Levinas, Hitlerism, and New Atheist Revisionism

In marked contrast to New Atheist writers Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, who blame religion for Hitler’s crimes, French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (above) saw Nazism as profoundly antireligious. Credit: Creative Commons/Bracha L. Ettinger.

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, it became fashionable to view religion primarily as a source of strife. Future historians may view the rise of an intolerant new antireligious movement, New Atheism, as part of the generalized overreaction to the horror of September 11—an overreaction that also included the use of torture and mass detention, the abandonment of trial by jury, and the misguided American invasion of Iraq.

Like other atheists, the so-called New Atheists believe that there is no supernatural reality or God. But the more combative New Atheists go beyond this in claiming 1) that the religious impulse is always irrational and in opposition to reason; 2) that there is an objective secular moral standard that reason or science can apprehend; and 3) that the application of this standard leads to the conclusion that religion itself (rather than its extreme forms) is inherently dangerous and unworthy of respect. In the Guardian, just after September 11, Richard Dawkins laid out this view, writing that previously, “many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense,” but “September 11th changed all that. Revealed faith is not harmless nonsense, it can be lethally dangerous nonsense.… Let’s now stop being so damned respectful!”

Two of the most prominent and popular New Atheists—Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens—have engaged in a sweeping historical revisionism that goes so far as to blame religion for the genocidal crimes of Hitler and Stalin.

Ironically, near the start of the twenty-first century, even as middlebrow opinion was turning against religion, a noteworthy number of philosophy scholars began to turn toward religion as a source of secular ethical reasoning. This was illustrated by the title and argument of Hent de Vries’s Philosophy and the Turn to Religion (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999). De Vries’s work took much of its argument from the tradition of French phenomenology, notably philosophers Jean-Luc Marion, Jacques Derrida, and Emmanuel Levinas.

An examination of the life and work of Levinas in relation to these twenty-first-century developments offers fresh insight into both the historical revisionism of the New Atheists and philosophy scholars’ renewed interest in religion.

The work of Levinas was central in the turn of serious moral philosophy toward religion, and his life story is a testament to the enduring value of religious tolerance and of Judaism itself as a force for good in the world. Moreover, his article “The Philosophy of Hitlerism” illustrates the inaccuracy of many of the historical claims of the New Atheists as they relate to Nazism in particular. In marked contrast to the New Atheists, he described Nazism as profoundly antireligious and crudely materialistic—“an urging of the blood.” A careful look at the real historical experience of an intellectual “religious renaissance” in the immediate aftermath of World War II supports Levinas’s analysis, further calling into question the historical revisionism in the narrative of Nazism and Stalinism offered by the New Atheists.

Levinas’s Theory of Ethical Responsibility

Levinas was certainly one of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century. His basic contribution was his conviction that ethics precedes ontology as the first basis of philosophy. His 1995 New York Times obituary notes:

Instead of the thinking “I” epitomized in “I think, therefore I am”—the phrase with which Rene Descartes launched much of modern philosophy—Dr. Levinas began with an ethical “I.” For him, even the self is possible only with its recognition of “the Other,” a recognition that carries responsibility toward what is irreducibly different.

Whereas German philosopher and sometime Nazi sympathizer Martin Heidegger focuses on the meaning of individual being, Levinas—specifically reacting to Heidegger’s integration of Nazi ideology with the philosophy of Being—seeks to restore the social nature of human life. Being, and the related “will to power,” must be checked by our ethical responsibility to our fellow human beings.

While this may sound abstract, it does jibe with the most fundamental human experience. From the beginning of life, we are dependent upon others for our very survival, and this fact holds true to the very end, when we entrust our bodies to others for a dignified disposal of our remains.

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