Copyright 1992 Freethought Today
Reprinted with Permission
Christian Roots Of The Holocaust (Part 2) By Michael Hakeem, Ph.D.
To summarize for newcomers, response is being made to the contention
often heard from the clergy that most if not all the social ills that
beset the world can be traced to the malignant presence of "secular
humanists" ([one form of] atheists).
As the ultimate example of the misery, tyranny, terror, immorality, and
inhumanity that can result when atheism dominates a society the clergy
point to Communist Russia. The accusers can't present any evidence to
tie these abominations to atheism. Except for what were, as will be
shown later, on-again, off-again attempts of the regime to stamp out
religion, the horrors it committed (including all except a relatively
small fraction of killings), had nothing whatever to do with its
atheistic stand. In fact, as will be shown in due course, the Russian
Orthodox Church, during long stretches of time, supported the political
policies of the Soviet dictatorship without reservation.
The clergy insist that the prevention or cure of degeneracy in the
individual and decay in the society depend on the presence of
Christianity. Innumerable assertions of this claim can be reproduced.
Three will give their flavor.
The Reverend Don Beltzer, in a widely distributed booklet, "America at
the Brink", published by the General Council of Assemblies of God [the
folks who brought us Jones Town and Rev. Jim Jones] and Revivaltime
Media Ministries, reports that he personally directed the ultimate
question about the destiny of the nation to none other than Dr.
Billy Graham: "Dr. Graham, you know this nation of ours well. You
have been a friend of our presidents for decades. You have preached in
our great cities. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about Americas'
future? His face was 2 feet away, his eyes penetrating into mine [how
much closer to oracular power and genius can you get?], and a mask of
sadness briefly captured his famous countenance. He replied ever so
softly, 'Unless there is a miracle of God's grace here, America is
going to hell.'"
The Reverend John Stott, one of the most prominent British clerics, now
Rector Emeritus of All Souls Church in London, gave a sermon,
"Christians: Salt and Light." Proclaiming that "Christians are
fundamentally different from non-Christians," he joins Jesus in
reminding them that they are "the salt of the earth" and "the light of
the world." He teaches that, as "salt," Christians are appointed to
"permeate non-Christian society," and thus prevent its rotting, and, as
"light," to dispel "the darkness of evil and sorrow." Being "salt" and
"light," the Christians are qualified to battle "the growing
dishonesty, corruption, immorality, violence, pornography, the
diminishing respect for human life, and the increase in abortion."
Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, a very aggressive and quite
successful nationwide organization to get Christians, as Christians,
more politically involved, is intended precisely to apply the Christian
"therapy" to the ailing society through political power. He promises
Christians: "We can turn our country back from its headlong plunge into
chaos and moral decay. But only if we wake-up Christian America. That's
the entire purpose of CHRISTIAN COALITION."
It is easy to show that both propositions so dear to the clergy--that
where atheism dominates, there can be only disaster and that in
Christianity lies the remedy--are without substance. If it is easy,
then why do the clergy not cease and desist from so doggedly putting
them forth? Because they are committed to an ideology that is at war
with proper reasoning, and they lack the skills required to critically
analyze the faults that lurk in their loose, irresponsible talk.
Consider the Soviet Union whose dictatorial political and social
systems should be found repugnant by any secular humanist. The clergy
insist that these systems are in fact due precisely to the atheism that
allegedly infected the populace and reigned supreme in the land. The
clergy are in error even regarding the elementary facts that are needed
to support their premise.
Atheism did not reign supreme in Communist Russia. More religious
worship occurred there than the clergy here suppose. How can any
regime, no matter how oppressive, wipe out religion privately indulged
in? The Soviet government in time became more concerned with
restricting institutionalized religion than with trying to eradicate
every last vestige of worship, something they came to realize early on
was not a feasible goal, leading them to make compromises. Though the
rulers made efforts, sometimes very strenuous and even murderous
efforts, to promote atheism and eliminate religion, they were far from
successful. How unsuccessful they were should be obvious from the
massive resurfacing of religion after the demise of the Communist
The clergy, out of ignorance, wrongly assume that there was a
straight-line, unvarying, and unrelenting suppression of religion in
Communist Russia. In fact the picture is strikingly different. There
were alternating periods, sometimes lasting for decades, of relaxing
and of strengthening anti-religious policies. The history in a
After the initial period of hostility to the Bolsheviks, the Church
settled into a posture of neutrality (not opposition, but neutrality).
Then there came periods when the Church pledged to give the regime its
complete support in all political matters. One such period was in 1927
when the Church abandoned its policy of neutrality and committed itself
to support the regime unconditionally in all political matters. In
subsequent years, there were intervals of pressure against the Church
interspersed with intervals of permissiveness. In 1943, the Church
ratified a concordat which defined state/church relations for the next
fifteen years. The Church was granted concessions in return for which
it again committed itself to unequivocally support the state in
William C. Fletcher, Professor and Director of Soviet and East
European Studies and Adjunct Professor of Religious Studies at the
University of Kansas, who is one of the closest students of the subject
and has published numerous researches on the matter, has many
interesting things to say about it. He makes reference, in the Journal
of State and Church, to "the spectacular revival of religion during the
latter fifties" in the Soviet Union. More than this, Fletcher says that
if one can assume the correctness of the figures that went into his
calculations, "the number of religious believers in the Soviet Union
has not been reduced but has actually grown from some eighty to ninety
million people in 1937 to perhaps one hundred fifteen million today
." He tracked spans of time when the Orthodox Church and its
officials were allied with the Communist government.
The Church hierarchy helped the regime to establish control over the
peoples (western Ukraine and the Baltic countries) brought into the
Soviet orbit after World War II. Its influence was brought to bear even
on non-Orthodox countries of Eastern Europe that came under Soviet
domination, the Church urging non-Orthodox bodies (such as the national
Catholic Churches) to accept the political situation. The Orthodox
Church cooperated enthusiastically with the Soviet's "peace offensive"
of the forties and fifties, a peace campaign that has been exposed as
little more than a ploy to throw the West off guard.
During World War II, to cite the findings of another authority, the
Church was rehabilitated, it received many concessions, and, in fact,
it hailed Stalin as "the divinely appointed leader of the nation."
According to still another academic researcher, whose studies pertain
to more recent years, in the seventies the Communist government revised
its state/church regulations to favor the Orthodox and Baptist
leadership. He surmises that this was a reward for their subservience:
"These leaders have consistently supported the Kremlins domestic and
So, it seems, after all, that Christianity was present in the very
belly of "Godless Communism," and its heart beat fairly rhythmically.
Yet, it was no antidote to the vile ways of an "evil empire." In fact,
the Orthodox Church must bear part of the responsibility for doing much
to help it on its way and support and perpetuate its tyrannical grip on
people. The Baptists also helped. This is not the first or last time
Christians are found willing to sell their souls.
Let us use imperial Russia as a testing ground for the clergy's promise
that where Christianity permeates society life is much more likely to
be pleasing, since Christianity spells love, peace, joy, serene
contentment, caring, sharing, humaneness, equal worth of everyone,
bounteous good gifts, and everything else that's nice.
Pre-Communist Russia was certainly thoroughly permeated by
Christianity. It reigned in Russia for at least a thousand years before
communism came on the scene. The religion played a vital role in the
lives of the people, and the Orthodox Church was a dominant influence
in many spheres. One historian, but not the only one, comments:
"Peasants in particular embraced their religion wholeheartedly."
Besides preparing "loyal subjects for the Tsar," the officially stated
aim of education was preparing "loyal sons for the Orthodox Church."
From 1700 to 1917 the central administration of the Church was made a
department of the government and went under the name, "Holy Governing
Synod." The Church officials and the priests received salaries and
subsidies from the state.
Numerous professors of Russian history can be brought forth to testify
that the Church not only supported the autocratic government which
ruled imperial Russia from beginning to end but provided a religious
rationale for it also. Not to obey the czar was made a sin. Here is
Professor Richard Pipes who writes that "students of the Orthodox faith
in all primary and secondary schools were required to take courses in
religion, usually taught by clergymen." He notes, in connection with
this that the Church "condemned disobedience to [the czar] as a sin."
Another historian: "The Church repaid her protectors by exercising all
her great influence to support and sanction the Russian monarchy as the
representative of God on earth." Another takes note of "the solicitude
of the church hierarchy for the strengthening of absolutism." Still
another points out that "the teaching of the Orthodox Church was
inherently favorable to autocracy."
Czar Alexander III, upon succeeding to the throne, heard, as did other
czars, "the voice of God" ordering autocratic rule. Czars were elevated
to quasi-divine status. According to the Orthodox Church, Russian
rulers were "viceroys of God on earth." Under Nicholas I, the catechism
used in schools and churches taught that God commands subjects "to obey
from the inmost recess of the heart every authority, and particularly
the Emperor." Question: "What example confirms this doctrine?"
Response: "The example of Jesus Christ himself, who lived and died in
allegiance to the Emperor of Rome, and especially submitted to the
judgment which condemned him to death."
There was no religious freedom in imperial Russia, and persecution of
non-Orthodox faiths was common. At times profession of non-Orthodox dogma
was looked upon as treason. One religious body was even prohibited from
holding prayer meetings and the leaders of another were incarcerated
and their followers subjected to cruel indignities and hounded by
punitive expeditions. Under the law, only the Orthodox Church was
allowed to proselytize. Conversion of an Orthodox to a dissenting faith
was punishable by imprisonment or exile to Siberia. Dissenting
religions were not allowed to build new houses of worship or to issue
religious propaganda. The monarchy established an espionage system
within the Church to ensure obedience, in addition to the secret agents
which it deployed everywhere, just as Stalin did. Christian imperial
Russia was one of the most bellicose nations in history. In its modern
history, during the reign of only one czar, who was on the throne a
relatively short time, was the country not involved in a major war.
Anti-Semitism was rife in imperial Russia, and its victims were
subjected to flagrant abuse and discrimination. Jews were assessed
special taxes not demanded from others. Attempts were made to
forcefully convert them. Jewish children were baptized against their
parents' wishes. Yehuda Bauer, who holds a professorship in Holocaust
Studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, reports that under Czar
Nicholas I Jewish "children younger than twelve were forcibly taken
[kidnapped] from their homes and sent to strict schools, where most of
those who survived --many did not-- were forced to abandon their
Jewishness." Quotas permitted only an insignificant proportion to
attend educational institutions at all levels. They were confined to
certain areas. Their occupational choices were restricted. They [Jews]
could not employ Christians except with the permission of the police.
They were kept out of the professions. They were not allowed to acquire
real estate except in the Pale of Settlement (Jewish quarters). They could
not own agrarian land or live in rural areas.
When Czarist Russia is mentioned, "pogroms" is triggered in the mind.
One historian describes what they are: "A pogrom consisted of mobs
thronging into Jewish parts of town breaking into houses and shops,
looting, beating, raping, burning and killing inhabitants." After
Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, waves of some of the worst
pogroms occurred over a period of several years, spreading to two
hundred cities, though the assassin was not Jewish. In the early 1900s
there were outbreaks of barbaric pogroms. The New Encyclopedia
Britannica is authority for the claim that "the Church and the tsarist
authorities went so far as to condone and even encourage some pogroms
against the Jews."
How did the devout Christian masses fare in this thoroughly Christian
society and one lacking any visible atheism? Life couldn't be worse.
Ninety per cent of the people were peasants, most of them serfs, a
status little better than slavery. "By the beginning of the nineteenth
century the structure of serfdom was complete," one historian writes,
"and its profounder results were active until 1917."
A small book can be filled with summary statements by historians of
Russia depicting the condition of the masses. Professor Graham
Stephenson: "The peasantry was Russia. They paid nearly all the taxes,
they provided all the food, they were the hordes of domestic servants,
they died in the wars, they starved frequently and suffered always."
Professor I. Michael Aronson: "For the most part ... the so-called
masses ... lived impoverished, primitive, and brutalized lives.
Professor John Stipp: At least from the mid-1400s on the masses of
Russia lived in circumstances that were unbelievable ... The masses
were so lacking the refinements of human qualities that they were often
referred to in nineteenth century Russian literature as 'dead souls'."
"The nobles had complete power over the serfs", is a truism that can be
found in many histories of imperial Russia. They could extract any kind
of labor from the serfs; hire them out to work for others; send them
away from the land without their families; order them to marry or not
marry; transform them into household servants; compel them to provide
any kind of personal service; lash them for misdeeds; get them, if
incorrigible, drafted into the army for twenty-five years or sent to
Siberia by the authorities; impose on them any dues in money or labor;
throw out of the village the aged and the sick; seize their movable
goods at will. The murder of one's serfs was prohibited by law, but, by
law, serfs were not allowed to complain to the officials about their
lords. Murders of serfs frequently occurred and went unpunished.
Would anyone be uninformed or foolish enough to say or imply that life
was better where Christianity reigned supreme in pre-Communist Russia
than it was in "Atheist (?) Russia?" Richard C. Halverson, Chaplain of
the United States Senate, is. In a vacuous attack on atheists, he said,
as reported in these pages recently, that "Atheism has no room for
human rights" (the context was his reference to Communist Russia). By
implication, he has to be indicating that human rights will prevail
where theism does.
Why did he not know that in imperial Russia, where Christianity played
a central role in peoples lives and the Church had great influence,
human rights were virtually unknown? Why did he not research the
subject in the Library of Congress to which he has ready access before
recklessly uttering his insulting and inflammatory nonsense? Because
the skills of intellectual and critical inquiry required for the task
are not within his ken.
It was reported in a previous column that dealt with him, that he said,
"The most important thing I do is pray. It would be accurate to say I'm
preoccupied with it." He would be doing a more socially useful thing if
he would stop praying and devote the time saved to reading about the
horrors that can be laid at the door of the faith he is nevertheless
willing to support. Ponder the enormity of the intellectual bankruptcy
it takes for Halverson, who supports an ideology one of the basic
tenets of which is that those who do not subscribe to it ought to be
horribly punished and finally destroyed, pointing an accusing finger at
secular humanists --among the strongest supporters of human rights--
as being in disfavor of them.
Part 3 will demonstrate how Christianity inspired and supported one of
the worst of these horrors: the Nazi Holocaust.
Michael Hakeem, Ph.D., is emeritus professor of sociology at the
University of Wisconsin--Madison. He and his wife Helen are members of
the Foundations Executive Council and are regular volunteers at
Freethought Hall. (This article ran in the November, 1992 issue of
Freethought Today, the newspaper of the Freedom From Religion
Foundation, PO Box 750, Madison WI 53701.)