The Pope’s comments associating Atheism and Nazism, delivered during his recent trip to the UK, have sparked some controversy from the non-believing community. “As we reflect on the sobering lessons of atheist extremism of the 20th century,” the Pope said, “let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus a reductive vision of a person and his destiny.” Not surprisingly, his statement has been earned rebuke by outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins who called the Pope’s comment a “Despicable outrage”. However, when one examines the offending comment, the Pontiff was not completely out of bounds.
Communism and Fascism were both ideologies that arose as new orders within what was believed would become a world without a transcendent God. Their founding philosophers, Karl Marx and Giovanni Gentile respectively, were militant atheists who believed that the future would be created by the scientific manipulation of society. While Marxism was overtly Atheist, Fascism –both in Italy and Nazi Germany– was considerably more opportunistic when it came to faith. While Fascism may not historically appear to be overtly Atheistic, make no mistake about it, it was.
Atheists who believe in the concept of liberty must accept the fact that there is a contradiction that exists within their belief system (unless of course you’re an Objectivist). The concept of natural rights contends that man’s rights originate from a place beyond the institutions of men. Without some form of transcendent entity or concept, the idea of natural rights (also known as “self-evident” or “God-given” rights) becomes more difficult –although by no means impossible– to explain. This being said, Atheists can embrace liberty like a person of any religious stripe, chalking up natural rights to “one of the mysteries of the Universe” if they so choose.
Of course the Pope was not making disparaging remarks about atheists per say. The way Dawkins represents the comment, you would believe that the Pontiff had declared the all Atheists were Nazi’s. A more fair and reasonable account of the statement reveals that he was making an observation about the introduction of faithlessness as a guiding social tenet. His conclusion that governments and ideologies not built on faith tend to have a “truncated vision of man and of society” is on target, as they tend to view the individual not as an end unto himself, but rather as a means to some greater social end. Under such a government, the state without fail engages in excesses, without regard to individual rights.
Unfortunately, such a defense of “faith in government” is often taken as advocacy of theocracy, which couldn’t be further from my intention. To be sure, government based specifically on tenets of Religion tend to be just as dangerous, as the individual becomes a means to some theological end, rather than an end unto himself.
Richard Dawkins is undoubtedly an intelligent individual, but his outrage over the Pope’s statement appears more like the outrage of a man defending his faith against an attack than it does a rational exploration of history and political philosophy.