The Danger of Irreligion

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See the accompanying article “The Dangers of Religion”

Human beings cannot decide if we will worship; we only decide what we will worship. This is the danger of irreligion. Every man realises that he is ephemeral, finite and limited; so each one has a hunger for significance, meaning and identity. These spiritual needs are as basic as our hunger for food and sex. If we do not worship God, we will find something else to adore. Once we bowed down to stones and beasts; lacking the poetry of the ancients, today we are more inclined to deify political ideals and social causes.

Such programmes can become dangerous if they will not respect any authority beyond human reason and creativity. If secularists refuse to acknowledge that tradition, religion and family can have any claim on human conscience then secularism can become dangerously intolerant. Indeed, it should be reasonably clear that Nazism and Communism demonstrate that irreligious movements can be as dangerous as any religion. However, some secularists have objected to this claim. Consider Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature:  

Defenders of religion claim that the two genocidal ideologies of the Twentieth Century, fascism and communism, were atheistic. But the first claim is  mistaken and the second irrelevant. Fascism happily co-existed with Catholicism in Spain, Italy, Portugal and Croatia. And though Hitler had little use for Christianity, he was by no means an atheist, and professed that he was carrying out a divine plan. Historians have documented that many of the Nazi elite melded Nazism with German Christianity in a syncretic faith, drawing on its millennial visions and its long history of anti-semitism” (2011, p.677)

I’m not sure what Pinker means by “defenders of religion”. Defending the Gospel does not commit me to defending Wahabi Muslims or the Tontons Macoutes. In any case, Pinker’s defence of secularism is far from convincing and does not seem particularly well informed. Historians find the term “fascism” to be somewhat vague, and tend to treat Nazism separately from fascism. Furthermore, we must be careful not to overstate the Christian character of the German people in the early twentieth century. Richard Overy points out that Germany was undergoing rapid secularisation in the 1930s.

Millions of Germans abandoned Christianity both formally and in practice. Under German law individuals could give notice of withdrawal from the confession with which they were registered. Between 1918 and 1931 2,420,000 withdrew from the Protestant Evangelical Churches; 497 000 withdrew their Catholic allegiance. Figures for attendance at communion showed that millions more were at best passive Christians.”(Overy, 2004, p.279)

As for the “German Christianity” which was melded with Nazism, John Conway at the University of British Columbia clarifies:

Nazi Christianity was eviscerated of all the most essential orthodox dogmas. What remained was the vaguest impression combined with anti-Jewish prejudice. Only a few radicals on the extreme wing of liberal Protestantism would recognize such a mish-mash as true Christianity.”

It is also clear that the only Nazi whose opinions mattered –Adolf Hitler- loathed Christianity. It is true that Hitler made political deals with the Catholic Church; yet he also struck a deal with Communist Russia in 1939, and Hitler did not plan to co-exist with Stalin. Hitler was a Machiavellian politician, prepared to do a deal with whoever he wanted, whenever he wanted, so that he could betray them all at his leisure. Michael Burleigh summarises Hitler’s position neatly in his award-winning The Third Reich: A New History

National Socialism, like other totalitarian dictatorships, parodied many of the eschatological and liturgical attributes of redemptive religions, while being fundamentally antagonistic towards the Churches: rivals, as the Nazis saw it, in the subtle, totalising control of minds. However, the overwhelmingly Christian character of the German people meant that Hitler dissembled his personal views behind preachy invocations of the Almighty, and distanced himself from the radically irreligious in his own Party, even though his own views were probably more extreme.” (Burleigh,2001, p.717)

So Pinker’s assertion that Hitler ‘had little use for Christianity’ understates the facts, almost to the point of dishonesty. Hitler believed Christianity was “whole-hearted Bolshevism under a tinsel of metaphysics” and “an invention of sick brains” (Burleigh, 2001, p.718). His hostility to Christianity led to sudden radical outbursts: in early 1937 he declared that “Christianity was ripe for destruction”, and that “the Churches must yield to the primacy of the State” (Kershaw, 2008, p.382).  Goebbels took notes of a speech which Hitler gave in December 1941:

There would, he made clear, be no place in this utopia for the Christian Churches. For the time being, he ordered slow progression in the ‘Church Question’. But it is clear…that after the war it has to be generally solved…There is, namely, an insoluble opposition between the Christian and a Germanic-heroic world-view.” (Kershaw, 2008, p.382).

It is true that atheism was too Bolshevik for Hitler; but YHWH was much too Jewish, and a loving Heavenly Father far too weak. Hitler expressed belief in an “eternal will that rules the universe”, but he was not referring to the God of Christian theism. Hitler was clear: “[t]he dogma of Christianity gets worn away before the advances of science. (Overy, 2004, p.281)”

Christianity had been progressively subverted by science, which he understood as a series of heroic discoveries by titanic figures rolling back the frontiers of ignorance. Science was akin to a ladder of enlightenment, from whose ascending rungs one could perceive a wider world, in which God was revealed in and through the ‘laws of nature’, the chief of which was the God-decreed verities of race against which mankind had sinned.” (Burleigh, p.2006,p. 100)

In Mein Kampf  Hitler conflated the ‘divine will’ and ‘Nature; the ‘commands’ of ‘Eternal Nature’ with the ‘will of the Almighty Creator”. His god seems closer to the god of Enlightenment Deism; not a personal God who personally intervenes to save a fallen humanity. Hitler’s God was an impersonal, if rational,force which animated nature; a god who was discovered by reason, not revelation. Hitler’s utopia would have no room for Judaeo-Christian faith, and his worldview was decidedly post-Christian.

Pinker is no more convincing when he turns to communism.

As for godless communism, godless it certainly was. But the repudiation of one illiberal ideology does not grant immunity from others. Marxism…helped itself to the worst idea in the Christian Bible, a millennial cataclysm that will bring about a utopia and restore prelapsarian innocence.  (Pinker, 2011, p.677)”

The “worst idea in the Christian Bible” is mentioned in only one text, Revelation 20. Christians have interpreted it in a variety of ways, not all of them literally. Neither the Early Church nor 19th Century Evangelicals believed that the doctrine necessitated quietism or revolution. Indeed, the doctrine inspired some of the greatest humanitarian movements in history. The idea that Christian eschatology is even indirectly responsible for the Gulags is ridiculous.

Consider the great 19th Century reformer Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury:

Faithful and obedient discipleship in the period before the return of Christ lay at the root of Shaftesbury’s work. It was this which motivated his labour as legislator, missionary activist and supporter of voluntary societies” (Turnbull, 2010, p.222).

Rather than focusing on the vague similarities between Christianity and Communism, Pinker ought to have noted the differences. Christianity knows nothing of materialistic dialectics, class struggle or the will of the Party. Critically, Leninism could make no room for the image of God. Leon Trotsky wrote “[w]e must put an end once and for all to the papist-Quaker babble about the sanctity of human life”, (quoted in Pearse, 2007, p. 130). Communists denied the soul; therefore they denied free-will; therefore they denied freedom of conscience. So the Soviet State Communism was violently anti-religious. Lenin had 2700 Priests and 5000 monks and nuns executed, while the League of Militant Atheists closed churches and harassed believers.

During Collectivization (1928-32) Stalin’s forces ruthlessly attacked clergy, particularly in the Ukraine. By 1930 a person could be sent to a work-camp merely for associating with a Priest. Then during the Great Terror, from 1936-39, while Stalin was eliminating imaginary enemies in his own party, communists unleashed a third wave of terror on the Churches. Thousands of Priests and Monks were rounded up for the gulags. There were 20 000 churches and mosques in 1936; by 1941 fewer than 1000 were left (Gellately, 2008, p.248-250)

Both communists and Nazis used pseudo-religious propaganda; but they were totalitarians, and could not permit authority to exist outside the state. Therefore, traditional religions had either to be eliminated or controlled. Some Nazis preferred the latter option, adopting and manipulating the Churches as was convenient; but that is a far cry from ‘happy co-existence’. It would be wrong to classify either as a ‘political religion’: it acknowledged no transcendent authority; it would only bend to the will of the party.

This is the danger of irreligion. If it cannot find adequate grounds to protect freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, it can become ferociously intolerant. If it cannot find a reason to value civil society and the family, it can become oppressive and tyrannical. Not every atheistic movement need degenerate into such a state. But it is essential to realise that tolerance and secularism are not synonymous. It would be a little wiser to consider each secular and religious movement on its own merits, and to ask if each can support the civilization which we wish to live in.


Burleigh, M. (2001) The Third Reich: A New History London: Pan

Burleigh, M. (2006) Sacred Causes: Religion and Politics from the European Dictators to Al-Quaeda London:  Harper Collins

Gellately, R.  (2008) Lenin, Stalin and Hitler: the Age of Social Catastrophe London: Vintage

Kershaw, I. (2008) Hitler London: Penguin

Overy, R. (2004) The Dictators: Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia London: Penguin

Pearse, M. (2007) The Gods of War: Is Religion the Primary Cause of Conflict? Downers Grove: IVP

Pinker, S. (2011) The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined London: Penguin

Turnbull, R. (2010) Shaftesbury: The Great Reformer Oxford: Lion

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