Warning: This blog post is just a cut and paste of an email conversation I had recently...no original content!

When asked how a non-believer such as myself can justify his condemnation of the actions of Hitler, I gave this response:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out?because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out?because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out?because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me?and there was no one left to speak out for me.

The above is the poem ?First they came ..." was written by German intellectual and Lutheran minister Pastor Martin Niemoller. At our last meeting we were asked to explain how an atheist could condemn the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany and remain consistent with his/her materialistic understanding of reality. Pastor Niemoller's poem is in a nutshell why I can view Nazi behavior as wrong while remaining IMHO consistent with my own beliefs and suppositions. As it turns out, even were I completely indifferent to the plight of those individuals victimized by Nazi attempts to “purify” their nation, I would still recognize the threat that such attitudes and behaviors could eventually pose to me as an individual. A population that can find nothing objectionable about what the Nazi?s did, is a population that may in the future choose to adopt these attitudes as their own; and who is to say that any of us wouldn't eventually be a member of the next group targeted for destruction. Again, for purely selfish reasons, I can affirm that nations should not engage in such behavior. As an agnostic, I am quite possibly a member of the first group to be targeted if such attitudes became prevalent in my particular nation (non-believers according to studies are the nations most hated minority).
As it turns out, even if I didn't view such attitudes to be potentially harmful to myself in particular or my species as a whole, I would still argue that what the Nazi's did was wrong. I'm not immune to the natural feelings of compassion and sympathy that the significant majority of humans experience, and I genuinely feel sorrow when I observe others suffering. My suspicion is that the natural tendency to experience an emotional response when confront with the misfortune of others (empathy) is a result of our evolution as a species...but the jury is still out on that one. Regardless, the suffering of others upsets me, and this isn't something I have any particular control over...I just don't like it. It's not a logical, rational reason and it doesn't have to be.
Ultimately, I don?t believe the initial question to be a particularly difficult one to answer; however I can say that, even if I couldn't imagine an effective response to the Nazi question, I wouldn't feel it necessary to posit the existence of an immaterial being from another realm of reality. I am glad that as a whole, the scientific community tends not to accept “God did it” as good science (even when it would be a lot easier).

The following is the response I received:

I agree with much of what David and Marshall have to say here (but not Iggy on this one - - Am I the only one who thinks that the morals of the Spartans who through out their less fit babies aren’t problematic, not just for our present culture, but for all people everywhere?). But I don’t think their thinking goes far enough. The issue I find most worth exploring is why we think what we think about the Nazi behavior Marshall describes below. Do we find it “wrong” just because it might lead to something that will affect our own safety, sooner or later? Do we find it “wrong” just because we have a biological, emotional response, a natural revulsion against it? Can’t we humans do any better than that?

Fred, I enjoyed reading your response and I am definitely not a cultural relativist (per the Spartan scenario). Again, to me my objections to Nazi behavior boil down to my personal abhorrence of such wanton and utterly unjustifiable cruelty (that's just how I'm wired), and the understanding that such behavior really has the potential to harm us all (individually and as a species as a whole). Your comments indicate that morality only truly has meaning if has an origin beyond us, and I just fundamentally disagree with that. I believe that even if there is a god, it is none-the-less up to us to figure out how to behave. I suspect that a benevolent god would prefer such a thing.
I guess I'm saying that there are no objective morals if this means morality is nothing more than a set of proclamations about how to behave. Merely being a position of authority does not mean that you have the best interest of your subjects at heart. If a god exists, he may have the ability to insist upon our subservience, but that does not mean that his commands are made for our benefit. One can possess authority via physical intimidation, but true moral legitimacy lies behind the intent of its origin. The gods worshiped by most theists is same god who invented tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, famines, horrific birth defects, ectopic pregnancies, vicious animal attacks and etc; not exactly the resume of a individual who was prone to making decisions for our benefit. Either rape is wrong because we say it is or because god says it is, either is subjective to the will of the originator. The best morality would be one that came from those who personally stood to gain and lose as a result of its enforcement; as it will most likely be the best reflection of the desires of those whose behavior it serves to modify. Again, even if morality is intrinsic (rape is wrong because rape is wrong) it would still be dependent upon us to figure this out. We would still be operating under an assumption that we knew how god wanted us to behave whether it was true or not.
If morality means nothing more than obediently doing what one is told, then it is essentially nothing more than a trans-dimensional game of Simon Says (Simon says don't eat meat on Fridays; Simon says don't ejaculate into a condom, etc.). To borrow your comment, I'd like to believe we can do better than that. One might object that meatless Fridays and prohibitions on condom use aren't really from god; but that is in part my point. Agreeing that there is a god and that it specifically wishes/demands us to behave in a specific manner is the easy part (and it ain't easy); actually figuring out just how that god wishes us to behave is where things get troublesome. To my experience, people claiming to know how their god wants us to behave frequently worship a god who's demands tend to benefit them personally (usually in the form of money and power). Ultimately, while we cannot observe the mind of god, we can observe the consequences of our decisions; our behavior should be guided by those observations if we really wish to create a system of morality that truly reflects our interests and desires in this world. As everything, it's a work in progress; however we humanists have observed that a world of peace and happiness (the world I want to live in) is only achievable when we learn to treat others with respect and dignity.

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