Holocaust Remembrance Day

I’m used to creationists. Every day, I get up, check my email, and get questions straight from the Index of Creationist Claims. Drawings of dinosaurs that prove people lived with dinosaurs, the young sun would have been too cold, the ocean has too much salt, etc. It’s fun. I point people toward resources to clarify their scientific claims, then start digging into the real issue: their misunderstanding of the relation between science and religion. “No,” I explain, “you don’t have to give up your religious faith in order to accept the scientific evidence.” And that sometimes leads to other discussions.

I also get to work with great advocates of science, some of them here at NCSE, others in Citizens for Science groups around the country, or folks who don’t know that they have a support system. It’s been great to see the citizens of Florida rise up against the creeping silliness of their Board of Education and then their legislature, both times winning out against long odds.

I say this only to make the point that I have no beef with creationists, and if Expelled were just a creationist movie, I’d be a bemused critic. But, it doesn’t just trot out creationist claptrap, it deals in vicious and offensive attempts to rewrite history. It was released the weekend of Passover, it uses Jewish spokesman Ben Stein, and continues running through Holocaust Remembrance Day, all the while twisting the history of the Holocaust to petty political ends.

Consider, for instance, Ben Stein’s comments on Trinity Broadcast Network:

[T]he last time any of my relatives saw scientists telling them what to do they were telling them to go to the showers to get gassed … that was horrifying beyond words, and that?s where science — in my opinion, this is just an opinion — that?s where science leads you. …Love of God and compassion and empathy leads you to a very glorious place, and science leads you to killing people.

The host of things wrong with this is shocking. It hardly matters that the SS guards in Auschwitz weren’t scientists, and that those killed by the Nazis included scientists. It hardly matters that the Nazis banned books advocating “the superficial scientific enlightenment of a primitive Darwinism.” It hardly matters that Hitler and the SS drew great inspiration and support from both Catholic and Protestant tradition.

What offends me here is not Ben Stein’s casual disregard for the truth. He put words in the mouth of liar, crook, warmonger, antisemite, racist and generally horrible human being Richard Nixon, what can one expect? My issue is not even that Stein knows what he’s saying is wrong; in 2006, he wrote a column discussion Hadamar, a Nazi facility at the center of Expelled. “Nazis,” the Ben Stein of 2006 explained, “believed thoroughly in a vicious corruption of Malthusian economics.” Not only is he right that Malthus is a better historical precedent, but he’s right to call what the Nazis did “a vicious corruption.” No such qualifications made it into his movie (filmed just a year later). Indeed, at that time he rightly commented that no ideology persisted in America which posed a threat on par with Holocaust:

As I thought about this horror show and walked among the markers, I wondered if we in America were unintentionally following any similarly sickeningly mistaken ideas. Is there some Thomas Malthus in our economics policy-making world who is proposing seemingly scientific theories that will eventually be misused to take innocent life?

Thankfully, and this is a great credit to American policy, I could not think of any. Despite our problems, ? we do not have any doctrine that could be warped to say it was sensible to kill the innocent on economic grounds, at least not on a mass basis.

No, the rank dishonesty isn’t what bothers me. At least not today, on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

What bothers me is that Stein here is taking a horrific event, a horrific moment in human history, and twisting it for his petty goals. Instead of looking at it for what it is, a stain on the soul of every man, woman and child alive now or then, a perfect example of the dangers that follow from blind nationalism, prejudice, political abuse of science, propaganda, and blind faith in our elected leaders, Stein chooses to demonize his political enemies and point fingers of erroneous blame at them.

There’s a reason that Yiddish speakers refer to the Holocaust as “The Third Destruction.” The Holocaust, like the destructions of the first and second temples, was a result of many forces, and anyone who tries to claim that science is necessary for such slaughter is sadly ill-informed not only about the Holocaust, and about Jewish history, but about recent history. The fastest slaughter of human beings in history was carried out in Rwanda, and generally involved nothing more technically sophisticated than organized crowds with machetes and clubs. John Derbyshire is too kind in saying that Expelled is “a blood libel on our civilization.” The blood from the victims of these and the many genocides recorded throughout human history properly belong to us all. Stein wants to excuse himself and his friends from any of that stain, and instead to shift it to his political enemies.

Today, Stein is coming for the scientists. Derbyshire is right to stand up, even though he’s not a scientist. It is through such acts of courage that we atone for the sins of our forefathers, for the history of pogroms, of wars of conquest, the killing fields that stretch back to throughout the human family tree. We remember that the enemies of our better angels have always sought to divide us, and that we must remember in order to heal.


  1. #1 Martin Robbins
    May 2, 2008

    @Joshua: ‘”No,” I explain, “you don’t have to give up your religious faith in order to accept the scientific evidence.” And that sometimes leads to other discussions.’

    So how does it make you feel when the likes of PZ Myers tell you otherwise?

  2. #2 Josh Rosenau
    May 3, 2008

    Meh, we disagree on that.

  3. #3 Joel
    May 3, 2008

    So how does it make you feel when the likes of PZ Myers tell you otherwise?

    Whether what is observed through science is reason to give up your religious faith is a matter of opinion. If some have decided that science and faith are incompatible their decision to make.

  4. #4 Ron Hager
    May 3, 2008

    Occasionally, people tell me that for them science and faith are compatible. Then subsequent discussions reveal that they are only willing to accept science until it is incompatible with their religious beliefs.

  5. #5 Blind Squirrel FCD
    May 4, 2008

    Generally good post, but there is one thing I feel I must set you straight upon. The holocaust is not a stain on my “soul” any more than Stalin’s 20 million or Rawanda or the Armenian genocide or any of the Yahweh ordered genocides of the so-called “good book” Got it?

  6. #6 Monado, FCD
    May 4, 2008

    In my opinion, Prof. Myers speaks from mistaken zeal. He sees the evils that have been committed in the name of religion for centuries and he perhaps naively believes that if we got rid of religion, we’d get rid of massacres, genocides, and Grand Schemes that include mass murder. Certainly relgion has been an engine of such debacles. But one need look no further than Stalin, Mao Zedung, and Pol Pot to see that religion is not necessaryóone needs only fanatical dedication to an ideal and a desire to make other people live the way you want them to.

    But a skeptical habit of mind and “show me” attitude do not help people to keep blind faith.

  7. #7 Josh in California
    May 4, 2008

    I think you’ve created a bit of a straw PZ there.

    Getting rid of religion would not stop humans from treating each other badly, but religious beliefs often harm people by making them less skeptical, promoting binary thinking, and conditioning them to blindly follow authority.

    Is religion the only source of this kind of mental poison? No. I’d rank extreme nationalism as number two behind religion, and the tribalistic, lobotomized kind of politics that we have in America as number three.

    Just because PZ focuses on religion doesn’t mean that he thinks that getting rid of it would solve all the world’s problems. (It would go a long way to solving a lot of America’s problems, though… Religious extremists have sunk their claws deeply into American politics.)

  8. #8 Josh Rosenau
    May 4, 2008

    Blind Squirrel: “Got it?”

    No. I’m saying that these tragedies are results of human failings, and that unless we recognize that we are all susceptible to the forces which produced those genocides. Blood and Soil, which I mentioned above, cites “not only racial and religious hatreds but also other idealist cults of ancient glory or pristine purity, more modern concepts of biological contamination, and varied historical forms of agrarian romanticism and other obsessions with land use.”

    I cannot tell whether your point is to absolve yourself of any of the weight from these historical and current crimes, or simply to emphasize that the stain from these horrors rests more lightly on you than on their perpetrators. If the former, I respectfully disagree. If the latter, I agree, and hope that was clear already, though it should also be clear that I don’t think “the good book” or religion in general can be set aside as the sole explanatory factor for those incidents.

  9. #9 Blind Squirrel FCD
    May 4, 2008

    As I said,a generally good post. I will even let your use of the term “soul” pass; after all, you didn’t call it immortal and I don’t have a better word for what it is that makes us so unique ( or at least gives us a useful illusion of uniqueness).

    Certainly these tragedies were caused by human failings; they weren’t caused by volcanic eruption or a giant meteor strike. I will grant you that in other circumstances I would have been capable of such atrocities, i.e. loving, nurturing parents who happened to be rabid fascists, that sort of thing.

    Where I get off is when you use the phrase “stain on my soul” to indicate a flaw in me in the here and now. I didn’t commit any atrocities and I wouldn’t now if I had the opportunity. This sounds a whole hell (heh) of a lot like the concept of original sin which leads to infant condemnation.

    Consider that we have a lot of flaws in our bodies, weak vertical spine, vermiform appendix, etc. Would you call them a stain on our biology? They simply are and we have to deal with them.

    No, I don’t believe religion is the sole (heh) cause, neither does it seem to be a very effective cure. More like a useful tool for control.

  10. #10 JMart
    May 5, 2008

    Beautiful post, Josh. Thank you for this.

  11. #11 William Cowan
    May 5, 2008

    I liked your piece. One quibble though:

    “…anyone who tries to claim that science is necessary for such slaughter…”

    Change “necessary” to “sufficient alone” and you’ve nailed it. It is a fact that scientific principles, bastardized though they were, indeed played a necessary role in The Holocaust. The one thing that distinguished the Nazi genocide from all others was it’s cold, calculating, industrial nature (apart from the 1-2 million killed by the Einsatzgruppen through “traditional” methods of shooting and burning). Thus, like pretty much every “cause” of the Holocaust, science was necessary, but not sufficient alone. The same goes for anti-Semitism: it’s definitely necessary, but not sufficient alone to explain the Holocaust (see how much trouble Daniel Goldhagen got into in 1996 when he wrote that all we needed to understand about the Holocaust was that Germans hated Jews). Christianity, too, provided a lot of the ideological support for some aspects of Nazism, especially antisemitism, anti-Bolshevism, and anti-liberalism; but again, it’s not sufficient alone to explain the genocide.

    Anyway, aside from that minor quibble, your post is first-class!

  12. #12 Steve
    May 5, 2008

    What some catholics are saying should not pass without comment —