Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Who’s the Nazi?

The Pope had hardly landed in the country and opened his mouth and the secularist and atheist commentariat were up in arms. This is the line from Benedict  XVI’s speech at Holyrood Palace that caused so much offence:
Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live. I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives. As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a “reductive vision of the person and his destiny” (Caritas in Veritate, 29).
In minutes the offended issued their rebuttals. The British Humanist Association responded with:
The notion that it was the atheism of Nazis that led to their extremist and hateful views or that it somehow fuels intolerance in Britain today is a terrible libel against those who do not believe in God. The notion that it is non-religious people in the UK today who want to force their views on others, coming from a man whose organisation exerts itself internationally to impose its narrow and exclusive form of morality and undermine the human rights of women, children, gay people and many others, is surreal.
Of course the high priest of atheism, Richard Dawkins, could be counted on to go in to full rant mode, which he did both in his speech at the Protest the Pope rally and on his website where he accused the Pope of being the enemy of humanity. Highlights include:
Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, was respected by some as a saintly man. But nobody could call Benedict XVI saintly and keep a straight face. Whatever this leering old fixer may be, he is not saintly. Is he intellectual? Scholarly? That is often claimed, although it is far from clear what there is in theology to be scholarly about. Surely nothing to respect.
At first I was annoyed by the Pope’s disgraceful attack on atheists and secularists, but then I saw it as reassuring. It suggests that we have rattled them so much that they have to resort to insulting us, in a desperate attempt to divert attention from the child rape scandal.
It would be unkind to prolong this point, but Ratzinger’s speech in Edinburgh on Thursday was so disgraceful, so hypocritical, so redolent of the sound of stones hurled from within a glass house, I felt that I had to reply.
Joseph Ratzinger is an enemy of humanity.
He is an enemy of children, whose bodies he has allowed to be raped and whose minds he has encouraged to be infected with guilt. It is embarrassingly clear that the church is less concerned with saving child bodies from rapists than with saving priestly souls from hell: and most concerned with saving the long-term reputation of the church itself.
He is an enemy of gay people, bestowing on them the sort of bigotry that his church used to reserve for Jews.
He is an enemy of women – barring them from the priesthood as though a penis were an essential tool for pastoral duties. What other employer is allowed to discriminate on grounds of sex, when filling a job that manifestly doesn’t require physical strength or some other quality that only males might be thought to have?
He is an enemy of truth, promoting barefaced lies about condoms not protecting against AIDS, especially in Africa.
He is an enemy of the poorest people on the planet, condemning them to inflated families that they cannot feed, and so keeping them in the bondage of perpetual poverty. A poverty that sits ill with the obscene riches of the Vatican.
He is an enemy of science, obstructing vital stem-cell research, on grounds not of morality but of pre-scientific superstition.
Less seriously from my point of view, Ratzinger is even an enemy of the Queen’s own church, arrogantly endorsing a predecessor's dissing of Anglican Orders as “absolutely null and utterly void”, while shamelessly trying to poach Anglican vicars to shore up his own pitifully declining priesthood.
Finally, perhaps of most personal concern to me, he is an enemy of education. Quite apart from the lifelong psychological damage caused by the guilt and fear that have made catholic education infamous throughout the world, he and his church foster the educationally pernicious doctrine that evidence is a less reliable basis for belief than faith, tradition, revelation and authority – his authority.
Amidst the general offense taking, ranting and abuse there were some who offered considered commentary and reflection. On the meaning of the Pope’s comment is this from Andrew Brown in The Guardian: Pope Benedict XVI was talking about the Nazis, not Richard Dawkins, where he makes the following observations:
We're not used to Germans coming here to talk about the war, so many people have jumped to entirely the wrong conclusion about Pope Benedict's attack on atheist extremism. He didn't mean us. He didn't even mean Richard Dawkins. He was talking about the Nazis, who, he said "wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live."
For him, a nation that turns away from God entirely has nothing to keep it from treating people as disposable means, rather than ends in themselves. The liberal appeal to reason, to choice, and to human rights doesn't go far enough. He believes in all three, but he thinks they must be derived from something else. That something else was once generally understood to be Christianity. If that is no longer true, Benedict believes we are all shrunken and impoverished: "Let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a 'reductive vision of the person and his destiny'."
So he believes that what gave Britain the strength to resist nazism was its long Christian heritage, in which the powerful and effective were animated by their faith.
Where secularists see religion as a divisive force, and their own beliefs as the self-evident and true base on which a healthy society can be built, Benedict sees that secularism itself can be challenged. Human rights are not self-evident. What rights we have depend on what kind of people that we think we are, and that is exactly the kind of question which social change and multiculturalism sharpen. It's not a question to which there is any agreed answer in Britain today.
The second piece is a comment on Dawkins’ response to the Pope and comes from Stuart Sharpe on his blog Sharpe’s Opinion. Stuart writes as an atheist but his critique of Dawkins is devastating. Here are a few excerpts and the whole post is worth a read:
I watched this video of Richard Dawkins speaking at the ‘Protest the Pope’ rally with a mixture of disappointment, alarm and brewing anger. Disappointment at the way he failed utterly to use reason, or logic, or rationality in his speech, preferring instead emotive platitudes and fallacious diatribes. Alarm at the crowd of protesters cheering his every sentence, reserving their loudest jeering for his portrayals of the Pope as ‘an enemy’, and for his characterisation of ‘them’ as running scared from ‘us’. Brewing anger at the way the name ‘atheist’, which I have identified with ever since I first heard it, has been dragged through the mud over the last weekend by both the Pope’s ridiculous taunting and by Dawkins’ brawling mob of ‘secular humanists’ or whatever it is they’re calling themselves now.
When the Pope told us, during his overly-expensive-but-otherwise-mostly-harmless State Visit, that Hitler was an atheist and secularism is the root cause of the Holocaust, my first reaction was to laugh. I mean, Hitler? Really? Obviously, it’s unlikely the Pope’s ever been on a Usenet discussion group (though HM The Queen was sending email in 1976, so anything’s possible) but have none of his speechwriters, helpers, aides or support staff ever heard of Godwin’s Law? Whether Hitler was an atheist or not makes no odds, so apart from a little light ridicule, who gives a damn?
Apparently Dawkins does. Not only that, but he’s hell-bent on proving to you that Hitler not only wasn’t an atheist, Hitler was a Catholic. He devotes some five minutes of his speech to this – nearly half of the video. It’s still utterly fallacious; still pathetically stupid, still pretty much playground debating (‘you’re a Nazi!’ ‘No,you’re a Nazi!’) but nevertheless, the crowd aren’t saying ‘now hang on a minute’, they’re going bonkers for it. Yeah! The Pope’s a Nazi! And a kiddy fiddler! Woo!
Is it merely the existence of religion which so gets his goat? I’m as versed as anyone in the atrocities carried out in the name of religions, but is Dawkins really so certain, so absolutely sure, that religion itself is the very root of these problems, rather than merely being itself a symptom of a deeper problem with humanity? If Dawkins really believes that atrocities like the Crusades, the Salem witch trials, the Holocaust, the 9/11 attacks or the abuse of children by figures of trust and authority couldn’t possibly have happened without religion, where is his evidence for this? He does believe in the need for evidence, doesn’t he?
And yet looking at Dawkins now, I see not a defender of rationality, not a beacon of light in an dangerous world of faith-based stupidity. I’ve begun to see a figurehead of a new and somewhat sinister religion. One which cares not at all about those genuinely positive things which have come from faith on a personal or global level. One which isn’t interested in introspection, or analysing the faults in the arguments on which it is based. One which is built on a foundation of hatred towards the members of all other religions, which is willing to persecute Catholics on the basis of atrocities they didn’t commit, and which sees all of this as a battle between ‘us’, the enlightened forces of good, and ‘them’, the irredeemably evil ones. The enemy.
I don’t know what that is, and I don’t know what to call it, but I’m certain that it isn’t the atheism I grew up with.Star Wars seems to be about as close to a religion as the people I’m closest to have ever had, and strangely enough I feel like Star Wars has a lesson which can be applied here – Anakin Skywalker fell from grace because he began to hate, and to see others as his enemy. This sermon could end on no better note than with the words of Master Yoda – “fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate; hate, leads to suffering.”
From where I’m sitting, Dawkins already seems to have lead us to hate. I dearly hope that’s as far as his new crusaders go.
The Pope’s visit was bound to stir up emotions. I had serious reservations and believe there are legitimate questions to ask about the nature of the visit and about the conduct and teaching of the Roman Catholic church under the present Pope and indeed his predecessor. But one thing the Pope’s visit has achieved is to highlight the fallacy that some of religion’s most vociferous opponents are either rational or enlightened in their opposition.

Update: I missed Andrew Brown's excellent follow up article on the subject: Pope Benedict and Nazism.  Here's a taste:
To recruit the unimaginable and almost incredible horrors of the twentieth century into the service of internet flame wars is a kind of blasphemy against humanity. Shouting "nyah nyah, Hitler was on your team!" is pissing on the corpses – or the ashes – of the dead.
Anyone seriously thinking on how to derive their morals from their beliefs must of course work out how it is that their own beliefs and morals are incompatible with totalitarianism. To that extent the pope must always conclude that true belief in God is incompatible with Nazism; and Bertrand Russell would have to conclude that true humanism was. But this exercise is necessary precisely becasue neither atheism nor faith in themselves protect us from inhumanity. No one should take the apparently logical next step and conclude that those who disagree with us theologically are therefore morally inferior or closer to evil. Certainly no Christian should, who believes in the reality of sin.
Andrew had to switch off the comments on his column 'for obvious reasons' which tells us all we need to know about some of the vitriol doing the rounds on the subject.


DNA said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you! Brilliant post and great use of quotions from the opposing forces to make your points.

Revsimmy said...

And thank you from me. I am glad to see that not everyone who calls themselves atheist is drinking the Dawkins Kool-Aid. He/they have constructed a narrative which they now feel needs no further examination (or indeed, in certain respects, any evidence). It is becoming increasingly difficult to engage in any kind of rational debate with them. Thank God for the Sharpes and Browns of this world (he says with tongue firmly in cheek)!

Alijean said...

Thanks so much for pulling together all these conflicting commentaries. Much food for thought.

James Christie said...

Thanks for that. I found it very interesting, and also the links to the other articles and blogs.

The quality of the "debate" has been atrocious. The response to the Pope's speech was ludicrous; outraged over-reaction to things that he did not say. A libel on humanists? Nonsense.

Unfortunately many Christians have kept the debate down in the mud by insisting that atheism had killed millions.

That's not really the point, and it's not the point that atheists should be asked to address. Of course the Nazis and Soviets didn't kill millions because they were motivated by a zeal for atheism.

The interesting, and desperately important point, is that once a belief in God is abandoned, once people think they are accountable only to themselves then where will we end up? The 20th century gave us horrifying glimpses, and it's not good enough for the atheists to say, "I'm not a Nazi, so that's the end of the debate".

Tom Wolfe, an atheist, discussing Nietszche, another atheist, summed up the point well.

But if there was decadence, what was decaying? Religious faith and moral codes that had been in place since time was, said Nietzsche, who in 1882 made the most famous statement in modern philosophy-"God is dead"-and three startlingly accurate predictions for the twentieth century. He even estimated when they would begin to come true: about 1915. (1) The faith men formerly invested in God they would now invest in barbaric "brotherhoods with the aim of the robbery and exploitation of the non-brothers." Their names turned out, in due course, to be the German Nazis and the Russian Communists. (2) There would be "wars such as have never been waged on earth." Their names turned out to be World War I and World War II. (3) There no longer would be Truth but, rather, "truth" in quotation marks, depending upon which concoction of eternal verities the modem barbarian found most useful at any given moment. The result would be universal skepticism, cynicism, irony, and contempt. The First World War began in 1914 and ended in 1918. On cue, as if Nietzsche were still alive to direct the drama, an entirely new figure, with an entirely new name, arose in Europe: that embodiment of skepticism, cynicism, irony, and contempt, the Intellectual.


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James Christie said...

Secular humanists seem to have a highly simplistic view of religion and human nature. Since religion is bad, its removal from society can have only beneficial effects because people will settle down into a nice, tolerant, liberal lifestyle. If they're not all English, urban, well-meaning, intellectual liberals, at least they can all recognise that that is what they should aspire to be.

The possibility that things might be different doesn't seem to merit serious consideration. Could there be people, cultures, nations and states who would approach life with a completely different agenda, who would be tooled up with AK47s and torture implements, and who would see ruthless greed and exploitation as being perfectly rational? Apparently not, and if there were, then they wouldn't really be rational, because being rational means accepting the same premises and world views as the secular humanists.

Christians are often accused of believing in fairies, but we have a more pragmatically bleak vision of a possible godless world than the blinkered optimists of secular humanism.