In his encyclical released on Friday, Pope Benedict states atheism is responsible for some of the “greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice” in history .
Did Pope Ratzinger skip the new-pope class that explains the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades?
This is a common myth that arises during debates with theists or in theistic arguments as in books or articles, particularly with Christian theists. The argument goes something like, “of course atheism is bad for the world, just look at what Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot did in the name of atheism .”
On the cuff of it, the argument is one which is post hoc ergo propter hoc, that is to say, it’s a false cause fallacy. More subtly, the argument is also an ad hominem, since the theist that argues this point is attempting to discredit his atheist opponents. The theist is safe in making his claim that atheism leads to evil since he has plausible deniability since, ostensibly, he’s only making an argument against atheism. However, this only holds true if the claim itself is true. As a simple argument form, it would be:
If atheism leads to evil, it cannot be true.
Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot were atheists.
Atheism cannot be true.
However, as you can see, there are some problems with the argument as a modus ponens. The conclusion does not follow from the premises, and this is why:
1) There is no reason why truth cannot lead to evil.
2) Premise #2 is really a complex premise that contains one or more sub premises. It assumes factually that these three personalities were indeed atheists, that they were indeed evil, and that their evil was informed by their atheism. Even if the first two of these sub premises were agreed upon, and it seems reasonable to do so, there is no reason to believe that their atheism informed their evil actions. In fact, there is ample evidence to suggest that at least two of the three personalities were significantly influenced by religion, specifically Christianity, early in their lives.
3) Since premises 1 and 2 do not hold up, the conclusion cannot follow from the premises.
As an ad hominem argument, the Hitler/Stalin/Pot argument is typically a tu quoque, or “you too,” made in response to the claim that religion is responsible for the deaths of millions through the inquisition, Crusades, genocides, New World invasion, etc.
Never has a causal effect been demonstrated by any historian (much less a theist in a debate) between atheism and the actions of, say, Stalin. Stalin ordered the deaths of thousands because he deemed them a threat to his government –a government that was dogmatic and powerful. Indeed, on could easily argue that Stalin’s position was that he “replaced” God and inserted himself as the national deity with statues and portraits in all public (and many private) lands and buildings. Those that carried out his death warrants did so because they believed in Stalin –because they “worshiped” him.
There are no gulags or concentration camps in recorded history that were designed to fulfill a “lack of belief” in something, which is what atheism is. None were constructed to destroy lives out of reason or rational thought, which is what informs the atheistic conclusion.
For another post that gives a very good treatment of yet another Myth of Atheism, see Vjack’s Atheism Does NOT Require Faith, which posted just yesterday as I was writing this. These are the sorts of things I’m glad to see Atheists write about and, perhaps, I’ll put together a set of links for reference to these and other Myths of Atheism posted here and elsewhere in the near future. I’ve some good ideas for the “Pages” feature that comes with WordPress, so keep checking back.
 Catholic News (11 Jan 2008). Hope encyclical rejects atheism.
 D’Souza, Dinesh (2007). What’s So Great About Christianity?: Chicago: Regenery Press, p 221. “the indisputable fact is that all the religions of the world put together have in three hundred years not managed to kill anywhere near the number of people killed in the name of atheism in the past few decades […] Atheism, not religion, is responsible for the worst mass murders of history.”