Books advocating atheism have recently been enjoying a modest boomlet. Sales are solid, book readings are sold out, and their authors grace the highbrow talk shows and op-ed pages in prestigious newspapers and periodicals. But their arguments are shopworn, stale hand-me-downs and threadbare heirlooms inherited from an era that was fading away even before the French Revolution had made the connection between atheism and violence clear to any fair observer. Yet these books read as if they came from authors who had never heard of the Reign of Terror or Robespierre.

It is this blinkered ahistorical myopia that makes reading these books such a surreal experience. For like a “red thread” running through all their other arguments, each book has one central claim: Belief in God causes violence. The obvious corollary to this thesis is almost too absurdly risible to merit formulation, and some authors are just coy (or embarrassed) enough not to say it out loud; but others are bolder and shout it from the rooftops: If only atheism would take hold as the majority view throughout the globe, humans would lose their propensity for violence, lion would nestle beside the lamb, children would regain their long-lost happiness, swords would magically turn into plowshares, churches would empty and the resultant collapse in the market-price for incense would alone reverse global warming. Richard Dawkins, for example, opens his recent book The God Delusion with this hilariously naïve depiction of the Eschaton that awaits us if only we would cast off the security blanket of religion:

Imagine, with John Lennon, a world with no religion. Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as “Christ-killers,” no Northern Ireland “troubles,” no “honor killings,” no shiny-suited bouffant-haired televangelists fleecing gullible people of their money (“God wants you to give till it hurts”). Imagine no Talban to blow up ancient statues, no public beheadings of blasphemers, no flogging of female skin for the crime of showing an inch of it.

The inevitable, even clichéd, response on the part of theists to this litany of woes is to ask: what about Hitler and Stalin? Yes, the question resorts to the hackneyed rhetorical ploy of et tu quoque (Latin for “So’s your old man”). But at least the question’s inevitability forces the atheist to show his hand. Thus Dawkins lamely avers that Hitler did believe in God (of sorts) and, hey, Stalin attended an Orthodox seminary in his youth! If that retort seems a tad desperate, England’s most pious unbeliever concludes with this wan distinction: “Stalin was an atheist and Hitler probably wasn’t, but even if he was, the bottom line of the Stalin/Hitler debating point is very simple. Individual atheists may do evil things but they don’t do evil things in the name of atheism.” So it’s not atheism that’s the problem, only atheists! At this point you can probably already hear someone offstage lip-synching G. K. Chesterton: it’s not that atheism has been tried and found wanting, you see, it’s just never been tried at all in its pure form, a point that would not likely have consoled the Carmelite nuns as they were being killed by Republican forces during Spain’s civil war in the 1930s.

One would think that, given their insistence that faith and violence are inextricably linked, these authors would be a bit more circumspect about their own rhetoric. As it happens, one does not have to read too far into these books to see an underlying advocacy of violence animating their venom, an advocacy made most explicit in Sam Harris’s The End of Faith , which openly avows: “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live . . . . There is, in fact, no talking to some people. . . . We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.” To which I can only respond with one of Blaise Pascal’s more mordant observations, “Thinking too little about things or thinking too much both make us obstinate and fanatical.” Pascal called civil war the worst of all evils and openly admitted that no evil is greater than that committed under the guise of religion. If he were living today, I am sure his response to Harris would be: yes, Mr. Harris, you’re right, and the reason atheism brings so much violence in its wake is because it is its own kind of religion¯and that’s your problem: your atheism is too religious.

Pascal’s underlying point is that the clash between theism and atheism changes none of the constituents of the human condition. What Pope Benedict XVI said in Spe Salvi specifically of Karl Marx can be extended to most other atheists: “He forgot that man always remains man. He forgot man and he forgot man’s freedom. He forgot that freedom always remains also freedom for evil . . . . His real error is materialism: man, in fact, is not merely the product of economic conditions, and it is not possible to redeem him purely from the outside by creating a favorable economic environment.” Or by establishing a polity based on an atheist worldview, the pope adds immediately. One of the great merits of this extraordinary encyclical is the way it deftly exposes the underlying dynamic of violence in the atheist project, at least in its doctrinaire Marxist variety:

Since there is no God to create justice, it seems man himself is now called to establish justice. If in the face of this world’s suffering, protest against God is understandable, [nonetheless] the claim that humanity can and must do what no God actually does or is able to do is both presumptuous and intrinsically false. It is no accident that this idea has led to the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice; rather, it is grounded in the intrinsic falsity of the claim. A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope. No one and nothing can answer for centuries of suffering. No one and nothing can guarantee that the cynicism of power¯whatever beguiling ideological mask it adopts¯will cease to dominate the world.

Ironically, Benedict is far more respectful of certain varieties of unbelief than are the noisy new atheists like Dawkins and Harris of any form of belief whatever (except their own of course). In a fascinating passage dealing with the non-doctrinaire Marxists of the famous Frankfurt School, the pope shows how their own requirements for hope inevitably lead to an openness to the Christian doctrine of the resurrection:

This is why the great thinkers of the Frankfurt School, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, were equally critical of atheism and theism. Horkheimer radically excluded the possibility of ever finding a this-worldly substitute for God, while at the same time he rejected the image of a good and just God. In an extreme radicalization of the Old Testament prohibition of images, he speaks of a “longing for the totally Other” that remains inaccessible¯a cry of yearning directed at world history. Adorno also firmly upheld this total rejection of images, which naturally meant the exclusion of any “image” of a loving God. On the other hand, he also constantly emphasized this “negative” dialectic and asserted that justice¯true justice¯would require a world “where not only present suffering would be wiped out, but also that which is irrevocably past would be undone.” This would mean, however¯to express it with positive and hence, for him, inadequate symbols¯that there can be no justice without a resurrection of the dead.

In other words, atheism is now coming undone by its own contradictions. In the ancient world, Epicurus scored belief in the gods for its fear-mongering; in the modern world, Enlightened and Marxist philosophers attacked religious belief for the opposite failing: for its attempt to extinguish an accessible and realizable happiness in the “real” world in favor of an imaginary happiness in the afterlife. But decades before such hopes for a this-worldly happiness would be dashed in the abattoir of the twentieth century, Friedrich Nietzsche had already exposed that illusion. What happiness? What “real” world? What improvement? What progress? Along with ignoring the French Revolution, one of the most telling features of the new books on atheism is their consistent refusal to engage Nietzsche, who, if read correctly, ought to make atheists squirm far more than he has ever caused discomfit to believers.

First, he turned the critical methods of the Enlightenment against their inventors and showed that Enlightened faith in progress was just as illusory as belief in an afterlife. Second, he demanded that a critical philosophy stop pretending to be a substitute religion (he shrewdly called Hegelian idealism “insidious theology”). Third, he insisted on the indissoluble bond between Christian doctrine and Christian morality and poured contempt on novelists like George Eliot for supposing otherwise: “In England one must rehabilitate oneself after every little emancipation from theology by showing in a veritably awe-inspiring manner what a moral fanatic one is. That is the penance they pay over there.”

In retrospect, it should not surprise the keen observer of these books that the new atheists do not attend to Nietzsche. As R. J. Hollingdale says in his fine biography, Nietzsche: The Man and His Philosophy , “Nineteenth-century rationalism was characterized by insight into the difficulty in accepting revealed religion, and obtuseness regarding the consequences of rejecting it.” As Nietzsche said so well of these foolish rationalists in his Twilight of the Idols :

They have got rid of the Christian God, and now feel obliged to cling all the more firmly to Christian morality: that is English consistency . . . . With us it is different. When one gives up Christian belief, one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality. Whoever tries to peel off this fundamental idea¯belief in God¯from Christian morality will only be taking a hammer to the whole thing, shattering it to pieces.

Perhaps this why Nietzsche said in Ecce Homo , “the most serious Christians have always been well disposed toward me.” For they at least, unlike Dawkins, Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, can see that after Nietzsche a moral critique of the Christian God has become impossible, for it denies the very presupposition that makes its own critique possible. Like Abraham asking if the Lord God of justice could not himself do justice, protest atheism must accept the very norms that Nietzsche showed are essential to the meaning of belief. In Nietzsche alone one reads what the world really looks like si Deus non sit . Only this godless author can tell us how pathetic man is without God, as here, in this passage from “On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense” (one of the four essays that make up Untimely Meditations ):

In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star [sic] on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the highest and most mendacious minute of “world history”¯yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die. One might invent such a fable and still not have illustrated sufficiently how wretched, how shadowy and flighty, how aimless and arbitrary, the human intellect appears in nature. There have been eternities when it did not exist; and when it is done for again, nothing will have happened . . . . There is nothing in nature so despicable or insignificant that it cannot immediately be blown up like a bag by a slight breath of this power of knowledge; and just as every porter wants an admirer, the proudest human being¯the philosopher¯thinks that he sees the eyes of the universe telescopically focused from all sides on his actions and thoughts.

To be sure, this passage occurs in one of his earliest books, and his later career showed that he could not consistently maintain such a bleak view, for in The Gay Science Nietzsche even flirts, however fleetingly, with Platonic idealism, recognizing as he does that science too is a moral activity that cannot account for its own moral purposes. If nature trumps knowledge at every turn, then science loses its point, and the essentially moral nature entailed in the search for truth is gone, along with the concept of truth itself:

Thus the question “Why science?” leads back to the moral problem: Why have morality at all when life, nature, and history are “not moral”? No doubt, those who are truthful in that audacious and ultimate sense that is presupposed by the faith in science thus affirm another world than the world of life, nature, and history; and insofar as they affirm this “other world”¯look, must they not by that same token negate its counterpart, this world, our world?¯But you will have gathered what I am driving at, namely, that it is still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests¯that even we seekers after knowledge today, we godless anti-metaphysicians, still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by a faith that is thousands of years old, that Christian faith which was also the faith of Plato, that God is the truth, that truth is divine. ( Nietzsche’s emphases )

But no sooner is that concession made in the minor key, than it is taken away in the major, for the very next sentence reverts to the old Nietzschean specters: “But what if this [metaphysical faith] should become more and more incredible, what if nothing should prove to be divine any more unless it were error, blindness, the lie¯if God himself should prove to be our most enduring lie?” As most of his other books prove, that last sentence represents the real Nietzsche, however much he occasionally shrank from its implications. In his major premise, he’s right: Christian belief and Christian morality are indissolubly linked. But once he arrives at his minor premise, that faith in the Christian God is impossible, he could see no alternative but to propose a new¯and decidedly violent¯morality.

In Thus Spake Zarathustra , he said: “Far too many keep on living; they hang on their branches much too long. May a storm soon come to shake all this rotten and worm-eaten fruit from the tree!” In a section of The Gay Science entitled “Holy Cruelty” a Nietzschean “saint” advises a father to kill his disabled child, rhetorically asking, “Isn’t it crueler to allow it to live?” Twilight of the Idols includes a section entitled “Morality for Physicians” that calls sick people “parasites” who have no right to life and advocates the “most ruthless suppression and pushing aside of degenerate life.” And finally in his autobiography Ecce Homo , one of the last books he sent to the publisher before his collapse into insanity, he said: “If we cast a look a century ahead and assume that my assassination of two thousand years of opposition to nature and of dishonoring humans succeeds, then that new party of life [!] will take in hand the greatest of all tasks¯the higher breeding of humanity, including the unsparing destruction of all degenerates and parasites.” Finally, in his posthumously published Will to Power he says:

The biblical prohibition “Thou shalt not kill” is a piece of naïveté compared with the seriousness of Life’s own “Thou shalt not” issued to decadence: “Thou shalt not procreate!”¯Life itself recognizes no solidarity, no “equal right,” between the healthy and the degenerate parts of an organism . . . . Sympathy for the decadents, equal rights for the ill-constituted¯that would be the profoundest immorality, that would be anti-nature itself as morality!

Compare those passages with Dawkins’s blinkered, thick-skulled “explanation” for the evils of Hitler and Stalin: “Stalin and Hitler did extremely evil things in the name of, respectively, dogmatic and doctrinaire Marxism, and an insane and unscientific eugenics theory tinged with sub-Wagnerian ravings.” As if “dogmatic and doctrinaire” Marxism and “unscientific” eugenics had nothing to do with atheism! The connection between these two twentieth-century ideologies and the recession of the Christian God in the nineteenth is nearly seamless, as just this passage alone from Hitler’s Mein Kampf makes clear:

[My worldview] by no means believes in the equality of races, but recognizes along with their differences their higher or lower value, and through this knowledge feels obliged, according to the eternal will that rules this universe, to promote the victory of the better, the stronger, and to demand the submission of the worse and weaker. It embraces thereby in principle the aristocratic law of nature and believes in the validity of this law down to the last individual being. It recognizes not only the different value of races, but also the different value of individuals . . . . By no means can it approve of the right of an ethical idea if this idea is a danger to the racial life of the bearer of a higher ethics.

One need not claim that Hitler was a close student of Nietzsche’s writings (although he certainly named him as an inspiration) to see the obvious affinities here. Nor does one have to slur Nietzsche with the Nazi brush, as do those vulgarians who want to dismiss his witness entirely, since he obviously would have had nothing but contempt for Nazism (he once said that the opening line of the German national anthem, Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles , was the stupidest line ever written, and he so loathed German culture that he asked to be buried in Poland). The point, rather, is that Nietzsche saw. However much he (usually) advocated what ought to be most abhorred, he at least recognized that true morality and Christian belief are siblings. Moreover, in tones redolent of Jeremiah he saw the consequences to civilization as a whole when its citizens lose their faith in God. For what will take the place of God will be only a passionate¯and largely empty¯politics:

For when truth enters the lists against the lies of millennia, we shall have convulsions, a spasm of earthquakes . . . the likes of which have never been dreamed. Then the concept of politics will be completely dissolved in a war between spirits, all authority structures of the old order will be blown into the air¯one and all, they rest upon a lie; there will be wars the likes of which have never existed on earth. From my time forward earth will see Great Politics.

Such are the contradictions of atheism. With hope in progress gone, with the lessons of the twentieth century still unlearned in the twenty-first, with technology progressing, in Adorno’s words, from the slingshot to the atom bomb (a remark cited in Spe Salvi), with a resurgence of religiously motivated violence filling the headlines, all that the new atheists can manage is to hearken back to an Enlightenment-based critique of religion. But they find their way blocked, not so much by Nietzsche (whom, as we saw, they largely ignore) but by the ineluctable realities he so ruthlessly exposed. Not Nietzsche, but the history of the twentieth century has shown that godless culture is incapable of making men happier. All Nietzsche did was to point out that no civilization, however “progressive,” can dispel the terrifying character of nature; and once progress is called into question, the human condition appears in all its forsaken nakedness.

Against these realities, all that the new atheists can offer is only the most jejune, wan, and bloodless humanism: not Nietzsche’s Zarathustra but John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Not once do these books look at the dilemma into which liberalism has fallen. In that regard, I am reminded of a little known fact from the Scopes “Monkey Trial.” Clarence Darrow was the progress-happy lawyer for the evolution-teaching defendant, and how much he has anticipated the new atheists! As Peter Berger dryly noted in his book A Rumor of Angels , Darrow was “an admirable man in many ways, but one dense enough sincerely to believe that a Darwinist view of man could serve as a basis for his opposition to capital punishment.” Such obtuseness is shared by most liberals today, who merrily fuse opposition to capital punishment, support for abortion and doctor-assisted suicide, condemnation of racism, and a vaguely appreciative acquaintance with evolutionary theory¯without the least sense of the impossible dilemmas entailed in these contradictory positions.

Given these hopelessly confused and superficial arguments, it’s hard to take the new atheism seriously. Nietzsche was surely right when he said that serious Christians would come to appreciate his witness. But who can take seriously these recent tub-thumping accusations that believers are the sole source of violence, all coming from writers who themselves advocate violence in their next breath? That’s why these books from the new atheists can hardly represent a threat to believers. Pascal was already on to their game in the seventeenth century: “All those contradictions that seemed to take me furthest from the knowledge of any religion,” he said in the Pensées , “are what led me most directly to the true religion.”

Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago.


The God Delusion

The End of Faith

Nietzsche: The Man and His Philosophy

The Twilight of the Idols

Ecce Homo

Untimely Meditations

The Gay Science

Thus Spake Zarathustra

The Will to Power

A Rumor of Angels


Articles by Edward T. Oakes


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