A recent speech by the current Pope, in Britain, where he links atheism and Nazism has caused some controversy in the blogosphere and in our own forums. The Pope spoke of “a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society’ and went on to express concerns over “aggressive forms of secularism’. This is such a common trope in debates that I wanted to take an entire blog post to explain what I see as the gaping flaw in this form of argument. What I want to discuss is the way atheism and theism should be properly related to religion and ideology and why it is incorrect to set up atheism as the counter-position to religion.
Atheism, at its most inclusive, describes anyone who has no belief in gods. From even this basic understanding, it is remarkably difficult to see how atheism could be expected to produce any action from an individual atheist. There is no causal line from the absence of a single belief to any other belief or action, be it good or bad. Even explicit atheism (the denial of gods) does not imply any further belief or action. If we say this for atheism, in order to be consistent, we must also say this for theism. Theism (the belief in gods), as a single belief, does not entail any other beliefs or actions by the individual theist. A theist may believe in the philosopher’s god, a non-interventionist god, Allah, the trinity, or a whole pantheon of pagan gods. But even these basic beliefs about the nature of gods are additional to the initial claim of theism, not derived from it. Taking the example of the Thirty Years war, the Pope would have us blame theism for the conflict. However, given both sides of the conflict were theists this conclusion makes little sense. The true dividing factor was the different religions, Catholicism and Protestantism, which each side maintained. My contention is that while atheism and theism are blameless in the great atrocities of history, ideology and religion should be held to account.
Ideologies and religions are not single beliefs but whole belief systems and as such can serve as powerful motivators for individuals. While each belief in the system may not be cause for action, the combination of various beliefs produces stimulus for the individual. A single belief in the existence of Hell does little to motivate a person unless further beliefs such as the nature of sin, the possibility of salvation, and a divine overseer are part of the overall belief system. Nazi Ideology, to take the Pope’s example, is a powerfully motivating belief system. What gave the Nazi party its appeal in post WWI Germany was its staunch conservatism and a resistance to the liberal direction of the Wiemar republic. The Nazi’s were anti-communistic, anti-atheist, anti-homosexual, anti-immigrant, and anti-semetic. While not necessary a Christian movement, the Nazi party endorsed Christianity and, in turn, received support from the more conservative Catholic and Luthern churches. The Catholic church even assisted in tracking down those of Jewish descent by opening its records on marriages and births to the Nazi party. While there were Christians who opposed Nazism the record of Christianity in Germany is one of acquiescence and support rather opposition or resistance.
Taking the historical record of Christianity in Hitler’s Germany and applying the Pope’s recent “reasoning’ we should conclude that theism is to blame for Nazism. Note that this would not only include the denominations of Christianity that supported Hitler but also those who objected to Nazism. It would also include Muslim and Hindu theists who had nothing to do with the atrocities. The Pope’s “logic’ would also have us blaming the Jewish theists who were aggressively persecuted by the Nazi regime! This conclusion is rightly considered ludicrous as it lacks all subtlety by failing to distinguish between those guilty of the crime and those victimised by it. This is the gaping flaw I wanted to identify. It is not theism or atheism that is to blame for Nazi Germany but primarily the ideology of Nazism and secondarily the religions of Catholicism and Lutheranism.
What we all should realise is it religions and ideologies that are to blame in these historical atrocities not individual beliefs. In the case of the Soviet Union it was a type of Marxism, not atheism, which was the problem. During the Thirty Years war it was types of Christianity which were the problem, not theism. In Hitler’s Germany it was a type of political movement and on 9/11 it was a type of Islam. In no way is either atheism or theism to blame for these devastating events. One final point, I think we atheists contribute to this misperception by setting up atheism in opposition to religion – this is a mistake. Theism is the opposite of atheism and we should make this point clear in all our communication on the subject. We should also reserve our criticism of the historical record for the ideologies and religions that are at fault, and not try to extend this critique to cover all types of theism.