Tag Archives: Richard Dawkins

Xenu Bunnies & Pagan Easter

While I am not a fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s brand of popular science, I can certainly appreciate his good, and no doubt lucrative, works. These works sometimes require him to critique religion, which he does in a such an easygoing and avuncular manner that it barely registers. If the goal is persuasion, this seems a more effective approach than throwing atheist firebombs and telling religionists they are delusional. Gentle corrosion is, over the long term, more effective than aggressive confrontation. Consider this contrast as it applies to cars: oxidation is barely noticeable but will eventually result in disappearance. The aphorism here might be steel to rust and rust to dust. Crashes, on the other hand, just result in cars that limp along or sit in the salvage yard without disappearing. Although deGrasse Tyson has suggested something along these lines to Richard Dawkins, the latter still prefers the thrill of demolition derbies.

There are times, however, when even deGrasse Tyson cannot resist. Consider this response to a question from The Daily Beast:

Interviewer: I’m curious what your take on Scientology is, because the intergalactic story of Xenu does encroach on your territory a bit.

deGrasse Tyson: So, you have people who are certain that a man in a robe transforms a cracker into the literal body of Jesus saying that what goes on in Scientology is crazy?

True though this may be, it is a bit out of character for deGrasse Tyson. What follows at this later point in the interview is more characteristic:

Interviewer: The HBO documentary “Going Clear” essentially argues that Scientology shouldn’t be granted tax-exempt status as a religion.

deGrasse Tyson: But why aren’t they a religion? What is it that makes them [not] a religion and others are religions? If you attend a Seder, there’s an empty chair sitting right there and the door is unlocked because Elijah might walk in. OK. These are educated people who do this. Now, some will say it’s ritual, some will say it could literally happen. But religions, if you analyze them, who is to say that one religion is rational and another isn’t? It looks like the older those thoughts have been around, the likelier it is to be declared a religion. If you’ve been around 1,000 years you’re a religion, and if you’ve been around 100 years, you’re a cult. That’s how people want to divide the kingdom. Religions have edited themselves over the years to fit the times, so I’m not going to sit here and say Scientology is an illegitimate religion and other religions are legitimate religions. They’re all based on belief systems. Look at Mormonism! There are ideas that are as space-exotic within Mormonism as there are within Scientology, and it’s more accepted because it’s a little older than Scientology is, so are we just more accepting of something that’s older?

As the sociologist Rodney Stark often observes in his work on what makes some religions successful and others not, this is only partially correct. It is not just antiquity or age that determines whether a new religion is accepted. While time depth certainly enables selective forgetting and remembering, both of which contribute to mythmaking, the key is that the new religion must be an offshoot of something older: it should build on that which has gone before. If the originators handle things properly, they will construct their religion on an already accepted tradition and then transform it. This is precisely what happened within the Abrahamic line: Judaism begat Christianity which begat Mormonism. Joseph Smith, in stark contrast to L. Ron Hubbard, intuitively understood the need not to start from scratch and craft a religion from whole new cloth, or Xenu scrap paper. This explains why today there are over 6,000,000 Mormons and less than 50,000 Scientologists. It also explains why the former is sometimes called a “sect” and the latter is often labeled a “cult.”

Christianity, for its antiquarian part, is not just or merely an offshoot of Judaism. During the centuries long course of its early development, Christianity assimilated various aspects of Greek philosophy and adopted all manner of pagan rituals. While Saturnalia-Christmas is the most famous example of this (a fact, by the way, which caused the Puritans to ban Christmas celebrations between 1659 and 1681), Easter is in a similar egg basket. Over at The Conversation, Professor Rod Blackhurst observes:

For a start, the word itself, “Easter”, is usually regarded as being derived from Anglo-Saxon forms such as “Estara” or “Ostara” (and cognates) associated with a dawn goddess and common spring festivals celebrated in the British Isles and Northern Europe long before Christianity. According to some, those associations extend back to the Babylonian deity Astarte.

More obviously, the ubiquitous egg given as a gift (or munched as a chocolate indulgence) at Easter is a widely employed fertility symbol that signals the rebirth of vegetation and the end of animal hibernation after the northern hemisphere’s winter. (If you tend backyard chickens, as I do, you’d understand.)

There is certainly nothing Christian about the Easter egg; it is pre-Christian and, more to the point, pagan in its history and its associations. That the Easter festival has pre-Christian, pagan layers of symbolism, therefore, I regard as an incontestable fact, but it seems that even such a “given” can be contested and can upset some people; such is the nature of religion, a field of cherished certainties.

There are many who revel in these sorts of facts and associations because they apparently undermine the alleged originality and purity of Christianity. This is certainly one way of looking at things (and I confess to so looking at them when the argumentative need arises), but there is another way of looking which relates to my earlier point about pragmatism in constructing a religion. Professor Blackhurst explains:

[These pagan elements do not] detract from Christianity – on the contrary, [they] can and should be seen as a part of the accumulated richness of the Christian tradition. When Christianity moved into pagan regions – especially in Europe – it would sometimes adopt the tactic of ruthlessly eradicating the existing religious culture. More often, though, it took the more pragmatic and compassionate approach of absorbing and adapting pagan rites, sites and institutions wherever they were not entirely inimical to the Christian spirit.

Rather than being manically hostile to all things pre-Christian, many of the wisest figures in Christian ideas – St Augustine is a conspicuous example – took the view that the pagan religions had, in their way, prepared the ground for Christ and that Christianity was not so much a replacement for paganism but a fulfilment of it. In this way local pagan deities became Christian saints and Christian churches were built on pagan sacred sites. It was not so much a matter of invasion and eradication as a matter of adoption and conversion.

The same held true for festivals and holy days. Christmas and Easter are obvious instances. Both are cases where Christ has been assimilated to aspects of pre-Christian solar worship and the mythos of the dying and reborn sun that is a guiding reality in the life of any agricultural people.

Christmas was assimilated with Yule and related festivals at mid-winter and Easter was assimilated with festivals celebrating the rebirth of sun in the spring. In doing this Christianity showed itself to be not some new, freakish creed from the Middle-East, but rather the fulfilment of great spiritual traditions extending back to the dawn of history. Appreciating the pagan assimilations of Christianity enriches the Christian tradition; denying them impoverishes it.

To show that Easter or some other aspect of the Christian tradition has pagan or pre-Christian roots only demonstrates the wealth of the tradition. Living traditions are always like that. They soak up what came before them. Buddhism did much the same in its spread through Asia. Even Islam, for all its official hostility to pagan idolatry, soaked up, absorbed and assimilated, much of pre-Islamic Arab customs. The sacred month of Ramadan was celebrated long before Muhammad.

We should not be surprised that this is the case. Religious traditions never enjoy a tabula rasa. They are at their most destructive and self-defeating when they deny all that came before them.

These points are well-taken, though another should be added to Blackhurst’s somewhat celebratory essay. Religions are also destructive when, having assimilated that which came before, they declare an end or closure to the tradition. When they deny or exclude everything that comes after (as nearly all of them do), they tend to get aggressive, destructive, and downright ugly, sort of like Donnie Darko.


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Ungodly Science: Dawkins

Since we are on the subject of John Gray, let’s look at his most recent review: a withering attack on arch-atheist Richard Dawkins. The occasion for this lambasting, which assumes the form of a book review, is Dawkins’ self-important and yawn-inducing autobiography, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist. So it’s not like Dawkins wasn’t asking for it, but I wonder whether the review (“The Closed Mind of Richard Dawkins”) is entirely fair. Though I am ignorant of such matters, I sense a sub-current of sneering British politics or classicism running throughout. Some fairness might have been achieved had Gray observed that there are three incarnations of Richard Dawkins and each deserves to be evaluated independently. By treating Dawkins as a seamless and ungodly whole, the good gets swamped by the bad and we lose valuable context.

The first Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and science writer. This Dawkins has performed many valuable services, even if the particulars of his selfish-gene case are the subject of major scientific dispute. Disputes are the stuff of science and the ensuing debates over genes, functions or purpose, and levels of selection have been invigorating and healthy. And popular science books like The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution are just splendid, indeed masterful. It would be churlish not to acknowledge and applaud these contributions to the larger culture.

The second Dawkins is the scourge of creationists and religious fundamentalists of all stripes. I don’t have a problem with this Dawkins, though I doubt he has persuaded fervent believers of their cognitive errors. To the surely limited extent that books like The God Delusion have converted any of them, then more power to Dawkins. In religiously bizarre places like the United States, where 150 million people are creationists, someone has to get down in the cultural gutter for these kinds of fights. But those who do so run a risk: combat with zealots can lead to zealotry. As Nietzsche once observed in a different context, those who stare long into the abyss should be wary of the abyss staring back. Confrontations with creationists may have similar effects.

This brings us to the third Dawkins, the one with whom I do have a problem. We can get a sense for this Dawkins, overweened on science, in books like The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True. What’s really true – or the nature and structure of “reality” – is a difficult philosophical problem, cosmological conundrum, and open scientific question. While some skepticism and modesty is surely in order when it comes to subjects like this, Dawkins has no doubts. And it is on this issue that Gray, who is also an atheist, blasts Dawkins:

[I]t is Dawkins’s identification with Darwin that is most incongruous. No two minds could be less alike than those of the great nineteenth-century scientist and the latter-day evangelist for atheism. Hesitant, doubtful, and often painfully perplexed, Darwin understood science as an empirical investigation in which truth is never self-evident and theories are always provisional. If science, for Darwin, was a method of inquiry that enabled him to edge tentatively and humbly toward the truth, for Dawkins, science is an unquestioned view of the world. The Victorians are often mocked for their supposed certainties, when in fact many of them (Darwin not least) were beset by anxieties and uncertainties. Dawkins, by contrast, seems never to doubt for a moment the capacity of the human mind—his own, at any rate—to resolve questions that previous generations have found insoluble.

For all his fervent enthusiasm for science, Dawkins shows very little interest in asking what scientific knowledge is or how it comes to be possible. There are many philosophies of science. Among them is empiricism, which maintains that scientific knowledge extends only so far as observation and experiment can reach; realism, which holds that science can give an account of parts of the world that can never be observed; irrealism, according to which there is no one truth of things to which scientific theories approximate; and pragmatism, which views science theories as useful tools for organizing and controlling experience. If he is aware of these divergent philosophies, Dawkins never discusses them. His attitude to science is that of a practitioner who does not need to bother with philosophical questions.

It is worth noting, therefore, that it is not as a practicing scientist that Dawkins has produced his assaults against religion. As he makes clear in this memoir, he gave up active research in the 1970s when he left his crickets behind and began to write The Selfish Gene. Ever since, he has written as an ideologue of scientism, the positivistic creed according to which science is the only source of knowledge and the key to human liberation. He writes well—fluently, vividly, and at times with considerable power. But the ideas and the arguments that he presents are in no sense novel or original, and he seems unaware of the critiques of positivism that appeared in its Victorian heyday.

[Evangelical Atheism] testifies to how shallow, crass, and degraded the debate has become since Victorian times. Unlike most of those who debated then, Dawkins knows practically nothing of the philosophy of science, still less about theology or the history of religion. From his point of view, he has no need to know. He can deduce everything he wants to say from first principles. Religion is a type of supernatural belief, which is irrational, and we will all be better off without it: for all its paraphernalia of evolution and memes, this is the sum total of Dawkins’s argument for atheism.

This is admittedly harsh, perhaps even intemperate, but it rings true. John Gray, for his part, is not without his foibles, particularly his promiscuous penchant for calling just about everything – political movements, social formations, and various worldviews – “religion.” This conceptual categorization could be useful, if well-argued, but simply labeling Dawkins’ atheism “its own kind of narrow religion” is in no way helpful or enlightening. While I find much that is valuable in Gray, particularly a healthy skepticism toward blind-secular faith in progress, we can and should interrogate him on these matters. But those are posts for another day, when I complete the series on Progress.


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Orthodoxy and Atheism

Over at The Atlantic, Emma Green bemoans the “intellectual snobbery” of New Atheists. While evangelical atheists certainly have their issues, including overconfidence and myopia, snobbery is not so damning. When viewed from certain perspectives, intellectualism often comes off as snobbish. Green’s critique would have been more apt had she properly diagnosed the issue as “intellectual banality.” This is the primary affliction of New Atheism.

Because New Atheists are locked into discursive binaries of belief/unbelief and wage their culture wars inside a Christian or theist box, they have an unfortunate penchant for dogmatism and orthodoxy. When your opponents define the terms of the debate, you play on their field. When your opponents are dogmatic, you become like them. The two sides are distorting mirrors in this confined dialectic.

If you play these dogmatic games long enough, there will likely be a spillover effect. There is indeed evidence of such an effect and in this case “snobbery” is the correct term. Back in December, science writer David Dobbs published an Aeon essay (“Die, Selfish Gene, Die”) interrogating Richard Dawkins’ famous metaphor and asking whether it should be modified or retired. It was a provocative essay, and while I did not agree with all or even most of it, I shared it with several anthropologists and scientists who also enjoyed it. It proved well worthy of a several-beer discussion.

There things stood until I recently learned that Dobbs’ essay was savaged by some who see themselves as “Third Culture” enforcers of scientific orthodoxy. That they see themselves this way is not surprising, given that the savagers (Pinker-Coyne-Dawkins) are prime New Atheist players. It’s unfortunate when their dogmatism spills over and devolves into science snobbery. Dobbs, a well-respected writer who has done much for popular science, deserves better.

What we are witnessing here is an ironic inversion of the ressentiment which Nietzsche saw as a character defect, or psychological weakness, giving rise to metaphysical yearnings and moral absolutism. It’s not surprising, and indeed is a predictable consequence, that some New Atheists should take on these characteristics. When you wrestle with smelly theist monsters, the dogmatic stink will slough onto you.



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Ignoble Savages & Napoleon Chagnon

When I first began studying anthropology it was de rigueur to have an opinion about Napoleon Chagnon and his work on the Yanomamo. We couldn’t just read Yanomamo: The Fierce People and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of his theory and approach. We couldn’t just debate the ethnography for what it was or was not. Instead, we were invited to stake out a position that mirrored the tendentious and political debates that swirled around Chagnon. It was, on the whole, a shameful affair that discredited most who were involved. Incredibly, Chagnon still rouses ideological passions among (mostly older) anthropologists.

In the long meantime, those of us who don’t buy into the false dichotomies of culture-biology, nature-nurture, and science-humanities have assimilated Chagnon’s work and moved far beyond those unproductive debates. Yet there are still flareups, the most recent occasioned by Chagnon’s Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes — The Yanomamo and the Anthropologists (2013) and his election to the National Academy of Sciences. The latter prompted another well-known anthropologist, Marshall Sahlins, to resign from the Academy. While the older generation continues to play personal and political games, a younger generation makes four-field anthropology an altogether more vibrant and hospitable place.

Lost in all this stale sturm und drang is Chagnon’s actual work, which was the subject of a recent online symposium hosted by Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham, and Daniel Dennett. This is a fairly distinguished group and they engage Chagnon with the respect he deserves. It is odd, however, that these scholars apparently operate on the mistaken assumption that the Yanomamo are “primitive” exemplars of our evolutionary past. At the outset, Dawkins implies that the Yanomamo were somehow frozen in time or outside of history:

Chagnon came along at just the right time for the Yanomamö and for scientific anthropology. Encroaching civilisation was about to close the last window on a tribal world that embodied vanishing clues to our own prehistory: a world of forest “gardens”, of kin-groups fissioning into genetically salient sub-groups, of male combat over women and trans-generational revenge, complex alliances and enmities; webs of calculated obligation, debt, grudge and gratitude that might underlie much of our social psychology and even law, ethics and economics.

This is a classic example of gradistic thinking when it comes to culture. As an evolutionary biologist, Dawkins should know better. As a matter of cladistic principle, all peoples and cultures are equally evolved. Appropriately enough for someone attuned to symbols and ideas, the linguist Daniel Everett catches this error and comments:

I could not disagree more with the idea that, to quote Richard Dawkins’s remarks at the outset, that what Chagnon has given us through his work is a “human tribe which probably ran as close to the cutting edge of natural selection as any in the world.” No people show us the effects of human evolution more than any other group.

The Yanomamö have had outside contact for centuries (in fact, their main food staples, bananas and plaintains originated in India and they eschew the main indigenous plant of Amazonia, manioc (also known as cassava). That is, even in their basic food choices the Yanomamö show the results of centuries of interaction with other societies just like all other groups on earth. In fact, the Yanomamö are strikingly sophisticated technologically, making an array of decorative and functional objects, including their xaponos—the unusually shaped group houses that Chagnon has made famous in his writings and films.

Everett is here alluding to R. Brian Ferguson’s compelling scholarship showing that the Yanomamo not only have a history, but that this history is in no small part the product of a long transformational process involving expanding empires and states. Unlike anthropologists who denounce Chagnon for political or personal reasons, Ferguson engages Chagnon in a scholarly manner (i.e., on the relative merits of the case).

In Yanomami Warfare: A Political History, Ferguson provides alternative explanations for the violence that Chagnon undoubtedly observed and meticulously chronicled. Ferguson has also published a series of open access articles on the same subject, with the gist of his argument being presented in “A Savage Encounter: Western Contact and the Yanomami War Complex” (open). It is also worth noting that Ferguson has ably dissected Steven Pinker’s progressivist argument that “primitive” violence was more prevalent in our prehistoric past. For those interested in the Whiggish ways Pinker massages his numbers to make modernity look so angelic, these skeptics have the scoop.

All this aside, the Chagnon symposium is worth a long (and critical) look.



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Contra Scientism

Few things are more tedious than the shrill and narrow-minded insistence that science is the Arbiter with the Answers. When I read scientists who grossly overestimate their abilities and are blind to the limitations of science, I cringe. Inside their meta-scientific box, everything makes sense in a tautological and clumsy way. Such thinking generates artificial clarity and feels robotic; it lacks what I would call suppleness and openness. I alluded to this the other day in my post on Pyrrhonian skepticism.

The world would be a better place if Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, and their ilk immersed themselves in this methodological and non-mystical bath. Because they don’t strike me as the types who can do this (and aren’t inclined to read Nietzsche with either understanding or appreciation), they will have to be satisfied with Austin Hughes’ New Atlantis essay on “The Folly of Scientism.”

But this won’t work either. Why? Because it is a counter-polemic to people who specialize in polemics. It fights the battle on their turf. When the blind don’t know they are blind, or refuse to acknowledge their lack of insight, this will never work.

Once you’ve made up your mind that something is or is not the case, you have closed off all further investigation and obliged yourself to defend that position dogmatically. It’s ironic that scientists would take a position so antithetical to science, which at its best is open-ended inquiry into things that are subject to constant revision.

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Terry Eagleton on Political Religion

One of my favorite recollections from an exuberant time at Duke in the company of Frederic Jameson, Stanley Fish, Eve Sedgewick, and a host of other enfants terribles associated with Marxism, criticism, and postmodernism was discovering Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory (1982). It remains one of my favorite books. When I first read it, I didn’t know that Eagleton’s interests extend far beyond literature, though if I had read more attentively this would have been apparent. He’s an interesting guy, whether he is skewering Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion or dreaming about the possibility of an alliance between leftist-politics and progressive Christianity. Eagleton recently spoke to the Oxonian about the latter:

So do you think there might be potential in an alliance between religion and left politics?

In a sense, you might almost say that’s been the theme of my intellectual career. It’s not always obvious to me or to anybody else for that matter. But of course I started, when I was at Cambridge, as a left-wing Catholic in the heady days of the Vatican Council. And I suppose what you might call “political Christianity” has run as a kind of subcurrent beneath my work. It’s now come to the surface, and there were times, particularly in what you might call my Althusserian phase, when it wasn’t so obvious.

Lots of people would see a contradiction between Marxism and Catholicism, for example…

Well, I’m not sure I would talk about myself as a Roman Catholic. I was brought up in that culture, and it is a culture. That’s one of the attractive things about it. You know, you meet a Catholic from Korea or somewhere, and you share an enormous amount of things in common. It’s like being a Jew, in that sense. I have no truck with the Vatican and all that kind of stuff. But I suppose it’s a certain theological mainstream that interests me, and the political implications of such. And of course that’s been coming much to the fore in the past few years. If you think of the number of agnostic and very theistic leftists from Agamben and Zizek to Habermas and Badiou, who have been raising theological themes, it’s very much part of the zeitgeist.

Because modern politics amounts to a kind of religion, such an alliance would seem natural. Unfortunately for leftist-progressives, the kinds of alliances we are likely to see, and indeed already see, are rather unholy.

Eagleton & Utopia Intersection

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Hitler’s Faith & Nazi Religion

What did the Nazis believe about religion? Simply asking the question suggests some difficulties. “The Nazis” implies a homogenous group with clearly articulated and uniformly held positions. There were of course many different kinds of Nazis who held diverse and changing views on everything. The only common and consistent thread seems to have been racial ideology. When it came to issues other than politics, Nazis weren’t well known for systematic thinking. On the issue of religion, this lack of clarity continues to exorcize historians and pundits.

Just last week, Richard Dawkins debated Cardinal George Pell in another installment of the interminable debates which convince atheists that atheism is best and theists that theism is best. Pell, on par for the theist course, argued that atheism leads to bad things like Hitler and the Nazis. Dawkins responded by observing that Hitler wasn’t an atheist.

This exchange, unenlightening though it was, at least generated useful commentary by an historian familiar with the debates about Nazis and religion. He notes that scholars are of three schools of thought: (1) the Nazis were neo-pagans, (2) Naziism was a political religion, or (3) Nazis were peculiar Christians. Based on everything I’ve read over the years, all three descriptions seem to be correct — they aren’t mutually exclusive. Hitler himself admired the Catholic Church and used it as a model for his own movement.

One thing is clear: Hitler wasn’t an atheist and almost no Nazis were. However idiosyncratic, Hitler clearly had creationist ideas:

Hitler argued for a critical review of the Bible, to discover what sections met an “Aryan” spirit. In these same notes, he took a “biogenetic” history as the main biblical emphasis, arguing that original sin was solely racial degeneration – sin against the blood. He also argued in favour of the notion of a creator, a deity whose work was nature and natural laws, conflating God and nature to the extent that they became one and the same thing. This again came back to race, and meant that he argued in Mein Kampf that one could not avoid the “commands” of “eternal nature” or the “Almighty Creator”: “in that I defend myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”

For theists this sort of thing is best ignored, as is the fact that 99% of Germans were avowed Christians during the Nazi era. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this debate is its relationship to evolution. Aside from mistakenly believing that Nazis were atheists, most theists assume that the Nazis were Darwinian evolutionists. They weren’t.

As Coel Hellier documents in this superb post, Nazi racial ideology was religious, creationist, and opposed to evolution. After an extensive examination of Nazi ideas, Hellier concludes:

The main ideas of Darwinism are that natural selection, operating over lengthy time periods, can cause species to transform into other species, and that all modern mammals descend from a common ancestor. Both of these notions the Nazis explicitly rejected, finding them abhorrent, materialistic notions that would strip man of his soul and of his special status. The Nazis preferred, as do many other religious people, to see man as God’s special creation. It was seeing, in particular, the Aryan race as “God’s handiwork” that led the Nazis to consider it sinful to allow the destruction of the Aryan race by allowing racial inter-marriage, and hence the necessity for removing the possibility by finding a “final solution” to the “Jewish problem.”

Thus nothing in Nazi ideology derives from Darwinism. The few aspects in common were pre-Darwinian; the ideas that originated with Darwin were anathema to and rejected by the Nazis. The widespread blaming of Darwinism as an inspiration for Nazi crimes has no support in historical evidence and instead derives purely from a desire on the part of the religious to smear Darwinism.

The labeling of the Nazis as “atheistic” is similarly motivated and is also the exact opposite of what the evidence says. The Nazi ideology was theistic and religious and an offshoot of Christianity, merging Christianity with Nazi racial theory. It is true that the Nazified Christianity was opposed to more mainstream Christian views, and thus that the Nazis wanted radical reform of the Christian religion, but in no sense was it “atheistic.”

It would be splendid if, before the next debate, the theist representative would read Hellier’s piece and leave the Hitler-Nazi-atheist canard out of it.

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