Did Christianity Cause the Holocaust?
New Atheism and the (Ab) Uses of History
Necessity is the mother of invention. Gaul tribesmen rolled stones onto Hannibal’s troops moving up Alpine valleys below. General Huang of Chinese kingdom of Wu floated flaming boats into the fleet of the northern warlord Cao Cao moored on the north bank of the Yangtze River. Stones and fire may seem awkward weapons: neither could box cutters have been Osama bin Laden’s weapon of choice.
The New Atheists must exploit the material of western history to defeat the Christian faith. Curiously, the positions they defend often fall as much from "friendly fire" as from the arguments of their opponents. It is as if the Gauls rolled their stones onto Huang's ships, and Huang accidentally set fire to the mountain fortresses where his allies the Gauls were encamped.
Earlier this year, several well-known skeptics produced an ambitious anthology called The Christian Delusion. In one chapter Hector Avalos, who teaches religious studies at Iowa State (and with whom I have since traded blows), argued that Christianity caused the Holocaust. In another, Richard Carrier, former editor-in-chief of Internet Infidels and historian of Roman science, denied that Christianity caused modern science. The ensuing smash leaves both claims (ironically) in tatters, but sheds light on the nature and sometimes divine causes of human progress.
Did Christianity Cause Science?
Several Christian writers, including Stanley Jaki, Rodney Stark, and Dinesh D’Souza (now add James Hannam), have credited the rise of modern science to the influence of Christian ideas in Medieval Europe. The problem with this claim, Carrier argued, is that the deed had long been done: science came into full flower from 500 BC to about 150 AD. How could Christians invent what was already invented? Carrier’s attacks on Jaki and Stark often took an adolescent tone, and some historians disagree with his contention that pagans “fully united” hands-on craftsmanship with scientific theorizing. But Carrier’s stories of the ingenuity of ancient scientists are enlightening. And he does I think show that Christians have sometimes underestimated the achievements of the ancients.
Carrier went a bridge further, though, and claims that there was “nothing in the Bible or the original Christian mindset that had any tendency to favor” values that make for science. In fact, Christianity “sealed the fate” of ancient science by “putting an end” to significant scientific progress for a millennia. Yet he also admitted that two centuries before Christ’s birth, civil war and bad economic policy precipitated retreat from science into mystery and fantasy. If one cannot begin what has already begun, how can one stop what has already been halted?
Carrier admitted that “modern science did develop in a Christian milieu,” at the hands of Christians. Interestingly, he also admitted that theism was largely responsible even for pagan Greek science:
“Most intellectual polytheists believed in a Creator who had intelligently ordered the cosmos, that this order could be discovered by the human mind, and that such discovery honored God. Scientists like Galen and Ptolemy were thus motivated to pursue scientific inquiry by their religious piety, exactly as Stark claims Christians were, and for exactly the same reasons.”
Galen wrote, “I am composing this sacred discourse as a true hymn of praise to our Creator.”
Carrier admitted, “Most philosophers agreed. Seneca argued scientific inquiry was a pious enterprise superior to the sacred mysteries of pagan religion and Cicero argued God actually designed us to pursue scientific knowledge.”
(In fact, in On the Nature of the Gods, Cicero puts arguments in the mouth of a Stoic dinner party guest that would not sound shocking from Philip Johnson.)
1600 years later, Francis Bacon would use similar logic to try to foment the rebirth of empirical science, citing Ecclesiastes: “It is the glory of God to hide a matter, and of kings to find it out.”
What then of the claim that nothing in the Bible, or the early Christian mindset, encouraged “values necessary for scientific progress?” Carrier actually strengthens the link between God and the birth of science, in the process of trying to weaken it. But Avalos’ attack at Christian history from below is even more badly damaged by boulders slewing off of Carrier’s historical argument.
Did Christianity Cause the Holocaust?
The nominal purpose of Dr. Avalos’ chapter (“Atheism was not the cause of the Holocaust”) is to rebut Dinesh D’Souza’s claim that atheism was responsible for the Holocaust, and historian Richard Weikart’s more careful account of how Social Darwinism influenced Hitler. Avalos’ real goal is to show that Christianity was to blame for the Holocaust, and assorted other villainy.
No reasonable person denies that European Christians often treated Jews shabbily. Avalos cites many examples, but his smoking gun is a long citation from Martin Luther’s infamous tract, ¨On the Jews and Their Lies.¨ In it, Luther proposed torching Jewish synagogues and schools, razing homes, confiscating treasure, prayer books and Talmudic writings, forbidding rabbis from teaching “on pain of loss of life and limb,” (the “limb” part sounds horribly literal, in historical context) and sending Jews to manual labor. Avalos concludes:
"Luther's murderous seven-point plan, which is nearly identical to that of Nazism, proves beyond a doubt that Darwinism certainly was not 'necessary' to achieve a Nazi vision (see chart below). Nazism, indeed, was very much at home in a long tradition of Christian anti-Judaism."
Avalos concludes his argument with a chart that Carrier described on his website, bizarrely, as “perhaps the funniest thing ever.” The chart shows eight racist policies enacted by Hitler. To the right of this list, Avalos marks columns for “Luther” and “D arwin,” neatly writing “Yes” under the former for each item, “No” under the latter:
“Hitler's policies Luther Darwin
“Burning Synogogues Yes. No.
Destroying Jewish homes Yes. No.
Destroying Sacred Jewish Books Yes. No.
Forbidding Rabbis to Teach Yes. No.
Abolishing Safe Conduct Yes. No.
Confiscating Jewish Property Yes. No.
Forcing Jews into Labor Yes. No.
Citing God as Part of the Reason for Anti-Judaism Yes. No.
All this is, indeed, deeply embarrassing for Christians, if that is why Carrier laughs. But for serious students of history (which Weikart is), the challenge is not to find historical parallels, but to determine which mark plausible causal links and which do not. There are many problems with Avalos’ argument on this level:
A. First, if as Avalos says, "Nazism does not represent a radical departure from traditional Christian attitudes towards Jews," why were there 12 million Jews in Europe in 1933? Even armed with pre-modern weapons, humans have proven capable of effective genocide: ask Arawaks, Tutsis, Cambodians, or even the wooly mammoth and giant sloth.
The truth is, while both Western and Muslim worlds owe deep debts to the Jewish people for our crimes, until Hitler, genocide was never official policy in either civilization. Luther’s rant aside, millions of Jews lived in Europe because the Church usually protected and often defended them – a fact admitted by sober Jewish historians.
Nor were those who committed mass murder always so orthodox. European pogroms began in earnest when Prince Emico led ten thousand Crusaders against Jewish communities in Germany. Albert of Aachan records that aside from “greed of money” and “fornication,” the mob “asserted that a certain goose was inspired by the Holy Spirit, and that a she-goat was not less filled by the same Spirit . . . These they worshipped excessively.” This crowd of rioters and murderers was wiped out before it left Europe, which Albert read as divine judgment. So one can reasonably place an asterisk beside the orthodoxy of these cutthroats, along with the idea that excess of Christian piety was quite responsible for European anti-Semitism.
B. Avalos stacks the deck terribly. Christianity has a long history, involving billions of people who see themselves as believers, some of whom actually knew what it teaches. Avalos goes through that history loosy-goosy, picking an unfortunate remark by a pope here, mob action by dubious "Christians" there. No definition or focus is apparent-- you can do this with any great and complex tradition. He does not even define "Christianity." (Could Emico’s mob have recited even the shortest catechism?)
C. Avalos neglects the larger phenomena of which racism is a part, and in the context of which it must be understood. Rene Girard has spent a long, fruitful career describing the functional use of blame and victimization. No one had to "invent" racism. Furthermore, the logic of evolution -- not just the theory of Social Darwinism -- implies that races compete to perpetrate “selfish genes.” In evolutionary context, racial conflict does not need to be explained: the Red Cross and the Society for the Abolition of Slavery are the real mysteries.
D. Avalos claims that Darwinism cannot be blamed for Nazi ideology, since elements of anti-Semitism were present in European religion before Origin of Species and Social Darwinism. But as Passover and Purim remind us, genocidal hatred of Jews could be found in the Middle East long before Jesus was born. By his own (bad) logic, Christianity could not therefore be to blame for Hitler's anti-Semitism.
E. The chart given in The Christian Delusion is an exercise in stacking the deck. One could just as easily write a list that distinguishes the policies of Luther and Hitler:
"Advocated the killing of all Jews." No. Yes.
"Set up concentration camps." No. Yes.
"Advocated invading Russia for 'living space.'" No. Yes.
"Killed cripples." No. Yes.
"Tried to exterminate the Gypsies." No. Yes.
"Attacked Poland." No. Yes.
"Caused the percent of theology students in Germany to take a nose-dive." No. Yes.
F. And why define Christianity by Martin Luther? Hitler wasn't Lutheran. A serious argument would define Christianity in relation to its founder:
Jesus vs. Hitler
"Told Disciples to Love Enemies." Yes. No.
"Healed cripples." Yes. No.
"Inspired medical revolutions." Yes. No.
"Saw self as fulfillment of Jewish tradition." Yes. No.
"Refused to be made king." Yes. No.
"Said, ‘Turn the other cheek.’" Yes. No.
"Died for sins of the world." Yes. No.
The absurdity of this more pertinent comparison is the elephant in the room, revealing the credibility gap that help explains why some among this new generation of atheists have already gained a reputation for blind fanaticism.
One could also make a striking chart comparing Mohammed to Hitler that would focus on action rather than words: "stole property from Jews;" "Mass-murdered Jews;" "invaded neighbors;" "enslaved enemies;" "tortured critics." Such a comparison wouldn't mean Mohammed necessarily influenced Hitler. It would mean powerful people often do nasty things to minorities and foment hatred for political gain, and that from ancient times, Jews have suffered more than their share of racism and murder. Bigotry has a common source in the human soul, a fact that both Christian theology and evolution provide explanations for.
G. A more immediate and historically credible relationship can be traced from communism to Nazism.
Early in Mein Kampf, Hitler marks the influence explicitly. He's laboring at a worksite in Vienna. During breaks, other workers pester him with Marxist propaganda. He goes home, reads up on communism, and argues with lunch bucket mates, “from day to day better informed than my antagonists,” until they try to throw him off the scaffolding, making use of “the weapon which most readily conquers reason: terror and violence.” Hitler decides that he hates the sinners, but loves the sin. Why not channel communist terror on behalf of the nation? And thus, “I achieved an equal understanding of the importance of physical terror toward the individual and the masses.”
If we must make a chart, then, Lenin or Stalin and Hitler would be more historically plausible and include more specific behavior patterns:
Lenin / Stalin Hitler
"Tried to conquer as much land as possible militarily." Yes Yes
"Put people in concentration camps." Yes Yes
"Tortured enemies." Yes Yes
"Employed terror." Yes Yes
"Focused on specified groups within society to whip up mass hatred." Yes Yes
"Set up totalitarian regimes." Yes Yes
"Starved nations." Yes Yes
"Ran a deadly secret police force." Yes Yes
H. Nor were Lenin and Stalin the only atheists to influence the Nazis. Among others, one might cite Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, and others who figure in Weikart’s story, whom Avalos overlooks.
I. Finally, Avalos’ argument for historical causation takes friendly but fatal fire from Richard Carrier’s argument against it. It his desire to prove that Christianity could do no good, Carrier almost proves it could do no evil:
"An obvious objection to this delusional claim (i.e., that Christianity was necessary for modern science to develop) is that it violates one of the most basic principles of casuality: when the cause is in place, its effect is seen. Christianity fully dominated the whole of the Western world from the fifth to the fifteenth century, and yet in all those thousand years there was no Scientific Revolution. A cause that fails to have its predicted effect despite being continually in action for a thousand years is usually considered refuted, not confirmed . . . "
This seems simple enough. Christianity "fully dominated" the "whole of the Western world" for a thousand years. When the cause is in place, its effect is seen! Yet the effect (science) was not seen for a millennia in western or eastern Christianity. Therefore, Christianity was not a cause of science. Q.E.D.
One is surprised when such simple notions of causation, having been displaced in physics, show up in history!
The truth is, Christianity never "fully dominated" Europe. But if there is any sense at all to this argument, and if Avalos is right that there was no “radical departure” between Christian and Nazi attitudes towards Jews, why did anti-Semitic Europe take 1200 years, during 700 of which it "fully dominated Europe," before Emico and friends went after Jews? (And then only after, by Carrier’s own logic, it no longer “fully dominated” Europe?) Why did they "worship" a goose if their thinking was "fully dominated" by orthodoxy? Why in a millennia of "fully dominating" Europe, the Church never managed to invent the Holocaust, which Avalos thinks we wanted all along? How did Christianity thrive in America for 400 years without pogroms?
Readers may wonder why bother responding to such fanaticism. (Aside from the fact that people like Dr. Avalos not infrequently teach our children.) What great skewing of mind and spirit does it take for one to conflate the author of the Sermon on the Mount with that of Mein Kampf?
But these assaults do seem to shed light on historical causation. How can we know if A eventuated in B? A few basic ground-rules suggest themselves.
First, A must precede B. This may seem obvious, but it is remarkable how often the principle seems to be forgotten, for example in historical Jesus studies by scholars like John Crossan and Elaine Pagels. In this case, what this means is that Christianity cannot have stalled ancient science, since science had already been resting in the siding for a century and a half when Jesus turned water to wine. It’s too late to rob the train to Yuma, after the tracks have been turned into a jogging path.
Second, causation can leap forward, but prefers short hops. Early scientists like Jean Buridan, Robert Grossteste, and Francis Bacon stepped onto the stage soon after Western Europe settled Viking and Moorish invaders and began rebuilding its burgs. Hitler was more credibly influenced by Marxist agitators who tried to throw him off Viennese scaffolds, than by Martin Luther or mild contemporary Lutheran clergy.
Third, something in a cause should explain its supposed effect. As Carrier admits, the idea that the Creator is honored by studying Nature was present at the birth of both Greek and Renaissance science. By Hitler’s account, Marxist terror convinced him of the need for terror. It is therefore more reasonable to credit the Bible with inspiring Buridan, Grossteste, and Bacon (who, after all, read it, and could easily have found those ideas), than Hitler (who probably did not, and would have had to grossly misread the Bible to find Nazism).
Of course other hands also turned both levers – in the case of science, political fragmentation of the Roman Empire, expansion, voyages of exploration, influx of foreign technology, cultures that encouraged aristocrats to soil hands. There are no simple, deterministic calculations that tell us when science or diabolical evil will arise. One could not predict a priori that foot-binding would arise in China, sati in India, or the metaphysical flourish with which the Aztecs developed the age-old Mesoamerican rituals of human sacrifice.
But fourth, causation is also rendered clearer if there are no strong alternative prompts. Why would anyone hate someone of another race, diet, faith, or language? The answer is too obvious to need stating. As desert tends to sand, and jungle to weeds, so does human society to scape-goating. Group hatred needs no explanation. Science, by contrast, is a cultivated flower that only grows when the stars align, as they did in the society where Galileo and Kepler first viewed them.
As Weikart shows, however kind Darwin was personally, the idea of evolution, nature “red in tooth and claw,” carried a distinct internal logic. A document that says “love your neighbor” 700 times is less likely to cause genocide than the idea that species progress by killing one another off.
If a peasant near Shanghai drinks from the Yangtze River and sickens, blame industrial outflow fifty yards upstream, not a clear spring flowing out of marble in the Himalayan foothills two thousand miles away. By all reasonable criteria, it is exponentially more plausible to credit Jesus and his first followers for modern science, universities, the Geneva Convention, and the end of slavery, sati, and human sacrifice, than for Hitler’s hideous failure to follow in the steps of Christ. But apparently we live in an age when the obvious needs stating.