(Truthdig.com just did an interview with Christopher Hitchens concerning his new book God is Not Great. It is the latest in a series of best-sellers whose success motivates me to write Simon Peter faster so I can point to all the recent books directed at atheists that have sold a million copies. Beyond that, and the proximate reason for this post, is that Hitchens said something clever:
Wiener: The final killer argument of your critics is that Hitler and Stalin were not religious. The worst crimes of the 20th century did not have a religious basis. They came from political ideology.
Hitchens: That’s easy. Hitler never abandoned Christianity and recommends Catholicism quite highly in “Mein Kampf.” Fascism, as distinct from National Socialism, was in effect a Catholic movement.
Wiener: What about Stalin? He wasn’t religious.
Hitchens: Stalin—easier still. For hundreds of years, millions of Russians had been told the head of state should be a man close to God, the czar, who was head of the Russian Orthodox Church as well as absolute despot. If you’re Stalin, you shouldn’t be in the dictatorship business if you can’t exploit the pool of servility and docility that’s ready-made for you. The task of atheists is to raise people above that level of servility and credulity. No society has gone the way of gulags or concentration camps by following the path of Spinoza and Einstein and Jefferson and Thomas Paine.
This put me in mind of post-colonialism. For those not in the know, post-colonialism grapples with the legacy of colonial rule. Stuff like why is that Haiti is the poorest nation on earth despite being one of the first modern democracies and despite having a massively profitable export product? Post-colonialism argues that it is the legacy of dependence created by the colonial system that keeps places like Haiti poor - that even after Haiti was technically independent of France's rule, most of the property in Haiti was still owned by people who had deep ties to France and who served the interests, largely, of France. Not to mention the brutality of slavery, the trained obedience to white prestige and privilege, things of that nature. The same is true in most former colonies. This ongoing legacy needs to be dealt with before a country can come into it's own. Haiti, having been particularly brutally colonized, is having a particularly hard time coming out of it's post-colonial period. Whereas China, which was far less colonized than Haiti, for less time, and with a far more robust culture than Haiti, has almost entirely put its post-colonial legacy behind it. And it is then unsurprising that the first Asian nation to come into it's own on the world stage was Japan - a country that had never suffered colonization by European powers.
So, when Hitchens said Stalin was able to take advantage of centuries of servility and docility that had been hammered into the Russian people by the Russian Orthodox Church, my mind made the connection between the legacy of religion and post-colonialism. It made me think that we're living in a post-theist society. God is dead, but as Nietzsche noted the shadow of god will continue to trouble our days for centuries to come. So, while Stalin was certainly an atheist, and a madman, the groundwork for his atrocities were laid by brutal theism of the Russian Orthodox Church in the same way that the brutality of Papa Doc Duvalier were laid by the colonial horrors of the French. The brutality of Stalin was not contextless. It was able to happen for a reason and part of that reason certainly was the habits indoctrinated into them by the Russian Orthodox Church and the Czar.
Some other examples of post-theism might be found in, say, Great Britain where the Church of England still has seats in the House of Lords. Despite the overwhelming majority of the British being a-religious, British laws are still in part shaped by the Church of England. It's absurd, but it's true. And in the United States, it is de rigeur for virtually all political candidates to publicly repeat ad nauseum their "born again" status - even though, on paper, the US is one of the least religious countries in the world. We don't have an official religion. We never have had an official religion. But so powerful is the lingering influence of theism that candidates must nevertheless acknowledge some silly born again state in order to get elected into office. A third example might be found in the Vatican City. Why on earth is a couple of blocks in Rome a separate nation? It's preposterous, but there it is, not to mention the absurd level of influence this decadent and dying religion continues to have on the modern Italian state.
Most of the world is in a post-theist phase - there is no enforcement of a state cult in most countries and religious leaders have little formal authority in most places. Yet, I think that it is important to realize that just because a society might not be religious doesn't mean the effects of religion mystically vanish from that society. After literally centuries of basing one's laws and culture off of various religious authorities these cultural habits remain ingrained into our society and person even if we have rejected the religion. Much of who we are, culturally, socially, is so deeply intwined with religion it will be a very long time before we're free of the malady of religion. Religion is a fever that has broken, but we are still a long way of having our full strength.
But we will. Skepticism is the fastest growing belief about religion in the world today. I don't figure this will change.