A Catholic German bishop has come under fire for his remarks condemning atheists. In a sermon given on Easter Sunday, the bishop of Augsburg, Walter Mixa, warned of rising atheism in Germany. "Wherever God is denied or fought against, there people and their dignity will soon be denied and held in disregard," he said in the sermon. He also said that "a society without God is hell on earth" and quoted the Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky: "If God does not exist, everything is permitted."
Most controversially, he linked the Nazi and Communist crimes to atheism. "In the last century, the godless regimes of Nazism and Communism, with their penal camps, their secret police and their mass murder, proved in a terrible way the inhumanity of atheism in practice." Christians and the Church were always the subject of "special persecution" under these systems, he said.
However, critics accuse Mixa of rewriting history. The bishop's claim that humanity automatically arises from religious faith is "totally untenable," Rudolf Ladwig, president of the Germany-based International League of Non-Religious and Atheists (IBKA), told SPIEGEL ONLINE. Mixa's words are part of a "long-term strategy by the Church to exculpate, in a historically inaccurate way, the history of its own institution as relates to fascism."
The Nazi dictatorship targeted Communists, Social Democrats, liberals, trade unionists, Jews, Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, the disabled and others, Ladwig said. "It was by no means the dictatorship of a dedicated atheist movement. Resistance from within the churches came only from individuals."
The philosopher Michael Schmidt-Salomon, head of the humanist non-profit group the Giordano Bruno Foundation, also sharply criticized Mixa. "If you bear in mind that during the Nazi era it was precisely the Jews who were accused of being godless, then one sees how perfidious Mixa's reasoning is," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. He points out that freethinker associations were disbanded by the Nazis and avowed atheists were persecuted.
Mixa's claim that the Nazi regime was "godless" is "a massive distortion of history," Schmidt-Salomon said. Nazi ideology -- including its anti-Semitism -- was based largely on Christian traditions, he said, explaining that evidence for that can be found in Hitler's "Mein Kampf" and elsewhere. "The majority of the Nazi elite saw themselves as Christians," says Schmidt-Salomon.
Although the Nazi movement included a wide variety of currents of religious thought, ranging from nihilism to neo-paganism to Teutonic mythology to Hinduism, atheism played no significant political role for the Nazis. Avowed atheists were not welcome in the Nazi party or the SS.
The relationship of the Catholic Church to the Nazis was also an ambivalent one. Individual members of the clergy openly confronted the regime, which in some cases resulted in their persecution and murder. Others voluntarily collaborated with the dictatorship, while most simply did nothing. A systematic persecution of Christians did not take place in the Third Reich -- let alone the "special persecution of Christians and the Church" which Mixa spoke of.
Both the diocese of Augsburg and the German Bishops' Conference declined to comment on the sermon and the criticism when contacted by SPIEGEL ONLINE.
The Easter sermon was not the first time that Mixa has made comparisons to Nazism for rhetorical purposes. In February, the bishop compared the number of Jews murdered during the Holocaust with the number of abortions performed over the past decades, according to a newspaper report. The bishop's spokesman also responded to criticism of Mixa from Germany's leading Green Party politician, Claudia Roth, who called the bishop a "crazy über-fundamentalist," by comparing her words to Nazi propaganda.
Mixa has also courted controversy on other issues. In 2007, he criticized a proposal to expand daycare in Germany by saying it would turn women into "breeding machines." Later that same year, he was criticized by the Jewish community in Germany when he compared the situation of the Palestinians to the Warsaw Ghetto.
According to the Federal Statistical Office, approximately one-third of all Germans do not belong to an organized religion. A 2005 survey conducted by AP-Ipsos showed that only 22 percent of Germans have no doubt about the existence of God, while some 23 percent of Germans identify themselves either as atheists or agnostics.