Rethinking Atheism

"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)

This terrifying place without human existence is the world after the death of God as envisioned by Friedrich Nietzsche. His vision casts a bleak view of humanity and paints a frightening portrait of a world where the memory of God is but a void. Nietzsche's vision directly contrasts with many of the contemporary anthems that sing the praises of a world without God and without religion.

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 many ways, the vision of Nietzsche won the day in the early part of the twentieth century. Under regimes like that of Stalin in Russia or Pol Pot in Cambodia millions of people were slaughtered. Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution saw religious institutions as priority targets. Buddhist temples, churches and mosques were razed to the ground or converted to other uses. Sacred texts, as well as Confucian writings, were burned, along with religious statues and other artwork. Ironically, Nietzsche offers a healthy critique of the optimistic atheism of Lennon, various communist regimes, or popular authors who envision a world free of religion, and perhaps religious people.

Nietzsche's vision, in and of itself, can offer the theist a healthy offensive to the typical onslaught of atheistic critiques on religion. In addition, there are many other questions that can be offered by theists to those who might come to atheistic or agnostic conclusions. If there is no God, for example, many of "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 why is there a near-universal desire to assign meaning to sometimes the smallest of events? 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?

Without God there is both a crisis of meaning and morality. 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.

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 these 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.

The problem of evil and suffering are in no way solved without a God to blame for allowing them to happen. Where does one locate hope for the redemption of suffering and evil? Without God it is neither redemptive nor redeemable. 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.

Finally, if there is no God, human beings don't make sense. How does one explain human longing 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 seemingly 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. By raising these questions, Christians remind atheists who see the possibility of morality, meaning, and hope without God 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).

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