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‘Atheist atrocities fallacy’?


Published: 17 November 2020 (GMT+10)
Joseph Stalin 1878–1953

Some atheists have talked about what they’ve dubbed the ‘atheist atrocities fallacy’. What is it? It’s not a standard logical fallacy (either formal or informal). It’s a name some atheists have given to a common response Christians give to the common atheistic complaint that much evil has been done in the name of Christ (or ‘religion’).

How does it work? Atheists often say that there must be something rotten at the core of Christianity because so much evil has been done in the name of Christ. Christians then often retort that as much or more evil has been done by atheistic regimes (e.g. the Communist dictatorships of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot).

Is this a fallacy? It depends. If this sums up the exchange, then the Christian’s response commits the tu quoque fallacy. This is the ‘you too!’ fallacy. It looks like this:

A: You cheated on your taxes last year!

B: But you cheated on your taxes the year before!

Even if B’s response to A’s charge is true, it’s irrelevant to the truth of A’s charge. Rather, it seeks to disparage A’s character to avoid having to deal with the charge. It’s a bad way to argue.

Mao Tse Tung 1893–1976

Transposed to the ‘atheist atrocities fallacy’ it looks like this:

A: Christians have done a lot of evil throughout history: the Crusades, the Inquisitions, the witch trials, etc., which shows Christianity is rotten to the core.

B: But atheists have killed millions as well, like Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot.

It’s the same issue. All B says is, ‘You’re guilty of the same thing too!’ B’s response may be true, but it doesn’t address A’s charge, so it’s irrelevant to their charge.

However, depending on the context, even the straight tu quoque response may be cogent. If the atheist is arguing that Christian atrocities show that atheists are better people than Christians, the tu quoque response is directly relevant because it shows that atheists can behave just as badly, if not worse, than Christians.

But is it relevant to the charge that Christians behaving badly shows that Christianity itself is bad? It is, but only after we deal with the charge first. And the charge is easy enough to deal with, in three basic steps:

  1. Christians have done bad things. The charge is correct, as far as it goes.
  2. Christians behaving badly isn’t relevant to the truth of Christianity. Christianity’s truth is based on metaphysical matters like God’s existence, and historical matters—Jesus’ deity, death, and resurrection.
  3. The goodness of Christianity is determined by what it teaches, not by what its followers do. Since it teaches us to love our enemies and care for their needs, anyone who professes Christ and is systematically brutal, violent, or otherwise nasty is clearly a hypocrite.

And that answers the charge. But once we’ve done that, we can turn the charge back around on the atheist to put some pressure on his view. And that’s when we bring up the atrocities of the atheistic regimes run by Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. But we shouldn’t just say atheists have done bad things. Rather, we should point out that Stalin, Mao, and Pol pot were acting consistently with their amoral atheism, whereas any professed Christians who did similar things were violating Christian teaching. As such, Christians have a firm foundation from which to condemn bloody tyrants who name the name of Christ, but atheists have no foundation to condemn their bloody tyrants from.

So, I would respond to their charge with something like this:

You’re right, Christians have indeed done bad things. But what does that prove? Not much. Christianity’s truth rests on God’s existence and Jesus’ deity, death, and resurrection. Christians behaving badly doesn’t disprove any of this. Besides, Christians who did such things clearly violated Christian teaching, so their bad deeds don’t show that Christianity is bad. We’re to love our neighbour, and even our enemies. Does that sound like it condones mistreating people? Of course not. We should measure the message by the message, not the messengers.
Pol Pot 1925–1998
But if you want to measure the message by the messengers, what about atheistic ‘messengers’ like Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot? They killed millions in service to an explicitly atheistic ideology. And unlike Christians who had to violate Christian teaching to do such atrocities, Stalin and co. were acting consistently with their amoral atheism. On atheism, everything is permissible. So, atheists don’t have a solid basis to condemn their own bloody tyrants from. But Christians do; we have Jesus as our standard.

Even though I mentioned Stalin and co., the skeptic can’t (legitimately) claim my response is a tu quoque fallacy because I didn’t ignore their charge. In fact, I showed that their charge is irrelevant to the truth and goodness of Christian teaching before mentioning Stalin and co.. In other words, I answered their charge, then showed that they have a similar problem of their own to face (which I suggest their atheism doesn’t have the resources to answer). My answer was basically:

Yes, the charge is true (to a certain extent). But it’s irrelevant to the truth and goodness of my ideology. But your ideology has the same problem, but it can’t solve the problem like my ideology can.

For more on this approach, with some historical details on specific charges of ‘Christians behaving badly’, please see What about bad things done by the Church?

Helpful Resources

Readers’ comments

Martin S.
I see I need to change tactics. One argument I use is, if these so-called Christians were purposely doing evil, how can they be Christians? There are very specific rules to being a Christian. One of which is do no harm in your walk. Another is 10 million people were kidnapped from western Europe alone. It wasn't until Europe was invaded the first Crusade took place. There is no such thing as an evil Christian because evil and Christ do not mix. There are apostates, yes. walk in beauty
Shaun Doyle
In one sense, yes: a person who claims faith in Christ but doesn't live out the fruit of the Spirit lacks the evidence necessary to mark out their faith as genuine saving faith. However, we don't keep rules to either become or stay Christians. We're Christians only by God's grace through faith in Christ. And sadly, genuine Christians do harm people. No Christian is sinless. That's why I said only that professing Christians who commit acts of brutality are hypocrites; I can't judge for certain whether any specific professing Christian who did such things is a genuine believer or not. Still, we can note, I think, that since those who genuinely trust in Christ will evince the fruit of the Spirit, we have cause to doubt the genuineness of such people's profession. But that's about as far as we can take it, especially in an apologetic dialogue.
George U.
Hi Shaun,

Excellent article indeed. The listing of atrocities between the 2 groups is relevant because every life unjustly taken is an affront to God and therefore the Salem trials and the Spanish inquisition are examples of wrongdoings in the name of Christ, and not necessarily committed by 'Christians', already pointed out above by Michael S.
When people think of atrocities and mass murders the name that usually surfaces is Hitler's. Hardly ever do the other mass murderers surface, who all killed far more people than Hitler. Worse than that, they are often honored as great statesmen and leaders. In that light it is perhaps appropriate to state that neither the Salem trials nor the Inquisition even remotely approached the millions and millions of the comparable atheists. The Salem trials condemned less than 30 women and the inquisition murdered less than 10000 people. So even the evil that was done in the name of Christ, albeit against his explicit commands, pales against the evil of atheists.
Michael S.
It's a good argument with some strong points. I think you have pretty much come to the checkmate but haven't checkmated QUITE in that the true checkmate is that if a professing Christian does something really bad that contradicts the teaching of Christ and the word of God the bible according to the New covenant then that act as a predicate contradicts, "Christianity". So personally I believe the checkmate is that evil people that done evil things in Christ's name were not truly Christians.

Perhaps you wanted to avoid that way of dealing with the argument because you fear the no true Scotsman fallacy but in fact that fallacy is only committed if a predicate does not really contradict a definition. With Christianity, to do evil and bad things is a direct contradiction of everything, "Christian" therefore if say a cult leader murders his followers we know he was not really a, "Christian".

For example to be a "murderer" you have to have murdered someone, but if you did NOT murder anyone it would NOT be the no true scotsman fallacy if you argued that, "therefore you are not truly a murderer". But it would be that fallacy if you argued, "the person is not a murderer because he put sugar on his porridge."

If someone does things deliberately and blatantly AGAINST Christianity then as a predicate those actions contradict what it means to be Christian therefore they cannot really be Christian. For how can someone really have the love of God and do something such as murdering, such as a serial killer? It is possible to be Christian and occasionally sin because the bible does not state we are redeemed..but to live out evil acts? That's anti-Christ!

I still respect those strong points you made, they're very good. But for me I don't accept the atheists' terms at all.
Shaun Doyle
Yes, I wanted to avoid the spectre of the 'no true Scotsman' fallacy in my response. Why? Well, there's no such thing as a Christian who has never sinned. So, at what point do we say that a professing Christian's sins render their profession false? However we might want to answer that question, I think it's just a distraction. Why? The question is about whether the bad behaviour of Christians shows that Christian teaching is bad. It seems to me enough to refute such a notion by pointing out that professing Christians who do bad things are hypocrites.
Gina T.
Praise God for this great article. I really appreciated the parting shot where it makes the point that the Christian ideology can solve the problem whereas the amoral atheistic ideology cannot. I'm thinking of the work of the missionaries throughout the South Pacific during the 1800s. The knowledge of the goodness of God and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on behalf of fallen humanity stopped in its tracks the practices of cannibalism, human sacrifice and pushed tribal warfare right back. Look also how Christian ideology stopped the practice of suttee in India. Look at how it was largely behind the abolition of the slave trade in Britain and then in the US. All upward movements! See Isaiah 32:17. Where has the amoral atheistic ideology changed harmful paradigms such as these? There is no contest.
Juda B.
Great stuff! This is pretty much how I've dealt with these accusations in conversation as well. It isn't relevant what's done in the name of an ideology, what's relevant is when it's done in the name of an ideology and it's consistent with that ideology. This is important with conversations with atheists and evolutionists, but is also important in discussions surrounding Islamic terrorism.
A very good article Shaun, thank you. Unfortunately though, most atheists will never be convinced. They are as the Bible says, they have eyes but will not see, they have ears but will not hear. One cannot accept the truth of Christianity without realising that it is a call to repentance. Because Jesus died that we might have eternal life, we must amend our lives to follow Him. Most people simply do not want to admit that their lives are sinful, much less amend their lifestyle.
Shaun Doyle
I wouldn't expect an exchange like this to bring people to Christ by itself. It's simply advice for Christians on how to handle themselves in an intellectually responsible manner when faced with this issue. How convincing the atheist/skeptic finds our response isn't something we can control.
Giancarlo B.
The atheists that label this fallacious don't seem to realize they are utterly childish and naive on how an atheist dictator ought to behave publicly as he or she commits atrocities. The atheist dictator doesn't have to come out and say: "I'm going to kill you all scums in the name of atheism. Glory be to atheism!" These atheists that think an atheist tyrant must say exactly or similar thing to qualify as a legitimate atheist's atrocity is moronic at worst. All this atheist has to do is convince himself that there is no God above them overseeing his acts and do the same to his people and proceed to wreak havoc.

But ultimately it doesn't matter who does what, because they are all intellectual kleptomaniacs and are stealing from Christian principles to make their case. Without Christianity being true, they wouldn't even be able to have an intelligible moral complaint about evil.
Abe M.
This was pretty much my response in a comment on a debate I saw between Jordan Peterson and Susan Blackmore. Almost immediately the current comments were something like "You see? Christian's are just as dysfunctional as anyone if not more..." (fueled by Susan's position, of course). My comment was "How many Atheists do we read, hear about walking into their local police stations, confessing their guilt over repeated crimes they are committing (petty, misdemeanor, etc), and citing that "this entire judicial system is one great farce because our very own members of congress, government, legislature, judges, even our agents of security (local, federal police agencies) are committing repeated, observable crimes, violating laws, the like"? Not one!" Because? The truths we are to live by (God's) are the point, not their adherence or lack thereof by it's practitioners. Our government, legislature, security agencies do represent God's truths (he established them), whether practiced or not by society. But, what of an origins of death/destruction over eons of time regarding moral, loving, self-less treatment of others? It makes no sense, hence the atrocities from Atheistic views of the aforementioned. =).
Michael B.
And Jesus taught/warned about these who call themselves Christians but are false. We are warned of them because they actually exists.
Matthew 7:15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves".
This was an excellent piece to help us give answer as I myself have been guilty of " tu quoque fallacy" though I had no idea it had a name or that I had done it though I always went away feeling the argument felt a bit hollow.
Thank you for helping equip the saints.
Your Brother in Christ,
Douglas W.
Don't judge the Star, by the Fan Club!
Cowboy Bob S.
Practically anyone can make a "fallacy" or "law" on teh interwebs, and if it gets attention, it become famous for about fifteen minutes. Ever heard of "Poe's Law", for example? (I wonder if it was peer reviewed.) Strange appeals to internet authority.

Mr. Doyle made some interesting points, and my own use of this retort needed some adjustment. I would like to add that atheists defend those sidewinders by saying that they never did anything "in the name of atheism". As Shaun pointed out, when professing Christians show their sinfulness, they are violating God's ordinances. However, there is nothing in an atheistic worldview that would consistently suppress such activities by Stalin, Mao, and the others.
David G.
Christ and the epistles, indeed the whole Bible, take the position that it is out of the heart that righteousness or evil proceeds. Much of what has been done in the name of Christ or of a Christian was by unconverted people - regardless of their profession of faith and perhaps far more than we would like to admit. And every standard of judgment in Scripture is based on the professing believer's words and deeds. So while Christians may and do sin and even grievously, they do not live in it nor will a true believer be able to indefinitely go on in sin without conviction and repentance. Hence the many warnings in OT and NT about the genuineness of one's faith.
Norman P.
For me, the big question here is, how do you define 'The Church'. The Bible defines it, and our lives reveal it: 'Wherefore, by their fruits ye shall know them' (Matthew 7:19-21). Then we have Babylon (Revelation 17). How many today have read Foxes Martyrs?
Seathrún M.
Wasn't Hitler an atheist too? He does appear to have at least dabbled in the occult, but this was hardly Christian!
Shaun Doyle
I avoided using Hitler because his 'atheism' is less clear that that of the Marxist dictators. Hitler certainly wasn't a Christian (Was Hitler a Christian?). However, I don't think he personally dabbled in the occult. Reports suggest he had no respect for the occult dabblings of Himmler and those like him. As to Hitler's 'atheism', I think it's important to draw a distinction between practical atheism (i.e. living as if God is irrelevant or not there) and metaphysical atheism (a denial of God's existence). The clearest evidence we have shows that he was very science-centric and rationalistic, and thus had no time for any sort of supernatural religion or occultic mysticism. As such, he was at least a practical atheist. However, I don't the the evidence allows us to say that he was clearly a metaphysical atheist. Much of his language is consistent with pantheism or even a form of Spinozan 'theism', and less so with a clear denial of God's existence (Hitler the evolutionist; Hitler the pantheist (Hitler the atheist—Yes)). But I'm not sure that Hitler would've really cared about such metaphysical distinctions.
Alf F.
One could go a little deeper, just a little, to anticipate the next logical conclusion the atheist may come to: "Christianity doesn't work". It would be tempting to point out all the good that Christians have done, but what is closer to the logical argument is that Christianity does work, but it does not conform to the atheist's way of thinking. The atheist will need to think more honestly to agree with this fact, which is the central question. It is the question which has not yet consciously occurred to the atheist, because the atheist is not listening to their conscience. The Gospel message, which is the starting point of Christianity, if taken to heart with sincerity, is the middle and end point as well. And if faith in Christ and not our own goodness prevails, we will not go off the track, and God will work in us the change, giving us a new heart of flesh and removing the heart of stone. So there are those that may run with Christian teaching, but they themselves are not changed by it, because the inward response, which is at first invisible, was faulty. That faultiness will inevitably manifest outwardly, to the offence of many, including the atheist. However, the atheist, if their own inward response to such an anomaly (as presented by the professing but not righteously behaving nominal Christian) is one of offence against the message, they themselves have not rightly comprehended or responded to the message of the Gospel. The Gospel always works the change from evil to good, when embraced honestly. Much that goes by the name of Christianity has little to do with God or His Gospel, just as Socialists have nothing really to do with democracy, despite their vehement claims. The atheist cannot see the logic without conscience.
Simon S.
What a great article! Logical and clearly explained. Thank you.
Robert R.
who in their right mind says the crusades were bad?

for 400 years the muslims invaded, stole land, raped, killed and enslaved.
They took the middle east, north africa and tonnes of invasions into europe even invading Spain.
So after 400 years the christians fought back, and that is considered evil by atheists?
The atheists wouldn't even exist if the christians had simply let the muslims take Europe.
David S.
I would also like to mention on something that I read a few years ago. There are good and decent people even among atheists who would help those in need even at their own expense. But such atheists are almost always mainly from a Judeo-Christian culture and who have for reasons of their own become disgruntled with religion or or who are raised as atheists. Before, whenever there were regional disasters like earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions etc., it was always the western nations having a Judeo-Christian culture who were the first to come to the aid of the nations affected. It is only recently that the atheistic communist regimes are helping and I suspect for political reasons.
Anthony W.
I would add in this exchange that some of the points against Christians are often exaggerated and taken out of context—Crusades for example.
Shaun Doyle
A very important topic to address. However, this article is very specific and limited in its focus: advice on when and how to use the common Christian retort (i.e. atheists behaving badly) to the likewise common skeptical/atheistic complaint about Christians behaving badly. For a more direct look at the atheistic/skeptical complaint, which also addresses the Crusades specifically, please see What about bad things done by the Church?
Philip P.
Succinct and very well put. Thank you

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