Godwin’s Pope?

Here’s a curious passage from the first speech that the pope made on arriving in Britain:

“Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society…As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the 20th century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a ‘reductive vision of the person and his destiny’ (Caritas in Veritate, 29).”

Why curious? Because of this phrase:

“a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society”

The pope is not only a clever and highly-educated man, he is also someone who grew into adolescence under the Third Reich. He will thus know perfectly well that the Nazi attitude towards religion is a highly complex topic. It is true, of course, that a number of leading Nazis were atheists. It is also true that the Nazi accommodation with Germany’s Christian churches was largely a matter of cynical political calculation (at its core National Socialism was profoundly anti-Christian), but if and when the time came to replace Christianity the best guess is that the regime would have adopted some form of neo-paganism rather than the nominal atheism of the Soviet or Communist Chinese states. At the same time (and as discussed before on this site), Hitler himself does not appear to have been an atheist, and atheism was not something required of those in his inner circle.

None of this would be news to Benedict, so why then did he say what he did?

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7 Responses to Godwin’s Pope?

  1. David Hume says:

    atheists should threaten to riot. then all the christian clerics will come together and denounce the pope and disassociate themselves from him.

  2. Matt says:

    Why he said it is easy, to ingratiate himself with a British audience (or to be more gracious, to find a point of commonality with his audience). British people are extremely and justly proud of their record in WW2, when at one stage they stood virtually alone against the Nazis. They see it as “their finest hour”. Benedict’s comments are clever in that regard.

    Why did he use the term “atheist”? I suspect in Vatican-speak, “atheist” means “non-Christian, Jewish or Muslim” rather than atheism as defined by most people today, i.e. pagan = atheist. A touch arrogant, perhaps.

  3. Groovinlow says:

    The theological use of “atheist” or “atheism” is a little more nuanced. A god is simply that in which you place your ultimate faith or confidence. For some people this is a traditional theos–the ultimate reality at the heart of Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. For other people (and a lot of self-proclaimed Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc) it is Reason, or humanity itself, or money, or any other number of things. All sorts of people trust money above all else. Even science takes some faith (unless I’ve been reading my Hume incorrectly) to assume things will happen consistently or in an explicable manner.

    So, theologically speaking, the only true atheists are nihilists. They believe in nothing, Lebowski, and their ultimate concern is nothing. The link is the argument that Nazi ideology was similarly nihilistic, as it ultimately denied everyone’s humanity. Similar arguments could be made about other totalitarian states. Even the gods at the center, be it the Party or Leader or the Nation was ultimately negated by the domination of the state and the nihilistic exercise of its power.

    Was this what the pope was going for? I have no idea. Was it a smart thing to say? Probably not, because it isn’t like he provided the above caveat. Maybe he forgot that most people listening to his arguments aren’t theologians. The better argument would’ve been the simpler one, that the 20th Century revealed that the Enlightenment’s secular humanism and confidence in Reason to improve humanity does not guarantee anything because it isn’t anchored in the Catholic faith.

    Then again, I’m not sure his audience would’ve have liked that argument a whole lot more, but, it would’ve required much, much less in the way of explanation.

  4. Apathy Curve says:

    Let’s talk about Vatican complicity in smuggling Nazi officials out of post-war Europe. No? Then how about the Thirty Years War, the religious equivalent of the black plague? Not that either? Okay, um… the Crusades, perhaps? The meddling and double-dealing during the baronial revolt, as well as a thousand other petty power plays during the late Middle Ages. The cynical use of monastic prayer-selling to stuff coffers in Rome… The list goes on at quite some length. (See: The Ninety-Five Theses.)

    The Catholic church is a malignant tumor on Western culture and the Pope is a whore.

  5. MSG says:

    The pope may know all this, but if he thinks that such neo-paganism would not have been the kind of thing that very many people would have taken seriously, the pope’s position on this point is not incoherent or insincere. And can we really say that he is wrong? Would this neo-paganism have fared better in later 20th Century Germany than the Goddess-of-Reason cult had fared in revolutionary France?

  6. Alex says:

    Even taking into account the theological argument posted in a comment above, Benedict’s statement is deeply flawed, and not because of the failure to footnote it.

    Rather, even if we assume that the Pope meant “person lacking an ultimate confidence in anything, including Reason or other secular bases”, thus a nihilist, Nazis do not qualify as atheists. Remember, Blut – the supposedly ‘sacred’ blood of the German Volk – was a fundamental, justifying principle for the Nazi movement. No matter how Hitler waffled on the question of religion, if we are willing to acknowledge secular gods as valid gods for the purposes of defining what is and isn’t an atheist, then Hitler did absolutely have a god – the rightness, superiority and historical destiny of the Volk. Over this, there is absolutely no question. Hitler was not ambiguous about justifying virtually everything he ever did with relation to the justifying end of elevating to greatness the nation that, he believed, represented the pinnacle of human achievement and thus, had the destiny and right to lead the world. A despicable God, to be sure, but by this argument, a valid one.

    Besides, I think we’re all overthinking this. He’s the Pope. He thinks there is a God, that religion is necessary as an underpinning for morality, and that those who have no religion thus have no true morality. Perhaps not as individuals, but as a society, he absolutely believes this, and has said as much in multiple public statements. Let’s not dress it up – if Dawkins thinks religion creates a climate that encourages extremism (and he does, just read The God Delusion), then the Pope represents the other pole of the spectrum, believing that atheism is to blame for any number of social ills.

  7. Eugene says:

    “Let’s talk about Vatican complicity in smuggling Nazi officials out of post-war Europe. No? Then how about the Thirty Years War, the religious equivalent of the black plague? Not that either? Okay, um… the Crusades, perhaps?”

    The first one is true, in the second and third case there were two of them in it, in both cases. Islam was the aggressor in the Middle East and North Africa.

    The crusades will be remembered by certain Westerners of Anglo Saxon more readily than the more recent occupation of the same are by said Westerners of Anglo Saxon descent. ( Actually the first crusade, at the least, can be seen as defensive which is not something we can say about the handover of the Middle East to the Western Powers are WW1)

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