The Pope, Nazis, and atheism

By Phil Plait | September 22, 2010 12:41 pm

popebenedictSo last week Pope Benedict XVI was in the UK giving speeches. He said several things of note, but one of them stands out among the rest. At Holyroodhouse, he said this:

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 and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live. I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives. As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth 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”

Now, I’m the kind of person whose first inclination is to give people the benefit of the doubt. So I read the whole transcript of the Pope’s speech, twice, and after thinking about it, I can’t see any way of interpreting the speech as a whole other than as him saying secularism and atheism = lack of virtue and morality = Nazism.

That is such a grossly flawed chain of reasoning that it strains credulity well past its limit. It’s hard to know where to even begin debunking these statements. Maybe to start with, Hitler wasn’t an atheist (though his personal beliefs were unclear; he used religion or the lack thereof to his advantage when needed, for example using atheism as a bogeyman to rally the people against Russia). More importantly, The Catholic Church went way out of its way to support Hitler during WWII*. [Update: Apparently, the Church’s relationship with Hitler was more complicated than I first read. There was condemnation of Nazis, as well as some support. I think the best thing we can say here is that blanket statements about large organizations can be inaccurate, and need to be done with care. The history of this situation is complex.]

Mind you, I am not trying to condemn the entire Catholic religion, or even the Church (the Church then is not the same as the Church today). I am pointing out that what the Pope said in the UK is pure nonsense, and in fact widely known to be untrue — in fact, studies have shown that secular societies tend to have better moral and social behavior (lower homicide rates, lower infant mortality, lower STD rates, and so on). I would go so far as to say the Pope was being bigoted, equating Nazism and atheism in a way to specifically spur hatred of nonbelievers, or at least amplify mistrust. And given the Church’s support of Nazism at the time, condemning atheists for Nazism is galling.

I am worried about this Pope’s declarations that are clearly contrary to reality, such as him saying condoms cause AIDS. I like to think that John Paul II and I could’ve sat down and had a solid discussion on at least science and the Church; he was pro-evolution, for example. And while I would’ve disagreed with him on a slew of basic items of Church dogma and social beliefs, and fought him on these topics, there were at least some points on which we would agree.

With Benedict XVI, not so much. And in fact, much of what he says is not just nonsense, it’s dangerous nonsense. He puts lives at risk — and his statements about condoms and AIDS puts millions of lives at risk — by saying the things he does. Perhaps compared to that, his utterings about secularism may seem trivial.

But it is important. The skeptical blogs are understandably and in my opinion deservedly in an uproar about it.

A major religious figure is preaching intolerance, and that is not so easily dismissed. Even other religious figures are disagreeing with him:

"Eminent Hindu statesman Rajan Zed, in a statement in Nevada (USA) today, said that as Catholics and Hindus and others had freedom of their belief systems and were respected for their respective choices, and so should be the atheists. A religious leader of Pope’s stature should have been more inclusive."

I agree. While I might disagree with the vast majority of religions out there — and if you belong to a particular faith, you probably do too — I do think they have the right to their beliefs as long as they don’t step on the rights of anyone else. What the Pope has done has crossed a line: he’s said something verifiably false about an entire group of people.

It’s ironic that we can be intolerant of intolerance. But that’s the case here. What the Pope said was shamefully wrong, it was awful, it was ugly, and it was bigoted. I see no reason to tolerate that.

* It’s well-known that during World War II, the current Pope was a member of the Hitler Youth, but he was conscripted, and by accounts was not enthusiastic about it. I don’t think this really plays into this topic except tangentially.

Image credit: Wikipedia


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