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Leaving Religion: Holocaust, Faith, and Liberalism

While it is often said that there are “no atheists in foxholes,” the experience of war can be a destroyer of faith. Rawls wrote that he was raised in a “conventionally religious” home. He finished his undergraduate studies and entered the military as a “believing orthodox Episcopalian Christian.” He had planned on going into the clergy when he returned. Yet, by June of 1945, he had, in his own words, “abandoned it entirely.”(Rawls 2010, 261)

John Rawls (1921-2002)

John Rawls (1921-2002)

While claiming to not fully understand this shift himself, Rawls points to three events that took place during this relatively brief period. The first two are specific experience in World War II. The third event is the Holocaust.

Kilei Ridge

In the middle of December 1944, after a particularly brutal period of combat, Rawls had a negative encounter with a Lutheran Pastor

“One day a Luther Pastor came up and during his service gave a brief sermon in which he said that God aimed our bullets at the Japanese while God protected us from theirs. I don’t know why this made me so angry, but it certainly did. I upbraided the Pastor (who was a First Lieutenant) for say what I assumed he know perfectly well–Lutheran that he was–were simply falsehoods about divine providence. What reason could he possibly have had but his trying to comfort the troops? Christian doctrine ought not to be used for that, though I knew perfectly well it was.” (262)

One of the challenges to maintaining any orthodoxy, whether a religious orthodoxy or an ideological orthodoxy, are those who are willing to twist such doctrines for nationalistic purposes, particularly war. Abraham Lincoln saw paradox in the use of the divine when it comes to the combat when he noted that “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” 

The sermon at Kilei Ridge, itself, was not the reason that Rawls forsook his orthodoxy, instead it symbolized the tension between his the views of his youth and the horrors he was experiencing on the front. It was a symbolic moment of a period when he realized that traditional theology failed to address the world around him. It failed for him at a time when others could spin Christianity in a way that satisfied them. This may have worked while growing up in Baltimore or while at Princeton. But it did not resonate with Rawls while at Kilei Ridge or after.

Deacon’s Death

The second incident was the death of a friend named Deacon. Rawls and Deacon had volunteered to donate blood and accompany the Colonel as he observed the Japanese position. Because Rawls has the needed blood-type he donated blood while Deacon went with the Colonel.

Deacon and the Colonel were spotted quickly while on their patrol. Mortars rained in on them. They sought shelter in a foxhole. A mortar landed in the foxhole and immediately killed them both. (262)

Unlike the other two incidents, Rawls does not make a direct theological connection between this incident and his loss of orthodox faith.

“I was quite disconsolate and couldn’t get the incident out of my mind. I don’t know why this incident so affected me, other than my fondness for Deacon, as death was a common occurrence,” Rawls wrote. (262)

For Rawls, Deacon’s death undermined a sense that God’s will played a role in the life of man. Knowledge of the Holocaust will only further undermine his sense that there was a Diety that had anything to do with what happens on Earth.

Personally experiencing the cruelty of war undermined Rawls’ believe that there was a divine order. I think that many might come to this feeling as a result of abuse or other forms of cruelty. For others, religion brings comfort at such times. For Rawls, religion failed to provide that comfort.

The Holocaust

Rawls recounts finding out about the Holocaust in the following way:

It started, as I recall, at Asingan in April, where the Regiment was taking a rest from the line and getting replacements. We went to the Army movies shown in the evening, and they also had new reports of the Army information service. I was, I believe, here that I first heard about the Holocaust, as the very first reports of American troops coming upon the concentration camps made known. Of course much had been known before that, but it had not been open knowledge to soldiers in the field.28204

These incidents, and especially the thirds as it became widely known affected me in the same way. This took the form of questioning whether prayer was possible. How could I pray and ask God to help me, or my family, or my country, or any other cherished thing I cared about, when God would not save millions of Jews from Hitler? When Lincoln interprets the Civil War as God’s punishment for the sin of slavery, deserved equally by North and South, God is seen as acting justly. But the Holocaust can’t be interpreted in that way, and all attempts to do so that I have read are hideous and evil. To interpret history as expressing God’s will, God’s will must accord with the most basic ideas of justice as we know them. For what else can the most basic justice be? Thus, I soon came to reject the idea of the supremacy of the divine will as also hideous and evil. (Rawls 2010, 262-263)

These comments are powerful and haunting.

Libertarian philosopher, and Harvard philosophy department colleague of Rawls, Robert Nozick also commented on the religious implications of the Holocaust. On the question of distributive justice, Rawls and Nozick in very different camps. On the theological implications of Holocaust, they appear to have had a lot in common.

The Fall of Humanity

“The Holocaust is something we have to respond to in some significant way. Yet it is not clear what responses would serve remembering it, constantly being haunted, working to prevent its like from ever occurring again, a sea of tears?” (Nozick 1990, 237)

For the Robert Nozick, the Holocaust stands as an event, like it does the Fall of Adam, that Christian theology must account for because it “radically and drastically alters the situation and status of humanity” (237-238).

While, as Nozick notes, there was likely never an actual Edenic event, the Holocaust happened (238).

“Mankind has fallen,” states Nozick (238).

Nozick thoughtfully addresses why the Holocaust stands as an event that stands out in light of other grand tragedies and horrors, whether it be the genocide of native populations in North and South America, the international slave trade, or grand human rights disasters in place like Russia, China, Cambodia, and Armenia. The Holocaust does not lessen

Robert Nozick (1938-2002)

Robert Nozick (1938-2002)

these other events, instead, it “sealed the situation”  and made the fallen nature of humanity “patently clear” (238).

The fallen and broken state of humanity is not the result of the evils of the Holocaust. Instead, the Holocaust stands as the clear, decisive, and irrefutable evidence that humanity is fallen.

This does not so much stand in contrast to the fall of Adam and Eve, instead it supersedes it. We no longer need metaphorical serpents, fig leaves, or trees with magical fruit when we have Auschwitz.

The Holocaust stands on it’s own, but it is also a symbol of clear human evil. When we speak of the Holocaust, we are also speaking of Rwanda, the tragedies of the gulag, and the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. There is no need to view such horrors as though they are in competition with each other.

But what does Christianity offer us in light of a changed narrative where the figurative fall of Genesis is redeemed by Christ.

It might be thought that what Christ accomplished according to Christian theology, he accomplished forever, once and for all. He died for all our sins, past and future, small and large. But not for that one, I think. Recall the theological view that in giving people free will God intentionally limits his omniscience, so that he no longer foresees how people will choose. Perhaps, in sending his only son to redeem humanity, he had nothing like the Holocaust in mind as what humanity was going to need redemption form. But in any case, whatever suffering Jesus underwent, or God the father in watching it, this could not be sufficient to redeem humanity in the face of the Holocaust, I think Christian theology needs to maintain. Or rather, whatever the current situation of individuals one by one, the Holocaust has created a radically new situation and status for humanity as a whole, one the sacrifice of Jesus could not and not meant to heal. The human species is now desanctified; if it were ended or obliterated now, its end would no longer constitute a special tragedy. (239-240)

I do not think Rawls would adopt the dark assessment of Nozick at the end of that paragraph. However, I think he would agree with Nozick that only “human action” can redeem humanity as a whole.(240)

“What Jesus was supposed to have done for us, before the Holocaust, humanity must now do for itself,” Nozick concludes.

Nozick seem skeptical about whether this redemption is even possible, but he certain that this is a redemption will only come through humanity. It is not coming from God.

Rawls does not explain the impact of the Holocaust on his own religious thinkings in quite the devastating way that Nozick does. Yet, I think we can view the Rawlsian project (found in A Theory of Justice, Political Liberalism, and The Law of Peoples, as an attempt the redemption of humanity.

This may be why Rawls is the focus of suspicion by conservative Christian thinkers like Robert George. Rawls is offering a realistically utopian (he claims) vision for democracy. It is a vision which he views as possible, at least within the western world (and one which would bring peace to the world). Whether it is possible, is not the point for us here. Clearly, Rawls thinks that it is.

While Rawls recognizes the role of religious people and religions as a religious force, his theory does not require religious faith or divine intervention of any sort. Humanity can achieve a just world by itself.

Rawlsian liberalism still requires an element of faith and hope that the fallen world, as Nozick describes it, can be overcome. Even before the early religious writings of Rawls where widely known, the work of Rawls was known for having a religious quality to it. That is because it offers, in a sense, salvation for an unjust world. This is not eternal individual salvation, but it is a form of earthly redemption for humanity.

Nozick, Robert. The Examined Life: Philosophical Meditations. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990.

Rawls, John. Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice (Revised Edition). Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999.

Rawls, John. The Law of Peoples ; with The Idea of Public Reason Revisited. Cambridge (Massachusetts): Harvard University Press, 2000.

Rawls, John, Thomas Nagel, Joshua Cohen, and Robert Adams Merrihew. A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith: With ‘on My Religion’ Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010

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  1. […] I will look at the first two. The third event is finding out about the Holocaust.  I address the Holocaust and Rawls further elsewhere (and have more coming on that issue in Rawls’ […]

  2. […] more recent years, I have been heavily influenced by Robert Nozick’s reflections of the Holocaust. I share some of those thoughts […]

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