I'm sure we've all dealt with theists debating with us that communist nations such as North Korea are atheist nations and in their view that atheism can be just as fundamentalist as religion.
But what is the reality here? Does communism and atheism have a connection? Or is the communism in North Korea promoted due to some other reason? Or do both sides really have their good and bad sides and we as a species generalise far too much?
Just as all Atheists are not Communists so too not all Communists are Atheists. The connection is historical only; there is nothing that determines Atheists will be tending towards a communist philosophy and vice versa. The government of North Korea may say it is Atheist (I do not know if it does or not) but it promotes blind worship of the Party and leadership as if they were god-like. For any Atheist free enough to think for her or his-self rejection of an all powerful government would be easier than rejection of an all powerful god; so, do not give a centimeter to any theist who attempts to refute Atheism by offering Communism as evidence. I consider myself to be a student of Marxism and Sartrean Existentialism - if that is at all relevant.
You can't be a Marxist Communist and be religious. "Religion is the opiate of the people"...remember?
living "people gods" are even more dangerous than book and tablet gods. they promise hell in this world.
Not all communists follow Karl Marx's philosophy.
Marx understood that religious institutions could become the most corrupt, elitist and oppressive defacto governments, ruling through fear and superstition. Marx believed that banning religion would ban superstition.
Christian apologists often argue a reflexive property applies. So they argue that Marx, the father of modern social communism, was an atheist, therefore communism = atheism and atheism = communism. This is like claiming that since apples grow on trees, trees that don't grow apples are not trees.
wikipedia isn't always a trusted source. You can replace that 64% irreligious with the 'Juche' ideology which asserts that humans are gods.
We have to be very careful in how we classify North Korea given the lack of information and insight into this isolated nation. From the readings I have done and the rhetoric coming from the West, the DPRK has disassociated itself from the idea of a communist nation. This statement doesn't come lightly as I have read Karl Marx's limited works on communism. Furthermore, the DPRK's constitution has also removed any mention of communism and any mention of Marxism-Leninism (which it had adopted in the 1950s after Stalin's death).
Whether there is a connection between communism and atheism needs to be looked at in terms of historical context. Marx himself was an atheist. As was Lenin and Stalin. When the Bolsheviks took control in Russia and began the move towards socialism after the revolution, they (esp Lenin) did crackdown on the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church. Lenin viewed religion as a private matter that was to be left outside the affairs of the State. That is not to say that he was attempting to convert people out of religion. It was an attempt to reduce religious institution power (given that the old ruler the Tsar was an autocrat and had strong support from the Russian Orthodox Church). That is just one example of what can be classified as "extreme". However there are political theorists who uphold to Marxist ideology and also happen to hold a belief in a deity. A few examples are Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, Rafael Correa etc.
So the connection between communism and atheism is very limited. The ideas of communism and atheism are not mutually inclusive of one another. One can be a communist but also have religious beliefs (this is limited as communists are usually materialists) and one can be an atheist without being an communist.
Whenever you hear an argument from theists that atheism to its extremity can be seen as fundamentalists, you have to bring their attention to the historical context. Next time they mention the DPRK make mention of the fact that the citizens of the DPRK may not believe in a monotheist god, but in something called 'political religion' where the citizens worship Kim Il Sun and Kim Jung Il. The idea stems from Kim Il Sun's writings on a theory called 'The Juche Idea'. Look into a bit further, but essentially the Juche Idea promotes humans as masters of their own destiny. It can lead to humans viewing themselves as gods.
Cults of personality and religions of state share the same characteristics as religions of sky-gods. Dogma is dogma whether it is ideological or theological in nature.
Note for example the official party line of North Korea, which states that Kim il Sung turned pine cones into bullets and walked on water. His son, Kim Jong-il, officially was born under a new star in the night sky, as foretold by a talking bird, and could control the weather.
A similar (if less supernatural) cult of personality surrounded Mao Zedong in Communist China for decades during and after his life. Joseph Stalin had hymns composed to his personal worship and had the Soviet press extoll his infallibility, practices which even Nikita Khrushchev later denounced, saying Stain had transformed himself into "a superman possessing supernatural characteristics akin to those of a god".
These men did not commit atrocities because they were atheists. They committed atrocities because they were absolutists and had seized enough power to become godlike figures themselves.
We have to own communism is we want to make headway.
I'd say, yes, atheism, devoid of anything else, cam lead to nationalistic or ideological, or personalistic cults.
But, atheism, as I get it, is the questioning of dogma. It's being rational, and thus it's all about rejecting religion, and mindless nationalism, and ideologicalism, rejecting personality cults, too...
Sure some atheistist types embraced communism.. I'm an atheist, I endorse Tsarism... I'm an atheist, I endorse democracy, I'm an atheist, I endorse militaristic oligarchy.. I doesn;t matter..
Communism is inherently atheistic as Marx perceived religion to be a tool to suppress the working class.
However, communism is hardly a set of coherent policy prescriptions ready for implementation, which is why it comes in many "flavors" such as leninism, stalinism, maoism, etc. Most have been quite vehemently atheist and anti-theistic. However, a few of these flavors have incorporated religion, Ceausescu (Romania), Castro (Cuba), and the Pathet Lao (Laos) comes to mind, and NKs Juche ideology is a form of secular religion which is somewhat comparable to fascism in its manifestations. It should be noted that NK started off with confucianism, which is atheistic. Last, but not least, most of the Arab republics, especially the Baath run ones, have or has islamo-socialist leaders. As a side note, the Arab cold war was between the pan-Arab socialists and the monarchies.
For debates, use those examples and add in that Stalin went to seminary school.
Bashar Al-assad is an example of a "Socialist Ba'ath" leader.. Arabians suffered a lot from these people!
Syria's and Iraq's Baath Parties were originally modeled on Fascism and later Nazism which are diametrically opposed to Communism and Marxism. On gaining full control of the state and Party, one of Saddam Hussein's first objectives was the physical liquidation of all socialist, communist and trade union party members. After the second world war Syria and Iraq became client states of the Soviet Union because of their mutual agendas.
As we all know, Christopher Hitchens, a Trotskyist (Marxist) activist in his early days, wrote extensively on this topic.
From Bitter Legacy: Ideology and Politics in the Arab World (p. 60): "Aflaq's thought dominated the Ba'at party" and "[he] insist[ed] on the overthrow of the ruling class and socialism as the pillars of the new nationalism." Pan-arab socialism is certainly a different flavor than Russian or Chinese, but it's closer to those than fascism in ideology (though perhaps not in policy, i don't really know).
While they did collaborate with the Nazis, it was due to anti-colonialism aimed against the French and British, as well as a rejection of Soviet-style internationalist Marxism. Saddam was a tyrant and not particularly ideological.