‘Atheist atrocities fallacy’?


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?

Published: 17 November 2020