Kim Jong-il – Human God
The death of Kim Jong-il has once again got a lot of people spouting off about atheists, but as opposed to the indignation and gloating shown by Christians and Muslims alike over the death of Christopher Hitchens, this death has been met largely with approval. This is not a death that divides people, but rather one that is seen with more relief than sadness or hostility. That is at least in the world outside of North Korea.
Regardless of whether the death of Kim Jong-il should be celebrated or not (should we ever celebrate death?), there have been some odd reactions to it, and mostly from religious people trying to prove a point about atheists. It would be true to say that Kim Jong-il was an atheist, in that he didn’t believe in god, and he promoted this disbelief to all the people of North Korea, but it was not his atheism that had caused North Korea to be locked off from the rest of the world, rather the whole system of his governance is to blame. In fact it would be true to say that Jong-il has replaced religion with something far more damaging; the deification of himself and his father, Kim Il-sung (surprisingly Kim Il-sung was declared the Eternal President after his death in 1994, and is therefore still leader of the country.) This legacy is so strong that the people of Korea are basically forced with their every working hour to work for the better glorification of Kim Jong-il and his father. They have become “gods on earth” and their people worship them much as any theist might worship their god or gods.
Sam Harris is famously quoted as saying the following about the subject:
The problem with Fascism and communism was not that they were too critical of religion. The problem is they’re too much like religions; these are utterly dogmatic systems of thought. I recently had a debate with Rick Warren in the pages of Newsweek, and he suggested that North Korea was a model atheist society and that any atheist with the courage of his convictions should want to move there. The truth is North Korea is organized exactly like a faith based cult, centered on the worship of Kim Jong-il. The North Koreans apparently believe that the shipments of food aid that they receive from us, to keep them from starving to death, are actually devotional offerings to Kim Jong-il.
Interesting that the fact that someone like Rick Warren will point out that North Korea is an atheistic society, but will fail to see that the deification of Kim Il-sung and his legacy is what causes the country to be so isolated from the rest of the world. Any system that enforces any one single system of worship is a dictatorship, an it doesn’t matter whether the worship is veneration of a family lineage or whether it’s the worship of a magical sky-faerie. The Maldives, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and North Korea are all very similar in that respect, only 3 of them worship Allah, an the fourth worships the memory of a patriarch.
The late Christopher Hitchens, a true atheist wrote a damning piece for Slate entitled “A Nation of Racist Dwarfs“, in which he characterises what is wrong with the totalitarian regime of Kim Jong-il’s family. Worth a read. What he shows is the dangers of a completely inwardly focused nation, one of fierce military nationalism, and one where dissent is the ultimate crime.
For this reason, I think rhetoric around Kim Jong-il as an atheistic leader can only be harmful, for far from being an atheist, he himself was the god of his country. It doesn’t take a genius to see this. Now we can only wait to see what his son will do with North Korea.