Friday, November 04, 2005

Michael Burleigh and Religion

Are communism and Nazism religions? To many of the more intellectually challenged atheists, the answer is yes. After all, they are bad things and all bad things are religious. Usually, they are explaining why atheism has never harmed anyone while religion has killed millions. They will claim that any ideology that demands adherence unto death and makes people behave badly is a religion. Don't believe me? Here's a couple of letters from a recent edition of the Guardian supplied by a correspondent:

Marxist communism is a classic religion. It is structured like the Catholic church, it has schisms and sects (its more devout followers read selected
texts by Trotsky, Mao, Lenin or Stalin), and it is a "holy cause" for which
the true believers have the right to kill the unbelievers (like the kulaks).
Incidentally, Bertrand Russell was the first to point this out.

George Monbiot refers to Stalin as a non-religious man. He forgets
that Stalin was trained as a priest in a seminary for some years. His later
activities fall well within the scope of George's arguments on faith.
Of course, the argument is rather silly and best ignored. But, a slightly different alternative is worth pursuing.

In his book The Third Reich: A New History, Michael Burleigh calls Nazism a "political religion". I think his choice of words is unfortunate but his point is the opposite of the Guardian letter writers. What he meant was that Nazism was a substitute for religion. Burleigh actually thinks traditional religion is generally a good thing. But it is also necessary part of being human and when you get rid of it and replace it with a political ideology, you can get into big trouble. His new book, Earthly Powers, takes the story back to the Enlightenment. He shows how enlightened men, trying to replace old superstition with reason, invariably produced something much worse. Some of the efforts were cringe-worthy and Burleigh is quite happy to treat them with a little contempt. Others were disastrous - especially the cult of reason foisted on the French by the Jacobins who then slaughtered anyone who wouldn't play ball. Today's militant secularists are harmless but they should not be allowed to forget their history. It is not one of science defeating religion or rationalists defeating superstition. It is mainly rather an embarrassing tale of earnest people with absolutely no sense of how stupid they are going to look. The more serious strand of Burleigh's story is about ideologies like communism that have successfully replaced religions and then caused unprecedented death and destruction.

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