Crimes of Dogmatism


‘It is amazing how many people think that the crimes of Hitler and Pol Pot and Mao were the result of atheism. The truth is that this is a total misconstrual of what went on in those societies, and of the psychological and social forces that allow people to follow their dear leader over the brink.

The problem with Fascism and communism was not that they were too critical of religion. The problem is they’re too much like religions; these are utterly dogmatic systems of thought. I recently had a debate with Rick Warren in the pages of Newsweek, and he suggested that North Korea was a model atheist society and that any atheist with the courage of his convictions should want to move there.

The truth is North Korea is organized exactly like a faith based cult, centered on the worship of Kim Jong-il. The North Koreans apparently believe that the shipments of food aid that they receive from us, to keep them from starving to death, are actually devotional offerings to Kim Jong-il. Is too little faith really the problem with North Korea? Is too much skeptical inquiry, what is wrong here? Auschwitz, the Gulag, and the killing fields are not the product of atheism; they are the product of other dogmas run amok; nationalism, political dogma.

Hitler did not engineer a genocide in Europe because of atheism; in fact Hitler doesn’t even appear to have been an atheist, he regularly invoked Jesus in his speeches. But that’s beside the point, he did it on the basis of other beliefs, dogmas about Jews and the purity of German blood. The history of Muslim jihad however does have something to do with Islam. The atrocities of September 11th did have something to do with what 19 men believed about martyrdom and paradise.

The fact that we’re not funding stem cell research at the federal level does have something to do with what Christians believe about conception and the human soul. It is important to focus on the specific consequences of specific ideas. So I want to make it very clear that I am not holding religion responsible for every bad thing that a religious person has done in human history. To be balanced against all the bad things that atheists have done, I am only holding religion responsible for what people do, and will continue to do, explicitly for religious reasons. So I submit to you there really is no society in human history that has ever suffered because its population became too reasonable.’

– Harris, S. Believing the Unbelievable: The Clash of Faith and Reason in the Modern World.” Aspen Ideas Festival, the Aspen Institute, Aspen, CO, July 4th, 2007

10 thoughts on “Crimes of Dogmatism

  1. Indeed, ‘… there really is no society in human history that has ever suffered because its population became too reasonable.’ – and no intellectual individual can think otherwise.

  2. I completely disagree. Atheism is not the opposite of religion, it is the same side of the same coin. Atheism can become dogma just like religion can. Religion is not the absence of reason, just as atheism is not the presence of reason.

    “So I submit to you there really is no society in human history that has ever suffered because its population became too reasonable.”

    Well now, perhaps as we move closer into a world run by artificial intelligence and the cold hard reason of computers, we’ll change our minds? The truth is, many of the things we value as humans, kindness, empathy, sacrifice, defy all reason, and in fact are often quite illogical and unreasonable.

  3. Firstly, atheism is the absence of dogma, indeed, it is the absence of anything unverified and unproven – the complete opposite of ‘making a leap of faith’. I therefore respectfully submit that when you make the comment “Atheism can become dogma” you have not only missed the point, you have misunderstood the definition of the term to which you refer.

    Secondly, when you state that for instance empathy and kindness “defy all reason” you presumably claim that these character traits are not by definition unnatural, irregular and unexplainable by empirical sciences like biology and psychology? If so, I fear you may be in the wrong. Remember, people may act unreasonably out of love, but does that make love itself unreasonable? Of course not. Affection, whether it be motherly love or a silly crush on the girl next door are quite explainable. To say that such occurrences defy everything in the reasonable dimension – so to speak – is quite simply wrong.

  4. Atheism is not the absence of dogma, although that is what many atheists like to tell themselves. Atheism sprung up in response to fundamentalism, and as such it exist only like a mirror reflection of the same. Atheism is not based on reason like agnosticism might be, it’s based on a desire to prove fundamentalists wrong.

    The more positive aspects of human behavior really do defy reason. It’s illogical to sacrifice your life for others, for example. There are numerous human behaviors that make no sense from a survival standpoint and as thus, are unreasonable.

  5. “It’s illogical to sacrifice your life for others

    Just because it’s illogical, Mr. Spock, does not mean it is inexplicable. Evolutionarily, early societies may will not have lasted long if they didn’t contain individuals who were willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of the group, those societies that did possess such persons, survived, while those who didn’t, did not. Illogical or not, would you honestly not run out in front of a speeding car, to save a toddler, even if you realized you could be killed in the process? Or would you just stand there, watch him die, and say, “At least it wasn’t me!”

  6. First of all, I said the society evolved to value self-sacrifice, i.e., the mores, I didn’t say the individual did, but even if I had, are you suggesting that a self-sacrificing personality was incapable of siring or bearing children before committing such a sacrifice? NOW who’s being illogical?

  7. “NOW who’s being illogical?”

    I see. So evolution quite rationally, one might even say intelligently, created people who quickly sired dozens of children before sacrificing themselves for the greater good? Perhaps the fathering of so many children had something to do with their propensity for suicide?

    As to the mores, where is the payoff in sacrificing yourself? I mean, mores are based on a system of punishments and rewards, they are learned behaviors. Mores are not morality. Mores do not “evolve,” they are cultural and regional behaviors and some of them are quite immoral.

  8. Mores certainly do evolve, or are you maintaining that our mores today are the same as they were a hundred thousand years ago?

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