Nazis, Morality, and Atheism

“Nazis. I hate these guys.”
Indiana Jones

Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Since the neo-nazi movement is in the news right now thanks to the debacle in Charlottesville, I thought I would use this unseemly moment to make a point about the nature of morality. Most everyone shares the sentiments of Indiana Jones about the Nazis. Nazi ideology is the epitome of evil.

But this sentiment assumes a couple of things. First, it assumes that something called “evil” actually exists. And second, it assumes that when evil exists, the appropriate response is condemnation and opposition.

As a Christian, I happen to share these assumptions. I believe there is an objective moral order that is revealed in nature and in Scripture, and that this revelation is ultimately grounded in God. Consequently I do not believe in moral relativism, the notion that right and wrong are nothing but a subjective feature of human experience that differs from culture to culture. No, I believe some things are always wrong, transcendently wrong, whether in 1930s Germany or 2017 America.

Many of my atheist and agnostic friends have also expressed outrage at these Nazi sympathizers. I do not doubt for a moment the sincerity with which my non-believing friends hold these views. But I do have a serious question as to how they justify this outrage.

On what basis can an unbeliever say that Nazi ideology is objectively immoral? Some atheists are willing to accept the implications of their own worldview and deny that objective moral values exist. One such philosopher, Alex Rosenberg, flatly acknowledges that nihilism (the belief that meaning, purpose, and morality do not exist) “can’t condemn Hitler, Stalin…Nihilism seems to cut that ground out from under us” (The Atheist Guide to Reality p. 98). The best he can offer is the observation that what really made the Nazis so terrible is that they accepted many false beliefs. It wasn’t really a moral issue so much as a cognitive one. This sounds good, until you realize that according to Rosenberg, all of our beliefs are ultimately the product of evolution, and that

There is lots of evidence that natural selection is not very good at picking out true beliefs…There are lots of moral values and ethical norms that enlightened people reject but which Mother Nature has strongly selected for. Racism and xenophobia are optimally adapted to maximize the representation of your genes in the next generation, instead of some stranger’s genes. (p. 110-111)

If this is the case, then is it even possible to fault the Nazi’s for incorrect beliefs? Or for adapting in keeping with them? Let’s say you have two cavemen, Og and Gog. Both see a stream of water. Og believes that this water comes from the runoff of melting snow. Gog believes this comes from the Water Fairy, and that the Water Fairy will only accept one worshipper. Og’s belief is correct, Gog’s is incorrect, but when Gog murders Og to take sole control of the stream, what sort of survival advantage will Og’s correct deduction have given him? And if both cavemen’s “thoughts” were nothing more than neurochemical reactions produced by the laws of physics, how could we even condemn Gog, much less hold him personally accountable? If it makes no sense to hold one cell accountable for its moral conduct, it doesn’t make much sense to hold a cluster of cells (i.e. the brain) responsible, either.

Lest you think this sort of brazen nihilism is limited to philosophy professors, let me share a comment made to me by a friend on Facebook last year. I asked my unbelieving friends to explain why (in the tragic case of Harambe the gorilla) they would justify choosing a human life over a gorilla’s life. My friend offered this response:

Why you ask? It all goes back to Olduvai Gorge. As old as the human story itself. You defend your tribe, and sapiens sapiens we be…The only obligations that would seem to exist are within one’s own tribe.

In other words, morality is ultimately tribal, not universal.

Another friend said:

Brotherhood of man is social construct — ahem, much like religion, forgive me — that unites the tribe, the society, and provides for stability and growth. It’s a force for good, or can be, should be. But it seems to me that the value of human life, any life, any thing, comes from that social stability and security, the social norm. To assign value to one life over another – the original question, right? – is relative to each situation and society.

The “brotherhood of man” is nothing but a social construct, and the value of human life is “relative to each situation and society.”

This sounds great, until the Nazis show up!

I have not seen a single unbelieving friend say, “Well, I can’t really condemn neo-nazis because all moral values are simply social constructs.” Nor has anyone argued, “Well, our tribe differs from the neo-nazi tribe, but I can’t say they are wrong for pursuing the interests of their tribe.” No, everybody has sounded like a moral absolutist – Nazi ideology is wrong, always and everywhere.

But by what standard is this judgment made? It does no good to argue some sort of vague form of charitable humanism, since that would assume that human beings possess inherent dignity as opposed to other species – the very sort of tribalism that is the basis of Nazi ideology in the first place. Nor does it help to argue on utilitarian grounds that Nazism just doesn’t work. With just a few different decisions in history, it very well could have.

And if the Nazis had won, then according to the logic of those who say morality is purely a social construct, then whatever society the Nazis would have built would have been the measure of morality. Shows like The Man in the High Castle give us a glimpse of this moral vision, a world in which killing the infirm and brutally subjugating inferior races is not merely acceptable – it is morally obligatory.

I want to conclude by acknowledging that many atheists and agnostics have displayed brotherly love with far more clarity and consistency than lots of professed Christians. It infuriates and saddens me to confess that many people who claim the name of Christ have done evil against others merely because of their racial or ethnic identity. But here’s the point – I can justify this statement since I believe in an objective moral reality. And it is this issue – justification of one’s beliefs – that is the problem for atheism if morality is purely relative.

Since I began with an Indiana Jones quote, it seems appropriate to conclude with the words of the esteemed Jake and Elwood Blues.

“I hate Illinois Nazis.”


Richard Dawkins and His Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Argument Against the Existence of God

Richard Dawkins is a phenomenal zoologist but an abysmal philosopher. And nowhere are his inadequacies as a philosopher more apparent than in what he believes is a knock-down argument against belief in God. Here is the argument, proposed in detail in The God Delusion and summarized in this presentation (he lays out the argument starting at 44:27): Continue reading

The Problem of Evil and Suffering for Atheism

The most powerful argument against belief in God is the problem of evil and suffering. Its basic form goes like this:

  • If God is all-powerful He could prevent evil and suffering.
  • If God is all-good He would prevent evil and suffering.
  • But evil and suffering exist.
  • Therefore an all-powerful and all-good God does not exist.

In a previous post I explained that while the existence of evil and suffering poses a puzzle for believers (one that my wife and I are dealing with as she faces Stage 4 cancer), this puzzle does not disprove God’s existence.  In this post I want to flip the argument around as a problem for atheists by focusing on the third premise: “But evil and suffering exist.” Continue reading

Gird Up!

Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:13, King James Version).

Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:13, English Standard Version).

One of the classic movies of my high school years was The Karate Kid (what kid of the 80’s hasn’t done a crane kick pose?!). If you’ve never seen the movie, it’s the story of a young, scrawny kid named Daniel who moves to California and immediately runs afoul of a gang of bullies from a local karate dojo, “the Cobra Kai.” Just when it looks like Daniel is going to get throttled, an old man – Mr. Miyagi – rescues him by fending off the bullies with ease.

Miyagi takes Daniel under his wing to train him for a karate tournament so he can face the Cobra Kai on equal terms. The way he prepares Daniel is by imparting to him the ancient wisdom of the karate tradition, starting with rudimentary skills (“wax on, wax off”) and building from that to instill discipline and technique. He demands long hours of hard work from Daniel, but (spoiler alert!) it pays off in the end! While the bullies are bigger and more brutal, they are no match for Daniel’s newfound skills.

It seems to me that Christians in western society find themselves in a similar situation to Daniel in The Karate Kid.

Continue reading

Racism, Atheism, and Tribal Morality

Last summer in the aftermath of the tragic shooting of the silverback gorilla Harambe, I asked my agnostic and atheist friends on Facebook if the Cincinnati Zoo was morally justified in shooting a gorilla to save a small child. It was a very interesting Facebook thread.

Most of those friends did believe that a human life is more valuable than a gorilla’s (though not all did – and I told those people not to take offense if I declined a dinner invitation to their house – I prefer to eat with people who see a clear difference between me and what is served for dinner!). But what was interesting to me was the justification these nonbelievers offered for privileging human life over animal life. For most of them, this was simply a matter of choosing the human “tribe” over the gorilla “tribe.” As one friend said:

The only obligations that would seem to exist are within one’s own tribe.

This sentiment was shared by many participants on the thread. Another friend concluded: Continue reading

Blind Faith or Reasoned Faith?

Does faith consist of belief  without any evidence? Lots of people think so – Christians and non-Christians. I have heard many Christians speak of faith and reason as polar opposites. And I have also heard many atheists and agnostics brush aside the concept of faith as mere superstition.

Further, there are certain Scriptures that seem to support the notion that belief is simply a “blind leap of faith,” a decision to commit to Christ without any kind of evidence. After all, didn’t Jesus say to doubting Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29)? And didn’t the apostle Paul declare that “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7)? And didn’t the writer of the Book of Hebrews define faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1)? Continue reading