Thursday, 16 September 2010

On Nazism and atheism

British humanists have reacted furiously to Pope Benedict lumping together atheism and Nazism in his speech at Edinburgh.

"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," Pope Benedict said in his speech at Holyrood House at the start of the first ever state visit by a Pope to the United Kingdom.

In a statement, the British Humanist Association  -- part of the Protest the Pope coalition which has objected to the Pope being received as a head of state -- said:

"The notion that it was the atheism of Nazis that led to their extremist and hateful views or that it somehow fuels intolerance in Britain today is a terrible libel against those who do not believe in God.
"The notion that it is non-religious people in the UK today who want to force their views on others, coming from a man whose organisation exerts itself internationally to impose its narrow and exclusive form of morality and undermine the human rights of women, children, gay people and many others, is surreal."

What is the connection between Nazis and their atheism? Are the humanists right to describe the Pope's remarks as a libel?

The Pope did not say that atheism caused Nazism. But it is undoubtedly true that Nazism was made possible by its atheism; there were no moral constraints on the exercise of totalitarian power; nothing to prevent it sliding into idolatry. And of course the vision of society which the Nazis sought to impose knew no constraint. There was nothing to contain the exercise of power. Theirs was the ultimate naked public square.

Is "atheist extremism" in the UK anything like Nazism? No -- but only, perhaps, because it has not captured the state. But there are signs of extreme intolerance in groups such as the National Secular Society -- a desire to drive faith from the square. The Pope is warning about the consequences of that attitude, taken to its extremes, and allied to the power of the state.