In his atheistic diatribe “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” the late Christopher Hitchens revisited the various evils and excesses committed in the name of religion over the centuries. And they are many.
Yet what about the brutal excesses of secular, atheistic regimes, such as Stalin’s USSR, Hitler’s Third Reich, Mao’s China and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge? Doesn’t their existence challenge the claim that it is somehow religion that is at fault, rather than something still deeper in the human psyche?
In response, Hitchens offered what I consider to be an intellectually lazy answer, an answer designed to try to win a debate rather than get at the truth:
The regimes of Stalin, Mao, Hitler and Pol Pot were also religious in nature, Hitchens argued, because they substituted the worship of an individual or ideology for the worship of a god. Therefore, all evil that those regimes did must be totted up on religion’s side of the ledger, leaving the secular world unstained.
With that contention — voila! — Hitchen’s problem was solved, or so he claimed.
In a 2007 tour to promote “God Is Not Great”, Hitchens traveled the country debating religious experts about its theme. Here in Atlanta, he crossed rhetorical swords with Tim Jackson, a professor of Christian ethics at Emory’s Candler School of Theology. And Jackson, to his credit, refused to condone Hitchen’s cheap debating tactic:
“If we can embrace such doublespeak that North Korea is a religious institution, a religious regime, and understand Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot as fundamentally religious, then religion has become an ugly meaningless term,” Jackson pointed out.
“We’re all sinful and we can all contribute to horrific injustice, whether we’re believers or not,” the professor reminded the crowd. “….the worm at the heart of human nature is deeper than that.”
(An audio of the Hitchens/Jackson debate is available here.).
In that regard at least, Hitchens shared a lot with his one-time neighbor in New York, conservative writer Jonah Goldberg. In his 2008 book “Liberal Fascism,” Goldberg echoed Hitchens by alleging that all totalitarianism, including fascism, is by nature liberal in its origins.
Clearly, communist regimes in the USSR and China were brutal and tyrannical. But what of, say, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, which are historically treated as examples of right-wing dictatorships? Do they not demonstrate that totalitarianism is a temptation to which both the right and left might succumb?
To Goldberg, the answer is no. He argues that Nazi Germany was actually a left-wing manifestation that drew its poison from the wells of liberalism and socialism. In fact, in his view of the world the phrase “right-wing dictatorship” is an impossible contradiction and a null set. Conservatives by definition could never be tempted to seek absolute power; thus, those who seek absolute power could never be conservative.
In a new posting at National Review, where he works as a columnist, Goldberg claims to have found further evidence of his thesis in a two-part series on Nazi Germany that was originally published in 1932 in The Atlantic and has now been republished on the Internet.
(The articles by Nicolas Fairweather are astonishing in their own right, demonstrating just how predictable the coming nightmare really was. Everything — the attempted genocide of the Jews, the invasion first of France and then of the Soviet Union — was all well-known and understood by those who cared to do so long before Hitler even gained power.)
However, when you read the articles cited, you realize once again how thin and downright silly Goldberg’s argument really is. For example, the 1932 Atlantic article lists “the principal articles of Hitler’s political faith,” which included:
“(Hitler’s) violent animosity to Marxian Socialism as in essence opposed to his ideal of a nationally minded people and a racial state. He condemns the Socialism of Marx as a poisonous teaching which by its humanitarianism, its internationalism, and its pacifism — all legacies of the unnatural and unwholesome democracy of the French Revolution — operates to undermine the clean ideal of Aryan (that is, German) overlordship.”
Hitler saw “Marxian Socialism” as a Jewish invention, “the principal tool by which they insinuate themselves into healthy, pure blooded, racial states.” He despised labor unions and expressed contempt for the common man. As the Atlantic piece reported:
“Class warfare, it appeared (to Hitler), was necessarily a destroyer of nationalism. In reacting against the internationalism and class-consciousness of the orthodox Socialists (’Marxists’ is the term Hitler always uses), he has made himself the outstanding opponent of all Communistic tendencies.”
Remember, this is all in an article cited as evidence in favor of Goldberg’s thesis.
In one sense, I am admittedly rehashing old ground — both the Goldberg book and the Hitchens book were published years ago. However, as the 1932 Atlantic pieces demonstrate, bad ideas and bad history can have profound consequences if left unchallenged.
It is dangerous for any group of people to wrap themselves in a belief that they are immune to the temptations of power, because once you make that mistake, those temptations become all the harder to resist. As George Orwell documented so well, for example, a similar arrogance on the left during the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s led many liberals to dismiss evidence of just how brutal the Soviet Union had become.
There will always be those who are eager to take as much power as possible; likewise, there will always be those who are willing to surrender that power to others. Political philosophy and religious faith make no one exempt to either temptation.
Because, as the good professor noted:
“The worm at the heart of human nature is deeper than that.”
– Jay Bookman