The Catholic Church has officially ended their campaign to improve the public image of the Church with the latest papal encyclical, Spe Salvi, which means “saved by hope” for the Latin fans out there. The Catholic Church’s history is littered with crimes against humanity, and Pope Benedict XVI seems to desire the return to pre-Vatican II Catholicism. This was a concern voiced by many at the time that the former Joseph Ratzinger* was canonized to this position. The former pope, John Paul II, had made great strides in the modernization of the Church, and many were reluctant to elect somebody who would reverse that trend. Despite John Paul’s dogmatic adherence to the sexual proscriptions of Catholicism, he at least officially accepted evolution, admitted Protestants into heaven, and eliminated limbo. (Where was that place anyway? I may have been there once…) Pope Benedict is turning out exactly as predicted.
The attempt to correlate atheism with violence, hatred, and genocide is the faithful fall-back argument for theists looking for a scapegoat. As in many other situations, their best defense for their beliefs and the resulting atrocities throughout history is something like, “Atheists did it, too! Just look at Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot. You’re just like us!” Well, I beg to differ. Those three well-worn examples did not commit those crimes because of their lack of god-belief. That is where the fundamental difference lies. The communist regimes wanted to eradicate religious belief so that the sole allegiance of the populace would be to the government. It was not driven by an atheistic agenda per se, but rather a power struggle with the religious ideologues who would seek to thwart their dominance over the people. Regardless of what those particular despots may have done, though, Ratzinger’s claim that atheism is the cause of the “greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice” in history falls flat on its face when one thumbs through the annals of history.
A stroll down memory lane with Catholicism gives us the Crusades, the Inquisition, the violence during the Protestant Reformation (some of which continues to this day), and the more recent clergy sex scandals. Obviously, this is a woefully incomplete list, and it doesn’t include Protestants and their scandals, not to mention the conflict that has been inspired by religious beliefs throughout history up until the present day, not separating by specific deity.
Despite the irony of religious people claiming that atheism has been the bully throughout history, the most problematic issue with this argument is the least salient, which explains its prevalence in the world of apologetics: Whether these crimes were committed under the banner of atheism or not does not prove that their god exists in the first place. The crux of the rational position rests not on what atrocities were committed for any reason, but rather on the existence of their deity.
The fact is that the most recent studies show that organic atheism (ie not imposed by the government) has a positive correlation with societal health when measured by various indicators, such as level of education, affluence, and violent crime rates. (See study by Phil Zuckerman, PhD, in the Cambridge Companion to Atheism.) The data show that the so-called “deluding” to which man so frequently falls prey is in fact not “technology, wealth, or political ideologies,” but is religious in nature.
The pessimism that he sees in the world is more likely to have been caused by the precepts and edicts of the religion into which a society has been indoctrinated. If I believed that this life, this planet and its inhabitants were all a part of some kind of cosmic game in which the rules and outcome were already determined, I would be pessimistic as well. For them, all of this is a waiting room for your “real” existence in eternity—whether or not it will be in paradise or perdition. Ultimately, it’s not even up to you or me to make that determination. The Catholic Church has always stood by the doctrine that the status of your salvation is unknown even to you. Does anybody else see how that might cause psychological distress? You’re chosen, or one of the elect--one to whom god has revealed himself--or you’re not. The bible states it clearly:
“Does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use? What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory…” (Rom. 9:21-23)
I don’t see the hope of which Ratzinger speaks. I see the violence, division, and psychological terrorism that religion has perpetrated upon humanity since its inception. I see a group of power-mongers struggling to maintain control of an increasingly skeptical society by demonizing their opposition. I see a populace disillusioned with the traditional power structures of government and religion but feeling incapable of affecting change in a society where money buys power and influence, and the only thing that they are sure of is that atheists are evil communist despots. So, I would like to personally applaud Joseph Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict, for projecting the actions of his religion onto atheists. At least we know that the long-standing tradition of sacrificing an innocent being to atone for your own sins is alive and well. (Lev. 16: 9-11) After all, Jesus came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.
*I will refer to him using that name for the remainder of the article.