In debunking atheism and using the tu quoque or "you too!" argument to point fingers in the opposite direction whenever religious atrocities are raised, defenders of theism often bring up the notion that some of the most destructive and genocidal ideologies in history, Communism, Nazism and "Pol Potery," were "atheistic," because their leaders were "atheists."
In my book The Gospel According to Acharya S, I delve briefly into these subjects, raising a few facts and conclusions that may not be widely known - but should be, because of these anti-atheist arguments. Here is a pertinent excerpt from The Gospel, also included in an Examiner article, "Is atheism the answer, Part 3?", which is the source for the last two paragraphs of commentary here. (All facts in the following excerpt are carefully cited in The Gospel from reliable sources.)
Were Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot atheists?
Theists hold up Communism and Nazism, along with the regime of the Cambodian tyrant Pol Pot, as evidence of murderous "atheist" tyrannies that have caused the deaths of tens of millions. While it may be true that Communism portrayed itself as "godless," it did not wage war in the name of atheism, nor were its founders and leaders raised as atheists. They were, in fact, preponderantly Jewish and Christian. Communist Manifesto writer Karl Marx was born a Jew, the grandson of two rabbis, and was converted to Christianity at age 6. Leon Trotsky, whose real name was Lev Bronstein, was born and raised a Jew but later declared himself "an internationalist."
Josef Stalin's "very religious" mother named him after St. Joseph, and wanted him to become a priest. Stalin himself supposedly claimed that his father had been a priest, and he was purportedly "damaged by violence" while being "raised in a poor priest-ridden household." As a youth, Stalin spent five years in a Greek Orthodox seminary, after which he purportedly renounced his religion. In his later years, Stalin apparently embraced Christianity once more. As Stalin biographer Edvard Radinsky remarks, "During his mysterious retreat [of June 1941] the ex-seminarist had decided to involve the aid of the God he had rejected." Radinsky likewise chronicles a number of religious comrades in Stalin's immediate circle. It is evident that, whether for good or bad, religion played a significant role in Stalin's life.
Adolf Hitler was raised a Catholic, and in a speech in 1922 he remarked, "My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Saviour as a fighter..." In his autobiography Mein Kampf (1.2), Hitler stated:
Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.
Throughout his life, Hitler invoked God and "the Lord," demonstrating his religious, not atheistic, nature. Pol Pot was raised a Buddhist and Catholic. In this regard, Dr. Ian Harris, a Reader in Religious Studies at the University College of St. Martin, relates: "In one of his early writings Pol Pot wrote approvingly that the 'democratic regime will bring back the Buddhist moralism because our great leader Buddha was the first to have taught [democracy].'" Although in comparison to the Abrahamic religions its history is far less violent, Buddhism has not been entirely devoid of atrocity in its spread and practice.
If we are to insist—as many people have done, including numerous theists and atheists alike—that religious human abuse is the cause of atheistic reaction against religion, we need look no further, it would seem, than to Josef Stalin's religiously abusive childhood to discover from where much of his rage appeared to emanate. His atheistic reaction therefore would be caused by religion. Hitler, who was also fascinated by mysticism, could not be deemed an "atheist" by any scientific standard, and Pol Pot also was not raised an atheist in a vacuum devoid of religion but was obviously affected and motivated by it.
If atheism is frequently but a reaction against human abuse by religion, then in itself such disbelief may not be the cause of malfeasance.
Sources & Further Reading