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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Blame it on Nietzsche

In her book A History of God, Karen Armstrong notes that atheistic ideologies can lead to atrocities as readily as theologies. But then she smears Nietzsche by repeating the falsehood that he was somehow an inspiration for Nazism, and that his atheism somehow contributed to Nazi atrocities. The accusation is an insult not just to Nietzsche but to the victims of the Holocaust.

Armstrong says:

Like Hegel's, Nietzsche's theories were used by a later generation of Germans to justify the policies of National Socialism, a reminder that an atheistic ideology can be just as cruel a crusading ethic as the idea of "God."

Now, I don't doubt the last bit. If you think in apocalyptic terms, it doesn't much matter whether you think you have a personal God on your side or whether you "just" think you are doing the will of History or some kind of impersonal Providence - or some other abstraction that mandates your actions. An apocalyptic, all-encompassing ideology can drive people to commit atrocities whether or not the ideology is theistic. All such ideologies, theistic or otherwise, have the potential to drive their followers to horrible conduct that is deemed to be justified and necessary. Various non-theistic forms of revolutionary communism have been like this. Unfortunately, the greater the technological power that can be employed in the service of such a worldview, the larger the scale of atrocities that its followers can commit.

All the same, Nazism, unlike revolutionary communism of the Marxist-Leninist varieties, was never an atheistic system. Whereas Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and others may have thought they were somehow doing the work of History, the Nazis were convinced that they were doing God's work. Whatever the Nazi leaders may have picked up from Nietzsche, it wasn't his atheism. Indeed, atheists were among those whom the Nazis hated. Moreover, Nietzsche was not anti-Semitic; he was contemptuous of anti-Semites. But the most horrifying of the Nazi actions - the death camps that were used to kill millions of Jews and others in the most cruel and atrocious ways - were a result of the extreme anti-Semitism pervading Nazi thought. Wherever the Nazis got this from, and it's not that hard to guess, it wasn't from the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche.

There's something repellent about these sentences in Armstrong's A History of God, something sinister in the way they gloss over the complexity of events to create an impression almost the opposite of the truth. The anti-Semitism of the Nazis did not come from Nietzsche's thought and had nothing to do with Nietzsche's style of atheism. Yes, there can be apocalyptic, comprehensive belief systems that are non-theistic, and which lead to atrocities, but Nazism was never such a system, and nor was Nietzsche's own (relatively unsystematic) thought. There can, of course, also be peaceful forms of religion that are not likely to commit atrocities. As far as I'm aware, no Quaker has ever massacred helpless victims in a ditch or burned them alive, or tortured them with insanely cruel instruments. For any atheist to deny this would be churlish.

There are many sensible things that could have been said in the vicinity of the passage I've quoted from Armstrong, but she doesn't say those things; and when she tries to make a point of her own, she does it over the cruelly abused bodies of Nazism's victims, all the millions of them.

I'm sure there's a name for what Armstrong is doing here, but if so I can't think of it. It's something worse than intellectual dishonesty, something more callous than ordinary cynicism. It can't be simple clumsiness. Maybe you can think of what it should be called ... better, at least, than I can. A passage like that makes my jaw drop. It leaves me more or less lost for words. Whatever it's called, this sort of writing has a peculiar nastiness about it, a kind of oblivious cruelty. It's not the sort of passage you'd look for from the high priestess of religion as compassion.

Or maybe it is.

28 comments:

Stephan Fowler said...

> I'm sure there's name for what Armstrong is doing here

How about: "bad faith."

Greywizard said...

Armstrong is doing the same thing to the victims of Nazism as so many religious are doing to those suffering as a result of the Haiti earthquake. She's using them, exploiting them for the sake of religious rhetoric. The Holocaust is not just an example. It really happened. Millions died. Nazi antisemitism is closely related to Christian antisemitism. The Holocaust was a massive pogrom. But what Armstrong is doing is using it - like she uses everything - as a backdrop for her simplistic theory of the nature of religion. Trouble is that, like all people who seem to think there's a grand overarching explanation for all this cruelty and suffering, Armstrong doesn't seem to realise that she's doing very much the same thing that Hitler was doing: making use of people, exploiting them and their suffering, for her own purposes, to buttress her own world view. The interesting thing is that Nietzsche didn't use people in that way. He condemned antisemitism, though he criticised Judaism and Christianity (quite perceptively) and any religion that subordinated the life of this world to the never never land of after life. But to Armstrong, he's just a counter too, something to be used to make her case for god.

NewEnglandBob said...

Armstrong's first mistake is calling atheism an ideology. Atheism is simply a lack of belief in deities. There are no 'truths' in atheism, either 'revealed' or otherwise. There are no common dogmas, no consensus on political issues and no organized structure. Armstrong is clueless, as usual.

valdemar said...

Perhaps she can be classed as a religious bigot who's learned how to use a thesaurus?

yashwata said...

I call it lying for God.

Justin said...

Yup, for its propaganda Nazism took what is could from literature, indifferent to context, from Nietzsche to Shakespeare to St. Paul.

But to your comment, Greywizard, that "Armstrong is doing the same thing to the victims of Nazism as so many religious are doing to those suffering as a result of the Haiti earthquake. She's using them, exploiting them for the sake of religious rhetoric." I'd point out that Blackford is doing the same thing - exploiting tragedy for the sake of his own rhetoric. Compared to Armstrong, his rhetoric has a different agenda, is more subtle , and is more appealing to those who are informed on certain aspects of history.

Chris Schoen said...

I do think this is a case of basic clumsiness, actually. Armstrong isn't always as precise as she should be, and she definitely nods. (In "The Battle for God" she wrote that 9/11 was the first time that the US had been attacked on its own soil, which makes you wince). But she's not engaging in "bad faith" here unless you think she really believes that Nietzsche and Hegel are to blame for National Socialism--or that Nietzsche was an antisemite. It's clear enough from her writing that she knows Nietzsche well enough not to fall for either of these canards.

It would have been better if she'd said that the Nazis selectively poached certain of Nietzsche's ideas, and warped them as needed to give their willy nilly ideology a philosophical sheen. It would have been even better still if she'd mentioned that Nazism was not consistently atheistic (though neither was it coherently theistic). But I think you are overdetermining Armstrong's point here. I don't read her as arguing that that Nietzsche was antisemitic, or would have supported a genocidal regime. I read her as arguing that notions like the ubermensch, the Will to Power, and "master" morality are easily exploited by the unsubtle cast of mind as rationalizing cruelty and self-aggrandizement, just as much as notions of religious righteousness have been exploited beyond their intent. It's an offhand comment, in a passage where she goes from Blake to Sartre in 3 pages, and perhaps she should have paid more mind to the way it would read to a general audience. But I don't think a thoughtful reading can take her to mean that Nietzsche was to blame for Nazism.

mace said...

From what I understand,Armstrong is an apologist for religion and basically using a tu quoque argument,ie atheists are just as nasty as the religiously deluded,so there!I have no idea how much the Nazis derived from Nietzche,however Armstrong seems to be attributing the blame for the Nazi atrocities to Nietzche's atheism rather than the Nazi religion itself.We surely can't blame dead philosophers for the actions of some later psychopaths,whether these are Nazis or Marxist-Leninists,after all Marxism was initially a humane ideology and look what happened.
The inner elite of the Nazis professed their own religion, quite distinct from standard Christianity.
To confuse the issue there are atheistic religions,for example,some Buddhists do not have a belief in a personal god,I wonder what Armstrong thinks of Buddhism,is she bashing atheists or defending religion?
I also suspect Communism was in fact a religion with the belief in 'History',its weakness was that its believers claimed to be able to deliver in this life,or a least later generations.
I've read extracts from Armstrong's work and she appears to be a skilled practictioner of 'begging the question',what else can she do given her thesis.

Michael said...

NewEnglandBob really nails it on the head. An atheistic ideology is a contradiction in terms. Atheism posits nothing and thus cannot be said to imply, drive, or otherwise support any particular action. One must fill the void with a separate set of ideals in order to move forward. And it is those that will or will not drive one to commit atrocities.

Svlad Cjelli said...

Nietzsche wasn't disgusted only by antisemitism, but also by nationalism, and even germans in general.

Emily (ex-Parrhesia) said...

Karen Armstrong is the real Dolores Umbridge: a mewling, soft and sweet marshmallow with a violently bitter, poison pill hidden in its centre.

Greywizard said...

Ah, Emily, that's what religion is like. It's all soft and sweet on the outside, all comfort and affirmation (the threats, remember, are always for others), but its heart is cold.

Justin said...

Look me in the eyes, Greywizard: Who hurt you?

Ophelia Benson said...

Oh, Justin - you probably think the answer is a sheepish 'Well no one really but...'

You couldn't possibly be more wrong.

Religions really do perpetrate real harms on real people. You never know when you might be talking to just such a person.

Ophelia Benson said...

Have a look at Eric MacDonald's 'Letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury' (the Archbishop read it and replied, by the way) for an answer to your rather impertinent question.

http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/articleprint.php?num=410

Theo Bromine said...

I see Armstrong's arguments as being borne of desperation. She is intelligent, perceptive, and compassionate enough to realize and acknowledge that religion (at least in some forms) is responsible for (or at least the proximate cause of) lots of evil and nastiness. Her 2-pronged attempt to rescue it consists of saying, on the one hand, that people who see these bad things as characteristic of religion are missing the True Essence (TM) of religion, and on the other hand that non-religious people/groups/movements do evil things too, so therefore the evil done in the name of religion is really not so bad. (I wonder what Armstrong's response is to Steven Weinberg's assertion that "for good people to do evil things, that takes religion")

Ophelia Benson said...

Now for the question about what makes this kind of writing so peculiarly nasty - I said some of this at Facebook - I think it's the combination of Armstrong's earnestly promoted reputation as 'the high priestess of religion as compassion' and the fact that she should know better and her repuation (among non-experts) as an expert. The three combined make her sloppiness and her obvious agenda peculiarly annoying. In other words she writes in a malicious way while wrapping herself in the flag of 'compassion' and overall Niceness. Madeleine Bunting does the same thing. It's a dodge particularly available to women - playing the fluffy bunny card - and I think they have a duty to avoid it. Armstrong is as combative as anyone, and she should simply own that.

steve said...

"Faith: not *wanting* to know what is true."
-- Friedrich Nietzsche

Maia said...

I would expect an individual of Karen Armstrong's intellect to misinterpret Nietzche's notions of the ubermensch. Her kind of ignorance is the reason Nietzsche wept.

Moses said...

So, she went to school with Jonah Goldberg...

Moses said...

In "The Battle for God" she wrote that 9/11 was the first time that the US had been attacked on its own soil, which makes you wince.

Wow. The War of 1812... She ever hear of that? Seriously, our god damn national anthem comes from a poem written during one of those "never been attacked" moments...

Or how about the surrender of Detroit to the British? The burning of Washington? The Battle of Bladenburg? Or the fact that we were getting our asses kicked by the British and by 1814 it looked like we were done for...?

Do any of these fools ever learn anything?

yashwata said...

Interesting. . . does she also think that "Bush kept us safe"?

Michael said...

Hell, Moses, I would just expect that she'd heard of Pearl Harbor!

Pierce R. Butler said...

As far as I'm aware, no Quaker has ever massacred helpless victims in a ditch or burned them alive, or tortured them with insanely cruel instruments.

Apparently you've never heard of a fellow named Richard M. Nixon, then. Just as well - he was a notably unpleasant person, prolonged contemplation of whom would surely produce sleep disturbances.

Russell Blackford said...

Okay, but Nixon didn't order war crimes in the name of Quakerism (or whatever the correct word is).

Pierce R. Butler said...

Please put the goalposts back where they were, thankewverymuch.

As for Armstrong - does she bother to point out that the Nazi concept of "Herrenvolk" was long preceded by some other group’s idea of "selected tribe" or "specially-picked-out persons" or something to that effect? A choice bit of cheap irony to be mined there, for those who so elect.

Richard said...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_Nazi_Germany

The seminal antisemitic author for Germany (aside from the Bible) is of course Luther. So the sentiment has existed in Xianity for a long time.

As for Nazism itself, it wouldn't have worked without the people. A population of Germans consisting of more than 90% Xians, mainly Protestants and Catholics.

Heather said...

I tend to agree partially with Chris Shoen regarding "I'm sure there's name for what Armstrong is doing here". I believe the term is "imprecise", perhaps, "lazy." It is hard to say out of context, but I think Armstrong has glossed over a passage that could have done with some editing to make clearer her intention.

However, I agree with your article as a whole, Russell. From my own (mostly) agnostic perspective, there has been as much drivel written on the one side as the other in regards to atrocity, and neither side can truthfully hold up the other as a single-minded example of "religion/atheism/nonreligion = nasty overarching works of human suffering."

It might be oversimplistic, but I think the real truth lies somewhere in the concept that "some people like to do bad shyte to others and in order to justify their control-freak behaviour they'll use any excuse they can get to do so without having to salve their consciences."

Stalin, Hitler and Pope Innocent III were three such people.

Occam's Razor has a lot going for it.