Are Atheism and Socialism a Package Deal?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

I am not a political science expert, so I can’t say for sure how strong the link between socialism and atheism is.  I’m sure some of you can think of examples of people you know who are atheist and not socialist or socialist and not atheist.

For Fyodor Dostoyevsky, writing in the late 1800’s, the linkage was clear.  In his book The Brothers Karamazov, considered to be a literary classic, Dostoyevsky’s narrator has the following to say about the main character, Alyosha, a strong Christian:

In the same way, if he had decided that God and immortality did not exist, he would at once have become an atheist and a socialist. For socialism is not merely the labor question, it is before all things the atheistic question, the question of the form taken by atheism to-day, the question of the tower of Babel built without God, not to mount to heaven from earth but to set up heaven on earth.

Any ideology which has as its goal to set up a completely human-constructed utopia on earth is certainly not derived from Christian theology or from any other religious theology that I can think of.  Most religions envision a heavenly paradise, but not one created by man alone.

If socialism is truly characterized by this aim, to create heaven on earth by man pulling himself up by his own bootstraps, then Dostoyevsky’s point holds – atheism and socialism are bedfellows.  There may be socialists who disavow this aim and would declare allegiance with theists.  Any socialists out there who want to speak up?

  • John

    I only know a few professing athiests and I can’t characterize any of them as socialists. Two are Ayn Rand adherents and the rest are libertarians or very conservative in their politics. While this is not a scientific sampling, it is just my experience. The athiests I know are individualists, very selfish and self centered, and definitely not in the socialist or collective mind set.

  • II always felt that Dostoyevsky went too far in making the two synonomous. Instead, I think they sprink from the same soil, that having of a rather high view of humanity, sometimes identified as humanism.

    I, too, am hardly a political or economic expert, but it seems that this is the chief difference between socialism and capitalism, that capitalism takes as its driving engine the tendency of humans to work for their own self-interest, while socialism assumes that we will work just as hard for the interest of our fellow man. That’s a noble hope, but doens not square with the idea of our fallen state.

    The same principle holds in our system of justice and governance: its many flaws notwithstanding, I think one of it’s preserving features is its frustrating dependance on advesarial relationships. Things would work much more smoothly and dfficiently if we could assume goodwill and honesty among parties, particularly elected officials and beurocrats, and it is constantly tempting to smooth the way by assuming it. But governing in the light of a universally fallen human nature seems to give better results.

    For athiesm to avoid being a system eithther of narcisism or of dispair, it would seem to require (or at least wish for) the same assumption – that humanity is basically good, as much as that phrase means anything. At least, humans are “hard-wired” towards trying to make social life work.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Remember that the term ‘survival of the fittest’ was originally coined in association with capitalism and indeed Capitalism is pretty much Darwinism applied to economics. It seems to me that it is religion that has more in common with socialism, not atheism.

    “If socialism is truly characterized by this aim, to create heaven on earth by man pulling himself up by his own bootstraps”

    Isn’t the ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ idea more commonly associated with capitalism?

    R Eric Sawyer, atheism doesn’t really qualify as a ‘system’. That’s like calling theism a system (as apposed to calling Islam or Christianity a system).

  • Bill wrote,

    Any ideology which has as its goal to set up a completely human-constructed utopia on earth is certainly not derived from Christian theology or from any other religious theology that I can think of.

    Actually, communist ideology owes a fairly strong intellectual debt to Christianity.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Just to check, is the logic here:
    Trying to make things better = trying to make a heaven on earth = atheism?

    If so, this appears to be an odd claim for a Christian to make. Some people believe that capitalism has the same transforming, improving effect that others ascribe to socialism. Does that make capitalism atheistic too?

  • To answer the question posed by this posting: Nope. Atheism and socialism are not mutually required. They can come together, of course — just like Christianity and socialism can come together, and just like atheism and capitalism can go together — but they are in no way synonymous or mutually necessary.

    If socialism is truly characterized by this aim, to create heaven on earth by man pulling himself up by his own bootstraps, then Dostoyevsky’s point holds – atheism and socialism are bedfellows.

    Problem is, there are really probably zero atheists who believe in “utopia” as a real, achievable means. In fact, in most atheist, humanist, and otherwise secular circles, the idea of “utopia” is usually dismissed as purely a religious delusion — the idea being that perfection is by definition impossible, especially on such a global scale, and thus to strive for it at the expense of individual rights and liberties is a fool’s errand. Most atheists would dismiss anyone who believes in a true, realizable “utopia” as horribly misguided at best, because utopia is in principle unachievable.

    As far as an atheist is concerned, when you say you’re chasing “utopia” you may as well be saying that you’re chasing the philosopher’s stone or the fountain of youth. They’re myths from a bygone era when we didn’t know the limits of the laws of nature.

  • I am pretty sure that in the United States many of the leaders of the socialist movements where explicitly Christian, and got justification for their socialist tendencies from Christianity. I think it was called “the social gospel.” A lot of the pro-union movements in the late 18 early 19th century got their support from explicitly evangelical Christians…and many had what we might think of today as having strong socialist tendencies.

    MLK Jr. is someone that springs to mind that was an evangelical Christian that we could make a really strong argument was a socialist at heart. He was strongly pro-union (if make much of his activism later in his life was centered around supporting unions and striking workers…he was to speak at a pro-union rally the day before he was killed) and he was strongly anti-war, and opposed the war in Vietnam. I am not aware of any specific time that MLKJr. described himself as a socialist, but I don’t really expect many people in America to describe themselves as “socialist” for two reasons: 1) this is America, and we have a tendency to treat socialist really badly and 2) the term socialism is a broad and poorly defined term in that it has lots of different pieces, and perhaps operates on more of a scale. For example, if a person supports government run health care, unions, a living wage, strong labor and environmental laws, and strong anti-trust laws, but also supports a large free market in all areas (save for health care) are they socialist? What if they support all those things except for a living wage law? Are they socialist then? I guess it depends on if we are using the term socialist to mean some sort of ideologically pure socialist, or instead as someone that has more socialist tendencies than capitalist…

    my two cents anyway….

  • Andrew Ryan

    The military is a socialist organisation. If you support, you are supporting a form of socialism. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself how it differs from the NHS. A private army of mercenaries is capitalist, the US military is tax payer funded.

  • Andrew EC

    The answer to your question is “no.”

  • Wilberforce

    From the limited things I’ve read about it, socialism and atheism are somewhat of a package deal, at least on a philosophical level. Now that’s not to say that there are not Christian Socialists or Atheist Capitalists, but as Billy put in the post, the idea that the world’s problems can be solved by mankind coming together and destroying the class system, usually through the mechanism of the state is generally a non-Christian philosophy.

    Socialism is a product of the removal of God and Biblical Christianity from Western society. When God is removed as sovereign over all of life, something must take His place, and in the case of socialism, the State becomes God. This explains the general growth in government power in the 20th century – if the State takes the place of God, it must take on the attributes of God – omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence. Think of the Patriot Act, the over 2100 executive agencies that regulate everything from the air we breathe to the amount of sand in the concrete used on an interstate, and the growth of intelligence agencies on the Federal level alone. The growth of the Federal government in the 20th century illustrates this perfectly.

    Without God, the State becomes the messianic figure, which can be seen in the welfare policies of the New Deal and Great Society, which charge the Federal government with the responsibility to “rescue” those in need of rescue, which, as can be seen through the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the proliferation of safety regulations such as “Warning: Coffee is Hot,” is a growing number of people in society.

    What is missed though, is that true salvation only comes by the grace of God, and the general fallen nature of man ensures that the State cannot provide salvation. When everything else becomes relative – morals, finances, history – only one thing remains, and that is power. The 20th century is the picture of what happens when God is removed as the sovereign over all of life, and the state becomes supreme, and the will to power is the driving force. For a good read on this issue, check out Paul Johnson’s “Modern Times.”

    Sorry for the long post, just my 2 cents! Love the blog Billy! Been reading for a long while, but this is my first comment!

  • Andrew Ryan

    “From the limited things I’ve read about it, socialism and atheism are somewhat of a package deal”

    Then I suggest you read more than “limited things” on both subjects.

  • Bill Pratt

    Wilberforce,
    Great to hear from you! Thanks for the comment.

  • Sonia

    Wilberforce, wonderful reply. Messages from the State and popular culture can blind and greatly injure us. Using caution with these messages opens the mind to deeper possibilities in understanding your soul and your relationship with God. Do this with great care. Growth can be uncomfortable. Even if, at long last, you conclude you are an atheist or agnostic, make sure at least that it is your own conclusion and not the programming of others.

  • ricky clark

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most socialists are atheists and it’s a bit arrogant to assume it’s because your all smarter than everyone else. It’s about our alternate outlook on life, for a theist God is the ultimate authority and we are only truly accountable to him but if you don’t believe in God then you naturally assume the ultimate authority is the government. Thus theists tend to believe in individualism and limited government and atheists tend to put all their hope in the wisdom of man ending in corrupt totalitarian governments, presently known as socialism. Just look at the difference between Venezuela, Cuba, Soviet Union vs. the freedom, goodwill and success of the liberty loving United States of America!

  • Andrew Ryan

    “Just look at the difference between Venezuela, Cuba, Soviet Union vs. the freedom, goodwill and success of the liberty loving United States of America!”

    To make a proper like-for-like comparison you need to set USA up against other first world countries. Compare the health of Americans – with its capitalist health system – with the health of citizens of countries such as Sweden, The Netherlands and Norway, with their socialist health systems.

    Here’s the top 12 counties by GDP per capita (all in dollars):

    1 Luxembourg 111,240
    2 Norway 94,353
    3 Switzerland 64,015
    4 Ireland 63,185
    5 Denmark 62,332
    6 Iceland 52,557
    7 Netherlands 52,321
    8 Sweden 52,057
    9 Finland 51,062
    10 Austria 49,900
    11 Australia 47,498
    12 United States 46,716

    Note that US is the only one above that doesn’t have universal health care, ie socialist.

  • ricky clark

    Well perhaps if they followed the American example they wouldn’t be 3rd world, but that is all besides the point anyway, which is the connection between atheists and their tendency towards socialism. Which I might add is quite clear whether you agree with those views or not.

  • ricky clark

    “Inalienable rights endowed upon us by our creator” our framers new mankind is capable of self governing but it requires an educated populous and faith in God. Atheists don’t believe in God so they have to use government to fill that void.

  • Andrew Ryan

    There are plenty of capitalist third world countries. Maybe if they were socialist THEY wouldn’t be third world. Or perhaps if everyone followed the ‘American example’ they’d have huge levels of obesity, enormous prison populations and sky-high murder levels.

    And no, you’ve shown no connection between socialism and atheism.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Funny how they left out any references to God when they set out the constitution. They voted on it many times, and each time voted no. One ref to ‘in the year of our Lord’ is the sum total.

    If you want a country with no government, move to a failed state like Cameroon or Somalia.

  • ricky clark

    Lol, ok…

  • Andrew Ryan

    Great response! Another fatal flaw in your thesis is that many socialist countries actually have state religions. Unlike the US, many European countries actually have prayer in the state-run schools. The church is also very strong in Russia – it has a strong influence on government policy. The link you claim simply isn’t there, nor have you even attempted to provide any evidence to support your claim. Lol ok indeed!

  • ricky clark

    It is futile to have a discussion with someone who is too smart to learn anything. You’ve disregarded the meat of my point and engaged in peripheral arguments which were based off of assuming things which I neither meant nor said. Your not here to learn your here to argue.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Ricky, you’ve not MADE any point, nor offered any evidence. All you’ve offered is an unbacked assertion, followed by a non sequitur about the Declaration of Independence.

    By contrast I’ve replied with actual figures, which you’ve not engaged with at all. The one thing you got right is that this conversation is futile!

  • ricky clark

    Figures have nothing to do with it, the connection between socialism and atheism is a philosophical one. If you’d like to debate figures and data perhaps a different venue would better suite you:-)

  • Andrew Ryan

    OK, so you seem to be conceding that the real world doesn’t actually back up your claim.

    Philosophically it’s a bust too – you have to assume that lacking belief in God leaves a void that needs to be filled with something else. This you’ve asserted without providing an argument.

    This aside, you assume that ‘government’ would naturally fill such a void, when one might as well say that ‘capitalism’ would fill it – as demonstrated by libertarians (both theist and atheist) who appear to worship the free market as a cure-all for man’s problems.

    Certainly it’s not religion you offer to lift third-world countries out of their poverty (they already generally have plenty of that), it’s capitalism.

    Thus your ‘philosophical’ argument fails on at least two fronts.

  • Clay

    Atheism has nothing to do with socialism, but I’m glad you posted this article. I am becoming more and more disgusted as each year passes and I find that all of the good atheist podcasts and blogs are embracing socialism more and more. It disgusts me because atheists always claim that they are free thinkers, but we know that left leaning politics are no more free thinking than right wing politics.
    It is likely that the left wing politico’s and corporations took over the atheist movement, just like the Christians took over the Tea Party movement. They do this by pushing people out that they don’t like, and using their money to bring the people in that ascribe to their agenda. They also use that money to open doors in the media and to get the better websites and viewerships.
    I am disgusted with the atheists. What happened to you? You used to be so free with your mind, but now you claim freedom through socialism? And I’m running into this with almost every main stream atheist. It’s a shame to yourself and to your beliefs.

  • Andrew Ryan

    I guess you’ve not read much by Michael Shermer or DJ Groethe then! Both are high-profile atheist libertarians, and they’re not the only ones. Plenty of socialist Christians out there too.

  • Raklödder

    The Amazing “stateist” Atheist is a socialist!

  • Homer Slated

    Religion is device created by imperialists to oppress the masses, and is thus wholly antithetical to socialism. Even a cursory glance at history will confirm that fact quite unambiguously. Any supposed socialist who practices religion is therefore deeply ambivalent, or more likely just ignorant of its imperialist origins. Even ancient religious practices such as Animalism were merely a pretext for tin-pot dictators to subjugate their respective tribes. Religion is a predatory scam, nothing more.

    The fact that some religions formally advocate such things as compassion and altruism, in common with socialism, is merely a coincidence. The similarities end there, especially in the practical implementation. Just witness the distinctive lack of compassion and altruism demonstrated by the archetypal Christian Right, who seem to despise the poor with a vengeance, for example.

    Also, I think it’s puerile to characterise socialism as a quest for utopia. Socialism is the never ending struggle for equality – the class war between the rich and the poor, the capitalist elite and the working class majority, psychopathic predators and their prey. It would be naive to presume any likelihood of victory, given the incurable nature of the human condition.