Dawkins and the Abuse of History

When Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion was published in 2006, it quickly became the rallying manifesto of what has been termed New Atheism. It won the praises of a diverse range of commentators and reviewers that included the illusionists Penn and Teller, the writer Phillip Pullman, John Cornwell in The Sunday Times and even The Daily Mail. Since then, a number of significant Christian responses have been made by academics such as Alistair McGrath, Keith Ward and John Lennox that rebut Dawkins’ atheist scepticism from philosophical, theological, psychological and scientific perspectives.

In his attempt to categorise religion as the root of all evil, Dawkins deploys historical arguments in relation to Stalin and Hitler. In response to the charge that Stalin and Hitler committed their unspeakable crimes against humanity because they were atheists, Dawkins devotes pp. 308-316 of his book to arguing three propositions: atheism per se does not lead systematically to wicked deeds; though Stalin was an atheist, his atheism was incidental to his evil doing; and that Hitler’s wickedness emanated from a perverse religious world view.

It is certainly true that being an atheist does not thereforemean that one is morally bankrupt. One can therefore agree with Dawkins’ first proposition. Atheism is the denial of the existence of God, and not to believe in God is not equivalent to descending into amorality or immorality – although some may argue that being an atheist is sinful. On the other hand, being a theist or polytheist is no guarantee that one will be moral and act in a morally good way, for the god-believer’s moral code is determined by what she believes her God or gods have commanded and what sort of natures she believes her God or gods possess. This may result in a range of behaviours that are good, bad or a combination of both. An atheist’s moral code is determined by her moral choice wherever that may come from. This too may result in good or bad behaviour, or a mixture of the two.

It is in the relationship with believers that one can see historically, and contemporarily, the capacity a certain form of atheism has to be deadly. Although many liberal atheists respect the right to religious belief and have no objection to spiritual moral values playing their part in public discourse, secularising atheists are more militant and wish to see religious beliefs no longer receive a privileged status vis-a-vis other world views, or even excluded altogether from the public domain and confined to the private. Dawkins’ brand of atheism would fit into the latter category. ‘Total atheism’, which may be defined as an ideological interfusion of despotic political structures, an absolute conviction that a godless universe is the truth, and the desire to proselytise this message, is the form that is lethal to the godly. Atheism, therefore, mixed with other noxious ideas, is an essential part of the motivation to persecute believers, and it is this form that Stalinism manifested. Atheism was not therefore incidental to the Soviet regime’s ill treatment, suppression and murder of believers, but a core belief that lay beneath the process.

The atrocities committed against Christians, Jews and Muslims on Stalin’s orders are well-documented. With the exception of the years 1941-53, the forcible secularisation of believers was usual Soviet policy. With specific reference to Stalin’s  premiership, during the late Twenties churches were closed with considerable violence meted out to those who tried to preserve their places of worship. A second wave of arrests of clerics and closures of churches occurred during the Great Purge of 1936-9. Prison camps in the Soviet ‘Gulag’ were nothing more than places where prisoners were worked to death.

Stalin’s persecution of Muslims within Soviet territory began in earnest in 1928. Pressure was placed on Muslims to close ‘voluntarily’ their mosques and mullahs were arrested for deceiving the people. Official campaigns were launched against the veil, Ramadan and ritual prayers. Those who tried to resist, such as the Muslims in the North Caucasus, were suppressed by the Soviet army.

Soviet Jewry fared no better. Although many prominent Communists were Jews, there existed in Soviet society, as there had done in pre-revolutionary Tsarist Russia, a nasty undercurrent of anti-Semitism that manifested as pogroms. This discrimination was fuelled not only by official militant atheistic hatred for those Jews who refused to renounce Judaism, but also emanated from some Christians, traditional envy of Jewish commercial and academic success, and a belief that the Jews were trying to revive capitalism in Communist Russia. It was a monstrous combination of religious, racial and social prejudice that spilled into state-sponsored violence only too readily.

Dawkins’ assertions regarding Hitler are more tentative than his straightforward assertion that evidence is lacking that Stalin’s atheism motivated his brutality. The reason for this is that Hitler’s position with regards to Christianity is less clear since evidence can be adduced for a range of attitudes. Through the consideration of a remarkably small range of historical and contemporary sources, Dawkins explores whether Hitler remained a Catholic during his years as the Fuehrer. Dawkins concludes that the evidence he has selected is inconclusive and that there is the possibility that Hitler’s expressions of religious sentiment were calculated to win the hearts and minds of the German people. He also concludes that Hitler lived with the idea of Providence rather than the Christian God. Hitler therefore was a theist of some sort and therefore in Dawkins’ view, exhibits how a religious proclivity can be so dangerous morally.

Of course, as agreed earlier, a religious frame of mind is not necessarily any more an antidote to immoral behaviour than an atheist or an agnostic one could ever be. But Hitler’sworld view cannot be taken as Catholic at all. Convinced that he was destined to rule by some higher power, Hitler exhibited not a Catholic consciousness in which God intervenes in human history for salvific purposes, but a semi-deistic one in which God has established historical laws to ensure that the Nazis come to power, but is sufficiently remote and amoral to allow the Nazis full rein to pursue their apocalyptic vision of racial cleansing. Hitler’s god was therefore unashamedly and brutally one of Hitler’s own making.

Dawkins would find support for his hypothesis that Hitler’s religious beliefs were deistic in the work of Michael Burleigh, whose prize winning book, The Third Reich: A New History, explores in detail the relationship between Nazism and Christianity. Although emphasising the features that Nazism had in common with fundamentalist religion, namely Hitler’s leadership cult, unquestioning obedience and the use of public ritual, Burleigh clearly distinguishes between Nazi ideology and Christian theology. The Nazis despised Christian values as effeminate and life denying. Love had no place in the militaristic Third Reich. Like Nietzsche, the Nazis concluded that Christianity was a slave ethic that enfeebled the strong and thus threatened the Nazis’ ideal of the Aryan over-man. Dawkins therefore is right to deny Hitler was an atheist who was motivated to do evil by his atheism, but by his own hypothesising, neither can he assert that Hitler’s devilry flowed from a Catholic sensibility.

If there is any lingering suspicion that Hitler was a Catholic, or a Christian of any hue, then his treatment of the German churches will remove that doubt. By 1939, hundreds of Roman Catholic clergy were in concentration camps. Those Protestant pastors who denounced Nazism met the same fate with nearly 800 of those Protestant ministers being sent to the camps in1937. The notion of universal Christian accommodation to Nazism is a defamatory myth surrounding those Christians who were martyred by the Nazis.

History, when properly used, demonstrates that atheism, deism and religious belief are not necessarily barriers to wicked behaviour.  When atheism and deism combine with certain totalitarian political methods that brook no discussion, then the persecution of the resisting faithful occurs. When religious devotion is focused on an evil ‘deity’ who is the projection of existing immoral desires within the hearts of those worshipping, then the persecution of other belief systems also occurs.  Therefore, in a world where, as Raymond Aron rightly observed, democracy is often fragile, it is incumbent on the humane, both religious and unreligious, in the face of barbarism to forget their differences so as to preserve societies where the inherent value of individuals is recognised, regardless of whether the threat comes from a spiritual or a secular fascism.

© 2010 Peter Harris
This resource is reproduced by the kind permission of the author.