Sunday, April 11, 2010

Was Hitler an atheist?

I've heard a few Christians claim that Hitler was an atheist. I think this claim is made (see an example here, a comment on a previous post of mine) in an attempt to discredit atheism by associating it with something like the Holocaust.

The truth is, though, is that it is not really clear if Hitler was in fact an atheist, or even a Christian. Richard Dawkins, in the God Delusion (pg 272-78), lists specific examples where Hitler seems to be anti-atheist and pro-Christian. In a speech in 1933 Hitler declared a fight against the atheistic movement, and claims to have stamped it out. In another speech in 1922 he repeats several times that he is a Christian. Then there is his famous quote from Mein Kampf:

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.

However, there are other references (see here) where Hitler expresses anti-Christian sentiment. For example, during a private conversation on the 19th October 1941, Hitler was recorded to have said the following:

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.

Moreover, Hitler heavily persecuted members of the Confessing Church; the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example, was hanged in a concentration camp in April 1945.

So Hitler's religious beliefs are not as certain as some apologists, or even some atheists, would have us believe. My own view on the matter is the same as the one put forward in this article: that Hitler's 'god' was not the Christian god, but rather the German national identity. This is what he worshiped, and he persecuted anyone, atheist or theist alike, who did not do the same.


News said...

Hitler was a theist, not a christian, I think. He did not believe anything at all about Jesus Christ. He preferred to speak about God as the Providence. His real belief was in the German race and its destiny undere the guidance of the Providence (a Person or a something, a sort of divine power, an It?). There is no way you can connect him with christian faith. The confessing church was persecuted in Nazi-Germany (Bonhoeffer) just because of their Christ-inspired resistance against Hitler. Bob

sattler said...

I agree with Kevin on this one. Taken as a whole Totalitarianism is a secular expression but it owes much to a bastardized theism. Stalinism makes a far more convincing 'secular' ideology than Nazism. The debate between Dawkins and Christians is unhelpful. It seems to reduce issues to futitle points scoring. Surely there's a better way to talk about atheism and theism than to minimise our own culpability and lay every horror known to humanity at the door of the opposition.

Brenda in Canada said...

Just wanted to let you know that I read your blog regularly. I actually wish you would post more often! I am a recent exchristian and find your blog very helpful.

athousandscreamingrabbits said...

Well said. Hitler was, like many ideologues/fundamentalists, in opposition to individuals who didn't think or believe the way he did.

I am also an ex-believer. And write occasionally on the subject.

Check out my post here:


Michael Gormley said...

“I say: my Christian feeling tells me that my lord and savior is a warrior. It calls my attention to the man who, lonely and surrounded by only a few supporters, recognized what they [the Jews] were, and called for a battle against them, and who, by God, was not the greatest sufferer, but the greatest warrior. . .

“As a human being it is my duty to see to it that humanity will not suffer the same catastrophic collapse as did that old civilization two thousand years ago, a civilization which was driven to its ruin by the Jews. . .

I am convinced that I am really a devil and not a Christian if I do not feel compassion and do not wage war, as Christ did two thousand years ago, against those who are steeling and exploiting these poverty-stricken people.

“Two thousand years ago a man was similarly denounced by this particular race which today denounces and blasphememes all over the place. . .

That man was dragged before a court and they said: he is arousing the people! So he, too, was an agitator!”

( Adolf Hitler, in a speech delivered on April 12, 1922; from Charles Bracelen Flood, Hitler: The Path to Power, Boston, Mass: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1989, pp. 261-262. )

BC500 said...

Hitler did and said whatever he needed to get and hold on to power. He fooled his followers, he fooled the German industrialists, who thought they could control him. He fooled the German people. He fooled most of the world leaders, except for Winston Churchill. Many in the German Military leadership were involved in plots to kill Hitler when they saw the war being lost in 1944. Hitler allowed the slaughter of the Germen people by the millions and brought the German nation to ruin from the war. He then ducked out by killing himself. Hitler cared nothing for the German people. Measure Hitler by what he did, not by the unending lies he spouted.

Hitler lived by the morality he invented, just like any atheist.

The problem with atheistic beliefs is that each person sets their own moral beliefs; there are no rules or guidelines to go by. Fortunately, most Atheists are ex-Christians which mean they have some fumes of Christian morality to start with and they obviously will not become like Hitler. While most atheist "good" they have no reason to not be "bad".

Michael Gormley said...

....Hitler been brought up as an atheist, an agnostic, or, at least, a Unitarian.

Born and bred a Catholic, he grew up in a religion and in a culture that was anti-semitic, and in persecuting Jews, he repeatedly proclaimed he was doing the "Lord's work."

You will find it in Mein Kampf.-"Therefore, I am convinced that I am acting as the agent of our Creator. By fighting off the Jews, I am doing the Lord's work."

Luis said...

Hi BC500. You said: "Hitler lived by the morality he invented, just like any atheist."

The problem with this is that, if it's meant as a criticism of atheism, it applies with equal force to Christians and Christianity, except that in that case one could substitute "he invented" with "someone else invented". And, in fact, since there is so much ambiguity as to what the "true interpretation" of the Bible is, this means that Christians are essentially free to pick and choose (as they largely do) what passages of scripture they will live by, and which ones they will ignore.

I also noticed that you credit the morality of atheists to Christianity. This is a common, and highly disingenuous, tactic. It presupposes that humans had no morality before the advent of Christianity, which is total nonsense, as we can glean from the existence of moral precepts that predate Christ by centuries, as well as the existence of basic societal taboos, laws, customs and other designs that try to capture this thing called "morality". By thew time Christianity arrived on the scene, morality per se was already yesterday's news. Furthermore, we can observe that a great deal of humanity's moral development (in the sense of thinking about and justifying more humane arrangements for people to live by) took place with with the weakening of religious institutions and societal forms. For all your talk about atheists having "fumes of Christian morality to start with", it seems rather odd that when these "fumes" were the official law of the land and when heresy (and atheism) were punishable by torture and even death, Hitler-style atrocities were gleefully and routinely carried out by the deeply pious. Of course, we could then say that ALL morality, whether it prescribes cruelty or kindness, is "due to Christianity", but then your claims cease to convey any information since there is nothing that could falsify them.

Atheism by itself prescribes no moral configurations, because it represents a lack of belief in deities. You yourself are a hardcore atheist - when it comes to most of the Gods that humanity has ever believed in. Notice the "theism" in "atheism". It isn't "amorality", which is something else.

BC500 said...

@ Luis – nicely said. You are right that atheism is inherently without any moral foundation, and that is the problem. It is bad enough that we have people calling themselves “Christian” who are no better that Hitler running around. If everybody was an atheist we would have a lot more Hitler’s running around loose, because there would be no reason for people to adhere to any sense of “goodness” even if they could agree on what “good” was.

Fortunately, there are many people who are real Christians and use the Bible as a foundation for their beliefs. I agree, cherry picking verses to follow is wrong. Correct interpretation of the Bible is difficult, but is that a reason to not try? The “Church” is not a home for the perfect, but a hospital for the sick striving to get better.

Yes “morality” existed prior to the foundation of Christianity in Jesus Christ, but where is it now?

To be an atheist implies that one was a theist at one time. Most atheists only attack Christianity, so I assume that it is Christianity was their prior belief.

What reason does an atheist have for not being amoral? None! It is the atheist choice to be moral or not. At least Christians have a moral code. Just because some don’t follow it, or it is hard to follow, does not mean the code is not worthy of being followed.

Kevin Parry said...

BC 500 wrote
What reason does an atheist have for not being amoral?

I can provide three . . .

First of all, as an individual I value certain things, such as my body. I am definitely not going to partake in destructive life-styles (e.g., taking part in irresponsible, crack smoking, alcohol induced orgies) because this kind of lifestyle will endanger many things which I value greatly.

Secondly, as humans, we are primarily social animals, and have the need to interact and work with others. We also have relational needs, seeking companionship and love. It makes sense that we would, as individuals, generally adjust our behaviour in order to seek out the love and companionship of others. Cheating, stealing and lying don’t generally result in healthy relationships (personal, business or otherwise).

Thirdly, we realize that a functioning society is in everyone’s best interest, including ours. Certain types of behaviour generally contribute to a functioning society, so it only makes sense to adopt these behaviours when we can.

So, in order to protect that that which an individual values; in order to fulfil the needs of being a social animal; and in order to enjoy the fruits of a functioning society, a rational person can only come to the conclusion that not much can be gained or enjoyed through a destructive life of selfishness, hedonism and total abandon.

Tortoise said...

Adolf Hitler had been occasionally beaten as a child by his father and most were very intense. However, there are many other domestic (home related) issues that contributed to his adulthood behavior.

His father's absense, his mother's illness, are two very important structures of behavioral outcomes. Before he became 18, his parents both were dead.

There are also records of unusual(unstable) activities and acts of Adolf as a young child. The abuse that Hitler suffered from his father was only minor compared to other situations in his childhood.

However, he was often beaten very viciously. As for the Holocaust; among Hitler's disturbing actions as a youth included torture and inhumane treatment of animals.

These things are a major factor related to the Holocaust. Basically, he was already mentally unstable--in reference to his abuse affecting the Holocaust.

BC500 said...

Perhaps I did not communicate it very well. I am talking about “amorality”. One who is “amoral” denies the existence of objective morality. Are you are listing immoral behaviors.

Where you say, “Cheating, stealing and lying don’t generally result in healthy relationships…” By using the word “generally” it means that there are exceptions? So there are times where cheating results in healthy relationships? If so, how do you justify those exceptions?

On point three, you only require that we adopt behaviors that generally contribute to a functioning society, when we can. What do you mean by “when we can”? Makes it sound very optional.

Correct me if I am wrong, but you say that behavior is justified based on what an individual personally values. Everyone does not value the same things. Do you see the problem now?

Atheists have no uniform set of behaviors to adhere to. Everyone is on their own to define their own ethical and moral standards. That presents a danger, because humans can easily rationalize, and do, almost any detestable behavior.

Kevin Parry said...

Hi BC 500

Thank you for clarifying your comment. I did misinterpret your first statement, and I’m glad you corrected me.

I could be mistaken, but it seems as if you are arguing that my position is weak because it isn’t consistent with the idea of objective morality. I want to respond to your questions, but – in order to start out our dialogue – I hope you don’t mind if I ask you a question first.

I imagine you believe you have a fair idea of what is right and wrong. Now, when you, as BC 500, judge an action as right or wrong, are you judging that according to what God thinks is right and wrong? In other words, do you believe you are accurately representing God’s moral view when you make moral judgments on certain topics, actions or behavior?

Kevin Parry said...

Hi BC 500

Sorry, I didn’t expand on the reason for asking you that question in my last comment.

If a Christian (let’s call him Joe) claims to reflect God’s moral thinking perfectly when deciding if something is right and wrong, then what about other Christians who might believe differently to Joe regarding a specific moral issue? There are many different Christian denominations who disagree on a range of moral issues. Who is right?

When I consider other religions, and if I extend my focus to completely different cultures, as an outside observer it is almost completely impossible for me to see who is practicing the One True set of objective moral codes, because they all differ. So in a practical sense the idea of objective morality doesn’t help.

Many apologists claim that if we don’t have objective morality, then society will fall apart because each person (as you also claim) will do what they want. Either it is objective morality, or total chaos. But this is a false dilemma. We don’t see objective morality in practice (see my point above) and society still seems to function. Why? I believe there is a third option between fully objective and fully subjective morality. I like to call this functional morality, a morality that is found in the balance between the needs of society, the needs of the individual, and the needs of others. All these needs compete for space, so to speak, and in most circumstances they negotiate a balance. It is from this balance, which is different for various cultures, where moral codes and norms arise. In many modern societies, this balance is also informed by reason.

I can do what I want as an individual, but if my actions infringe on the norms that have arisen from this negotiated space, then others in society will move to keep my behaviour in check.

Sorry for the long comment, but I would like your thoughts on this.

BC500 said...

Kevin, I had started an answer to your previous question but I had not gotten around to posting it. But I appreciate you providing a reason for asking the question and will go from here.

From my research I have found that Jesus Christ is right. But the point it is that we must all make a decision for ourselves as to the right way. Everybody will reap the consequences of their choices. It is a big enough deal to spend some time looking it to it which I sense you are doing.

While there are differences in objective moral codes, the question is which moral code is the best. Where there are confliction aspects to different moral codes, one is going to be right the other wrong. We need to figure out which one is right. What is the basis and the evidence for it.

Riots and War are perfect examples of society falling apart. There will be a maximum degree of immoral acts occurring as well.

It is not a negotiated balance but a dictated line that gets moved by those with enough power or influence.

I think there is a fundamental flaw in your thinking. Just because people can never seem to meet the perfection of an objective moral code, does not mean a certain code is not worth striving to. Changing the standard to meet personal preferences never really works.
We do not accept that kind of thinking in many areas. For example, take flying. If an airline has a history of crashing planes all the time, because their pilots prefer a lower level of training, fewer people will fly on their planes and they will rightfully go out of business.

As you say in reality, society has a practical level on which morality is maintained but that has not eliminated the need for objective morality. When the actual morality gets too far off base at the national level, for example we end up at war. War is an example of society falling apart, at least in the areas where the fighting is occurring.

Hitler provides us with a prime example of that. Had leaders of Germany recognized who and what Hitler really was, they would have removed him and avoided the destruction to the German nation. Millions of German’s suffered and died as well. Thanks to the objective morality of Winston Churchill, someone finally stood up to Hitler. The rest of the world came around and Hitler was eventually destroyed, but the world paid a terrible price for it.

There is a price for moral failure, simply lowering the standard in the moral code to meet personal preferences or to make it more reachable does not eliminate the need for an objective moral code.

Most of the time society gets along with what you call functional morality but I think a better word than “balance” is tolerance. While we may disagree in certain areas, we might be able to agree to tolerate some behaviors of others, that may not meet our objective moral standard.

Sorry for the long reply.

Sentinel said...

Interesting post, and a well-balanced view.

Vox Day makes a pretty compelling case that Hitler's position is best described as paganism, and you're right when you say that his "god" was Germany. His intent seemed to be to create a "new and better Teutonic mythology compatible with science and philosophy."

Kevin Parry said...

Thank you for your reply. You must forgive me for replying so late to your comments: work has been pretty hectic on this side, and in terms of studying I’m preparing for two big exams at the end of October.

You wrote
Just because people can never seem to meet the perfection of an objective moral code, does not mean a certain code is not worth striving to

This is not what I was claiming in my last comment. I was arguing that even if there is an objective moral code that exists somewhere, we have no clear understanding of what this code might be. Even if I had the desire to fulfill objective morality, I wouldn’t know which of the many, many codes to strive for. My problem isn’t lack of desire, but rather with lack of knowledge.

You claim that Jesus Christ or the Christian God was right, but even within Christianity there are different views of what behavior is right or wrong. Does God condone slavery? Is masturbation right? Is it right to use contraceptives? Depending on which Christian you speak to (including Christians who lived in the past), you will receive different answers, and most of these Christians would probably claim to know what Jesus thought was right. In other words, how do you know that you, or your specific denomination, have the exact, correct view on objective morality?

Changing the standard to meet personal preferences never really works
I totally agree with you. I’m not arguing total subjective morality here, but at the same time I’m not arguing for total objective morality. Even if objective morality doesn’t exist, an individual’s behavior will still be kept in check by reason (ie, knowing that certain behaviors have negative consequences), empathy (treat others and you would like to be treated) and society.

BC500 said...

Kevin, I appreciate your busy life issues, I get too busy myself.

Just because humanity cannot agree on a single set of moral codes, makes you unsure if it is worth to consider any of them? I would say that in light of humanity having so many of them, they absolutely see the value in objective moral codes.

Does God condone slavery? Slavery, in and of itself, is not wrong, but God says that abuse of another human is wrong. In ancient times some people voluntarily became slaves to pay off a debt. Today people who live beyond their means become another type of slave, to their possessions and their lenders.

We need objective morality exactly because reason and empathy will not hold people’s actions in check. Humans can easily rationalize evil behavior. When it happens on a group level we have something like the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

In 1992 the LA police had to back away from large rioting mobs and there was a temporary breakdown of civilization. Some people reasoned it was a time to acquire some free merchandise, then rape, pillage and burn. 53 people died, thousands were injured and there was roughly a billion dollars in damages. That was a terrible loss in just a 3 or 4 day period. While those people acted out of frustration, they also acted without fear for the consequences for their actions.

The problem is that reason and empathy are not practiced consistently or universally. The prisons are full of people that reasoned their illegal behavior was acceptable, to them, until they got caught. They had more empathy for themselves than their victims.

Laws and regulations are societies attempt to impose a form of objective morality on everybody because so many individuals are incapable of acting with reason and empathy.

I do argue for objective morality. Even national laws and regulations are subject to corruption from leaders like Hitler or many of the national leaders across our planet today.

You say that you lack knowledge; well my answer is to increase your level of knowledge, but to do it carefully. I will be honest and say that I have had my doubts (and those doubts rise up on occasion). So far, my careful investigations into the alternatives to Jesus Christ have never provided anything better than Jesus Christ. Also, it is not about any particular Christian denomination, all of them have some flaws, but that is another conversation.

At the end of the day, we need to reason discuss, debate, and banter about the different beliefs. My goal is to find the one which is most worthy of belief. The one that is most sensible, more sound, more credible, more noble, more moral, more right, more true.