Mr. Black: Don’t Blame the Atheists

Hitler, Ludwig Mller Albanus Schachleitner

ON MONDAY, National Post’s Full Comment contributor Conrad Black (“An unhappy civilization, but not one in ‘decline’”) produced Oswald Spengler in support of an effort to reject the notion of a Western decline. In doing so, he reasserted elements of Spengler’s conservative nationalism, proposing that Canada shed its “outworn reluctant attitudes about leading in the world” to assume its rightful place at the forefront of nations, and advancing along the way a piece of Chauvinism it is my present intention to scrutinize.

The first volume of Oswald Spengler’s “Untergang des Abend-landes” arrived in July 1918, concurrently with the Reims offensive which constituted Germany’s final push on the First World War’s western front. From that point forward, it was indeed a retreat and decline for the empire, Germany surrendering one hundred days later to make way for another beginning-of-the-end, the doomed and universally-loathed Weimar Republic. As The Decline of the West, the 1926 English translation of Charles Francis Atkinson, Spengler’s work became a near-instant sensation across the English-speaking world. Its thesis influenced the apocalyptic poetry of William Butler Yeats, and F. Scott Fitzgerald (who claimed, anachronistically, to have been reading The Decline of the West while writing his 1925 novel The Great Gatsby) imbued Tom Buchanan with Spenglerian pessimism.

The preponderant appeal of Spengler was however on the rightward side of the political spectrum, where quickly after 1918 notions of betrayals, lost prestige, and moral and political decline galvanized Germany’s numerous nationalist, populist, conservative and authoritarian political parties. Spengler was representative of the age in his disliking of many features of the Weimar Republic — the “winter” phase of German history, according to his seasonal taxonomy. Above all he deplored the “irreligious and unmetaphysical cosmopolitanism” of the age, the collapse of the Bismarckian order and with it traditional German values and institutions. It is precisely this which Black himself takes up:

Yes, the proportion of people practising or professing a religion has declined, but most of those claiming not to adhere to any religion do commune in some measure with an invisible means of support and focus of belief, whether they worship it or not. They are not atheists and so the world is not becoming increasingly vulnerable to the tendency to fill the vacuum where God resided with nihilism, paganism, or the elevation of men to the status of deities by state fiat, as in pre-Christian Rome.

A statement more casually larded with unexamined prejudice is difficult to conceive. Yet it is a convention of conservative thought that religious belief acts as an agent against cultural decline, and that faith — “communing with the invisible” — is ipso facto a good thing. As a corollary of this, Black equates atheism with a tendency toward nihilism, paganism and extreme hubris, ignoring the plain lessons of history which his essay itself invites us to ponder.

For example: Oswald Spengler died in 1936, at a time history was providing the laboratory to test Christendom’s moral and cultural boasts. Diarmaid MacCulloch and Richard J. Evans — in two superlative works titled, respectively, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years and The Third Reich in Power —show that the Protestant and Roman Catholic German churches were at least as susceptible to hubris and moral nihilism as anyone else. The rise of Hitler required, and got, the co-operation of the Zentrum, or Catholic Centre party, and it was with the Vatican that Hitler negotiated his first treaty, the Reichskonkordat, as had Mussolini years earlier.

Among Protestants, a split occurred between the German Christians and the Confessing Church, the latter a diverse protest movement opposed to National Socialism’s repressive treatment of the churches, including its Jewish converts. (Of the anti-Semitism aimed at non-Christian Jews, both MacCulloch and Evans note the broad silence of Christians, whose scripture is after all the historical source of anti-Semitism.) To the degree that the religious exhibited a tendency, it was toward conservative nationalism, anti-Bolshevism, anti-Modernism and anti-Semitism, and thus was sympathetic toward National Socialism. Courageous Christians like Martin Bonhoeffer and Andrey Sheptytsky were the exception to this rule.

Spengler himself was contemptuous of Hitler and his far-right, blood-and-soil ideology, which he regarded as vulgar and capable only of completing the work of decline and disgrace. In the early years of the Weimar Republic, he wrote that “we Germans will never bring forth another Goethe, but a Caesar, yes.” He shared with the Nazis belief in the leadership principle, but on the character of the leader they disagreed. On the side of the resistance to fascism were men and women of faith, but also many principled atheists who were in no sense the pagans and nihilists that many National Socialists nonetheless were. Within the Nazi party, the tendency was toward totalitarianism — an impulse which did lead some prominent Nazis (most notably Himmler) to heap contempt upon the inadmissible rival Isms of Christianity.

In our day, credible and persistent threats of decline and of physical attacks on Western culture issue not from a loss of faith but rather from the adoption of faith, by for examples Wahhabi and Salafi Islamists who are keen to bring clerical hubris and nihilism to a neighbourhood near you. As an atheist, I am opposed to this effort wherever it is undertaken, and it’s from the secular principles of human dignity, solidarity, freedom, art, culture and enlightenment that I draw my inspiration. Mr. Black, in summary, has committed an error in so casually smearing wholesale the character of atheists and atheism.

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