In response to “Good for Nothing” (Vol. 2, No. 1).
To the editors:
In his review of Coyne’s recent book, Faith Versus Fact, George Scialabba takes David Berlinski to task for allegedly “faulty reasoning” for claiming that Hitler, Stalin, and Mao did not believe God was watching them and thus they were secular. However, Scialabba then calls these dictators’ ideologies “secular religions,” apparently to distance them from bona fide secularists whom Scialabba wants to defend. Apart from the fact that the term “secular religion” is not very helpful analytical category—as I explain in greater detail in relation to Nazism in my forthcoming book, Hitler’s Religion—this assertion doesn’t seem to contradict Berlinski at all. Just calling their ideology a secular religion does not mean they thought they were under the scrutiny of some superior Being, which was Berlinski’s point.
In Hitler’s case, however, I would provide a nuance to Berlinski’s assertion: Hitler, while rejecting more traditional conceptions of God, such as Christianity, nonetheless did believe in some kind of God, but his God actually approved of his atrocities. Thus Hitler and the SS believed that their God was smiling on them when they massacred millions.
However, even though Hitler believed in some kind of God, I nonetheless argue in Hitler’s Religion that Hitler’s worldview was more secular than religious, because he rejected supernaturalism, divine revelation, a personal afterlife, and other-worldly concerns.
David Berlinski replies:
A distinguished intellectual historian, Richard Weikart has demonstrated in patient detail the connection between Darwinian thought in the nineteenth century and Nazi thought in the twentieth. I have always found it rewarding to press From Darwin to Hitler into the unaccommodating hands of those, like the late Christopher Hitchens, who regard racial hygiene (Rassenhygiene) as an idea without historical antecedents. German biologists and physicians were throughout the nineteenth-century very pleased to salute Charles Darwin as a man with an invigorating, if implicit, feel for das Blut.
For all that, I am not entirely comfortable with what Weikart takes as the best defense of the views that I published in The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions. Questions about the theological commitments of such satanic figures as Hitler, Stalin or Mao are unanswerable because despite their having lived in public for most of their adult lives, these men have retained a fearful inscrutability: a blankness behind the blackness. Did Hitler during his last minutes, Eva Braun, no doubt, simpering at his side and wondering whether she had chosen the right frock for eternity, appeal to the Almighty for a proper, a German, welcome in Valhalla? In occasional moments of exuberance, Hitler did refer to Christ as an Aryan warrior, someone who, were it not for that unfortunate business of the Crucifixion, certainly would have gone on to scourge Jewish society of its Jews.
What of it? Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were all of them habitual liars. They will never be counted among the great religious figures of mankind. They were what they seemed: They were scum. The idea that the movements that they inspired were somehow religious is vacuous. Nazism was a religious movement in the sense that black is white, which is to say in no sense whatsoever.
What I wrote in The Devil’s Delusion was more general than Weikart lets on; and it was more concerned with what a secular society does not believe and less concerned with what it does.
What Hitler did not believe, and what Stalin did not believe, and what Mao did not believe and what the SS did not believe and what the Gestapo did not believe and what the NKVD did not believe and what the commissars, functionaries, swaggering executioners, Nazi doctors, Communist Party theoreticians, intellectuals, Brown Shirts, Black shirts, gauleiters, and a thousand party hacks did not believe was that God was watching what they were doing.
For all of George Scialabba’s good-natured remonstrations, this conclusion still seems to me self evident. The men carrying out the atrocities of the twentieth-century were not overly worried about divine scrutiny. They were not worried at all. As the end approached, a number of Nazi officials, it is true, came to fear punishment by their conquerors. But that is not the same thing at all.
A complicated system of moral constraints, one rooted in Genesis 4, gave way in the twentieth-century, and it gave way in many places. That these constraints were often violated before the twentieth-century goes without saying. They were always there, and even the grisliest of mass murderers knew that they were there. They imposed a certain idea of order on civilization.
Now they are gone.
Richard Weikart is Professor of History at California State University, Stanislaus.
David Berlinski is an American writer.