"Of course, as has been recently pointed out by the American intellectual James Bowman, since 1900, 'The great atheistic faiths of Communism and Nazism killed far more people than religion had managed to do in a comparable period of time', so the equation that John Lennon made in his popular song Imagine between there being no heaven or hell and "No religion too" with "living with peace" is an illegitimate one, however seductive."
- Andrew Roberts, A History of the English Speaking Peoples Since 1900: Phoenix: 2006, p. 197.
Such a statement cannot go unchallenged. There are a number of errors with such this absurd claim and, despite the apparent unwillingness of Andrew Roberts to engage in any form of critical examination, religious dogma disguised as historical inquiry should always be met with facts. The most obvious point is that atheism is by definition, not faith based at all.
The statement will be unpacked into the following categories:
(1) The false claim that Nazi Germany was an “atheist empire”
(2) The overestimation of religion as a motive for Communist murders and persecution
(3) The strength of a secular state in avoiding theistic warfare
(4) The absurdity of “a comparable time” when comparing 20th Century warfare with a thousands of years of religious persecution
(5) The morality of even comparing belief systems on a basis of ‘we killed less’
Nazi Germany was not an empire of atheists and had a distinctively Christian agenda. The fact that Hitler persecuted those Christian leaders who refused to follow Nazi party policy does not disallow his own Christian faith. The English Protestants who were engaged in burning Irish Catholic churches in the 16th Century were not known to question their innate Christianity, nor were the Catholic French who laid waste to the continent during the religious wars in the 16th Century.
Nor was Hitler’s destruction of churches universal or absolute. More than a few Protestant and Catholic churches accepted Nazi public policy regarding religious practise in Hitler’s Germany.
“A decline in churchgoing was seen in connection with the rise of godless atheism and the triumph of Marxist materialism. By the end of the Weimar Republic, the more radical elements in the Church were openly supportive of volkisch nationalism of the Nazi variety as the vehicle to producing a unity of Christian and political revivalism among the German people.” (Ian Kershaw, Hitler: Pearson Education, 2001, page 101).
“A few examples of newspaper accounts of unacceptable church meddling in politics include one of a Protestant pastor who dedicated his Sunday sermon to the Nazis and referred to them as the liberators of Germany, a Protestant pastor who publicly blessed the Nazi flag and then marched in a Nazi Party demonstration…and a Protestant pastor who allowed a steel helmet, a sword, and a pistol to be laid upon the altar, hung a swastika flag above the pulpit, and according to the newspaper, was a leader of a Hitler Youth troop.” (William Brustein, The Social Origins of the Nazi Party, 1925-1933: 1996: Yale College, pp. 44-45).
As for Hitler himself, the overwhelming evidence points to him maintaining his Christian beliefs and applying those beliefs to his policies.
“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.” (Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf): source: http://www.nobelief.com/.
nobelief.com has an extensive list of Hitler quotes relating to religion. One would suggest that Roberts should take a tour of the site.
The most glaringly obvious of these applications was the Nazi answer to the ‘Jewish Question’. The European Jewish community were persecuted with a concentration and volume never before experienced in human history. However, this was never an atheist agenda. There has never been any evidence brought forward to suggest that atheists have ever harboured any ill will towards Jews before the rise of Hitler, nor any to suggest any grudges have developed since. There is however, a mountain of evidence of the widespread Christian hatred towards the Jews that existed well before Hitler’s arrival. Hitler’s policies were a product of, rather than the instigation for, those old hatreds.
Secondly, the rise to prominence on an avowed atheist in a deeply Christian Germany in unlikely, despite the pressing issues of widespread unemployment and starvation. While a reason to change governments or ideals, these have not proven historically to be pressing enough complaints to force a community to abandon their religious convictions. The Irish Potato Famine of 1845, did not result in mass atheism; neither did the spread of the Bubonic Plague in the 14th Century, nor the Great Depression cause a seismic shift in belief in any capitalist nation.
Many of the German people followed Hitler in his persecution of the Jews with, at times, enthusiasm, (see Hitler’s Willing Executioners by Daniel J. Goldhagen), while others simply stood aside. Even fewer Germans stood up to his villainy, heroic considering the anti-Semitism apparent in Germany for generations. For these people at least, simple humanity and decency won over grudges passed on from father to son over the centuries. And while the doctrine of the Hitler cult was taught in the school setting and amongst the Hitler Youth, the Bible was still being read at congregations and German soldiers were still hearing the Psalms and saying their prayers before battle, particularly on the Russian front. Such a deeply Christian nation did not turn into committed non-believers, regardless of the deep feelings they may have had towards Hitler. Instead, they followed a professed Christian who was raised to carry the same religious prejudices towards the Jews as them and who fostered other, more political and social hatreds, towards gypsies, the mentally handicapped and foreigners generally.
The religious historian’s claim that Hitler was simply a clever atheist who used such deep seated hatreds towards his won political ends raises a conundrum that has yet to be adequately explained away as such claims are usually accompanied by claims that Christian Germans were merely following orders so as to save their own lives and that of their families.
Here is the conundrum: if Hitler was an atheist using Christian hatreds against them he has therefore been given the leadership of the German nation by the majority Christian community in exchange for Jewish blood. The fault of the Holocaust would therefore lie not with Hitler but with the willing Christian executioners who made such a trade. Also, if such a scenario indeed existed, as the religious historians would have us believe, the German people could not have been simply following orders but were, in a round-a-bout way, dictating Hitler’s brutal and homicidal policy.
However, it is unlikely that the above scenario was the case. Hitler’s ranting biography Mein Kampf was no illusion to deceive the religious masses. It was a statement of rabid anti-Semitism that was certainly overkill if his main aim was deceiving the Christian majority into supporting his cause. In fact, a clear indication of Hitler’s very Christian dedication to his anti-Semitism can be seen in his continuation of the policy long after Germany’s war in Europe was lost. His dedication to utterly destroying the entire Jewish race even after it was apparent, even to Hitler, that Germany was to be invaded and that Hitler himself would not survive, bears all the hallmarks of religious fanaticism. It is highly unlikely that an atheist Hitler, pursuing a policy of persecution against the Jews in exchange for German Christian support of his power, would continue to do so even after his power has been stripped away and his nation lay in ruins.
Rather, Germany was a Christian nation led by a ruthless, (not the first), Christian ruler who was obsessed with prosecuted a centuries old Christian grudge.
Labelling Stalin’s communist Russia as an ‘atheist state’ is misleading. While the communist regime undoubtedly promoted atheism by violently persecuting the church and all other religious, this was simply not their main agenda, nor was this the cause of the vast majority of deaths by communist hands. So stating that Communism was an ‘atheist state’ as if it were akin to Protestant England or Catholic France in the 16th century, government systems that placed religious persecution on the top of their respective agendas, is mischievous at best.
The millions of Russian land owners that lost their homes and their lives shortly after the revolution were not killed for a belief in any god. Neither was the revolution itself begun simply to remove religion from Russia. The end to class distinction, the institution of shared wealth under government control and the international spread of these ideas were the foundations of a revolution in Russia. These were the ideas that were so violently implemented by Stalin. Blaming atheism for Stalin’s actions implies that a religious leader would have acted with more humanity in the implementation and enforcement of radical change. Perhaps Taliban Afghanistan, Catholic France, the Spanish Inquisition, the Wars of Religion, Al Qaeda and the Crusades have slipped the minds of religious historians.
The actions of the newly formed communist Russia was about establishing and maintaining a radical new social order by force of arms and had little to do with religious belief. Religion was seen as an impediment to the new order, as were millions of land owners, several thousand members of the Russian military command and of course, the Tsar and his family.
“The attack on the peasant economy was accompanied by a fierce campaign against the Orthodox Church, the centre of the traditional peasant culture, which was seen by the Stalinist leadership as one of the main obstacles to collectivization”, (Allan Bullock Hitler and Stalin, Parallel Lives: 1991: Fontana Press, page 286). (Italics are mine).
Therefore drawing the conclusion that an atheist government would be a murderous disaster by using communism as an example is akin to calling all Catholics terrorists by citing IRA bombers.
The implication the statement that Andrew Roberts so readily endorses is making is that to avoid a situation where anarchy and murderous behaviours form the basis of public policy, a religious government is required. Roberts consistently cites the success of the English-Speaking Peoples as an example of this religious order, particularly in his glowing description of Protestantism. However, it is precisely when those governments replaced church dominated doctrines for secular laws and made a clear separation of the church and the state, then did the anarchy of government settled into the modern order we have today. Not until faith and emotionally based religious issues were replaced by logically debatable political and social agendas in parliaments and senates across the Western world were human rights actually regulated or tolerance of other beliefs, (a trait that Robert’s attributes to Protestants), enforced.
Therefore the lack of religious interference in politics has strengthened the chances for peace in the world rather than creating anarchy over the western world.
Religious based nations in contrast continue to fight wars of religion, particularly in the Middle-East, where Jews and Muslims fight for sacred religious sites and where Iran continues to harbour religious fundamentalists who believe they can enforce their beliefs upon secular states.
Secular states make perfect mediators for these conflicts because they are able to maintain at least a semblance of religious neutrality and are able to keep emotion and faith based political responses at a safe distance from the diplomatic negotiating tables.
The last part of the statement, in reference to a ‘comparable time frame’ also needs comment, especially when a clear definition in absent. Robert opted not to provide an explanation, instead using his ink to criticise John Lennon as if he were the atheist’s messiah. Even if one can ignore the inaccuracies apparent in the first part of the statement, one would be hard pressed to ignore the absurdities of the second. How can a comparable time be measured? One would assume that we are to compare these incorrectly named ‘atheist states’ with nations of religious character and count their respective death tolls over an equal and fair time frame. Using the Nazi state alone, equal would cover around twenty years, thirty if one were feeling generous. Then the ‘atheist state’ is compared to two religious states at war over the same time period, the Thirty Years War. When the death tolls are counted, Nazism wins the prize for numbers and, indeed, for cruelty. Now we have been equal but have we been fair? Let us assume that the Catholics and the Protestants involved in the Thirty Years War were given access to the weaponry of World War 2; the machine guns, the aircraft, the poison gas, the land mines, the rifles, the hand grenades, the flame throwers, the anti-aircraft guns, the artillery, the heavy battleships, the submarines, the barbed wire and the tanks, (to name just a few), available to the Germans. What then would happen to the death toll? The religious achieved brutality on a sickening scale without such weapons during the Wars of Religion, what might have occurring with deadly modern technology.
The fact that further religious wars using modern weaponry resulting in the scale of murders produced by Nazism have not occurred is a result of level headed mediation by secular states that have, by virtue of casting aside religion from politics, been able to stay neutral in religious disputes and therefore negotiate a level of moderation in world affairs.
As conjecture is the only means available to create a basis for comparing one evil against another, it is absurd to make such broad and baseless statement and individuals reading such drivel have a right to question the author’s motives for their promotion.
Lastly, the morality of a person who implies that killing less innocents makes one belief system better than other, (without clarifying that not killing any at all is preferable), must be seriously questioned. The writer does not imply that killing innocents is wrong, instead, he is bragging that his particular belief system has a lower death count over a period of time than another. What a grim herald for our future if such men are the writers of our histories.