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Finding Faith in Faith

This blog is dedicated to exploring the intersections of faith and politics, the intricacies of religious culture and the struggle to balance devotion to a higher being and to one’s culture.

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Name: jrichard

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Fundamental Errors in History

This post is the first installment of series of three to continue the pondering critique I started in my Fundamental Errors post.

In this post, I will be discussing the politics of history as well as attacking a few logical errors mentioned in that previous post.

First, I find the claim that secular humanism (and the false dichotomy presented between it and Christianity) is the root of most of the pain and suffering in the world to be quite laughable. The worldview of secular humanism emerged rather recently, as cultural time is measured. Secular humanism simply did not exist during World War II, much less during the Enlightenment. To be able to even address Dr. Kennedy’s claims about history, I must assume that we’re dealing with some kind of primordial essence of secular humanism, or simply buy into Kennedy’s notion of atheism and secular humanism being some kind of singular political movement that has existed throughout Western history. I think this idea is absurd, but will have to grant these false assumptions in order to critique the specific claims.

The specific claims I want to explore? That “atheism” (and by Kennedy’s extension, “secular humanism”) led to the rise of Nazism and communism and had contributed to “more deaths than all of history’s wars.” Also, I will be addressing Dr. Kennedy’s complementary claims that atheism led to the outbreak of World War I, World War II, the rise of Adolph Hitler, the outbreak of the Cold War and finally, Saddam Hussein’s torture chambers.

Nazism as atheism? I hear this quite a bit, but never from a professional historian or from someone who seems to be a student of history. Nazism began as a religiously based socialist movement. After the economic crisis of the late 1920s and early 1930s, the people began to look to the extreme left (the communists) and the extreme right (the Nazis) to help the nation recover form the crisis.

Adolph Hitler was able to position himself to become Chancellor or Germany on the death of President Hindenburg and then was able to use his new authority to coalesce his power by outlawing the leftist and centrist groups.

Where this power was concentrated is important tot this discussion, because in direct contradiction to Dr. Kennedy’s assertion of atheism leading to Nazism, Hitler (a Catholic) mounted a political (and eventually, a military campaign) against the Jews and the Communists, two groups he was able to demonize because of their “non-Christian beliefs and values.”

The rise of Nazism is a product of the right wing of a society gaining ultimate control of the government’s bureaucracy and the use of this control to remove the other counterbalancing cultural influences. The rise of Nazism is a story of one extremely convicted group of people establishing a set of cultural norms based on their religious and political views, the manipulation of a society to adopt these views out of a sense of social duty and religious fervor and then the reconstruction of a society around defending these norms as if they were God’s will.

Far from being a movement based on the tenants of atheism, I suspect that the story of the rise of Nazism presents us with a morality play of the dangers of religious intolerance and racial hate.

This survey leads me directly into the second major claim that atheism led to the rise of communism. While it is easy to see why so many make this connection, it is intellectually dishonest to presume that communism and atheism go hand in hand. It is certainly true that Karl Marx saw religion as a tool of oppression designed to keep the lower classes entrenched below and elite class. However, the recognition of this view does not speak to the intricacies of whether or not a person who agrees with Marx’s view of organized religion can still believe in a higher being.

This is a subtle point often lost on critics of communism, and particularly those who think only of the Soviet model of communism, which sought to outlaw religion to free the people. There is nothing inherently atheistic about communism, but there is quite a bit of friction between communism and Western religious authorities. Communism seeks to make all citizens equal, and finds all sources of cultural authority to be manipulative and twisted in the end.

However, it is understandable to see why so many associate atheism with communism, for many Marxists of the WWII era were, in fact, atheists. However, this only underscores Dr. Kennedy’s mistaken assumption that atheism is a movement that led to both Nazism and Soviet communism, since the two systems were ideologically opposed over matters of faith and religious practice. To associate Nazis and communists together as a group, even as a group that have similar philosophical origins, is an error of the highest magnitude. The social philosophies underpinning each movement could not be more different, and even the most cursory investigation into European history of the early 20th Century would encounter evidence that these groups could not have been politically, theologically or philosophically related.

As to the outbreak of both World Wars, it is generally accepted that the root causes of those global conflicts were the same as the causes for most wars: scarcity of resources, the build up of military prowess and the increasing intolerance between societies with different cultural values. The Germans, the Americans, the French, the Italians and the British all saw themselves as acting according to the will of the Christian God. If atheists had a role in either of those wars, it was most likely as the victims of ideological intolerance.

Similarly, the outbreak of the Cold War can be viewed as an extension of the World War II conflict. The alliance between the USSR and America was an uneasy one at best. Ideologically, America had more in common with Germany’s economic system than with Soviet communism, and the moment that Germany officially surrendered, America and the Soviet Union were placed in an awkward position of being the two most powerful nations in the world with completely incompatible economic and social structures.

Again, Soviet Communism certainly had an anti-religious component, but the Cold War was neither started nor fought over matters of faith (or the lack thereof).

As to Saddam’s torture chambers, it is certainly true that the Baathist regime that controlled Iraq is the lone secular government in the Muslim world. However, I don’t see the atrocities of Saddam and his henchman as being a direct output of their secular approach to government. Iran, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan are all locations where similar atrocities have occurred, and the lack of secular authority in these nations does not seem to have made much difference in the practice of torturing dissidents to the status quo.

And I noticed Dr. Kennedy seems to have ignored the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and several other moments in history that make his assertions all the more problematic.

To sum up these belabored points, I think to portray Nazism, communist, the Baathist movement, the outbreak of both World Wars, the outbreak of the Cold War and even the current War on Terrorism as natural outputs of atheism is historically incorrect and intellectually dishonest. History is a complex construction of facts, attitudes and politics and the generalize whole segments of complexity into poorly defined straw man constructs is morally indefensible, particularly coming from someone providing spiritual leadership to so many people.

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