This is a reference to two big villains of opponents of secularism, the French Revolution with its guillotines and Communism with its gulags. But in recent decades at least, several nations have had a growth of secularism and outright atheism without such coercion, and they have had that growth without debilitating consequences.
The French Revolution was rather militantly anticlerical, opposing the Roman Catholic Church as a big supporter of the old order, the ancien regime. The revolutionaries had various alternatives, like Jacques Hébert’s atheist “Cult of Reason” and Maximilien Robespierre’s Festival of the Supreme Being, an entity that Robespierre believed was on the side of the Revolution. Robespierre was known for ordering the use of the guillotine on large numbers of people that he thought were troublemakers, but eventually his colleagues arrested him and subjected him to it.
The guillotine itself was named after Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, an advocate of its use who thought that it was humanitarian compared to some other common methods of execution back then, like breaking on a wheel. He was not its inventor; guillotine-like devices were older than him. But the guillotine ended up a symbol of the French Revolution, and it got nicknamed the French National Razor.
Communism went even farther. Karl Marx and his followers developed a critique of the religion business as something used by society’s elites to bamboozle the rest of the population into submission. Marx himself wrote “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” Where Communists have taken over, they have tried to suppress the religions of the people that they ruled, with varying success. Not surprisingly, many of its opponents have called it “godless”.
However, Marxist theory and Communist practice have lots of features that many people consider quasi-religious. Marxism features a law of historical development that will reward the virtuous and punish the wicked and produce a utopia where everybody will live happily ever after. Sort of like Heaven and Hell. Starting with Joseph Stalin, several Communist regimes have had personality cults of their leaders (Modern History Sourcebook: Hymn to Stalin — Internet History Sourcebooks). North Korea continues that tradition, complete with attributing miracles to its god kings. Some “godless” Communists, one can’t help but think.
Communists have also been known for sending large numbers of people to prison camps for a wide range of offenses, from real crimes to being on the wrong side of some political issue to things like making jokes about the regime or its leaders. The Soviet prison-camp system was called Gulag, after the Russian acronym for “Main Camp Administration” (Glavnoye upravleniye lagerey). Prisoners were made to work on construction, mining, logging, and other such things, though they were often malnourished and not as productive as free workers. Not surprisingly, many prisoners died in those camps.
But despite these embarrassing associations, secularism and atheism have continued to rise, and rise voluntarily, needing neither guillotines nor gulags. Sociologist Phil Zuckerman has called that “organic atheism” as opposed to the “coercive atheism” imposed by the wielders of guillotines and gulags. He has done a lot of research into nations with lots of organic atheism, and he finds that they do very well (Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns, Zuckerman on Atheism, etc., also Demographics of atheism – Wikipedia). They often score high in various quality-of-life estimates, while very religious nations often score very low. That is also true inside of the United States, which has a lot of regional variation.
Organic atheism is common in several European nations and in various other industrialized nations, like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, and Israel. The United States is behind several of these, but it has interesting regional variations, with organic atheism being the most common in the northeast and west coast and the least common in the southeast. By comparison, organic atheism is rare in the Middle East, Africa, and Central and South America.
It is not clear why organic atheism has grown so much in the places where it has. It may have some connection to high standards of living and economic security. It may also be due to the rise of alternatives to churches for various services, like government welfare states and other secular organizations.
Back to those two big villains.
It has been difficult for me to find much on how the French Revolution was viewed from outside of France, though Historiography of the French Revolution – Wikipedia has a few examples. Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), criticizing it as reckless and ideological, is a classic of conservatism. But it is difficult to imagine many monarchs and aristocrats appreciating a movement that involved slicing off many of their colleagues’ heads.
The French Revolution has faded in prominence, though some right-wing Catholics and other conservatives still consider it a great villain.
Communism also provoked a lot of opposition, and the Western and Communist nations were locked in the Cold War confrontation for nearly half a century after the end of World War II. But toward the end of it, most of the Communist nations started wimpifying, and its end was marked by the fall of Communism in Europe and the breakup of the Soviet Union. The biggest of the remaining Communist countries, China, has become a capitalist roader, to use a Mao-era insult. Representative Michele Bachmann has even praised China as a good capitalist country (Michele Bachmann Is Completely Unaware That China Is Communist). The most orthodox of remaining Communist countries is North Korea, and it’s a pipsqueak by the standards of the Soviet Union and China.
So Communism also is fading as a villain.
One must note a potentially troublesome counterargument. Peter Turchin, the author of Cliodynamics, has done a study on various features of US society and he has found a strong correlation between these variables:
- Physical height (+)
- Life expectancy (+)
- Age of marriage, a measure of social optimism / pessimism (-)
- Fraction of population that is immigrants (-)
- Wages / GDP (+)
- Wealth inequality: highest wealth / median wealth (-)
- Political polarization in Congress (-)
- Death rate from social strife (-)
A (+) means that a high in it correlates in a “good” direction, and a (-) in it means that a high in it correlates in a “bad” direction.
There was a “good” period in the Era of Good Feelings around 1820, a “bad” period in the Gilded Age around 1900, and another “good” period in the Eisenhower Era around 1960. We are currently headed toward another “bad” period, in what I (lpetrich) like to call Gilded Age II.
The difficulty is when US freethought flourished the most (Susan Jacoby, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism). It flourished in the late nineteenth century and it is flourishing now, but it did not do so well in the early nineteenth century or the middle of the twentieth century. So US freethought correlates with Peter Turchin’s “bad” periods. But might there be another explanation? The early nineteenth century was not long after the French Revolution, and the mid twentieth century was when Communism seemed very successful. So opposition to French-Revolution anticlericalism and Communist godlessness could have been important, with guillotines and gulags overshadowing the “good” periods in US history.
But we now face an international enemy that is anything but godless, the Islamists. Their religion is an Abrahamic one, a religion uncomfortably close to Judaism and Christianity. So will that help secularism?
In any case, trends toward secularism continue, and in the US at least, each younger generation is more secular than the previous ones.