Auschwitz 75 Years On: The Failure of Secular Morality

29 January 2020

7.7 MINS

Seventy five years ago, on the 27th January 1945, soldiers from the 322nd Rifle Division of the Red Army liberated the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz.

Former Soviet officer Ivan Martynushkin recalls seeing the prisoners for the first time:

It was hard to watch them. I remember their faces, especially their eyes which betrayed their ordeal.

And what an ordeal it was: the systematic enslavement and destruction of human beings, unmatched and unparalleled in human history.

‘Never again’ was the catchcry of those who survived. As Auschwitz survivor Ellie Wiesal wrote in his haunting book ‘Night’:

The witness has forced himself to testify. For the youth of today, for the children who will be born tomorrow. He does not want his past to become their future.’

And yet.

As the world remembered the horror of Auschwitz 75 years after its liberation, there is still much to reflect on: whether ideology, freedom or political power.

But it’s also a time to reflect on morality – in particular, the failure of a secular ‘God-less’ view of morality to make sense of this atrocity.

Here’s what I mean:

1) A Secular View of Morality Cannot Explain Auschwitz

It sees it as irrational madness: but Auschwitz was rational – and evil.

Adolf Hitler and his fellow Nazis are often called ‘madmen’ by our secular culture. According to this thinking, it was madness that drove the Nazis. It was madness that made the Holocaust. The Nazis were psychologically insane, so we’re told.

There doesn’t seem to be any other way for the secular mind to make sense of Auschwitz.

Except that the Holocaust was not an act of clinical ‘madness’. Yes, some of the Nazis may have been clinically insane.

But the majority weren’t.

The overwhelming majority were rational people, psychologically in their right mind. And thus, the Holocaust was not an act of sheer irrationality.

As secular philosopher John Rawlston Saul points out:

It is hard to avoid noticing that the murder of six million Jews was a perfectly rational act…It wasn’t lunacy that made this possible, even if some of those who carried it out were clinically insane. Nor was it the simple product of traditional antisemitism. It was more like the profound panic of a world somehow abandoned to a logic which had cut the imaginations of the perpetrators free from any sense of what a man ought to do versus what he ought not to do.’

He continues:

The Holocaust was the result of a perfectly rational argument – given what reason had become [in Nazi Germany]…There is, therefore, nothing surprising about the fact that the meeting called to decide on “the final solution” was a gathering mainly of senior administrative representatives. Technocrats.’ [1]

In other words, the Holocaust was the horrifying rational and logical conclusion to the Nazi view of life. The Nazis were acting consistently – rationally – according to their beliefs.

(Of course, this begs the question as to whether the racist Nazi worldview itself was ‘rational’. That misses the point. Lots of rational, sane, educated people in Australia today believe utter nonsense (e.g. many university academics are Marxists). The point, rather, is that these people acted logically and rationally according to their dearly held beliefs. They were normal in that sense. They weren’t clinically insane, any more than your local university Marxist academic is clinically insane).

2) Auschwitz Demonstrates that Evil Can Seem Reasonable

And doing good unreasonable.

How could so many rational people do such horrific things – in a rational way?

It’s because human reason alone cannot determine what’s right. Or what’s wrong. Human reason alone can be used to justify evil. And condemn good.

How so?

To use a non-murderous example, is cheating on an exam the wrong thing to do? I know both Christians and secular people would say ‘yes’. [2]

But now answer this: is it rational or irrational to cheat on a test?

The answer is not so obvious.

After all, if you can cheat on a test, and get away with it, and it means the difference between getting that great job, or that mark needed to gain entry to that prestigious university, cheating on a test may well be ‘reasonable’ (Suits, anyone?)

The same could be said for a lucrative business deal: why not bend the rules, if it means you end up with thousands more in your pocket?

If you’re in an unhappy marriage, why not indulge in that marital affair, if you’re sure you can get away with it? (Evidently millions of married people think this way: a company by the name of has made a business out of marital infidelity.)

In sum, if the benefits of doing something illegal/immoral outweigh the risks of being caught, why not do it? It’s a rational calculation.

Similar logic applies to the Holocaust:

If you’re living in a country where the consistent message you hear is how terrible the Jews are, and how they need to be removed for the good of your country – and humanity – then after a while it starts to affect your thinking. As humans, by nature we uncritically take on board many of the beliefs of those around us (especially if the surrounding culture is your only source of morality).

And before you know it, supporting and even carrying out this horror no longer seems unreasonable: it begins to seem plausible. It’s praised. It’s rewarded. It’s expected by those who shape opinions in your culture. Under such a worldview, it can make logical sense to support the Final Solution.

And doing good can seem unreasonable.

On the flip side, doing good can be entirely unreasonable. As Jewish social commentator Dennis Prager argues:

Was it rational or irrational for a non-Jew in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II to risk his or her life to hide a Jew? We all know that this was moral greatness of the highest order. But was it rational?

Prager’s answer:

Not really. You can’t get much more rational than self-preservation. Moreover, in all the studies I have read of non-Jewish rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust — and I have read many — I have never read of any rescuers who said that they did what they did because it was the reasonable or rational thing to do. Not one.

And so here’s the problem for a ‘reason alone’ view of morality:

If reason alone could be used to justify evil (including the holocaust), and make the doing of good irrational, then human reason alone is not adequate for determining good from evil.

So what other sources could we look to?

Many secular people appeal to nature – after all, aren’t we merely animals ourselves? Surely nature should give us the harmonious standards by which we should live our lives:

3) Auschwitz Shows Us that Nature Cannot Give us Morality

It only gives us ‘survival of the fittest’.

Can nature give us a moral standard by which we can and should govern our lives and societies? Many would think so. But as American author Annie Dillard discovered when living close to nature for a year, instead being inspired by it, she was shocked by its central principle: the violence by the strong against the weak:

There is not a person in the world that behaves as badly as praying mantises.’ [3]

Watching a David Attenborough documentary will also drive this point home. Nature thrives on violence and predation, on the survival of the fittest. How else can carnivorous animals survive? They need to kill. They need to eat. All without any regard for their prey.

In fact, the Nazis themselves had a similar take on reality, inspired by social-Darwinian thinking, where a Master-race was by nature meant to dominate lesser races.

And so, there is no way to derive the concept of the dignity of every individual from the way things really work in nature.

But surely we can derive morality from the will of the majority?

4) Auschwitz Shows Us What Can Happen When The Majority Determine Morality

Couldn’t we derive morality from the will of the majority? Surely if the majority agree on morality, then that morality should be acceptable and good? Again, this seems to be a staple secular principle.

But the majority in Nazi Germany did eventually accept the Nazi take on morality. The Nazis had a genuine following among the German populace. And they seemed content to support the anti-Semitic Nazi policies.

But in the Europe of Auschwitz, the majority morality led to the removal of rights for many minorities, and ended in genocide.

Author Tim Keller points out:

Many argue that it is in the interests of societies to create human rights because honouring individual dignity means that in the long run everyone in the community is better off.

Keller continues:

However, what if a majority decides it is not in their interest to grant human rights? If rights are nothing but a majority creation, then there is nothing to appeal to when [the majority legislates them] out of existence.’ [4]

5) Auschwitz Demonstrates the Moral Bankruptcy of (Secular) Moral Relativism

How can the moral beliefs of every culture be equally valid?

We’ve arrived at a point in our post-Christian secular west where you can’t criticise another culture, including their moral views. According to this thinking, each culture chooses its own morality (it’s all ‘relative’) – in the same way they choose their own fashion and food – and so who are we to criticise?

Such criticism is arrogant bigotry, we’re told.

But doesn’t this logically mean we’re meant to accept (and celebrate) the ‘diversity’ of an ‘Auschwitz’ morality?

It’s hard to see how we can condemn the morality of the Nazis, if every culture’s morality is equally good.

And so, where can we look to if we’re to have a standard of morality that makes sense of Auschwitz?

6) Auschwitz Demonstrates that We Need a Source of Morality that Transcends Culture and Time

If neither human reason alone, nor nature, nor the will of the majority is suitable for making sense of morality – and making sense of Auschwitz – then it seems we need a source of morality outside and above these things.

We need a standard that transcends culture and time, by which we can judge right and wrong: otherwise there’s no way of making sense of Auschwitz – let alone condemning it for what it is: ‘evil’.

And the best source – and indeed the tried and true source – is something outside ourselves, nature, and society.

Morality is one clue (among many) that we need a Divine Law Giver to make sense of our world.

7) Auschwitz shows us that Without a Transcendent Source of Morality, An Ideology can Fill the Vacuum with its Own Morality

For much of western history, Christianity has been this transcendent source of morality. (Of course, there were all too many instances where western society and the Church fell well below the Christian standard). But the Christian narrative made sense of morality.

However, once this standard was weakened – such as in pre-Nazi Germany – another standard took its place.

Likewise, here in the West, we’re living at a time when the Christian narrative no longer holds popular sway. The more secular accounts of morality (morality from nature; from the will of the majority; and from human reason alone) are dominant.

But at their heart, they’re failures. These sources of morality can’t make sense of Auschwitz – let alone provide a consistent standard by which we can condemn its horror.

And if we haven’t got a firm basis for condemning such horror, can we really say ‘Never again’?

[1] John Raulston Saul, Voltaire’s Bastards – The Dictatorship of Reason in the West (Victoria: Penguin Books, 1993), 16, 74.

[2] I’m indebted to Jewish social commentator Dennis Prager for the examples in this section – see his video on this issue.

[3] Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (HarperCollins, 1974). Quoted in Tim Keller, The Reason For God – Belief In an Age of Skepticism (USA: Hodder and Staunton, 2009), 155.

[4] Keller, The Reason For God, 151.

Originally published at

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  1. warwick Marsh 29 January 2020 at 6:29 pm - Reply

    Truly Magnificent artilce bro!!!!

  2. warwick Marsh 29 January 2020 at 6:31 pm - Reply

    Truly Magnificent article bro!!!! Sorry Akos i did not spell my comment correctly

  3. Akos Balogh 30 January 2020 at 8:41 am - Reply

    Thanks Warwick!

  4. […] militantly atheistic philosophy not only paved the way for German Nazism, but also explains the irrational and dogmatic religious fervour of those who believe in the […]

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