Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor who endured the horrors of Auschwitz, astutely commented on the way that modern European thought had helped prepare the way for Nazi atrocities (and his own misery). He stated, “If we present a man with a concept of man which is not true, we may well corrupt him. When we present man as an automaton of reflexes, as a mind-machine, as a bundle of instincts, as a pawn of drives and reactions, as a mere product of instinct, heredity, and environment, we feed the nihilism to which modern man is, in any case, prone. I became acquainted,” Frankl continued, “with the last stage of that corruption in my second concentration camp, Auschwitz. The gas chambers of Auschwitz were the ultimate consequence of the theory that man is nothing but the product of heredity and environment—or, as the Nazi liked to say, of ‘Blood and Soil.’ I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some Ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and in the lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers.”
On a trip to Russia just after the collapse of communism in 1991, I had a conversation with a Marxist scholar who was devastated by revelations about the horrors just then coming to light in his country. “I had no idea things like this were taking place,” he said. “I became a communist with the best of ideals, to fight racism and poverty, to bring about a just society. Now I learn that we created a monster. We saw evil in others—the capitalists, the rich, the exploisters—but not in ourselves. I have learned to distrust any utopian philosophy, especially one that sets ‘us’ against ‘them.’ The danger of evil is inside of all of us, rich or poor, socialist or capitalist.”
Christianity argues that every human heart is capable of good and evil. Every human being is capable of better and worse, right and wrong, true and false. That is a hallmark of Christian thinking (it is a hallmark of classical thinking as well)… Since we’ve jettisoned that, notice what’s happened here. Some people are pure hearted and others not. We no longer believe that everyone is capable of evil. If you’re African-American, for instance, in a university setting you cannot be racist because of the power structure is against you. If you’re poor, the 99%, you can’t be greedy—it’s only that 1%. What’s happened now that we’ve jettisoned Christianity, not only are you jettisoning the soul, not only are you jettisoning transcendence, not only are you jettisoning free will, you are also jettisoning this idea that we are all morally capable in our hearts of choosing one way or another. So we have entire demographics now who are innocent, no matter what they do, and other demographics . . . no matter what you do, if you are Caucasian, you are guilty of all this litany of sins. This is regressive. This is not progressive. This is anti-rational, it is not rational. This is racism and bigotry masquerading as progressivism.
Those seeking to condemn religion as the great source of human violence will inevitably cite the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. Those seeking to defend religious faith and place the blame for human atrocity elsewhere will invariably respond by pointing to the Holocaust and the Gulag…
At the root of these atrocities, whether they are classified as “religious” or “secular,” we find neither religion or ideology. These atrocities and all atrocities are the product of human nature. It is our inborn inclination to pursue our own self-interest and to disregard the interests of those outside our particular group . . . that drives humans to enslave and kill. And it is because humans are born with this evil inclination that genocide and slavery have been so common in so many of our cultures for so long.
The great insight of the Judeo-Christian tradition is that we are the source of evil in the world. The great promise of the Judeo-Christian tradition is its power to inspire men to overcome evil in their hearts…
Modern ideologies such as Nazism and Communism, by contrast, did not seek to transcend human nature, but to empower it. These new ideologies turbo-charged our natural selfishness and encouraged it as the greatest good. Elevating and unleashing humanities dangerous impulses was a perilous enterprise. Genocide was as certain as the sunrise.
The point is this: Communism and Nazism were not evil ideologies that coincidentally rejected the Judeo-Christian idea. These ideologies were evil precisely because they rejected the Judeo-Christian idea.