Atheists against the Ohio Holocaust memorial: How not to fight for separation of church and state

I don’t read atheist blogs much, if at all. The reason is that they just don’t interest me anymore. Sure, like so many, I went through a phase where I was quite enamored of Richard Dawkins’ brand of atheism. Then I read The God Delusion (well, most of it, anyway; I didn’t bother to read the last couple of chapters because I had lost interest and couldn’t force myself to finish them). These days I tend to think of myself as following the church of dontcareism. I just don’t care that much one way or the other about religion, and endless arguments about atheism, “atheism-plus,” and the like bore me to tears. It’s one of the reasons why, with the exception of Ed Brayton, I don’t read FreeThoughtBlogs anymore. I have my niche that really interests me, and I’m very good at it. That’s why, with rare exceptions, the only time you’ll ever see me writing about religion is when it somehow intersects with medicine, usually to the detriment of medicine, or how in reality so much alternative medicine quackery is based in religion- and superstition-based belief systems.

Other topics that used to be much more frequent topics of this blog are evolution and history, specifically Holocaust history. Why I don’t write about evolution that much anymore, I don’t know. Maybe it’s because there are so many out there who can do it better. Holocaust history is a different matter, though. I’m not sure how or when I stopped writing about that. Longtime readers will recall that in the early days of this blog I used to write fairly frequently about Holocaust and Holocaust denial. It began way back in January 2005 on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and how I discovered Holocaust denial, which was really really my gateway into skepticism and critical thinking that ultimately resulted in the science-based medicine blogging powerhouse you know and love today. Blogging about Holocaust denial continued over the next several years, but gradually petered out. Although I do sometimes bring it up from time to time, it is usually in the context of other topics, such as the way antivaccinationists like to liken the “vaccine-induced autism epidemic” to a “vaccine Holocaust” or “autism Holocaust.” As a spin-off of that interest, I created a character that for a while lived (well, not exactly lived) in infamy as my favored tool to make fun of overblown Nazi and/or Holocaust analogies, namely the Hitler Zombie. Sadly, the undead Fuhrer hasn’t been around for four years. Whatever the reason I stopped blogging about this topic, I hadn’t expected to revisit it in the context of atheists opposing a Holocaust memorial design in Ohio, but that’s exactly what I feel compelled to do right now.

Unfortunately, yesterday I became aware of a staggeringly tone deaf and ahistorical attempt by an atheist group to protest the use of a Star of David on a Holocaust memorial through a member of FreeThoughtBlogs. A reader e-mailed me a link to a post by Biodork about a controversy over a proposed Holocaust memorial in Columbus, OH, which led me to a news story about the controversy, and multiple posts by Dan Fincke over at Camels With Hammers about the controversy, one of which has the provocative title The Very Worst of the Atheist Movement on Display: Major Atheist Orgs Attack Star of David Holocaust Memorial.

It’s a title that, sadly, I’m forced to agree with. Talk about a combination of historical ignorance, and tone-deafness, with a distressing amount of plain napalm-grade burning stupid used to bring the whole mixture to a boil.

The reason this irritates me is not because I think that there isn’t a legitimate discussion to be had whether there should be a Holocaust memorial on statehouse property in Ohio and, if so, what form that memorial should take. Of course there should be. Many of you know that I lived in Cleveland myself for eight years back in the 1990s, and most my wife’s half of the family still lives in northwest Ohio. So I have an affinity for the state and care what happens there. The problem is the reasoning, such as it is, which boils down to two main objections voiced by Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, Co-Presidents of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, in a letter sent to Senator Richard H. Finan, who’s apparently the chair of the committee planning the project. In this letter, Barker makes has two main complaints about one—and only on—aspect of design of the currently proposed Holocaust memorial. First, he castigates its inclusion as a “constitutionally problematic endorsement of religion.” Second, he castigates the use of the Star of David as somehow “excluding” all the other victims of the Holocaust. While expressing those objections, Barker gets himself all in a lather because to him the Holocaust was a religious genocide. Let’s deal with this last one first because that’s where so much of the burning stupid bringing the whole noxious mixture to a boil comes in. (You’ll have to wait for it a little bit, because it doesn’t show up until the end of the passage I’m about to quote, but, believe me, it’s bad.) Besides, these passages also deal with numbers one and two as well.

We and everyone who values the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment must oppose the current design because of the terrible legal precedent it would create. Permitting one permanent sectarian and exclusionary religious symbol, even though it represents a minority religion, would create the legal precedent, for instance, to place an equally large or larger permanent Latin cross on Capitol Grounds.

Can you play “name that logical fallacy”? Sure, I knew you could. This one is the “slippery slope” fallacy and ignores the unique circumstances of the Holocaust. Hemant Mehta (a.k.a. The Friendly Atheist) uses a similar logical fallacy to agree with the FFRF. More importantly, despite a whole lot of huffing and wheezing earlier in the letter, the Star of David is not just a religious symbol, but a symbol of race and culture. The term “Jew” is complex in that it can refer to religion or culture. Surely Barker must know that there are a large number of secular Jews, even atheist Jews, who use the symbol to denote their Jewishness just as much as the religion does. (In fact, he even mentions atheist Jews.) Next up, Barker and Gaylor provides us with a non sequitur of such enormous magnitude that, even now as I write this, I stand grudgingly in awe of it. Ready? As James T. Kirk said in The Wrath of Khan, here it comes:

As a much-persecuted minority conscious of the history of warfare and genocide in the name of a god and a religion, many U.S. Jewish citizens and groups work hard to keep religion out of government. They and we are aware of the sinister role Christian union with the state played during the Holocaust, of the writings of Hitler, a Roman Catholic, who said in Mein Kampf, By fighting the Jews, I am doing the Lord’s work,” the concordance between the Roman Catholic and Lutheran denominations with Nazi Germany and Fascisti Italy. They and we are aware that “Gott mit uns” (“God [is] with us”) was the Nazi motto emblazoned on the buckle of the Nazi German soldiers’ uniform—clearly showing the Holocaust was a religiously motivated genocide. They and we are aware of the long, dark history of religion aligned with the power of the state that has resulted in more people being killed in the name of religion than for any other reason.

To align the State of Ohio with one religion and its sacred symbol—even a minority religion for a worthy memorial—would dishonor the truest protection our country has against a similar holocaust on our shores: the precious constitutional principle separating religion from government. Had there been separation between religion and state honored and enforced in Germany, ensuring the government could not favor the dominant religion and persecute and scapegoat minority religion and other “dissidents,” there would not have been a Holocaust.

Logic and history severely damaged, much as the Reliant was after Kirk said, “Here it comes.”

Yes, I had to pick my jaw up off the floor after reading that. If only Nazi Germany had had adequate protections against mixing religion and politics then the Holocaust wouldn’t have happened. If only… If only… If only Hitler hadn’t systematically dismantled every mechanism of democratic government and every check against unlimited government power soon after attaining the Chancellorship in 1933! Yeah, that might well have prevented the Holocaust. After all, before Hitler took power, there was religious freedom written into the Weimar Constitution, which explicitly said that there is no state religion. That sure stopped the Holocaust, didn’t it? Yes, I know Barker also used the word “enforced” as well, but, really, what was going on in Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s went way beyond religious freedom and government not favoring religion. No, even making such a claim as Barker made reveals such an amazing ignorance of basic history that it stuns me. As for the “Gott mit uns” thing, Barker would have done well to check Wikipedia before laying that down. It’s a motto that dates back to at least the German unification in 1871, when the imperial standard first bore the words. During World War II, Wehrmacht soldiers did indeed wear this slogan on their belt buckles. However members of the Waffen SS, the soldiers who were actually responsible for organizing and carrying out much of the Holocaust, wore the motto Meine Ehre heißt Treue (“My honor is loyalty”). Most likely this reflected the fanatical loyalty to Hitler, the Nazi regime, and the volk that the Waffen SS were expected to demonstrate.

In any case, while there was a religious element to the Holocaust, Hitler justified it far more often in terms of portraying the Jews as parasites, the enemies of the volk endlessly working to undermine its greater glory, and, above all, responsible for Bolshevism and the “stab in the back” at the end of World War I that, in the eyes of Hitler and many fascist-leaning elements in Germany, robbed victory from the German people. He arguably more frequently invoked biology, referring to Nazi-ism as “applied biology” and Jews as “racial inferiors.” As early as 1935, “complete emigration” of all Jews from the Reich was a stated goal. It was all about the “purity” of the race and the elimination of what Hitler viewed in his fevered imagination as the implacable enemies of the volk.

The other issue is that Barker harps on is how the symbol is “exclusionary.” Let’s take a look at the inscription:

Inspired by the Ohio soldiers who were part of the American liberation and survivors who made Ohio their home.

If you save one life, it is as if you have saved the world.

In remembrance the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust and millions more including prisoners of war, ethnic and religious minorities, homosexuals, the mentally ill, the disabled, and political dissidents were suffered under Nazi Germany.

That sounds pretty inclusive to me. In the context of the actual inscription, obviously now it all boils down to the symbol. Now here’s the problem. Remember how I said that I spent a lot of time combatting online Holocaust denial in my early days and how that experience was pretty much my “gateway drug” into skepticism and critical thinking? This experience of diving into the vilest, deepest, darkest corners of Usenet and the web (which is where Holocaust deniers dwell) has shown me what anti-Semitism looks like. I also know all the common tropes used by Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites. Now, I am not in any way accusing or even insinuating that the atheists who are currently up in arms about the design of the proposed Holocaust memorial in Ohio are anti-Semitic. I don’t think they are. I am, however, struck how they almost certainly unknowingly have chosen to emphasize one complaint I frequently saw voiced by anti-Semites. I really wish they hadn’t done that, particularly because I’m sure they did it unknowingly, but they did. What I’m referring to is their attack on the use of the Star of David based on explicit arguments that reject the fundamental “Jewishness” of the Holocaust. Indeed, Dave Silverman of American Atheists clumsily made this error in this video:

To be honest, it’s really painful to watch, and it was particularly painful to listen to this part, which is about as tin-eared and tone-deaf as anything I’ve ever heard:

It’s on public land, and it’s going to look like a temple, it’s going to look like a Jewish shrine. It’s going to look like a synagogue. And it’s important that we not give the Holocaust to just the Jews. There was a lot of people who died.

“It’s important that we not give the Holocaust to just the Jews”? Seriously? Does Silverman even know how much historical ignorance question reveals? Holocaust historians around the world are covering their ears in pain.

Let me explain why this is ahistorical, tone deaf, and a straw man, to boot. (After all, nothing in the memorial advocates giving the “Holocaust to just the Jews.”) I’m likely to piss off some people here, but, guess what? In this case, I don’t care.

I really hate to say it, but in this case a FOX News anchor gets it right compared to David Silverman when she points out that the Jews were the primary target of the Holocaust. Although there were many other groups who were ultimately targeted for mass murder during the Holocaust, the Jews were central to the Holocaust. Period. The FFRF’s campaign in this case flirts uncomfortably close (certainly unknowingly on the part of FFRF) with one complaint that I’ve seen used many times by anti-Semites, which is to deny the centrality of Jews to the Holocaust. Basically, they will say something along the lines of, “The Nazis killed lots of people during the Holocaust, not just Jews. What makes the Jews so special? The Holocaust was about more than the Jews.” Guess what? Dave Silverman said almost exactly that in the video above!

Let’s be clear. The central purpose of the Holocaust was to rid the Reich of its Jews, and the Jews were central to the Holocaust. It started with taking away their rights, then progressed to violence against them, then to forcible expulsion, and then finally to mass extermination. Yes, the Holocaust then expanded to target lot of other groups that the Nazis didn’t like, but it started with the Jews. As Gord McFee put it in his essay, entitled, appropriately enough, Are the Jews Central to the Holocaust?:

The ultimate aim and the primary target never varied. Others were murdered in the course of the Final Solution, e.g. Gypsies, Russian POWs, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and so on, but the first and constant target was always the Jews. The Final Solution was intended for the Jews, was about the Jews and chiefly affected the Jews. There is no denying that, without the Jews, there is no Final Solution.

To minimize or trivialize the “Jewishness” of the Final Solution is to seriously understate, if not, unintentionally perhaps, deny its essence. This does not mean that the suffering of other groups is to be ignored; on the contrary, it was terrible. But without the Holocaust, without the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question”, the others live. The term “holocaust” was coined to describe the uniquely Jewish aspect of the Final Solution. It does not seek to negate the suffering of the other victims.

Exactly. Jew hatred was a driving force of the Nazi Party from at least 1920 on, and it continued as a constant, unwavering fanatical belief right up until Hitler took his life in his bunker under Berlin in 1945. No Jew hatred, no Holocaust.

Silverman also makes the claim that the Holocaust was “about eugenics, it was about creating the perfect Aryan race.” Not exactly. It was about far more than just eugenics, and the widely exterminationist phase was all about the “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem” (as the Nazis euphemistically put it). One way you can pidgeonhole the Holocaust into being mainly about eugenics is if you define the “Holocaust” as only its genocidal mass murder phase, but, again, the Holocaust was more than that. It began before the T4 “euthanasia” program (Aktion T4), the famous program to eliminate what the Nazis characteristically called “life unworthy of life.” That began in 1939, as Nazi Germany was gearing up for the invasion of Poland, and started around the same time as the war. However, the Holocaust, as more broadly defined, began almost immediately after Hitler took power in 1933. As Joyce Garver Keller put it:

“The Holocaust did not begin in concentration camps in the ovens with smoke stacks and mass graves,” Keller told “It began in the halls of government with the passage of laws that targeted Jews, taking their properties, their businesses, their home, their freedom and ultimately their lives.

The persecution and genocide were carried out in stages. First came the stripping of legal rights and protections from Jews, in particular through the Nuremberg Laws of 1935. The purpose, of course, was to remove Jews from civil society. Then came increasing persecution and then imprisonment in concentration camps, where many died from overwork and starvation. As the war began (around the same time as Aktion T4 was getting under way), brutal murders of Polish Jews began, and later mobile killing squads known as the Einsatzgruppen followed the Wehrmacht into Russia and the Ukraine.

In many ways, the T4 program could be viewed as the turning point, when the Holocaust turned to genocide, and as a “warm up” for the genocidal killing that got into full gear a couple of years later, but it is not where the Holocaust began.

Let’s be very clear here. What is driving opposition to the Holocaust memorial among atheists is a single thing: The Star of David. There is actually a discussion to be had there, given how the Star of David is simultaneously both a secular and religious symbol. If Barker and Silverman had restricted their arguments to questioning whether the religious facet of such a multifaceted symbol disqualified it for inclusion on government property, would I have been so—shall we say?—vociferous? Probably not. It disturbs me, however, how certain secularists have been so quick to embrace ahistorical arguments in their knee-jerk opposition to anything that smacks of religion and in doing so have (I assume, unwittingly) been willing to latch on to arguments that I’ve seen anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers use beginning back in the late 1990s when I first encountered Holocaust denial on Usenet. Perhaps I will take a lot of flack for saying this. Perhaps not. I don’t care. My message to Barker and Silverman is simple. If you want to oppose the use of the Star of David as a religious symbol on state property, that’s fine. But could you please stop using such painfully bad and downright offensive arguments to do it?