Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Hitler, Stalin, and secular violence: Avalos on Religion & Violence V

An important part of any argument consists of anticipating and rebutting potential counter-punches.   Dr. Avalos therefore dedicates Part 3 of Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence, to answering the objection, "But haven't secularist ideologies been even more violent?"

Good question: we do, after all, live in the Age of Barbed Wire.  At the beginning of the 20th Century, G. K. Chesterton warned that slavery was a "very human" expedient, and would therefore likely be tried again.  It was, in a big way: tens of millions of Europeans and Asians were enslaved, and almost as many murdered, over the following decades by the great secular religions of Nazism and Marxism-Leninism, for thought-crime, race-crime, owning two cows when one was permissible, or praying to God in Heaven, instead of to demogods in the Kremlin.    

In this post, I'll respond to Avalos' attempt to deal with all this post-Christian "secular" violence.   

Framing: Why Stalin and Hitler? 

Avalos does not claim that religion is the only cause of violence.  He ascribes violence generally to competition over "scarce resources," of which religion merely creates more:  

Our aim is not so much to deny that the violence is performed by secular institutions and individuals, but rather to show that secular philosophies are not as clear a motive for violence as is often supposed.  Our discussion considers Nazism and Stalinism, two of the main supposed culprits of atheistic violence.

This way of framing the issue begs two questions.  First, few Christian scholars claim that Nazism was "atheistic."   There are exceptions: Dinesh D'Souza in What's So Great About Christianity seems to make this claim fleetingly, while Richard Weikart argues that Social Darwinism was the most important influence on Nazism.  But few reasonable people describe Hitler as either an atheist or any kind of orthodox Christian.  

Avalos' decision to focus on "Stalinism" ought to seem even more peculiar -- though it does not, because the same focus by skeptical apologists for secular humanism, or for Marxism, is so common. 

Stalin was hardly the only communist to commit violence.  Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were devout atheists, and their joint ideology emerged from a circle of "Left Hegelians" who were deeply inspired by the poet Percy Shelley's anti-God tract, Promethius Unbound.  Marx and Engels unequivocally advocated violence.  Their chief disciple in Russia, Vladimir Lenin, did a vast amount of killing to create the Soviet Union: a union that did not come together on a volunteer basis.  Lenin and his immediate disciples, including Leo Trotsky, then committed still more violence, including by creating the Chekist secret police, in the eleven years before Joseph Stalin seized effective control of the movement in 1928.  

By that time, the Chinese Communist Party had already been founded.  Its leader most of the time until his death in 1976, Mao Zedong, was usually not under the control of Joseph Stalin.  Yet he committed great violence, including against harmless Buddhist priests, Christian pastors and farmers.  Mao and his comrades, all atheists, killed more innocent people than Joseph Stalin, and committed what many Chinese recognize as an equally tragic act of violence: the systematic destruction of four thousand years of some of the most brilliant art and places of worship in the world.  In smaller communist countries, Enver Hofha, Fidel Castro, Kim Il Sung, Ho Chi Minh, and Pol Pott committed systematic, massive, and horrendous acts of violence against their many often innocent victims, all in the name of an ideology that (Avalos is honest enough to admit, I am glad to see, see below) made atheism an intrinsic part of its ideology and propaganda. 

Avalos is not the only secular humanist who seeks to conflate "Stalinism" with "communism:" Dawkins and others do this as well.  But as Alexander Solzhenitsyn pointed out, from his experience in the Gulag, communists who were imprisoned by Stalin sometimes seemed to talk even more ruthlessly than the man who imprisoned them. 

In Jesus and the Religions of Man, twelve years ago, I asked, "Where did Marx go wrong?" discussing and dismissing this already common tendency under the sub-head, "It was the Snakes' Fault!"  As I pointed out then, not only independent communist leaders, but their followers, too, deserve blame:

But as French sociologist Jacques Ellul says, propaganda can only exploit what is in a person, not what is not.   Who gained a new apartment when a neighbor was denounced in a secret letter, or ate imported sweets when everyone else was standing in line for bread, because he was willing to shoot at shadows slipped westward into  no-man's land?  Not Stalin alone.  The devil can't make us do what we don't want to do.  Personal responsibility is at the heart of traditional morality common to the traditions of humanity. (48)

Adolf Hitler, Bible scholar? 

Avalos has attempted to trace the evils of Nazism to Christianity elsewhere, and I have argued that those attempts fail.  His goal in this chapter, again, seems to be to maximize the alleged Christian influence on Nazism, and minimize any influence atheism may have had:

The fact that Nazi ideologues saw themselves as religious refutes the idea that Nazism was necessarily, or actually, based on atheism. (308)

Avalos only provides anecdotal evidence that "Nazi ideologues" did regard themselves as "religious," whatever that infamously squishy word means.  Some of Hitler's chief lieutenants were stridently anti-Christian.  Some early precursors to Hitler's plan of genocide were Social Darwinists, like Ernst Haeckel, Germany's chief promoter of Darwinism, who advocated killing the "unfit."  Richard Weikart notes:

Since many Darwinists and most early eugenicists were critical of the Christian virtues of compassion and pity for the weak and sick, they led the attack on Judeo-Christian prohibitions against killing innocent human life. (From Darwin to Hitler, 145)

Hitler was also deeply influenced by the atheist philosopher, Arthur Schoppenhaur, and probably Friedrich Nietzsche  as well.

Instead of examning these influences, Avalos focuses on a  marginal figure who may have influenced Nazism, but was more of a Gnostic than a Christian:

The work of Jorg Lanz von Liebenfels illustrates the extent to which the Bible was used to suport the notion of race and Aryan supremacy. (309)

Bringing up someone no one has ever heard of, and who was hardly a Christian, to link the Bible and the Nazis, is a thin reed on which to rest such an important argument.  Avalos says he counts "at least 100 biblical references" in Liebenfels' major work, along with references to works on anthropology and paleontology.  He admits Liebenfels' read of the Bible is "certainly tendentious and his philology is flawed," but no more so than that of Glock and Stark! 

In fact, Liebenfel was a Gnostic, who twisted biblical stories deliberately in the service of an ideology that was fundamentally hostile to Christianity. 

When Avalos brings up Alfred Rosenberg, who repudiated the Old Testament, comparing him to Ernest Renan in his effort to trace Christianity to its alleged "Nordic roots," one senses the desperation of Avalos' case.  Avalos further claims that Haeckel, a pantheist, "saw himself as simply reexpressing biblical concepts in scientific language." The "grounds" Avalos gives for this is that Haeckel approvingly cited "the ancient wisdom of the Golden Rule!"  (As who does not?)   

Avalos also twice describes Adolf Hitler as a biblical "exegete" -- not very skillful, but no worse than Luther or other "orthodox" believers! (318)

The desperation of Avalos' attempts to tie Christianity to Nazism thus grows more palpable by the page.  Comparing Luther, who staked his life on "Solo Scriptura," to Adolf Hitler as "exegetes" of the Bible?  Hitler was, obviously, a hack, looking for reinforcement wherever he could find it, but seldom deigning to open the Bible, and then only for his own purposes.  Avalos should understand the feeling. 

The Nazi Holocaust represents the synthesis of attitudes found in both the New Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures. (319)

Given Avalos' complete failure to demonstrate that link, this conclusion falls on the ears as mere bluster, not supported by any real body of evidence the undeniably industrious Avalos has been able to locate.   

Joseph Stalin, Atheist

Avalos proves more reasonable and less dogmatic when it comes to communism that expected, however.  I think he understates the role atheism played in communism, but he does not simply deny that role, as some skeptics seem to do. 

Stalin never justified any actions with direct statements such as 'I do not believe in God, therefore I am committing violent act X' . . . Stalin did follow many anti-religious policies that can reasonably be attributed to his atheism. (326)

The latter comment comes as a relief, after some of the "spin" Avalos engaged in earlier in the chapter. 

Rather than showing Stalin's reign of terror as simply an atheistic plot, the new documents show that the (Russian Orthodox Church) continued its pre-Communist alliance, though tenuous and complex, with the elite powers. (331)

Avalos is here adopting a tedious posture: that in the late 1990s, some great new set of data has overthrow our previous, simplistic understanding of how the Soviet government dealt with religion.  But every "new" fact he points to, was well known to students of the Soviet Union when I was studying its history and policies in college, in the 1980s.  One could also much of this in the works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in the 1970s, or from other sources, earlier. 

This seems part and parcel with Avalos' general attitude, Gnostic in its own way, that really good scholars like himself are in a position to rethink every position, and overthrow common perceptions.  Or perhaps Avalos was himself ignorant of the facts until the 1990s.    Of course communist governments persecuted religion selectively, depending on the greater needs of the moment.  Of course the Soviets opened churches during World War II, and tried to co-opt religious leaders.  This is also described in Brother Andrew's God's Smuggler, an evangelical best-seller in the 1970s, and by Richard Wurmbrand. 

That degree of pragmatism is a basic element in time-tested communist strategy, what are called "Common Front" organizations.  The same strategy was manifest, for instance, when communists and nationalists in China joined against the common enemy of the invading Japanese in World War II.   

Communists sometimes tolerated religion, and often bribed, brainwashed, or coerced religious leaders into carrying out their policies.  One can call that an "alliance" in the same sense in which a camp commander in the Gulag "allies" himself with a prisoner who acts as a stool-pidgeon for preferential treatment. 

Dr. Avalos also (again) conflates the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 as an instance of "collectivization" and forced terror, here also neglecting to mention that no violence was done by human beings in this story.  I responded to this tendentious reading in my Amazon review of The Christian Delusion, and in our debate that followed, showing that few scholars accept Avalos' read of the passage. 

The idea that atheism was responsible for the mass terror under Stalin is partly true.  Atheism was certainly a part of the reason for antireligious violence throughout the Soviet era.  The larger factor, however, seems to be political. (333)

I am glad Avalos admits so much. 

The word "political," here, doesn't mean much, I think, though.  Avalos recognizes that Stalin and his fellow Soviets disliked "religion," and that their hatred manifested itself in unjust violence.  He fails, however, to deal with a deeper level of causality.  Did atheism allow the communists to deny moral absolutes, and the authority of God, and adopt an "ends justifies the means" sort of morality?  If it did, then not only communist violence against innocent believers, but against kulaks, dissidents, "thought criminals," and prisoners, also against, say, Chinese art, all reflect the influence of a particular atheistic worldview. 

Which does not, of course, mean all atheists agree.  But enough did, to make the 20th Century pretty hellish, in some quarters. 

This has been a long critique of a fairly obscure book on very important topics, by an increasingly prominent New Atheist.  We're nearing the end.  My next post, which so far is my last post on this book, returns us to the eight questions I asked in chapter one, and appraises how Dr. Avalos has or has not answered them. 

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