We often hear these days about the problems and misdeeds of “organized” religion. We much more rarely hear about the arrogance and downright atrocities of organized irreligion. Yet during the twentieth century, self-proclaimed scientific atheism in the form of communism killed 100 million people. As the old Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky used to say, people consider the Spanish Inquisition a blot on Christian history. And beyond doubt, it is. Yet the Inquisition killed, over three centuriesand after legal proceedings that are not ours, but were not mere show trials eitherabout as many as the Soviet Union killed on an average day. The high body counts of international communism were and continue to be a huge blot on the history of human rationality.
Some have not forgotten the significance of these facts. A memorial to the Victims of Communism was dedicated in Washington on June 12. If you have not heard about this event, at which President Bush spoke, among others, it’s no surprise. It was a front-page news story in the conservative Washington Times but appeared only in the Style section of the Washington Post. The New York Times has been beside itself for years about some hundreds of U.S. detainees in Guantanamo and reports of possibly secret prisons in Europe, which may be why it had no space for remembering the tens of million who perished in the gulags, the forced famines, and the re-education camps. Of course, our self-styled paper of record once had space for reporters like Walter Duranty, a Stalin apologist, and Herbert Matthews, a fan of Fidel. It’s just possible that the Gray Lady is reluctant to revisit the cases of victims it missed earlier.
To be fair, the problem does not exist only on the left. Lee and Ann Edwards, longtime conservative intellectuals and the leaders of the effort to remember communism’s victims, spent more than ten years trying to find the money to create a museum on the Washington Mall that would be the moral equivalent of the Holocaust Museum. The result: After truly heroic efforts, they raised only $1 million (the largest proportion from the Vietnamese)or, if you do the simple math, about one cent for every life lost to an evil ideology that still controls one-fifth of the world’s population. The dinner the night of the dedication of the memorial drew several hundred people, as such events do in the capital. Still, many who should have been there were not.
William F. Buckley and Sen. Scoop Jackson (posthumously) received awards for leading resistance to communism when it really mattered. Joe Lieberman and Elena Bonner, widow of the great scientist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, spoke eloquently of the responsibilities to defend freedom. Bonner added that the 100 million “victims” figure is actually way too low. That figure only counts the dead. Tens of millions more, who will never be counted, had their spirits crushed, their minds numbed, their bodies destroyed by communism. And yet there has been no great outpouring of support to remember an ideology that committed a singular crime against humanityeven among those who hated it.
This listlessness is, frankly, puzzling and worrisome. Several years ago, Tina Rosenberg, a journalist and MacArthur Fellow, remarked that fascism and communism were not really parallel cases, because communists were trying to do the right thing. Many public intellectuals during the Cold War disputed precisely this fine parsing of Marxism, which was not matched by an equally fine appreciation of democratic systems. I don’t know whether all those voices are now consumed in the struggles with Islamic fundamentalism, but, besides a few old warriors like Richard Pipes and Paul Hollander, a whole swath of our intellectual class was absent from the commemoration.
Most worrisome of all, though, was the absence of all but a few religious leaders. Those present were mostly from former communist nations. Ever since Voltaire’s Ecrasez l’infame, militant atheism has not just been incidentally antireligious. Martyrdom appeared once again in Europe in the French Revolution and continued, on and off, until the last days of communism on the Continent. The easy assumption that faith and secularism are really after the same things and may readily coexist, which took hold in the West in the 1960s, has always been a doubtful proposition. There are forms of secularity that are tolerant and even welcoming of religion, but the more usual form of unbelief is ideologically committed to eliminating belief. Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens may never have at their diposal security forces to round up troublesome believers, but not for lack of conviction that we are “child abusers” and dangerously delusional. Their kind of reason has deeply intolerant impulses. Benedict XVI has rightly pointed out that one consequence of paying attention to modern martyrs may be “the convalescence of reason.”
Religious leaders used to be alert to threats from militant nonbelievers. But in the 1960s, many lost the scent. Indeed, quite a few of them tried to make nice with nasty communist regimes at the time they were still persecuting Jews and Christians. In recent decades, there’s been a noticeable embarrassment among many leaders about having to point out the clear violations of religious rights that continue in communist countries. It’s easy to take up, say, the cause of illegal immigrants in America, harderin certain circlesto talk about Christians in Cuban or Chinese prisons. It may be a slight stretch, but it seems that anti-anticommunism has survived the heyday of communism itself.
That’s why the memorial to the Victims of Communism is so important. We need to remind ourselves and others of the most extensive political oppression and slaughter in human history. Until more funds are available, the Edwardses have adopted a several-phase plan. Next is a “virtual museum,” which is still not a bricks-and-mortar space where you can feel what it’s like to be surrounded by the artifacts of an evil time. But at least the virtual museum will offer serious information and exhibits. Some day we may come to our senses and discover resources to honor properly the victims and warriors in an epic battle we and allies in dozens of nations won. This is not merely a matter of historical justice: If we do not get the accounts clear about the twentieth century, we will have failed in advance to come to grips with various worrisome currents that continue in the West, largely unnoticed, into the twenty-first.
Robert Royal is president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C.