Dr. Jordan Peterson, a psychology professor who once worked at Harvard and now works at the University of Toronto, is a singularly commanding speaker. His book “12 Rules for Life” was the number one bestseller in the genre of psychology on Amazon. Recently, he has become one of the foremost critics of political correctness on college campuses. Due to his brazen opposition to the principles of the people he calls “social justice warriors,” Dr. Peterson has amassed a huge online following. Unfortunately, Peterson’s political worldview is plagued by some of the canards that are typical in Christian apologetics.
For instance, Dr. Peterson is critical of atheism because he believes that “if there’s no God, then you can do whatever you want." In other words, without the presence of a deity in the universe, then there is no reason why humans should not murder, rape or steal. In Dr. Peterson’s mind, the “ethic that drives our culture is predicated on the idea of God.” More than half of the citizens of Spain, Denmark, France, Switzerland, Australia, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Japan and Israel identify as secular, agnostic, or atheistic. If the idea of God is necessary for a culture to maintain its sense of morality, shouldn’t the citizens of these countries be butchering one another by now?
Peterson often asserts that totalitarianism, a system of government characterized by the state wielding absolute authority over its people, is born from “the worship of the rational mind” and intelligence being “raised to the highest status of God."
In an interview with Joe Rogan, Peterson used the Old Testament story of Israel falling into corruption as demonstration of his belief that when civilization turns away from religion, chaos becomes inevitable. As an example of an institution that understands the dangers of the “unmoored rational mind,” he pointed to the Catholic Church. Though he beat around the bush with Joe Rogan, Dr. Peterson stepped knee-deep into his ahistorical thinking by telling LifeSiteNews.com that “Marxism and Nazism moved in to fill the void” when Europeans “lost faith in God."
He stated that religion in general provides a philosophical alternative to fascism and Marxism, and said that the Catholic Church has operated in history as a bulwark against extremism. He is correct in stating that Marxism and religion are opposed to one another. Marxists believe faith impedes the progress of the working classes toward liberation, and Marxist nations like Cuba, China and the Soviet Union have histories of enforcing state atheism.
However, Peterson’s idea that the Catholic Church was a bulwark against ideological extremism is erroneous. The Vatican operated consistently as an enabler of fascism, and the three most prominent fascist leaders of the 20th century could not have risen to power without the support they received from the religious right. More importantly, his claim that fascism and Nazism came about due to Europeans losing faith in God represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the history of totalitarianism.
Francisco Franco, the man who brought fascism to Spain, had the imprimatur of the Catholic Church from the very beginning. The Vatican, along with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, supported Franco’s war against the Spanish Republicans and his subsequent dictatorship. The Church also had a close, if fraught, alliance with Mussolini. In exchange for subsidies from the state, control over the education of fascist youth groups and the ability to oversee the teaching of Catholicism in Italian schools, Pope Pius XI “cooperated closely with Mussolini for more than a decade, lending his regime organizational strength and moral legitimacy." As for the Nazis? The very first treaty the burgeoning National Socialist Empire signed was with the Catholic Church. Under the Reichskonkordat, Hitler allowed Catholics and Catholic institutions a certain amount of autonomy within Germany and received formal recognition of his Reich from the Church.
History is rarely simple, and it is not as though the Church never defied Hitler, Mussolini or Franco. Several Vatican clergymen openly condemned fascist atrocities. Others rescued thousands of Jews who would have otherwise been forced into concentration camps. But these victories in the struggle against totalitarianism are nothing compared to the Vatican’s multifarious collaborations with all three of the major fascist regimes of 20th century Europe. One does not have to abandon religion to become a fascist. In fact, religion often makes the transition easier. Mussolini, Franco and Hitler sought the approval of the Church because they knew piety was useful for propaganda.
Peterson claimed Nazism “moved in to fill the void” when Germans “lost faith in God.” Only 1.5 percent of German citizens identified as “non-believers” in 1939, several years after the establishment of the Nazi regime. Ninety-four percent of Germans identified as Catholic or Protestant. Article 24 of the National Socialist Party Program professed that the Nazi party represented “positive Christianity". As the author Christopher Hitchens pointed out years ago, the oath of loyalty to Hitler that German Army officials were forced to make began with the line “I swear by almighty God this sacred oath…” Every soldier in the Wehrmacht was given a belt buckle on which the words “Gott mitt uns” were written. “Gott mitt uns” translates to “God is with us."
In “Mein Kampf,” Adolf Hitler declared that, “in standing guard against the Jew,” he was “defending the handiwork of the Lord.” He said “Christ was nailed to the Cross for his attitude towards the Jews” and excoriated Germans who “debased themselves” by tolerating “atheistic Jewish parties” in “their own Christian nation".
Dr. Peterson may believe Hitler professed his Christian faith out of a desire to win over the German public, and not because he actually believed in God. If Hitler was an atheist masquerading as a Christian, that would indicate he used Christianity as a means of attracting the support of a God-fearing, Jew-hating population. Either way, it would appear that religion, not secularism, was instrumental in the rise of Nazi Germany.
To put it plainly, Dr. Peterson’s belief that the victory of fascism was driven by the rejection of God could not be further from the truth. Fascism and Nazism did not come about because of atheism. It is ahistorical to believe otherwise. Christian apologists cannot blame fascism on atheism, just as atheists cannot blame Stalinism on Christianity. When Dr. Peterson says fascism came as a result of secularism, he obfuscates the history of political extremism with a gauze of personal bias.
Alex Klein is a staff columnist for the Daily Campus and can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.