For people who haven’t experienced “The Oatmeal”, it’s very funny – although beware, it can be crude and uses a fair few expletives – and I’ve learned fascinating facts about Nikola Tesla, and about the anglerfish [1]; nodded with appreciation about the correct grammatical use of the semi-colon; laughed until I’ve choked at the reasons you should keep your T-Rex off cocaine; and discovered that I could take out 22 Justin Biebers in a fight, and if memory serves, that if I were chained to a bunk bed I could survive one minute and twenty-seven seconds in a fight against a velociraptor.

Matthew Inman – the man behind the ‘Meal – is a comic who writes comics. One of the relatively recent ones is titled War in the name of atheism. (Thought: should articles on a blog be in italics or quotation marks?) This intrigued me, because no one would go to war in the name of nothing; unless it’s to force people accept your belief in nothing. Even then it wouldn’t be war as such, but enforced social engineering of the people already under their domination.

This particular comic – War in the name of atheism – has the theist saying, “My pastor told me that Hitler and Stalin were both atheists.” It’s a comic, not an academic treatise, so we can’t expect precision to trump brevity; however, the implication behind the words “My pastor told me” is that theists can’t, don’t and/or won’t think for themselves. (That’s my inference anyway.) No doubt this is true of many people – whatever their religion or irreligion – but not of every person, and I think Matthew would recognise that. Still, it would have been more balanced if that appeal to authority had been left out, or if the theist’s interlocutor (who, we assume, is an atheist; although that’s neither stated nor implied) had begun his reply with, “My professor told me that…” [2]

The second issue I have with this Oatmeal comic is about history. In a couple of author’s notes, it’s stated that Hitler was, or that the evidence indicates he was most probably, a Christian. I’m not a historian, but I believe my knowledge of this particular part of history is sufficient to state categorically that the assertion, “Hitler was a Christian” is wrong – in the true sense of being a Christian, not the nominal one. Plenty of people have written about this but I’ll still throw my thoughts into the mix, stitched together with a couple of quotes.

Hitler grew up with some early influence from the Roman Catholic church. He probably would have been baptised, but being baptised no more makes you a Christian than a lifetime membership in a football club makes you a supporter of that football club, or even interested in the game. Going to church no more makes you a Christian than going into a garage makes you a mechanic. Reading the Bible no more makes you a Christian than reading an operator’s manual for a helicopter makes you a pilot.

It’s crucial to define your terms. More or less simply and ignoring some corollary questions (like, “How do you know your interpretation is correct?” By following the rules of historical documentary analysis), a Christian is someone who is personally committed to Jesus of Nazareth and obeying his teachings. A Christian believes that in Jesus, God bound a human nature inextricably to Himself, lived a perfect life and in his death, paid the price for the rebellion of all of us against God. That price was abandonment by God. And on the third day (the rest of Friday, all of Saturday, and early on Sunday) he was physically resurrected. Those who accept this as true – and they will live this out, even though imperfectly – are Christians. Adolf Hitler’s life showed that he wasn’t a Christian. He was not personally committed to following Jesus of Nazareth as his king; and he did not obey the teachings of Jesus.

Hitler wasn’t an atheist ideologically; but his conception of the divine is muddy. It certainly wasn’t the Christian God. Would Jesus have approved of what Hitler, Stalin – who was once a seminary student – and their ilk did? To believe that he would have approved is insane. (Of course this cannot justify the non sequitur that people who claim the name of Christian are or should be perfect.) Rather, the deity of the National Socialists was a national spirit of Blut und Boden – blood and soil. The Jesus of the National Socialists approved of was a fighter; a figure like the pastor in one of Peter Jackson’s early films, a blood-and-gore zombie masher. When confronted with zombies, the minister declares, “I kick arse for the Lord!” and proceeds to do so, until he meets his visceral end [3].

There are several reasons why Hitler appears to have supported religion in general. First, foremost, and almost entirely, Hitler was a political genius. (He was also an inveterate liar.) He knew how to influence people – although without the backing of the army, without Goering to introduce him to the right people (read: rich and influential), without Roehm and the SA to intimidate people into voting for the National Socialists, and without Goebbels’ propaganda, he might never have achieved anything. He knew he couldn’t come out directly and call Christianity a load of old cobblers, so he used phrases (like “positive Christianity”) that gave a new face to an established standard. This didn’t upset the majority but justified a different interpretation. It’s like saying you won’t introduce any new taxes, and then introducing a tax and calling it a “pricing”. (Note that one action that minority, pressure and lobby groups might take is to redefine words and concepts to suit their purposes, so they are viewed positively while their opponents are viewed negatively.)

Second, one of the chief enemies of National Socialism was Communism: this meant Russia under the rule of Stalinism, which was explicitly anti-theistic [4]. So Hitler couldn’t openly reject religion as it would be seen as too Bolshevist. Plus he wanted Russia’s cooperation – that is, their passivity – while he took over the Slavic nations.

Third, from past experience Hitler knew that to obtain and keep supreme political power you needed support from one or more established institutions, such as the army or the church hierarchy, whose presence provided the people with the comfortable illusion of political and social stability. Hitler sought primarily to gain the support of the army, having himself fought in the trenches in WWI; however, he was careful to not alienate the Church, so as not to further upset the already unstable social situation. The Weimar Republic wasn’t popular, the world was barely through the Great Depression and unemployment was high.

Fourth, he sought to co-opt the church in Germany before destroying it. In order to be elected, Hitler sought the support of the Catholic Centre Party: difficult to do if you call their beliefs decadent and seek to destroy them.

Hitler signed a concordat with the Roman Catholic church in 1933 to the effect that Catholics would be free to educate and practise their faith in Germany, as long as they didn’t interfere with German politics. (Remember that Hitler was baptised into the Roman Catholic church.) Of course, this peace didn’t last. The German Faith Movement supported National Socialism and rejected the authority of the Old Testament because it was a little too, well, Jewish. One hint that the German Faith Movement had no part with Christianity is their statement, “the Cross must fall if Germany is to live.” The German Christians (Hitler came up with the name, apparently) merely supported revising their doctrine to favour National Socialism. Alfred Rosenberg (the National Socialist’s pin-up philosopher) drew up 30 articles for the “National Reich Church”. Certain of these include:

5. The National Church is determined to exterminate irrevocably…the strange and foreign Christian faiths imported into Germany in the ill-omened year 800.

13. The National Church demands immediate cessation of the publishing and dissemination of the Bible in Germany.

18. The National Church will clear away from its altars all crucifixes, Bibles and pictures of saints.

19. On the altars there must be nothing but Mein Kampf (to the German nation and therefore to God the most sacred book) and to the left of the altar a sword.

30. On the day of its foundation, the Christian Cross must be removed from all churches, cathedrals and chapels…and it must be superseded by the only unconquerable symbol, the swastika.

No genuine Christian would endorse any of these, and as the leader of the party, Hitler would have deep-sixed that proposal if he were a Christian. He also would have repudiated Martin Bormann’s statement in 1941, that “National Socialism and Christianity are irreconcilable.”

In a speech in 1922, Hitler himself said:

My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded only 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 against the Jewish poison. Today, 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.

Anti-Semitism is not an appropriate response from Christians, to say the least. Consider that Jesus was a Jew; that almost all his first followers were Jews; that Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, went first to the Jews; and that Jesus said, “Salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:24). The unjustifiable justification for anti-Semitism is partly because at Jesus’ trial the Jewish people present – mostly comprised of the religious leaders who hated Jesus – said, “Let his blood be upon us and our children.” Partly it arises from misinterpreting the Gospel of John, where Jesus’ enemies are usually called “the Jews”; in context, this obviously doesn’t mean all Jews but their religious leaders, the elite, who should have known better. As Paul told the Roman Christians, “For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessing, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings” (Romans 15:27).

The Church in Germany was at first lax in its protests about the National Socialists’ anti-Semitism, being more concerned with their interference in church doctrine and government. Article 24 of the National Socialists’ platform encouraged “positive Christianity” to mollify the Christian denominations. Again, definition is everything. The doctrine of “positive Christianity” was not traditional, historical Christianity: Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant. In the words of Hans Kerrl, the Third Reich’s Minister for Church Affairs, “Positive Christianity is National Socialism…. Dr. Zoellner and Count Galen have tried to make clear to me that Christianity consists in faith in Christ as the Son of God. That makes me laugh.”

Article 24 indicates what the National Socialists thought of the relationship between Church and State.

We demand freedom of religion for all religious denominations within the state so long as they do not endanger its existence or oppose the moral senses of the Germanic race. The Party as such advocates the standpoint of a positive Christianity without binding itself confessionally to any one denomination. It combats the Jewish-materialistic spirit within and around us, and is convinced that a lasting recovery of our nation can only succeed from within on the framework: the good of the state before the good of the individual.

Apart from the objectionable utilitarianism of the last phrase, where a person is only as valuable as what they give for the survival of the nation, what defined the “moral sense of the Germanic race”? Hitler’s opinion. And what was Hitler’s personal opinion of Christianity, based on his table talk?

The heaviest blow which ever struck humanity was Christianity; Bolshevism is Christianity’s illegitimate child. Both are inventions of the Jew.

The law of selection justifies this incessant struggle, by allowing the survival of the fittest. Christianity is a rebellion against natural law, a protest against nature. Taken to its logical extreme, Christianity would mean the systematic cultivation of the human failure.

As a dutiful National Socialist, your highest duty was to the state. You could be of any faith you wanted, as long as you obeyed the Fuehrer’s dictates. There was no appeal to conscience allowed, nor to God’s law taking precedence over human government in matters of faith. It’s instructive that at the Nuremberg trials after WWII, when they were asked, Why did you do what you did?, almost all of them said, “I was only obeying orders.” Hitler would have been gratified. Of the apparent national tendency of Germans to obey the state, historians popularly attribute it to Martin Luther’s writings (such as An Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation and Against the Robbing and Murderous Hordes of Peasants). They also attribute the apparent latent Germanic anti-Semitism to Luther as well, although I think Luther would have been horrified at the scale to which it was carried. He certainly was at the massacre of the peasantry during his own day. Maybe people overestimate the effect of one person so long ago because we want a simple solution; someone who can shoulder all the blame. Or maybe I underestimate the effect that one person can have [5].

The general National Socialist rejection of any higher rule than Hitler’s will was plumb in line with Hitler’s belief that “conscience is a Jewish invention like circumcision. My task is to free men from the dirty and degrading ideas of conscience and morality.”

He sought to do that through proven teaching techniques, such as music. Consider this song sung by Hitler Youth:

“We are the happy Hitler Youth;
We have no need for Christian virtue;
For Adolf Hitler is our intercessor
And our redeemer…
No Christ do we follow, but Horst Wessel!”

Makes you sorta feel all warm and fuzzy, don’t it?

In the Oatmeal comic, the theist’s premise – that evil acts by atheists demonstrate the destructiveness of atheism and even its falsity – is flawed, as the interlocutor notes. We should evaluate the truth or falsity of a belief by the evidence for and against that belief, not by the actions of those who claim to hold the belief. That would be to put the cart before the horse; the building before the foundations.

History shows us that any one of us is capable of acts of atrocious evil or of great good. During the Nuremberg trials after WWII, when the surviving Axis leaders were put on trial for crimes against humanity, one Jewish man was brought in to testify against a former guard (or commandant, I can’t recall at present) of a concentration camp. Seeing the former guard dressed in ordinary civilian clothes, the man began to cry. He was asked, “Does seeing him bring back so many bad memories?” He answered, “It isn’t that. He just looks so…ordinary.”

Hitler will not be in heaven because (from the perspective of Biblical theology) he rejected God’s word; that he was a rebel against God but that Jesus died in his place to pay for his rebellion. You don’t benefit from a gift that you reject, do you? According to the Bible, that’s the axis on which our future life turns – do we submit to God’s right to be our God, or do we go our own way, doing what we think is right, irrespective of what God says? It’s the same choice Adam and Eve had to make. Eating the fruit wasn’t the issue – that act only demonstrated that they chose to follow their desire rather than God’s command.

There’s a third issue with the comic: a logical one. In the interlocutor’s response to the theist, he notes that Hitler and Stalin both had moustaches. In other words, correlation does not mean causation. The point the ‘Meal makes is that being an atheist doesn’t make a person evil. This is true. I know many atheists who are what we would call good people, usually better than those people whom I think of as practical atheists: people who would say, if they were asked, that they believe in some sort of God; nonetheless, they act as if God doesn’t exist. That was me once upon a time.

I think the comparison between atheism and face fungus is ultimately specious because a person’s worldview affects what we think about who we are, why we’re here, and the meaning of life. A moustache doesn’t. Nor does math. (Read the comic. “Ich bin ein polynomial!” Nice.) Most of us don’t actually think through everything our worldview (to carry on the Teutonic leitmotif, our Weltanschauung) implies; and we don’t necessarily live it out, either: people who say that truth is relative will nonetheless say that murder is absolutely wrong [6].

To tweak a statement by G.K. Chesterton, when a person doesn’t believe in God, they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in something else. If people are convinced to go to war, it’s for something we consider valuable. From an atheistic perspective, there is no absolute good or evil. We’re an accident, here at the moment but who knows what the future holds [7]. So atheists can choose what they want to live for. So an atheist went to war, it wouldn’t be to spread atheism; it would be for something else that they valued. For land, for wealth, for king and country, to free others from what they see as another’s tyranny.

If you’re an atheist with altruistic leanings, then the highest cause you could devote yourself to is the survival of the human race. (See the definition of “citizen” in the film Starship Troopers.) And though he wasn’t an atheist, that is what Hitler did, in his own mind. He sought the survival of the Aryan race, which he believed was the best of humanity. He thought the Germans were almost pure Aryan, but the Scandanavians were the purest [8].

The way he went about achieving his goal was abhorrent of course, but his goal was consistent with his worldview; however, his actions didn’t have to be what they were to achieve that goal. (Not a worthy goal in any case.) For example, different societies can agree that stealing is wrong, but the means of preventing or punishing stealing might be different: one society chops the hands of thieves, another makes them pay back what they stole and then more as punishment. Prevention might take the form of telling kids “Don’t steal” or pointing out someone who has had their hands cut off, and say “That will be your punishment if you are caught stealing.”

If you’re an atheist and you don’t really care about the survival of the species, you’re free to indulge your own desires: for pleasure, wealth, power, learning, achievement, or whatever. You’re free to do what you want, although if you’re wise you won’t hurt anyone unless you’re convinced there’s no way they could help or hurt you, either now or in the future.

Atheism doesn’t necessarily mean a person will become good or bad. It means that the person believes they are absolutely free to do what they will without fear of supernatural reprisal. The atheist is free from all restraints except those which they choose to be restrained by.

Likewise, neither does being a theist mean you will be a good person. First, if you do believe in some deity, which? The Jewish, the Judeo-Christian, or the Islamic? The multiple deities of Hinduism or of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints [9]? The Graeco-Roman? The Celts? Those of the ancient Assyrians, Babylonians or Levantine peoples? Those of Meso-America? Some of these deities, according to the theology, demanded human sacrifice or ritual prostitution, so that life would continue. Other cosmogonies, like the Enuma Elish, encouraged the status quo, so that no one would seek to improve their life by rebelling against their rulers (who represented the gods).

I think it was Demosthenes who said that people make gods in our own image. This doesn’t mean that all gods are phony: counterfeiting only works because it mimics something of real worth. This doesn’t mean that a god or gods actually exist, because people like explanations for events, and a transcendent deity is a useful explanation – or explanation away. Nonetheless, a theology that doesn’t make us uncomfortable at times isn’t one that deals sufficiently with the complexity of life. Anyone who makes a god in their own image will comfortable with their theology because they will be following their natural desires, even if that’s only trying to be good enough.

This is foundation of the problem of human evil: our natural desires. These days it’s popular to denigrate Sigmund Freud’s work (accompanied by accusations that his obsession with sex and death reflected his own psychological cornerstones rather than that of human nature in general) but I think he was certainly correct in saying that people are naturally self-centred and this has to be trained out of us. When was the last time you met a child who naturally shared their toys, or who wanted the other kid to have the bigger piece of cake, or who always obeyed their parents without whining?

We’re all brought up with the mentality that our worth depends on what we do: that not doing bad things makes us good people, and the more good we do, the better we are. It’s an attitude that feeds self-righteousness. The Bible pulls the cloth out from under this attitude: none of us are good enough. Nevertheless, we all feel more comfortable on the scales of self-righteousness: if we live a good life, we’ll earn more brownie points and stand well with God.

That’s why we are wrong if we think we’re good enough to go to Heaven: the Bible says that none of us are (read Isaiah 64:6; Romans 3:9-20; Ephesians 2:1-4). We may do good acts that God would approve of, in which case our ethics line up with God’s. But, as the song says, the heart of the matter is a matter of the heart. If we do something good because we think it’s right, not because God says it’s right, we are still rebels; usurpers. We set ourselves up as the arbiters of right and wrong, although only God has the right to do that.

Going to heaven isn’t an issue of being good enough: it’s an issue of authority – do we allow God the right to tell us how to live, or do we seek to live how we want? The way we want might be to commit genocide or to give billions to the poor, but what we do does not determine where we stand with God. Sure it’s better and nicer to help people than to hurt them, but when it comes to going to heaven, even our most self-giving acts are as effective as loaded nappies (Isaiah 64).

Ephesians 2 states that all of us are, by nature, enemies of God. By nature, our theme song is “I did it my way”. That’s why Jesus said we need a new nature, one that chooses to submit to God [10]; to let Him determine what’s good and bad, not to continue arrogating that right to ourselves. When our relationship with God is put on track – not back on track; it’s never been on track – our life will come into line. It will be a bumpy ride and we’ll often get it wrong, but as the saying goes, our heart is in the right place.

The idea that a person can go to heaven no matter what we’ve done grates on all of us: that all we have to do is surrender ourselves to God’s right to rule us. There is a caricature that a person can go to confession (Catholics), say “I’m sorry” (Catholics and Protestants), receive absolution (Catholics), and can continue to live how they want. The God of the Bible isn’t fooled by words or bought off by works.

PS. I’ve just been going through Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and I found this quote from Hitler, during his military conference on August 22, planning for the invasion of Poland:

Close your hearts to pity! Act brutally!… The stronger man is right…. Be harsh and remorseless! Be steeled against all signs of compassion! …Whoever has pondered over this world knows that its meaning lies in the success of the best by means of force….

Now read the Sermon on the Mount.

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Endnotes

[1] One other fact about the anglerfish is that the bioluminescent tip of the “rod”, which gives the fish its name, is usually blue, and the skin of the anglerfish doesn’t reflect blue light. So the anglerfish is close to totally invisible. When you see it, you’ll agree that’s a good thing.

[2] Isaac Asimov’s baloney detection kit says that a proposition isn’t true just because someone in, or with, authority tells us. That’s true. A fact is true or false regardless of who says what about it.

[3] I admit, this quote is pretty much completely gratuitous. But as Matthew Inman wanted to write/draw a comic about Nazis with moustaches going to battle for mathematics, I wanted to put this quote in.

[4] Anti-theistic, as opposed to atheistic. Anti – against (it can also mean “instead of”). A – without. Russian communism rejected the idea of God and sought to eradicate it, but National Socialism, while in practice endorsing some form of theism, was in practice atheistic: living without consideration of a God.

[5] To what extent the German population generally was aware of the concentration and extermination camps is debated. Undoubtedly they were aware the people were being taken somewhere, but wilful ignorance is easier when you have your own problems and trying to survive; never being sure if even your own family and friends are spying on you.

[6] This fact can also serve when a person starts to aggrandise science, religion, or any other authority beyond its legitimate scope, seeking to make it the arbiter of all truth. Science can show that murder has bad effects on individuals and on society, that doesn’t make murder actually wrong, which most people would consider it to be. We consider something right or wrong regardless of how it affects others. “Murder is absolutely wrong” is a moral statement, which can never be proved or disproved by any means. It is arguably what philosophers would call a properly basic belief.

[7] My understanding of the current standard model of cosmology is that this universe, be it independent or a bubble of a greater multiverse, will die a heat death maybe 50 billion years in the future.

[8] It’s also why, according to Adolf Galland, he didn’t want to go to war against the English, because he thought they were so like the Germans in their biological heritage. A backhanded compliment if there ever was one.

[9] The Latter-day Saints are in fact henotheists: they believe that there are many gods but they worship only one.

[10] The terms from which we get the phrase “born again” can also mean “born from above”.

____________________

Some few books to read.

God Among the Germans, Douglas.

Hitler and Christianity, Bartlett-Jones.

The Dictators: Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia, Overy.

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Shirer. I highly recommend this book. William Shirer was a US journalist who was in and around Germany during the early years of the Nazi regime.

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