70 Years after Auschwitz: Reflections on the Holocaust

Introduction

Seventy years ago, on the 27th of January 1945, elements of the 332nd Rifle Division of the Red Army liberated the concentration and extermination camps at Auschwitz. This date is now commemorated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, in remembrance of the six million Jews murdered by Nazi Germany and its allies during the Second World War.

The word ‘holocaust’ derives from the Greek holókauston, and refers to a religious sacrifice in which the offering is completely burnt. The word was used for centuries to refer to great massacres, and in the decades following the World War II it become the term preferred by English-speaking scholars to refer to the genocide of the Jewish people by Nazi Germany. The Hebrew term for the event is Shoah, which means ‘catastrophe’, a term I think is probably more fitting, however in this article I shall adhere to convention and use the word ‘holocaust’ to refer specifically to the genocide of the Jewish peoples of Europe during World War II.

In this short piece I cannot possibly do justice to an event of such monumental importance and scope, and so I will not try do to so. Instead, I shall restrict myself to sharing some thoughts and observations regarding specific aspects of the Holocaust that I find especially important and interesting.

Uniqueness

The Holocaust, in my view, was a singular and distinct historical event. There have of course been many other genocides and atrocities both before and since, but the Holocaust possessed certain features which I think make it unique. In particular, the Holocaust was distinct from other genocides in the organised, mechanised, systematic manner in which the killings were carried out. In the words of German historian Eberhard Jäckel:

“Never before had a state with the authority of its responsible leader decided and announced that a specific human group, including its aged, its women and its children and infants, would be killed as quickly as possible, and then carried through this resolution using every possible means of state power.”

The Holocaust was such an immense logistical and organisational undertaking that essentially every branch of the German state apparatus participated to one degree or other: records of Jewish identity were supplied by the Interior Ministry and local churches, the Post Office delivered deportation and other administrative orders, the Finance Ministry was responsible for confiscating Jewish property and the Reichsbank for laundering stolen money and valuables, universities expelled Jewish students and academics, government-operated railways transported millions of prisoners to concentration and extermination camps, while German companies tested drugs on concentration camp prisoners, bid for contracts to build the crematoria, and provided technologies such as punch card machines and Zyklon-B used in the extermination process. The Holocaust was truly an undertaking which spanned the breadth and depth of the Reich’s state apparatus – it was a national endeavour.

In other religiously-based genocides throughout history (including Jewish pogroms of centuries past), members of the target group were usually able to escape death by conversion (or pretending to convert), but this was not the case during the Holocaust. Anyone with at least three Jewish grandparents who had not converted before 1871 was to be executed, irrespective of their professed religious beliefs. This policy reflected Nazi ideologies concerning the importance of maintaining the purity of the Aryan race, and that the contaminating element of Jewish identity was not primarily social or ideological but biological.

Another unique feature of the Holocaust was the use of extermination camps. As far as I have been able to determine, this is the only time in history where facilities have been established specifically for the mass execution of an entire class of people (as distinct from killing selected persons for religious, entertainment, or judicial purposes). The use of gas chambers for mass murder was definitely a German innovation, one which came after extensive experimentation with different methods of most easily and efficiently killing large groups of people. Other methods that were trialled included shooting, lethal injections, and gas vans, before eventually the Germans settled on the method of extermination by gas chambers, which was found to be capable of dealing with large number of victims quickly, and also placed less of a psychological strain on the perpetrating SS soldiers then did methods like mass shootings.

The Germans rapidly developed a precise and orderly system for conducting mass executions. Jews were rounded up at the point of origin, loaded onto goods trains, and transported to the extermination camps, under the guise that they were to be ‘resettled’. Once at the camps, those seemed fit to work were used for slave labour, while the rest were sent directly to the gas chambers for immediate execution. Prisoners were told to undress for showering and delousing, their clothes and other valuables systematically collected and catalogued for later resale. Even gold teeth were extracted from the corpses to be melted down. After entering the gas chambers the prisoners were locked in, and the poison gas (Zyklon-B was used at Auschwitz) was introduced into the chamber. After about twenty minutes the last of the thumping and screaming – easily audible outside the chamber – died out, and the chamber was opened and the corpses removed and cremated by members of the Sonderkommando, Jewish prisoners forced to work for the Germans before they too were eventually killed. About three million Jews were killed in eight extermination camps in circumstances much like this, including about one million at Auschwitz itself.

The organised, bureaucratic way in which the Holocaust was carried out was quite remarkable and historically unprecedented. During the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, Adolf Eichmann presented a list specifying the number of Jews in every country in Europe, including neutral countries not under Germany’s control. This list is taken as clear evidence that the Nazis planned to eventually extend the Holocaust throughout all of Europe. In this document, Estonia was already listed as Judenfrei (free of Jews), thanks to the actions of the Einsatzgrupppen, who moved in swiftly after the German occupation began. The Einsatzgruppen were special death squads deployed in Eastern Europe, and were responsible for killing perhaps one million Jews. They kept detailed records of their massacres which they provided their superiors to keep track of the progress that was being made towards annihilating all Jews. One such document, called the Jäger Report, survived the war, and contains daily tallies of the number of Jews killed in Lithuania during late 1941. With deadly precision, it shows an end tally of 136,421 Jews murdered, including 46,403 men, 55,556 women, and 34,464 children.

The Germans also kept detailed records concerning the number of arrivals at extermination camps. The Höfle Telegram records 23,611 arrivals at four camps in the two weeks before 21 December 1942. Likewise, the Korherr Report of January 1943 contains detailed information concerning the decline in Jewish populations throughout Europe over the first decade of Nazi rule. Many other such documents existed, but were destroyed in the dying days of the war in an attempt to hide the scale of the atrocities from the occupying Allies forces. Nevertheless, the documentation which does survive clearly portrays the organised, systematic way in which the German state apparatus was directed towards murderous ends, to a degree not found in other genocides.

Another key feature of the Holocaust was its immense scale. Numbers alone cannot do justice to the magnitude of the tragedy, but nonetheless they are useful for providing some context. In 1938, there were roughly 9.5 million Jews in Europe (including Russia). Of those, roughly 8 million lived in Germany, allies of Germany, or regions later occupied by Germany, with most of the remaining 1.5 million living in the UK or parts of Russia that remained unoccupied. The total death toll of the Holocaust, according to Lucy Dawidowicz’s figures (which I consider to be the most complete and accurate), is close to 6 million exactly. This means that the Nazis killed about 75% of all Jews under their control, and about 66% of all the Jews in Europe. Undoubtedly had the war continued for longer, the percentages would have been higher still. It is also important to note that today there are around 14 million Jews in the world (mostly living in either Israel or the USA), compared to perhaps 16 million in 1938, meaning that the world Jewish population has still not recovered from the Holocaust. Owing both to the Holocaust and post-war emigration to the US and Israel, the Jewish population of Europe has fallen from its pre-war high to about 1.5 million today. Many Jewish communities, particularly in Eastern Europe, were completely eradicated, never to be revived. This level of destruction has seldom been achieved in such a short space of time.

Responsibility

There is, I think, a fairly widespread belief that the Holocaust was perpetrated by a small minority of fanatical Nazis, with most ordinary Germans either being kept ignorant of what was happening, or being forcibly compelled by the Nazi hierarchy to carry out murderous actions. The idea, I think, is that evil deeds are done by evil people, and that therefore the lesson of the Holocaust is to keep evil people out of positions of power and influence. I believe this view is essentially false, and that the truth of the matter is much more complex, and also much more frightening.

It is difficult to know how much the average German knew about the Holocaust during the years in which it was being carried out. Certainly many of the details, including the existence of gas chambers, was kept secret. However, various sources of evidence point towards the conclusion that knowledge of what was being done to the Jews, in broad terms, was quite widespread. Given the scale of the undertaking and the involvement of so many state agencies and other groups, as well as the sheer number of camps that existed throughout Germany, makes it very hard to see how knowledge of what was occurring could have been kept secret. In his famous war diary entitled Mein Widerstand, a minor official named Friedrich Kellner recorded how he heard of a massacre of Polish Jews from a soldier on vacation from the front, illustrating the sort of means by which ordinary Germans could obtain such information. On this subject, historian Peter Longerich has said that “general information concerning the mass murder of Jews was widespread in the German population.” And to the degree that they were aware of what was occurring, the reaction of most Germans was, on the whole, that of indifference, or as Ian Kershaw put it so eloquently: “the road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference”. Other scholars have argued that ‘passive complicity’ may be a more appropriate description, highlighting the widespread participation with various aspects of the Holocaust by German civil, military, and corporate bodies, and also the widespread underpinning of moderate anti-Semitism.

In his classic work The 12-Year Reich, historian Richard Grungerber writes:

“In the entire history of the Third Reich no single body – civic, academic or even religious – ever made use of such opportunities as it had for publicly protesting against the regime’s inhumanity. The feasibility of protests of this nature was demonstrated… by Cardinal Galen’s denunciation of euthanasia from the pulpit, which evoked a sufficiently strong resonance to halt the regime’s ‘mercy killing’ programme. But euthanasia victims were flesh of German flesh, and those effected ranged through all classes of society. Some Jews too had self sacrificing and devoted friends… but ‘the righteous among Gentiles’ were individuals, representative only of themselves; as far as the great majority were concerned, Jewish suffering affected beings in another galaxy rather than inhabitants of the same planet as themselves.”

Grungerber here refers to the German forced euthanasia program Aktion T4, which met with such substantial opposition from within the bureaucracy and the churches that Hitler officially cancelled the program in August 1941 (though killings did continue in much greater secrecy until the end of the war). In contrast, no formal protests or organised opposition of this sort took place with respect to the regime’s treatment of the Jews. The sole exception was the Rosenstrasse protest of March 1943, in which a group of German women publicly protested against the deportation of their Jewish husbands, and succeeded in having them released. If only this sort of opposition had been more sustained and widespread, the death toll of the Holocaust of may have been far lower. Alas, as historian Saul Friedländer writes:

“Not one social group, not one religious community, not one scholarly institution or professional association in Germany and throughout Europe declared its solidarity with the Jews.”

Thousands of personnel in the Germany Army actively participated in massacres of Jews (as well as Poles and Soviet prisoners of war) on the Eastern Front. Most Wehrmacht soldiers were not Nazi party members, but ordinary Germans from all walks of life. Such behaviour was encouraged from the highest levels of the Wehrmacht, as for instance in the infamous Severity Order of October 1941, in which Field Marshal Walther von Reichenau declared:

“The most important objective of this campaign against the Jewish-Bolshevik system is the complete destruction of its sources of power and the extermination of the Asiatic influence in European civilization… In this eastern theatre, the soldier is not only a man fighting in accordance with the rules of the art of war, but also the ruthless standard bearer of a national conception… For this reason the soldier must learn fully to appreciate the necessity for the severe but just retribution that must be meted out to the subhuman species of Jewry.”

As far as I have been able to determine, German soldiers were seldom if ever punished for refusing to execute civilians or other participate in genocide. Indeed, I am not aware of any cases of any significant group of soldiers refusing to engage in genocidal activities, or of voicing significant opposition to them. From what I have read, many such operations were carried out by volunteers, and there was generally no difficulty in finding men willing to participate. Explicit compulsion and threat of punishment were simply not necessary.

Supporting the narrative that heinous crimes are committed by evil people is the belief that we, being good people, would never do such a thing. We look at ourselves, we look at our family and friends, we look at those in our community, and for the most part we do not think of them as truly evil people. As such we imagine that the Nazis and any Germans who supported them must have been unbelievably heinous and immoral, as only such an innate inner badness could explain their actions. Of course, most ordinary Germans in the lead-up to the war would have never thought it possible that something like that Holocaust would happen in their enlightened, developed country, and would undoubtedly have been mortally offended had one advanced the proposition that they would do nothing to stop a mass slaughter of civilians. We like to think we are different. Are we really?

Uncomfortably for our self-perceptions, there is considerable evidence concerning the immense power of peer pressure, social normalisation, and obedience to authority in leading people to act in ways which they would in different circumstances denounce as heinous. In his famous experiment, Milgram found that two-thirds of his subjects were willing to administer apparently lethal electrical shocks to others, merely because they were instructed to do so by an experimenter wearing a white lab coat. The Stanford Prison Experiment, Ash Conformity experiments, and The Third Wave experiment, though not without problems, also offer insights into the psychological processes at work in compelling otherwise good people to do horrific things.

The main defence of many Nazi officials and commanders at the Nuremburg Trials was that they had only been following orders (“Befehl ist Befehl“). Although undoubtedly an (unsuccessful) attempt to save themselves from execution, the use of this defence also seems to me to reflect the genuine motivation behind many of these actions – namely that they had been ordered, and it was the job of the soldier and bureaucrat to follow orders. It is also clear, however, that many went beyond the strict ‘call of duty’ in this sense, as there are many documented cases of local civilians participating in or even pre-empting German massacres of Jews, and also of various lower party officials and local administrations vying with each other in developing their own more ruthless anti-Semitic policies. The initiative for the Holocaust came not only from the hatred of those at the top, but also from the longstanding antipathy and crass opportunism of those at the bottom of the Nazi hierarchy.

Allied Responses

Too often we forget a crucial aspect of the Holocaust, namely the (as I regard it) totally inadequate response by Allied and neutral nations to news concerning Nazi persecution of the Jews. Particularly deplorable, in my view, was the Évian Conference, convened by Roosevelt in 1938 to discuss what was to be done regarding the increasing number of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. It is interesting to note Hitler’s personal reaction to the conference:

“I can only hope and expect that the other world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals [Jews], will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.”

This statement parallels other plans and policies of the Nazi regime (e.g. the Madagascar Plan to deport the Jews to the island of Madagascar) to expel the Jews from Europe an resettle them wherever they would be accepted. It is clear from these plans and statements that Hitler really did not care less what happened to the Jews – he just wanted them out of the way. As such, it seems clear to me that the prospects for some arrangement being made were potentially quite good, if only the other nations of the world were willing to help. Apparently thinking along similar lines, an American observer at the conference wrote:

“It is heartbreaking to think of the …desperate human beings … waiting in suspense for what happens at Evian. But the question they underline is not simply humanitarian … it is a test of civilization.”

By my reckoning, civilization failed that test. Virtually all nations present, including the British Empire and the United States, refused to agree to any significant increase in the number of refugees they would accept. The Australian delegate T. W. White said “as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one”, echoing the casual anti-Semitic sentiment that was prevalent at the time through most of the Western World.

The failure of the rest of the world to aid Jewish refugees is highlighted by the case of the MS St. Louis, an ocean liner filled with over 900 Jewish refugees which was successively denied entry to Cuba, the United States, and Canada, before finally being forced to return to Europe. Eventually the UK agreed to take 288 of the passengers, with the remainder settled in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, an estimated 250 of whom were subsequently killed in the Holocaust.

Another conference was held in Bermuda between the UK and the US in 1943 concerning the question of Jewish refugees in occupied Europe. Once again, there was no change in policy: the US refused to increase its immigration quotas, and the UK refused to rescind its ban on Jewish refugees being allowed to enter British Palestine.

In December 1942, the Polish government-in-exile issued a report to the Allied government entitled “The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland”, in which they outlined evidence concerning the treatment of Jews in occupied Poland. There is much debate concerning exactly how much the allies knew, when they knew it, and what they could reasonably have done – for instance the debate in 1944 about the possibility of bombing the camp or railway yards at Auschwitz (which was decided in the negative). Although the question is a complex one, my impression of the matter is that the Allies took the matter far less seriously than they ought, and put far less than their maximum efforts into helping the Jewish peoples of Europe. Historian David S. Wyman wrote extensively about plausible additional actions the Allies could have taken in his book The Abandonment of the Jews.

None of this is intended to deny the brave actions of many men and women who risked their lives in various ways to shelter Jews and otherwise save them from deportation or execution. Many such persons are remembered by the Israeli state today as being among the ‘Righteous Among the Nations’. Unfortunately, there were far too few such brave individuals. To many Jews at the time, at must have seemed, as it is written, “surely there is not a righteous man upon earth.”

Conclusions

I think most people draw very much the wrong conclusions from the events of the Holocaust. The message of the Holocaust, in my view, is not that it was a crime so heinous that only a group so uniquely evil and depraved as the Nazis could have committed it. We cannot forget that many high-ranking Nazis were, at least on the surface, decent men who loved their families – indeed, many SS officers brought their families to live with them at the concentration camps.

The true message of the Holocaust, I think is how an underlying long-standing antipathy towards a particular identifiable group can, under the right circumstances, be seized upon and radicalised by a sufficiently motivated and well-organised minority group. It shows us how powerful the words and personality of a charismatic leader can be, and how powerful are social pressures to conform, to obey authority, to keep one’s head down and not make a fuss. Had we lived in that time, with the social pressures as they were and without the benefit of hindsight, I believe that most of us would have acted just as most Germans did – we would have done nothing. Indeed, are there not great calamities and injustices occurring around the world right now to which we react in much the same way?

The events of the Holocaust are, of course, grounded in a specific time and place in history. Nevertheless, I also think that these events exemplify certain primordial characteristics of human psychology – the tendency to conform, to obey authority, to care only for our own, to despise those who are different – of which we should always remain aware and wary. More than anything else, I think the Holocaust illustrates the potentially disastrous consequences of apathy, and the need to be constantly vigilant concerning the suffering of others. In the beautiful words of John Donne:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

If we are to prevent atrocities such as the Holocaust from occurring again, I think it is vitally important to be aware of the true history of these events, and not to sanitise them into simplistic narratives about a wicked few duping and coercing an entire nation to do their evil bidding. If we falsely see the Holocaust as an outcome solely of the Nazi’s unusual depravity and moral shortcomings of mid-20th century Germany, we miss the much broader lessons concerning human nature which this event has to show us, and we likewise ignore the possibility that the same human nature could once again, under the right circumstances, give rise to similarly horrific crimes. As Karl Jaspers said of the Holocaust, in words far more eloquent than mine:

“That which has happened is a warning. To forget it is guilt. It must be continually remembered. It was possible for this to happen, and it remains possible for it to happen again – at any minute.”

What Lennox Got Wrong: A Refutation of his Key Arguments

Synopsis

In this piece I offer a critique to some of the major arguments raised by John Lennox in his recent talks at Melbourne, both at the Friday night ‘Cosmic Chemistry’ public lecture, and also the Saturday ‘Reasons for Faith’ conference. Quotes that Lennox uttered over the course of these two events are presented at the beginning of each section in italics and quotation marks. These are taken from my notes made at the events in question. I have divided them up into topics, which I respond to in turn. The topics I address are: Lennox’s denial of evolutionary science, the argument that Christianity is responsible for the scientific revolution of the 17th century, the argument that language and semantic meaning cannot in principle be explained naturalistically, the notion that the very rational intelligibility of the universe must be taken for granted for science to even begin to function, the assertion that Christians were responsible for the abolition of slavery and the declarations of human rights, attacks on Atheism based on the evils done by Hitler and atheistic communist regimes, and the argument that without God there can be no objective grounding for morality. In general terms, I argue that Lennox misrepresents facts about history, fails to engage with philosophical disputes and the views of those thinkers who disagree with him, oversimplifies complex issues, and generally fails each time to present a cogent case for his arguments. (Note: Lennox also mentioned the evolutionary argument against naturalism, which I will not address here but will save for a future piece.)

Denial of Evolution

Lennox made a number of statements that were critical of evolution, or questioning of certain aspects of the current Neo-Darwinian consensus. In my view all of these arguments have been more than adequately refuted many times over by scholars far more learned than me, and such arguments are not taken seriously by biologists. As such, I don’t feel the need to rebut his claims specifically. I’m just going to list some of his most egregious assertions here for reference, as illustration of the profound extent to which of scientific denialism is to be heard even from a prominent mainstream Christian apologist such as Lennox.

  • “Where I have difficulty is in seeing this natural process (mutation and selection) as being creative, in the sense of generating new information. Evolution can explain about the survival of the fittest but not the origin of the fittest”
  • “You can arrange cars in a hierarchy, but that doesn’t mean that they are related…the tree of life has been turned upside down by biologists”
  • “Until you can give a mechanism for the progress of the lower organisms to the higher ones, you’ve just got an empty word (referring to the word ‘evolution’)
  • “Ideas coming out in the recent decades seriously questioning established wisdom…about the gradual accumulation of mutations” (note: I think what he was referring to here is growing evidence for punctuated equilibrium rather than gradualism, but he did not clarify this and made it seem that biologists were questioning evolution itself)
  • “I’m reacting as a non-biologist…but popular accepted wisdom in the blind watchmaker seems to be dying out”

The Christian Origins of Science

“Christian belief in God far from hindering science was actually the engine that drove it”
“Historically we owe modern science to Christianity”

A Dubious Thesis

The argument that Christian beliefs facilitated the scientific revolution in early modern Europe is not a new one. The usual argument goes that Christian belief in the presence of a lawgiver who created a universe governed by regular laws that we humans, imbued by God with the powers of reason, are capable of comprehending, was instrumental in facilitating the rise of the empirical scientific method in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. I have a number of comments about Lennox’s use of this argument. The first point to make is simply that this historical thesis is, at best, highly controversial, and Lennox really made no effort at all to substantiate it – he just asserted it as if it were a proven fact.

Second, it obviously is not the case that Christianity per se led to the scientific revolution, since Christianity was widespread in Europe for some thousand years before the scientific revolution, and it seems exceptionally implausible to argue that cause can proceed effect by over a millennium in this way. A more reasonable argument would be that some particular form of Christianity arising from the reformation, or as Lennox puts it “the particular way the reformers read the bible”, led to the genesis of science. But even this adjusted argument has major problems. For one thing, it is unable to explain why so much good science was done in Catholic countries (especially France and Italy; case in point – Galileo). Additionally, it’s not at all clear just what reading the bible has to do with science, or what specific beliefs were so new to the Reformers that could have been relevant to the scientific enterprise (the idea of natural law certainly wasn’t new, and some of the reformers, such as Luther, were actively hostile to human reason).

Science in Other Civilizations

Third, this explanation of the origins of science is just inconsistent with history. Much early pioneering mathematics and science was done in ancient Babylon, and more by the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Chinese in the first and early second millennium were advanced in many areas, notable inventions including movable type, gunpowder, banknotes. The Arab World for centuries led the Christian world in philosophy, science, and mathematics. If we are to take the religion argument seriously we would have to say that paganism, Buddhism/Confucianism, and Islam all at different times and different places contributed to the rise of science, but later stopped doing so as these regions ceased to be world scientific leaders. This seems quite ad hoc and to lack much of any explanatory power.

A far more plausible explanation, I think, is that scientific progress is the product of an immensely complex interplay of economic, political, social, environmental, and ideological factors, with religion at best playing a contributory, and by no means mono-directional role (i.e. the same religion could help or hinder science, depending upon the context). Lennox’s simplistic thesis totally fails to account for the facts, and is ridiculously naive in its oversimplification of historical reality. As such I see no reason to take it seriously as an argument for anything. Of course, I agree with Lennox that scientific progress is consistent with Christian belief, but that’s a much weaker and also, I think, far less interesting claim.

Explaining Language and Thought Naturalistically

“That writing there that you take to have meaning cannot be reduced to the physics and chemistry of the paper and ink on which these symbols appear…the problem is that it cannot be explained reductionistically”
“The one area when explanations do not move from the complex to the simple is in language”

Lennox made this argument in a number of different ways at different times. It was not entirely clear to me whether he was arguing that language cannot be explained by reductionistic/naturalistic means, or whether meaning itself cannot be so explained. I think probably what he meant was something like the semantic-bearing component of language – the fact that language means something – can’t in principle ever be explained by reductionistic materialism.

Theorists Who Disagree

Like the Christian origins of science, this issue is a very complex and controversial one; and yet as before, Lennox gave no hint of this in his presentation. He made no mention of thinkers like Paul and Patricia Churchland, David Marr, Daniel Dennett, Jerry Fodor, Hilary Putman, and many others who do think such a program is possible. Of course Lennox would also find support for his position in thinkers like John Searle (with is famous Chinese Room argument) and Rodger Penrose. My point here is not to decide that matter, but simply that the issue is a complex and controversial one, so Lennox’s confident claims that we can be sure that providing such an explanation is not possible are very difficult to justify – especially when he doesn’t even mention the controversy in the academic literature.

Progress in Semantics

Let me now consider whether we have made any progress in constructing a naturalistic explanation of meaning and/or semantic content. I’ll just list a few theories, schools of thought, and fields of research which I think are relevant:

  • Natural language processing
  • Context-free grammars
  • Semantic networks
  • Neural networks
  • Machine learning and pattern recognition
  • Formal semantics of logic (model-theoretic, proof-theoretic, and truth-value semantics)
  • Neurolinguistics
  • Machine translation
  • Computational linguistics
  • Neuroimaging and lesion analysis of brain regions associated with language

I am certainly not saying that these and similar fields or theories constitute a complete naturalistic explanation of the nature and genesis of meaning. Obviously we still have a great deal to learn, and much remains a mystery. What I am saying is that, as I think any honest analysis of these fields and theories will show, we have, over the past few decades, made considerable progress in understanding meaning and how the brain processes language, and there is ample reason to suppose that such progress will continue. Will there be absolute limits to this endeavour which leave any naturalistic explanation ultimately incomplete? Perhaps so, but my point here is that Lennox is dramatically overselling his case by simply asserting that this must be the case, ignoring the significant progress that has already been made in linguistics, computer science, psychology, and neuroscience, and also ignoring the significant philosophical disputes and complexities on the subject.

Understanding Reductionism

Furthermore, it seems patently false to say, as does Lennox, that ‘explanations of language are not reductionistic’. It’s true that such explanations do not attempt to reduce linguistic meaning to the physics and chemistry of the paper and ink, but that is a ridiculous strawman vision of the purpose of science and of the meaning of reductionism. We don’t attempt to reduce economic or sociological theories to chemistry and physics, but does that mean they are somehow mistaken or incomplete? Even biology cannot always be reduced to chemistry to any significant degree (e.g. we still don’t know the molecular bases of a good portion of biological functions).

Nonetheless, reductionistic explanations are still possible, if we think of them in the correct way. In the case of language, the reduction occurs by considering the symbols in which symbolic meaning is instantiated, and also the physical systems responsible for decoding those symbols (e.g. the human brain), and determining how they work. Current approaches in linguistics, machine translation, neuroscience, etc, are precisely reductionistic in this sense. But no sensible person thinks the meaning of symbols is to be found in a chemical analysis of the paper and ink. I find Lennox’s claim about this to be a totally bizarre strawman argument.

The Rational Intelligibility of the Universe

“Physics is powerless to explain its faith in the intelligibility of the universe, because you have to accept this before you even do any physics”

Intelligibility as a Working Hypothesis

I have always found this claim puzzling. It sounds to me like arguing that one needs to believe that a particular cake recipe will taste good, and that one will be able to follow all the steps of the recipe successfully, before one can even begin to bake the cake. Of course, I need not believe any such thing; all I need to believe is that these things might be true, and that it is worth my while to give it a try to see if they are or not. In my view, this is precisely what happens in science. We cannot say ex ante that a given theory or technique will work, or whether some phenomena will even be rationally intelligible at all – but nor do we need to. We try a bunch of different approaches and see if any of them work. If not, we try something else. Perhaps there will come a time when we say ‘we have tried every conceivable scientific approach to answer this question and all have failed, so it’s time to give up and admit defeat’. But I do not think we are in that situation about any topic of importance in science at the moment.

Lennox does think we are in that situation with respect to the origin of life: he said “if there is no possible natural explanation for the origin of life what you’d expect is for all attempts to do so will fail, and the problem will just get worse over time, and this is exactly what we have seen since the Urey-Miller experiments in the 1950s”. Looking at the state of the literature in that field I can’t say I agree with his assessment at all. Nonetheless, my point remains: just as we don’t have to believe that we can successfully bake a delicious cake in order to try out a recipe, so too we don’t have to believe that the universe necessarily is rationally intelligible in order to try out the scientific method and see if it works.

Lennox’s Questionable Axiom

While I am on the subject of foundational axiomatic beliefs, I will quote another thing Lenox said: “There is a basic axiom behind everything I do, and it’s a biblical axiom”. (Rom 1:19) ‘for what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it…so they are without excuse'”

I’m not precisely sure what Lennox was claiming to be his axiom here – that the bible is true, or that the world of God is plainly revealed in the bible, or that God has plainly revealed himself to the world? Whatever the case, I would wonder what justification Lennox would offer for this axiom, and why he considers it to be more plausible than, or superior to, the empirically far more successful presupposition of science that the universe is rationally intelligible. If he is allowed to adopt this highly controversial axiom without any particular justification, why cannot science proceed on the basis of a (generally less controversial) axiom (or as I prefer to think of it, a working hypothesis) that the universe (or parts thereof) is rationally intelligible?

Christian Contributions to Society

“It was Christians who helped with the abolition of slavery”
“Christianity is behind the declaration of human rights”
“So many of our institutions, universities, hospitals, and so on, are due to Christianity”

I generally find these sorts of arguments irrelevant and rather silly. They always seem to end in a game of counting up Gandhis verses Stalins on each side in a futile attempt at one-upmanship. This proves nothing either way – Christianity could be beneficial and false, and vice-versa for Atheism. That said, I do want to address the factual accuracy of some of Lennox’s claims here, because I think he is playing a bit fast and loose with the truth, and that is something I find objectionable.

Christianity and Abolitionism

Were Christians the leading proponents of the abolition of slavery? Certainly the early abolitionist movement in the UK was led by a number of religious figures, including evangelical Anglican William Wilberforce and the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which was founded mostly by Quakers. On the other hand, virtually everyone in the UK at that time was a Christian of some form, so it’s not completely clear what this tells us. If anything the main distinction of relevance seems to have been between mainstream Christian groups such as Anglicans on the one hand, and Dissenters (who were not eligible to serve in parliament) such as Quakers and Anabaptists on the other. So at best the UK abolitionist history gives us mixed support for Lennox’s thesis.

If we consider the situation in France, we note that the abolition of slavery first occurred under the First Republic in 1794 led by Robespierre, famous for his dechristianization policies and advocacy of the Cult of the Supreme Being, a rationalistic Deistic religion designed to replace Christianity as the French religion. Prior to the revolution, enlightenment figures such as Montesquieu had also argued against slavery. I’m not exactly sure what his religious views were, but he certainly is not strongly associated with any particular Christian group. Thus the French case does not appear to support Lennox’s thesis: the early abolitionist movement was largely non-Christian in origin. Note that after the revolution slavery was reinstated by Napoleon, who was a Catholic.

In the United States, the abolitionist movement was also in large part spearheaded by Quakers. On the other hand, as in the UK, virtually all those who opposed abolitionism were also Christians. Consider, for example, Virginian Baptist minister Thornton Stringfellow, who defended the institution of slavery on various biblical grounds. So once again we find mixed evidence.

So putting it all together, did Christians help with the abolition of slavery? Most definitely, especially the Quakers and other nonconformist groups. Did Christians hinder the abolition of slavery? Most definitely. Did non-Christians help the abolition of slavery? Definitely, as we see from Robespierre. Were there non-Christians who hindered the abolition of slavery? Probably: Hume had some rather unsavoury views about Negros, so he might be an example, though I’m not sure what his views were on slavery per se. My point here is that Lennox was just not being careful when he spoke about this. The facts are so much more complex, and it’s by no means clear that the reality of history supports his implication that Christianity per se (as opposed to people who were Christians) was instrumental for the abolition of slavery.

Christianity and Human Rights

Lennox’s claim that “Christianity is behind the declaration of human rights” is an intriguing one. I wonder which declaration he is referring to – there have been many. Perhaps he is referring to the famous statement from the American Declaration of Independence: “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”. If so, it is very dubious indeed to say that ‘Christianity’ was behind this declaration, as a number of the most prominent of the Founding Fathers were either Deists or held various hybrid beliefs that some scholars have described as ‘Theistic Rationalism’. The famous 1798 Treaty of Tripoli also states “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion”. The precise meaning of this statement has been debated, but I think there is ample reason to be dubious of the notion that Christianity was “behind” this statement in the American Declaration of Independence.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which was passed by the French National Assembly following the French Revolution, was very much a secular document with derived much of its intellectual heritage from Enlightenment thought, which was in general not atheistic, but also seldom supported traditional Christianity either. So considering these two cases, we once again find a much more complex and messy picture than is painted by Lennox. Christians were certainly involved in the early declarations of human rights, but to say that ‘Christianity’ as such was ‘behind them’ I think is a gross misstatement of history.

I think my point has already been sufficiently made, so I won’t comment specifically about hospitals and universities (look up ‘hospital’ on Wikipedia – Christians hardly invented them). I restate my core objection: Lennox’s history is sloppy, and his conclusions drastically oversimplified and premature.

The Evils of Atheism

“A corollary to this argument is that atheism is to blame for nothing…Imagine a world without Stalin. Without Hitler and Pol Pot”
“They (atheists) do not want anyone to draw a comparison between the communist attempts to obliterate religion and the current New Atheist attempts”
“The amount of blood that has been spilled by atheistic philosophies is colossal”

I’m not entirely sure why Lennox even brought this topic up. I don’t think he was arguing that Atheism was false because it has (allegedly) led to these evils. So why mention them in the context of a discussion about ‘reasons for faith’ and ‘science and faith’? These statements seem to be an almost complete red herring.

Hitler was no Atheist

There are many other problems with Lennox’s remarks here. First of all, he seems to be implying that Hitler was an atheist. Lennox did not say so explicitly, but he did say ‘atheism is to blame’, and then mentioned Hitler in between the names of two very staunchly atheistic communists (Stalin and Pol Pot), so I think it is legitimate to infer that he was at least implying that Hitler was an atheist. As anyone who has investigated the topic knows, the religious views of Adolf Hitler are a highly complex and controversial subject (I’m getting tired of saying this actually). Hitler made numerous statements on the subject that were often unclear or potentially contradictory. He certainly didn’t approve of mainstream Christianity, but of course that doesn’t make him an atheist. I personally don’t think the evidence supports the notion that Hitler was an atheist – I think he had too much of a sense of destiny and teleology for that view to make sense (though he wasn’t a very deep thinker so he might have just been inconsistent). Either way, I certainly think that casually throwing in Hitler in this way and implying that he was an Atheist is at best intellectually lazy, and at worst intellectually dishonest.

Atheism and Communism

As to the remark that atheists “do not want anyone to draw a comparison between the communist attempts to obliterate religion and the current New Atheist attempts” – is that supposed to come as a surprise? What Lennox is doing here is a dishonest and misleading bait and switch. Communism was atheistic, therefore contemporary atheists (or atheism generally) necessarily have some connection to the deeds of past Communist regimes. If this notion were to be applied consistently, it would mean that Christianity would have some necessary connection with the evils of the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch hunts, anti-Semitism across history, and any number of other evils perpetrated in the name of Christianity. Lennox argued that such evils should not be placed at the feet of Christianity because Jesus would have abhorred such things, and “no one who disobeys Jesus is a true Christian”. This is just the No True Scotsman fallacy – every Christian who does evil is not really Christian, but every Atheist who does evil is still a perfectly ‘real’ atheist.

Lennox’s Double Standards

Lennox, rightly, does not want to be associated with those Christians who advocated religious warfare or defended slavery on biblical grounds. Similarly, I do not want to be associated with communist leaders like Stalin and Pol Pot. For starters, I (like I think most atheists) am not a communist, and do not agree with much of their philosophy or politics. Furthermore, even modern-day communists generally deny that Stalin or Pol Pot (etc) were real or true communists. They were not following Marx’s actual teachings, nor would Marx have approved of their actions, so how could they be real Marxists? Sound familiar? Anyone can play this game.

I’m quite happy to agree that Stalin was an atheist. So what? Why would we think that his atheism was responsible for his crimes. He was also a Georgian – maybe that was to blame. Or maybe it was because he attended seminary. Or maybe it was because he had a moustache. Hitler had a moustache too, and modern-day moustache-wearers don’t like to compare Hitler’s and Stalin’s moustaches with their own pro-facial hair positions. To (mis)quote Lennox: it’s very important that we realise where the facial hair bus is going before we get on.

The Impossibility of Naturalistic Ethics

“The problem (with naturalistic ethical theories) is that if you leave god out and elevate any of these systems to the top, you run into serious problems. Well Hitler decided that the maximum benefit to the maximum number of people was to eliminate the Jews, Poles”
“On what principle can we say ‘Hitler you’ve got to obey this’? Why?”
“If there is no external basis for morality external to morality, how can any conception of morality be anything other than the mere opinion?”

Most Atheist Philosophers are Realists

This is another common apologetic argument – without God there can be no objective grounding for morality. Often this is defended by invoking certain quotes from Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, and others (in a manner that I think misrepresents their views, but I won’t get into that here). I always find this strategy to be rather dishonest: selectively quote-mine some nihilistic or apparently nihilistic philosophers, whilst ignoring the fact that 59% of philosophers who are atheists are also moral realists (compared to 81% of theists – not actually such a big difference). So prima facie this argument already faces an uphill battle – most philosophers don’t buy it.

But what of Lennox’s specific arguments for this thesis? He didn’t actually offer many. At least in my experience, this is another common apologist tactic: to simply repeatedly assert that there is no objective morality without God, without actually giving any clear argument as to why this is the case.

Hitler was no Utilitarian

First let’s look at the case of Hitler. To begin with I’ll just say that its absurd to speak as if Hitler was a utilitarian in any sense. It is totally disingenuous of Lennox to make this insinuation. But even if Hitler had said that “the maximum benefit to the maximum number of people was to eliminate the Jews”, he would have been wrong. It’s hard to define what is meant by ‘benefit’ here, but however we cash out the concept (suffering, utility, human flourishing, whatever), it seems incontrovertible that the Holocaust did not promote human benefit. How could the Nazis get around this? They could, and in fact did, argue that Jews were sub-human, and therefore not worthy of ethical consideration. But how did they defend this assertion? They used pseudoscientific arguments drawn from bad anthropology and worse social Darwinism. They used misrepresentations of history and manipulation of contemporary social indicators (e.g. the Nazis argued that hardly any Jews fought for Germany in WWI, illustrating their cowardice, but this was just factually incorrect).

So the Nazi justification for oppressing the Jews was based upon bad reasoning and inaccurate information. As such, we can marshal any number of reasons against their contention that ‘the Jews were subhuman’, without invoking God at all. Indeed, God contributes nothing to this analysis. There’s nothing surprising about this. When we think about why the Nazis were wrong, we talk about the horrific harm they did, and the false beliefs they had about race (among other things). God does not figure into the explanation at all. No appeal to a creator is needed to understand that Auschwitz was a horrific crime – the suffering and death of so many sentient beings speaks for itself.

Why be Moral?

But suppose our imaginary utilitarian-Hitler were to really push the gauntlet. Suppose he were to say “I’m not saying the Jews are subhuman in any real biological sense. I’m just saying that I don’t wish to accord them any moral value. My moral framework only accords moral value to Aryans. Thus the Holocaust, by benefitting Aryans, was a morally good action according to my utilitarian framework.” This would be where Lennox would insert his rejoinder: “on what principle can we say ‘Hitler you’ve got to obey this’? Why?” How can the naturalist say that Hitler is wrong about not according moral value to Jews? Well, I think the naturalist can make an argument about that, but it would take rather a long time to explain, because meta-ethics is complicated.

For now, let me just reverse the challenge: what can the theist say to Hitler? According Jews zero moral value is wrong because God says so? Why should Hitler care what God says, even if he did believe that God exists? Who says that God gets to dictate morality? God said that? But that’s circular: Hitler says that he gets to dictate morality. Is it because God is all powerful? That’s just a variant of might makes right. Perhaps Hitler might be persuaded by that sort of argument, but the naturalist likely will not. God gets to dictate morality because God is good? But how can you say ‘God is good’ without antecedently having a concept of what the good actually is? Good with reference to what standard of good – God’s own standard? Hitler too was good by his own standard of good; why is God’s standard superior? Because he is more powerful? Now we are back to might makes right.

These are deep questions, and of course this brief post will by no means exhaust the debate. But hopefully I have illustrated my main point: Lennox has got a lot more work to do if we wishes to show that theistic ethics succeeds where non-theistic ethics fails.

Subjective doesn’t mean ‘Not Real’

Let me address a final comment Lennox made: “If there is no external basis for morality external to morality, how can any conception of morality be anything other than the mere opinion?” I find this to be a strange thing to say. First of all, I don’t think any naturalist would want to say that there was ‘no external basis’ for morality. Surely morality would be based on the interactions and circumstances of people (and perhaps also animals), facts about the external world which are not ‘mere opinion’. But I think perhaps what Lennox means is something like “why would any statement to the effect that we should place value on some external state of affairs be anything other than mere opinion?”

In responding to this, I want to draw attention to the phrase “mere opinion”. I would ask Lennox why he thinks that ‘opinion’ is necessarily ‘mere’ in any sense? Why should the fact that something is solely the product of human evaluative opinion make it any less real or important? Is the beauty of Mozart’s music ‘merely’ human opinion? The fact that money is valuable is certainly the product of ‘mere human opinion’ – there’s no value to money outside of the value we place on it. Similarly with language – there’s no meaning at all to the sound ‘tree’ other than that we humans place on it as a result of our subjective opinion. Would Lennox also ask “if there is no external basis for the value of money, how can any conception of the value of money be anything other than mere opinion”? Of course the value of money is ‘merely opinion’, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value, or that the value of money is somehow less ‘real’.

And to push the analogy further, if a divine being declared that money was valuable by fiat, that wouldn’t actually change anything. People would still only place value on money if in their opinion it had value (this is why governments do not always succeed in having their fiat currencies accepted by the population). Likewise for language: the best attempts of the Académie Française aside, no external being or body can imbue meaning in a word by fiat, unless people themselves also had a subjective sense that this is indeed what the word means. All the world’s governments could declare tomorrow that ‘green’ actually means ‘blue’, but unless people’s subjective opinions on the matter also changed in this way, the governments would simply be wrong – the words would not mean that. Furthermore, people may disagree about the beauty of a Mozart piece, of the value of a particular currency, or the meaning of a word. But such disagreement does not entail the fact that ‘all opinions are equally valid’, or that all such talk is meaningless and without meaning or real purpose.

My point here is not to say that morality is the same as aesthetic value, or monetary value, or linguistic meaning. Obviously there are differences. My point is simply that things can be both ‘mere opinion’ and still also be perfectly real and meaningful. If Lennox wishes to argue that morality is useless or meaningless if it is ‘mere opinion’, then he will need to present a cogent argument to that effect – something he did not do in his presentations.

Conclusion

Though he did say some things that I agreed with, such as calling for more civil dialogue between believers and non-believers and rightly calling out many of the New Atheist thinkers for their sloppy philosophy, overall I was disappointed with Lennox’s presentations. I felt that his arguments were, generally speaking, unstructured, sloppily presented, imprecisely expressed, and inadequately researched. He frequently oversimplified complicated and controversial questions, and seemed far too willing to dismiss the fact that a sizeable majority of experts in the relevant field disagree with his opinion (e.g. in the case of evolution and his views about moral realism and theism). Of course Lennox’s time was limited, so he was unable to go into complete depth on any subject, but he did have over four hours in total at his disposal, and I think he could have done much more than he did in that time. Overall I did not find the case that Lennox presented for Christianity to be very compelling at all, nor do I think it dealt very directly or ably with any of the core philosophical questions at the heart of the dispute. In my view, Christian apologetics deserves better than this.

PolesWikipedia: The Poles are a nation of predominantly West Slavic ethnic origin who are native to East-Central Europe, inhabiting mainly Poland. The present population of Poles living in Poland is estimated at 36,522,000 out of the overall Poland population of 38,512,000. The preamble to the Constitution of the Republic of Poland defines the Polish nation as comprising all the citizens of Poland.