In an article I posted recently, I received a comment that went as follows:
“BertB, Possible subject for a future piece of yours: In Survey of Which Groups Need More TV Representation, Atheists are dead last.”
It’s true. Atheists are not very popular in this country. That is not surprising, when you realize that at least a third of the people in the US identify themselves as evangelical Christians, and about two thirds as Christians. Obviously, those folks don’t have much use for atheists.
Two hundred years ago, abolitionists were pretty damned unpopular in this country. In fact, even after the Civil War, the Catholic Church still condoned slavery. In 1866 The Holy Office of Pope Pius IX affirmed that, subject to conditions, it was not against divine law for a slave to be sold, bought or exchanged.[i]
Seventy five years ago, if you lived in Germany, defending or hiding Jews could get you thrown in jail, or worse. The Catholic Church cooperated with Nazis to identify and round up Jews to be sent to death camps and gas chambers. it seems that, for many Germans, adherence to the Christian faith proved compatible with at least passive acquiescence in, if not active support for, the Nazi dictatorship.
In his review of Guenter Lewy’s book, “The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany,” Gary McGath notes:
“The leading Catholic bishops in the early thirties disliked the rise of liberalism and individualism with the Weimar Republic. Many of them saw National Socialism, with its stress on authority and nationalism, as a correction to this, as well as a defense against atheistic Communism. As the outrages under Hitler grew, their support only became stronger, with a pronounced shift from national loyalty to personal loyalty to the Führer.
Lewy notes the courageous exceptions, such as Alfred Delp, who joined the resistance and was executed. He discusses some issues, such as the execution of the ill and forced sterilization, where church leaders did speak out, sometimes with positive effect. He cites the many local priests who were sent to concentration camps. But he leaves no doubt that the Catholic leadership in Germany gave a disgraceful degree of support to Hitler’s government and generally remained silent on its atrocities and aggression.
The book covers the role of the Vatican in less detail, but doesn’t let Popes Pius XI and XII off lightly. They maintained a policy of strict neutrality, and Pius XII encouraged the Catholics of England, France, Germany, and Italy to kill each other with God’s blessing. While the Vatican offered sanctuary to Jews in Italy, Pius XII never denounced the Nazi persecution, and the Church never excommunicated Hitler. The excuse is commonly offered that doing so would have increased the persecution of Catholics; the truth, according to Lewy, is that German Catholics would have revolted against an explicit denunciation of the Nazis.Any institution which is over 1500 years old has learned to protect its existence and make deals. Perhaps nothing more could have been expected of the Catholic Church under the circumstances. But other institutions in Germany have at least admitted the wrongfulness of the support they gave to the Nazis. Since the Catholic Church claims to be divinely inspired, an admission of institutional guilt borders on blasphemy. Nonetheless, it needs to admit it.”[ii]
Of course, if you go back further in history, to the Crusades and the Inquisition, the atrocities committed by the Catholic Church are beyond belief. Killing people for what they believe is despicable. The case of Giordano Bruno is a hideous example. Bruno, a Dominican friar, mathematician and cosmological theorist, was a follower of Copernicus and Galileo. He understood that the earth was not the center of the Universe, but merely a planet circling the sun. For this and other heresies, he was chained to a stake and burned to death by the Church.
Has the Church changed since their participation in these horrific atrocities? The current adamant opposition of the Church to the funding of family planning services in Africa gives the answer. They favor uncontrolled population growth and the spread of STD’s in those poor countries. I need no further evidence to convince me that my unpopular atheism is preferable.
I would far, far prefer to be an unpopular atheist than to carry the baggage that Catholics must carry to support their church.