It’s one of the most common arguments, and one of the most hypocritical.
Mind you, there is a legitimate argument to be made there. But it isn’t that atheists are automatically evil or even that atheists are automatically worse people than theists. You can argue that these events prove that being an atheist does not, in and of itself, make you a good person. I’d even agree with that argument. There are some pretty shitty people who are also atheists. But you cannot argue that the atrocities of the above regimes demonstrate that atheism is evil. Or at least, if you follow one of the Abrahamic faiths, you can’t argue it without being a massive hypocrite.
Why do I say that? Moses and Joshua, among others.
Let’s have a little talk about Moses, the great hero of the Israelite Exodus. Everyone is familiar with the Exodus story, I think, up to Moses getting the Ten Commandments and the whole smashing the tablets after the golden calf episode. People seem to go a little vague on what happens after that point in the story, probably because preachers don’t seem to like bringing it up in sermons a lot. You see, according to the Bible Moses didn’t just smash his tablets after the golden calf thing. He also ordered the execution of three thousand Israelites over it. You can check it out in Exodus, Chapter 30.
Later, as the Israelites were crossing through the wilderness, they tried to cross the lands of the kingdom Arad. The king sent out his army to stop them, and a battle ensued. In retaliation, Moses had his followers attack every city in Arad and murder every man, woman, and child. He then proceeded to do the same to the Amorites, Jazerites, and the kingdom of Og. This is all in Numbers, Chapters 20-21. Later in their wanderings, the Israelites settle for a time among the Midianites, who take them in and start intermarrying. But when Moses hears that some of the Israelites have started worshipping the Midianite gods, he gives orders to attack and kill all the Midianites. His people kill the Midianite men, but take the women and children captive; Moses was having none of that shit, and orders all the women and male children killed while the virgin girl children are to be kept as captives/slaves (and let’s not be naïve about what that entailed). That’s Numbers, Chapters 25-31.
So to recap: according to the Bible, Moses is responsible for at least five separate genocides.
How about Joshua? Well, you know that famous song we’re all taught in Sunday school? “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho?” That happy, upbeat piece of children’s fluff about blowing horns and knocking down walls? Do you know what happened to all the people inside those walls? The men, the women, and the children? Joshua ordered them all killed, of course. You know what horrible act of aggression the people of Jericho had committed against him before the battle that justified it? Nothing. They were living on land he thought his god had promised to him, so he slaughtered them all. That’s it. In fact, that’s pretty much the story of the entire invasion of Canaan: Joshua and his army of Israelites committing one genocide after another, while enslaving anyone they didn’t kill. See the Book of Joshua, Chapters… well, pretty much all of them.
And if you think it’s a numbers game, that the atrocities of the twentieth century were worse because they involved more people, bear in mind that both of those men issued mandates to kill everyone. The only factor that limited the number of deaths was the number of people available to kill. There was no moral limit imposed.
Now here’s where the rubber meets the road. I, as an atheist, will tell you unequivocally that I believe Stalin and Pol Pot to be monsters. It’s debatable whether Hitler was an atheist – publicly he was Catholic and used loads of Christian rhetoric in exhorting his followers to commit atrocities, but apparently he was privately contemptuous of mainstream Christianity. But regardless of what his religious views were, I’ll tell you he was a monster as well. These men are not atheist heroes. The only regard their roles in history should be given is to learn how to make sure men like them never wield the kind of power they did ever again.
Can you tell me the same about Moses and Joshua?
If you follow an Abrahamic faith, I don’t think you can. Because, you see, according to your holy books they were acting on God’s orders. They are presented as heroes, as being among the best men who have ever lived. They are held up as men who exhibit the kind of faith – the kind that perceives and carries out God’s wishes no matter what they are and how much they contradict our sense of what is good or right – to be the sort of faith all believers should aspire to.
But if you’re honest with yourself, continuing to celebrate Moses and Joshua means you’re a hypocrite if you berate atheists for the fact that atheist regimes have committed genocides. Because you don’t actually disapprove of genocide. You’re fine with it. You excuse it. You laud it. You teach young children to sing nauseatingly sweet songs of praise for genocide and the people who commit it, so long as they do it for the right reasons. You don’t object to the atrocities committed by those regimes, you just disagree with their reasons for committing them.
I won’t defend the atrocities committed by any atheist regime, nor will I defend their reasons for committing them. I don’t know a single atheist who would. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but it’s not the norm and I would oppose such people. Just because they were on “my team,” on the one singular issue of whether a god exists does not obligate me to their defense when they do that which I cannot abide.
People don’t commit atrocities because of what they don’t believe in; they commit them because of what they do believe in. Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, they did what they did because they believed their visions for society were greater than the human lives they would have to grind under in order to fulfill them. Moses, Joshua, Muhammad, they also believed they were serving something greater than the lives they had to destroy in that service. That’s something they all had in common with each other, not a feature that distinguishes them from each other. In that respect, they are very much the same. Let’s not pretend otherwise.
Ultimately, it shouldn't be a blame game. We should all, atheists and theists alike, be trying together to make sure nobody does these kinds of things again.