually blames the brutality of people who were atheists on religion:

“People of faith regularly claim that atheism is responsible for some of the most appalling crimes of the 20th century. Although it is true that the regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were irreligious to varying degrees, they were not especially rational_In many respects, religion was directly culpable even here. Consider the Holocaust: The anti-Semitism that built the Nazi crematoria brick by brick was a direct inheritance from medieval Christianity.”[fn] Sam Harris, An Atheist Manifesto (Dec 7, 2005)

In his “Myths” article, Sam Harris does not bother commenting on the atheistic Communists and he blames Christianity for Nazism. Sam Harris does not bother mentioning that Nazism was rabidly anti-Christian and that it is a misunderstanding Christian doctrine to imagine that it could logically justify Nazism. Consider the following:

“People often describe the Holocaust as the climax of 2,000 years of Christian mistreatment of Jews. Some invoke the Shoah [Hebrew for catastrophe referring to the Holocaust] as the ultimate reason for Jews not to believe in Jesus. Jewish believer Moishe Rosen challenges that view: ‘The phrase ‘2,000 years of history leading up to the Holocaust’ is more than a reference to past prejudice and persecution. It is an indictment against Christianity that misinterprets Christ’s message and intent. Anyone who gives credence to such an accusation bestows upon Hitler the power to change theology.'”[fn] Compiled by Eliyah Gould, Rich Robinson and Ruth Rosen, The Y’shua Challenge – Answers for those who say Jews can’t believe in Jesus (San Francisco, CA: A Purple Pomegranate Booklet, Purple Pomegranate Productions), p. 21, quoting Moishe Rosen, “Am Yisrael Chai,” Issue, 9:4 (1993), p. 2

A small sample of the estimated casualties of non-religious wars offered by Mr. Matthew White:[fn] See Matthew White, Source List and Detailed Death Tolls for the Twentieth Century Hemoclysm and 30 Worst Atrocities of the 20th Century

First World War[fn] “incl. Armenian massacres”
[/fn] (1914-18): 15,000,000
Second World War[fn] “Some overlap w/Stalin. Includes Sino-Japanese War and Holocaust. Doesn’t incl. post-war German expulsions”
[/fn] (1937-45): 50,000,000
China: Mao Zedong’s regime[fn] “incl. famine”
[/fn] (1949-76): 48,250,000
USSR: Stalin’s regime[fn] “incl. WW2-era atrocities”
[/fn] (1924-53): 20,000,000
Cambodia: Khmer Rouge Regime (1975-79):1,650,000

These atrocities are made all the worse by the fact that they took place in an era of enlightenment, rational, scientific advancement and were perpetrated mostly by people who rejected religion/theism and embraced atheism/secularism.

In his 30 Worst Atrocities of the 20th Century Matthew White writes:

“We’ve got rich countries and poor countries; industrial and agrarian; big and small. We’ve got people of all colors – white, black, yellow and brown – widely represented among both the slaughterers and the slaughterees. We’ve got Christians, Moslems, Buddhists and Atheists all butchering one another in the name of their various gods or lack thereof. Among the perpetrators, we’ve got political leanings of the left, right and middle; some are monarchies; some are dictatorships and some are even democracies.”[fn] Matthew White, 30 Worst Atrocities of the 20th Century

Sam Harris fails to account for the fact that the innovators of suicide bombings were Buddhists and Communist. The Buddhists, whose worldview is premised upon atheism, were the Kamikaze (“divine wind”).[fn] Josh Baran, Zen Holy War?
[/fn] Buddhists have been engaging in justifying bloody warfare by appealing to their beliefs for centuries as exampled below:

Zen Master Harada Daiun Sogaku stated:
“If ordered to march: tramp, tramp or shoot: bang, bang. This is the manifestation of the highest wisdom of enlightenment. The unity of Zen and war_extends to the farthest reaches of the holy war now under way.”

Sugimoto Goro stated:
“Warriors who sacrifice their lives for the emperor will not die. They will live forever. Truly they should be called gods and Buddhas for whom there is no life or death. Where there is absolute loyalty there is no life or death.”

Shaku Soen, who is considered one of the great “fully enlightened” Zen Masters of our time stated:
“I wished to inspire our valiant soldiers with the ennobling thoughts of the Buddha, so as to enable them to die on the battlefield with confidence that the task in which they are engaged is great and noble. I wish to convince them_that this war is not a mere slaughter of their fellow-beings, but that they are combating an evil_an inevitable step toward the final realization of enlightenment.”

Rinzai Zen Master Nantembo stated that there was “no bodhisattva practice superior to the compassionate taking of life.”

Sawaki Kodo, “also advocated, as did other Zen teachers, that if killing is done without thinking, in a state of no-mind or no-self, then the act is a expression of enlightenment_in 1935, he testified, ‘I was in an absolute sphere, so there was neither affirmation nor negation, neither good nor evil.'”

“This total betrayal of compassion did not just take place during World War II. For six hundred years, one Zen Master bragged, the Rinzai school had been engaged in ‘enhancing military power.’ For centuries, Zen was intimately involved in the way of killing. This is the simple truth.”

Other resources on Buddhism:
Josh Baran, Zen Holy War? (Book Review – Written for the Buddhist “Tricycle” Magazine. A shortened version of this piece appeared in the May 1998 issue of the magazine)

Mark Moyar (University of Cambridge), Political Monks: The Militant Buddhist Movement during the Vietnam War (Modern Asian Studies [2004], 38: 749-784 Cambridge University Press)

Allan M. Jalon, Meditating on War and Guilt, Zen Says It’s Sorry (Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company)

Noah S. Brannen, Soka Gakkai: Japan’s Militant Buddhists (The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 29, No. 2 (Feb., 1970), pp. 451-453)

Mike Maikeru Baker, Militant Buddhists: A look at the Ikko-Ikki (The Samurai Archives)

Joseph Grosso, Paradise Lost: The Endless War In Sri Lanka (Counter Currents)
The Communists were: “The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam” aka “Tamil Tigers” (established in the 1970s, they committed 168 suicide bombings between 1980-2000). The “Tigers” murder innocent civilians in their attacks upon commuter trains, buses, villages, temples and mosques, they recruit child soldiers, assassinate political figures, engage in ethnic cleansing and execute POWs.[fn] See, Wikipedia’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam

Sam Harris should also consider that a tremendous number of violent acts have nothing whatsoever to do with religion/theism. Some examples are violence committed in the name of: riches, poverty, territory, material goods/resources, politics, racism, emotions, abortion, sexism, science, rage, jealousy, envy, lust, hopelessness, domestic violence, gangs, freedom, and atheism.

A very important point to make here is that both atheists and theists have engaged in oppression and brutality. However, and we will now speak from a Judeo-Christian perspective and not a generic theistic one, when someone calling themselves a Christian does such things they are condemned by the very beliefs that they claim to uphold. In this case, their violation of these beliefs would prove that they are not what they claim to be-“you will know them by their fruits.” However, when an atheist does such things on what basis will they be condemned? The most that atheist can offer are arguments from outrage whereby they claim to be personally against such acts while not providing absolute foundations on which to base those condemnations. When Christians commit such acts they are violate their ethic. When atheists commit such acts they are violating nothing.

Note that Sam Harris was responding to the “myth” that claims that “Atheism is responsible for the greatest crimes in human history,” which it most certainly has been. But, what he is doing is redefining atheism to the point that, for example, no atheists can be dogmatic (and no atheist can be violent). We deal with this point in the next section. For now, we note that Sam Harris has taken it upon himself to determine what an atheist is and what an atheist is not, what an atheist believes and cannot believe, what they can do and cannot do. Moreover, Sam Harris is not the only atheist who has made such dogmatic pronouncements (see my essays that touch upon these issues here and here). Note that Christopher Orlet has made reference to “A sectarian split among atheists.”[fn] Christopher Orlet, “True Unbelievers: A sectarian split among atheists,” Opinion Journal, Wall Street Journal, USA (May 1, 2007 Opinion)
[/fn] And Jay Lindsay wrote, “Atheists are under attack these days for being too militant, for not just disbelieving in religious faith but for trying to eradicate it. And who’s leveling these accusations? Other atheists, it turns out.”[fn] Jay Lindsay, “Atheists split on how to not believe,” AP, via the Nashua Telegraph, USA (Apr. 21, 2007)
[/fn] Moreover, “Some of the strongest criticism of The End of Faith has come from an unexpected quarter – the humanist press.”[fn] Wikipedia, The End of Faith
[/fn] Jean Barker has also pointed out that “atheists criticized him [Sam Harris] for supporting Buddhist meditation.”[fn] Jean E. Barker, Taking on Christians’ Gospel Truth

In this section we got a very clear glimpse of just how deeply ensconced Sam Harris is in his self-appointment role as arbiter of all things atheistic. Communists were self-proclaimed atheists, they established atheistic governments upon atheistic premises and thereby pushed their atheistic agendas. But Sam Harris has deemed them unworthy of the title “atheist.” Yet, those atheists chose to be dogmatic (to use Sam Harris’ term) and they chose to form a personality cult (to use Sam Harris’ term). Yet, Sam Harris’ fundamentalism excludes them from being considered true atheists. Against which absolute atheist standard is he judging them? Who appointed him priest, prophet and Pope of atheism? Elsewhere, Sam Harris also acts as the self-appointer arbiter of all things Buddhist.[fn] Sam Harris, Killing the Buddha


Lastly, we must not miss the greater point being made by Sam Harris as he condemns any and all evil of any sort perpetrated by any one – theist or atheist. He does not provide any absolute moral standard by which to condemn any such actions. I part 10 we will see that he presupposes, without the least bit of either proof nor attempt at a proof, that moral intuitions are (at some level) hard-wired.

Ultimately, it is generic and simplistic to merely argue that Christians commit atrocities “in the name of Christ” as it is likewise fallacious to merely claim that regimes such as the Communists acted “in the name of atheism.” It is too simplistic in that it neglects to mention other motivating factors such as those I listed above: politics, resources, territory, etc.


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4 thoughts on “Sam Harris – Myth Buster or Myth Maker? Part 2 of 10”

  1. I agree that Harris’ argument
    I agree that Harris’ argument isn’t the best, however he is correct to some degree.

    When Harris said the following about the second myth, that Atheism was responsible for the greatest crimes in human history, he got it pretty much right:

    “People of faith often claim that the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were the inevitable product of unbelief. The problem with fascism and communism, however, is not that they are too critical of religion; the problem is that they are too much like religions. Such regimes are dogmatic to the core and generally give rise to personality cults that are indistinguishable from cults of religious hero worship. Auschwitz, the gulag and the killing fields were not examples of what happens when human beings reject religious dogma; they are examples of political, racial and nationalistic dogma run amok. There is no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.”


    Communism, which is a subject I’ve been doing much reading on, was not done in the name of non-belief but because of the communist ideology.

    First of all, atheism completely lacks any kind of influencing ideology. Because of this one must look towards the ideology of those who committed the atrocities. Marxism, with it’s ultimate goal of creating a “classless society,” and the belief that religion is a byproduct of capitalism, and that private property should be abolished, these are the beliefs which inspired the actions of the communists. Because these things did not fade away as Marx envisioned, Stalin forced these events to take place, in an attempt to create this “classless society.”

    Marx felt that “religion is a symptom of inadequacy in the human condition and can therefore ultimately only be exorcized by changing the actual human condition through Communist revolution.” – “The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief”, edited by Tom Flynn, page 523

    After the communists gained power they found that religion wasn’t going to wither away as easily as they originally thought, so they began to initiate anti-religious campaigns. By doing this, they thought perhaps they could force people to give up their religious beliefs and help the “classless society” to develop, as was required of Marxist doctrine. It was their attempt to initiate this phase of socialism by forcing religion out of the communities and gain this “classless society,” and had nothing to do with atheism itself. But this contradicted the teachings of Marx. – “The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief”, edited by Tom Flynn, page 621

    The atrocities were not done because of any lack of belief, or atheism, but their communist ideology.

    More proof of this is the fact that religion was not the purpose of the purges. They targeted EVERYONE, not just religious individuals – even ATHEISTS. So to say that they persecuted theists more is completely false. They targeted anyone they felt was a threat to their power and anyone who did not follow their guidelines for the collectivization of all farms and other work.

    Even renowned historian Robert Conquest in his book “The Great Terror: A Reassessment” he says on page 258,

    “A recent Soviet comment on the purges is that as against the argument, sometimes met, that the purges were largely confined to party officials, ‘they hit everyone – doctors, intellectuals, peasants, atheists, priests, industrial managers, diplomats, former private business men.’ In the Butyra, Eugenia Ginzburg’s cell mates were, as she puts it, ‘a much broader section of the population’ than in the ‘special block’ in Kazan: ‘There were many peasants, factory workers, shop girls, office clerks'”

    They did not concentrate on just one group…but everyone, even atheists, as I said before. If it was truly atheism that caused their crimes, why in the world would they target other atheists???

    It makes no sense, UNLESS it was their communist ideology and not their non-belief.

    I honestly think you need to read about the history of Russia in much more detail. There are many, many myths and false claims floating around the internet.

  2. You said:”Atheism provided
    You said:

    “Atheism provided the atheists who premised Communism on atheism with the blank slate that they needed in order to build their particular ideologies. Thus, piggy backing on your claim I would say “The atrocities were not done because of any lack of belief, or atheism, but their communist ideology” and yet, it was atheism as “lack of belief” that opened the door wide to Communist ideology.”

    Well, the problem here is that, this just wasn’t the case with what happened in Russia. Stalin was following the communist ideology and that was the reason for the massacres. As far as “filling” some gap, there was no gap to fill. Communism was an ideology that wasn’t taking the place of anything. To Marx, he thought his ideas would liberate the working class and felt that religion was something that kept the working class subdued so they would not feel the need to attempt to change their status, to improve their lives. This wasn’t a lack of morality, or any such thing. They thought they could create a better society based upon the ideas of Marx, and create a socialist utopia. Atheism and communism are not even linked in any real way.

    I honestly think you need to read up on the history in order to truly understand what was going on and why.

    Also, your article didn’t cause me to study anything; I’ve been reading about this topic for a while now.

    Atheists, as a group, do not have blood on our hands. There is nothing linking atheists, unlike the various beliefs of the many theisms, that have caused many problems.

  3. You blame kamikaze on atheism
    You blame kamikaze on atheism and link it to Buddhism. That is wrong. Shintoism was the inspiration for kamikaze. The belief that the emperor was a direct descendant of the gods. That is very much a religion. Also, while the Nazi did many things you would call un-Christian, Hitler was a Catholic who used Catholicism as justification for his actions and was never excommunicated by the Vatican. To the contrary their silence was considered silent consent much like during the slave trade. Hitler considered himself to be very religious.

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