Karlheinz Deschner deserves far wider recognition
BARRY DUKE wonders why this leading German atheist’s prolific body of work is not better known in the English-speaking world
A MAN was having a pair of pants made by a Jewish tailor. He grew impatient over the time it was taking the tailor to finish the job, and he complained:
It only took God six days to make the world, but it’s taken you over a month to make the trousers I ordered.
The tailor then produced the pants with pride and said:
Dat may be so, but take a look at the world … den take a look at dees pants!
That joke was told at the end of a lecture entitled “Cretinism or Evilution” (or “There is no joy in Eden, for creationism has struck out”) given in Atlanta in 1996 by Edward T Babinski, an American who was once a passionate faith-head but now describes himself as “agnostic”.
He warned his audience at the start of the lecture that:
The following presentation will cover mature subject matter, like God’s invention of the penis. The name of ‘Darwin’ will be spoken aloud, and it will be assumed that the books of the Bible were written by a pre-scientific people who believed their god reeeeeeeally loved to sniff burnt goat flesh (Gen. 8:20 ‘and the Lord smelled the soothing aroma’; see also, Num. 15:24 & 29:28), a common divine addiction back then.
Before launching into his lecture, he revealed that during his high school and college and a few years afterwards:
I was a Bible banging, born again, baptised as a believer, dyed-in-the-bloody-wool-of-the-Lamb Christian. I was elected president of the most evangelical group on my campus. And I lectured my fellow biology students and professors on the errors of EVILution.
In the part of presentation that dealt with disease he read this gem from Barbara Smoker’s Good God:
The Bible doesn’t teach
irrigation, medication, vaccination.
As a means of education
Scripture is a loss.
The substance of its ‘revelation’
Is just that God’s the boss.
But this article is not about Babinski, who, incidentally, is the author of Leaving the Fold: Testimonies of Former Fundamentalists. (He also authored the chapter “The Cosmology of the Bible” in The Christian Delusion.
It is about Karlheinz Deschner.
I just happened to stumble across Babinski after I received an indignant email from a Freethinker reader in Luxembourg, Nelly Moia, who wanted to know why virtually no mention is ever made in the English media about the German atheist, and why his work has never been fully translated into English.
Good questions. I vaguely knew of Deschner’s existence and was aware that the Bavarian-born researcher and writer who is fiercely critical of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular, is a highly regarded academic in Germany. I also remember reading that, in 2007, Deschner met Professor Richard Dawkins for the first time in Frankfurt, where Dawkins was handed the Deschner Prize at an award ceremony organised by the Giordano Bruno Foundation.
What I did not know was that 2013 marked the publication of the tenth volume of his opus Christianity’s Criminal History (Kriminalgeschichte des Christentums).
Wikipedia informed me that in 1971 Deschner, who turned 89 last month, was brought before a court in Nuremberg, charged with “insulting the Church”. He was acquitted, but his works remained largely unpublished until the 1980s, when they were translated and published in Spain, Switzerland, Italy and Poland.
In an effort to discover why Deschner’s impressive body of work – he is the author or editor of almost 50 books including novels, literary criticism, essays, and aphorisms – remains virtually unknown in the English-speaking world (none but a few paragraphs have been translated into English) I began digging for further information and found a comprehensive examination of Deschner on Babinski’s blog.
In March 2010, Babinski posted a lengthy piece about Deschner’s Christianity’s Criminal History, which included the following, written about Deschner by Catholic theologian Hans Kung after the sixth volume of the monumental work was published
During the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) the Catholic Church enjoyed a generally high public standing. At the beginning of the third millennium after Christ, however, it is being attacked more than ever in some quarters. Granted, Rome has recently been asking for forgiveness for the monstrous errors and atrocities of the past – but in the meantime, the present-day church administration and Inquisition are producing still more victims.
Scarcely any of the great institutions in our democratic age deal in such a despicable way with critics and those of other views in their own ranks, nor does any discriminate so much against women – by prohibiting contraceptives, the marriage of priests, and the ordination of women. None polarises society and politics worldwide to such a degree by rigid positions in matters of abortion, homosexuality, and euthanasia, positions always invested with an aura of infallibility, as if they were the will of God himself.
In view of the apparent inability on the part of the Catholic Church to correct and reform itself, is it not understandable that at the beginning of the third Christian millennium the more or less benevolent indifference widely shown to the church around fifty years ago has turned into hatred, indeed, public hostility?
Antagonistic church historians and critics are of the opinion that in the church’s two-thousand-year history no organic process of maturing [of doctrines and dogmas] can be detected, but rather something more like a criminal history.
A once-Catholic author, Karlheinz Deschner, has devoted his life and so far six volumes to such a history. In it he describes every possible form of criminality in the church’s foreign policy and in policies relating to trade, finance, and education; in the dissemination of ignorance and superstition; in the unscrupulous exploitation of sexual morality, marriage laws, and penal justice … and so on, for hundreds [now 8,000] of pages.
After publishing some excerpts from Criminal History, Babinski ran a number of reviews of the then nine-volume opus.
This is what Heinz Schönfeldt, of the German newspaper Mannheimer Morgen, wrote:
A shocking panorama of fraud and deceit, blood and murder under the sign of the Cross … The author recounts conscientiously, even in pedantic detail, the multitude of clerical, Christian crimes dating back to the earliest days of the Church. He demolishes with crushing blows monumental figures such as the great Constantine … The venerable doctors of the Church such as Athanasius, Ambrose, and Augustine lose their halos entirely … Of course there is another side to the story … But that does not negate Deschner’s account. He brings to light what has been diligently suppressed, falsified, and played down through two Christian millennia.
And this from professor Horst Herrmann, writing in Der Spiegel:
I am reminded of 18th Century proponents of the Enlightenment such as the Frenchmen Pierre Bayle, Claude Helvetius, and Voltaire or the German poet Heinrich Heine. Now the 20th Century also has its book, Deschner’s Christianity’s Criminal History … Thanks to Deschner’s back-breaking research, the suspicion that Christianity has skeletons in its closet becomes an absolutely certainty. Widely known facts are beginning to replace mere suspicions, and what we learn about reality exceeds even the products of our fantasy.
Rolf Gawrich, writing for Frankfurter Rundschau, added:
Deschner is not a modern Don Quixote, nor a Michael Kohlhaas. He is a modern proponent of the Enlightenment who still believes in the power of reason. He does not perceive the necessity of a new myth to replace a demystified Christianity no longer able to offer salvation. This fact distinguishes him from some modern critics of the Church who still feel allegiance to some interpretation of primitive Christianity. Deschner is without compromise in this regard.
That Deschner’s work remains largely unknown to English readers must be of considerable relief to the Roman Catholic Church, but I share Nelly Moia’s outrage that his achievement in exposing its crimes over the centuries remains untranslated.
But here is some good news: later this year, in October, Prometheus Books will publish the first English translation of Deschner’s God and the Fascists: The Vatican Alliance with Mussolini, Franco, Hitler and Pavelic, a controversial work that indicts the Vatican for its actions before and during World War II.
According to the publisher:
In the decade preceding the outbreak of World War II, the Vatican made a devil’s bargain with fascist leaders. Anticipating that their regimes would eliminate a common enemy – namely Marxist-Leninist communism – two popes essentially collaborated with Hitler, Mussolini, and the fascist dictators in Spain (Franco) and Croatia (Pavelic).
This is the damning indictment of this well-researched polemic, which for almost five decades in Germany has sparked controversy, outrage, and furious debate. Now it is available in English for the first time.
Many will dismiss Deschner – who himself was raised and educated in a pious Catholic tradition – as someone who is obsessed with exposing the failings of the church of his upbringing. But he has marshalled so many facts and presented them with such painstaking care that his accusations cannot easily be ignored. The sheer weight of the evidence that he has brought together in this book raises a host of questions about a powerful institution that continues to exercise political influence to this day.
Here is a selection of Deschner quotes:
• At first your religious beliefs are those which were foisted upon you; gradually your religious beliefs become those you deserve.
• Definition of “theologian”: the only kind of scholar who has no knowledge whatsoever of his supposed object of study.
• I think, therefore I am … not a Christian.
• “I would rather err with the majority than in my own way.” So thought St Augustine. I am of the reverse opinion.
• Many things between Heaven and Earth fill me with wonder; but of all of these, the least wondrous to me are the wonders of Religion.
• I can live with the Mysteries; it is the Explanations I cannot bear.
This article first appeared in the June 2013 issue of the Freethinker.