The End of Atheism
In the last decade, a rash of fundamentalist atheists has become a publishing phenomenon. Touting that God is a delusion destructive to human life and civilization, and heralding the end of faith, these authors see only positive results at the end of atheism. Reason and rationality will conquer any "zealous" adherence or devotion to a transcendent God.
It's fairly easy to identify with the concerns that motivate these authors towards atheism. Like them, I grieve over the violence perpetrated in the world in the name of God and religion. I can understand how Mother Teresa would poignantly wonder about God's presence with her in the suffering wasteland of Calcutta. And certainly, I, like many others, have had life experiences that raise questions concerning God's involvement in my life, and God's love toward me. I can understand the despair-filled temptation towards agnosticism, or even atheism.
Yet, the world many atheists envision without God or faith is ultimately unrealistic, overly optimistic at best. Their beautiful portraits of what the world could look like if we only jettison our faith are painted with glowing brushstrokes of romantic imagery and language:
"This universe is shot through with mystery. The very fact of its being, and of our own, is a mystery absolute, and the only miracle worthy of the name. The consciousness that animates us is itself central to this mystery and the ground for any experience we might wish to call 'spiritual....' No personal God need be worshiped for us to live in awe at the beauty and immensity of creation....love our neighbors, and [know that] our interdependence demands that people everywhere be given the opportunity to flourish."(1)
I find this vision completely out of step with a world in which innocent civilians are being silenced and slaughtered by the thousands. Indeed, in light of the state of our world, an optimistic ending for atheism is as out-of-touch with reality as belief that the world is flat.
This vision of a godless world being a better world is, in fact, shattered by the writings of the prescient prophet and atheist, Friedrich Nietzsche as well. Nietzsche, the German philosopher who wrote in the nineteenth century, predicted what an atheistic society would look like. And unlike the pseudo-optimism of our popular atheists today, Nietzsche's vision is harrowing and disturbing. "The story I have to tell," he wrote, "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." He claimed that the world was entering an "era of monstrous wars, upheavals, explosions and that there will be wars such as have never been waged on the earth."(2)
Why such pessimism about the future of the world? Nietzsche argued that the actions of human beings had rendered God superfluous. In The Gay Science his madman yells, "'Where is God?' Well, I will tell you. We have killed him, you and I." He goes on to doubt if even reason and the advance of theoretical knowledge, as our modern-day atheists posit, could heal the "wound of our existence." Indeed, science, reason, and history could not overcome the reality that human beings "can rise or sink to no other reality than the reality of our drives." One of those drives, Nietzsche argued, is the will to power, ultimately fulfilled by rogue regimes in World War I, and in World War II by the Nazi regime and the Communist regime led by Joseph Stalin.
In other words, Nietzsche's utter suspicion of reason calls the entire optimistic program advocated by popular atheists into question. God's absence would not make for a better world, according to Nietzsche. Indeed, his picture of a world without God, without a divine Creator intimately involved in re-creation, is a very grim place filled with darkness, amorality, and despair.
In contrast to the godless future predicted by Nietzsche or our current atheistic prophets, the prophet Isaiah, even in the midst of warnings of exile, destruction, and suffering had a hope-filled vision of a world permeated with the presence of God: "The wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the kid, the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child will lead them... they will not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea."(3) This vision of a God-filled future is what Christians hope for and work towards, even as we wrestle with the challenges and the difficulties of a God-famished world. The alternative is far less hopeful.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Sam Harris, The End of Faith (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004), 227.
(2) Quoted in Erich Heller, The Importance of Nietzsche (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 5.
(3) Isaiah 11:6, 9.