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Trade Paperback
192 pages
Sep 2004
Baker Books

The Real Face of Atheism

by Ravi Zacharias

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt


Morticians of the Absolute

The greatest question of our time is not communism
versus individualism; not Europe versus America; not
even the East versus West. It is whether men can live
without God.
—Will Durant

On August 7, 1961, twenty-six-year-old Major Gherman Titov became the second Soviet cosmonaut to orbit the earth and return safely, climaxing a monumental feat for humankind. Some time later, speaking at the World’s Fair and savoring his moment of glory, he recounted this experience, vouchsafed to a privileged few. Under a triumphalist pretext, he let it be known that, on his excursion into space, he hadn’t seen God.1 Upon hearing of this exuberant argument from silence, someone quipped, “Had he stepped out of his space-suit he would have!” Evidently reluctant to restrict the immediate gains of the moment to the disciplines directly involved in that endeavor, Titov attempted to draw theological blood. Thus, one great step for science became, for him, an immensely greater leap in philosophy.

On Christmas Eve, 1968, three American astronauts were the first human beings to go around the “dark” side of the moon, away from the earth. Having fired their rockets, they were homebound on Apollo 8, and beheld our planet in a way that human eyes had never witnessed before. They saw Earth rise over the horizon of the moon, draped in a beauteous mixture of white and blue, bordered by the glistening light of the sun against the black void of space. And in the throes of this awe-inspiring experience they opened the pages of the book of Genesis and read for the world to hear, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth . . .”

Two similar experiences of awe and exhilaration; two diametrically opposed conclusions about the nature of the world. Such a chasm is quite understandable, for these two incidents carried into space the most fundamentally debated question on earth: Does God exist? Has God created man, or has man created God? Is God indispensable to any cosmological explanation, or is he only a psychological necessity of men? Theism or atheism?

Several years ago, Encyclopedia Britannica published a fiftyfive-volume series entitled The Great Books of the Western World. Mortimer Adler, a noted philosopher and legal scholar, was coeditor of this series, which marshaled the eminent thinkers of the western world and their writings on the most important ideas that have been studied and investigated over the centuries. This includes ideas in law, science, philosophy, history, theology, and love that have shaped the minds and destinies of people. These essays are assembled for comparison and contrast. Very striking to the observant reader is that the longest essay is on God. When Mr. Adler was asked by a reviewer why this theme merited such protracted coverage, his answer was uncompromising. “Because,” said he, “more consequences for life and action follow from the affirmation or denial of God than from any other basic question.”2

Even the most unsympathetic individual toward things religious will not want to contend with Adler’s conclusion. Nothing, absolutely nothing, has a more direct bearing on the moral choices made by individuals or the purposes pursued by society than belief or disbelief in God. Personal and national destinies are inextricably bound to this issue. It is not accidental that the key issues of the day that are felt with deep emotion and conviction, whether it be the issue of sexual orientation and practice, or life in the fetal stage, sooner or later filter down to whether there is a God, and if so, has he spoken?

It is not surprising, therefore, that Stephen Hawking concluded his book A Brief History of Time asserting this question to be the most significant factor in the human equation. Hawking, who holds Newton’s chair as Lucasian professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, brilliantly laid out his view of the universe and ended with a humble assertion: the one question in need of an answer is the question of God. Science, with all of its strident gains, must still remain contented to describe the “what” of human observations. Only God can answer the “why.”3

On the issue of God’s existence, testifying to both the intellectual depth and pragmatic breadth of the subject, intellectual giants through the centuries have lined both sides of the fence, holding tenaciously to their own view and passionately rejecting the opposite. Brilliant minds such as Bertrand Russell and David Hume have severely castigated the intellectual credibility of theism. Yet, other great philosophical and scientific thinkers, such as Jonathan Edwards and Blaise Pascal, have firmly and unblushingly held the theistic worldview. Scientists and philosophers continue to debate the issue today. It is, then, utter folly to maintain, as some do, that informed minds have eschewed the idea of God, and that only the pre-scientific, unquestioning, antiquated, or simple-minded have succumbed to this belief, through fear or ignorance. Bertrand Russell’s assertion, in his conceptual critique of Christianity, that all religion is born out of fear, is a weak and unthinking criticism of the subject. It is no more true than if one were to say that all irreligion is born out of fearlessness. Caricatures such as this make for a poor philosophical starting point, and end up in false psychological theories. In life, it is not uncommon to meet many intensely self-assured people who are devoutly religious. And, it is also not uncommon to meet some equally insecure people, embattled by manifold fears, who are devoutly irreligious.

To further compound the issues surrounding the debate about God’s existence, both sides have made inductive and deductive mistakes. Any student of history or science is quite familiar with the tragic display of power and ignorance when the mathematician, physicist, and astronomer Galileo was forced by the Inquisition in 1633 to recant his support of the Copernican theory of the solar system. But many of these students do not know that this censorious autocracy, which the church arrogated to itself, was not based on any biblical pronouncement, but rather, on a fallacious assumption from the teachings of the second-century Greek astronomer and mathematician, Ptolemy.4 He postulated that the earth lay at the center of the universe with the sun, moon, and other planets revolving around it. The ecclesiastical hierarchy of the day espoused this Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmology, with its erroneous conclusion, as being the worldview of the Bible. The Bible, in fact, states nothing of the kind. Critics have never allowed the church to forget the Galileo blunder, and have consistently expelled it from the halls of academic credibility.

On the other side of the fence, supporters of the materialistic, non-theistic worldview have had their share of error-ridden deductions. Their Galileo blunder was the Piltdown hoax. Doctoral candidates wrote numerous dissertations on the Piltdown Man in support of the theory of evolution. These fossilized skull fragments, discovered in Sussex, England, in 1913, supposedly argued for an advanced hominid. Although at that time believed to be the earliest European human remains, it was proved a hoax forty years later, bringing the scientific community great embarrassment.

It is not without reason that philosophers, scientists, theologians, and others have written prolifically on the matter of God’s existence, and our libraries are crowded with assumptions and deductions, ad nauseum. How may anyone, then, hope to find valid answers to their gnawing questions on this subject?

There are many approaches from which this issue can be studied. We could view it scientifically, historically, philosophically, existentially, or pragmatically. Each avenue lends its own distinctive strength. Each can tender volumes to the argument, with or without relevance. For the purpose of this brief presentation, the challenge presented to atheism is one that will touch more weightily upon the existential struggle of humankind, for in the words of Max Weber, the German sociologist, “man embraces religion at the point of meaning.” However, while studying it from this vantage point, I will also attempt to drive a wedge into other relevant facets and disciplines. The unanswered questions of atheism soon surface, both in their assumptions and conclusions. Academic attempts have been made to run from these questions, but they have a way of painfully catching up in life’s most tender moments and inescapable realities. Conversely, I will argue that the claims of theism are both strong and valid for the mind to espouse and the life to embrace. It is important that we take this many-sided look, because while man may own religion at the level of meaning, he often disavows it at the level of reasoning.

The Assault Begins

Atheism has never lacked a spokesperson. When one considers the impact of even a few of its noted defenders in recent centuries, the handwriting must have been clearly on the wall. There would be many a collision and shipwreck as the academic world approached the uncharted seas of outright atheism. The real threat of Galileo’s work to the popular mind-set was not in the subjection of the physical universe to scientific study, nor was it in the abandonment of the Ptolemaic geocentric view. What many jettisoned was the validity of ideas such as prayer and providence in a universe that now had purely mechanistic explanations. The application continued upward. If the world itself presented a mechanical model, must not that apply to man, also? Determinism became a familiar word in philosophy and psychology lexicons. The impact of Galileo’s discovery had deep-seated ramifications.

If this were not enough of a challenge to the church, the implications of the Darwinian theory sent shock waves throughout Christendom. The idea that humans evolved by natural selection from the animal world lay the axe at the very root of religious belief. Peripheral ideas held by the church fell like apples from a tree after Galileo. Yet with Darwin the gigantic trunk of theism, which had clung tenaciously to the foundation of God as Creator, was being uprooted. From the earlier blow, the authority of the church was suspect, but there was still a place for God. On the heels of Darwinian Theory, theism itself was under severe attack, and an atheistic mind-set was now a “scientifically supported” reality.

Indeed, it was not fantasy that prompted Karl Marx to consider dedicating his Das Kapital to Charles Darwin. He requested Darwin to accept the dedication in the English translation. Darwin declined the offer.5 That notwithstanding, the correspondence between Marx and Engels shows Marx’s exuberance for Darwin’s thesis. For Marx himself, religion was the opiate of the people, the sigh of the oppressed, and the only illusory sun that revolved around man, so long as man did not revolve around himself. His rationale behind that dedicatory consideration was that he saw how the Darwinian hypothesis provided the scientific substructure to support his economic infrastructure, on which he could build his man-made utopian superstructure. According to Marx, religion had made room for class division, which could never be allowed, else it would impede the flow of history toward a utopian classless society.

This Marxist belief in turn provided the foundational strength needed by Stalin and gave ideological support for his categorical hatred toward religious people that finally yielded his mass obliteration of millions. Atheism was now alive and well in the political arena. Politics confidently divorced religion, for that which science and economic theory had torn asunder, no sane person dared join together.

The one-two-three punch of the Galileo effect (the loss of confidence in providence), the Darwinian deductions (the loss of a Creator-God), and the Marxist presuppositions (a new economic theory based on atheism) were not the only attacks the church sustained. Freud’s analysis of religion further wounded the church’s credibility by dragging human sexuality out of the sacred quarters of the marriage bedroom and reducing marriage to nothing more than a substitute for sexual independence (just as work was a substitute for economic independence). As far as Freud was concerned, religion was a public version of a private obsession: some people walked on certain sides of the road, others practiced certain behavior with a compulsive obsession. Religious ritual was just one form of that.

Freud desacralized ethics, beliefs, and practices, and grabbed the church by the seat of its pants to throw it over the wall of civilization. He branded the hopes and beliefs of the church as “the future of an illusion,” the title of one of his books.

The Undertaker Arrives

With such abusive attacks directed at religious belief coming from so many directions, it was left for someone to cast this creature called theism completely out, and exorcise the world of all such influence. The one who did that with ruthless strength was the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. He delivered so devastating a blow to theistic thinking that the word orthodox took on a new concept: it now meant being wrong.

Nietzsche despised religion in general, and Christianity in particular, with unbridled fury. Some of his denunciations were as vilifying as could be imagined. In his Antichrist, he said:

    I call Christianity the one great curse, the one enormous and innermost perversion, the one great instinct of revenge, for which no means are too venomous, too underhand, too underground, and too petty.6

Nietzsche was the most imaginative and articulate modern spokesman for atheism. He formed a hinge between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Living from 1844 to 1900, he philosophically and ideologically swayed the twentieth-century mind, a fact from which there would be few detractors.

In his book Modern Times, the historian Paul Johnson referred to Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini as the three devils of the twentieth century. Interestingly, Nietzschean dogma influenced each of them. So profound and operative was Nietzsche’s philosophy upon Hitler that it provided the conceptual framework for his demagogical onslaught to obliterate the weak and inferior of this world. That being done, Hitler would establish the supremacy of the “superman” in an unobstructed and dominant role.7 Hitler also personally presented a copy of Nietzsche’s works to Benito Mussolini. Nietzsche’s influence in the geopolitical chess game of the world, with new “kings,” and humanity as “pawns,” was far-reaching. He also had a great impact on writers such as Bernard Shaw, D. H. Lawrence, and W. B. Yeats. It is said that after Yeats read Nietzsche, his writings were never the same. Nietzsche’s influence upon Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung made great inroads into their powerfully persuasive psychological theories as well. And, of course, his ideology provided much of the verbiage and motivation behind the “God is dead” movement among the liberal theologians that shook the ecclesiastical foundations in the middle of the twentieth century.

Indeed, this son of a Lutheran pastor, and a grandson of Lutheran pastors on both sides of his parentage, was the chief coroner who pronounced God “D.O.A. in the twentieth century.” He was a most introspective and passionate individual, who gained widespread acceptance in Europe, except from the English-speaking philosophers. They thought his philosophical imprecision and literary approach did not merit admittance to their close ranks, so they gave him only a grudging acceptance. In recent times, however, the doors of English philosophy have creaked upon their hinges to acknowledge his extraordinary impact. The fact is, Nietzsche stylistically broke the mold, and his blunt portrayals of issues at the highest level of sensitivity in human emotions were impossible to escape. His style of writing, pitched halfway between metaphor and literal statement, was something quite extraordinary. Whatever he said had the flair and power of imagination wedded with reality, transferring the image from his mind onto the mind of the reader with riveting force. Freud several times said of him that he knew himself better than any other human being. That diagnosis has a ring of tragicomedy to it, as Nietzsche spent the last eleven years of his life insane.

One may persuasively debate whether Nietzsche knew himself better than any other, but what seems beyond debate is that he dramatized more than any other writer, with more painful honesty, the logical outworking of atheism. He dragged philosophy away from its tendency to escape the concrete application of its conclusions as it climbed the ladder of abstraction. He compelled the philosopher to pay the full fare of his ticket to atheism and to see where it was going to let him off. Nietzsche wanted to look life squarely in the eye, with no God to obstruct his vision, and the picture he saw was agonizing to his mind. He saw no vast mind behind the framing of this world; he heard no transcending voice giving counsel to this world; he saw no light at the end of the tunnel, and he felt the loneliness of existence in its most desolate form. Just as Jean Paul Sartre saw no exit from this random existence, Nietzsche saw no entry from the outside into this hermetically sealed and vacuous life. Man was now left to find his own path, and light whatever lamps he chose.

In a sense, Nietzsche was the first western philosopher to face up fully to man’s loss of faith in religion. He put down in black and white what many around him felt to be true, but were unwilling to acknowledge as the logical end of their belief. In pronouncing the death of God, Nietzsche not only stepped right into the eye of the storm, he went further, and admitted that the storm clouds were even more devastating and violent than any of God’s undertakers had imagined. The paralyzing darkness that fell was not so much an exterior phenomenon crowding inward but rather an inner blinding that spread outward. It was not just that the philosopher’s sling had put out the lights; it was that the disorientation of the mind itself would not know whither to turn for light, and the result was terrifying.

Nietzsche portrayed this intensity in his parable called The Madman.

    Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the marketplace and cried incessantly, “I’m looking for God, I’m looking for God!” As many of those who did not believe in God were standing together there, he excited considerable laughter. “Why, did he get lost?” said one. “Did he lose his way like a child?” said another. “Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? Or emigrated?” Thus they yelled and laughed. The madman sprang into their midst and pierced them with his glances.

    “Whither is God?” he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God’s decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves? What was holiest and most powerful of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must not we ourselves become gods simply to seem worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever will be born after us—forsake of this deed, he will be part of a higher history than all history hitherto.”

    Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they too were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke and went out. . . .

    It has been related further that on the same day the madman entered divers churches and there sang his “requiem aeternam deo.” Led out and called to account, he is said to have replied each time, “What are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchres of God?”8

Nietzsche’s emotionally charged description is not purely imaginative. He had grabbed reality by the throat, and wrestled with the postmortem grimness of a world that had lost its assumed Creator and Provider. The “myth” of God had been exposed and could no longer carry man into his battles. The illusion that, hitherto, had held such strong sway, was now to be wrapped up in the grave clothes of the buried God. To borrow a Freudian analogy, God had been a kind of consolation to humanity living in the nest, yet upon growing up, man gave him his eviction notice. For centuries he had been the pacifier for the infant years of mankind, but now adulthood had shown him to have been merely imaginary.

Nietzsche was well in touch with the potential consequences of burying God. These morticians of the Absolute could easily make the announcement in the obituary column, but what of the morticians themselves who had now lost their own reason for being? Had the pronouncers weighed the consequences of the pronouncement? The self-destructive force of this eulogy was equal to the philosophical malady of the Cretan who said “All Cretans are liars.” Can you believe him? For man, in stabbing at the heart of God, had in reality, bled himself.

This self-inflicted wound at the dawn of the twentieth century was to bleed uncontrollably as the century wore on. In 1966, the cover of Time magazine asked, “Is God Dead?” In 1977, it carried a cover story, “Marx Is Dead.” This prompted a college cynic to quip, “God is dead, Marx is dead, and I’m not feeling too well myself!” That, precisely, was Nietzsche’s point: the consequences of the death of God would penetrate every avenue of life, and that thought in and of itself would be unbearable. It could prove to be suicidal, if man did not rise up and take charge. In fact, Nietzsche went on to say, because God had died in the nineteenth century, there would be two direct results in the twentieth century.

First, he prognosticated that the twentieth century would become the bloodiest century in history and, second, that a universal madness would break out. He has been right on both counts. More people have been killed because of ideological differences, and destroyed on the battlefields of geopolitical maneuvering, in the twentieth century than in any other century in history, and by some calculations, more than in the previous nineteen centuries put together.

What is ironic about Nietzsche’s statement about universal madness is that, as already stated, with almost symbolic power and in a self-fulfilling prophecy, Nietzsche took the first step and went insane himself. He died in 1900, striking somewhat the same note as the lines from Wordsworth’s poem, “Resolution and Independence”:

    We Poets in our youth begin in gladness,
    But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.

No matter how loudly Nietzsche shouted about a world of supermen who would find a way to live amidst and beyond these blasted ruins of Christian ethics and moral philosophies, his ideology neither answered nor solved the dilemma of a world without God. He relentlessly pursued “the hygiene of knowledge,” arguing for some kind of disinfecting filter for thought, devoid of extrinsic value from any authority outside of ourselves. Its purpose would be to screen out knowledge that is “wrong,” and strain in knowledge that is “right”—by Nietzschean definitions. Truth, as a category, he subjected to an embargo; “Truth is fiction,” said he. Christian morality he delegitimized. Yet, Nietzsche was never able to produce that “sanitation” desired in knowledge. He really left no such legacy, and, in fact, the despair from which he sought to escape haunted him bitterly. In one of his letters he says, “I feel as though I were a pen, a new pen, being tried out by some superior power on a bit of paper.”9

Modern philosophers and Christian thinkers have tried hard to warn humanity of the volatility of a world without God. In the platonic dictums and prophetic voices of the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is a well-punctuated recurrence of the great divide between the harmony within a life that lives by the truth, and the discord within a life that shuns the eternal verities. The philosopher G. K. Chesterton said that to believe in the nonexistence of God would be analogous to waking up some morning, looking in the mirror, and seeing nothing. With no reflection, no perception, no idea whatsoever of the self, there would be nothing to conform to, and nothing to modify. Thus, the Socratic maxim, “know yourself,” would be rendered impossible.

The Darkness Deepens

But with these assumptions life would be so unlivable that there have been voices in philosophy, psychology, and sociology which have, in effect, said that even if there were not a God, we would need to invent one to keep us from eating each other up. This idea hearkens back to the statement made centuries ago about the essence and existence of religions. It was said of early Greece and Rome that all religions were, to the masses, equally true, to the philosophers, equally false, and to the magistrates, equally useful.

That term useful expressed a “fence function,” or boundary, in society. But religion that is based on truth, when reduced merely to a sociological function, will disintegrate through abuse. Time has proven, in an even stronger voice, that pragmatism, which by definition is to do whatever works, in the long run does not work because it is captive to the moment. The foundation of moral action must go deeper and farther than utilitarianism.

Nietzsche’s declaration that superior men would triumph in the wake of God’s demise has more than been fulfilled in terms of “hygienic knowledge.” It has brought as a result murderous demagogues who have wrought inestimable destruction. The last chapter of such beliefs has yet to be written. Any attempt to mitigate the overall effect of this is tantamount to reading cartoons while the headlines spell disaster, or proverbially, to fiddling while Rome burns.

Indeed, Nietzsche’s legacy of despair and convoluted sense of superiority have disfigured the lives of troubled souls today. The August 2003 issue of Reader’s Digest documented one such instance in the story of two teenage boys, Robert and Jim, who killed a married couple, two beloved Dartmouth professors: “The two teens had big plans to escape their small town and lead a glorious life of crime. The first step was to find easy targets and take their money—then silence them.”10 In “The Thrill Killers” the authors recount, “Robert read Nietzsche on his own during high school. What particularly drew him was the German philosopher’s exploration of nihilism—the existential notion that God is dead and that no moral values exist. Increasingly the boys parroted each other, their ideas becoming truly bizarre. They concluded that Hitler was ‘very cunning’ and should be admired. Even in tiny Chelsea [their hometown], population 1,250, their friends and family mostly missed the shadows that were falling over these two lives.”11 Whether or not a philosopher can be legitimately blamed for this atrocious act, one can at least see the logic that provides the impetus for such deductions.

The reality of ideas and their consequences is too serious to trifle with, and mere linguistic surgery will not do. The coats of philosophical paint lavishly put on by the atheistic brush cannot hide the foundational cracks engendered by the storms of life. Any attempt at such a cover-up is the ultimate repression, and the inescapable future of an illusion. The death of God will produce no sanitized supermen to pull us up by our cosmic bootstraps. More likely is the scenario envisioned by the late English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge.

    If God is dead, somebody is going to have to take his place. It will be megalomania or erotomania, the drive for power or the drive for pleasure, the clenched fist or the phallus, Hitler or Hugh Heffner.12

Muggeridge’s conclusion that either a power-monger or a sex peddler would take the reigns in the place of God is very much in keeping with the disarray of society today. Hitler unleashed on the world one of the most mindless, blood-letting orgies of hatred and sadism—the superman solving the problem by getting rid of what he saw as the inferior. The Heffnerian credo has explicitly degraded the dignity of women, while implicitly asserting pleasure and sensuality to be the supreme pursuit of life.

In Nietzschean terms, the cause—atheism, and the result—violence and hedonism, are as logically connected as the chronological connection between Hitler’s announcement of his intent in Mein Kampf and the hell ushered in by the Third Reich. The deep tragedy of the hour is that this is neither recognized nor studied by those who proclaim atheism as a benefit to and a victory for the human spirit. Man in a generic sense never takes charge, only self-appointed supermen do, as G. K. Chesterton expressed so well in The Secret People:

    The last sad squires ride slowly towards the sea
    And a new people take the land: And still it is not we.

Questions for Study and Discussion

1. The German sociologist Max Weber argued that “man embraces religion at the point of meaning.” That is, it is our existential longing for meaning—and the innate knowledge that meaning exists—that prompts us to seek God. Would you agree? What examples have you seen of this in your own life and community?

2. Discuss the impact of Galileo, Darwin, and Freud upon the church. In what ways do they continue to influence disbelief today?

3. The author argues that Nietzsche “dragged philosophy away from its tendency to escape the concrete application of its conclusions as it climbed the ladder of abstraction.” How did Nietzsche compel a person “to pay the full fare of his ticket to atheism and to see where it was going to let him off”?