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Saturday, August 20, 2016

What has Barack Obama done for America?

Image result for obama golf cartoonCan anyone explain to me why more than half the people in this country still think Barack Obama is a good president?

* He golfs every time Americans are suffering. Is that his way of suffering with us?

* Obamacare has hurt tens of millions of Americans hard where it hurts, and helped precious few but the bureaucrats and maybe a few insurance agencies.

* The economy hasn't grown more than about 2% even in the best years under his rule -- pretty lousy for a "recovery."

* Which, by the way, began before any of his major policies took effect.

* Iran has gotten away with murder, and now been paid for it -- just to kidnap yet more Americans.

* ISIS metastasized under his watch, persecuting Christians and other religious minorities, destroying world heritage artifacts.

* Hundreds of thousands have died in Syria.

* With Secretary Clinton, he turned Libya into a total disaster area.

* National Debt has increased some $10 TRILLION dollars. (Your share, by the way, is $40,000, just of the Obama increase. Pay up! If you're a family of 4, that's $160,000, please! Feel free to sell your house to pay off the Saudis and Chinese -- if the market is any good in your town. Otherwise, you can begin by selling the shirt off your back.)

* Racial conflict has increased dramatically.

* The murder rate has skyrocketed in major cities, as a direct consequence of Obama and other badmouthing the police. Thousands have died as a consequence.

* New justices who do NOT respect the Constitution or the lives of the unborn are now in office. This is why even Christians are forced to pretend that men can really marry men, and women can really marry women -- or lose their jobs.

* China is now arguably the most powerful country in the world. Iran is now arguably the most powerful country in the Middle East.

* The Russians have done exactly what they wanted to, and are pushing other countries around right and left, treating the US with contempt.

So can someone tell me what amazing accomplishments the Scoffer-in-Chief has achieved, to offset all of this? What has he done that is worth a mortgage on your home, for you, personally?

Can anyone name a modern American president who has been a more complete and consistent disaster?

Saturday, August 13, 2016

What difference did Jesus make? (Goldingay on History.)

Fuller Old Testament scholar John Goldingay wrote (or at least published) a book last year called Do We Need the New Testament: Letting the Old Testament Speak for Itself.  By all accounts, the book is well-written and thoughtful.  I have not read more than a few paragraphs and some reviews, but I suspect I would agree with some of what Dr. Goldingay writes. 

Yesterday, Goldingay kindly sent me a copy of Chapter Two, Why Jesus is Important.  He did so because the radical anti-Christian Religious Studies professor at Iowa State, Hector Avalos, had posted some lines from that chapter, which seemed to concede a lot about Christian history that probably most Christians would not want conceded.  Avalos' point was that Christianity hasn't really done human society much good.  I wanted to see if Goldingay really thought that.  

Looking the passage in question over, it appears that indeed, Dr. Goldingay has overlooked some enormous, and enormously important, historical patterns.  I have noticed the same lacunae in high school history texts in both America and in China.  But it is troubling that a thoughtful, good-hearted senior professor at Fuller, where Ralph Winter once taught (who was deeply familiar with these facts) would remain unaware of the rich contributions of the Gospel to human civilization.  Or that he would approvingly cite so virulent a hater, and so unreliable a scholar, as Hector Avalos on the subject.  

I will quote relevant portions of the surrounding passage first, putting the portions that Avalos quotes in italics, enumerating points I intend to discuss below.  


Goldingay's Argument

"The most distinctive feature of the situation after Jesus came is that the Spirit drove people like Paul to traverse the world to tell the story of Jesus among other nations . . . 

"What difference did Jesus’ coming make to the world? It has been argued that “The Church has made more changes on earth for good than any other movements of force in history,” including the growth of hospitals,(1) universities (2), literacy and education (3), capitalism and free enterprise (4), representative government, separation of political powers, civil liberty (5), the abolition of slavery (6)modern science (7), the discovery of the Americas (8), the elevation of women (9), the civilizing of primitive cultures (10), and the setting of languages to writing (11).  It is easy to dispute this claim. The church resisted some of the developments just listed (12), some are not particularly Christian (13), and all were encouraged by humanistic forces and reflect Greek thinking as much as gospel thinking (14).10

[Footnote 10]: On slavery in particular (even when one allows for overstatement) Hector Avalos, Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011).”  

"One can alternatively do another thought experiment. Imagine we were still waiting for the
Messiah, that the first coming of Jesus has not yet happened.  How would things in the twenty-first century be different from what they are? In the twenty-first century world there is (among other things) much war, oppression, family dysfunction, marital unfaithfulness and divorce, sexual exploitation and sexual slavery, and economic slavery (16). It is difficult to claim that the world is in better shape than it was two thousand years ago. (17)  I am not clear that the coming of Jesus made much difference to these aspects of how the world is. That fact does not mean Jesus has failed to have the effect he said he would have. He said nothing about the world getting better in these ways (18). Indeed, he said they would continue the way they were and if anything get worse. Abolitionist Theodore Parker declared his faith that the arc of the moral universe “bends towards justice,” and Martin Luther King and Barack Obama have repeated his conviction. It’s sometimes possible to see evidence of that fact in the short term, but I am not clear that there is evidence to justify Parker’s faith when one looks at history more broadly. After all, freedom and civil rights did come to be granted, but first they had to be taken away, and fifty years after Martin Luther King matters look less encouraging to some African Americans than they did thirty or forty years ago. (19)

"The difference Jesus’ coming brought about is that there are billions of people in the world who acknowledge the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who would likely not otherwise have done so. This fact is in keeping with a New Testament emphasis. It is also the case that when these people die, they have a basis for knowing that they will rise from death on resurrection day, because Jesus’ death and resurrection initiated the bringing into being of a resurrected people to which they will belong. The result of Jesus’ coming was the preaching of the gospel to the world and the providing of the basis for a confident expectation of resurrection." (20)

I think this passage is mistaken, both historically and theologically.  I think the approach exhibited in these paragraphs does harm to the Christian witness and shows a lack of appreciation for the tens of thousands of Christian reformers, in the spirit of Christ, who have rocked this world to its foundations over the past two thousand years -- and apart from whom the world would in fact be a much darker place.  I think Christianity ("the Church" in the broad sense) has deeply inspired and brought about "changes for the good," probably more than any other institution, but certainly which ought not to be downplayed.   

It is only right, and filial that we give the saints who went before us proper honor, as the author of Hebrews does, in Hebrews 11.  Even the secular world would not, should not, dishonor say, the Confucian tradition as Dr. Goldingay does his own in these paragraphs.  

Not to mention unwittingly, and no doubt through the best motives, giving aid and comfort to some of Christianity's most virulent enemies, like John Loftus and Hector Avalos.  (Who never display a trace of such "fair-mindedness" in their own propaganda -- it is dirt on the Gospel, all day and every day.)  

Let us go through these twenty items, point by point.  


The Difference Jesus Makes

(1)  It has been argued that “The Church has made more changes on earth for good than any other movements of force in history,” including the growth of hospitals . . . 

Is it not a clear historical fact that devoted Christians have built thousands of hospitals on every continent, and developed the medical sciences resulting in the direct physical well-being of billions of people?  

One can hardly get away from Christian hospitals.  Never mind that the closest hospital in your American or French town is likely to be called "Providence" or "St. Lukes."  When I lived as a single man in Taiwan, I remember meeting dates in front of what seemed the most prominent local landmark: the MacKay Hospital, which continued the excellent work of the Canadian Presbyterian missionary, George MacKay, who set up clinics across the north of the island.  (Among other good works.)  That may be the leading medical institution in a country some 90% Buddhist, but it is far from the only Christian hospital.  Similarly, when I taught in Changsha, China, the school network I taught in was founded by the same people who founded the first medical school in the city, missionaries from Yale.  (Though the communists don't brag about those roots, aside from the word "Yale," of course.)  Similarly, Japan, India, Africa, and much of the rest of the world, are chock full of hospitals founded by Christians who took their savior's medical work seriously: I have met many of such missionary medical personal myself, including the much-beloved Paul and Margaret Brand.  

And this pattern goes back to the first centuries, and all through the Middle Ages. 

If Dr. Goldingay is unaware of that glorious, and often sacrificial, history, he should visit the Fuller School of World Mission, and listen to some stories.  

 (2 universities

The same is true of universities.  While admittedly in the 20th Century, secular humanists and communists largely took over the Christian work of founding universities (or gutting Christian colleges spiritually), the first were religious institutions, usually Christian.  Again, one can liberally furnish examples even from non-Christian countries.  Stark is good on the rise of universities during the Middle Ages, even among Nestorians in the Muslim world. Goldingay might also benefit from reading Vishal Mangalwadi.  But sources are numerous, because the facts are well-known and undeniable: almost all European and American universities before the Civil War were founded by Churches, and a remarkable number in Asia and Africa as well.  Any history of Christianity in China or Japan worth its salt will be liberally sprinkled with accounts of how such schools got started: in my wife's little city of Nagasaki, there were three or four universities with Christian roots.  

(3) literacy and education

For every university that missionaries founded, they generally started numerous primary and middle schools.  In one study of women who had attained higher education in a region in coastal China, something like 98% gained that education from church schools.  Even Joseph Stalin and Voltaire were educated by Christians, however unfortunate the use they put that education to.

My wife, as a Japanese Buddhist, went to Catholic schools as a girl.  Hundreds of millions of people around the world have done likewise.  

(4) capitalism and free enterprise 

Rodney Stark, following Max Weber, has made this case.  Perhaps they are wrong: I admit that this fact is less clear-cut or perhaps well-known to me than some of the others.  But at the least, such a case has been made, citing quite a bit of evidence.  

(5)  representative government, separation of political powers, civil liberty

Robert Woodberry has made the case for Christian influence on these institutions extremely effectively, in my view.  He argues that missions, especially Protestant missions, is the single most important variable in determining the growth of free civil institutions in countries around the world. 

(6) the abolition of slavery 

In The Truth Behind the New Atheism, I recount sitting in a seminar room in Merton College (I believe it was, or perhaps Corpus Christi), Oxford, with 30 or so other historians, who were discussing (among other things) the impact of evangelical Christianity on the abolitionist movement.  Not one questioned that the influence had been profound or decisive.  At the same time, not one expressed any personal Christian proclivities.

Six years ago, Hector Avalos attacked me, and some of the claims I made in those pages (not specifically about that meeting in Oxford, however) in a long and virulent Debunking Christianity article.  (He was mad at me for having debunked some of his own arguments.)  I then responded in two posts, first here, then here.  I do not think that in the course of our exchanges, the football moved down the field towards Avalos' goal, despite much heavy breathing on his part.

Avalos has since written a long book attempting (apparently) to debunk the claim that Christianity was responsible for ending slavery.  I have not read that book yet, partly because I haven't had the time or need so far, but also largely because I find Avalos' use of citations so unreliable.  Like Loftus' other ally, Richard Carrier, one almost suspect he seeks out obscure citations in the hopes that no one will discover how badly he has abused them.  (Though to be fair, he's not much more reliable when he cites more common texts, so perhaps this is more a case of confirmation bias than of intentional slipperiness.)  Other examples can be found in my series on his book on Christianity and violence.

This is, admittedly, an argument with an ad hominal warp to it.  "Avalos has a pattern of bogus citations, therefore his long arguments on slavery, which I have not had time to read and which attempt to overthrow or undermine truths accepted by most historians, pose a lower priority in my reading than other topics for the time being."

Personally, I don't think any amount of evidence can overthrow the facts as recognized by numerous scholars of the period, and not just at Oxford.  Avalos may find errors in Stark's well-known account in For the Glory of God, but given his record, and the facts as I know them (and describe them to some extent here), I'd put my money on Stark for the big picture.      

(7) modern science

Stark's For the Glory of God provides chapters on both slavery and the origins of modern science that provide good starting points for discussion.  (Though I know Avalos would challenge Stark on some details, and Stark's history is not infallible.  See my review of Loftus' The Christian Delusion for a response to Richard Carrier's essay, "Christianity and Science.")  James Hannam's God's Philosophers / The Genesis of Science offers a more thorough and less polemical account of the same history.  Charles Thaxton, Stephen Barr, Paul Davies, David Landes, and Oxford historian of science Allan Chapman are among those who have further demonstrated the intimate linkage between Medieval Christian theology and the rise of modern science.  I don't think there is good cause to dispute the general thesis, any longer.

(8) the discovery of the Americas

I am not sure Christians should want credit for this item, given how Columbus and his ship-mates treated the natives.  But Christianity did lend the Spanish a banner around which to rally, helping Iberians cast off 500 years of Muslim domination, and saving Europe from Muslim conquest. That's a great boon, I do believe.  Columbus sailed, and the last Muslim kingdom was conquered, in the same year, both under the sponsorship of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.  While Columbus' motives may be questioned (and I would have much to learn, here), the fact that Christianity played a crucial roll in allowing Europe to throw off their would-be conquerors, permitting the explosion of science, technology, and civilization that followed, is I think hard to dispute.

(9)  the elevation of women

That Christianity raised the status of women around the world, I have demonstrated on this site, beyond (I think) reasonable doubt.  Indeed, while hundreds of skeptical responses have been posted at Christ the Tao and elsewhere, none of my essential points has I think been robustly challenged.  Most responses have been more like these ones.  

(10) the civilizing of primitive cultures 

It is indisputable that the Gospel has often had this effect.  That was certainly true through the Middle Ages in Europe: see Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion, for an overview.  How else did the Vikings become peaceable Scandinavians?  For modern examples, some related first-hand, see the works of Don Richardson, and biographies or autobiographies of James Fraser, Eugene Morse, and Mary Slessor, to give just a few examples. Again, Goldingay might consider consulting the faculty at Fuller School of Intercultural Studies, or perhaps some of the doctoral dissertations that used to adorn the office there.  

(11) and the setting of languages to writing.  

This general claim, too, is impossible to knowledgeably deny.  Many European languages, beginning perhaps with Gothic, were indeed set to writing by Christians for evangelical motives.   At least portions of the Bible have been translated into at least 2,500 languages so far: I have held some of those Bibles, the first written book in a variety of languages, and met some who translate others.  If Dr. Goldingay is unfamiliar with these facts, he may also like to visit the US Center for World Missions on the other side of Colorado Avenue in Pasadena from Fuller.

It is easy to dispute this claim. 

It would be interesting to see someone who knows the facts, try.  At best one might challenge the comparative quality in which Goldingay frames the claim.  I suppose one might argue that the communists ultimately set more languages into writing, or founded more hospitals, while admitting that Christians inspired by the life of Jesus got the ball rolling.  But I am not sure that math would pencil out, and I've never seen such an argument attempted.

(12) The church resisted some of the developments just listed 

Who is "the Church?"  Given that "the Church" has included billions of people down through the centuries, this claim may be either true or false, depending on how you interpret it.  But that is neither here nor there.  People generally resist change to their core cultures.  It might therefore be true BOTH that most Christians were resistant to a given redemptive change (though one would have to cite evidence for that claim), AND that the Gospel provided the reformist spur that set billions of people free.

For instance, most American southerners resisted the abolition of slavery, obviously.  And most were "Christians" in some sense.  But it was in their strong self-interest to keep slaves, and a blow to their pride to meekly obey the North.  So the fact that they did resist abolition, in no way undermines the evident historical truths that abolition arose in a Christian society, and was led mostly by serious Christians for religious reasons.

(13) some are not particularly Christian 

I don't suppose discovering America is particularly Christian, true.  But that does not conflict with the thesis that "the Church" set into motion the events that resulted in that discovery.  

Most of these items are, I think, particularly Christian, though.  Jesus was a healer.  Jesus was an educator.  Jesus loved women in a healthy, redeeming manner.  Jesus told his disciples to make the world worshipers of the One Creator God, whose universe is discovered through science.  Since "Christian" means "Christ-like," it is by definition Christian to act like Christ.  

 (14) and all were encouraged by humanistic forces and reflect Greek thinking as much as gospel thinking

This seems, on the surface, to contradict (13).  If some of these movements were not "particularly Christian," then to say that they reflect Greek thinking "as much as gospel thinking" is to say they are also not particularly Greek.  

But perhaps that is a mere debater's point.  More importantly, I dispute Goldingay's historical point.  No, pre-Christian humanists were not generally inclined to liberate slaves or raise the status of women.  And they did not: Jesus and his followers did, around the world, as the articles and books cited above demonstrate. 

(15) [Footnote 10]: On slavery in particular (even when one allows for overstatement) Hector Avalos, Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011).” 

While this particular book may ultimately prove a model of careful scholarship, I wouldn't bet on it.  See my response to (6), above, and linked articles.   

(16) "One can alternatively do another thought experiment. Imagine we were still waiting for the Messiah, that the first coming of Jesus has not yet happened.  How would things in the twenty-first century be different from what they are? In the twenty-first century world there is (among other things) much war, oppression, family dysfunction, marital unfaithfulness and divorce, sexual exploitation and sexual slavery, and economic slavery

This strikes me as a very bold, and very wrong-headed, claim.  Before Christ, almost half the population of Athens were slaves.  What is it now, 0.2%?  If this article is correct, one in two hundred, not one in two, modern humans is something of a slave.  Shouldn't we distinguish between forest and shrubs?  Isn't it an improvement if we rid the world of 99% of something bad?  

Warfare is much less severe than it used to be, too.  Among some tribes in Amazonia or New Guinea, about a third of young men were killed in battle or in village rivalries.  That percentage went way down, after those tribes accepted the Gospel.  The same tamping down of violence seems to have occurred in Scandinavia, indeed in countries around the world.   War has not been abolished, of course - human nature remains what it was, and most people are not Christian.  But let us not pretend that things are just as they once were.  We do not do gladiator fights in Yankee Field, or set animals on slaves in Tiger Stadium, or cut out human hearts on the Washington Mall, or even sell slaves at the Mall of the Americas.  That's progress.


(17) It is difficult to claim that the world is in better shape than it was two thousand years ago

It certainly is not.  "Human society has become vastly more civil in the past 2000 years, thanks in large part to the Gospel of Jesus Christ."  There, I just did it.

And I have backed that up.  Slavery has shrunk to a tiny remnant of what it was.  Human sacrifice has been almost banished.  (Despite post-Christian revivals among the Nazis and Communists.)  No one builds pyramids and cuts out thousands of hearts, then feeds the meat to the waiting upper castes.  Lower castes in India are not totally free, but their condition is vastly improved.  The feet of women in China are no longer bound.  Women are no longer imprisoned in their homes in India.  (They are in some parts of the Muslim world, but that is only because the influence of Jesus has been checked.)

Hospitals and schools dot the countryside in almost every nation on earth.  Polygamy is engaged in by a small minority.

One could go on and on.  Did I mention medicine and technology?  Hot baths and medicine and sanitation and sewers?  Are we not communicating on the World Wide Web?  Men and women are still sinners.  But to deny social improvement (along with, in some cases, regression), and to get such a denial past editors at IVP, is pretty amazing.

 I am not clear that the coming of Jesus made much difference to these aspects of how the world is. 

Well I am clear about that.  

(18) That fact does not mean Jesus has failed to have the effect he said he would have. He said nothing about the world getting better in these ways

But God told Abraham, who had just offered up Isaac in a shadow of Jesus' redemptive death on the cross: "I will bless your seed, and through your seed I will bless all the nations of the world." 

And Jesus told his disciples to follow him, doing the things he did - which can only mean healing, bringing peace, teaching, feeding the hungry, casting out demons, saving the marginalized from oppression, redeeming sinners.  Shalom is a sign of the Gospel of Peace.  I am surprised that a Christian professor would seem to deny the visible reality of that sign, obscured as it often is (this is also part of the Gospel) by our sins.   

(19) Indeed, he said they would continue the way they were and if anything get worse. Abolitionist Theodore Parker declared his faith that the arc of the moral universe “bends towards justice,” and Martin Luther King and Barack Obama have repeated his conviction. It’s sometimes possible to see evidence of that fact in the short term, but I am not clear that there is evidence to justify Parker’s faith when one looks at history more broadly. After all, freedom and civil rights did come to be granted, but first they had to be taken away, and fifty years after Martin Luther King matters look less encouraging to some African Americans than they did thirty or forty years ago.

Subjective appeals to how some people see matters do not change the long-term historical facts.  2000 years ago, slavery was ordinary: now it is recognized as an abomination.  G. K. Chesterton predicted that it would be revived, and it has been, by the Nazis and Communists.  And other ills -- the breakdown in the family, which is the greatest problem in the African American and now European and Euro-American communities, and the source of other ills -- reflect a failure on our part to continue to live out the Gospel.  If we neglect the Gospel, all bets are off.  But on numerous levels -- Rene Girard is also worth reading on this -- the Gospel of Jesus continues to secretly control and inspire reform in every generation. 

(20) "The difference Jesus’ coming brought about is that there are billions of people in the world who acknowledge the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who would likely not otherwise have done so.  This fact is in keeping with a New Testament emphasis.  It is also the case that when these people die, they have a basis for knowing that they will rise from death on resurrection day, because Jesus’ death and resurrection initiated the bringing into being of a resurrected people to which they will belong.  The result of Jesus’ coming was the preaching of the gospel to the world and the providing of the basis for a confident expectation of resurrection." 

True, the New Testament does not simplistically promise us a rose garden, or if it does, only one with thorns that are numerous and painful.  Jesus promises his followers that they will be hated, persecuted, and even killed.  And those promises have often come true.

Neither human nature nor the plots of the Evil One have changed.  We saw in the 20th Century how evil could metastasize and assume forms that rival the Aztec pyramids for sheer evil, and on a far grander scale -- even in the country where Luther preached, indeed Luther himself was not guiltless in that evil, as Avalos rightly points out.

And yet Jesus told his disciples they were the "salt of the earth." Isn't salt supposed to bear some preserving or flavorful qualities?

Jesus also called his disciples the "light of the world."  Alexander Solzhenitsyn compared Christians in the Gulag to candles, casting light into the small sphere around them.  He himself received that light, converted to Christ, and went on to help inspire the overthrow of Soviet tyranny.  (With other followers of Christ, like Pope John Paul II: George Weigel tells part of the story in The Final Revolution.)  Isn't light something one can see?  Isn't that Jesus point -- that the Gospel would inspire good acts by Christians that would cause even non-Christians to stand up and take notice?

And haven't Jesus' words come true?  (So long as we do not help our enemies obscure the best that the Gospel does through Jesus' most faithful disciples!)

Jesus instructed his disciples to "Go into all the world, and preach the Gospel . . . teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you."  Shouldn't that teaching, which centered (Matthew also tells us) on "love God, love your neighbor as yourself" have some affect even on this world?  Isn't that what Jesus taught us would also be among the signs that would follow the impact of his ministry?

And are not the great things the followers of Jesus have indeed accomplished -- healing, teaching, reforming, creating civil society even new sciences -- worth glorifying God for?  Are they not also part of the witness we should bear to the world?  (As sincerely as we must also acknowledge our sins?)

It would be unfair to judge Dr. Goldingay's whole book by these few careless passages.  But they point to the need for Christians to make the historical case for the Gospel far more effectively than we have done so far -- not to paper over sins, but to tell an enormous and important story that the world refuses to relate, and often lies about, instead.  

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Fisherman Reports Rift Between Trump, Jeffress

Robert Jeffress and Donald Trump

Baltimore, Maryland.  Local fisherman Ronald Breamsport claims he overheard a conversation early morning on the Fourth of July off Annapolis, in which presidential candidate and reality TV star Donald Trump implored Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress to cease supporting his political campaign.

"I looked up from straightening out my fishing tackle after a beer or two, and this hot little speedboat was bearing down on me.  I could read the name -- MV Some Like it REALLY Hot.  These two fellows were arguing so loudly they didn't even notice me -- it was like I was invisible, or something.  I throttled up and got out of the way just before they ran me down."

Breamsport notes that he recognized the passengers of the boat from television.  

"One had this bright orange hair, and was doing most of the talking.   That was Donald Trump.  The other was that preacher from Dallas who is always on the O'Reilly show.  I had my cell phone out, so I recorded the conversation.

"'But you can't vote for me!'  Said Trump.  'I've had lots of affairs!  How does that look for a Christian pastor, publicly supporting almost the most profligate candidate for president, ever?'

"'Jesus forgives you!'

"' But I run places that bilk people out of their money!  I sell vice for a living!  We have strip joints in some of them!'

"Doesn't matter!"

"I lie constantly!  You can never trust anything that comes out of my mouth."

"That's all right."

"But I blaspheme!  I mock the lame and preach getting revenge against anyone who crosses you, not love and forgiveness!"

"I don't mind."  

"Gosh, look -- I'm a megalomaniac!   I never ask God for forgiveness, I name everything for myself, and brag constantly, because I have an ego as big as the great outdoors, like all the worst tyrants in the Old Testament that God judged!"

"I still love you."  

Mr. Breamsport then says he witnessed a scene that "Will stay with me the rest of my natural life."  Mr. Trump seize his coiffure on the top of his head and pulled, and two shiny red horns emerged from the skull underneath.   A red, snake-like hook began waving in the air behind Mr. Trump, while lightening crashed and thunder roared in dark clouds that swirled ominously above their heads.  

"But you CAN'T vote for me!"  Trump yelled in exasperation.  "I'm the anti-Christ!"  

"Well, nobody's perfect!" Pastor Jeffress replied with what Mr. Breamsport characterized as a "goofy grin."  

The boat then raced behind a large yacht and was lost to sight.  

When contacted, a spokesman for the Trump campaign responded by saying, "I don't think the American people will prefer the devil they know over the devil they don't know, when the former is behind bars, if you catch my drift."  

Saturday, July 23, 2016

"Don't Blame Atheism for Stalin!" Why Michael Sherlock is wrong

Image result for stalin cartoon
"Jesus made me do it!"
The New Atheism has a lasting grudge against history.  Sometimes that grudge is expressed overtly by atheists who try to diminish the discipline ("history is bunk") in comparison with science, to which the New Atheism falls collectively prostrate.  But as even so radical an atheist as Richard Carrier pointed out, in the end science is a province of history, since all knowledge obtained through experiments or other observation is in the end knowledge of events that happened in the past.

But the New Atheism burst onto the public consciousness in the wake of 9/11, when western intellectuals like Richard Dawkins sought to tar the Christian faith with the same brush with which they more plausibly painted Islam.  (Though Dawkins now admits that Christianity has reformed, in the kindly afterglow of the Enlightenment, so the real problem at the moment is an unreconstructed Islam.)

The reason the New Atheism arose at just that moment, I think, is because a new generation of ignorant young skeptics had been taught the purported evils of the Christian past, but left ignorant of the far greater evils that radical atheism (and Islam) had much more recently visited upon the world.  They are like the rabbit in the Chronicle of Narnia that sits next to a great waterfall (of blood), yet hears the drop of a pin a hundred miles away.  Often the brainwashing inflicted upon our children involved  straightforward historical falsehoods.  The New Atheism probably couldn't have arisen in 1989, just after the Wall had come down: the world would have laughed.  But give public school teachers a couple decades, and such ignorance of history that an outspoken socialist like Bernie Sanders could gain traction in a major party without a word of explanation or apology, and the New Atheism can appeal to a generation that knows nothing of the Gulag Archipelago or the most basic facts about communism.

So both Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris relentlessly reminded readers of the Inquisition, which happened most of a millenium ago, but talked about "Joseph Stalin" as a mere apologetic "debating point"  (as Dawkins put it) that needs to be refuted.  Christopher Hitchens also tried to shrug off the fact that atheists had just murdered a hundred million innocent people a few decades before, in his popular book god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.  These gentlemen argued that atheism had nothing whatsoever to do with the crimes of Stalin.  (Who alone they mentioned, being apparently ignorant of the fact that Stalin was merely one of many cruel communist dictators.)  Some New Atheists have even dared suggest that Christianity was to blame for Stalin's crimes, because he attended a religious school as a young man.

In The Truth Behind the New Atheism, I responded, in part:

"This isn't just a 'debating point' to me.  I researched faith and communism under Donald Treadgold, a leading historian of Marxism-Leninism.  I've eaten meals with people who lost loved ones or spent decades in prison for their faith . . . Stalin wasn't the only atheist of modern times.  Nor did he emerge from a vacuum."  

And so as an historian -- which none of these gentlemen can claim to be -- I answered their counter-arguments over several pages. David Aikman also focused on this issue in his response to the New Atheism.

I'm not going to defend my arguments in that book, or my more thorough explanation for "Why Marx Went Wrong" in my earlier Jesus and the Religions of Man, in this post.  So far as I know, no one with any relevant knowledge or credentials has ever challenged my arguments.

But as the New Atheism continues its free-fall into historical ignorance, new expressions of the bigotry that follows in the train of that ignorance arise, as winter follows autumn.  In this post, I will answer one of those expressions, by an Australian grad student named Michael Sherlock.  Michael is worth answering not because he is knowledgeable or a skilled logician -- his talent lies in purple prose more than reasoning, in history least of all -- but because he has written a lively post on this subject which some silly fools seem to take seriously.

The article is called "The Atheist Atrocities Fallacy -- Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot."

Sherlock begins with a lively three-paragraph rant against apologists who make the argument he wants to refute.  (Without, of course, addressing my rebuttal of the first crop of New Atheists, nor that by other historians like Dr. Aikman.)  Half his paper (7 1/2 pages of my printout) then argues that Adolf Hitler was a Christian, not an atheist.  Sherlock devotes a little more than two pages to asserting that while Stalin was a "confirmed atheist," Christianity, not atheism, was to blame for his crimes.  He devotes a bit less space to showing that Pol Pot was a Buddhist, not an atheist, and his atrocities "parallel" and should be blamed on Theraveda Buddhsim.   Then he "clinches" his argument by describing five fallacies that we apologists allegedly commit in blaming atheism for these crimes, before ending with an appeal to the Problem of Pain which he deems clever.

Sherlock's article is a target-rich environment.   Let us start with the introduction, then examine his claims about Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin, and Adolf Hitler, in that order.   We won't need to say much about Hitler, since the subject (like the man) has been done to death, and most informed Christians don't claim Hitler was an atheist, anyway.  But this paper represents many common confusions, on all levels.  While the writing is lively and skillful, the thinking is muddled.  And the paper shows just how desperately modern atheists need to begin making peace with history, before that is what their movement rightly becomes.  (After becoming a laughing stock.)


Opening Rant and its Problems

"Religious apologists, particularly those of the Christian variety, are big fans of what I have dubbed, the atheist atrocities fallacy.  Christians commonly employ this fallacy to shield their egos from the harsh reality of the brutality of their own religion,(1) by utilizing a most absurd form of the tu quoque (“you too”) fallacy, mingled with numerous other logical fallacies and historical inaccuracies.  Despite the fact that the atheist atrocities fallacy has already been thoroughly exposed by Hitchens and other great thinkers (2), it continues to circulate amongst the desperate believers of a religion in its death throes (3).  Should an atheist present a believer with the crimes committed by the Holy See of the Inquisition(s) (4), the Crusaders (5) and other faith-wielding misanthropes (6), they will often hear the reply; “Well, what about Stalin, Pol Pot and Hitler? They were atheists, and they killed millions!”" (7) 

#1 Whereas atheists shield their eyes from the painful truth that the Gospel has liberated billions of people, and cultures around the world, changing our planet for the better.  No one who has yet to read at least a large proportion of these books and articles should even try to deny it.  

#2 Christopher Hitchens was a "great thinker?"  I concede he was a pithy journalist who thought for himself and wrote entertaining and sometimes insightful screeds.  But he was not a historian, nor a scholar of the religion that he attacked.  His views about communism are no match for those of scholars who know something about the movement.  Hitchens didn't lay a finger on my argument, nor those of David Aikman, Michael Burleigh, Donald Treadgold, or for that matter the views of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who summed up what he saw as the core problem of Marxism by saying, "Men have forgotten God."  

However "bright" Hitchens may have been, insights based on inadequate knowledge most often lead one into error. 

#3 Christianity is not in its "death throes."  There are more followers of Jesus today than at any time in the past.

#4  The Inquisition?  Small potatoes.  Joseph Stalin used to kill about as many innocent people before lunch some days, as all the inquisitors combined, killed over several centuries.

#5 The Crusaders are why we are writing in English, not Arabic, and using computers, not toilet paper in outhouses behind mud huts, so our masters don't see and whip us, or take our children away to serve as slaves.  I don't apologize for the fact that the West finally responded to four hundred years of Muslim imperialism: I am grateful.  (While, of course, recognizing the sins of some Crusaders, including both pogroms and one outbreak of cannibalism.)

#6 "Faith-wielding misanthropes?"  Sherlock apparently refers here to the myth, taken on blind faith by all New Atheists worthy of the name, that Christian "faith" is meant to be irrational.

#7 One does not "often" hear the claim that Adolf Hitler was an atheist, at least not from informed Christians.  This is not entirely a straw man, but most Christians who write on the subject seem to know better, as most educated atheists know better than to call Hitler a Christian.

"Given the obstinate nature of religious faith and the willful ignorance it cultivates in the mind of the believer, (8) I am quite certain that this article will not be the final nail in this rancid and rotting coffin.(9)  Having said this, I do hope it will contribute to the arsenal required by those who value reason, facts and evidence (10), in their struggle against the fallacies perpetually flaunted by those who do not value the truth above their own egocentric delusions, delusions inspired by an unquenchable thirst for security, no matter how frighteningly false its foundation." (11)
"Before addressing the primary weaknesses of the atheist atrocities fallacy itself, I would like to attend to each of these three homicidal stooges (12); Stalin, Pol Pot and Hitler, who are constantly trotted out to defend a religious worldview. (13) I will lend Hitler the most time, as the claim that he was an atheist represents a most egregious violation of the truth." (14)

(8) Sherlock here confirms my suspicion mentioned above that he buys into the ignorant New Atheist doctrine that Christianity recommends "blind faith."  We refuted that error in True Reason, and indeed I already refuted it in Jesus and the Religions of Man and The Truth Behind the New Atheism.  It is what Larry Hurtado calls a "zombie argument."

(9) "Rancid and rotting coffin."  Nice alliteration.  But coffins, being made of wood, rot without becoming rancid -- it is the corpse inside that gives offense to the nostrils as it decomposes, like rank historical cliches such as the "Blind Faith Meme."

(10) Because, of course, Christians like Augustine, Aquinas, Occam, Kepler, Pascal, Newton, Descartes, Locke, and the whole pious crowd that invented modern science, placed no value whatever on "reason, facts and evidence."  It is hard to decide whether the Trumpian self-praise or the gratuitous implicit slur against so many of the world's greatest thinkers is the more obnoxious and ridiculous over-generalization, here.

(11) Let me again give Sherlock credit at this point for cadence and alliteration, however falsely the affected facts may be fixed onto the face of genuine and verifiable phenomena.

(12) Stooges?  In what sense?  Whatever else one may say of Stalin, Pol Pot, and Hitler, all three do seem to have been fully in command of their horrid movements.

(13) These villains are trotted out to attack an atheistic worldview, not so much to defend a so-called religious one.

(14) It is suspicious that Sherlock focuses so intensely on Hitler, since the man is seldom called an atheist. (I have never done so.)  It is also suspicious that Sherlock fails to mention Mao Zedong, who may have killed more innocent people than any of the others (he ruled a larger country).  Not to mention Marx or Engels, Vladimir Lenin, Khrushchev, Beria, Brezhnev, Ho Chi Minh, the ever-lovable Kim Clan in North Korea, Enver Hofha, Abimael Guzman, the Castros, or the rest of the bloody crew that ruled Eastern Europe.  But more on the chasms in Sherlock's historical consciousness later.

So Michael packs fourteen errors into three short opening paragraphs, some of them egregious.  Way to go, Sherlock.  But he's only getting warmed up.

Now let's look at the three examples Sherlock attempts to refute.


Was Pol Pot a Buddhist?

Sherlock thinks so:

"Pol Pot, possibly not even an atheist, but almost certainly a Buddhist, believed in the teachings of the Buddha, no matter how perverted his interpretations may or may not have been . . . Not only was Pol Pot a Theravada Buddhist, but the soil in which his atrocities were sewn was also very Buddhist.
"In Alexander Laban Hinton’s book, Why Did They Kill?: Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide,’ Hinton drew attention to the role that the belief in karma played in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, particularly with regards to the cementation of a docilely accepted social hierarchy, not too dissimilar from Stalin’s ready-made Russian religious tyranny, as well as highlighting the Buddhist origins of Pol Pot’s ideological initiatives.
"Hinton remarks:
"This [Pol Pot’s regime’s] line of thinking about revolutionary consciousness directly parallels Buddhist thought, with the “Party line” and “collective stand” being substituted for dhamma…One could certainly push this argument further , contending that the Khmer Rouge attempted to assume the monk’s traditional role as moral instructor (teaching their new brand of “mindfulness”) and that DK regime’s glorification of asceticism, detachment, the elimination of attachment and desire, renunciation (of material goods and personal behaviors, sentiments, and attitudes), and purity paralleled prominent Buddhist themes…  [30]
"I have only presented a small snippet of the available evidence that points to religion’s role in Pol Pot’s crimes, and there is not one single piece of solid evidence that Pol Pot was an atheist, so let us once and for all dispense with that speculative piece of religious propaganda."
The fact that Sherlock thinks he has presented any evidence at all that Pol Pot was a Buddhist in these paragraphs, ought to embarrass the Australian teachers who educated him.  (Whereas the "work" of Raphael Lataster ought to make the whole continent cringe: Sherlock can, at least, write.)  "Pol Pot was a Theraveda Buddhist" is a mere assertion, not "evidence."  The fact that communist Cambodia accepted a hierarchy is not evidence that it was "really" Buddhist, either -- after all, the alternative to listening to party bosses was death.  Wolves are not Theraveda Buddhists, I don't think, yet they also accept hierarchy: that's part of our biological hard-drive, not the unique feature of one religion.  That one can find further parallels between Kmer Rouge thought and Theraveda Buddhistm, such as the concept of "consciousness" (not unique to Asian Marxism, or Marxism at all -- Jung mentioned the idea, did he not?), or that the Kmer Rouge retained teachers (who doesn't?), or even asceticism (here America is the outlier, in having cast this perennial and universal notion aside so completely), is not evidence that Pol Pot was a Buddhist, either.  Military service BY DEFINITION involves renunciation of pleasures.  (And notice that Hinton offers four or five synonyms for asceticism --"detachment" as well as "the elimination of attachment," for instance, as if the two didn't mean the same thing -- apparently hoping the reader will mistake mere repetition for a cup of evidence that runneth over.) 

But Sherlock gives not the faintest hint of any real evidence that Pol Pot was a Buddhist who "believed in the teachings of the Buddha," in all this.   Not one word from Pol Pot about the Four Noble Truths, about the Eightfold Path to Enlightenment, about reincarnation, about the Buddhas -- not a word.  
In fact, Pol Pot was a communist and an atheist.  He may have taken up a few of the cultural trappings of Buddhism, which had after all been the dominant faith of his country for many centuries.  But as Loyola professor of Religious Studies Catherine Wessinger notes (my emphasis):

"Democratic Kampuchea was officially an atheist state, and the persecution of religion by the Kmer Rouge was matched in severity only by the persecution of religion in the communist states of Albania and North Korea, so there were not any direct historical continuities of Buddhism into the Democratic Kampuchea era."  

Or as the Asian Studies Center at Michigan State University explains:

 It is estimated that of more than 65,000 monks and nuns living in 1969, less than 3000 survived the civil war and genocide of the 1970's. Estimates of the death toll during the Khmer Rouge Regime are that about 1.7 million people (of a 1975 population of 7 million) were killed or died of starvation. Buddhism was a special target of the Khmer Rouge; in addition to killing the monks and nuns, most of the 3, 369 temples in existence in 1970 were destroyed, as were Christian churches and Islamic mosques. Monastery buildings which were not destroyed were used for storage, prisons, or torture chambers. By 1979, Buddhism in Cambodia was virtually destroyed.


What do you think?  Murdering someone is often considered good evidence that one does not like that man or woman, isn't it?  If you close all the Buddhist temples and kill nineteen out of twenty monks, can't that be taken as solid evidence that Pol Pot was something other than a believing Buddhist?  Maybe even that he disliked Buddhism?  Or is that crazy talk?

But no, Sherlock tells us that Pol Pot was a zealous Theraveda Buddhist.  The sheer historical ignorance it takes to make that claim about the founder of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, who learned his ideology from communists in Paris, was supported by Mao's China, murdered 95% of the Buddhist monks in his country, and destroyed the religion to which he allegedly belonged, without offering a speck of anything but the most subjective and vague evidence ("parallelmania") to support it, is astounding.

Meanwhile, the name Mao Zedong is not so much as mentioned in Sherlock's article.  But Mao invented and perfected the innovative doctrine of encircling the cities with the countryside.  During the Cultural Revolution (which started in 1966), Mao persecuted teachers, and sent young people out of the cities to work in the farms.  That's exactly the strategy that the Kmer Rouge followed, only with even greater violence.  Coincidence?  Sherlock does not even raise the question.  It is as if he had never heard of Chairman Mao.  (Whose mother, let me add, was a Mahayana, not Theraveda Buddhist.  But what her son become, was probably more her husband's fault.   And that of Mao Zedong himself, who was an atheist.)


Was Joseph Stalin an (honorary) Christian?  

Sherlock's attempt to protect atheism from the bad name of Joseph Stalin is just as ridiculous.  Since errors fly thick and fast here, let me revert to my earlier form of quoting his remarks at length, while marking points for rebuttal below.

"Of these three characters, Stalin was the only confirmed atheist, yet Hitchens thoroughly dealt with the religious nature of Stalin’s dictatorship in a manner that has left religious apologists without sufficient reply.(1)  Notwithstanding the fact that Stalin was raised as a Christian under the religious influence of his mother, who enrolled him in seminary school (2), and that Stalin later took it upon himself to study for the priesthood (3), as Hitchens and others have pointed out, Stalin merely stepped into a ready-made religious tyranny (4), constructed by the Russian Orthodox Church and paved with the teachings of St. Paul (5).
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.                                           Romans 13:1-2
(1) Since Sherlock shows no sign of having read my, or Aikman's, rebuttal, "apologists can't reply to Hitchen's smashing of their lame position" is just an empty boast.  
(2) Christians provided the only available education.  "Stalin went to a Christian school, so Christianity is to blame for Stalinism" involves some pretty grotesque historical shortcuts.  Should we then blame Secular Humanists for Fred Phelps, since he apparently went to public schools at times?  Christian teachers have educated billions, without making all their students Christians.     
(3) Stalin was given a scholarship, but became an atheist as a first-year student.  (Paul Vitz suggests his poor relationship with his father might have had something to do with that, as I recall.)
(4) "Stalin stepped into a ready-made religious tyranny?"  Baloney.  The Bolsheviks completely remade society, from the top down.  Old institutions were abolished, as clean a sweep as the world had seldom seen.  Leninism, then Stalinism, were vastly more cruel than late Tsarist Russia, as Solzhenitsyn, for one, often pointed out in his examination of how prisoners were treated.  In fact, late Tsarist Russia had been liberalizing for some time: the Bolsheviks' competitors were far more liberal than they were, and Peter Stolypin instituted needed reforms that showed real promise, in a period in which Russia was modernizing quickly.  The period before World War I was one of rapid economic progress and an artistic golden age.    

And in that era, said Solzhenitsyn:

"By the time of the Revolution, faith had virtually disappeared in Russian educated circles; and amongst the uneducated, its health was threatened."


The Bolsheviks used the sickle of Enlightenment materialism to cut the blossom of a developing Russian culture, and the hammer of Marxist ruthlessness to pound the garden in which it grew into a parking lot for Uncle Joe's tank.  Far from "stepping into" ready-made "religious tyranny," Stalin actually took over from Vladimir Lenin, an ardent atheist bigot who had already murdered hundreds of thousands of innocent people.  Sherlock never even mentions Lenin either, strangely enough.  The sheer historical ignorance of the man, or his willingness to take remarkable historical shortcuts, is astounding.  
(5) Stalin learned political subservience from St. Paul?  This is a bizarre claim, indeed.   Joseph Stalin became a political revolutionary in seminary, read Lenin, then sought to overthrow all existing social and political structures through violent revolution.  That means shooting, stabbing, or bombing the authorities.  And St. Paul is to blame for that, because he told Christians to obey the government and pay taxes?  Sherlock does not seem to realize that after Joseph Stalin studied in seminary, he became an atheist and a COMMUNIST REVOLUTIONARY. 
Of course, as I explain in Jesus and the Religions of Man, once a revolution occurs, power-hungry revolutionaries will come to desire obedient subjects.  That is a constant of human history: one can find the same trend in ancient Greece.  Read Polybius, for instance.  Or George Orwell's Animal Farm.  
So was Christianity to blame for the fact that the Russians submitted to an atheistic regime?  If you want to try that line, then how about crediting Christianity in America for resisting communism so vigorously?  (Which it did.)
In fact, Christianity inspired resistance to Marxist revolution and oppression around the world.  (Which is probably one reason the present crop of communists in China is so anti-Christian.)  Lech Walensa, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Pope John Paul II were just three of the heroes who helped overthrow communist tyranny.  It was atheists in America (like Joy Davidman, who would become C. S. Lewis' wife!) who converted to communism, far more often than the Christians.  In fact, to this day, some four fifths of atheists in the world were tutored in unbelief by obediently listening to top-down communist propaganda.  (One meets them all around China -- many of my students!)

So if Sherlock's claim refers to Joseph Stalin, it is bizarre.  If it refers to Russian peasants, it is historically uninformed and ignores far too many facts.   
We trek on through the thicket of errors, a well-greased and sharpened machete now stationed permanently in our right hands.  
"Such teachings were the inspirational well from which the Russian Orthodox Church drew their justifications to support this new Tsar, causing the more sensible fringe of the Church to flee to the United States in contravention of St. Paul’s teachings.(6)
"Here then, the central premise of Hitchens’ argument is worthy of reiteration.  Had Stalin inherited a purely rational secular edifice,(7) one established upon the ethos espoused by the likes of Lucretius, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Einstein (8) and other free thinking and rational secularists, then the apologist’s argument would hold slightly more weight, but such wasn’t the case.  Stalin merely tore the existing religious labels off the Christian Inquisition,(9) the enforcement of Christian orthodoxy, the Crusades, the praising of the priesthood, (10) messianism, and Edenic ideas of a terrestrial religious-styled utopia,(11) and re-branded them with the red of communism.  Had this Christian machine not been in place, then it is more than likely Stalin wouldn’t have had the vehicle he needed to succeed in causing so much suffering in the name of his godless religion (12), Communism.
(6) St. Paul told Russians not to emigrate to the US?  What version of the Bible is Sherlock reading?  Oddly, though, Samuel Adams found in those same Scriptures abundant justification to help establish the US: the highly religious country that proved the "fortress of democracy" and freedom in the 20th Century, again and again.  
(7) Sherlock is conflating ideas ("secular") with values ("rational").  This is a hidden form of the True Scotsman fallacy.  The Soviets were "irrational" (from Sherlock's point of view), so they don't count as pure secularists.  But Sherlock argues that atheism does not come with values attached.  That's a sword that cuts both ways: if it allows atheism to escape all culpability for crimes, it also denies atheism credit for good works.  
(8) Einstein wasn't old enough to influence the Russian Revolution. 
(9) "Stalin merely tore the existing religious labels off the Christian inquisition?"  What nonsense.  The inquisition was in France and Spain, most of a millennia earlier, and didn't resemble communist persecutions except in the fact that they were persecutions.  (Which occur in every society.)  This is just hand-waving assertion, without any real attempt to support a historical claim with historical evidence. 
(10) Joseph Stalin praised the priesthood?  He joined the communist party, which was Lenin's instrument of oppression and control that killed and imprisoned priests.  The communists were not monks, or much like them.  And if we're going to talk about the communist party, shouldn't we at least mention Vladimir Lenin, who established it?   
(11) Marx wanted to set up an earthly paradise, or at least a "dictatorship of the proletariat."  By contrast, Jesus said "My kingdom is not of this world."  Marx, in his focus on the City of Man, was a disciple of Plato, not Jesus. 

(12) "Godless religion?"  Isn't that a contradiction in terms?  I thought religion was to be defined as involving belief in supernatural beings or gods?  Actually Sherlock doesn't define religion.  Perhaps that because sometimes, he needs it to mean "belief in supernatural gods."  At other times, as here, he needs it to mean "strongly held fundamental beliefs about reality, whatever they may be," or as Paul Tillich called it, an "ultimate concern."  

I prefer this latter definition, precisely because of the kind of shell game that atheists like Sherlock try to play.  Communism insisted that there is no God in heaven.  But socially, communist ideology and leaders often played roles similar to those played by Messiahs, gurus and divinities, and the ideologies they inspired.  In short, Sherlock is guilty of equivocation, of playing on two meanings of "religion" to confuse his readers.  On the usual atheist definition of religion, "godless religion" is a contradiction in terms.  But if our goal is to somehow blame religion for an atheist mass movement, then we expand the meaning of the word "religion" so that it can justify so patently bizarre an accusation.  
"To quote Hitchens:
"For Joseph Stalin, who had trained to be a priest in a seminary in Georgia, the whole thing was ultimately a question of power. (12) “How many divisions,” he famously and stupidly inquired, “has the pope?” (The true answer to his boorish sarcasm was, “More than you think.”) Stalin then pedantically repeated the papal routine of making science conform to dogma (13), by insisting that the shaman and charlatan Trofim Lysenko had disclosed the key to genetics and promised extra harvests of specially inspired vegetables. (Millions of innocents died of gnawing internal pain as a consequence of this “revelation.”) This Caesar unto whom all things were dutifully rendered took care, as his regime became a more nationalist and statist one, to maintain at least a puppet church (14) that could attach its traditional appeal to his. 
(13) Speaking of power, it's odd that the name of Friedrich Nietzsche never comes up in Sherlocks' exposition, either.  Hasn't he heard of that famous atheist, either?  Nietzsche famously blamed Christianity for being too weak, for not busting skulls with sufficient vigor.  
Jesus was famous for giving up power, and dying on the cross.  Nietzsche hated that weakness.  So to whom should we trace Stalin's attitude, if we don't ascribe it to human nature?  

Marx and Engels (two other key historical figures whom Sherlock oddly never mentions) wrote that communism "abolishes all morality," as well as "all religion."  This connection between abolishing religion and morality, then, is not one which Christians impose on the communists, it is one the communists very deliberately and emphatically made themselves.     
(14) Science under the popes was, in fact, generally remarkable free, despite a few obvious contrary examples.  (Which is why we always hear of Galileo's spell of house arrest.)  For a more balanced view, see, for instance, James Hannam's The Genesis of Science, or Allan Chapman's Slaying the Dragons: Destroying Myths in the History of Science and Faith.
(15) Stalin didn't "maintain" the Church, he constrained it, by theft, murder, torture, mass enslavement, propaganda, and persecution.  The Church didn't need Stalin's help!  But after Hitler invaded, Stalin realized he might need the help of the Church, and backed off temporarily.  
How perverse to portray a lull in persecution as if it demonstrated the guilt of the harassed, tortured, and murdered victims who welcomed that lull!  (Not that there were no genuine quislings, of course -- Wurmbrand writes incisively on that.)

So Was Atheism to Blame for Stalin? 
Sherlock is adamant in denying any relationship between the tens of millions of murders committed in or by the Soviet Union, and the atheist component of the official communist ideology.  In fact, RELIGION (here meaning "supernatural" religion) was to blame!   
"Hitchens was not alone in seeing the parallels between Russia’s old supernatural religion and its new secular one.
"In Emilio Gentile’s ‘Politics as Religion,’ Gentile describes the sacralizing of Stalin’s regime in the following words:
"The sacralization of the party opened the way to the sacralization of Stalin when he became the supreme leader.  After 1929, the political religion of Russia mainly concentrated on the deification of Stalin, who until his death in 1953 dominated the party and Soviet system like a tyrannical and merciless deity. 
"That vast and seemingly bottomless “reservoir of religious credulity,” as Hitchens so eloquently phrased it, which served to subdue the servile Soviets for hundreds of years beneath the yoke of an equally brutal supernatural religion, was the very fountain of boundless unthinking acquiescence that Stalin, having adorned himself in the Tsar’s clothes, utilized to send countless innocent Russians to their deaths.  Where would Stalin have found such docile servitude, servitude that fed the flames of his secular religious tyranny, had Lucretius, Thomas Paine, Albert Einstein or Thomas Jefferson bestowed upon these poor religious Russians, their intellectual legacy?  To answer in a word, nowhere."

Being historically ignorant, and not apparently having read Tolstoy or Dostoevsky (though this is hard to believe of Hitchens), these gentlemen are apparently unaware of the rich vein of  "Enlightenment" thinking that permeated the Russian intelligentsia long before Vladimir Lenin and others brought the holy books of Marx and Engels to Russia.   To this day, in a Chinese textbook my students use, the Chinese communists present their beliefs as a fusion of Greek humanism, western Enlightenment thought, and parallel Chinese strands of post-religious Enlightenment thinking.  

Thomas Jefferson was not an atheist, why does Sherlock bring him up?  Neither were Einstein or Paine.  Sherlock appears to be conflating "atheism" with "liberal democratic thinking," here, which is part of his variation on the No True Scotsman theme, smuggling in moral values he associates with atheism, and denying the atheist labels to those who fall short of those values.  

But the confusion Sherlock maintains about the impact of atheism becomes "clear" when he brings up Stalin again in the "logical fallacies" section of his piece. 

"False Analogy Fallacy
"This fallacy depends upon the existence of an often minor analogous factor, in this case, the belief in god versus a lack of belief in god, god being the analogous component, and extrapolating from this minor analogy, conditions that are alleged to affect both positions, when the truth of the matter happens to be, the two (religion and atheism) are not analogous at all. [34]
"For apologists to overcome the existence of this fallacy, they must show that atheism is a religion, but the very definition of atheism circumvents any such attempt.  Atheism, although encompassing varying degrees of disbelief, is not a system of beliefs, but an unsystematic absence of god-belief, that is all.  It has no doctrines, traditions and most importantly, no beliefs.  Unless there is some secret atheist bible from which Stalin drew inspiration for his crimes, there is absolutely no reason to suggest that his lack of belief in a supernatural deity had anything to do with his messianic and maniacal behavior."
The problems and contradictions here are many: but also the opportunity to finally understand what "religion" is, and how it relates to "atheism." 

(1) Sherlock has just been telling us that Stalinism was a "godless religion."  Has he forgotten?  Because now he seems to think there are no godless religions.  

(2) Most dictionaries do not define atheism as an "unsystematic absence of god-belief."  Many more properly define atheism as the positive rejection of belief in God.  (Not gods, which may be merely ghosts or spirits.)  And it is hard to see how atheism could be merely an absence of belief.  Babies are not "atheists" in any normal sense of the word.  Rocks are not atheists.  People who have never thought about the subject are not atheists.  

(3) Even a lack of belief can be deadly, though.  If an airplane pilot lacks a belief in gravity, all hands may perish.  So Sherlock's argument fails.  It may well be that Stalin lacked some key belief -- "communism abolishes all morality, all religion" -- which resulted in or encouraged his cruel acts.  How hard is that to understand?  And again, it wasn't just Stalin who tortured, murdered, and destroyed priceless works of human heritage: the Communist Holocaust was a cross-cultural, several generation collaborative effort in destruction.

(4) In fact, as Richard Wurmbrand relates, communist torturers and jailers often goaded Christians with the absence of God.  As even George Orwell's anti-hero, Big Brother's little torturing brother, O'Brien, says to Winston Smith in the torture chamber: "Do you believe in God?  Then what will stop us?"  For O'Brien, the absence of God was highly significant -- as Dostoevsky put it, "If there is no God, then everything is permitted."  That was precisely O'Brien's logic.

(5) In a sense it is true that atheism in itself has no "doctrines, traditions or beliefs," aside from "There is no God."  In the same way, theism has no "doctrines, traditions or beliefs" aside from "There is a God."  Religions (in Tillich's sense) are developed systems of belief and practice in which theism or atheism may be a single element.  Therefore Communism, Secular Humanism, and Christianity, may all be seen as religions.  One can compare atheism to theism, or Communism or Secular Humanism to Christianity.  One cannot compare atheism per se to Christianity, not because atheism does not impact how people act for good or evil (it does, as atheists often testify!), but because it is only one element in more developed religions or (if you don't like that word) ideologies. 
(6) What is truly shocking, and bizarre, in Sherlock's comments here, is this strange sentence, which displays no hint of historical understanding whatsoever:

"Unless there is some secret atheist bible from which Stalin drew inspiration for his crimes, there is absolutely no reason to suggest that his lack of belief in a supernatural deity had anything to do with his messianic and maniacal behavior."

"Secret atheist Bible?"   How can anyone who dares write on the subject, fail at this point to even mention the vast cataract of published secular propaganda that formed, informed, and transformed the Marxist-Leninist movement around the world, including in Russia?  Communism was an Enlightenment project.  As David Aikman shows in consummate detail, Karl Marx was deeply inspired by the stories of Faust and Prometheus, as interpreted for modern Europeans, for instance by the English poet, Percy Shelley.  Marx even quoted Prometheus, "In a word, I detest all gods!"

Secret atheist Bible?  Well no, there was not one atheist Bible, any more than there is just one theist holy book.  But the Enlightenment movement was a highly bookish one, and it could not be any clearer (Aikman shows this in great detail) that early communism drew its inspiration from numerous strains of Enlightenment writing -- Feurbach, Hegel, Bauer, Tylor, and so on.  (Marx was also influenced by seedy friends he met at the University of Berlin, and Engels of course by Marx.)  

That the communists' virulent rejection of God "had to do with" their "maniacal behavior" is, again, crystal clear from their own writings.  It is not a Christian apologist who linked "communism abolishes all religion" to "communism abolishes all morality" -- these assertions lie smack dab in the center of the most famous communist book ever written, The Communist Manifesto, penned by Marx and Engels.  

Is it really so absurd to suppose Joseph Stalin read that book, and was influenced by it?  

What is absurd is that Sherlock does not seem to have heard of the book.  

True, as I showed sixteen years ago in Jesus and the Religions of Man (in a chapter that the historian Dr. Donald Treadgold, founder of the Slavic Review, read and affirmed), communist morality was complex and self-contradictory.  I argued that communism did not only fail to actually abolish morality, in truth it instituted not one but three separate new moral systems.  My argument in that book describes the reality of communist experience, and the contradictions between Marxism and human experience pretty well, I think.  (The book has gotten great reviews.)  

The Hitchens-Sherlock take on the same subject, is ill-informed, adolescent, apologetic twaddle.  Sherlock has, apparently, not even heard of Karl Marx, still less The Communist Manifesto.  Nor has the term "dialectical materialism" passed his ears.  Of course he has not witnessed the "graveyards and transports" of Christians who died having "cast a light like a candle" around them in the Gulag, as Solzhentisyn put it.  (Having met such Christians, it was in the Gulag that Solzhenitsyn turned back to Christ.  I have met some, too.)  

Sherlock thinks, or wants to believe, that Joseph Stalin was some sort of anomaly, an aberration, who having gone to a seminary, somehow imbibed both revolutionary fervor and the doctrine of political quiessence in the face of tyranny at one and the same time, from Saint Paul.  (Whose teachings, in fact, he rejected in his first year.)  He wants to think that atheism must always be held innocent, because it is a mere absence of belief, which can never harm anyone ("I'm not a killer, I merely lack a belief in maintaining life?"), but that at the same time Stalin's real fault was he didn't read "atheists" like Jefferson and Einstein and Paine.  (Who were not atheists, actually.)  Sherlock has never heard, it seems, of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Castro, the Kims, Hofha, Guzman, Ho Chi Minh, Mao, or Xi Jinping, nor of the French Revolution, or the Marxists in Mexico.  

I refuted much of this nonsense in Jesus and the Religions of Man in 2000, already.  This is why being an apologist provides life-long job security: so many who say they care deeply about facts and evidence, never seem to learn them.  So the hydra presents new and ever-more silly faces to the Christian knight, and the job of chopping them off never ends.  

I was going to end by debunking Sherlock's false claims about Hitler (no, he was not a Christian, nor an atheist, though he was deeply influenced by atheist thinkers), but I've run out of both time and, I suspect, the reader's patience. 

A poster below notes that Richard Weikart is coming out with a book on Hitler's religion later this year.  Good news!  Weikart is an historian who teaches at California State, and has studied this issue for many years.  I expect his book will help settle the matter. 

But let me also note how weak Sherlock's main argument on Hitler's supposed faith is.  (Aside from the fact that he again excludes contrary evidence, no doubt because he has not read enough to know of it.)   

"X says Y, so Y" is an Argument from Authority.  Some arguments from authority are strong, many are weak.  Generally speaking, "X says he believes Y" is a fairly strong argument from authority.  If a man doesn't know what he really believes, then who does?   And we generally do people the courtesy of accepting their self-descriptions (even, absurdly, "I am a woman!" to a person whose plumbing is male).  

But when "X=Adolf Hitler," the argument "X says Y, so Y" loses its force, to put it mildly.  Hitler was known to OCCASIONALLY disassemble for political reasons.  And certainly, Hitler had strong motive to lie about being a Christian, running for office in a political climate in which the communists had pretty much cornered the market on atheists (many of whom, in the Germany of the time, were Jews).  That he WAS lying, is obvious, if you read Mein Kampf and the story of the Third Reich in general, as told for instance by Michael Burleigh in Sacred Causes.  It is also possible, in addition, that Hitler only had a vague notion of what Christianity was. 

Michael Sherlock is a talented ranter.  If only he would desert the ranks of New Atheists who are waging war upon History, and then begin to straighten out the kinks in his logic, he might learn a few things, and ultimately gain something worthwhile saying.