The Reductio ad Hitlerum fallacy is a fixture of online political debates. If someone doesn’t agree with your position on some issue, it must be evidence of their Nazi sympathies. The tendency is so common—particularly among secular progressives—that it has prompted a satirical description known as “Godwin’s law,” which predicts that as any two people argue online, the probability that one will compare the other with a certain German dictator approaches 100 percent.
That the onetime chancellor’s name comes up so often says a lot about people’s moral imaginations. As British popular historian Tom Holland points out, Westerners no longer talk of Satan and devils, but about Hitler and the Nazis. Our demonology has shrunk so that the worst villains we can imagine now are flesh-and-blood characters from 20th-century drama—bad hombres to be sure, but hardly the Father of Lies.
This rush to condemn opponents in the most hysterical terms possible betrays a gnawing fear—that maybe Nazis could win the debate if they were ever given a platform. And this may be why so many left-wing college students are ready to cancel, censor, or label “fascist!” anyone who questions their ever-lengthening list of “human rights” and protected classes. In their thinking, none of us is ever more than one microaggression away from becoming a monster. They double down on the name-calling because they fear that those who fall out of progressive lockstep will inevitably start to goosestep.
Searching for the Source of Human Rights
Holland suggests that one reason secular progressives are paranoid about resurgent Nazism is that they have no foundation for their vast and growing edifice of “fundamental human rights.” In a recent panel discussion, Holland repeated a claim he makes in his book, Dominion, that human rights and dignity are anything but universal or self-evident, and that the only reason Westerners are still convinced such things exist is that we have a Christian hangover:
Because the West has been hegemonic for so long, it’s in a position to assume that its concept of human rights is universal. [Westerners] don’t need to think about it. Of course human rights exist! But what the rise of China and the rise of other civilizational powers is doing is to remind us that the concept of human rights . . . emerged in a very specific cultural matrix, which is a Christian one. And that therefore, if you want to believe in human rights, you have to believe. It takes a leap of faith to believe that there are things called human rights just as much as it takes a leap of faith to believe that Jesus Christ raised from the dead. They’re both beliefs.
Herein lies the problem for secular progressives, whose worldview dispenses with the Christian God and his commands. If the basis for human rights is not faith in divine law, then what is it?
If the basis for human rights is not faith in divine law, then what is it?
This problem worsens when we recall that secularism banished God with a materialist account of human origins: Darwinian evolution. But this theory is a double-edged sword. It may drive God from our moral universe, but it drives out human rights with him. After all, if fierce competition between rival populations leads to the origin and improvement of species, as Darwinism holds, then there is no good reason this process should not continue in our own species. Or will we condemn the very process that created us? If the law of nature is “survival of the fittest” and death to the weak and diseased, then universal rights are not only ethical nonsense—they’re biological suicide.
None of this was lost on the Nazis. In his book Darwinian Racism, Richard Weikart documents how Darwinian concepts and language were woven into every aspect of Nazi ideology, from its science and curricula to its propaganda and military objectives. Key Nazi figures all the way up to Hitler himself were convinced that their project was a natural outworking of Darwinian principles—indeed, that the reassertion of Aryan racial identity was a way of accelerating humanity’s evolution. Likewise, the Nazis saw the notion of universal human rights both as absurd and as a means by which unfit groups parasitize the worthy and strong.
Many secular progressives—who still cite Darwinian evolution with dogmatic enthusiasm—will find Weikart’s arguments infuriating. Much ink has been spilled in attempts to distance Darwinism from Nazism and to avoid the conclusions Nazis drew from it. Weikart has participated in that debate for decades, and he devotes a large portion of this latest book to answering such objections.
Human rights require human beings to be much more than animals. No other creature on earth has ever imagined that killing its prey or its competition might be immoral. Yet we seem unable to shake the conviction.
Unbelief Leaves Us Morally Adrift
What if secular progressives are so quick to invoke Hitler because they sense their own worldview’s vulnerability to his ideas? What if they rightly believe that exterminating people on the basis of race is evil, but can’t back it up with moral reasoning? What if Godwin’s law is all you have when you want law without God?
What if Godwin’s law is all you have when you want law without God?
These are questions anyone who looks seriously at the 20th century must ask, especially if that person has already jettisoned the traditional foundation for human dignity in the will of God and his image in man. It’s logical paradoxes like this that Christians should be ready to summon in everyday conversation (and online debates), winsomely asking probing questions that get people questioning the sources of their moral premises.
What is there to keep the horrors of Nazism permanently at bay if the wind of Darwinian logic is still in one’s sails, and there’s no anchor in human exceptionalism to hold them back? Certainly not secular pretensions about self-evident rights. We can repeat that line all we like and sic the ghost of Hitler on all who question us. But as King Saul learned the hard way, those who call up the dead should be ready for the dead to call their bluff.