Religion does not make us better

Further to my National Post Conrad Black piece of this week I bring to your attention today’s article, by the Father, Raymond J. de Souza, “Communism vs. Catholics“:

In China today, as in Poland during the Cold War, Christians are being persecuted for their faith. Visiting the capital of Poland for the first time in 16 years, my thoughts turn to heroes of the country’s past — and to heroes of the present in other parts of the world. Imprisoned clergy are no longer a reality in Warsaw. But they are in Shanghai.

A great hero of mine is buried here, in Warsaw’s St. John’s Cathedral. Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski was archbishop of the city, and primate of Poland, for 33 years, from 1948 to 1981. An indomitable foe of atheistic communism, he was also a master strategist who mobilized Polish piety to strengthen the culture and memory of the Polish nation during the dark night of communist oppression. Wyszynski was the great architect of religious resistance in Poland, confounding the communists here and in Moscow, and, it must be said, confusing officials in the Vatican who did not understand how to deal with tyrants. [emphasis added]

The article, which is detailed, well-written and well-reasoned, goes on to make a very good case against the Chinese Communists — against whom I have issued a long list of charges. I have also written about the persecutions of Christians, a large and disturbing category of crime in our world today. I agree with Mr. de Souza that the Communist Chinese government is persecuting Christians, and that this persecution ought to be vigorously denounced and opposed by citizens and governments of the world.

When the National Post printed my challenge of Conrad Black (who presents atheism as a tendency toward — among other things — nihilism), the headline applied was “Threat of Western decline stems from adoption of faith, not loss.” It is true that, toward the end of the article, I pointed out the danger of radical Islam and said that religion is more dangerous today than atheism. But this was not my central assertion. What I above all else wanted to show was that the historical record simply does not support the formula “atheistic tyranny vs religious heroism.” The Chinese government is Communist; it is the pernicious ideology of Communism, and for long before that the habits of imperial autocracy, that is the source of their clutching at power and their deep corruption.

I believe the best way to understand this issue is to study history. History shows us that atheism is no more an ideology or political philosophy than is right-handedness or obesity. Atheists have at least as much a likelihood of being conservative as they have of being socialist or communist or fascist — and indeed if there is a tendency among atheists it is toward, I would argue, anti-totalitarianism and anti-fascism. That is because atheists reject the proposition that a great, unquestionable dictator of the heavens must be loved and feared by his subjects, at the risk of damnation. We tend to regard the leadership principle, in its extreme authoritarian forms, as cognates of human religion (the only kind there is). That is why atheism and socialism and communism do often co-occur.

Aha! you say. So you admit that Stalin and Mao were atheistic Communists. In fact, I am able to argue if so pressed that Mao was a narcissist who opportunistically manipulated Moscow to further his selfish ends. He did not have an ideology, but rather an appetite — for self-glory. His writings as a student make this clear. He was an atheist only in the sense Stalin and Hitler were: he could only believe in a god who served him. Hitler was happy to have a Christian church in Germany, so long as the Germans regarded him above all as their Saviour. (If this is not Christianity, it’s not exactly atheism either.) In any case, I’ve long felt that the relevant question was not “Did Stalin/Hitler/etc. persecute the church?” but rather “Did the church repudiate Stalin/Hitler/etc.?” The answer is overwhlemingly that in Russia and Germany and elsewhere the churches were eager to co-operate, and tried to do so. To see how this dirty operation works in real-time, I recommend keeping an eye on the Russian Orthodox Church as it partners with the Putin regime. Only when the offer of accomodation is refused does anything like a heroic struggle against tyranny get underway, and even then it is an exceptional matter. (By definition heroism can never be a common condition.)

Extreme lust for power and self-aggrandizement, not atheism, is what all the 20th Century dictatorships share in common. Kipling has famously coupled the lack of faith with the lust for power, in his great poem “Recessional”:

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe—
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Keeping with these “lesser breeds without the Law” (he means Germans, and by Law of course he means the Word of God), history shows that religious institutions and individuals could and did support and promote violent totalitarianism. Jozef Tiso was a Catholic priest and the head of the Nazi client regime in Slovakia. Ante Pavelic’s Ustashe was so violent that it shocked even the Nazis: its genocide was conducted along partisan, religious lines. Poland has long fascinated me above all other eastern European countries, because it was there that both depravity and heroism were displayed, side by side. One can argue that the Polish Catholics were complicit or that they resisted: there is truth in both positions. But what you can’t argue is that religion makes us better. There is no such tendency, except apparently in the minds of the religious. Really, that’s my point in a sentence.

So to the believers I say: please stop putting forward these many subtle and not-so-subtle suggestions that atheists and atheism are responsible for fascism and totalitarianism and persecution. I can just as easily argue the opposite, that the totalitarian principle is derived from, and corresponds highly with, monotheism. The parties of god perfected inter-tribal persecution, so that only some years after the founding of the Christian Roman Empire, Constantine was violently pursuing the Donatist heresy. I haven’t even begun to lay out the evidence for the proposition that religion and the religious are often objectively on the side of tyranny, which is ample and powerfully suggestive. Atheism, friends, is not the problem: the problem is people who use injustice and violence to further their selfish ends. In the service of this work, the religious are at least as likely to have blood on their hands as any atheist.

Do feel free to challenge me on this point, at your own risk.

* on this point of the Vatican “not understanding how to deal with tyrants,” I draw your attention to the long history of collaboration between the Holy See and fascism. There is hardly a country with a Catholic presence that has not fallen into totalitarianism not having reached an agreement with the Mother Church. The conditions of these agreements, as a general rule, are that: the regime in question is sufficiently anti-Bolshevist and anti-Modernist (that is, right wing); the Church will abstain from meddling in politics in exchange for the state’s staying out of Catholic education; Catholic organizations will be exempt from the persecution.

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