Mother Teresa, Hitler, and Stalin
Recent revelations that Mother Teresa, probably the world's most famous 20th century Catholic, may have been a secret atheist, are certainly thought provoking. To many atheists it is no surprise that one of their number could have saint-like qualities. For many Catholics and other members of religious organization it may grant permission to examine their own doubts about God's existence. I'd like to use this occasion to examine the relationship between religious organizations, belief systems, and the more general question of good and evil.
To help illuminate the situation I'll be drawing on my knowledge of two other landmark personalities of the 20th century, Adolph Hitler, who many people think was an atheist or Pagan, but who was actually a Catholic (see Catholicism and Fascism), and the most infamous atheist of the 20th century, Joseph Stalin, former dictator of the U.S.S.R.
Good and evil get defined differently by different people and organizations. There are difficulties even if you stand by old basics (which I do). Let us grant that killing people is bad, and hurting people (physically or economically) is also bad. Helping people is good. The world is complex; helping one person can hurt another. Helping the Nazis, who started as a small band of impoverished former ex-soldiers, hurt other people. Hitler argued that hurting Jews was okay because they were hurting Germans. Stalin argued that killing enemies of the Soviet State (he thought they were real, but mostly they were imaginary) was necessary to insure the safety of other soviet citizens.
I believe people do have a right to self-defense, but I also know that murders, of the single-murder type and the entire spectrum up to mass murderers like Hitler and Stalin (and Truman and Johnson and Nixon and Andrew Jackson and ... and ... and ) always claim, and usually believe, that they are engaging in legitimate self-defense. The Catholic Inquisition was believed by its practitioners to be an unfortunately necessary self-defense of the Catholic Religion, without a belief in which people would be tossed into Hell when they died.
Mother Teresa did not practice self-defense. I don't know what her thoughts may have been on the subject. She worked to help the poor people of India. When she doubted not just in the Catholic Faith, but in the very existence of God, she did not use that as an excuse to bale out and lead a different, more pleasant life.
I have long believed that atheists would be more generally accepted by the religionists of the world if they would set up recognizably Atheist charitable organizations. I know a lot of atheists give to charity while others work for non-profit organizations. But that work is invisible to the world's judgmental eyes. There was no overtly atheist organization set up to help poor Indians; atheists should be ashamed of that.
It does not surprise me that a monster like Hitler and a saint like Mother Teresa could be found in the same organization, the Catholic Church. It is a big organization. Most people are in it because their ancestors are in it.
While atheism may have truth on its side, it has some serious problems. How do you teach people to be kind and peaceful when there is no God to send them flaming down to hell if they stray from righteousness?
I was going to say if you raise a child as an atheist, how do you prevent him from becoming a Joseph Stalin, but there is a problem there. Joseph Stalin was raised Eastern Orthodox (very similar to Catholic) and even studied in seminary to be a priest before he became an atheist Marxist.
I don't think atheists should take any credit for Mother Teresa. Her atheism was secret; it was her own. Catholics should not be ashamed of Mother Teresa. She worked within their organization; without the support of the Church she could not have helped so many people.
Yet there is a similarity in the work of Mother Teresa, Adolph Hitler, and Stalin that needs to be further examined. Mother Teresa was in India doing good because the Catholic Church wanted to make converts. They have been trying, with varying degrees of success, to convert Indians since the 1500's. They have not been as successful as they were in Latin America because they have never controlled the Indian government. They have never been able to use the convert-or-be-killed scenario that has made Catholics of much of the world. The Nazis had a similar outlook: convert-or-be-killed, except that certain people were put in the be-killed category. Stalin was worse: conversion was insufficient. The first party member to stop clapping was suspected of being a Trotskyist (a slightly different brand of communism), and, well, they clapped a really long time when talking about Comrade Stalin in Russia. They may well have been able to out-industrialize the United States if they hadn't had to spend so much time clapping. Like a flock of birds turning at the same instance, they all had to learn how to stop clapping at the same instance. Other Catholics, in the past, who might have been happy being like Mother Teresa found themselves murdering masses of people because the Church (or a pro-Church government) ordered it, just as otherwise good atheists became murderers under Stalin because they feared for their own lives if they refused to follow orders.
My only advice at this point is that humanity needs to look for a common definition of good and evil that is not based on religious beliefs or political cults.
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