Was atheism the cause of 20th century atrocities?

by Robert

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Introduction

It is a frequent rejoinder and polemic hurled about by religious apologists.  Yes, certain murderous excesses like crusades, inquisitions, and witch hunts may have been committed by the religious, but they pale in comparison to those done in the cause of atheism.  Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot-strident atheists all whose famines, wars, genocides, and purges created magnitudes more dead.  Consider, for example, these words from militant Christian cheerleader, Dinesh D’Souza:

These figures are tragic, and of course population levels were much lower at the time. But even so, they are minuscule compared with the death tolls produced by the atheist despotisms of the 20th century. In the name of creating their version of a religion-free utopia, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong produced the kind of mass slaughter that no Inquisitor could possibly match. Collectively these atheist tyrants murdered more than 100 million people.


As a student of Soviet history and communist ideology (MA in Russian Studies, Georgetown University), I was surprised to encounter such accusations when I first heard them.  Never in my studies had I come across this view, neither in the scholarly literature nor in the classroom.  Some might dismiss this as simply evidence of the university’s deeply liberal and secular bias, yet scholars of a conservative bent, such as Hannah Arendt and Richard Pipes (with whom I tended to agree), were a core part of my curriculum.  My graduate studies were also completed at a university founded and run by Jesuits, not exactly proponents of skepticism.

It is not difficult to see why today’s religious apologists are so eager to impugn atheism in this way.  Skepticism and secularism, if not outright rejection of religion, are growing in increasing favor among nations and regions where age-old religious traditions have kept them employed.  Mass terror attacks, suicide bombings, and intractable religious strife have coalesced to focus hard attention, once again, on the seamier side of faith.  Religious belief is thus on the defensive.  Unable to wholly reject the skeptics’ barbs, its apologists consequently respond with this moral equivalency argument.   Bad things have been done in religion’s name, they acknowledge, but worse have been done by those who have none.  Apparently, religion is to be preferred because it has produced fewer horrors than the alternative.

Behind all the noise generated by religion’s apologists, is there perhaps a grain of truth?  If there is, I have not uncovered it.  In fact, I know of no reputable historian of the communist experience who believes atheism plays any meaningful role, much less the actual basis. (It’s come to my attention that Dr. David Aikman is a Russian historian and Christian apologist who believes there is a connection.  See my responses to him here and here).  Arendt’s Totalitarianism, which stands as “the definitive account of the philosophical origins of the totalitarian mind,” never once mentions atheism.  Those who suggest a connection between atheism and communist atrocity are in the decided scholarly minority.  Could the historical revisionism be another example of their long-practiced art of pious fraud?

What lies behind the seductive appeal of their thesis is the notion – conceit, really – that one cannot be moral without belief in some Supreme Moral Lawgiver.   As a Christian apologist explains,

No matter how sincerely I believe I am right about some moral decision, the true test is in the origin of that belief. And God is the only universal and absolute origin to all morality… If we don’t believe we are created by God, but simply highly evolved animals, and if we believe we have accountability only to society, then there is no end to the depths of depravity that we can go in our search to justify our actions. Corrosion of morals begins in microscopic proportions, but if not checked by a standard beyond ourselves, it will continue until the corrosion wipes away the very foundation of our lives, and we find ourselves sinking in a sea of relativity.

Unfortunately, this claim simply has not been borne out in practice, and is soundly refuted in the skeptical literature.  The vast number of non-believers who lead ethical lives – as well as the notable cases of high-profile believers who don’t – demonstrates that god-belief makes one no more or less moral.  A growing body of scientific evidence posits an explanation why: morality likely has a biological basis.  Many theists, such as the renowned Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, counter that the basis is of divine origin, a “natural law” written upon man’s heart by God (Romans 2:14-15).  Perhaps, but in claiming such a law, religion’s apologists have unwittingly undermined their argument that atheism inevitably leads to “the depths of depravity.”  Did atheists somehow figure out a way to overrule an act of God?

With that said, I now debunk the thesis that atheism lies at the bottom of the previous century’s brutal regimes. I start with Hitler’s Nazism, for which there is virtually no basis at all.

Nazism and atheism – Where’s the beef?

Although outside my area of expertise, the suggestion that atheism played any part in shaping the policies of the Third Reich is simply beyond the realm of historical plausibility.  For starters, there is the well-documented mingling between Christians and the Nazis, the democratic election of whom could not have been achieved without the former’s support.  Next, if any doctrine can be said to have inspired Nazi genocidal anti-semitism, one need look no further than that which was enunciated by one of Germany’s most celebrated Christian theologians, Martin Luther, in his On the Jews and Their Lies.  Finally, Nazis identified themselves as implacable foes of the emerging ideology to their east.  As Hitler himself stated,

For their interests [the Church's] cannot fail to coincide with ours [the National Socialists] alike in our fight against the symptoms of degeneracy in the world of to-day, in our fight against a Bolshevist culture, against atheistic movement, against criminality, and in our struggle for a consciousness of a community in our national life. (emphasis mine)

Further reading: Hitler Was an Atheist Who Killed Millions in the Name of Atheism, Secularism?

‘Nuff said.  Below are the main reasons why the alleged atheism = despotism charge is false.

1) Communism is a synthesis of assorted 19th century theories and philosophies

Communism served as the core ideology, with some modification and variants, for the world’s socialist despotisms.  It is, according to a chief proponent, “the doctrine of the conditions of the liberation of the proletariat.”  How such conditions would come about was a subject of much debate (and conflict), but Karl Marx’s and Friedrich Engels’s vision (i.e., Marxism) held primary sway among the doctrine’s adherents.

Marx and Engels manifestly asserted that the necessary pre-condition for any communist society was the abolition of private property, which they identified as the key institution responsible for subjugating the working class, the proletariat.  The elimination of private property was thus themain demand” of the communist.  How dirty private property is to the communist mind is difficult to relate, but consider this: for all its vaunted market reforms, it was only four years ago that China’s ruling Communist Party finally endorsed private property in the country’s constitution.  The few socialist hold-outs such as Cuba and North Korea have not even gone that far.

Marx and Engels did not craft their theories from whole cloth; rather, their views were drawn from a hodge-podge of 19th century economists, political scientists, philosophers, and historians, from Adam Smith to Immanuel Kant.  Theists frequently cite the work of Ludwig Feuerbach on Marx’s thinking, particularly his The Essence of Christianity, which argued that God is really a creation of man.  But the influence is overplayed and critical departures papered over.  For Marx, religion is the result of man’s conditions, not their source, something which he criticized Feuerbach for failing to realize. “Feuerbach, consequently, does not see that the ‘religious sentiment’ is itself a social product, and that the abstract individual whom he analyses belongs to a particular form of society.”  Feuerbach believed that the idea of God alienated man, while for Marx, it was the social conditions which alienated.

Another doctrine said to heavily influence Marx is materialism.  Theists claim that materialism, which holds that everything in existence is derived from matter, logically leads to amorality since there is “no reason” to act good.  This objection is odd, since many of these same theists believe acting good matters for naught in obtaining heaven; it is belief in and utterance of the correct doctrines which decides.  But fundamentally, the accusation fails because it confuses ontology with ethics, “what is” with “what ought to be”.  As we are almost daily reminded by suicide bombers, religious belief is no barrier itself to murderous brutality (if not a catalyst for it).

In any case, theists misunderstand the materialism of Marx and Engels, who, more precisely, believed in historical materialism.  Historical materialism asserts that the development of a human society – its economics, politics, history – is derived from its production relations.  A fuller treatment of the topic is beyond our scope, but it should be clear that Marx and Engels had a specific conception of materialism in mind, one that is far from widely held, even among materialists.

Rather than the lynchpin of communist ideology, as the theistic apologists would have us believe, atheism enters by way of a deep ambivalence toward religion, which Marx and Engels saw as a by-product of oppressive social conditions.  Other influences, however, played a stronger role, both in communist ideology and practice.

One such influence was the critique of private property put forward by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.  His What is Property?, which famously declared that “property is theft,” was the key work in convincing Marx that private property should be abolished.  Where did Proudhon himself get this idea?  As he wrote, “My real masters, those who have caused fertile ideas to spring up in my mind, are three in number: first, the Bible; next, Adam Smith; and last, Hegel.” (emphasis mine)  Understandably, Christian apologists fail to mention Proudhon’s influence on the development of communism, if they are even aware of it at all.

An important component of communist practice is the belief that the morality of an action is determined solely by whether it advances the cause of the proletarian revolution.  In other words, “the ends justify the means” when the end is the supremacy of the working class.  While Marx and Engels occasionally spoke of “independent morality based on human dignity,” later communist theorists like Leon Trotsky dismissed this view.  As Nicholas Churchich writes in Marxism and Morality, “For Trotsky…deceit, violence and murder, if they serve the proletarian political ends are perfectly ‘moral’ and should be employed without hesitation.”  Communists like Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot followed this ethic unwaveringly.

There is more to be said about the fabric of thought which comprised communism’s tapestry, particularly its tremendously varied strands, including explicit Christian expressions, but I think the point is more than established: atheism is a peripheral and even unnecessary component of communist ideology.

2) Communism is primarily anti-religious, not atheistic

We saw above that communism as expressed by Marx and Engels included an anti-religious bent.  Theistic apologists, in a sleight of hand, conflate this anti-religiosity with atheism, though the connection between the two is tenuous at best.  To be sure, atheists are sometimes anti-religious, but their opposition is usually to the type of domineering religion which seeks to force non-believers to adhere to its metaphysical and theological claims.  Atheism, which is merely the lack of belief in god(s), does not inevitably and logically lead to anti-religiosity.  To buttress the point, consider deism, which has long disparaged organized religion. Today’s secular societies, which include significant numbers of atheists, are wholly tolerant of religious believers – as long as these believers keep their faith-based dogmas and conflicts out of the realm of public policy.

Today, we find it difficult to relate to the minds of 18th and 19th intellectuals, many of whom viewed religion as a force for ill in society.  We and our immediate ancestors were not subject to its endless wars, its hostility to liberty and democracy, its thought control, and its support for despots and tyrants, when not ruled by the church’s version of the same.  But centuries ago, in Marx’s time, the landscape of recent history was vastly different.  Many, including Marx and those who followed him, viewed organized religion with some justification as a reactionary and tyrannical institution, which severely discredited religion’s metaphysical claims.  In Russia, for example, where an attempt to build a communist society was first undertaken, the Russian Orthodox Church had remained a central pillar supporting the corrupt and in-bred tsarist autocracy long after similar religious influence had waned in other parts of Europe.  Its support for the White Army in the civil war which followed the communist takeover of 1917 no doubt cemented Bolshevik belief that the Church was “counter-revolutionary” and dangerous, to be eradicated at the earliest opportunity.

Marx believed that religion would fall to the wayside as the conditions which gave rise to it succumbed to history’s inevitable march toward a communist future.  Vladimir Lenin, however, reflecting on the failure of Marx’s predictions, believed that this future could be obtained by a forced march, through a state-directed eradication of bourgeois institutions, like religion, and the creation of a socialist, heavy industrial economy.  Only in this way could the proper proletarian class consciousness develop and communism finally arise.

Anti-religiosity found in socialist states had its genesis in Marxism, but it was Lenin (and later, Stalin) who gave it full flower, as part of a radical transformation of society along communist lines and as a reaction to the pre-revolutionary past.  Unable to demonstrate the necessary links between atheism and this unprecedented type of revolution, religious apologists thus erroneously conflate atheism with anti-religiosity, as well as ignore the historical circumstances which gave the latter special potency and allure.

3) Persecution, oppression, and murder were virtually indiscriminate under 20th century despotisms

A salient feature of all the 20th century’s communist dictatorships was the widespread and indiscriminate use of terror against any opposition, both real and perceived.  Virtually no one was spared, up to and including members of the inner circle of the ruling clique.  The reasons are rooted in the dogmatism of Marxist-Leninist ideology, in the political cultures inherited by the new regimes, but mostly in the fact that all power was centralized under a single, unaccountable ruling party or individual.  “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” as Lord Acton famously put it.  Whenever such totalitarian dictatorship arises, regardless of its ideological, political, or social character, tyranny is the inevitable result.  The only variable is its extent.

Believers make much hay over religious persecution under socialist regimes, and indeed, they suffered heavily.  But they ignore the fact that everyone else suffered too, including other communists and workers.  Of most significance was one’s class background, which communists believed determined one’s reaction to the revolution.  The stance was summarized thus:

Do not look in the file of incriminating evidence to see whether or not the accused rose up against the Soviets with arms or words. Ask him instead to which class he belongs, what is his background, his education, his profession. These are the questions that will determine the fate of the accused. That is the meaning and essence of [Lenin's] Red Terror.

Under the hyper-paranoid atmosphere of Stalin’s reign in the 1930s, even this distinction fell away, as identification of “enemies of the state” became a mandate against which almost no one was safe (e.g., the Great Purge).  This form of political terror was long practiced before Stalin and Hitler; consider, for example, the Catholic Church’s inquisitions against “heretics”.  But the key difference, the special condition which drove the 20th century communists like Mao to such murderous ends, was the belief, in Stalin’s words, that “terror is the quickest way to a new society.” The vast swathe of murder committed in the name of this new society gives lie to the claim that it was merely a “religion-free” one that was sought

Indiscriminate terror as a political means to bring about the communist future is neither accounted for nor explained by religious apologists.  If the motivator of communist despots was atheism, then one would expect exclusive attention paid to believers – an impression they strive mightily to establish.  But, as we have seen, the impression is a gross distortion of historical reality.  Nothing was done “in the name of atheism,” but in the name of the proletariat and a new communist order.  This is why not only believers were tyrannized, but peasants, land owners, workers, ethnic nationalities, factory owners, intellectuals, members of rival communist organizations, and even the regime’s own founders.  All were trampled under communism’s march.

A final point.  As mentioned, communist regimes did target believers for persecution, but its application was not consistent.  In the Soviet Union, some churches and faiths were especially brutalized, but others, like Islam, experienced official co-option from agencies such as Spiritual Administration of the Muslims.  As the Soviet Union entered the second world war, the Russian Orthodox Church was enlisted to support Stalin’s government in the country’s defense – support which it unreservedly granted by naming Stalin as divinely appointed, just as it had done under the Russian tsars.  Later years saw a waxing and waning of official toleration for religion, until the Gorbachev era, which lifted a great many restrictions.  If theists wish to claim religious oppression under communism as a natural outgrowth of atheism, they need to explain the variety and inconsistency of this oppression as well.

4) Communism has more in common with religion than it does with skepticism

As I alluded to above, the patterns of persecution experienced under 20th century despotism bear striking resemblance to those committed by religion.  This is no accident or coincidence.  There are at least four common features which religion and communist dictatorships share that explain why.

The first similarity is belief in some dogmatic truth.  Marx and Engels believed they had discovered immutable historical laws, scientific in their predictive power, the correctness of which there was no doubt.  This gave them, and their communist followers, tremendous confidence in the future; the fall of capitalism and subsequent rise of communism were historically inevitable.  As Lenin described:

Marx’s theory is the objective truth. Following the path of this theory, we will approach the objective truth more and more closely, while if we follow any other path we cannot arrive at anything except confusion and falsehood. From the philosophy of Marxism, cast of one piece of steel, it is impossible to expunge a single basic premise, a single essential part, without deviating from objective truth, without falling into the arms of bourgeois-reactionary falsehood.

This statement of unalloyed dogmatism is precisely echoed in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, which many Christian organizations mandate its members affirm:

Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by his Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: it is to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it affirms…The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible’s own; and such lapses bring serious loss to both the individual and the church.

The second similarity is hostility to liberty and independent thought.  Although some faith traditions have largely embraced the ideals of freedom, a good many other traditions remain anywhere from fair-weather friends to implacable opponents.  It is true that some of liberty’s most stoic defenders and foes of tyranny are numbered among the religious, but it is also true that this is a relatively recent development.  Most of humankind’s most brutal and backward institutions, such as slavery, were long zealously supported by the religious, who drew inspiration from their “divinely annointed” books.  As Thomas Jefferson, a deist, observed, “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.”  The major religions’ censorious inclinations are well established, and continue even today, with some authors paying with their lives for daring to challenge religious orthodoxy.  Such practices and beliefs are mirrored in the practices of the 20th century despotisms, which regulated and constrained the lives and thoughts of its citizens to a degree never seen before.

Yes, this hostility is universal throughout history, but the communist despotisms and religion share common reasons.  First, their practitioners believe they possess an absolute truth, an inerrant paradigm, opposition to which is inexcusable (Romans 1:20) or a sign of mental illness.  Second, both hold a supremely negative view of human nature – a nature which must be restrained and molded for the greater good.  Third, their revered works lack any explicit rational or defense of human liberty, but offer plenty of material to challenge it.  Given these attributes, there is thus little wonder why communism and religion share a common heritage of reaction against the march of human freedom.

A third shared trait is unquestioned obedience from the top. When the leader has spoken, those below are obligated to follow whatever edicts or commands that were issued.  Consultative or deliberative bodies there may be, but they do not set policy or mandate a vision.  This is because only the leader is believed to be imbued with the right (often mystical) qualities, enabling him to chart the true path and avoid error.  Setbacks or failures are always the fault of subordinates, who are either purposely undermining orders or lack sufficient ability and will.  It takes long periods of time before mistakes are rectified, because information flows only from the top down, and because admitting them punctures the aura of infallibility upon which the power of the leader strongly depends.  Usually reform comes only after he has passed away or been removed.  Dissent is severely limited and punished.

A fourth commonality is the promise of a perfected existence.  Theists have their heaven; communists have their utopia.  Whether achieved in this life or the next, both hold out hope for a future which not just surpasses but transcends the present, mundane world.  The utility of this promise is powerful and multi-faceted, spurring true believers to acts of incredible heroism and sacrifice, but also to abject evil, because no effort is justifiably spared in order to achieve the glory that awaits.  The striking feature of the promise is that it is offered completely on faith.  Besides mythical stories buried in some far distant past, its propagators can point to no evidence that their nirvanas are true.  The inability to verify their claims redounds to their benefit, since the conditions for attaining the new existence can be altered at will, much to the profitability of church and/or state.

And what would the carrot be without the stick?  Rejection of the gospel truth is an intolerable affront, punishable here and now in some labor or “re-education” camp, or after death in a lake of fire for all eternity.  Utopia if you’re with us, hell if you’re not.

The four commonalities above explain why the behavior of the 20th century despotisms closely models that of many religions’.  Besides today’s communist regimes, which others are the most conservative and oppressive?  Not secular societies, but those ruled in accordance with religious doctrines.

Conclusion

Experience has demonstrated time and time again, when reality and faith diverge, religious believers often alter reality to conform to faith.  The desperate claim that atheism produced the 20th century despotisms is another unfortunate example, and cynical in its attempt to divert attention from religion’s own historic crimes, which assuredly have been committed in accordance with its creeds. If anything, Stalin, Mao, and Hitler should serve warning to the dangers of religion, which equally seeks to impose a version of its own “unassailable” dogmas on the rest of us.

{ 40 comments… read them below or add one }

theObserver September 20, 2008 at 5:27 pm

Interesting post! I have endured theists from every faith laying the blame for WW2 and Communism at the feet of atheists. But yet, not one of those theists have been able to defend or explain their point of view. I find this move cynical, misleading and dangerous.

“Yes, this hostility is universal throughout history, but the communist despotisms and religion share common reasons. First, their practitioners believe they possess an absolute truth, an inerrant paradigm, opposition to which is not just wrong but evil. Second, both hold a supremely negative view of human nature – a nature which must be restrained and molded for the greater good. Third, their honoured works and spokespersons lack any explicit rational or defense of human liberty, but with plenty in them to oppose it. There is thus little wonder why communism and religion share a common heritage of reaction against the march of human freedom.”

A lot of what you wrote fits very nicely into Isaiah Berlins warnings against excessive positive liberty. In general, I find Berlins concepts of negative and positive liberty a useful framework for discussing Communism/WW2/Religion versus liberal secularism.

I wrote a blog post on that Dinesh D’Souza article you quoted at the top:
http://midnightreflection.net/?p=45
I was looking for a decent explanation as to why atheism was responsible for communism/WW2 etc but D’Souza was the best I came across!

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Robert September 21, 2008 at 11:13 pm

But yet, not one of those theists have been able to defend or explain their point of view.

Yes, isn’t it interesting? They never cite any expert when making this accusation.

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Skeeve September 21, 2008 at 11:58 pm

Hello Robert, great article. I’ve looked everywhere for an email link, but no luck. I would like permission to reprint this article at our website, Atheists Today. We will give full attribution and a link to the original. Please let us know, here by reply or email…or you could stop by and visit our Forum. ;-)

Best regards,

Skeeve

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Adam Hamilton September 22, 2008 at 12:41 pm

Wasn’t Dialectical Materialism, the philosophical basis of Communism, atheistic?
It seems like a stretch to say that atheism was not implicated in those atrocities, especially since atrocities are still going on. The officially atheistic Chinese government has been imposing atheism on the Tibetans as a means of destroying their cultural identity, for example (Amnesty International.)

I think this needs to be faced rather than avoided. Althugh you say you have never come across this view in your studies, I find that incredible. Solhenitsyn’s works alone should have at least set off a warning bell.

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Adam Hamilton September 22, 2008 at 12:44 pm

You might also take a look at Trotsky’s Last Testament. He makes it clear that his atheism was fundamental to his actions.

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Robert September 22, 2008 at 4:18 pm

Hello Robert, great article. I’ve looked everywhere for an email link, but no luck. I would like permission to reprint this article at our website, Atheists Today. We will give full attribution and a link to the original. Please let us know, here by reply or email…or you could stop by and visit our Forum.

Thanks Skeeve! I’m going to let this article “bake” a few days while I refine the argument a bit. I’ll post on your forums when I feel it’s ready for primetime.

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Robert September 22, 2008 at 4:46 pm

Wasn’t Dialectical Materialism, the philosophical basis of Communism, atheistic?

The philosophical basis? No, but materialism does deny the existence of the supernatural, and is thus atheistic from that standpoint. Dialectical materialism is the belief that history follows a course of class struggle. Atheism says nothing about such a question, nor does it logically follow from dialectical materialism, as far as I know, though you’re welcome to demonstrate how.

The officially atheistic Chinese government has been imposing atheism on the Tibetans as a means of destroying their cultural identity, for example (Amnesty International.)

The cultural identify of Tibetans is completely bound up in their religion? That seems doubtful. China seeks to strengthen its rule in Tibet; it is a classic nationalistic conflict.

Althugh you say you have never come across this view in your studies, I find that incredible. Solhenitsyn’s works alone should have at least set off a warning bell.

Solzhenitsyn is not considered an authoritative historian. He has no formal education in the subject. Rather, he’s considered a novelist, and it his novels that I’m familiar with him (e.g., A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich). He frequently clashed with Sovietologists and Russian historians, who were often critical of his views, particularly his position that Jews were to blame for the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917.

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Robert September 22, 2008 at 4:53 pm

You might also take a look at Trotsky’s Last Testament. He makes it clear that his atheism was fundamental to his actions.

Does it?

Here is the relevant citation:

“I shall die a proletarian revolutionist, a Marxist, a dialectical materialist, and, consequently, an irreconcilable atheist.”

This merely confirms that Trotsky was an atheist, something we already knew. It seems what was fundamental to Trotsky’s beliefs was his view that any action, including murder, was moral if it served the cause of the proletarian revolution. I noted this in the article.

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Brian September 22, 2008 at 5:00 pm

I think the main point, though, is that Marxism, while perhaps “atheistic” in some respects, is effectively, in almost every respect, its own form of religion. The point was not atheism, but the new revolutionary society

Naziism was definitely a religious movement, so that knocks another leg out from the stool.

Great blog, by the way!

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Ryan February 12, 2012 at 7:19 pm

The bible is prophetic about even the anti-christ creating his own religion. Certainly the subject of morality should not be about the sins of religion vs. atheism. After all, even the various religions of the world disagree with each other about morality and I don’t understand how an atheist can argue in favor of a certain morality since there is no materialist bases on love, hate, beauty, right, or wrong. Use materialism to define life! There is no such thing accordingly. That’s purely dogma, though somehow all people intuitively know they exist.

I characterize all different religions and atheism as faith based. Now, should each individual faith based group be held accountable? I don’t belief so. This is an incomplete and misleading argument.

Each person has their own interpretation of right and wrong according to their own understanding of doctrinal authority; whether it is a reading the bible alone, or someone else’s interpretation being taught to them by a priest or pastor.

So, individuals and their specific beliefs should be held accountable, but this debate is even further mystified because each person has their own morality regardless if whether or not there is an absolute morality. Besides, just because someone thinks a belief is wrong doesn’t mean that their belief or action is ACTUALLY wrong and it doesn’t mean that the entire world view is false.

I have theist beliefs and I believe materialism is responsible for the majority of terror in the world–based on what I believe is absolute justice of God, but I believe this entire argument, what evil is attributed to which groups, is misleading to a large degree. We’re all just trying to find the truths of:

Origin
Meaning
Morality
Destiny

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Robert September 22, 2008 at 8:19 pm

Thanks, Brian, and you’re absolutely right.

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Kelly Gorski September 22, 2008 at 8:36 pm

One thing I notice may be lacking is that, while communism is atheistic in the sense that there is no supernatural deity, there are certainly “natural deities,” such as the state and/or dictator.

You may be better framing certain atheistic elements of the blog post as “faithless” as well as atheist. Since faith tends to be used as a euphemism for willful ignorance, and since communism certainly employs faith and demands a certain level of ignorance and lacking skepticism, you may want to include the role faith plays in both religious ideology/indoctrination and political ideologies/indoctrination, especially those saturated in concepts such as altruism.

Another element often missed is that there is no cause-and-effect relationship between atheism (absence of theistic belief) and human atrocity. None at all. As I said above, there is definitely a correlation between faith and immoral behavior. After all, it isn’t easy to rationally justify immoral behavior, but it’s certainly easy to justify it on faith alone.

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Kelly Gorski September 22, 2008 at 10:38 pm

Another thing is that faith is the driving force behind idiocy (for the most part). For example, faith is what causes many religious people to be fearful of critical thought yet unabashedly judgmental–with no rational basis–when it comes to socio-cultural issues, like, oh, homosexuality and abortion. This is why fundamentalists and even moderates of religions that advocate faith-based thinking are so downright dangerous, while those who are adherents to nonfaith-based religions, like some Eastern and pagan religions, are not dangerous.

I hope that makes sense. I’m stuck in Kentucky in a hotel room with no intellectual stimulation… and I’m tired and very pregnant.

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Robert September 23, 2008 at 5:28 pm

One thing I notice may be lacking is that, while communism is atheistic in the sense that there is no supernatural deity, there are certainly “natural deities,” such as the state and/or dictator.

I agree. In the literature, this was called “the cult of personality”. I hint at this a little bit when I write, “This is because only the leader is believed to be imbued with the right (often mystical) qualities, enabling him to chart the true path and avoid error.”

You may be better framing certain atheistic elements of the blog post as “faithless” as well as atheist. Since faith tends to be used as a euphemism for willful ignorance, and since communism certainly employs faith and demands a certain level of ignorance and lacking skepticism, you may want to include the role faith plays in both religious ideology/indoctrination and political ideologies/indoctrination, especially those saturated in concepts such as altruism.

I’ll have to ponder this point a bit. I don’t consider faith so much as willful ignorance as it is belief without evidence or in spite of it. Marx and Engels truly believed they had discovered historical and immutable laws which clearly pointed the way toward communism. Engels even called it “scientific”.

I hope that makes sense. I’m stuck in Kentucky in a hotel room with no intellectual stimulation… and I’m tired and very pregnant.

I appreciate the feedback! Best wishes on a trouble-free birth and a healthy baby :)

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Roger Scott September 24, 2008 at 7:46 am

A thoughtful article, Robert. I wish Christopher Hitchens had been able to include and discuss your main points in “God is not Great”.
Regarding this sentence: “In Russia, where an attempt to build a communist society was first undertaken, the pernicious and toxic influence of the church was especially acute, as epitomized by the venal mystic Grigori Rasputin.”
I don’t know enough Russian history to judge this but it seems to me to need development. Was Rasputin representative of the Russian church? I suspect not but cannot really judge. Are there other examples of the Orthodox Church showing “pernicious and toxic influence”? If so, please mention them.

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rwahrens September 24, 2008 at 11:54 am

Very good article, Robert. Your viewpoint is a bit different from others I have seen, and I particularly like the apt comparison between Religion and Communism! That’s a point I haven’t seen done in quite as succinct a manner before.

By the way, I got here from your post on Sam Harris’ site. Don’t take too much away from Salt Creek’s attitude, he does that to almost anybody that posts something different there, and it doesn’t matter how sincere you may be. He’s basically a jerk.

I’m bookmarking this post – it is a good argument when I run into theistic idiocy!

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Dirk Campbell September 25, 2008 at 6:24 am

(Mesomorph from the Sam Harris forum.) Congratulations on a well-written piece, Robert. You have contributed to the refutation. As Sam says in The End Of Faith, it is totalitarian systems of all types, including religious ones, that produce atrocities – not free thought. The more stuff out there the better the opposition to irrational neo-fundamentalist thinking, and your piece certainly achieves that.

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Robert September 25, 2008 at 9:05 am

Greetings rwahrens and Dirk! I’m very grateful and encouraged by your comments.

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Robert September 25, 2008 at 9:21 am

Roger wrote,

I don’t know enough Russian history to judge this but it seems to me to need development. Was Rasputin representative of the Russian church? I suspect not but cannot really judge. Are there other examples of the Orthodox Church showing “pernicious and toxic influence”? If so, please mention them.

It’s a good observation. Think of the Orthodox Church’s influence akin to the Catholic Church’s during the Middle Ages, that is, one in which religious officials had significant say in matters of state. Perhaps that doesn’t quite capture it, however. The relationship was more symbiotic than anything else. I could delve into this more, explaining how the Bolsheviks’ anti-religiosity can, in part, be seen as a reaction to the Church’s influence. The ironic thing is, how later Soviet leaders sought to resurrect aspects of the relationship. Today, in Russia, you see many of the old tsarist/Orthodox patterns reasserting themselves.

Rasputin had an Orthodox theological education, but I don’t believe he was ever a priest. I mention him because he came to epitomize much of what was wrong with the tsarist government in the minds of early 20th century Russians.

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Arizona Atheist September 29, 2008 at 9:16 pm

This is an excellent article. Absolutely excellent.

I even learned a few things : )

The book you mentioned by Arendt sounds interesting. I looked at it on amazon and looks very good and I’m going to get it soon.

Take care.

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Robert September 30, 2008 at 10:04 am

Thanks AA! I’m actually about 80% satisfied with the article. I’m revising it now, mostly expanding on a few things, tightening up the arguments, and such. It’s shaping up quite nicely.

Arendt’s book is considered a “classic” of political science literature. She offers some very keen insights, but I think she can be faulted for painting with an overly broad brush, at least with respect to the Soviet Union.

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Nicholas October 1, 2008 at 11:16 am

After reading several such blogs promoting atheism, I find that the most ironic fact is that so much intense care is taken to “debunk” Chrsitinity. If you are really an atheist, why do even care, because there is no evil. We are but dust. There is no morality, only preference, and what is that? Have the guts to stand by your faith in nothing, and stop caring what others think. If someone is a Christian, who cares? Is there a consequence to not believing in nothing? Ridiculous. Violence, what’s that to a true atheist? If we are anything more then molecules, then atheism is false. All the hoopla seems to beg the question, do you REALLY believe in nothing? Or, are you so afraid that you might be wrong, that you must spend your time defending nothing?

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Sean October 2, 2008 at 9:31 am

Excellent article, really informative and just what i have been looking for. Have you considered making it available as a pdf for easy printing? Regardless, thanks for the time you put into this.

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Robert October 2, 2008 at 10:59 am

Hi Nicholas, thanks for stopping by.

I could point you to several resources demonstrating how your caricature of my views is baseless, but, frankly, you’re not interested, otherwise you’d have done the research yourself. Eyes shut, ears closed – this is how the religious believer maintains faith.

In any case, suppose I really did believe in nothing? In my opinion, believing in nothing is superior to believing in a maniacal, genocidal sky tyrant whose self-esteem is apparently is so poor, it created billions and billions of beings for the sole purpose of worshiping it – forever. And if you fail at this task, which the vast majority of these beings will, then this tyrant will consign you to torture – forever.

But just for you, Nicholas, I temporarily declare my belief in Zeus. Now will you take my blogs seriously?

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Robert October 2, 2008 at 11:12 am

Excellent article, really informative and just what i have been looking for. Have you considered making it available as a pdf for easy printing? Regardless, thanks for the time you put into this.

Glad you liked it Sean! Putting it into a PDF is great suggestion and should be easy to do. Thanks :)

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arulba December 11, 2008 at 2:29 pm

Hi Robert. You asked me to read this article so I could be enlightened to the truth. It's a very well-written article and I don't necessarily disagree with it. But I think it leaves out an important point: it isn't religion or atheism that has created horrible atrocities, It is the insistence on maintaining abstract ideologies which exist within both religion and atheism.

God died long ago because we killed him. The traditional belief in God ceased to be beneficial and there is no reason to keep digging it up. History has repeatedly proven that salvific religion is detrimental. Salvific atheism is no better.

If we don't want to continually repeat history, then we need to move beyond the inane arguments about whose ideology is more salvific or more atrocious. Ok – so there isn't a better world waiting for us in Heaven. There isn't a better one waiting for us in the future, either! We are here now and it is our responsibility to live in the world we inhabit, not some ideological future place – spiritual or physical.

Be honest – what did you mean when you wrote that you would enlighten me to the truth? That your ideology IS the truth?

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Spanish Inquisitor December 21, 2008 at 3:00 pm

Very good article. I finally got around to reading it in its entirety, after you pointed me to it a few weeks ago on my blog. I was particularly impressed with the last section comparing religion to communism and other despotic “isms”. It’s what I tried to get across in the few posts I’ve done on the subject, without the intellectual rigor and analysis you brought to it. I have a historical background, with a BA in history, but am a lawyer by trade, so I have only the layman’s ability to research and understand it all.

Have you ever found anything that suggested that Stalin’s seminarian experience had anything to do with his sheer ruthless genius at totalitarianism?

As an aside, I’m astounded at how much the subject seems to attract people interested in it. My hit counts are going off the boards after my last post on Hitler and Stalin, primarily fed by interest in that comedy team. I imagine you’ve experienced the same interest.

Keep up the good work.

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Robert December 22, 2008 at 11:46 pm

Thanks for the feedback SI. You’re not the only one most impressed with the last section. Ironically, it was pretty much an afterthought in the first cut of the article, and it had the most material added for the second draft after consideration of the positive feedback and suggestions from fellow atheists.

Have you ever found anything that suggested that Stalin’s seminarian experience had anything to do with his sheer ruthless genius at totalitarianism?

No, I haven’t come across that much. Totalitarians come from a diverse set of backgrounds. Mao’s mother was a devout Buddhist, but he himself seemed to lack any religious instruction.

As an aside, I’m astounded at how much the subject seems to attract people interested in it. My hit counts are going off the boards after my last post on Hitler and Stalin, primarily fed by interest in that comedy team. I imagine you’ve experienced the same interest.

Isn’t that the truth! I get a lot of traffic to the article from Google searches. I suspect the searches are primarily from Christians, because no responses are ever left. :)

I know atheists have beaten the topic to death, but my purpose in writing the article was to offer a more scholarly, authoritative response.

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papapound June 28, 2009 at 8:01 pm

Robert, if the following quote is typical of Hitler then he was no more a Christian than my cat is. Hitler used Christian lingo and contorted it to justify his own thinking. Jesus was not a fighter as portrayed in this speech by Hitler. He laid down His life freely.

Now He will come back as King and there may be a war then. But now during His earthly life.

It is as I suspected, again if this is typical, Hitler used Jesus, used Scriptures, used Christians to his own ends.

It was too late when Christians finally realized that Hitler was the tyrant that he turned out to be. He brutilized many Christians as well before it was over.

from: http://atheism.about.com/od/isatheismdangerous/a/HitlerAtheist.htm
In a 1922 speech, he said: “My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded only by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter.

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Will July 1, 2009 at 8:38 am

You reached the conclusions I reached nearly thirty-five years ago – while studying for my own master’s in history – and believe me, they were not popular conclusions in 1976!

Naziism was virtually modeled after Christianity – it could even be further argued that Naziism was a perverted form of Christianity itself. Of course, that’s a dirty little secret which most Fundies reject out of hand — to even admit the possibility removes a big part of late 20th century apologetics.

Thanks for the post!

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Greg September 30, 2009 at 2:03 pm

Another lamebrain scholar attempting to distort the truth about the twentieth century. I’ve heard so many of these arguments before, and it amazes me the lengths people are going to revise atheism’s history.

First off, your main question: “was atheism the cause of the 20th century atrocities” is a foolish one. Anyone who knows anything about the 20th century knows that there were too many factors involved to pin it on that alone; so how about this, instead: “did atheism play a significant role in the catastrophic events of the 20th century”. Yes, of course it did — and you’re making a futile attempt to cover it up.

It’s very simple: people that don’t believe in God tend to believe in man instead; and those who do believe in man tend to erect other men as their idols, thus shattering any type of democratic framework. Therefore atheism was clearly a significant component of Communism, Nazism, and the like, which, as you know, morphed from, or revolted against, liberal democracy.

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george lindos August 2, 2010 at 9:50 pm

i’m mostly with you. hitler was adamant about his roman catholic beliefs and stated in many speeches that he was a devout catholic.
i have also read that the rc church did their best to arrange some kind of pact with him. i’m not sure if communism needed atheism or if religion was simply and totally irrelevant. many of the socialists here in canada were members of religious organizations and/or clerics. they were mostly responsible for establishing the seniors pensions and health care.

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Greg October 1, 2009 at 3:30 am

The more I look over this blog, the more I realize how frail these arguments are. Really. Your ideas are organized and, at times, well written; but the substance just defies common sense: where does GOD fit into all of this?

Time and time again, the point you try to make is that Nazism and Communism displayed dogmatic traits, blind “faith”, and fervor; so therefore they were religious in essence, and no different than any other religious movement. It took a Masters courses to build this superficial of an argument?

Do you really believe you and your fellow atheistic “Supermen” are beyond “cultus” (if you look at your arguments more carefully, you’ll see that you’re more about the dissolution of ANY and ALL established CULTURE than you are RELIGION, which is why the implications of your ideas are frightening). No, of course you’re not — you’ll inevitably follow the path of your 18th, 19th, and 20th predecessors and elevate men to gods, thereby dissolving what’s left of Western democracy.

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Robert October 2, 2009 at 7:51 am

Greg,

With all the alleged “frailty” of my arguments, you’d think it’d be easy to demolish them, but you follow a long tradition of theists who blow a lot of steam, but offer little substance.

If you really think atheism played such a significant role in the catastrophic events of the 20th century–a charge that seems to have escaped the notice of almost every scholar–then it should be exceedingly easy to demonstrate that. But you don’t, instead relying on that tired and discredited bromide that without GOD (which “god” you mean, you fail to say), we’re inevitably doomed to some anarchic dystopia. You wrote,

It’s very simple: people that don’t believe in God tend to believe in man instead; and those who do believe in man tend to erect other men as their idols, thus shattering any type of democratic framework.

Far be it for reality to intrude on your tidy narrative, but I gotta conclude, when countries like India or Japan are staring right at you, you’re being purposely ignorant.

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Bob January 23, 2010 at 3:59 pm

“Apparently, religion is to be preferred because it has produced fewer horrors than the alternative.”

This is a very superficial argument.
And you can’t evaluate with precision the human conscience and mind. Humans are not “pure”, except on theory. Someone may claim to be a religious man, but in fact he fail to be one. Some may claim to be an atheist, but in fact sometimes he act like a believer, he isn’t a pure atheist in every way.

If I claim that I’m an atheist and I go and commit a crime, you’ll say that atheism is necessarily the cause of the crime? You can evaluate the creeds, the doctrines, and you can tell if people conform to their creed or not.

And you cannot put all the religions in the same pot.

“The vast number of non-believers who lead ethical lives – as well as the notable cases of high-profile believers who don’t – demonstrates that god-belief makes one no more or less moral.”

By what standard do you judge someone’s ethic??
By what standard do you judge Stalin, Hitler, Mao etc??

Your thinking is often circular.

And atheism and skepticism don’t exist in “pure” estate. Only on paper. One cannot live only by “believing” in denial of divinity. You must believe in something, you must make decisions every day. The decisions you make, the way you live, you actions and your purpose define what you believe in, your creed. That’s why you must have a “welt anschauung”, you need answers to the existential questions. Based on this necessity, on atheism were built philosophical systems such materialism, rationalism, communism, etc

Maybe you should do the same (as with atrocities) with positive examples. Find the atheist equivalent of Albert Schweitzer, for example. Find the good things and the happiness and the joy that atheism can bring to someone.
Find someone who stop drinking after he became an atheist.
Find an atheist who gave his life for someone.
Find and atheistic argument for someone who want to commit suicide to give up.

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Arizona Atheist March 29, 2010 at 7:56 pm

Hi Robert, I wanted to let you know that I’ve added this post of yours to the roster of this week’s Carnival of the Godless.

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Vasily July 16, 2013 at 12:02 am

Was atheism the cause of 20th century atrocities?

Yes. If you are holding me responsible for the “Christian” Nazi Holocaust then its only fair that you should accounted for the Red Crimes of this century.

Here’s one of the great thereoreticians of Marxism himself:

“Atheism is the NATURAL and INSEPARABLE PART of Marxism; of the theory and practice of Scientific Socialism.” -Vladimir Lenin.
Source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marxism_and_religion

One of my favorite quotes by Mao:

“In the final analysis, this is also true of the imperialist and capitalist systems, which are bound to be replaced in the end by the socialist system. The same applies to ideology, idealism will be replaced by materialism and theism BY ATHEISM.”
Source: http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-5/mswv5_69.htm

I’ve got plenty more where that came from. Marxism will never be a religion in the sense Christianity and Islam are-Marxism is a mostly atheistic ideology.

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Robert July 17, 2013 at 6:30 pm

Actually, Marxism is a mostly Christian ideology, as I explained in my blog post Communism’s Christian Roots. Still don’t agree? Then please demonstrate precisely how a lack of belief in god(s) necessarily leads to Marxism. You may have a tough time because Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism – essentially the anti-thesis of Marxism – is also atheistic.

If you want to refute the thesis of my article, you have much more work to do than copy and paste a few quotes.

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Civitate_Dei September 19, 2013 at 9:34 am

Hitler was publicly pro- Christian but he also said in Hitler’s table Talk which is accepted by most historians as being authentic

Night of 11th-12th July, 1941:

National Socialism and religion cannot exist together…. The heaviest blow that ever struck humanity was the coming of Christianity. Bolshevism is Christianity’s illegitimate child. Both are inventions of the Jew. The deliberate lie in the matter of religion was introduced into the world by Christianity…. Let it not be said that Christianity brought man the life of the soul, for that evolution was in the natural order of things. (p 6 & 7)

10th October, 1941, midday:

Christianity is a rebellion against natural law, a protest against nature. Taken to its logical extreme, Christianity would mean the systematic cultivation of the human failure. (p 43)

14th October, 1941, midday:

The best thing is to let Christianity die a natural death…. When understanding of the universe has become widespread… Christian doctrine will be convicted of absurdity…. Christianity has reached the peak of absurdity…. And that’s why someday its structure will collapse…. …the only way to get rid of Christianity is to allow it to die little by little…. Christianity the liar…. We’ll see to it that the Churches cannot spread abroad teachings in conflict with the interests of the State. (p 49-52)

19th October, 1941, night:

The reason why the ancient world was so pure, light and serene was that it knew nothing of the two great scourges: the pox and Christianity.

21st October, 1941, midday:

Originally, Christianity was merely an incarnation of Bolshevism, the destroyer…. The decisive falsification of Jesus’ doctrine was the work of St.Paul. He gave himself to this work… for the purposes of personal exploitation…. Didn’t the world see, carried on right into the Middle Ages, the same old system of martyrs, tortures, *******? Of old, it was in the name of Christianity. Today, it’s in the name of Bolshevism. Yesterday the instigator was Saul: the instigator today, Mardochai. Saul was changed into St.Paul, and Mardochai into Karl Marx. By exterminating this pest, we shall do humanity a service of which our soldiers can have no idea. (p 63-65)
13th December, 1941, midnight:

Christianity is an invention of sick brains: one could imagine nothing more senseless, nor any more indecent way of turning the idea of the Godhead into a mockery…. …. When all is said, we have no reason to wish that the Italians and Spaniards should free themselves from the drug of Christianity. Let’s be the only people who are immunised against the disease. (p 118 & 119)

14th December, 1941, midday:

Kerrl, with noblest of intentions, wanted to attempt a synthesis between National Socialism and Christianity. I don’t believe the thing’s possible, and I see the obstacle in Christianity itself…. Pure Christianity– the Christianity of the catacombs– is concerned with translating Christian doctrine into facts. It leads quite simply to the annihilation of mankind. It is merely whole-hearted Bolshevism, under a tinsel of metaphysics. (p 119 & 120)

9th April, 1942, dinner:
There is something very unhealthy about Christianity (p 339)

27th February, 1942, midday:

It would always be disagreeable for me to go down to posterity as a man who made concessions in this field. I realize that man, in his imperfection, can commit innumerable errors– but to devote myself deliberately to errors, that is something I cannot do. I shall never come personally to terms with the Christian lie. Our epoch Uin the next 200 yearse will certainly see the end of the disease of Christianity…. My regret will have been that I couldn’t… behold .” (p 278)

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Robert September 21, 2013 at 6:57 am

Hitler was publicly pro- Christian but he also said in Hitler’s table Talk which is accepted by most historians as being authentic.

However, it’s questionable whether every quote contained in the book is authentic.

Hitler also purportedly stated, “I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so.”

In any case, no one disputes that Hither was a theist of some kind. He was not an atheist as some Christian apologists have claimed.

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