Saturday, February 12, 2011

Sorry, You Get These Guys Too

Or, The Irrational Faiths of Hitler, Stalin and Mao

      If you have been reading this blog at all, it is pretty clear that much of it is a polemic against religious faith. This is because I have come to believe over the last few years that religious faith is one of, if not the single, greatest dilemma facing humanity today, both for its own horrifically long and growing list of crimes, as well as for the way it manages to make genuine problems facing our species, AIDS, population growth, climate change, territorial rights, marital and pregnancy rights, educational rights and nuclear war, all far more intractable and insoluble than they need to be, by injecting irrelevant Bronze Age nonsense into the debates.

      But this was not always so. For much of the preceding century, the bloodiest in history, probably bloodier than all other centuries combined, these same problems, or others were exasperated not by religious faiths, but by political ones. Fascism and communism were enormous threats to the peace and prosperity of people all over the globe, and went beyond threats into actual oppression, brutality, starvation, torture and murder for millions upon millions of people unfortunate enough to live under their yoke.

      The faithful often like to try to pin the crimes of these monsters on their atheism. Besides the great irony of their own bristling at the equivalent suggestion that religion is responsible for thousands of years of murder, torture, inquisitions, witch-burnings, crusades, and the like, this attempt fails for a very simple reason. It wasn't their atheism that allowed them to justify such horrors, it was, exactly as it is with religion, their faith.

      For the religious faithful, the ultimate difference between themselves and someone like myself, or any of the others whose blogs are linked at the top of this page, is that they believe in god and we don't. However, as I tried to point out in my post Terminology, for us skeptics, that is not the greatest difference. ("Skeptic" is the term I will be using from here on out to differentiate myself and those who think like me from those who simply also deny the supremacy of the Abrahamic god.) The true difference lies in the skeptic's understanding that nothing should have to be taken on faith, whether it is god, or ghosts, or any new-age woowoo or the supremacy of a certain race or economic class. So with this understanding, we will be taking a look at how, if you are someone who believes faith is a legitimate way to understand the world, Hitler, Stalin and Mao are actually coming to your party. They're not invited to mine.

       To illustrate why this is so, we could use a quick review of what we mean by "faith." It has been described, variously, as "belief in things unseen," or as "belief in the absence of evidence" or more accurately now, in the 21st century, "belief in spite of the evidence." So how can we categorize the tenets of fascism and communism, and their tragically charismatic leaders as tenets of faith? It is quite simple actually, particularly in hindsight. In the interest of time, some of this may be a simplification, but I trust that the reader knows enough of the historical details to fill in the subtleties and nuances of those ideologies.

      Hitler's fascist Nazi party believed in the supremacy of the "Aryan race" (whatever the hell that is, since the Aryans lived primarily in the Caucasus Mts. and migrated to India), Germany's destiny to reign for 1,000 years (The Reich) and the sub-human status of Jews, Poles, Catholics, queers, the disabled, blacks, communists... pretty much everyone else. Again, in the interests of time, let's just agree to agree that this is all patently stupid, false, ridiculous and would be laughable if it weren't for the innumerable evils which were carried out under the auspices of this faith. Because a faith is precisely what it is. 

      Let's check this system against our definitions of faith from above, just to be sure. "Belief in things unseen." Yup, the destiny of a thousand-year Reich fits that one nicely. Accepting that someone else has access to perfect knowledge of the future can, always, only be done on faith. "Belief in the absence of evidence." Sure, the Nazi's manufactured "science" (often horrifically)  to prove that "Aryans" were in fact superior, but this "evidence" obviously holds no water, since it was manufactured to prove a point, which is the antithesis of science. (We'll take a closer look at the "science" of these ideologies in a bit.) "Belief in spite of the evidence." Jesse Owen's humiliation of his Aryan opponents at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin was an obvious, and unheeded, disproof of the Nazi myth of Aryan superiority over other "sub-human races', such as Africans.

      Like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and fascism, communism is, at its core, a millenarian prophecy. Like all the rest, the coming of the Messiah, Armageddon, the Rapture, the Reich, and the Caliphate, communism promised, after a period of strife and struggle, that the world would finally become peaceful, equitable, and blissful, until the end of time, at least for the adherents of the faith. Like all the rest, the conversion or elimination of all non-believers necessarily precedes this. This prophetic element fits the "belief in things unseen" aspect of a faith. However, since Marx had actually done quite a bit of serious thinking, even if his scheme ultimately proved to be deeply flawed, we have to dig a little deeper into the history of communism to see where its adherents continued to "believe in the absence, or in spite of, the evidence." Along the way, we'll throw in some examples from fascism as well, just to make my point abundantly clear.

      To demonstrate just how different these ideologies are from skepticism, we need to look at their commonalities. Skepticism recognizes that, to date, science is far and away the most effective means humanity has ever discovered for understanding, predicting and manipulating our world. These totalitarian ideologies also tried to employ the power of science to their benefit, and their colossal failure at this reveals exactly why these ideologies weren't scientific at all (and thus not skeptical) but were just faiths of a different stripe. Again, this, not the belief or non-belief in a cranky, judgmental old man in the sky, is what reveals totalitarian political ideologies to be much closer cousins to religion than they ever were to skeptical atheism.

      If you are of my parent's or grandparent's generation, you are old enough to recall a time when there was a legitimate fear that "Nazi science" or "communist science" was threatening to pass the actual science being done in the West. (Hint: any time you put another word in front of "science," it probably ain't science at all, unless its telling you what branch of science it is, like "life science" or "physical science.") History has shown that not only did this threat not play out, it was completely conflated and false to begin with. At no point did either communism or fascism have any long-term chance of surpassing the actual science being done in the free world. There were certain minor victories, such as Sputnik, but the inherently closed nature of these societies, the forbidding of freedom of thought, travel and expression, which is vital to science, doomed them from the outset. But more damaging than this was the attempt by these ideologies to force the world to confirm to their faith-derived notion of how it should be. Examples will illustrate this better. Let's start with Nazi "science."

      In the centuries preceding Nazism, Germany was an intellectual and scientific powerhouse, arguably the most advanced in the world, though the United States and Britain maintained dominion in certain areas. In  just the decades immediately preceding the rise of the Nazi party, in practical and theoretical sciences, Germany can be credited with the discovery or explanation of: X-rays, quantum mechanics, relativity, aspirin and heroin (when it was a used as a medicine), early automobiles, gliders, dirigibles, the electric typewriter, the electric locomotive, the Geiger counter, and many more. In about a decade, the Nazi party gutted Germany's intellectual and scientific establishment. Of course, Hitler wanted to harness the power of science, but he thought he could do this by "demanding" that it produce one lunatic, hellish thing after another, often mixed in with some occult beliefs (faith again), which of course never worked out. Scientists who were not of the proper "race" or ideology were removed from their posts or fled the country. As a general outlook, Hitler thought that teaching "will-power" should be primary and declared, "Instruction in the sciences should be considered of the last importance." Fortunately for civilization, for the immense damage done by the faith of this idiot and his toadies, their faith was at least total enough to help them in making some colossal errors which the rest of us can all be grateful for, such as Hitler's dismissal of the combat potential of rockets and jet aircraft, and the idea of nuclear weapons as a fantasy of "Jewish physics." (Again, with the word before "science", which only people who don't have the faintest clue how science works think makes sense.)

      The communists also, Stalin and Mao (there were others of course, Pol Pot, etc., but we're trying to be succinct), had an astonishing capacity to place their faith in Marxism ahead of any amount of evidence that was put before their eyes. In Russia, one of countless examples can be seen in the tale of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, Director of the Soviet Academy of Sciences' Institute of Genetics from 1940-1965. Lysenko was a Lamarckian, which, even at the time, was a long discredited theory of genetics and evolution. He felt this fit better with communist beliefs, because the Darwinian theory of evolution had far too much emphasis on competition, which sounded suspiciously like capitalist market economics. This led Lysenko, the director of Soviet agricultural policies for a quarter century, to many incredibly stupid beliefs such as the notion that if one planted crops more closely together than any home gardener knows is wise, that rather than choking each other out, the weaker ones would "willingly die" to help aid the greater good of the crop as a whole. Stalin, of course, approved of this line of thinking, since he was asking the same thing of tens of millions of his own subjects. This idiocy, along with many other policies which were retained "in the absence, or in spite of, the evidence" resulted in the death by starvation of 6-8 million people under Stalin's rule.

      "But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/ You ain't gonna make it with anyone anyhow." Or... you're going to starve to death, too. Like their enemies to the north, the Chinese communists wanted to demonstrate the superiority of Marxist science over actual science. (Another good sign that a belief is just a faith, without any actual truth value, is that greatest enemies of the believers is another group of believers with whom they agree on 98% of the issues, but are willing to antagonize or kill one another over the remaining 2%, such as Protestants and Catholics, Sunnis and Shiites, etc.) As is well known, Mao's "Great Leap Forward," implemented agricultural reforms based on "Marxist science" which resulted in the starvation of  possibly 45 million Chinese. This was, essentially, faith-inspired state-sanctioned murder, just like the Soviet example. But not to worry, Mao said, when he forbade the mourning of the dead, since the bodies "fertilize the ground." While his subjects' bodies consumed themselves from the inside out, Mao's party continued to export food, to prove the productivity of socialist agriculture to the rest of the world.

      In all of the above examples we can see the devastating effects of having faith in an ideology at the expense of ignoring the available evidence. We could find countless more, but they are all part of the historical record, and I don't need to do all the work. But the theme remains the same. When one tries to force the world to conform to one's preconceived notions of how the world "should" be, the world, not surprisingly, refuses to bend. Exactly as happens with religions, faith-based political ideologies that refuse to bend their understanding to what is actually happening, and continue to distort and twist both their perception and reporting of facts, eventually take their toll on real human lives. The history of faith-based political ideologies is virtually identical to that of faith-based religions; it is the history of cruelty, violence, torture, unjust imprisonment, forced poverty and starvation, murder and genocide, all in the name of "the faith." All of the crimes committed by political faiths have been committed at one time or another by religious faiths, and the presence or absence of belief in a deity does not seem to make a lick of difference. Whether the "dear leader" is a prophet from ages past or an icon behind barbed wire, whether the promise is for eternal life in the next world or a more "perfect" realization of this one, the sacrifice the people (never the elite) must make to achieve this is always the same. Give up your freedom, give up your reason, give up your right to think for yourself, give up your right to question, give up your life.

      Faith is the cause of all of the greatest evils ever to befall humankind. Use whatever verbiage you want. Faith is a crime. Faith is a sin. Faith is immoral. 

      Faith is evil.

(Many of the details of the historical record I present here are taken from Timothy Ferris' outstanding  The Science of Liberty, which I discussed in more detail here. Again, there are few books I can recommend more highly.)



  1. Here, here. I came to the same conclusion in "Stalin and Hitler were men of faith".


    You do a great job of pointing out how evil faith can be!

  2. Thanks, Defaithed.

    You get the distinct honor of being the first person to comment here who I don't know personally.

    Thanks for reading!

    Can't wait to check out your blog, too.