October 4, 2007

Hitchens gets it wrong about Buddhism

"Don't believe me, don't believe anybody, don't accept anything based on tradition. Don't believe anything based on the fact that your community believes this or your country believes this or the people that you are around believe this." - Buddha

I’ve never really paid much attention to Christopher Hitchens, renowned and reviled critic of all things religious. But when my brother recently brought his anti-Buddhist sentiments to my attention I had to take a closer look.

As it turns out, he does indeed have some very uncomplimentary things to say about Buddhism.

Hitchens essentially believes that the West has been duped by what he regards as just another religion filled with all the usual trappings. He regards Buddhism as a “faith” that “despises the mind and the free individual." He says it preaches submission and resignation, and that practitioners come to regard life as a “poor and transient thing.”

In his book, God is not Great, Hitchens writes,
"Those who become bored by conventional "Bible" religions, and seek "enlightenment" by way of the dissolution of their own critical faculties into nirvana in any form, had better take a warning. They may think they are leaving the realm of despised materialism, but they are still being asked to put their reason to sleep, and to discard their minds along with their sandals."
Wow. Pretty harsh stuff. Hitchens doesn’t mince words and slams into Buddhism like he would any other religion.

That's all fine and well, except that Buddhism isn’t just any other religion.

What Buddhism is

Yes, Buddhism has the characteristics of religion, but it offers much more than that.

It’s an epistemological philosophy and an intrapersonal approach to perception, self-awareness and self-regulation. It’s an aesthetic. It’s a non-anthropocentric ethical viewpoint that places an emphasis on meaningful, compassionate and genuine relationships. It's a type of Humanism. It encourages meditation and a mindful approach to living. It’s a worldview and methodology that promotes skepticism, rationality, empiricism and even non-conformity. It is the practical acknowledgment of the unavoidable perceptual subjectivity that is part of the human condition. It is the recognition that the mind matters and that conscious awareness can and should be optimized.

Buddhists believe that by paying close attention to moment-to-moment conscious experience it is possible to move beyond the sense of “self” in favour of a new state of personal well-being. And if this can be incorporated within the framework of formal scientific investigation, then all the better.

And all this without the usual baggage and expectations of most religions, namely belief in God, the soul, judgment and the afterlife. It does not promote any fixed dogma, nor does the practice result in feelings of guilt or shame. There are no 'sins' to be committed in Buddhism, nor are there highly polarized notions of right and wrong; practitioners simply do the best they can to mete out as little suffering to the world as possible.

But like all Big Ideas, Buddhism can be prone to abuse and misunderstanding -- and as Hitchens has correctly noted, even tribalistic tendencies.

Institutionalized Buddhism

Indeed, a big part of Hitchens’s grief with Buddhism is its questionable history and how it has become highly ritualized and filled with other-worldly beliefs. As he has said, “Buddhism can be as hysterical and sanguinary as any other system that relies on faith and tribe.” Hitchens has railed against the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Buddhists. He condemns the Burmese dictatorship as a Buddhist one (which seems a suspicious claim to make these days seeing as thousands of monks have recently stood up against this regime). Hitchens dips deep into history and blames Buddhism for a number of misguided practices and atrocities.

While I agree that Buddhism has been used in this way and that blood has been shed in its name, I can’t agree that Buddhism is the cause of these things. What Hitchens is describing is the failure of human nature, the perils of insular groupthink, and politics itself. It is the same phenomenon that has led to the bastardization of the teachings of Jesus and the rise of such monolithic institutions as the Catholic Church (along with its sordid history of conquest and persecution). Consequently, Hitchens’s ire should be directed at the phenomenon of tribalism and not religion itself.

Buddhist faith?

Hitchens also makes the claim that Buddhists rely on faith. Undoubtedly, beliefs in reincarnation, karma and transcendence run deep within various Buddhist strains. This is currently a point of great contention among Buddhist scholars, some of whom, like the secular Buddhist Stephen Batchelor, contend that these precepts are unnecessary and that when it comes to metaphysics Buddhists should actually be agnostic. More traditional Buddhists, on the other hand, argue that belief in rebirth is absolutely necessary to the practice.

Interestingly, the Dalai Lama himself – a believer in reincarnation – maintains that science should take precedence over these sorts of notions. He once said, “My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation: if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.”

Easier said than done, of course. Deeply embedded and ritualized religions have an incredibly hard time adapting to change -- including Buddhism.

As for the accusation that all Buddhists rely on faith, that's clearly a generalization. Most Buddhists, I would say, likely take nothing on mere faith alone.

Alternative perception

Hitchens also critiques the aims of Buddhist practice itself. He makes a number of suspicious claims -- that Buddhists despise the mind and the free individual, that Buddhism teaches submission and resignation, and that practitioners regard life as a fleeting thing full of suffering. He contends that Buddhists require a surrendering of the mind.

This is mostly nonsense. These claims have been countered elsewhere, so I won’t replicate them here, but there are a pair of issues I wish to address.

First, Hitchens appears to be confused. He seems to be conflating transcendental meditation (or something like it) with the more traditional practice of Vipasanna meditation and its focus on mindful awareness. There is nothing escapist or transcendent about this practice; rather, it's very much about focusing on the here-and-now and correcting the processes of a conditioned mind.

Second, Hitchens complains that Buddhists favour subjectivity over objectivity. “[Y]ou're supposed to be the subjective judge of what you're experiencing, are you not?,” he asks. Hitchens, being the uber-materialist that he is, is concerned that Buddhists don’t believe that anything can be accepted at objective face-value, that Buddhists merely see existence as some sort of grandiose illusion.

Hitchens's special claim into the true nature of reality aside, he is a bit off course here and his concern is exaggerated. Buddhists do not deny the presence of the material world or the value of objectivity – far from. What they assert is that the Universe will always be perceived through the lens of an observer and that our comprehension of reality must always take this into account. The only way the world can be observed is subjectively; there can be no such thing as a truly objective observer. We can and should strive towards an objective frame, but the world will always be perceived by an observer, which is by definition a subject.

It’s okay to be spiritual, really it is

What irks me most about Hitchens’s critique of Buddhism is the sense I get that what he is really complaining about are personal quests for spirituality. In fact, some of his arguments are so pithy (like making fun of Buddhist koans and Steven Seagal) that I'm inclined to think he is slamming into Buddhism just for the sake of it -- because it's just another "religion" on his hate list.

But Hitchens hasn't done his homework and it shows. Moreover, his limited acceptance as to what kind of worldview and perceptual lens is acceptable is extremely limited and narrow-minded.

Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with spirituality. Or, if you hate that word, a sense of existential awareness. In fact, I wish more people would consider the philosophic implications of existence and look deeper within themselves. There is far too much daydreaming going on today with people living way outside their heads.

On the issue of spirituality I’ll give Sam Harris the last word:
"There is clearly a sacred dimension to our existence, and coming to terms with it could well be the highest purpose of human life...[I]t must be possible to bring reason, spirituality, and ethics together in our thinking about the world. This would be the beginning of a rational approach to our deepest personal concerns. It would also be the end of faith."

"An Interview with Christopher Hitchens," C. P. Farley.
"Christopher Hitchens reduces Buddhism to a phrase," True Ancestor.
"His material highness," Christopher Hitchens.
"Christopher Hitchens: Religion Poisons Everything," Jon Wiener
"Hitchens - Zen is not Great?," Flapping Mouths.
Wikipedia and Wikiquote.


  1. Anonymous6:06 PM

    Amazing. I recently wrapped up a rather protracted discussion with a good friend about what Buddhism is and isn't. He's a spiritual, open-minded guy, but has a dyed-in-the-wool (and completely understandable) negative opinion regarding organized religion.

    When I, a practicing Buddhist who hits the cushion every day, tried to exlain that neither Gotama nor the sutras are to blame for the ill behavior of certain Buddhists, he pointed out that "official" Christiandom may also run contrary to Jesus' teachings — i.e., what's the difference?

    I countered that any Buddhist worth his dorje
    would understand that an institutional authority is not necessarily the final say on matters Buddhism. The guru is important as the "spiritual friend" (and sometimes cruel bastard) who assists you on
    the path, but it's really always you doing the work, and it's always your own emotions/attitudes you must contend with. Likewise, it is you who will be doing the dying, when the time comes.

    But the practice of purification/liberation is so fucking wonderful that there's no reason to be glum about it! You may even be able to
    help alleviate a small amount of suffering for somebody else. And not by converting them, either.

    Those who grasp the inner meaning (and I'm not claiming to) realize that there ultimately is no "Buddhism." How could there be? (Analogy: you've crossed the river in your canoe. Do you need to take the canoe with you? Self-liberate the antidote. if you see the Buddha on the road, kill him, etc).

    The sutras, like most "holy" texts, are the work
    of more than one author. But unlike the codifiers of other religions, Buddhist scribes had no agenda beyond the liberation of all sentient beings from suffering. And in the here and now — not some supposed afterlife.

    It's wrong to compare Buddhism to Christianity, regardless of monastic politics. Even if there were no Christian Church or Holy See, I'd still find issue with the religion. Namely, the idea that some Omnipotent God created the whole world, only to watch us flail, fight and suffer. Unless, of course, we surrender our will to His martyred Son. Jesus' teachings (inasmuch as they're his) do represent a major advancement in Mideast theological perspective, but I don't know why they're any more
    exciting to people than Buddhism, or even Taoism. I guess it's 'cause the symbolism is powerful — Sacrifice, Resurrection, Eternal Life.

    Most people need to think there's a Big Daddy who's got it all under control. Buddhism posits that there's no beginning nor end to anything; just a harmonious field of ineffable possibility, from which "things" manifest. This interplay of phenomena can be sublime and enchanting, but it is also the source of all suffering. What the teachings provide are a method of attaining liberation through a profound insight into emptiness. In this way, one relinquishes oneself from neurotic attachment and comprehends "suchness," as it were.

    I cannot pass judgement on Buddhist or Christian
    organizations and individuals who may or may not be living up to their respective teachings; I can only look at whether or not I'm holding up
    my end of things. It's terribly easy to fool oneself, so one must be vigilant, yet light-of-touch. A lot of it is being genuine, spontaneous and trusting in your basic nature, and not clinging.

    As always, the experiential is what counts. I've found the healthiest method for myself, for which I'm boundlessly thankful. I do, however, believe that the recipe is so wonderful that it's worth sharing. But not in an evangelistic way, mind you.

    My hope for others' awakening is sincere, as much or more so than my own. That's all!

  2. Anonymous12:18 PM

    Whenever I read Hitchens, Harris, Dennet and especially Dawkins I can't get over how much they all sound like pompus, arogant, snide, insufferable jerks.

    With spokesmen such as these is it any wonder that atheism remains reviled and unpopular? Its because of these guys, and other unpleasant people like the late Madilyn Murray Ohare that atheism has a serious PR problem. Why are you all so rude?

    Surely there are some nice atheists out there somewhere that could be your frontmen?

  3. Anonymous12:57 PM

    "With spokesmen such as these is it any wonder that atheism remains reviled and unpopular? Its because of these guys, and other unpleasant people like the late Madilyn Murray Ohare that atheism has a serious PR problem. Why are you all so rude?"

    Why are we so rude? Hmmm.... could it be because nothing in this life has ever given me reason to believe that the followers of ANY religious dogma are anything more than suckers and con artists?
    There is no such thing as a soul, or a classical God, or miracles. We don’t have guardian Angels, there are no demons, and if you’re touched by a pig right before death no you will no go to a place of eternal torture. You don’t, in fact, go anywhere. There’s no reincarnation, there’s no heaven, and there’s no hell. When you die you’re done, end of story. Those who can’t accept that harsh truth and instead cling to their religion like a child clings to his safety blanket are only fooling themselves.
    When religion is describes as an “opiate to the masses” that’s exactly right. It gives hope where there is none and if that helps some people so be it, but don’t pretend that it’s in any way true.
    But why are we so hostile? I’ll tell you why I am; it might help you understand. Everything I’ve written above pretty much stays in my head most of the time. I’ll be attending a funeral tomorrow and if people start to talk about how my great grandmother is “at peace”, or “in a better place” I’ll understand it’s their coping mechanism and to tell them otherwise will bring nothing but pain. So, in that sense, maybe I’m not vocal enough in my atheism to count as “so rude”.
    You know what will bring out the rude streak? Telling me that I’m not allowed to go shopping on one of my days off because it’s a religious holiday, or telling me that because I don’t believe in God I can’t join the Boy Scouts like everyone else in my neighborhood. Even worse? Having my nephew grow up in a school system that preaches that evolution is false and that reviles sexual health so much they leave him ill prepared to know anything except how to identify the STD’s he likely WILL get without a proper education on contraceptives, condoms, or the like.
    Basically it boils down to this. You keep your ignorant religious morality to yourself (as most Bhuddists do) and it’s your problem. Use it as an excuse to tell me how to live my life (ala dogmatic Christians)? Sorry, not gonna fly.

  4. Anonymous1:15 PM

    Buddhism (or non-goal oriented meditation with an altruistic attitude) isn't an "ignorant religious morality" — it's a method of observing the mind and achieving some kind of freedom from one's neuroses. (And don't pretend you don't have any!) Otherwise, I agree with Damien completely, if somewhat less antagonistically.

  5. Anonymous2:20 PM

    "Those who can’t accept that harsh truth and instead cling to their religion like a child clings to his safety blanket are only fooling themselves."

    Let's leave aside the fact that it is logically and empirically impossible to prove or disprove the existence of God (making the the whole issue untestable, un-falsifiable and meaningless in a strict Popperian sense). No matter which side you come down (pro or con) on you are reduced to nothing but unscientific belief statements. Either way its a matter of faith. Not believing is itself a beleif for the same reason not making a choice is in fact a choice.

    You claim "There is no such thing as a soul, or a classical God, or miracles." I say "prove it". And you can't because your claim is just another non-scienitific belief statement.

    Be that as it may, please let me give back snide coment for snide comment, arrogant put down for arrogant put down, and conceited insult for conceited insult. If you wish to claim a lack of intelligence on the part of beleivers, I wish to claim a lack of emotional maturity on the part of atheists - easy to do given your kind's obvious lack of social skills.

    Let's begin shall we? You aren't smarter than believers (who but a social retards would think calling themselves "Brights" - implying everyone else is a "Dim" - would actuall win friends and influence people?), you're just nerdier. Which is not the same thing at all.

    You are the nerds that got snapped with towels in gym class, and you are still pissed off about it. Though I admit that it must be hard to beleive in a kind and loving God when bullies take your lunch money and girls tell you they just want to be friends, your personal emotional problems have no bearing on whether or not God exists. Indeed, the emotional basis for all atheism is the question "how can there be a God when I am so miserable and/or the world is a less than perfect place". Atheism is the after the fact rationalization of whiney cry babies.

    If you want we can delve further and discuss everything from your crappy relationships with your fathers and the fact that your kind are the biggest mass murderers in history.

    So how does it feel to be on the receiving end?

  6. You claim "There is no such thing as a soul, or a classical God, or miracles." I say "prove it". And you can't because your claim is just another non-scienitific belief statement.

    Erh, that doesn't cut it Mr. Duffy. Since religions all make certain claims about reality, THEY should be the ones to provide proof in the first place. As long as they cannot, the above sentence can be said to be empirically true. No belief there, just a statement of facts so far.
    And neither the Bible nor other religiously based literary works qualify as proof, if you subscribe to a scientific, objective viewpoint.

    Calling atheists mass murderers is just laughable. Count the conflicts of history and sum up how many have not been about religion (or religion's power over property). You're trying to spit poison and you're failing miserably, Danny :D

    My own viewpoint is mixed - I can see what is different with Buddhism...I'm just not sure that any kind of spiritual philosophy acquiring a massive following will not damage mankind in the long run. Usually, these things turn dogmatic - however benign they might have started out.

  7. Casey, I have a response to something you said in your first post:

    "It's wrong to compare Buddhism to Christianity, regardless of monastic politics. Even if there were no Christian Church or Holy See, I'd still find issue with the religion. Namely, the idea that some Omnipotent God created the whole world, only to watch us flail, fight and suffer."

    I am familiar with a number of Western arhats (Christopher Titmuss and William L. Hamilton) who were quite convinced that Jesus was enlightened. His teachings are entirely consistent with this notion. Thus, I would like to suggest that the Christian God is simply one name for what is known through awakening, and that all of the major religions are talking about the same supreme identity, aka God. The works of Alan Watts, Rene Guenon, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Frithjof Schuon, Ken Wilber, Aldous Huxley, and tons of others with direct experience into the supreme identity make this argument quite forcefully. There is an aspect of the supreme identity that is personal, and thus it can be analogized as a personal God as it is in Christianity. This is a partial truth. Buddhism does not emphasize this aspect of ultimate reality, but that in no way denies its existence as such. No description of God will ever encompass the entire nature of its being, and thus we should expect that attempts to do so from varied perspectives will be different and even contradictory.

  8. Anonymous3:49 PM

    "Since religions all make certain claims about reality, THEY should be the ones to provide proof in the first place."

    These claims you refer to, such as the world was created in 6 days, there was a global flood, etc. are only taken seriously by ignorant Fundies, and only attacked by equally ignorant atheists. A more mature approach would accept these claims as metaphors and myths in the true sense of the word, a myth being a story that is told to reveal a higher truth. To take such a myth literally is to miss the point of the myth entirely.

    All other religious claims, such as God is loving and forgiving or that existence has an inherent meaning or purpose are teleological in nature. Since science deals only with mechanism, teleological claims lie outside science.

    "Calling atheists mass murderers is just laughable."

    Oh really. You obviously are ignorant of the history of the past century. Esepcially the democide committed by atheists regimes of the far left (Communists) and atheist regimes of the far right (Nazis). Look up Prof. Rummel's study on democide in the 20th century. Rummel's work can be accessed via Marginal Revolution at:


    What I found most interesting was the following comparisons:

    So, the famine was intentional. What was its human cost? I had estimated that 27,000,000 Chinese starved to death or died from associated diseases. Others estimated the toll to be as high as 40,000,000. Chang and Halliday put it at 38,000,000, and given their sources, I will accept that. Now, I have to change all the world democide totals that populate my websites, blogs, and publications. The total for the communist democide before and after Mao took over the mainland is thus 3,446,000 + 35,226,000 + 38,000,000 = 76,692,000, or to round off, 77,000,000 murdered. This is now in line with the 65 million toll estimated for China in the Black Book of Communism, and Chang and Halliday's estimate of "well over 70 million." This exceeds the 61,911,000 murdered by the Soviet Union 1917-1987, with Hitler far behind at 20,946,000 wiped out 1933-1945.

    Discountng the 3,446,000 killed in the Sino-Japanese war prior to the start of Mao's rule, the Maoist PRC (with these new numbers for the deliberate, man-made famine during the Great Leap Forward) killed over 73,000,000 people. Over the 38 years of Maoist rule, this comes to an average of about 1.92 million per year.

    The democide rate of Hitler's 12 year Reich was about 1.75 million per year. The democide rate of the 70 year Stalinist USSR was about 0.88 million per year (about half that of the Third Reich). Stalin's (and the Stalinist system's) much greater total was the result of its much greater longevity. Hitler's democide rate was smaller, but still comparable to Mao's.

    The total for the three largest atheist regimes of the 20th century (Stalinist, Nazi and Maoist) comes to approximately 160 million over 70 years. This does not include mass murder by secondary Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, the Khmer Rouge and other atheist totalitarians. AN Wilson is correct, the horrors of the 20th century stem from atheism and were carried out by atheists.

    By comparison, the religious equivalent - the Inquisition - was mild by compariso. From an Internet FAQ on the Inquisitions:

    "How many were executed by the Spanish Inquisition? By most standards, the records of the Spanish Inquisition are spectacularly good and a treasure trove for social historians as they record many details about ordinary people. Nothing like all the files have been analysed but from the third looked at so far, it seems the Inquisition, operating through out the Spanish Empire, executed about 700 people between 1540 and 1700 out of a total of 49,000 cases. It is also reckoned that they probably killed about two thousand during the first fifty years of operation when persecution against Jews and Moslems was at its most severe. This would give a total figure of around 5,000 for the entire three hundred year period of its operation."

    Compared to the ocean of blood spilled by the atheists, the blood spilled by crusades, jihads, pogroms, inquisitions and persecutions is but a drop.

  9. Anonymous8:57 PM

    I think it'll help if you realize that what Hitchens calls Buddhism and what George calls Buddhism are two different things. George's version is all about personal enlightenment, with the superstitious aspects like reincarnation being largely superfluous.

    But if you go into a mainly Buddhist country, would the same version really apply? If it does, I'm at a loss to explain what the Burmese monks were trying to accomplish recently.

    I think that when Hitchens says Buddhism, he means the version experienced by most people who call themselves Buddhist -- which is a version with superstition and conformity built into it.

  10. Anonymous9:19 PM

    Dan Duffy: I won't bother replying to most of your points, as I see others are already doing so, but just one point of correction: Nazi Germany was not an atheist regime. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazi#Religion for example: """
    On taking power, Hitler banned freethought organizations and launched an “anti-godless” movement. In a 1933 speech he declared: “We have . . . undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out.”

    Regardless, your suggestion that "the horrors of the 20th century stem from atheism" is frankly ludicrous. Hitler and Stalin both had moustaches; that doesn't mean their crimes were caused by facial hair.

    I get the sense (correct me if I'm wrong) that you are largely just being facetious, in retaliation to others' comments. If so, please try to remember that not all (or, I daresay, many) atheists are out to get you. Personally I couldn't care less what you believe, provided you don't try to inflict it on me - or teach it to children as uncontroversial truth, in any context which undermines their scientific understanding. Yes, there are some militant atheists out there (albeit not as militant as religious extremists, by and large), but please try not to judge the rest of us as though we're all the same.

    Nic Shakeshaft

  11. Haha, I loved your twisted logic, Duffy. That's a great way to manipulate historical statistics.
    Too bad Nic's moustache argument annihilates it in much fewer words.

    Atheism is not an ideology to be worn - that's religion, remember?
    Political systems cannot be atheist...the idea makes no sense. People can - and usually are regardless of political systems.

    Those regimes you mention "abolished" established religions to have one less political power factor to deal with. In fact, the way those regimes were built up and sustained was by trying to make them replace religions. The did that by emulating religious qualities. The Khmer Rouge is a prime example - if you have ever seen "Killing Fields" you will recognise religious motivations galore in that system.
    The idea of Der F├╝hrer and Foreman Mao is just a replacement of God - and seen from that perspective, religious or mystical behaviour is related to all the evils you mention, too. =)

    You may worship God or the notion of a political utopia, I don't care. The form of mind control is basically the same.
    Get critical, Duffy - it'll do you good in the long run.

  12. Anonymous5:21 PM

    Fishboy: I agree with you, actually. The experience of what Jung would call "numinosity" (and Buddhists term shunyata) has a necessary "spiritual" element, which could be described as union with some type of Godhead. It is personal inasmuch as any experiential process which takes place in an individual is personal. But the actual realization is that the localized perception of "self" is not uniformly accurate, but rather a habitual (and not entirely conscious) interpretation of several aggregates, which form what we call "identity."

    What I reject about Christianity (besides the idea that Jesus is THE son of God) is not so much Christ's teachings, but rather the concept of an Origin and Originator -- in this case a wrathful and inconsistent figure with a long beard and a shorter fuse, who must be appeased through a variety of bizarre methods such as burning live animals, the murder of family members and so on.

  13. Anonymous5:54 PM

    PS: I have no real trouble in accepting the possibility that there was an enlightened heretic named "Jesus" who lived in or around historical Nazareth and was murdered for attempting to spread his radical socio-spiritual views.

    However, it is easier for me to accept reincarnation (at least a kind more subtle than the reappearance of a finite "soul" in subsequent space/time) than the idea that a dead biological human would miraculously rise up after his assassination, appear to select followers and then disappear with the admonition that he'd return, Frosty the Snowman-style, at some later date.

  14. Anonymous11:07 AM

    "Nazi Germany was not an atheist regime."

    Sorry, but that is simply wrong.The Nazis were atheists plain and simple, like their Communist enemies. A.N. Wilson in "God's Funeral" comes very close to laying the horrors of the 20th century at the feet of the atheistic philosophers of the 19th century. He sites two main philosophical branches of 19th century atheism that bore bitter fruit in the 20th: the Carlyle/Nietzsche branch in which God is replaced with the hero or superman, and the Hegel/Marx branch in which heaven is replaced with a workers utopia. The first gave us the horrors of the far right, the other the atrocities of the far left.

    The Nazis, Hitler especially, despised Christianity as a belief fit only for weaklings, not for the coming amoral Superman (that they misread Nietzsche on this issue is besides the point). With the possible exception of Himmler and his bizarre paganism, the Nazi ruling circle was composed of atheists.

    Though he called himself a Christian in Mein Kampf and in several speeches, it is well to remember that these were pronouncements for public consumption and were made by a consummate liar/politician. No politician could have hoped to get himself elected in Weimar Germany as a self proclaimed atheist. In his public pronouncement concerning his religious faith, Hitler did the sensible thing, he lied.

    For his real views on the subject see his "Table Talk", surreptitiously recorded by Martin Borman and never intended for the public. These statements represent his real views (more on this below). Statements made in confidence to a circle of cronies is obviously a better indicator of the man's thinking than statement made to woo the public.

    Hitler had every intention of destroying the Christian faith and replacing it with Nazism when the time was ripe. His accommodations with the Roman Catholic Church and German Protestant churches were purely tactical. For a more in depth look at this issue see the OSS post war report on Nazism and the churches at www.lawandreligion.com run by Rutgers University. For a shorter version, see pages 477-478 of Weinberg's A World at Arms (IMHO the best single volume history of the war). Religious faith was the common enemy of atheistic regimes of both the far right and the far left.

    An historical article from Christianity Today sums up the conclusions of the OSS report quite nicely:

    "Donovan's Nuremberg report undermines the assertion, made by Feldman and so many others, that because several key Nazis had ties (however tenuous) to a church, and because the Nazis advanced insidious policies, then those insidious policies must be inherently Christian. To what extent elements of popular Christian ideology fed Hitler's anti-Semitism is a separate and valid question, but the "if A then B" connection fails because insidious anti-Christian policies do not fit the syllogism above. A plan to eradicate Christianity can hardly be construed as Christian, and persons supporting such a plan can hardly be considered believers of any standing."

    Now, as for Hitler's Table Talk... Outside of the officially atheist Soviet Union, what politician in the 1930s would publicly admit to being an atheist? Let me repeat for emphasis, Hitler was a skilled politician and a consummate liar (the two often go together). Mein Kampf was for public consumption and expressed only those views most likely to get him elected. To really understand what such a man believes, it is necessary to view those words that were not intended for public consumption, as historian Hugh Trevor-Roper makes clear:

    "We must go direct to Hitler's personal utterances: not indeed to his letters and speeches-- these, though valuable, are too public, too formalised for such purposes-- but to his private conversations, his Table-Talk. Table-Talk, like notebooks, reveal the mind of a man far more completely, more intimately, than any formal utterance."

    In Table Talk the following statements on Christianity by Hitler will be found:

    The heaviest blow that ever struck humanity was the coming of Christianity. Bolshevism is Christianity's illegitimate child. Both are inventions of the Jew. The deliberate lie in the matter of religion was introduced into the world by Christianity. Bolshevism practises a lie of the same nature, when it claims to bring liberty to men, whereas in reality it seeks only to enslave them.

    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.

    Being weighed down by a superstitious past, men are afraid of things that can't, or can't yet, be explained-that is to say, of the unknown. If anyone has needs of a metaphysical nature, I can't satisfy them with the Party's programme. Time will go by until the moment when science can answer all the questions.

    Christianity, of course, has reached the peak of absurdity in this respect. And that's why one day its structure will collapse. Science has already impregnated humanity. Consequently, the more Christianity clings to its dogmas, the quicker it will decline.

    A movement like ours mustn't let itself be drawn into metaphysical digressions. It must stick to the spirit of exact science. It's not the Party's function to be a counterfeit for religion.

    If in the course of a thousand or two thousand years, science arrives at the necessity of renewing its points of view, that will not mean that science is a liar. Science cannot lie, for it's always striving, according to the momentary state of knowledge to deduce what is true. When it makes a mistake, it does 10 in good faith. It's Christianity that's the liar. It's in perpetual conflict with itself.

    The reason why the ancient world was so pure, light and serene was that it knew nothing of the two great scourges: the pox and Christianity.

    Pure Christianity-the Christianity of the catacombs-is concerned with translating the Christian doctrine into facts. It leads quite simply to the annihilation of mankind. It is merely whole- hearted Bolshevism, under a tinsel of metaphysics.

    I adopted a definite attitude on the 21st March '933 when I refused to take part in the religious services, organised at Potsdam by the two Churches, for the inauguration of the new Reichstag.

    Our epoch will certainly see the end of the disease of Christianity. It will last another hundred years, two hundred years perhaps. My regret will have been that I couldn't, like whoever the prophet was, behold the promised land from afar.

    The fact that I remain silent in public over Church affairs is not in the least misunderstood by the sly foxes of the Catholic Church, and I am quite sure that a man like the Bishop von Galen knows full well that after the war I shall extract retribution to the last farthing. And, if he does not succeed in getting himself transferred in the meanwhile to the Collegium Germanium in Rome, he may rest assured that in the balancing of our accounts, no "T" will remain uncrossed, no "I" undotted!

    Christianity is an invention of sick brains.

  15. Anonymous11:11 AM

    "Too bad Nic's moustache argument annihilates it in much fewer words"

    I don't recall Mao (the greatest atheist mass muderer of all) or Pol Pot (the greatest murderer on a per capita basis) having moustaches.

    Instead of silly facial hair comparisons, perhaps you could provide historical evidenc for a single officialy atheist regime that did NOT commit mass murder, gneocide or democide?

  16. Anonymous11:17 AM

    "In fact, the way those regimes were built up and sustained was by trying to make them replace religions. The did that by emulating religious qualities."

    You should look up the "No True Scotsman fallacy".

    To claim that none of these regimes were "real" atheism is to in effect conced that real atheism is not mentally or psychologically possible. Nature, especially human nature, abhors a void - including the void of unbelief. Something has to fill that void. And in atheist regimes that is the Great Leader and his Bright Future Society replacing God and heaven.

  17. Anonymous12:06 PM

    I think that people like Dan Duffy over here are the reason why the world needs people like Hitchens.

  18. Anonymous12:30 PM

    Dan Duffy: "perhaps you could provide historical evidenc for a single officialy atheist regime that did NOT commit mass murder, gneocide or democide?"

    Modern France is an obvious example, and a number of other contemporary democracies (arguably including my own, the UK) are similarly on the way towards becoming entirely officially secular (in the sense of a complete separation of church and state, and with personal freedom of religion enshrined by law). At a higher level, the European Union is also officially entirely secular, treating religion as a matter purely for personal conscience, and providing no incumbent power or support for any individual religion more than any others. In my view, this is a highly praiseworthy position.

    I concede your point about Nazi Germany, even though it is far from clear whether Hitler's personal beliefs on this issue were - or ever would have been - representative of the regime as a whole. Nonetheless, I can't help but think that you're still missing the point somewhat. The unifying aim of the regimes you discuss was to destroy all opposition to their order. Anything which could potentially give their citizens any concerns other than promoting the interests of the state - religion included - was a threat to be overcome. The motivation for murder was not atheism any more than the violence of religious extremists today is motivated by their religion, per se; the motivations then, as with religious fundamentalists now, were fear, hatred of difference and the desire to create a homogenous, docile population. Few, if any, modern atheists would support such a position, and thus do not deserve your vitriol.

    "Nature, especially human nature, abhors a void - including the void of unbelief. Something has to fill that void. And in atheist regimes that is the Great Leader and his Bright Future Society replacing God and heaven."

    Not so. I manage quite well without succumbing to any such cult of personality (despite a fairly docile mass media in recent years regarding the 'war on terror', I might add), as do very many others. The development of such homogenous leader-worship as you describe has occurred in past regimes purely because it was convenient to those regimes to foster it, and deliberately to limit education and prohibit the discussion of alternative points of view. Again, the majority of atheists (myself included) promote the opposite.

    (Note that the above should not be taken to mean that I support the discussion of creationism in science classrooms. My opposition to such teachings as an 'alternative theory to evolution' stem from the fact that this is a misunderstanding of what a scientific theory is and isn't. We should teach science in science classes and philosophy in philosophy classes - and take great care not to confuse the two).

    Nic Shakeshaft

  19. Anonymous2:04 PM

    "Modern France is an obvious example, and a number of other contemporary democracies (arguably including my own, the UK) are similarly on the way towards becoming entirely officially secular (in the sense of a complete separation of church and state, and with personal freedom of religion enshrined by law)."

    Wrong on both counts.

    The Catholic Church is the offical state supported church of France, recieving subsidies from the French taxpayer. The British monarch is the head of the offical state religion, the Anglican Church, also heavily subsidized. All European countries support a nation church in sonme fashion. The Swedish government supports Lutheranism. The Polish and SPanish governments support Catholicism.

    The only country with a near complete separation of church and state (the tax exemption being the prime exception) is America.

  20. Anonymous3:25 PM

    Dan Duffy: "The Catholic Church is the offical state supported church of France, recieving subsidies from the French taxpayer."

    Umm, where are you getting that from? As far as I know, it's illegal for any religious organisation in France to receive state funding, although some local government organs do provide some unofficially in the role of supporting 'cultural' activities. Religious organisations (of any religion) can apply to be tax-exempt, but that's it. If you have evidence to the contrary, please cite sources.

    "The British monarch is the head of the offical state religion, the Anglican Church, also heavily subsidized."

    With respect, I'm somewhat better placed than you to discuss the developing British constitution. Similarly, while I have some doubts about the practical effectiveness of the official church-state separation in the US (shared by many Americans I've spoken to, incidentally), I'm not proposing to argue the point.

    Despite the remaining traditional constitutional formulae, the British monarchy has no political authority; and in any event, the current heir to the throne is proposing to become the "defender of all faiths", thereby removing another constitutional link to the formerly exclusive state religion. Nonetheless, it's true that the developing multicultural secularism has a way to go in the UK - that's why I said such developments are merely "on the way", both in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. The point stands about the EU as a whole, however.

    I note that you're not commenting on the main argument: atheists, by and large, do not share the aims or methods of the regimes to which you've referred, and do not deserve your criticism on those grounds. The fact that you've felt attacked by specific individuals does not justify your blanket attack against atheism in general, any more than you deserve blame for the actions of the violent extremist religious minority.

    Nic Shakeshaft

  21. Anonymous4:42 AM

    Agnostic scientific verificational rationalism + mindfulness meditation = awakening.

    Dawkins + Dharma.

    Knowledge > Mystery.


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