IEET > Rights > Fellows > Russell Blackford > FreeThought
Blame it on Nietzsche

In her book A History of God, Karen Armstrong notes that atheistic ideologies can lead to atrocities as readily as theologies. But then she smears Nietzsche by repeating the falsehood that he was somehow an inspiration for Nazism, and that his atheism somehow contributed to Nazi atrocities. The accusation is an insult not just to Nietzsche but to the victims of the Holocaust.

Karen Armstrong says:

Like Hegel’s, Nietzsche’s theories were used by a later generation of Germans to justify the policies of National Socialism, a reminder that an atheistic ideology can be just as cruel a crusading ethic as the idea of “God.”

Now, I don’t doubt the last bit. If you think in apocalyptic terms, it doesn’t much matter whether you think you have a personal God on your side or whether you “just” think you are doing the will of History or some kind of impersonal Providence—or some other abstraction that mandates your actions. An apocalyptic, all-encompassing ideology can drive people to commit atrocities whether or not the ideology is theistic. All such ideologies, theistic or otherwise, have the potential to drive their followers to horrible conduct that is deemed to be justified and necessary. Various non-theistic forms of revolutionary communism have been like this. Unfortunately, the greater the technological power that can be employed in the service of such a worldview, the larger the scale of atrocities that its followers can commit.
image
All the same, Nazism, unlike revolutionary communism of the Marxist-Leninist varieties, was never an atheistic system. Whereas Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and others may have thought they were somehow doing the work of History, the Nazis were convinced that they were doing God’s work. Whatever the Nazi leaders may have picked up from Nietzsche, it wasn’t his atheism. Indeed, atheists were among those whom the Nazis hated. Moreover, Nietzsche was not anti-Semitic; he was contemptuous of anti-Semites. But the most horrifying of the Nazi actions—the death camps that were used to kill millions of Jews and others in the most cruel and atrocious ways—were a result of the extreme anti-Semitism pervading Nazi thought. Wherever the Nazis got this from, and it’s not that hard to guess, it wasn’t from the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche.
image
There’s something repellent about these sentences in Armstrong’s A History of God, something sinister in the way they gloss over the complexity of events to create an impression almost the opposite of the truth. The anti-Semitism of the Nazis did not come from Nietzsche’s thought and had nothing to do with Nietzsche’s style of atheism. Yes, there can be apocalyptic, comprehensive belief systems that are non-theistic, and which lead to atrocities, but Nazism was never such a system, and nor was Nietzsche’s own (relatively unsystematic) thought. There can, of course, also be peaceful forms of religion that are not likely to commit atrocities. As far as I’m aware, no Quaker has ever massacred helpless victims in a ditch or burned them alive, or tortured them with insanely cruel instruments. For any atheist to deny this would be churlish.

There are many sensible things that could have been said in the vicinity of the passage I’ve quoted from Armstrong, but she doesn’t say those things; and when she tries to make a point of her own, she does it over the cruelly abused bodies of Nazism’s victims, all the millions of them.

I’m sure there’s name for what Armstrong is doing here, but if so I can’t think of it. It’s something worse than intellectual dishonesty, something more callous than ordinary cynicism. It can’t be simple clumsiness. Maybe you can think of what it should be called ... better, at least, than I can.

A passage like that makes my jaw drop. It leaves me more or less lost for words. Whatever it’s called, this sort of writing has a peculiar nastiness about it, a kind of oblivious cruelty. It’s not the sort of passage you’d look for from the high priestess of religion as compassion.

Russell Blackford Ph.D. is a fellow of the IEET, an attorney, science fiction author and critic, philosopher, and public intellectual. Dr. Blackford serves as editor-in-chief of the IEET's Journal of Evolution and Technology. He lives in Newcastle, Australia, where he is a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle.



COMMENTS

Yes, using Nietzsche as an example in this context is a very, very poor choice. I agree with Russel’s points, without reserve.

But the fact remains that… atheistic ideologies can lead to atrocities as readily as theologies. Any ideology that does not respect freedom of thought can lead to atrocities.

I would beg to differ with the contention that atheists do not respect freedom of thought.  To my mind it is religions that do not do so.  Everything is seems to those who are religious requires faith and must not be questioned.

Any crusading worldview can be as cruel as religion. But atheism in itself is not a worldview. It is simply the lack of belief in a god or gods. Atheism is a component of many different worldviews, from the extreme left of communism to the extreme right of Ayn Rand’s objectivism. That fact in itself should be a clue that atheism itself is not a worldview.

Personally I would say that communism is as much a religion as christianity. It has all the hallmarks of a religion - dogma, irrationality, leader worship etc. Atheism is incidental to communism and certainly not the cause of its atrocities.

Giulio, What are “atheistic ideologies?” The only thing that all atheists have in common is that they do not believe gods exist. You may be thinking of “anti-theist,” something you can be whether you believe gods exist or not. The fact remains, a non-belief in something has no doctrine, no ideology and no belief system (obviously). You’re making clear that you’ve bought into the nonsense that atheism causes one to slide down some slippery-slope leading to committing acts similar to those of Stalin. Atheism, non-belief of the existence of gods, is no more a force to cause harm than non-belief in the existence of unicorns or satellite teapots.

The word you’re looking for is Lying. Ironic that she’s using the same propaganda techniques as the Nazis, by enlisting the horrors of nazism to elicit an emotional response to her implicit (and unfounded) claim that atheism inspired the holocaust.

Karen Armstrong’s work is deeply flawed, but on this point she is correct. Nietzsche had an important influence on the Nazis. The Holocaust was partly due to anti-Semitism, but they also killed millions of gypsies, homosexuals, and the handicapped. Those atrocities and forced sterilizations composed their negative eugenics programs, mirrored by positive eugenics programs like selective breeding. Both had the goal of creating a race of “supermen” (and women) following the example of Nietzsche’s Ãœbermensch.

Henry Cross writes: “I would beg to differ with the contention that atheists do not respect freedom of thought. “

Oh, but Guilio didn’t say that. He only implied that atheism can lead to a lack of respect for freedom of thought.

“Everything is (sic) seems to those who are religious requires faith and must not be questioned. “

It’s a shame that your only exposure to religious people has been of this nature.

Steven Knapp writes: “Giulio, What are “atheistic ideologies?” The only thing that all atheists have in common is that they do not believe gods exist.”

I believe you’re making an erroneous assumption that an ideology must be universal among a group for it to be considered an ideology.  Also, “ideology” is not necessarily the same as “doctrine.” One example, a negative one, of atheistic ideology is “eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we’ll die.” This ideology often emerges from atheistic belief (if you’ll pardon the term). Is this ideology universal? Of course not. I can come up with many positive atheistic ideologies, too.

Brenda, is that really a negative ideology? That aside, saying it emerges from atheism is as useless and irrelevant as saying the non-belief in the existence of unicorns or leprechauns can lead to your example ideology. A non-belief means nothing and is never defined except in the special case of atheism (if most of the world did believe for thousands of years that unicorns exist, there would probably be a word for the rational people that didn’t share that belief). The point is, non-belief isn’t an idea, it’s a lack thereof. What’s confusing you is that atheism is defined, simply because the belief in God is so prevalent that the minority needs a label.

Nietzsche, IMO, may be one of the most misunderstood thinkers (another one, in my mind is, Zizek, for example). I am always a great fan of Nietzsche since I was a teenager.  Back then I had a rather naive impression that this guy contempt for ‘god’ is his contempt for both the ‘god image’ created by his society at his time and for society who created that image, i.e. ‘a slave mentality’. 

Any mature, thinking person cannot blame ‘Nietzsche’ for the holocaust or any other inhumane things done by those who read his works. 
It was shocking to read from this article (I haven’t read Karen Armstrong book) that Ms. Armstrong, supposedly an ‘academia’, blamed Nietzsche for Hitler’s insanity, and even attempted juxtaposing religious ideology and atheistic ideology on CRUELTY aspect.
I just can’t believe an academia such as her doesn’t do her homework properly. 
‘Cruelty’ as potentials is every where in nature. and ‘atrocity’ as potential is somehow inherent in some human, whether they are believers or non-believers. She took a slippery slope as an academia, if not rather childish, to discuss ‘cruelty’ and mentioning Nietzche… phew!!

I am not an academia, nor an atheist, nor a follower of any major religions or spiritual/mystic paths! BUT, I read and I still enjoy Nietzsche works to THIS DAY.  His book that is my bible, i.e. source of consolation, inspiration and a good laugh is ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’.
Maybe I can say that Nietzche is my prophet… lol… He showed me the way to laugh at Human Folly.

To end this comment, I would like to quote a passage from ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’

“To see these light, foolish, dainty, affecting little souls
flutter about : that moves Zarathustra to tears and to song.
I should only believe only in God who understood how to dance.”
- Of Reading and Writing, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

“But then she smears Nietzsche by repeating the falsehood that he was somehow an inspiration for Nazism”

This smear must go all the way back to Nietzsche’s sister.

Here’s an excerpt I found here:
http://www.history.ucsb.edu/faculty/marcuse/classes/133p/133p04papers/MKalishNietzNazi046.htm

“Elisabeth’s attitude towards Hitler and Nietzsche is evident in her letter to a member of the Nietzsche Archive board: “If my brother had ever met Hitler his greatest wish would have been fulfilledWhat I like most about Hitler is his simplicity and naturalnessI admire him utterly” “

I’d just like to comment that just as some people go too far in connecting Hitler to Nietzsche, other people go too far in trying to disconnect them.

As Brenda noted, I did not say that atheists do not respect freedom of thought. I said that atheism can lead to a lack of respect for freedom of thought, just like religion.

Note that I am an atheist myself, in the sense that I do not believe in any supernatural god, and I am a quite firm believer in the independence of public policy from any organized religion.

But I see some “militant atheists” questioning the right of believers to worship their gods in the privacy of their homes or churches. I find this disturbing, because when even freedom of thought is questioned, atrocities can (and often do) follow.

Philosophies and ethics are the protectors of freedoms and free speech.. not particularly A-theism ideologies in general, and certainly not religious doctrines, (for more info. checkout your local members rules on free thoughts, too many questions and heresies).

Nietzsche is often misquoted and misunderstood, maybe because of his rather cycnical and roundabout way of rhetoric.

“God is dead!” (what a slogan!)
But he really means ... take some friggin personal responsibility for your self, your actions, your future, and the future of humanity. Thus he really was an existentialist and an idealist.

To Raytheist:

“Personally I would say that communism is as much a religion as christianity. It has all the hallmarks of a religion - dogma, irrationality, leader worship etc. Atheism is incidental to communism and certainly not the cause of its atrocities.”

Communism is based on the historical materialist approach which posits that social phenomena results from objective social processes.  Therefore, communism strives against all forms of mysticism.  Atheism is central to this understanding, not incidental.

The history of man is a history of class conflict and violence. What you refer to as the “atrocities” of communism is a part of this process of historical development, where different social layers battle for dominance and control, as is happening today all around us.

Fascism flows naturally from the philosophical foundations of Western society, of which Nietzsche is a part, especially in times of economic crisis.  The much heralded “Enlightenment” did not apply to non-Europeans, and was borne out in subsequent events.  Look at Haiti.

@Stephen: You may be thinking of “anti-theist,”

Point taken. I have no issue with atheists (those who don’t believe in supernatural gods). As a matter of fact, I am one of them.

I am referring to “anthi-theist”, or “New Atheists”, those “affirmative-action atheists” who hate believers and wish to silence them.

Giulio who do have in mind as an atheist who says that people should not be allowed to worship their God or gods in their own house or church? I have never heard of any of the so-called “New Atheists” (Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, Grayling, Onfray, Myers, Benson, Coyne, etc.) taking such a position. Perhaps there is someone who takes such a position, but I am frankly astonished by the idea. I’m deeply immersed in the literature, and have spent much of the last two years editing a book of essays by atheists, many of whom who could be classified in the “New Atheist” camp, and no one I’ve come across has ever said such a thing.

Nor has anyone I’ve come across ever sought to silence believers, as opposed to criticising their views or challenging their credibility. Sam Harris has sometimes said some extreme-sounding things, but even he has never, as far as I know, said those particular things. On the contrary, the general pattern is for these people to be strong free speech advocates.

Furthermore, the claim that any of us are motivated by hatred of believers is a quite extraordinary one. How could you possibly know that? Perhaps someone, somewhere, is motivated by such hatred. By I am familiar with the stated motives of many of the people concerned, and certainly with my own motives, and they have nothing to do with hatred of believers.

These are large claims you are making, my friend, and they indiscriminately smear a lot of people to whom such derogatory terms as “New Atheist” and “militant atheist” have been applied - including me. I think you owe it to us to name names and provide sources.

@Russel: first, note that I agree with you on two core points: a) I don’t believe in any supernatural god, and b) I think organized religion should not interfere with public policy.

As an advocate of free speech and free thought I also think that c) everyone has the right to believe in whatever can make them happy. and everyone has the right to associate with other believers.

So if you tell me that everyone has the right to believe in a religion and practice it together with other believers, provided they don’t force others to do the same, then we are on the same page. I think this position settles the issue of religion.

But I have the impression that “militant atheists” make far too much noise, even in societies where practically everyone agrees on b). Yes, in the United States there is still far too much influence of religion on public policy, and this influence must be eliminated. But in other parts of the world, like here in Western Europe, religions are just not an important factor in public policy. When I see one of these “atheist buses”, I have the impression of far too much noise over nothing.

Coming to your request for examples, you know that some governments, like China and some Eastern European countries in the 80s and before, have practiced active oppression of believers.

I don’t want to see oppression of anyone in our free societies. I claim the right to believe in Santa Claus if this belief makes me feel warmer in a cold winter night. I also claim that believing in Santa Claus is a private thing which pertains to my own personal sphere, and it must not be used to disqualify me from public office or academic appointments.

As you say, the authors you mention do not say that people should not be allowed to worship their God or gods in their own house or church. But the very intensity of their feelings against believers makes me fear that, were their ideas adopted by politicians in power, oppression of believer would soon follow. Marx did not say that believers should be discriminated against… but Stalin said it, and did it.

“Giulio, who do have in mind as an atheist who says that people should not be allowed to worship their God or gods in their own house…?”

I noticed a subtle change from Giulio’s wording. He wrote: “But I see some “militant atheists” questioning the right of believers to worship their gods in the privacy of their homes “

Here’s one new atheist, a fine writer to boot, who is dancing on the edge of questioning this right:

“So why not ban all images or discussions of gods, devils, and so on, if young children might be exposed to them? “

(Note, I believe this to be a rhetorical question.)

“Such a question merits the answer that no liberal society can be expected to adopt a policy of officially deeming the exposure of young children to religious ideas to be harmful. Any attempt to adopt this as a policy would fly in the face of traditional ideas of freedom of religion, which have included the freedom of adults to bring up their children within the sect of their choice. Yet the argument that this actually is harmful appears to be far more cogent than the argument that children are harmed merely from exposure to, say, images of naked human beings, or to much of the wide range of material that can be described as “indecent”.

If this was supposed to be a defense of freedom of religious education in one’s own home, it is about as weak as it can get. I will provide the link to the above excerpt in the near future.

Attempting to ‘link” Nietzsche to Hitler, or vice-versa, is absurd.  This kind of thinking would “link” every non-smoker, vegetarian and animal lover to Hitler simply because he hated smoking, was a vegetarian and loved animals.

lol, “Brenda”, how disingenous can you can get? I doubt that someone like Giulio, who is a respected and intellectually honest thinker, would want to be defended by someone like you.

You know very well that I wrote the passage you quote, though you see fit not to mention it at this stage. You also know very well that, whether you or not you find the argument weak, I was putting an argument in favour of allowing the indoctrination of children into religious teachings (which is a quite different issue from the one Giulio raised; he was talking about freedom to worship your god of choice, not about the separate issue of indoctrination of children, something that involves other considerations, and which he didn’t even mention in the relevant comment).

You also know that to “question” in the context of Giulio’s comment means something like “dispute” or “contest” or “cast doubt upon”, not “discuss the pros and cons and ultimately support”. And finally, you know very well that the context was a detailed defence of freedom of speech, not an attack on freedom of religion. I was arguing that we should be careful before we ban material, such as nudity, on the ground that it is somehow harmful to children.

Don’t bother providing the link. Readers can find it here:

http://randjblackford.customer.netspace.net.au/Submission to human rights consultation.htm

Interested readers should read the entire section under the heading “Pornography and freedom of speech”. Or read the larger discussion of freedom of speech of which this is only part. I’m actually quite pleased to have the document drawn to the attention of a wider audience.

@Russel: please take my comments as a friendly reminder of the fundamental importance of freedom of thought. I know you mean well, and I agree with you on so many things. But I think telling others insistently what and how they should think is the first step on a very slippery slope which leads… we all know where it leads.

Coming to things “harmful to children”. When we were kids, nobody protected us from reality. Most people of our generation have been exposed to porn and violence on the press and television. We have been exposed to sexist opinions, racist comments, intolerance, religious beliefs of all sorts, alcohol and tobacco smoke, unPC advertising campaigns on TV, violent sports, sex on TV… I have been exposed to these things, and so have you, and you know what? I don’t think we are such bad persons, are we.

Children are not delicate things that need to be protected from reality. Too much protection, and they will grow up as dummies unable to cope with reality. “What does not kill you makes you stronger” may be a worn-out cliché, but it has an element of truth.

Now we live in the dictatorship of the benevolent (?) nanny state, and the politically correct thing to do is protecting children from their own shadow. WTF, we should have more respect for our kids. We have been able to cope with reality, and so will they.

“I also claim that believing in Santa Claus is a private thing which pertains to my own personal sphere, and it must not be used to disqualify me from public office or academic appointments.”

Well it couldn’t be used to disqualify you if it were a genuinely private thing, because no one would be aware of it. But what if you for instance wrote a stream of books arguing that Santa Claus exists? That still wouldn’t formally ‘disqualify’ you for academic appointments (as far as I know), but it certainly might put hiring committees off you - and it probably should. Academic appointments require a certain level of adult rationality, surely.

Thank you Russell for exposing Armstrong’s ignorance.  What amazes me is the $100,000 TED Prize being awarded in the area of compassion.  Perhaps she needs to rethink her own compassion as it relates to knowledge in her research.

I don’t know if her later books continue to use Nietzsche as the whipping post, but if so - it warrrants a broader conversation.

Giulio,  I agree that children are more robust than people who say “What about the children?” make out. That was the point of my discussion that Brenda found so sinister. It doesn’t, however, follow that they can easily throw off religious indoctrination. I continue to think that religious indoctrination is more damaging to children than exposure to nudity at the beach or on television (but I have no wish to ban either).

I’m somewhat surprised, though, that you talk about how we know where it leads when you “insistently tell people what to think”. If that phrase just means, “passionately and persistently advocate your own position” I don’t think it necessarily leads anywhere particularly nasty. If you think you have God or History on your side, you may feel an obligation to impose your position on others by force. And I do believe that we all need to be self-critical of any apocalyptic or totalitarian elements that might creep into our views of the world. But I don’t see how merely attempting to persuade others that their positions are mistaken sets you on a path towards towards supporting a totalitarian dictatorship or committing atrocities.

@Ophelia: given the current PC climate, if I (as a believer in Santa Claus) were interested in academic appointments, I would not write a stream of books arguing that Santa Claus exists, at least not under my real name.

I would confine my belief in Santa Claus at home and with fellow believers in Santa Claus, as a genuinely private thing.

But suppose the hiring committee sends a spy with a camcorder out of my window to make a recording of me and my friends in front of the Christmas tree waiting for Santa Claus to come, and uses the recording to disqualify me from appointment.

I would consider that as a totalitarian intrusion in my privacy. At least in my own home and with my own friends, I do what I want, and whatever I do is not meant to be public.

And this (@Russel) is imposing your position on others by force. Sadly, it is exactly what I think would happen if “militant atheists” were in a position of political power. It has happened you know, for example in China and many Eastern European countries in the 80s. Believers have been disqualified from public office, and often sent to gulags, on the sole basis of their belief.

Giulio why on earth do you keep bringing up what happened under regimes of revolutionary communism? Revolutionary communism is a quasi-religion with its own Messianic view of the world, inherited (as even Armstrong acknowledges) from Christianity. As such, it does not tolerate rivals. Richard Dawkins and the other so-called “New Atheists” or “militant atheists” are not revolutionary communists. Believe me, if I see tendencies to apocalyptic thinking from these people I’ll object to them, but you can’t deduce from the fact that a bunch of quasi-religious, apocalyptic ideologues have tried to suppress religion that a bunch of political liberals would do the same thing if they could or that they are (without any evidence) just as bad. This is a very unfair way of arguing.

@Russel: of course the “New Atheists” or “militant atheists” are nice persons. Karl Marx was also a nice person, and a great thinker whom I admire a lot.

But Marx’ views were appropriate by politicians, most of whom are not nice persons but control-freaks motivated by greed for money and power. Are you really sure that the sober and measured thinking of militant atheists cannot be appropriated by a new generation of gulag bureaucrats? I think any system of thought that does not hold freedom of thought as the primary value presents that danger.

Giulio, I’ve said many times, including at the Parliament of the World’s Religions when I spoke there last year, that we must all, atheists included, constantly interrogate ourselves and resist the temptations of apocalyptic and totalitarian thinking. But you started off not by talking about how some hypothetical politicians may think at a future time about how various people are thinking right now. You said:

“But I see some ‘militant atheists’ questioning the right of believers to worship their gods in the privacy of their homes or churches. I find this disturbing, because when even freedom of thought is questioned, atrocities can (and often do) follow.”

I still don’t know who these people are. Now, maybe there are some people who do this somewhere, and Brenda tried to accuse me of being one of them, but you seem to agree with me that it’s not high-profile “New Atheists” such as Dawkins. You now seem to have shifted to worrying about what someone else, some politician, might think in the future. Well, I’ll be there opposing such people if they turn up.

As for freedom of thought as the primary value, I’d probably go along with that, but I don’t know how many people would. Some people might think that freedom from starvation is a more important value, or freedom from acts of violence. All the same, I totally agree that freedom of thought and expression are incredibly important, and I’ll stand by your side to defend these things if I ever think they are seriously under attack in Western societies. Trust me on that one, my friend.

Laird writes: “Attempting to ‘link” Nietzsche to Hitler, or vice-versa, is absurd. This kind of thinking would “link” every non-smoker, vegetarian and animal lover to Hitler simply because he hated smoking, was a vegetarian and loved animals. “

Like I wrote before, “I’d just like to comment that just as some people go too far in connecting Hitler to Nietzsche, other people go too far in trying to disconnect them.” Your stretch-of-an-analogy is such that I think you’re falling victim to the latter.

YOUR COMMENT Login or Register to post a comment.

Next entry: Examining Free Reign over Vacant Eyes

Previous entry: Campa Publishes Book on Transhumanism in Italian