Plato’s suggestions

readingsOur regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

The perfect Republican stump speech for the 2016 election, at the least according to Republican speechwriter Barton Swaim, who was commissioned to do this by Project 538.

Carol Rovane attempts to present a reasonable version of moral relativism. I think the article starts out well, and then goes horribly horribly wrong.

Scientific American’s John Horgan didn’t like Jerry Coyne’s latest book on science and religion.

Rebecca Goldstein reviews the new Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, according to which the Greeks pretty much invented atheism.

Philosophy saved Andy West from poverty and drugs, and that’s why he teaches it to kids.

121 thoughts on “Plato’s suggestions

  1. SocraticGadfly

    Sidebar to what I said above. Europe has seen a definite rise in neopagan belief. And, in one case, not even “neo” pagan.

    Lithuania, which in late medieval times included most of today’s “Baltic States,” was the last area of Europe to be Christianized (not counting the fringes of southern and eastern European Russia, where the Russians had not yet conquered — although both Jacobite Christianity and Manicheanism were established in central Asia until at least the time of the breakup of the great Mongol khanate).

    And, paganism — not a modern, arguably artificial, made-up neopaganism, but paganism with direct links to the past — has been reported as being an element in Lithuania becoming the first of the “SSRs” to break with the Soviet Union.

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  2. SocraticGadfly

    Another issue at hand is, per our old friend David Hume, the “is/ought” issue. No matter what one things of organized religion, or more general metaphysical belief systems, the “is” on the ground is that humans, for a variety of reasons, in general have a strong hold on large parts of the world.

    And, as I noted, Europe, while certainly less Christian than the US (Canada about halfway in between, and Australia about the same), is by no means religion-free.

    That said, European rates of Christian belief closely tracked those in the US until after World War II.

    World War II isn’t evolution or something like that. So, different takes on science didn’t precipitate the change in belief levels.

    Rather, per what I mentioned above about “security” being one issue that religion seems to offer to people, a reasonable explanation would be that it had lost that explanatory power.

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  3. Coel

    Hi Socratic,

    I also find it “interesting” that a physicist can so ignore facts on the ground at times.

    Don’t you think it’s unfair tactics to make accusations like this and yet refuse to give a link to what you’re talking about?

    I’m NOT going back to Sci Sal, Coel; I called you out on this at the time and you refused to respond.

    Err, ditto. Don’t you think it’s unfair tactics to make accusations like this and yet refuse to give a link to what you’re talking about? If you don’t want to re-hash it then why bring it up? Cheap shots?

    You really are very bad at supporting your claims with quotes and links and evidence. Perhaps a little more intellectual integrity might be a good thing?

    Beyond Massimo’s podcast, religion has certainly been a boon to the arts and the artistic imagination over the centuries.

    Certainly? Or did they just have the money to commission it? (Having stolen it off the peasantry.)

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  4. Coel

    Hi Massimo,

    So the issue under discussion should be whether religion — within the context of a secular society (meaning a non theocratic one) — does more good than bad.

    Yes, a good question. Though, if you restrict the question to secular non-theocracies, then you’ve already neutered 95% of religion’s capacity to do harm. Indeed, the whole point of church-state separation is that religion has way too much potential for harm to allow it to be entwined with state power.

    But, I agree with you, if we restrict to non-theocracies then it’s hard to find good evidence that religion — in such situations — is overall harmful. There simply haven’t been enough control experiments to tell, given how diverse human cultures have been.

    Which means that sweeping statements a la Coyne et al. are simply unsubstantiated by the evidence. Which, for an allegedly evidence-based community, represents a pretty black mark, in my opinion.

    If we’re maintaining standards by demanding evidence, shouldn’t we also maintain standards by asking for example quotes of “sweeping statements a la Coyne et al” that we may be attacking? 😉

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  5. labnut

    Coel,
    Perhaps a little more intellectual integrity might be a good thing?

    I have had many occasions to disagree with Gadfly but never could I accuse him of lacking intellectual integrity. Saying that is perhaps one step too far.

    Reasonable people can reasonably disagree and such disagreements can be a fruitful way of both learning and sharpening our arguments.

    I have watched with growing astonishment the many allegations of Hitler’s religiosity! My reaction is that in matters of history one should consult good historians just as in matters of astronomy one should should consult good astronomers. I have done that(I am a keen reader of history) and must confess I am flabbergasted by the vast gap between what good historians say and what I see being alleged in this discussion. I feel as though I have entered an alternative universe where up is down.

    Please read more and consult good historians.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. SocraticGadfly

    One other note. Let’s remember that Atran, Boyer, et al, are discussing “religion” and not “Western monotheism” / “Abrahamitic religion,” which seems to draw almost all the fire of Gnu Atheists and other anti-religion folks.

    I think Wiki’s numbers are definitely too high on “Chinese folk religions,” especially if it’s listing Taoism separately. And, I think it’s somewhat too low on Buddhism. It also ignores “indigenous religion” for the most part, outside of China.

    I think that there’s still a lot of indigenous religion in sub-Saharan Africa, for example. Some, more than what’s listed, in southeast Asia. And, let’s not forget Siberia, central Asia and the New World.

    But this link gives us a starting point. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Major_religious_groups#Religious_demographics

    All of these folks (setting aside strict Theravada as “atheistic” and leaving aside the question as to whether something like “Amida” is monotheistic) are non-monotheistic. (Sociologist of religion Rodney Stark is very much all wet when he claims all religions, including all current religions, ultimately “reduce” to monotheism.)

    That’s at least 2 million, if I cut Chinese folk religion in half or more but add 100 million for Buddhism and 100 million for traditional religions not listed by Wiki. It’s more like 2.25 million or something.

    Per the cultural-evolutionary angle, Caodaism, among others, shows the continuing evolutionary power of religion today. Within the last 500 years, so do Bahai, Sikhism, and the constellation of Afro-Carribbean beliefs such as Santeria, Voodoo, etc.

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  7. Robin Herbert

    Let me see if I have this right.

    A group calling themselves militant atheists use violence for the express purpose of promoting atheism.

    But this is still not an example of atheist motivated violence, because they are doing it as part of an atheist ideology.

    Got it. No wait, strike that. I don’t got it

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Philosopher Eric

    Thomas, I think one of the reasons that you weren’t quite as successful ending these history disputes as we may have hoped, is because many of us seem far more concerned about establishing what others believe than what we ourselves believe. Thus you may have merely opened up a vacuum that couldn’t thus be maintained. I’ll try to help fill the void by once again by presenting some of my own beliefs, and perhaps you or others will have something to say on it. Robin has already implied that he does.

    I have very strong beliefs regarding freewill/determinism, and therefore would rather deride others for their “compatiblism” than accept the title myself. To me this sounds a bit like “agnostic,” or “whatever.” Still I know that after the following comment someone might say, “Eric, you actually are a compatiblist.” If so then here is my response in advance: “Whatever.”

    As I define the terms, a void in “causality,” does mandate “magic.” Therefore if reality is not completely determined in a noumenal (rather than phenomenal) sense (thanks Massimo), then it occurs magically in this regard. No one should attempt to dispute this specific observation, since it’s true by definition. The only associated question will be whether or not it’s useful to consider a lack of causality, to be what we generally think of as “magic.” Regardless, I thus believe that we exist in a noumenal reality which is perfectly determined, rather than magical whatsoever.

    Now the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principal is commonly interpreted to mean that there is a fundamental uncertainty to reality, though my position is that this is a phenomenal, ontological, epistemic, circumstance, instead of magical. Why? Because things in general do seem quite causal to me. Observe that to the extent that reality does not function causally, science itself becomes obsolete! And while I have no reason to believe this, I have tremendous reason to believe that we humans do remain quite ignorant of noumenal reality.

    But even though I’m as hard a determinist as they come noumenally, I also realize that the human doesn’t effectively function through a perfect perspective. Given our very limited information, to us there should indeed be tremendous freewill. This preserves our own tiny perceptions of good/evil behavior, though alters nothing in an ultimate, noumenal, sense.

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  9. Coel

    Hi Robin,

    Let me see if I have this right. A group calling themselves militant atheists use violence for the express purpose of promoting atheism. But this is still not an example of atheist motivated violence, because they are doing it as part of an atheist ideology. Got it. No wait, strike that. I don’t got it

    Correct, you don’t got it. You see “atheist motivated violence” doesn’t make sense. The term “atheist” is a label for something that you do NOT believe. (It’s that Greek “a” thing.) People are motivated by beliefs that they DO hold, not ones that they DON’T hold.

    The violence was motivated by anti-theism, and the anti-theism was just one example of those communists’ wider anti-everything that was not communist. The root motivation was thus totalitarian communism and their intolerance of anything non-communist, whether that was non-communist schools, non-communist unions, non-communist churches or whatever.

    This is about the fourth time I’ve explained this; it really is not that hard.

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  10. labnut

    Gadfly,
    I think Wiki’s numbers are definitely too high on “Chinese folk religions,” especially if it’s listing Taoism separately. And, I think it’s somewhat too low on Buddhism. It also ignores “indigenous religion” for the most part, outside of China.

    All data coming from China must be treated with care. An example of that was when I questioned our company’s stockholding figures. They just did not pass the smell test of reasonableness. This is my interpreter’s memorable reply ‘Mr Smith, you do not understand the Chinese way of doing things. We always keep three sets of books. One contains the real facts for our own private reference. The second is used to report what we think the boss should see. The third is used to report what the boss would like to show to the outside world.‘.

    I saw for myself the strong resurgence in Buddhism together with the active programme of rebuilding the derelict temples. I’m confident that no Party apparatchik would feel comfortable reporting this discomfiting fact and so inevitably it will be downplayed.

    More generally, it was astonishing to witness the rebirth of religion in China after decades of savage repression. It seems to be an indestructible force. My interpreter became a Buddhist and her elder sister became a Catholic. I could never fathom the reasons for the difference.

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  11. Coel

    Hi labnut,

    I have had many occasions to disagree with Gadfly but never could I accuse him of lacking intellectual integrity. Saying that is perhaps one step too far.

    Well, in my opinion, sneering at someone you’re discussing with by saying things like: “I also find it “interesting” that a physicist can so ignore facts on the ground at times” and “in previous venues, you’ve even refused to accept you committed clear logical fallacies when pointed out …”, and then refusing to substantiate the claims when asked, is lacking in intellectual integrity.

    It is simply sneering since, by not giving any substance or links to back up the claim, it means one cannot rebut the accusation. Yet, if he didn’t want to re-hash the occasion, then there was no point in raising it other than to sneer. In that sense it entirely lacks any sort of integrity. But then critics of New Atheists rarely do any better (see, for example, Socratic’s hopelessly feeble “refutation” of Coyne on free will, pointed to up thread), and so I should not be surprised.

    I have watched with growing astonishment the many allegations of Hitler’s religiosity! My reaction is that in matters of history one should consult good historians …

    Is it? Well, even better is to consult primary evidence. I’ve given lots of primary quotes demonstrating my claim. No-one has even attempted any sort of rebuttal of them.

    Note, by the way, that I’ve also pointed to credentialed historians, including the book “The Holy Reich” (Cambridge University Press) by Steigmann-Gall and the book “The Aryan Jesus” (Princeton University Press) by Susannah Heschel. The introduction to the latter is online here, and is a good starting point on the religious dimensions of National Socialism. My own piece, linked to above, is another good starting point.

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  12. Robin Herbert

    Hi Coel

    You see “atheist motivated violence” doesn’t make sense. The term “atheist” is a label for something that you do NOT believe.

    Of course is makes sense. If a group identifies as atheists (bezbóžniks) and they use violence with the express purpose of making as many people atheists (bezbóžniks) as possible then you have atheism (bezbožije) motivated violence.

    If a group does NOT believe in something and has an explicit aim to make as many people also NOT believe the same thing and uses violence to promote it then you have violence motivated by non-belief in something.

    The claim that NOT believing something is somehow exempt from being a motivation for violence does not any sense, no matter how many times you repeat the claim.

    And it is contradicted by the evidence at hand.

    The root motivation was thus totalitarian communism and their intolerance of anything non-communist, whether that was non-communist schools, non-communist unions, non-communist churches or whatever.

    No, they weren’t just against non-communist churches. Their stated explicit aim was to make as many people as possible atheists like themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Coel

    Hi Robin,

    If a group does NOT believe in something …

    Which is “atheism”.

    … and has an explicit aim to make as many people also NOT believe the same thing …

    Which is “anti-theism”. (Namely, the belief that being a theist is a bad thing, and that it would be better for them to be atheists. Note that atheism itself does NOT entail that! Just ask Karl Rove for example!)

    and uses violence to promote it then you have violence motivated by non-belief in something.

    Nope, the violence is then motivated by the anti-theism (the belief that it would be better for people to be not theists). The mere non-belief in God does not entail that! Many religious people have doubts (= lack belief) and yet really, really want to believe! Lack of belief is not the same as opposition to belief!!!

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  14. labnut

    Coel,
    sneering at someone… hopelessly feeble “refutation”…is lacking in intellectual integrity

    Just cool it. You are injecting an unpleasant element into the discussion.

    We are allowed to disagree. We are allowed to place different interpretations on the facts. We are allowed to believe different things.

    Our diversity of opinions is a very good thing for society so let’s celebrate it and enjoy it. Let’s enjoy it by respectfully considering our different viewpoints.

    There is an unpleasant strand of liberal humanism that is intolerant of dissenting viewpoints and does everything it can to suppress them. This is the real danger we face today. None of us should become accomplices to what some now even call fascist liberalism.

    Gadfly,
    I live in Port Elizabeth, which is the southernmost city in Africa(no, that is not Cape Town).

    if you have any numbers on indigenous religions there.

    That will be quite hard to come by because indigenous beliefs have been melded with an Africanised flavour of Christianity and this is widespread. It is a matter of definition whether one should call this ‘indigenous’ or Christian.

    I have often seen them in the morning on the beach praying to their ancestors. In the evening they will go to an Africanised Christian church.

    I collected some stones for my landscaping project from a beach near an African township. My domestic worker was aghast. These stones were the souls of their dead ancestors, she explained. She is also a devout Christian but nevertheless believes in the tokolosh.

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  15. Coel

    Hi labnut,

    Just cool it. You are injecting an unpleasant element into the discussion.

    Fair point. But why isn’t that also addressed to Socratic?

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  16. labnut

    Coel,
    Robin has got it right and I think you are batting on a losing wicket. I will explain tomorrow though I think Robin has done a pretty good job.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. labnut

    Coel,
    Fair point. But why isn’t that also addressed to Socratic?

    Perhaps because I’m sensitive to Massimo’s earlier rebuke? 🙂

    Good night. Sleep well.

    Oh, read Ian Kershaw, he is something of an authority.

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  18. SocraticGadfly

    Gotcha, Labnut. I grew up in the US Southwest. Catholic churches at the villages of the various Puebloan tribes will be painted with katchinas on the walls of the churches.

    Syncretism has, of course, existed since the earliest religions.

    Getting to the issue of “security” that I mentioned before, and related issues of “narrative,” these tings drive religious syncretism.

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  19. Philosopher Eric

    Coel, yes please do get yourself a good night’s sleep! You know that I support you no less than an anyone here does, but wow! You’re presenting a deontological stance that atheism isn’t a religion, simply given that there’s clearly an “a” in front of the term. If you’re going to lob Robin pitches that he can smash out of the park, then he may not indeed bother with the more difficult issue that I’ve presented. Of course I’d love for you to address my perspective on freewill as well, but not until you get yourself a full night’s sleep!

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  20. Robin Herbert

    Hi Coel,

    Nope, the violence is then motivated by the anti-theism (the belief that it would be better for people to be not theists). The mere non-belief in God does not entail that!

    Just as the mere belief in God does not entail that someone thinks that it would be better for another person to believe in God or to have the same beliefs as them, or that violence should be used to promote this.

    So, by virtue of the same logic, there is no violence motivated by religious belief, only violence motivated by an opposition to another belief, or lack thereof.

    Many religious people have doubts (= lack belief)…

    A telling equation. Doubt does not entail a lack of belief, it only entails a lack of certainty
    <blockquote. and yet really, really want to believe!
    And thus endeth the lesson.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Massimo Post author

    Please, everybody “cool it,” reciprocal accusations of lack of intellectual integrity, intolerance, etc. do not make for constructive discussion.

    Coel, I’m sure you’ve read enough Coyne (and Dawkins, and Hitchens, and…) to know perfectly well that they claim the world would be better off without religion, I don’t need to provide you with quotes. That claim, to the best of our knowledge, is entirely unsubstantiated.

    As for focusing discussion just on secular, pluralist societies, my reason is simple: I think theocracies are analogous to non religious dictatorships like Stalinism and Maomism, so the two cancel each other.

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  22. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    I think I mostly side with the sentiments of Massimo on this stuff.

    Whether Hitler believed in God or not doesn’t matter a great deal, it seems to me. Would any of you really be convinced religion was harmful if he were a theist? Does it prove atheism is bad if he weren’t?

    I agree with Massimo that it’s very hard to know if religion is on balance a force for good or evil. My inclination is to see it as an idea that is obsolete and no longer needed, and that we would be better off without it, but I think this case is far from proven and I could well be wrong. I guess I see the likes of Coyne and Dawkins as doing an important job in advocating the argument against religion, as for too long it has been the default received wisdom that religion was a force for good. But, while I see a need for anti-apologetics, I think it’s going too far to be sure that religion is a bad thing

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  23. brodix

    What if we to use “belief systems,” rather than “religion.” Would that make it a less emotional debate, without removing the logical factors?

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  24. Philosopher Eric

    Hi Brodix,

    You may have a point, though I did indeed mean to use the term “religion” above. As Coel said, atheism technically refers to a lack of belief in the supernatural. This is a term which does represent me quite well, and I think him. But I do not enjoy how some take our benign title for themselves while behaving instead as “anti-theists,” since they do tend to give atheism a bad name. Though it may be the last title that they want, to me they do seem to have developed yet another religion.

    (This is not to imply that I think religion itself happens to be “bad,” though I personally accept no such church, as well as no such faith.)

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Coel

    Hi Robin,

    Just as the mere belief in God does not entail that someone thinks that it would be better for another person to believe in God …

    Yes, agreed.

    So, by virtue of the same logic, there is no violence motivated by religious belief, …

    No, because religions are whole packages of beliefs. Religions don’t just declare “there is a God” and then stop there, adding no other beliefs at all to the package. Thus “religious belief” can quite readily motivate violence, and often has.

    “Atheism” is not like that. The term is a simple statement of one belief that a person does NOT hold. That is ALL that it entails. It does not come with an accompanying package of beliefs.

    Thus “atheists” can include Richard Dawkins, Karl Rove, Stalin, the Dalai Lama (well, possibly on that one), Bill Gates, David Attenborough, and all sorts of people who may have very little in common!

    If you want to know what motivates such people you need to ask which beliefs they DO hold, not continually point to one that they do NOT hold!

    And, if one of their beliefs is anti-theism, then that will likely motivate them. But, lots and lots of atheists are not anti-theists!

    As for the Soviet Union, their anti-theism stemmed from their communist ideology, which was anti everything that wasn’t communist.

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  26. Coel

    Hi DM,

    Whether Hitler believed in God or not doesn’t matter a great deal, it seems to me. Would any of you really be convinced religion was harmful if he were a theist? Does it prove atheism is bad if he weren’t?

    You’re right. In that sense it doesn’t matter at all. However, rebutting claims that Hitler was non-religious is important for another reason.

    The point is that all the evidence says the opposite: Nazi ideology was steeped in religion. They even formed their own church (The Deutchse Christen) complete with their own Nazi theological institute!

    A 1939 census had Germans self-reporting as 54% Protestant, 40% Catholic, and only 1.5% non-believer. And shortly afterwards this highly Christian nation committed the worst crime in history. Of SS Guards at Auschwitz, 43% self-reported as Catholic, 36% as Protestant, and 20% as the Nazi Deutsche Christen church. Not one declared themselves a non-believer.

    The Western Allies and post-war Germany were, of course, strongly Christian, and so have been in denial about such things ever since. So how do they explain it away? Well, they say that the Nazis were “non-religious”, “atheists” even! What is their evidence for this? Well, none at all, actually, all the evidence says the opposite. But the claim goes, they were so evil that they just *had* to have been atheists, Christians would never have acted like that!

    This whole business of labeling the Nazis as non-religious is thus nothing but a slur on the non-religious. It comes from the common equation of “godless” with “immoral”. The Nazis were immoral, therefore, it is claimed, they were godless.

    That’s why this discussion is worth pursuing. People such as the last Pope tried to claim that the Nazis are what you get if Europe becomes more secular and stops believing; the truth is the opposite, the Nazis happened in a nation that was 94% Christian, far more Christian than today.

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  27. Coel

    Hi Massimo,

    [NAs] claim the world would be better off without religion, I don’t need to provide you with quotes.

    But the actual wording of the claim matters. “The world would be better off without religion” is a different claim than: “The world would still be better off without religion even if all countries were properly functioning secular liberal democracies”.

    One of the main reasons the world would be better off without religion is that across the Islamic world religion is standing in the way of the development of properly functioning secular liberal democracies.

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  28. ejwinner

    Coel,

    You are quoting Hitler out of the context of the man’s psychology; you are quoting him outside of the historical and cultural context; you are quoting him outside of the context of the expectations of his presumed audience – which audience he had a master rhetorician’s understanding of, and control over. That is quote mining, as far as I am concerned. *

    And as someone who had to read Mein Kampf three times in research (and parts in German), I doubt very highly you ever read that book, but gleaned your quotes from tertiary sources, probably off the internet.

    ‘Well, I don’t need to read that book in order to…’ – yes, actually, you do.

    You waggle your finger at two recent scholars, and I am certainly willing to read their texts. But I had to wade through some 100 or so books of cultural analysis, psychology, sociology, history, biography, before I ever dared set pen to paper.

    There is a story to the writing of that analysis, and why I chose not to publish it; so I do not claim any scholar’s per-eminence here; only the simple experience of having engaged the study you have not.

    I would (and in the past did) raise similar objections to theist’s arguing Hitler’s supposed ‘atheism.’ That is why I say this Hitler fetishizing in the god debate simply must stop. I agree with Massimo that it is mere distraction. (And again, I don’t care who started it!)

    As for the Nazi movement as a whole – it included Pagans, Atheists, Catholics and Protestants. It was a ‘Big Tent’ of right-wingers – it even included folk-singers, nudists, and (until the Night of the Long Knives) homosexuals (the Brown Shirt leadership was notorious for their leather-gay orgies until the military demanded they all be killed). There isn’t really a definitive statement one can make concerning the demographics of the Nazi party, except that most of them came out of the then-impoverished working class, disenfranchised ex-military, and former farmers displaced into (then-failing) urban environments.

    Without that demographic account, there is no claim, one way or another, on Nazism’s ‘religiosity’ (or lack thereof).

    Lastly, again, Hitler was a cypher – that means he mirrored the expectations of his audience. His only ideology was the destruction of the Jews.

    Which leads me to suggest a worthy starting point, if you are really interested in this issue (and not just looking for talking points). Beyond the suggestions I gave Socratic, I suggest a good starting point is The War Against the Jews 1933-1945, by Lucy S. Dawidowicz.

    That’s if you’re interested in the truth of Nazism, and not just fodder in the cannon of your war against religion.

    And again (please forgive me for shouting, but what does it take to get the message?): I DON’T CARE WHO STARTED IT! The Hitler babble in the god debate must stop.
    —–
    * One obvious danger of quote mining: “We want this people to be peace-loving but also courageous, and you must therefore be peace-loving and at the same time courageous.” Wow, how New Agey, how perceptive, how caring and sharing – and how much like Hitler to mirror his audience’s desire at the time. (Speech 14 September 1935; from Gordon W. Prange (1945). “Hitler’s Words.” New York: American Council on Public Affairs, p. 124.)

    “Sporting chivalrous contest helps knit the bonds of peace between nations. Therefore may the Olympic flame never expire.”
    – at the first Olympic torchlighting ceremony, Berlin, 1936. (Hitler was a pacifist – who knew?)

    Coel, what you seem to want to say, is that we must take Hitler at his word. Maybe it’s a British thing – Neville Chamberlain believed that also.

    But an inquiry into the rhetoric involved reveals otherwise.

    Liked by 4 people

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