The Holocaust has always provided an excellent argument for atheism. Its utter inhumanity leads one to the classic three options to the question “How could an all-powerful, all-knowing deity have allowed this to happen”: 1) God is not all-knowing and all powerful, so is therefore not the god of the Bible. 2) God is all-knowing and all-powerful, so therefore must be malevolent. 3) There is no God. While this progression of ideas makes sense to evidence-based thinkers, religion is based on beliefs. Beliefs are, by definition, ideas that do not have evidence to support them.
Victims of the Holocaust are anything but mute on the existence of God. At Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria, one victim wrote on the wall next to his bunk “If there is a God, he will have to fall on his knees and beg my forgiveness.” Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel is eloquent on this point in his memoir Night. There, Wiesel recalls attending a religious service, while he was an inmate at Auschwitz, where those present are blessing God. He writes “Why should I bless Him? In every fiber I rebelled. Because He had had thousands of children burned in His pits? Because He kept six crematories working night and day, on Sundays and feast days? Because in His great might He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many factories of death? … My eyes were open and I was alone –terribly alone in a world without God. (Wiesel, pp. 64-5).
After his liberation from Auschwitz, Wiesel’s religiosity does rebound. His relationship to the God of his childhood is permanently changed. But he identifies himself as a believer. This is not an uncommon reaction to trauma or inhumanity. The book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War chronicles the continuing faith in God. Northern citizens saw their victory as evidence of God’s championing of their righteous cause. Southerners saw their loss and devastation as a test of their faith provided by God. Only a minority contemplated the fields of slaughter and thought “there is no God.” Of course tragedies like the Civil War and the Holocaust do produce their share of atheists. But the majority of people fall back on their faith as a support through times of crisis and loss. For many, the idea that there is some all-powerful creature watching over them, even though they do not understand their suffering, is more attractive than the idea that there is no one in charge and events are open to chaos or chance. Rare is the cancer patient who throws-off her religion the day of her diagnosis; or the civilian during wartime who decides there is no God when the bombs are falling. These examples exist, but they are the minority. People like order and protection in their world. But that’s the way people are: afraid of the void.
Even as atheists, we have to admit that the Judeo-Christian happy ending is more attractive than our version of the finale. The picture of one’s self moving on to an afterlife when she dies; purportedly one where a friendly cosmic father welcomes her and she gets to party with dead loved ones for eternity, is more appealing than the scientific facts accepted by most atheists. Accepting rational, scientific conclusions, means facing a stark reality where you end when your brain ceases to function.
So, if the world is capable of having repeated genocides like the Holocaust, and the human population persists in the belief in an invisible super-dad, then we have a long road ahead towards a total acceptance of science and reason. We may as well make the journey with equanimity. There’s no point in frustration over the failure of most people to see what is evident to any rational, scientific mind. We do not need others to validate our perspective. Let’s leave that insecurity to the religious, whose worldview is based upon a more ethereal foundation than ours. Sure, we are going to need to respond to political abuses by believers with competence and intelligence. The fundamentalist shooters (be they Christians at women’s health clinics or Muslims at airports), the “God Hates Fags” protesters at funerals of LGBTQ soldiers, the attempts at censorship and the attempts to impose religion on government, these all require response. But let’s not lose sight of the rationality that brought us to atheism. Let’s leave the emotionalism, which burns those who bear it, to people of faith. There is no point in struggling to make others accept our ideas. No one’s going to hell if they do not swallow our catechism; that’s someone else’s story. If we have not learned to take that cleansing breath in the face of religion, perpetual anger and bitterness will be our reward.
So, when facing issues like the Holocaust, where one faith tries to wipe another off the planet, where those of faith persist in belief, we atheists can conduct ourselves sensibly. We have our communities (like this one online). We can be thoughtful and responsive, rather than reactive. We can make our points, share our ideas and live our lives the way we see fit.
Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Vintage Books, 2009.
Wiesel, Elie. Night. New York: Bantam Books, 1982.