~~ Atheism as a Moral Framework ~~
For many of us, we were raised in a religious community where a perception of moral dependency was fraudulently inculcated upon us. If Christianity (or any religion) is deemed unable to provide an adequate framework for morality, the inevitable follow-up question becomes, "should we replace that void with atheism?" I've always found this question to be a bit misleading as it depends wholly on the presumption that religion forms the basis for morality in the first place. As I've demonstrated using nothing more than common sense and common examples, it doesn't. Morality can exist without a celestial big brother watching our every move and listening to our every thought, yet I have no intention of trying to make a case that atheism and agnosticism somehow make people more moral. Whether we believe in God or not, God is irrelevant in this equation. I wouldn't advocate for atheism as a moral framework any more than I would advocate for the lack of belief in pixies, Bigfoot, or leprechauns in determining morality. From a practical perspective, empathy is a bigger contributor to morality than God could ever hope to be. Reason, logic, discussion, and consensus all make more significant contributions to morality than God. None of these characteristics are the exclusive domain of atheism and agnosticism however because the potential for each already exists in us irrespective of religious belief. Nevertheless, these discussions always follow the same thread and someone will unavoidably bring up Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler as examples of what will happen when religion doesn't play a central role in our moral framework.
Even though he was raised Christian and was educationally prepared to enter the priesthood, by all accounts Joseph Stalin was an atheist. Millions of people were sent to the Gulag under Stalin and more than one million died in these forced labor camps. His actions were deplorable and will remain a stain on the history of our world, but it is important to note that none of these actions were committed precisely due to unbelief in God in the same manner that they weren't conducted because of his unbelief in alchemy, unicorns, or dancing elves. Just because Stalin didn't believe in God does not mean that this unbelief systematically influenced any of the atrocities to which have been attributed to him. Persuasive evidence suggesting that atheism was somehow the guiding force behind his actions while in power simply doesn't exist, therefore this argument shouldn't exist. Atheism is the absence of belief - it has absolutely no divine objects or methods of worship, no special rituals, and no sacred texts.
Nearly seven decades after his death, determining Adolf Hitler's religion still brings about debate and discussion. Hitler was born and raised Catholic. Until his dying day, he never formally renounced his Catholicism and interestingly enough the Catholic Church has never excommunicated Hitler nor any other leader of the Third Reich. We can find quotes from Hitler throughout his life both supporting Christianity as well as denouncing it. We can even find support for anti-atheism. Speaking before the Reichstag in March 1933, Hitler denounced any compromises with atheistic organizations and asserted that the consequences of compromise would cause the "destruction of our common religious and ethical values. The national Government sees in both Christian denominations the most important factor for the maintenance of our society."
Point 24 of the Programme for Hitler's German Workers' Party (essentially a pre-Nazi constitution) states that the "Party, as such, stands for positive Christianity, but does not bind itself in the matter of creed to any particular confession."
Speaking in Passau in October 1928, Hitler remarked "We are a people of different faiths, but we are one. Which faith conquers the other is not the question; rather, the question is whether Christianity stands or falls.... We tolerate no one in our ranks who attacks the ideas of Christianity... in fact our movement is Christian. We are filled with a desire for Catholics and Protestants to discover one another in the deep distress of our own people."
When Hitler addressed the people of Germany for the first time as Chancellor, he told them "It will take Christianity, as the basis of our collective morality, and the family as the nucleus of our Volk and state, under its firm protection....May God Almighty take our work into his grace, give true form to our will, bless our insight, and endow us with the trust of our Volk."
When Hitler signed the Nazi-Vatican Concordat in 1933, he stated that "Secular schools can never be tolerated because such schools have no religious instruction, and a general moral instruction without religious foundation is built on air; consequently all character training and religion must be derived from faith."
In Koblenz in 1934, Hitler remarked "National Socialism neither opposes the Church nor is it anti-religious, but on the contrary it stands on the ground of a real Christianity ... For their interests cannot fail to coincide with ours alike in our fight against the symptoms of degeneracy in the world of today, 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 ... These are not anti-Christian, these are Christian principles!"
In a speech given in Munich on April 12, 1922, Hitler positively gushes about his Christianity as a moral force for driving out the Jews:
My feelings as a Christian point me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded 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. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders ... As a Christian I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice ... For as a Christian, I have also a duty to my own people.
One thing we know for sure is that Adolf Hitler was a hostile anti-Semite. This was certainly in line with Catholic beliefs at the time which is why I believe the Catholic Church bears some responsibility for the Holocaust having incited hatred of Jews for many centuries. The Church taught its followers that the Jews collectively were responsible for the death of Jesus. Sadly, it wouldn't be until 1964 that the Catholic Church would finally formally "reject the charge of deicide against the Jews and condemn anti-Semitism." The Catholic Church was responsible for allowing Hitler to feed off a vitriolic anti-Semitic environment. In Mein Kampf Hitler explicitly states that he is "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." In fact, Hitler makes multiple references throughout Mein Kampf to Christianity as the only answer to the Jewish problem. He chastises Christians who would "debase themselves to beg for Jewish votes. They even enter into political intrigues with the atheistic Jewish parties against the interests of their own Christian nation."
In a speech given in Munich on May 1, 1923, Hitler said "We have faith that one day Heaven will bring the Germans back into a Reich over which there shall be no Soviet star, no Jewish star of David, but above that Reich there shall be the symbol of German labor - the Swastika. And that will mean that the first of May has truly come." Heaven is a religious concept and is meant to insinuate that the Lord will usher the German people into a position over the Jews.
It is impossible to untangle Christianity and the concept of the Jew as Christ-killer from Adolf Hitler's legacy. This wasn't merely a position endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church. It was a widely-held belief among Lutherans as well. Martin Luther was as anti-Semite as they came. He would also serve as inspiration for Hitler's malevolence towards Jews. A reading of On the Jews and Their Lies by Martin Luther describes Jews as a "base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth." Section XI explicitly advises Christians to burn Jewish synagogues and schools, raze Jewish homes, execute any rabbi who preaches, and to enslave Jews as agricultural slaves. Toward the end of his life, Martin Luther absolutely despised Jews and advocated for their persecution. After the Nazis seized power, the Protestant Churches and the Nazi Party held large celebrations marking the 450th anniversary of Martin Luther's birth.
Speaking to General Gerhard Engel in 1941, Hitler remarked "I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so." In the three years that followed however, Hitler would give remarks through a series of conversations referred to as Hitler's Table Talk in which he would be critical of religion and Christianity in particular. His secretary would record him saying "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." In the Henry Picker and Werner Jochmann versions, Hitler would suggest that Jesus' resurrection wasn't physical but rather spiritual. These quotes and others like them wouldn't seem to paint Hitler as a true Christian.
People continue to debate Hitler's religious beliefs even today. It was the opinion of Joseph Goebbels, one of Hitler's closest friends and Reich Minister of Propaganda, that Hitler was "deeply religious but entirely anti-Christian."44 The truth is that Hitler was most certainly not an atheist any more than he was a practicing, believing Catholic. He saw religion for what it was (and still is) - a way to control and influence a great number of people. The German people were religious so it would have been very problematic for Hitler to not be, or at the very least to portray himself in that manner. By most accounts, he revered the figure of an Aryan Jesus Christ even if he was opposed to the dogma of organized religion.
What can't and mustn't be overlooked here are the actions of the German people. Hitler's religious affiliation can be debated, but the religious makeup of the German people and the Nazis isn't open for debate. The population was overwhelmingly Christian - 54% were Protestant and 40% were Catholic per the German census of 1939. This means that roughly 94% of the people physically carrying out the atrocities in the camps and on the streets were Christian. On the belt buckle of every German soldier was the inscription "Gott Mit Uns" or "God with us". These are inconvenient facts for those who try to portray religion as loving and benign. Even if it could somehow be proven that Hitler was an atheist, the fact that religion could be exploited to motivate and morally justify these actions against Jews by Christians requires a believer to ignore the dangers of religion in the first place. Atheism was not a moral guiding force to either the soldiers killing Jews at Auschwitz or to the chain of command who ordered such horrors in the same way that Christianity wasn't a deterrent. The inescapable fact is that Christianity failed tragically to serve as a framework for morality.
The problem with trying to associate atheism to the horrors and atrocities committed by people like Stalin and Hitler is that they never committed these horrors and atrocities because of their lack of religious beliefs. At no point did unbelief in a divine being lead to genocide. Unlike such events as the Inquisition conducted by the Roman Catholic Church, a lack of belief in a supernatural deity didn't prompt or give perceived legitimacy to these men when committing those crimes. Stalin and Hitler didn't commit their atrocities "because" they were atheists in the same way that they didn't commit their atrocities "because" they both had mustaches. There is no atheistic doctrine justifying genocide and mass murder because there is no atheistic doctrine in the first place. The Holocaust was not a result of the German people or its leadership not believing in God. It's hard to fathom how an atheistic society, if built upon the teachings of minds like Thomas Jefferson, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Paine, Lucretius, Socrates, Spinoza, and Albert Einstein could find itself with these types of human atrocities. As Sam Harris points out, these events did not occur because those societies became too attached to critical thinking and too demanding of evidence.
These men were totalitarians...plain and simple. Totalitarianism isn't an atheistic position. One need only look to the Middle East or North Korea to find examples of both religious totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. These types of regimes do not share secular views and are in fact more closely aligned with many religious values. It's common in both religious as well as totalitarian societies to place a high value on not questioning the ethical doctrine of the leadership, putting blind trust and faith ahead of free thinking, and enforcing conformity. Critical thinking and skepticism are not openly welcomed. If they were, the Roman Catholic Church would have changed its stance on items like women's equality, slavery, homosexuality, and contraception many centuries ago. Blasphemy wouldn't warrant a death sentence under Sharia. Family members wouldn't be shunned among the Amish or Jehovah's Witnesses. Citizens wouldn't have been enslaved or tortured in Iraq, Iran, Syria, or North Korea for simply challenging the doctrines espoused by the regime's leadership. The questioning of authority was discouraged in the totalitarian regimes of Stalin and Hitler much in the same way that the questioning of authority is discouraged in religion. Mormons are not actively encouraged to speak out against the prophet and President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for example. Catholics are not actively encouraged to speak out against the Pope. Throughout history, how many Muslim societies have actively encouraged their faithful to speak out against high-ranking clerics?
Now draw a comparison to the more secular environment of the United States where we are actively encouraged and frequently do speak out against our leadership. It is one of our duties as members of a free society. Our secular laws provide us with that freedom. Whether living under a totalitarian or theocratic regime, that type of freedom is often not afforded to the masses and this is an important distinction.
History has shown us that religion is not a moral barrier to immoral actions and virtually every religion has blood on its hands. In fact, many egregious atrocities have been committed by those who believed that they had God on their side. Many crimes throughout history have been religiously motivated and even religiously justified. The same can't be said about atheism. If we were to look at the history of the 1920's and 30's for example and replace the word "facism" with "Catholic right wing", we wouldn't need to rewrite a single page of history.
The appalling nature of genocide is one thing that both believers and non-believers can generally agree upon. There is no place in a positive, moral society for this. The practice of genocide should never be condoned whether it's being committed by Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, or Mao Zedong. Genocide is immoral. If believers and non-believers can agree on that basic principle, then it is worth asserting that we shouldn't condone the genocide committed by the God of the Abrahamic faiths either. In 1 Samuel 15:2-3, we have God Himself ordering the slaughter of every Amalekite saying "Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys."
The God of the Old Testament is no stranger to genocide. He commands it and this is why we don't find Amalekites living next door to us today. If someone wishes to deplore the genocidal crimes of men like Stalin and Hitler, they would do well to include in that same breathe the God that billions of people pray to today. If we are comparing body counts and the absolutism of genocide, the same God of the Old Testament who ordered a genocidal worldwide flood would be less moral than Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, and Mao Zedong...combined.
The real root of the problem here lies not with a specific religion or atheism but rather dogma. The established beliefs and doctrines that are drilled into the masses is where thoughts go to become actions. Stalinism and Nazism were both dogmas. Those Germans who fell victim to the dogma that the Aryan race was superior and Jews were inferior put those beliefs into action. When someone falls victim to the dogma that the infidel should never set foot on perceived holy land, irrational and inhumane actions are sure to follow. We can look at each of these examples and reasonably conclude that the atheistic principles of demanding evidence for belief never played a significant factor. For a religious person to blame the atrocities of Stalin or Hitler on atheism is misguided at best and ignorant at worst.