The Heritage of Atheism
Posted by Margaret Manning Shull on October 1, 2012
“The story I have to tell is the history of the next two centuries….For a long time now our whole civilization has been driving, with a tortured intensity growing from decade to decade, as if towards a catastrophe: restlessly, violently, tempestuously, like a mighty river desiring the end of its journey, without pausing to reflect, indeed fearful of reflection….Where we live, soon nobody will be able to exist.”(1)
Friedrich Nietzsche penned these words as he looked out onto a world devoid of God. His vision casts a bleak view of humanity and paints a frightening portrait of atheism. Nietzsche’s vision directly contrasts with the optimistic musings of a world without God penned by John Lennon:
Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace.(2)
In fact, the twentieth century told a far different tale than a life of present bliss and peace without God. Under atheistic regimes like Stalin in Russia or Pol Pot in Cambodia millions of people were slaughtered. Indeed, Nietzsche offers a healthy critique of the optimistic atheism of Lennon or the more recent British slogan that there is probably no God so we should stop worrying about it and enjoy life. In reality, there is great cause for worry if Nietzsche’s picture of a world without God is allowed full sway. That world is a very grim place filled with darkness, amorality, and despair.
Nietzsche’s vision in and of itself helps the theist formulate a healthy offensive to the typical onslaught of the atheist’s critique of religion. But it also provides an impetus to ask additional questions of those who see a positive view of atheism. If there is no God, for example, “the big questions” remain unanswered. Where did everything come from and why is there something rather than nothing? Why is there conscious, intelligent life on this planet and is there any meaning? Does human history lead anywhere or is it all in vain since death is merely the end? How does one come to understand good and evil, right and wrong? If these concepts are merely social constructions or human opinions, where does one look to determine morality?
Second, without belief in God we not only have a crisis of morality, we have a crisis of meaning. Without God, as Nietzsche articulated, meaning becomes nothing more than one’s own self-interests, pleasures, or tastes. Without God, the world is just stuff, thrown out into space and time, going nowhere, meaning nothing.
In addition, the problems of evil and suffering are in no way solved without God. Where does one find hope for the redemption of suffering and evil? Suffering is just as tragic, if not more so, without God because there is no hope of greater meaning. Without God it is neither redemptive nor redeemable, since no interventions in this life or reparations in an afterlife are possible. It might be true that there is no God to blame now, but neither is there a God to reach out to for strength, transcendent meaning, or comfort. There is only madness and confusion in the face of suffering and evil.
Moreover, without God or any sort of transcendent standard, how can atheists critique religions or religious people in the first place? Whose voice will be heard? Whose tastes or preferences will be honored? Without God, human tastes and opinions have no more weight than we give them, and who are we to give them meaning anyway? Societies might make things “illegal” and impose penalties or consequences, but human cultures have at various times legally or socially disapproved of everything from believing in God to believing the world revolves around the sun, from slavery to interracial marriage, from polygamy to monogamy. Human taste or opinion, societal laws or culture are hardly dependable arbiters of truth.
Finally, if there is no God, we don’t make sense. How does one explain human longings and desire for the transcendent? How do we explain human questions for meaning and purpose or inner thoughts of unfulfillment or emptiness? Why do humans hunger for the spiritual? How can we understand these questions if nothing exists beyond the material world? How do we get laws out of luck or predictable processes out of brute chance? If all that makes us different from animals is learning and altruism, why do the brutish still widely outnumber the wise in our world?
Nietzsche argued that the death of God would bring the upheaval of all morality and meaning and not its preservation. At these questions, atheists who see the possibility of morality, meaning, and hope without God are reminded of their own prophetic heritage.
Margaret Manning is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Seattle, Washington.
(1) As quoted by Erich Heller in The Importance of Nietzsche (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 5.
(2) John Lennon, Imagine (September, 1971).