Online contention between religious believers and unbelievers often centers on wars and violence. Anti-religious skeptics point to Islamist terrorism, the Crusades and the hundreds of victims of the Inquisition (which lasted from the 12th century to the early 19th). In response, believers point to the scores of millions killed by militantly atheistic regimes in such places as Russia, Albania, China and Cuba — murders that, like those committed earlier in the French Revolution, were often explicitly motivated by hostility to religion.
Commonly mentioned in such debates is “Godwin’s Law.” Formulated in 1990 by the American attorney and writer Mike Godwin, this “law” isn’t, as many mistakenly believe it to be, a rule somehow prohibiting comparisons to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Rather, it’s a prediction. Said Godwin, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1” — that is, if an online disagreement (whatever its topic) lasts long enough, one party to the disagreement will eventually compare the other party to Hitler or the Nazis.
Godwin’s Law draws its force from the fact that, quite understandably for most people, Hitler and the Nazis represent the worst kind of human evil. Thus, successfully linking one’s opponent in a dispute to Nazism can (supposedly) yield a decisive victory.
Not surprisingly, therefore, Hitler and the Nazis frequently appear in arguments over religious and irreligious violence. This isn’t merely a historical debate; it’s a lively issue in ongoing disputes.
Many theists claim that, like Stalin and Mao, Hitler was an atheist. Thus, they insist, his genocidal murders must be added to atheism’s overall death toll. Not so, counter the atheists. Not only was Hitler raised an Austrian Catholic, but he often declared his belief in God and even called himself a Christian. His persecution of the Jews, they say, was simply an extreme continuation of Christian anti-Semitism, of hating “the Jews” for killing Jesus.
The theists reply that Hitler’s occasional “Christian” rhetoric was just a savvy politician’s attempt to win over a largely religious populace. Privately, Hitler denied the existence of a personal God, rejected the concept of an individual afterlife, mocked Christian morality and sought to damage and, in the long term, to destroy the churches.
In fact, Hitler was a supremely cunning demagogue who routinely lied, and his record is mixed. However, Richard Weikart has recently published what is almost certainly the most sustained and exhaustive study of “Hitler’s Religion,” coming to a clear conclusion that seems to account for all the historical data.
Hitler, Weikart argues in “Hitler’s Religion: The Twisted Beliefs that Drove the Third Reich” (Regnery History, 2016), was neither an atheist nor a Christian. His hatred of the Jews bears little or no resemblance to historical Christian anti-Semitism. Rather, it was based on certain strains of contemporary “science.” Nor, for that matter, despite some claims, was he a Germanic pagan or an occultist. Some prominent Nazis cultivated astrology and occultism, while some even sought to revive the pre-Christian Germanic religion of the high god Odin or Wotan. But Hitler himself disdained such things as unscientific.
Instead, Hitler was deeply devoted to the outdoors and to Nature (with a capital “N”), to which he referred using language that theists typically reserve for deity. The term that seems best to describe his view, contends Weikart, is “pantheism,” a doctrine that identifies God with the universe. “For Hitler,” Weikart concludes, “God was Nature.”
He was also devoted to science, as he understood it. Specifically, he was a follower of “social Darwinism.” From the Darwinian principle of “natural selection,” he deduced that the supreme law of Nature (and, thus, in Hitler’s view, of “the Lord”) is the survival of the fittest. All of life is a struggle in which superior animals — including the best of them, humans (and specifically “Aryan” or Germanic humans) — have the right and even the moral duty to eliminate or enslave “inferior” animals (including “lesser races” of humans).
From this understanding flowed the Nazi extermination camps (which engaged not only in the wholesale murder of such ethnic groups as Jews, Slavs and Romas, also know as Gypsies, but the destruction of children with disabilities), the forced sterilization of “defective” people, incentive programs to encourage high German birthrates, lack of interest in hospital care for the chronically ill and the Nazi glorification of war as something good for its own sake.
In Hitler’s mind, his actions were dictated by science and ruthless logic.
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.