A Response to the essay "False Equivalencies?"

by Chuck Doswell

Posted:  10 December 2014  Updated: whenever

As usual, this is my opinion, to which I have a legal right.  If you have a question or comment, send it to me at cdoswell@earthlink.net - but if you don't agree to my posting it here (and perhaps responding), save us both the trouble.

What follows is my response to an essay by a friend, evidently in response to arguments like this one.  Diving right in, what follows is a point-by-point response (in red):

A notion handed down from Richard Dawkins to assorted atheistic laypeople …

Whoa, hoss!  This is nonsense.  There's no atheist clergy, so calling someone an "atheist layperson" has no meaning.  Richard Dawkins is a famous atheist who has many followers (and detractors, even among atheists), but that doesn't mean he's been "ordained" as an atheist clergyman, with the possible exception of some over-enthusiastic followers.  There's no authoritative body of atheists or mechanism capable of ordaining someone as an atheist clergyman/woman and, even if there were, not all atheists would accept it. 

goes to the effect of this: the Inquisition and Crusades were mass killings in the name of religion; however Stalin's (and other atheist dictators') genocides of millions weren't done in the name of atheism. Notice the subtle semantic dodge? Because Stalin et al. didn’t specifically state to the world their atheism as the reason for their genocides (most of which were kept secret at the time anyway), it must be a "false equivalency".  My my, how convenient.

It's not convenient at all ... for christian apologists, who go to great lengths to avoid recognizing this distinction.  It's not a "semantic dodge" at all.  Rather, it's a recognition of an important distinction between different evil deeds.  And whatever Stalin et al. claimed is irrelevant.

Well, if you drill deep enough into any literal comparison, it becomes a "false equivalency".  For example, two slightly different isotopes of sodium are indeed slightly different at that level, and therefore, not truly identical. Nonetheless, they give you the same salty effects in molecular bond with chlorine, offering the same level of taste, electrolytic action and solubility.

I simply can't imagine what possible relevance this comparison has.  Yes, of course, any comparison has limitations, but using this as a talking point is a pretty substantial stretch.  See below …

Of course, even that can be arbitrarily declared a "false equivalency" by someone who doesn't like the idea. Just because somebody claims it's a "false equivalency" doesn't make it so. "False equivalancy" does happen: witness, for example, the ridiculous yet common comparison of homosexuality–a behavior–to skin color, an immutable genetic characteristic and not a behavior. Yet, "false equivalency" more often is a buzz-phrase used as a weapon to stifle discussion.

Nor does simply claiming it's not a false equivalency make it not one.

You seem to accept the discredited notion that homosexuality is completely independent of
genetics and the fetal development process.  Science suggest that genetic issues do play some role, as can other factors, besides environmental influences. Parents can give birth to children of different physical characteristics (even "identical" twins), and one of those characteristics is sexuality.  If sexuality truly is pure choice, then when and for what reason did you choose to be a heterosexual?

It seems to me that if anyone is seeking to stifle discussion, it's you, with your effort to discredit the very notion of false equivalency in this argument.

Self-proclaimed Christians killed many during the Inquisitions and Crusades, true. Self-proclaimed atheists killed many in the Stalin/Pol Pot/Mao regimes. True. Each set of killers was motivated by psychopathically warped version of their personal ideals (whether rooted in faith or lack thereof) which don’t represent the basic tenets of either Christianity or secular humanism/atheism, respectively. Really, those are two sides of the same evil coin. The atheists and Christians I’ve known would not murder millions, given the opportunity–but then again, I don’t make a habit of hanging out with cold-blooded killers.

None of us disagree that both are evil.  Whether or not the Crusades were somehow unrepresentative of the basic tenets of christianity is certainly not a foregone conclusion.  In the context of the times during which the Crusades took place, it seems that many christians of that era accepted the Crusades as an obligation of true christians. What authority determines who is a "true christian", and how might that have changed since the time of the Crusades?  Do you really want to go down this road?  The Crusaders unambiguously were driven by the desire to re-conquer the Middle Eastern "holy lands" for christianity, to free them from the evil muslims.  To claim this was not a religiously-motivated war is equivalent to saying that the 9/11 terrorists merely were engaged in violent urban renewal.

The ideals of the Socialists-Marxists-Communists were unambiguously political/economic and primarily concerned with the now thoroughly-disproven notions of Utopian socialism.  As argued elsewhere, the communist dictators were only concerned with religion as competition for control of the people.  The "religion" each such dictator installed in place of the national religion was a cult of personality that had no tolerance for any competitors, religious or otherwise.  We certainly don't deny that many religious people were persecuted, but you seem persistently unable to grasp the notion that the civil war, purges, and state terrorism in the Soviet Union were to gain power and maintain control, not just to advance the non-religion of atheism.  They would not have wanted to advance atheism if, in the process, they somehow would have lost political/economic control.  Advancing atheism never was the primary motivation for their despotitic deeds.  Your perspective suggests you don't know the history of Soviet Communism so well as you seem to think.

The oft-repeated regurgitation of Dawkins’ "in the name of" semantic dodge, in the context of Stalin (as if Dawkins is an authority on anything in particular aside from genetic biology…but that’s another story) is popular, is viral, makes a nice catchphrase…and doesn’t stand the salty taste test, nor is it backed up by historical truth.

Just whom would you recognize as an authority figure on this topic?  Clergy?  Religious scholars?  I thought intellectual argument recognized no authority figures.  Historical "truth" according to your understanding of history, perhaps. 

To the contrary, I (no more nor less an authority than Dawkins on religious matters) have decided that the Stalin/Inquisition comparison is is NOT a false equivalency at its fundamental root.  Here's one example why: The League of Belligerent (or Militant) Atheists, about which Stalin's loyal aide Yemelyan Yaroslavky said, "It is our duty to destroy every religious world-concept ... .   If the destruction of ten million human beings, as happened in the last war, should be necessary for the triumph of one definite class, then that must be done and it will be done."

Nice touch to put Dawkins and you on the same footing.  The Wikipedia article on Yaroslavsky (Google it) says: 

With the outbreak of the German-Soviet War, the state reduced its anti-religious
activities somewhat as the Russian Orthodox Church was seen as an institution
that could be of use in rallying the population to defend the nation. The journals
"Bezbozhnik" and "Antireligioznik" ceased publication and the League of the
Militant Godless fell into obscurity (The official reason was the lack of newsprint,
now needed for the war effort.)

This makes it perfectly clear that the persecution of religion by Stalin was of secondary importance to him.  Stalin was always a pragmatist, and if religion could be useful in winning the war, then the campaign against it could be shelved with no particular qualms.  Yaroslavsky didn't set policy - he was a functionary, faithfully carrying out his orders enthusiastically within his sphere of influence.

That statement alone damns the notion that atheism was an irrelevant sideshow of the Stalin regime–not to mention the exemplifying behavior of the regime within which the "League of Militant Atheists" thrived.

That statement alone actually makes it clear that "class triumph" is the ultimate goal of their persecution and is most valid in the context of Stalinism before WWII.  You of all people should be aware of context, since crying "context" is a common tactic of religious apologists!  And your characterization of the atheist position as saying that atheism was an "irrelevant sideshow" is inaccurate and far too black and white (a common problem among religious believers, who tend toward a tribalist position of "You're either with us or against us." and project their own flaws on others).

This group also participated directly in killing and fatal prison/Gulag exile of religious individuals, including clergy, bishops and monks*. Indeed militant state atheism was a central creed of the USSR, and the LMA was disbanded officially only under great pressure from the Allies in World War 2.  Other purges of religious figures and believers followed, however–the death toll numbering in the millions as part of one of the largest genocides in history.

No one is saying that aggressive, violent actions against believers were not prevalent in the USSR, carried out by many different parts of the Soviet bureaucracy.  It's part of the socialist inheritance that preceded Soviet Communism.  But see the above – it was one means to an end, not the end game for the Soviets.  Not coincidentally, genocide against any non-Great Russian minority (e.g., Ukrainians) would necessarily be committed against a population that was predominantly (but not totally) orthodox christian, because orthodox christianity was the state religion of Imperial Russia (which had forcibly annexed neighboring nations, as did the Soviets).  Remember that religious minorities were persecuted under the orthodox christian tsars, and that clearly was state-sanctioned religious discrimination.  Although you evidently claim such acts of Stalinist genocide were essentially a religious persecution, such a claim fails to take into account that Stalin's axe fell on virtually everyone, not just orthodox christians.  How do you separate the multiple causes behind such persecution?  Picking on clergy would certainly be one clear indication of an antireligious influence, but the vast majority of the victims were not clergy. If heartless genocide simultaneously discouraged "counterrevolutionary" (i.e., against the Soviets) religious notions, that was a bonus for the Communist ideologues, not the main intent.

"NO evidence"? There goes that idea. The League of Militant Atheists, and the philosophy with which it was associated far beyond any official membership numbers, makes one hell of an "inconvenient truth" for the field of secular apologetics.

It's not inconvenient at all.  See the above.

Yet the tiresome "false equivalency/in-name-of" tenet of atheistic catechism will persist for a long time, because it does make a tasty piece of gristle for militant atheists–the modern version, not as a capitalized league, and thankfully not genocidal–to latch on with fangs bared.

Nice, colorful rhetoric with a large measure of smug superiority ... but rather a weak denial.  That atheism characterizes 20th century communist dictatorships doesn't mean that atheism is the root cause of their cruelty. You keep saying it's not a false equivalency between that and the Crusades, but I see no solid evidence to support that position.  Wikipedia describes the Crusades as "medieval religious military campaigns"led by the Catholic church, but Soviet persecution led by atheists fell on all religions, not just the orthodox christians, and even on atheist members of persecuted nationalities - it even went to far as to befall atheist Communists during the so-called purges.  To say they're equivalent is just incorrect.

And what does 'fangs bared' actually mean?  Just what's your accusation, there?

Personally, I'd like to see the mutual mistrust and animosity cooled off between atheists and the religious; we all have at least some common goals and interests and should be able to get along much better.

I'd like to see that, too, but so long as religion continues to seek to intrude into the laws of our secular nation, I’m compelled to oppose that.   And misrepresenting the atheist viewpoint also requires a response.

If I somehow have contributed, through my unwillingness to let what I see as heretic falsehoods propagate, then please forgive me.

Sorry, but I doubt seriously that you’re asking for forgiveness at all.  Your rhetoric ("heretic falsehoods" and others) belies that stated intention: it's in direct contradiction to your wish for a more civil interaction.

Meanwhile, I say: God bless all atheists; for they, as for me and everyone else, religious or not, whether one chooses to have faith or not, are made in His image and have become imperfect through sin. Denying God won’t make Him disappear. Good thing I live in a place and time where I’ll not be burned at a stake by an Inquisitor or made to disappear by the Soviet League of Militant Atheists for saying that!

Nor will your unswerving faith in your deity's existence make him real.  It's a good thing I don't live in a time and place where I'd be murdered by the self-righteous for saying that!

* For more information, I highly recommend this book: A History of Marxist-Leninist Atheism and Soviet Antireligious Policies (History of Soviet and Atheism in Theory and Practice, and the Believer), by Dimitry Pospielovsky. It’s a text, and very expensive, so if you can find the book in a major library (as I did when studying all sorts of material about the USSR during the early ’90s), that’s the best bet.

Given Pospielovsky's publications, it seems highly likely that he was predisposed to a certain perspective.  A source, yes, but one that is likely biased in a certain direction.  No one can claim to be completely unbiased, of course - I'm certainly biased, for instance. but I at least admit it.