Monday, September 7, 2015

Nazism, Communism, and Atheism Aren't the Same Thing

[This post is, in part, a follow-up to my review of Steven Pinker's excellent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.]


In the last few years, the late Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins each came out with a book making a case against religion, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and The God Delusion, respectively.

Now, to be fair, I haven’t read either book. I haven’t read anything by Dawkins, actually (other than a couple of short articles on scientific topics), but I am a fan of much of Hitchens’ journalistic writing. In particular, I found his take on Islamic fundamentalism to be refreshing; and even when I disagreed (which was often), I did respect him for striving to be intellectually honest and consistent, something all too often lacking on both the left and the right.

That said, the two books have created enough of a stir in Evangelicalism that there is a sort of defensive backlash against their claims. Again, I strongly suspect that few of those reacting have actually read the books, and I have every reason to believe that most of those reacting are not really interested in grappling with the uncomfortable historical and philosophical issues involved. Instead, there has developed a pissing contest over who is more responsible for evil in the world.

In essence:

“New Atheists”: Religion is responsible for all the evil in the world, and we would solve our problems if we could just get rid of religion.

Conservative Christians: You think we are bad? What about all of the terrible things done by atheists? We could solve all our problems if we would just get rid of atheists!

“New Atheists”: Witch hunts, the Crusades, the 30 Years War, the Inquisition!

Conservative Christians: We see your Inquisition, and raise you World War II and the Communist Purges. (Mic Drop…)

This is not particularly helpful, unfortunately. I see the following problems with this approach.

First, it doesn’t seem to me that we Christians should be imitating these tactics. Name calling and blame heaping doesn’t get one anywhere, and it smacks of wrestling with a pig. (You get dirty and the pig likes it. Tip o’ the hat to George Bernard Shaw...) Nothing like claiming to be a religion based on love, and then accusing your opponents of being responsible for atrocities.

Second, it requires a certain revisionist view of history, as I have pointed out elsewhere. That the Inquisition - and thousands of other religious purges - actually happened isn’t really debateable. Saying, “yeah, but you were worse” doesn’t actually take away the original problem. Religion has caused evil, and we shouldn’t be afraid to admit it.

Third, it oversimplifies. Hitchens and Dawkins do the same thing in treating religion as a monolithic force, and a force for evil at that. This is pretty clearly an overreach, as other atheistic writers have pointed out. Likewise, attributing Communism and Nazism to Atheism is a gross oversimplification, both in practice and in theory. I’ll address this point in more detail.

Fourth, it detracts attention from the real causes of the Nazi and Communist atrocities, just like Hitchens and Dawkins detract attention from the poisonous ideas that led to the Inquisition by lumping all religion together. There are in fact common ideas that link these seemingly disparate blots on human history, and preventing them isn’t a matter of “eliminate religion” or “make everyone Christian.”

This is how things devolve into a playground argument, when there could actually be dialogue that leads to a mutual determination to prevent mass violence in the future.

  1. A black and white worldview leads to oversimplification

One thing that the New Atheists and Evangelicals seem to agree on is this: The fundamental battle between good and evil is between religion and atheism. (Depending on the Evangelical, the enemy would be all other religions too, and in some extreme cases, most other Christians in the bargain.) The disagreement is which side is the side of evil.

For the New Atheists, this oversimplifies the role of religion to one of malign influence. In my opinion, and that of many historians, the picture is far from simple. Religion can and has inspired evil. It also can and has inspired good. Even today, this is true. Christianity in one form or another inspires the Westboro Baptist Church, but it also has inspired as large number of medical professionals to risk their lives treating ebola patients in Africa and here in the United States. It is unfair and inaccurate to say that religion poisons everything.

However, the reverse is also true. For some, atheism can lead to selfishness and a disregard for others. But that isn’t necessarily the result, in my experience. I have done volunteer work alongside people of different faiths and no faith, and there are many good people sacrificing themselves for the good of others. If you want to look at famous people, you can see a Stalin on one side, but also a Bill Gates (who has done great good in the world with his money and his time) and an Ayaan Hirsi Ali (who has worked to end female genital mutilation). So it is unfair and inaccurate to say that atheism poisons everything.

When your worldview is one of “us versus them,” these are the kinds of errors you end up making.

In reality, there is little that is truly simple. History is messy. Belief systems are messy. Humans are messy.

As many have pointed out, so many of the problems worth solving in life are hard. If they were easy, someone else would have solved them earlier.

If there were a simple answer to ending violence, war, and genocide, one would have hoped someone would have done it before all the carnage of history.

By oversimplifying things to a “Christians versus Evil Atheists” or a “Atheism versus Evil Religion” narrative, we miss the point.

2. Communism and atheism aren’t the same thing

Likewise, Nazism (or Fascism for that matter) and Atheism aren’t the same thing.

Per the dictionary: “Communism: a political theory derived from Karl Marx, advocating class war and leading to a society in which all property is publicly owned and each person works and is paid according to their abilities and needs.”

“Nazism: the body of political and economic doctrines held and put into effect by the Nazis in Germany from 1933 to 1945 including the totalitarian principle of government, predominance of especially Germanic groups assumed to be racially superior, and supremacy of the führer.”

In its Stalinist form, Communism took on several similarities to Nazism, namely the totalitarian principle of government and the supremacy of the leadership.

But, but, but, the person argues, the doctrines underlying Communism and Nazism were the direct descendents of atheism. As I noted in my extended post on the Nazis and Nietzsche, the supposed connection is a stretch, and ignores counterexamples. Also, it ignores the more directly connected philosophies that were crucial to both movements.

It shouldn’t be too hard to show this. First of all, regarding the Nazis, the central “doctrines,” if you will, were Antisemitism, Racism, and Totalitarianism. Without these ideas, Nazism would have been unrecognizable. Second, while the Nazi leaders weren’t obviously Christian, Germany was predominantly Christian, and Hitler used German Christianity to further his agenda. It is easy to turn up expressly Christian statements in Hitler’s writings and speeches.

One from Mein Kampf should suffice for this post:

"Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord."

Those are not the words of an atheist, I’m afraid. Once in power, Hitler even went so far as to outlaw most atheistic organizations and groups. Nazism was widely accepted in Germany despite Christian beliefs. So even to claim that Nazism was atheistic is a bit of a stretch.

As for Communism, there is more of a case that it is an atheistic philosophy, at least as experienced in real life. However, it is “atheistic” in the same way that the Inquisition was “Christian.” There are many, many atheists who feel the same way about communism as I do about the Inquisition. I might name just a few of the writers that I found to have been particularly eloquent in the fight against Communism: the aforementioned Christopher Hitchens, Raymond Aron, Clive James, and Steven Pinker

This fallacy is known as the Fallacy of Division. A classic example would be: “A 747 can fly across the ocean. 747s have jet engines. Therefore, a jet engine can fly across the ocean by itself.”

Or, as applied to Communism: “The Communists are responsible for great atrocities. Communists were atheists. Therefore, atheists are responsible great atrocities.”

This would work equally “well” to claim that Russians as a race or nation are the cause of the Communist atrocities, or that White People are responsible, or that males are responsible, or whatever other characteristic of Stalin or Marx you want to use.

An additional complication is that while Stalin and Mao were atheists, Pol Pot wasn’t. He was buddhist, and combined that belief with communist ideas and a sense of his divinely ordained destiny.

So don’t conflate Atheism with either Nazism or Communism.

3. The roots of this conflation.

As I noted above, some this comes from the black and white worldview of “us versus them.” If someone is evil, then he or she must be an atheist. But I think there is another facet to this.

Namely, for decades, there has been a conflation of “Christianity” with “The United States of America” and “Capitalism.”

Because of the myth of the US as “Christian Nation,” or the “New Israel,” far too many Christians believe that the United States and the Kingdom of God are, if not identical, closely aligned. Don’t think that this is just my opinion, check out this survey in Christianity Today. 

If you want to break it down by group, it is interesting to me that older Evangelicals are more likely to hold that view than other groups. (This is not much of a surprise to me.)

So, we get another logical fallacy here: “The United States opposed both Nazism and Communism. The United States has a special relationship with God. Thus, Communism and Nazism are opposed to God, ergo they are Atheist.”

Alas, this also causes problems in domestic politics here in the United States, where “Capitalism” and its modern incarnations “corporatism” and “crony capitalism” and a few other pernicious varieties are confused with “Christianity.” Thus, the unholy alliance between Evangelicalism and the Republican party, and the tendency of many Evangelicals to preach the economic Objectivism of Ayn Rand as if it were gospel truth. Thus, any attempt (for example) to redistribute wealth from the wealthy to the poor is conflated with “communism,” which of course is “atheism,” and thus opposed to Christianity. Ergo, any economic policy that doesn’t match the Ayn Rand paradigm is now not just inadvisable, but pure evil. And thus, the belief that we are just one social program (the Affordable Care Act, anyone?) from the gulags and the gas chambers.

Thus also the tendency to act as if the United States is always in the right, and whatever we do is in furtherance of the Kingdom of God. (See any number of foreign policy examples…)

4. Why this doesn’t pass the sniff test.

One principle of critical thinking is that one should look to see if there is correlation before assuming that there is causation.

If I think that smoking causes cancer, I would want to first look to see if there is a correlation between smoking and cancer. Do smokers get more cancer than non-smokers? Does cancer risk increase with the amount and duration of smoking? In this case, all of these correlations exist. This is obviously only the first step in proving causation. Correlation does not prove causation.

However, lack of correlation does disprove causation.

That is an important point, which is often ignored in debates over issues such as vaccines and autism. If there isn’t even correlation, there cannot be causation.

Based on this same principle, it becomes quickly apparent that there is a significant lack of correlation in any of the purported links.

Here are some ways we could look at it:

  1. Does the religion or lack thereof in a society correlate with greater or lesser levels of violence?
  2. As a society goes from more religious to less religious, does it increase in violence?
  3. Is a society more likely to become communist the more atheistic it is?
  4. Does a society become increasingly likely to become communist as it becomes more atheist?

These are testable propositions. Although “Atheism” can be a bit tricky, as some philosophies that most consider a religion lack a supreme being and are thus lumped with atheism in some studies. That said, here are some patterns.

Apparently, the country (as of 2012) with the highest murder rate is Honduras, followed by Venezuela, the Bahamas and other Caribbean islands (really?) and an assortment of failed African states. None of these appear to be particularly irreligious. The rate of atheism in Honduras is around 13%, lower than the global average, and the African countries appear to be even lower.

Okay, what about the opposite side? Which countries are least religious? The highest is Sweden, at 88% atheist, followed by China at 82%. These are followed primarily by places like Belgium, Netherlands, Australia, Japan, and the other Scandinavian countries.

The first thing that jumps out is that none of these places are particularly violent. In fact, the main exception is Russia, whose murder rate is higher than the United States (Which, by the way,  is closer to Russia than to the other Western nations on that list in murder rate.)

So, there isn’t a huge correlation there. At least not a clear one in favor of religion as a reducer of violence.

On a related note, the European countries aren’t exactly hotbeds of religious oppression, bloody purges, and government violence. China, on the other hand, does seem to have this problem. It correlates with communism, but not with atheism.

How about a correlation between atheism and communism? Well, that’s complicated, considering some of those countries are or recently were communist. Which caused which? Another complicating factor is that in the Far East, Taoism, Confucianism, some Buddhism, and Shinto are usually classified as “atheistic” because of the lack of a supreme being.  So those rates may well be overstated in any case.

Whatever the case is, the evidence is mixed. Some atheistic countries are or were communist. Others were and are not.

Likewise, communist Venezuela is more religious than average, while Sierra Leone (a predominantly Muslim democracy, of all things) shares honors for lowest percentage of atheists.

Again, the correlation is spotty at best. Democratic countries can be either very religious or very non-religious, or in between. Communist countries can be religious as well as atheistic.

What about increases in violence or communism?

As with correlation in rates, the evidence isn’t particularly in favor of atheism correlating with communism. The number of communist countries has declined significantly since the fall of the iron curtain, and even those nominally “communist” countries that remain are less doctrinaire than they used to be. China is a case in point, with elements of capitalism and free markets growing the economy. Political freedom is still problematic, but it is safe to say that it isn’t exactly like it was in the days of Chairman Mao.

As for the increase in rates, there is strong evidence that Europe (even more than the rest of the world) has seen a huge decline in violence. This, even as rates of atheism have increased. Likewise, those countries with a high rate of atheism seem hardly headed in the direction of communism in the Stalinist sense. They may have seen an increase in the redistribution of wealth and toward a managed economy, but hardly even toward true socialism (government ownership of the means of production.) Unless I am missing something, I cannot see that Belgium is somehow becoming a genocidal threat...

Again, the evidence of correlation is seriously lacking. It can’t even pass the sniff test, really. An unbiased researcher would at this point start looking for other connections to investigate. Chances are, something other than atheism/religion is the common factor in violent, murderous regimes.

5. The elephants in the room: Totalitarianism and ideology

It isn’t hard to see that Nazism and Communism share some significant attributes. We tend to forget this sometimes, but during their heydays, the two political philosophies were mortal enemies. Nazism billed itself as the antidote to “Jewish” and “Atheistic” communism, while Soviet communism in particular sold itself as the last great defense against the evils of Nazism.

But they weren’t really all that far apart. The things they had in common are quite interesting, and understanding those common traits is crucial to guarding against a repeat of the atrocities they committed.

The first commonality is totalitarianism. Per the dictionary:

1:  centralized control by an autocratic authority
2:  the political concept that the citizen should be totally subject to an absolute state authority

It should be noted that the Nazis and Communists were by no means the first totalitarian governments. Empires since the dawn of history have often aspired to be totalitarian, and many have succeeded to some degree or another. The Roman Empire comes to mind as a particularly brutal government, which murdered dissidents and conquered and enslaved whenever it could. That’s just one example, of course. History is filled with them. The Inquisition itself was a totalitarian entity, with totalitarian ideals.

In many ways, the idea that government didn’t have the right or the duty to purge dissenters is a very modern idea, revolutionary in its time, and yet one of the bedrocks of modern democracies.

Rudolph Hummel, a historian who has written extensively on totalitarianism - and is often quoted by the religious right - believed that totalitarianism is the key commonality in large scale attrocities.

I find that religion or its lack – atheism – have hardly anything to do in general with wide-scale democide. The most important factor is totalitarian power. Whether a church, atheists, or agnostics have that power is incidental – it is having the power that is a condition of democide. Incidentally, some ideologies, such as communism, function psychologically and sociologically as though a religion. The only distinction is whether the subject is a god or a man, such as Marx, Lenin, Hirohito, Hitler, Mohammed, Kim Ill sung, Mao, etc.

The second commonality is ideology. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who had plenty of experience with Communism, pointed out that killing a few is easy to justify, but to kill millions, you need an ideology.

I use the term in this case to mean more than merely a set of political or philosophical beliefs. In that sense, any coherent belief system would be an ideology.

Rather, I use “ideology” in the same way Solzhenitsyn does: a belief that is held to be the single, unified answer to everything, and is worth killing for.

Ideology is a single narrative that explains everything in history, reduces every problem to one struggle, and envisions a utopia that is possible if the “right” side wins.

This clearly applies to both Nazism and Communism. To borrow from Steven Pinker:

“Marxist socialism, in which history is a glorious struggle between classes, culminating in the subjugation of the bourgeoisie and the supremacy of the proletariat.”

“National Socialism, in which history is a glorious struggle between races, culminating in the subjugation of inferior races and the supremacy of the Aryans.”

The similarity is easy to see. There is another commonality too: the belief in an apocalypse followed by a utopia. The workers would rise, eliminate private property, and usher in the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” the golden future age. The Aryans would purge the vile Jews, dominate the world, and usher in the 1000 year 3rd Reich.

As Pinker points out, this leads to a brutal calculus. If the good to be gained is infinite, that is, Utopia forever, then there is no cost too high. There is no slaughter too great when the end result is so good.

And Utopia is certainly an attractive idea, particularly if one’s real life is unpleasant.

As Hannah Arendt (another eloquent opponent of totalitarianism) notes, the source of the mass appeal of totalitarian regimes is their ideology, which provides a comforting, single answer to the mysteries of the past, present, and future. Everything can be answered, solved, and understood in light of that one idea.

Pinker also proposed three factors that turn an ideology pernicious and violent.

Tribalism, authoritarianism, and purity.

All three of these were present in Nazism and Communism. Tribalism can manifest itself as membership of a race and/or nation, as it did in Nazism - and generally in fascist regimes worldwide. It can also present as membership of a social or economic class, as in communism. It can be seen in any case where group membership becomes primal, whether that group is a religion, political party, race, nationality, or whatever. The minute the understanding of the world becomes “us versus them,” you have tribalism. Unsurprisingly, tribalism quickly leads to dehumanization of the “other.”

The second factor is authoritarianism, which is pretty obviously present in all totalitarian systems. The supreme leader commands unquestioning obedience.

The third factor is also crucial, and it flows from the first two. The “impure” elements must be purged for the good of the “pure.” The “other” has been dehumanized, and like vermin, must be exterminated. You can see this clearly in the Nazi experience. Not just the Jews, but the “Gypsies,” the homosexuals, the disabled, and many others were purged as “impurities.” For the great Aryan race to survive, all obstacles must be removed.

Likewise, in communism. Many of the purges were directed at the economic “other.” The wealthy, the educated. Others were directed at any potential dissenters, because ideological purity is all in all. As I noted regarding ideology, anyone who stands in the way of utopia is expendable.

I believe that you can see these traits in the religiously motivated atrocities as well. The Inquisition, for example, was Tribalist: anyone outside of the Roman Catholic tribe was targeted. Protestants, Jews, Muslims: all were fair game, and were slaughtered. Authority - namely church authority - was to be obeyed without question on all matters of conscience as well as practice. And there is no doubt that the goal of the Inquisition was to purge the impurities.

For a striking modern day example, take a look at fundamentalist Islam, which shows all the hallmarks: totalitarianism, ideology, tribalism, authoritarianism, and purity. And let’s not forget the apocalypse and the future utopia.

It’s kind of amazing once you start applying the pattern to the past. It generally fits, particularly when it comes to atrocities that cannot be explained by ordinary selfishness.

6. And one more:

It should not be forgotten that Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot all had one other thing in common: a cult of personality.

There is a reason that I can name these names without a moment’s hesitation: they were the very face of their respective systems to the degree that they are inseparable from it. It is hard to believe that just anyone could have commanded such unquestioning obedience. And in fact, it turns out that the terrible atrocities tended to fade away after the “dear leader’s” death.

While it was no picnic to live in the Soviet Union under, say, Khrushchev, there was hardly a massive purge under his tenure. (Even less so under Andropov or Brezhnev. Bonus points if you know when these two were in charge.)

You can likewise see significant changes after the death of the other “great” leaders. Without the cult of personality, the system cannot sustain the carnage.

One might note that in the case of Germany, not only did the holocaust cease after the defeat of the Nazis, it never got restarted. Despite the fact that Germany has become far less religious in the aftermath of WWII.

7. A false sense of security

One major attraction of the belief that atheism is the cause of communism and nazism is a sense of comfort. By believing that these horrors would not have occurred absent atheism, it is logical to conclude as well that “we would never do that.” Here is where a sense of history can be helpful, because it is an unavoidable conclusion that we very much could do that, and in fact, we often did do just that. If anything, the grand scale of slaughter in the 20th Century owes more to increased world population and increased efficiency of technology than anything else. The bloody ideologies of the more distant past hardly lacked the will, but lacked the means. As it was, on a per-population basis, the old wars killed as well as the new ones, and probably better, with the aid of starvation.

The reason I believe the sense of security is false is that the real commonalities in Nazism, Communism, and the Inquisition (and others) are uncomfortable to contemplate.

Because they implicate us.

The totalitarian instinct may be on the wane in many parts of the world, but it still dwells in us. The temptation to view the world in an ideological manner is strong. We truly want to be able to reduce the world’s problems and challenges to that one single thing. The “atheists versus Christians” dichotomy is an example of that. If we could just bring everyone to Jesus, everything would be great, and all problems would be solved. If we could just get rid of all these darn atheists, then we wouldn’t have to worry about mass murder any more.

And, if we are honest, the pull of the three evils of ideology is also quite strong. We want to believe in an “us versus them” worldview. We want to impose authoritarian structures. (Just look at the renewed push for “church discipline” in forms such as 9 Marks.) We want to purge impurity, whether it is in doctrine, or in practice, or even in race and nationality, as the recent debates about immigration have shown.  (Also, as I hope to discuss in a further post, for Evangelicals, “purity” is all about sex and doctrine related to sex.)

Do I think American Christians are about to initiate a Jihad of their own? Not really. But I do see some troubling signs of the same tendencies growing. Fortunately, I doubt that there will be enough concentrated power to actually “take America back™.” I also believe that the values of freedom and tolerance are still strong in our culture, in a way that they weren’t in Germany or Russia in the early 20th Century.

7. Why the false dichotomy hurts discourse

The damage done by the false belief that Atheism is responsible for Communism and Nazism is deep.

First, it creates an unnecessary antagonism, and furthers the pissing contest. 

Second, it eliminates the truly productive dialogue on how to fight ideological violence around the world. It blinds to the role that toxic religion plays in violence around the world, and misses the roles tribalism, authoritarianism, and purity in totalitarianism.

It also causes blindness when it comes to sociological factors, which should really be front and center in the discussion.

As Milton Mayer showed in They Thought They Were Free, an amazing book on the Nazi experience, the rise of the Nazis wasn’t a simple matter of everyone deciding to abandon the church and believe in Nazism. Rather, Hitler came to power through a combination of circumstances, the foremost of which was the economic woes and national humiliation Germany suffered in the wake of World War One. Without that, he would never have been able to seize power.

Likewise, Soviet Communism didn’t happen in a vacuum. There really was a genuine problem in Russia at the time, and the lower classes were indeed looking for a solution.

As history has shown, Nazism and Communism were really bad solutions to the problems. However, those problems were very real too. One can easily (and correctly) say that Stalin’s purges were a bad thing. It is harder to say that starving serfs were a good thing. The “cure” may (or not) have been worse than the disease, but the disease was still very, very real.

The same can be said about the other countries that turned communist by revolution rather than conquest. There were real problems, without which, communism would never have looked like a solution.

One might even say that another historical atrocity, the Terror that followed the French Revolution, was also a horridly bad solution to a genuine problem.

I believe there is a lesson to be learned. Unfortunately, it is one that the religious Right isn’t particularly interested in learning right now.

The stability of any society or government or economic system will be threatened when enough people feel revolution is a better deal than what they have within the system. If the deal seems unfair enough to enough people, they are liable to tear up the social contract.

Yes, sometimes this pushes them into an even worse situation. But not always. (See the English Civil Wars for a positive example.) 

In light of these historical realities, I would have thought that there would be a little more concern about rising inequality in both income and wealth, and a lowering of social mobility. Those things generally do not lead to good things down the road. Now, it’s entirely possible - indeed probable - that a democracy will make the corrections necessary to adjust the social contract. But a system that doesn’t self-correct is vulnerable to revolution.

And those are things we need to be talking about when we discuss totalitarian systems of the past.

8. Attacking atheists doesn’t serve a constructive purpose

I’m often not sure what we are trying to accomplish here. Is blaming atheists for evil in the past likely to convince them of anything? Not really, particularly since the accusation is pretty easily refuted with some actual facts. Rather, it is more likely to convince atheists that we are more interested in looking good than in the truth.

That leads me to another thought. If I were trying to convince a neutral observer to become a Christian, I wouldn’t sit there yelling about how bad the atheists are. That would just make me look petty and vindictive. This would be compounded if I were in denial about the bad stuff in my religion’s past. I would just look like someone in denial, talking trash about others to hide my own weaknesses.

This is more than an academic exercise. Our children are watching all this play out. Chances are, if they do not already have atheist friends, they someday will. And it will become apparent that a lot of the name-calling isn’t accurate at all. And, if they go outside the bubble and actually study history, they may be a bit shaken when they discover that the “Christians versus Atheists” paradigm doesn’t really work well to explain history.

I’ve said this before, but I don’t think the primary barrier to faith in our time is intellectual. I believe it is moral. To a large degree, we expect people not just to check their brains at the door, but to actually believe lies and slander about others - and slander them ourselves. It requires one to leave his conscience at the door as well. And that is a step that is hard to take for anyone who is genuinely moral.

9. Attacking Atheists distracts from the more serious problems facing Evangelicalism

There seems to be this belief that Atheism is the greatest threat facing the Evangelical church right now.

I believe this is utterly false.

First, let me note that I came out of the Christian Patriarchy cult. One of the things that I and many others have noticed is how many of the people we know from that period in our lives have completely left the faith. Many of them are not at all shy about why.

Oddly, I can’t think of anyone who just randomly heard Dawkins or Hitchens blame religion for evil, and then decided to change their beliefs.

Instead, deconversion took place after a long period of serious reflection, exploration, and a gradual realization that many of the things they were taught were not exactly true. In most cases, this was precipitated, not by curiosity, but by deep hurt and damage. (I know this isn’t the only scenario, but it sure is common.)

The greatest threat to the faith of Evangelicals lies within, not outside the church.

I am reminded again of an outstanding comment on a video by John Piper (wherein he advises abused women to stay and endure a beating):

“Richard Dawkins wishes he were as effective as this video at convincing people that Christianity is a morally bankrupt mess.”

If you want to look at the greatest threat, look no further than this. Evangelicalism’s disturbingly high tolerance for false teachers is a huge problem. In particular, the fact that so many within Evangelicalism have embraced a Victorian view of gender and authority makes it extremely difficult for many to remain in the faith. It requires one to embrace evil. And even those within Evangelicalism who do not preach this seem unwilling to warn that these teachings are as false and evil as anything preached by the cults.

Similarly, compare the Religious Right’s political record and rhetoric (Donald Trump, anyone?) with the teachings of Christ. Not much in common, I would say.

But rather than confront the evil within, it is much more fun to just blame everything on the atheists.

I believe this also runs counter to what we know of the founder of our Faith. Jesus Christ himself spent little time dissing the godless Romans. His focus was on the true source of evil in his own culture: the established religious authorities. Likewise today, the pressing source of evil is not coming from without. It is right in our midst.

Hitting back may indeed feel good for a while, but it is ultimately counterproductive, historically inaccurate, and damaging to the faith of those who take the time to study history.  


Update, September 21, 2015: Just for fun, the 10 reasons to be afraid of atheists...

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  1. "The stability of any society or government or economic system will be threatened when enough people feel revolution is a better deal than what they have within the system."

    This is what bothers me about what I'm starting to hear from the religious Right, esp. in the wake of the gay marriage decision. They are starting to describe the government as "lawless" and justifying behavior they perceive as resisting tyranny. All because one SCOTUS decision went a way they don't like. At the same time, Trump is gaining mass appeal. So basically, we're angry, we're unhappy, we feel threatened, so hey, let's give an unapologetic narcissist access to the nuclear button and control of the military. I'm going to frank here, that scares me. A lot. That's the stupidest kind of revolution talk possible. I think oftentimes, Americans not only forget that they live in one of the only countries where revolution didn't end in something like purges and genocide, they don't understand WHY it didn't end in purges and genocide (which is, at least partly, because the Founding Fathers weren't cult of personality egotists like Hitler and Stalin). This leads them to be flippant about revolution because, hey, it worked last time, right?

    Of course many of these folks are the same people who attend megachurches and follow celebrity preachers, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised. If all you get in church is the cult of personality, it's only natural you would want it in your politics too…esp. when you've made a point of mixing church and politics as much as you can.

    Another thing that happens here is that otherwise sensible Christians will put up with anybody as long as they go up against the atheists. Case in point, an otherwise (mostly) non-weirdo complementarian I saw in a combox this week, quasi-defending Doug Wilson because, well, he did debate Christopher Hitchens once and a lot of people thought he beat him. Sorry, but a lot of people disagree with Christopher Hitchens. The difference is, none of them have covered for child molesters. Publicly arguing with atheists is not a moral qualification in and of itself.

    1. A lot to think about there.

      The appeal of Trump disturbs me too, but for a different reason. Trump, if elected, would be more in the Groucho Marx character category as a president than a true danger. Where I find myself concerned is that the reason he has an appeal (other than his supposed "outsider" status) is his unabashed white nationalist rhetoric. When 47% of likely Republican voters say that immediate deportation of 11 million brown skinned people is the best way to address immigration, that is a real concern. I don't know if you saw Reinham Salam's article in Slate, but the GOP seems to be drifting toward a European right wing identity, which is that of xenophobia and (white) racial anger. Whatever else one can say about that, I cannot believe that it is in harmony with the teachings of Christ.

      You are so right about Doug Wilson and his debate with Chris Hitchens. I am still baffled as to how mainstream Christianity doesn't find him to be worse than the Mormans, but apparently the lure of a gender role-based "gospel" is much stronger than I would have thought.

      For what it's worth, one thing that gives me hope that all the posturing about "revolution" won't actually go anywhere is the fact that, in any poll I have seen, the primary drive against gay marriage is coming from the Baby Boomers. Since they would undoubtedly have the most to lose from a revolution, I can't see them actually starting one. The young people, who have always been key to any revolution, are more likely to be embarrassed by what the religious right is doing right now.

      I love your point about the cult of personality in the church. Isn't that why Gothard had such a long run? And why Wilson continues to be paid?

      I have no idea when I will get the time, but if I can, I want to blog about Wilson and his covering for child molesters. Come to think of it, you haven't done a post in a while. If you write something, I'll link it when I write.

    2. Yeah, the more realistic side of my brain doesn't actually think any theocratic or semi-theocratic revolution will ever actually materialize. I also have serious doubts whether Trump will actually ever get anywhere near the White House - he has a year or so to torpedo himself and ample ability to do so. And yeah, there is no way my generation (20-somethings) would ever mobilize in large enough numbers for a religious right revolution.

      I didn't see the Slate article. I have seen at least some overlap in MRA circles (which, to be fair, don't represent the majority of Republicans) with European right-wingers. I recall reading once about a white nationalist kind of guy from Finland. I'm not familiar with European politics, though, so in general I wouldn't know.

      I do need to get the blog rolling again. I was preoccupied and busy over the summer for various reasons. I did get to visit Badlands National Park in SD and Theodore Roosevelt NP in ND, though, and Devils Tower. I enjoy your posts about national parks, by the way. They make me want to get in better shape so I can hike more. :-)

    3. I need to post some more National Park pictures and stuff. We have seen seven new ones this year alone, and I have some photos I am rather proud of. (Including lightning at Arches NP.)

  2. I think you did a good job breaking down the "building blocks", so to speak, of totalitarianism. It certainly helped me to understand it better than I did previously. A well-written and excellent post overall.

    1. If I might recommend four books regarding this topic, they would be:

      1. The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker. Just an outstanding work on violence throughout history.

      2. The Opium of the Intellectuals by Raymond Aron. On how Nazism and Stalinism resemble religions.

      3. They Thought They Were Free by Milton Meyer (in print again!) On the rise of the Nazis.

      4. Why Society Needs Dissent by Cass Sunstein. An outstanding work on understanding how fundamentalism feeds itself.

    2. Neat! Thanks!

      When I was younger (late teens/early adulthood), I remember the rabid right-wingers I used to identify myself with howling about how Cass Sunstein was Satan Incarnate due to some books he wrote about demographic change. Now that I'm older, I'm happy to have a look at his works.

      By the way, if you're interested in reading a bit more about the Nazis, have a look at "Hitler's War" by David Irving. Though he has a reputation as a Holocaust-denier, Irving's book is actually a really well-written, thoroughly researched and compiled piece of work detailing the rise and fall of the Nazis and Hitler. I had a professor in college recommend that book to the class for it's scholarly merit. Just food for thought.

  3. I have said many times that there is no room in Biblical Christianity for any kind of us-vs-them mindset, since any "them" is at least a potential "us." We do ourselves and God no service by framing all debates as "We have the truth and you don't!" And it's ludicrous to insist that no atheists etc. are good people. We all know someone or several who don't believe as we do but are competent, compassionate and charismatic (in the larger sense). It's reasonable to suppose that there are many good folks in every religion, including the religion of atheism.

    1. I am sorry but I don't understand how it can be possibly said that Biblical Christianity is not us-versus-them. If anything, Biblical Christianity is exactly about us-versus-them: saved versus condemned, children of God versus children of this world, lightness versus darkness, and so on. This is reinforced in the Bible over and over again, just a few examples in 1 John 5:19, Matthew 12:30, Mark 9:40 and so on. The whole New Testament is exactly framed as "we have truth and you don't". Yes, this is not the militant version "wemust destroy them" but rather "we must make them like we are", but nevertheless it's always us-versus-them.

      There are some branches of Christianity which lean towards universalism and rejection of this us-versus-them mentality (like progressive Christianity) but they always do it at the expense of the Bible, because only by rejecting some parts of the Bible this can be actually done.

    2. "We must make them like we are." That way lies the Inquisition.

      This also assumes that one can tell who the "us" is and who the "them" is. From my reading of the life of Christ, He seemed pretty convinced that many - perhaps most - of those who were *sure* they were the "us" turned out to actually be the "them." Those who had no interest in entering the Kingdom, but were hell-bent on keeping everyone else out too. And these people were not the pagans or atheists. This is also true today, where many of those who are sure they are the "us" are actively working against the Kingdom of God, while claiming they are doing the opposite.

      I am also reminded of the parable of the wheat and the tares. The field isn't the "church." It is the world. And today as well, we cannot look out into the world and tell who is the "us" and who is the "them." That job will be done in the future - but not by us. The best we can do is to look at the fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Looking at the fruit, there is much that is rotten within so-called "Biblical Christianity," and plenty that is good outside of it.

  4. Interesting post, Tim, and I’m glad that you mentioned Arendt. Both “The Origins of Totalitarianism” and “Eichmann in Jerusalem” are worth reading. Sorry for yet another unsolicited recommendation. I know it’s obnoxious, but sometimes I just can’t resist.

    Your essay did inspire me to take “The Origins of Totalitarianism” down from the bookshelf and browse through my highlights. One of the things that I had forgotten was the Nazi’s use of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” as not only a mechanism to denounce the Jewish people, but also a model for governance. The fact that they were a known forgery didn’t matter. Stalinist propaganda used the claim of a Trotskyite conspiracy in the same manner. Interestingly, the Protocols originated in Russia to blame Jews for manipulating social reform, and after the Russian Revolution were employed again to attack the Bolsheviks. Even today, despite being labeled a forgery by many governments, it is still circulated and used as propaganda. The enemy is always the "other.”

    1. I really do need to read some Arendt. I think I've read a few magazine articles, but that's it.

      Great history about the use of obvious forgeries by totalitarian regimes. The world of "newspeak" lives.

      The whole "othering" problem is really the heart of the issue. Once someone becomes an "other," it is inevitable that they will be dehumanized, and once dehumanized, expendable.