Stalin was an atheist
Joseph Stalin was an incredibly complex person who made understanding him even more difficult by suppressing information about himself. The claim that Stalin was X, is extremely difficult to establish as there exist so few documents.
He attended an Eastern Orthodox primary school. This was not out of the ordinary as nearly all primary schools were administered by the church. Then he attended seminary at Tbilisi. There are many stories about him leaving seminary, some with scandal, some with conspiracy. Regardless, he "left" seminary at the end of his final year. There are accounts that he was ordained as a priest, and others that he was not. These accounts are so specious because Stalin silenced many of his former classmates and teachers, in fact he did not like it known that he came from Georgia at all. Little is known about Stalin's life until the age of 44 when he became the head of the Communist Party.
Apologists often point to people like Stalin, trying to make a point about atheism:
- Stalin was an evil murderer.
- Stalin was an atheist.
- Thus, Stalin's atheism has something to do with him being an evil murderer.
- Therefore, atheism causes evil.
The point of the argument is to try establish that it's wrong to be an atheist, because if too many people are atheists, bad things will happen.
While it is certainly arguable that communism would be untenable in a theistic climate - making atheism necessary for communism - the apologetic fails because atheism isn't sufficient for communism; fires only start in the presence of oxygen, but no fire has ever said to have been caused by the presence of oxygen. Indeed, (weak) atheism can't be considered sufficient for any action. For this reason, this argument is an instance of the association fallacy being employed between atheism and Stalin.
To claim that he was an atheist is overly simplistic. As the de facto ruler of the USSR, he initiated many purges. Many clergy were killed and this is often cited as Stalin's anti-christian mark. However, like Henry VIII he did not simply remove clergy, he replaced them. He established a new national church of Russia, which of course answered to him. He considered the church very important to extending control from Moscow to the satellite nations. Stalin's church was called the Russian Orthodox Church or The Moscow Patriarchate; and the suppressed church was called the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. They have a bitter history.
Stalin was many things, a former theologian, the head of the national church, and one of the most brutal dictators in history. His own views on religion are difficult to guess. Many scholars think of Stalin as a ruler who envisioned himself as a god.
Furthermore, there is the concurrent claim that the USSR was an atheist nation. While the Communist Party suppressed religious fervor, it did so only out of jealously of loyalties. The Communist Party demanded loyalty to itself above all others, even above God. Russia has always been an intensely religious nation. They consider the leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church to be equal to the Vatican's Pope; or even above the Pope. To claim that Russia became atheistic overnight in 1917 only to emerge deeply religious in 1989 is incredibly ignorant.
Other Russian atheist leaders did not suppress religion
One may also note that almost all of the leaders of the USSR, from Lenin to Gorbachev, except for Malenkov, were atheist or non-religious or did not have their religion documented. Yet only Stalin committed such historic atrocities. Gorbachev explicitly affirmed his atheism, but he nonetheless campaigned for religious freedom and was very friendly toward believers.