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An Open Letter to “Father” Jonathan Morris

December 12, 2007

Jonathan Morris-

I have to say, I am a bit tired of your – and the Pope’s, in his recent encyclical – classification of Hitler as an atheist.

First of all, Stalin and Mao, as well and Marx himself, were certainly atheists. I would not go as far as to say that Stalin and Mao are in any way representative of atheism (since atheism, in itself, espouses no doctrine) or even Marxism, but I will grant that they were atheists, that they did commit atrocities. You’re right that this fact should not be pushed aside by atheists, and I myself find it troubling. It shows that atheism, in itself, is not a cure-all for irrationality, and it shows that atheism should not be the central focus of the so-called “New Atheism.” I would suggest that, Mirroring the multitude of theistic religions, there are a number of non-theistic “religious ideaologies” ranging from benign new-age spiritualism, to dangerous personality cults and non-theistic millennial belief structures, like Marxism. It is clear from reading their books that authors like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or Christopher Hitchens do not espouse a thoughtless atheism. The atheism they profess is not a profession at all. It is simply the rational result of scientific skepticism. Scientific skepticism requires that all beliefs and prejudices be rigorously scrutinized. Proper beliefs are those based on evidence; beliefs that do not withstands scrutiny are either discarded or placed in limbo until new evidence is available. Very few people are entirely immune to prejudices, but scientific skepticism, as a system is. It is the only cure for for violent irrationality, religious or secular. This is why Christopher Hitchens is so fond of saying that it would be impossible to find a totalitarian state based on the precepts of people like Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, or Spinoza. Regardless, to many observers, it may seem that the central point of the “New Atheist” movement is the promotion of atheism. The existence of monsters like Stalin and Mao suggests to me that the “New-Atheists” should attempt to focus more on the promotion of reason, evidence, and scientific skepticism.

Now on to Hitler. Hitler murdered several million people, and certainly his blight on history raises many questions about human nature, about what it takes for a person to have so little regard for human life. That being true, his world view is of interest to everybody. It would be interesting to know what made Hitler tick, what aspects of his life drove him to do what he did. Since we can’t posthumously psychoanalyze the man, most of this will always be a mystery. Barring actual quotations, any serious attempt to draw lines of causality between any aspect of his world view and his is actions futile. So even if Hitler were an atheist, there would be no reason to think this had any bearing on his decision to do what he did – unless he explicitly said so. At any rate, there is no evidence to suggest that Hitler was even an atheist and thus no evidence to suggest that his atheism led him to commit atrocities. The only evidence we have of Hitler’s anti-Christian sentiment comes from one source called Table Talk. In it, Hitler is alleged to have said things like “Christianity is an invention of sick brains” and “The best thing is to let Christianity die a natural death.” These quotes do not suggest atheism and, while they seem to be anti-Christian, the rest of Table Talk suggests that by “Christianity” Hitler meant the Catholic Church, as evidenced here:

Originally, Christianity was merely an incarnation of Bolshevism the destroyer. Nevertheless, the Galilean, who later was called Christ, intended something quite different. He must be regarded as a popular leader who took up His position against Jewry. Galilee was a colony where the Romans had probably installed Gallic legionaries, and it’s certain that Jesus was not a Jew. The Jews, by the way, regarded Him as the son of a whore– of a whore and a Roman soldier. The decisive falsification of Jesus’s doctrine was the work of St. Paul. He gave himself to this work with subtlety and for purposes of personal exploitation. For the Galiean’s object was to liberate His country from Jewish oppression. He set Himself against Jewish capitalism, and that’s why the Jews liquidated Him. -Hitler [Table-Talk, p. 76]

You and the Catholic Church may wish to equate all opposing viewpoints with “heresy” and “atheism,” a tradition that may be as old as the church itself, but wishing does not make it so. Non-Christian does not equal atheist, nor does Non-Catholic. As it turns out, while Hitler remained recognized as a Roman Catholic throughout his life, his actual belief system seems to have been some sort of synthesis of racist Aryan nationalism and, in very broad terms, Christianity. Even in Table Talk, the book used to “prove” Hitler was an atheist, Hitler expresses a form of Christianity, and an admiration for a fellow anti-Semite, Martin Luther. As the previous passage suggests, He contrasts Catholicism, which he sees as being related to Judaism and Bolshevism, with his conception of “true” Christianity, saying “Christ was an Aryan, and St. Paul used his doctrine to mobilise the criminal underworld and thus organise a proto-Bolsevism.” He continues, saying “Luther had the merit of rising against the Pope and the organisation of the Church. It was the first of the great revolutions. And thanks to his translation of the Bible, Luther replaced our dialects by the great German language!” This may not be the Christianity that you subscribe to, but Christ was certainly a central figure for Hitler.

In Table Talks, Hitler even denounces atheism:

“We don’t want to educate anyone in atheism.” Table-Talk [p. 6]

“An uneducated man, on the other hand, runs the risk of going over to atheism (which is a return to the state of the animal)…” Table-Talk [p. 59]

I must reiterate that this is the source that apologists always refer to when attempting to prove that Hitler was an atheist. Outside of Table Talk, we see much of the same – though, without the explicit anti-catholic proclamations. The Nazis espoused a sort of non-denominational Christianity termed “Positive Christianity,” and Hitler styled his public image as a sort of vigilante for Christ. In Mein Kampf he writes, “”The folkish minded man, in particular, has the sacred duty, each in his own denomination, of making people stop just talking superficially of God’s will, and actually fulfill God’s will, and not let God’s words be desecrated.” He expresses this sentiment again:

“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.”

and again:

“My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison. To-day, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before the fact that it was for this that He had to shed His blood upon the Cross. As a Christian I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice… And if there is anything which could demonstrate that we are acting rightly it is the distress that daily grows. For as a Christian I have also a duty to my own people.”

So please, get your facts straight. Hitler was not an atheist and he certainly was not a scientific skeptic. He was a true believer, just like Osama Bin Laden, the pope, and, at least in that regard, yourself. His irrational beliefs in nationalism, in racialism, and in his position as a fighter for god were, if not the cause, enablers that he used to justify his vile actions.

In reason,

Sean Bernhoft

Freedom of Speech Means Freedom of Speech for Everyone (a response to “Religious Discrimination,” Printed in the Union Weekly, 4/30)

May 7, 2007

The poster that Alisha Herrick brought to our attention last week, a poorly drawn want-to-be Chick tract, is abhorrent, small-minded, bigoted, and just plain incorrect. Alisha suggested that, because the poster claims that Buddhists (and everyone else who doesn’t accept Jesus as their personal savior) are going to live forever in an eternal state of agony and torture, this poster was offensive and not within the boundaries of free speech. On the contrary, the idiots and ignoramuses at Palm Tree Christian Club – because if they authored this tract, that is exactly what they are – have as much right to exhibit their unreasoned beliefs as I have to espouse my (correct) opinion that their world view is informed by bronze age myths, that the foundation of their beliefs crumbles under scrutiny, and that they are utterly and contemptibly wrong. I am sure you agree with me, at least on some points, Alisha – otherwise, why would you call for their censorship? But of course you would not say so, because I suppose you would have to consider what I have said “religious discrimination” as well. Or perhaps, though it is presumptuous of me to suggest, you would not say so because your own beliefs are built upon equally shaky foundations.

At any rate, what good does it do to censor speech that you do not agree with? How does that move anyone closer to what is true? Censorship is not conducive to rational argument. Ideas compete like goods in the market place: bad ideas and opinions shatter under scrutiny and reason, and should eventually disappear while good ideas and opinions withstand such scrutiny. So why is there so much fear of words? Why should beliefs sit loftily and safely in an ivory tower? This rampant politeness and fear of offense that calls for censorship, which has become so common on the left while being so intuitively indicative of the right, leads us toward intellectual complacency at its best and destruction at its worst. Complacency for the reasons listed above – we can’t progress if we can’t engage in rational argument – and destruction because violent extremists can hide behind the same limitations that you’ve attempted to level against the Palm Tree Christian Club. Likewise, you have protected the Palm Tree Christian club from any real criticism: They have not engaged in religious discrimination as you say, they have merely espoused what they believe to be the truth. As I have stated. They are wrong and their beliefs should be challenged. As I have stated, any public criticism of their beliefs – valid or not – would be offensive to them and would have to be considered, by your definition, religious discrimination.

Imagine, for a moment, that we live in a world populated by demagogues and extremists who have complete and utter faith in various, mutually exclusive, mutually violent, holy books. Members of these sects wish to impose their beliefs on you and I by any means necessary – and if we are unwilling to submit, some of them would be willing to remove our craniums from our spines. What do you suppose we should do? Wait in unease, until the most extreme of the sects lashes out in an inevitable bout of violence, hushing them if they attempt to use more peaceful means of persuasion? I say no, let them speak! Let them speak, and de-construct their arguments. Show them why they are wrong with words and argument, and do so without restraint. What better way to demoralize the ranks of would-be suicide bombers than convincing them to be otherwise? If we limit their speech, then we must limit the speech of the sane among us because sound criticism can be equally offensive as wild claims and accusations, and then what will we be left with?

Freedom of speech must mean freedom of speech for everyone. First, because any alternative would be simply unethical: who is to decide who’s speech is legitimate? Second, because ideas are powerful, and good ideas more so. Ideas must be able to compete if we are ever going to turn this uneasy – and demonstrably fragile – state of relativism and complacency into a state of more widespread enlightenment.

So it goes.

April 12, 2007

So It Goes (in Remembrance of Kurt Vonnegut)


One of the most awe inspiring and devastatingly beautiful books I have ever read is Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut, who died today (April 11th) at the age of 84. Vonnegut’s death – and I don’t hesitate to use the word death because Vonnegut, while he will live on forever in the amber of time, did not entertain the idea of an afterlife – is a strange occasion, not only because we have lost one of this country’s greatest national treasures, but I can only assume that Vonnegut greeted his death with humor and calm. In his latest book, Vonnegut jokes that he is “going to sue Pall Mall cigarettes, for a billion bucks!” because “[since he was] twelve years old, [he] has never chain-smoked anything else but unfiltered Pall Malls.” He continues to clarify his statement, saying “for many years now, right on the package, Brown and Williamson have promised to kill me. But I am now eighty-two. Thanks a lot you dirty rats.” Perhaps you could call him a cynic, but that is a good-humored view of death if I ever saw one.

Cynical as he may have been, Vonnegut enjoyed life for what it was. He would often tell stories of how he preferred walking to the post office over using e-mail because he enjoyed interacting with people along the way. He ends this story with a truism – “we are here on earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.” If Vonnegut’s life was dedicated to farting around, then he may have had the most productive farts of anyone who ever lived. He was a prolific writer and many of his books have become literary classics within his life time. He broke the barrier between science fiction and literature (but don’t call him a science fiction writer!), and one of his masterpieces, Slaughter-House Five, is read in class rooms all around the world.

He was, and remains, an excellent moralist and a master of satire. Vonnegut dedicated himself to compassion and rationality – beliefs that often put him on the fringes of society, but on the correct side of issues as well. He was an iconoclast and a rabble-rouser: Slaughter-House Five is one of the most banned books (for its candidness and not so kosher views), and he was often dry and sarcastic in interviews. I remember seeing him on the Daily Show Jon Stewart (whom Vonnegut considers to be very popular with the “right” sort of people, by the way) a while back when he expressed his “doubts” about evolution, because if things weren’t designed how would we get “giraffes, and hippopotami, and the clap.” Vonnegut was a committed humanist and socialist, both terms that he worked to de-stigmatize  – and thank God for that.  He saw socialism as the logical ends of compassion for fellow man, and as the only political system that could create the sense of community that he saw as so important to a person’s health. As for the former, he had the self-proclaimed “luxury” of being from a long line of rationalists and humanists – whom he described as “freethinkers [who] became Unitarians – and then humanists. [Humanists believe] that god has not made himself known to us, and thus we (humanists) expect no rewards or punishment in an afterlife. In our lives, we do our best to serve our community well, behave decently, and treat people well.” In this vein, he served as honorary president of the American Humanist Association, which was previously held by Isaac Asimov – a position which he describes as “totally functionless” except for its sense of community.

In spite of the fact – or is it because of it fact?- that he was only here to fart around, Vonnegut will be sorely missed. The value of his contributions to society – his compassion, his reason, and most importantly his literature – is limitless. He gave the gift of unencumbered thought to his readers, and surely made the most of the life he had. He is gone, but his gifts remain. So it goes.

I loved this man. He will be severely missed.