Ravi Zacharias, a Christian apologist, published a book in 2004 titled: The Real Face of Atheism. His basic premise is that atheism leads to despair and immorality while Christianity leads to hope and happiness:
"Atheism is a world without God. Its true nature-whether disguised in Eastern mysticism or American cynicism-is despair."
This view may be satisfying for the Christians that read this book since it will reinforce their preconceived notions of atheism, but the book ends up being empty and vacuous – recycling the same old tired arguments against atheism that have been answered over and over again. Over the next few blogs, I am going to step through this book and respond to his arguments.
Chapter One – Morticians of the Absolute
In this chapter Zacharias sets out to show how 3 secular pillars; science (Galileo & Darwin), economics (Marx), and philosophy (Nietzsche) transformed the world. These pillars caused “the loss of confidence in providence”, “the loss of a Creator-God”, “a new economic theory based on atheism” and lead to an all out attack on religion by Nietzsche (locations 250-255) . Zacharias believes this loss of control by religion over man and his beliefs was devastating. So devastating that it was a leading factor in causing all types of 20th century conflict and wars, including (wait for it) the rise of Hitler.
Zacharias wants to cast Nietzsche’s “discovery” of the death of God as leading to the rise of Hitler and ultimately total despair (and madness?) on the part of man. In fact he states:
"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.” (location 342-344)
Frankly, the implication (not directly stated) here is that Nietzsche went mad due his his philosophy. It is highly unlikely that his lack of belief in god drove him mad. Nietzsche suffered from a lot of health problems that eventually led to his death (see Did Nietzsche have syphilis, and did it matter? for a good synopsis of his heath problems). I hope Zacharias wouldn’t feel compelled to press this point; after all, how many religious people have gone mad or are in psychiatric wards?
As far a playing the Hitler card, Zacharias says:
“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.” (location 272)
“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.” (location 394)
Really? Does Zacharias really want to go here? The truth here is much more complicated but Christianity doesn’t get a pass. Hitler was an admirer of Christ and various Christian writers including Luther and never mentioned Nietzsche in any speech or work of his. He was a Catholic in good standing with the Church and never excommunicated. There is evidence that he thought (or at least said) he was doing god’s work (see http://www.striveguide.com/why-did-hitler-say-he-was-doing-the-work-of-jesus-while-the-killing-of-jews/). The German soldiers had Gott mit uns on their belt buckles. In fact one might say that his hostility toward the Jews was driven by religious belief. In 1543 Luther wrote a tract “On the Jews and Their Lies” in which he outlined several steps that should be taken against the Jews. Hitler implemented most of them. As I said, the truth is much more complicated as it is also clear that Hitler did make remarks for and against Christianity (for example see http://davnet.org/kevin/essays/hitler.html also see Was atheism the cause of 20th century atrocities.), but it is dishonest in the extreme to suggest that atheism was the cause of the rise Nazi Germany and Hitler’s treatment of the Jews and others he deemed unworthy. It might make a good Christian bedtime story, but it has little to do with the truth.
To add fuel to his belief that atheism causes despair that leads to all types of horrible real-life consequences he tells the story from the August 2003 issue of Reader’s Digest of two teenage boys, Robert and Jim that killed two Dartmouth professors. He quotes the author of the article, Mitchell Zuckoff:
“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.” (location 373-380)
Zacharias in summarizing these acts states:
“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.” (location 384)
Please. Psychopaths hardly need a reason to do what they do. They are on a different wavelength than most of us and can use religion as well as non-religious ideas as a springboard (Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend). Want some Christian examples? How about Andrea Yates? Susan Smith? Deanna Laney? Christina Rigg? All Christian women who murdered their children. Christian Women Who Murder Their Children. What is going on in the Bible Belt? tells their stories. Talk about consequences. If you really, really believe that hell is real, that Satan is real, that children who die before the “age of accountability” go to heaven, and that your child may make a decision against Christ and therefore spend all eternity in hell, the logical thing to do would be to kill them thereby giving them a free ride to heaven. Of course only a psychopath would kill their children because of Satan or god told them or the necessary consequences of their belief system as logical as it may be. I won’t condemn all Christians because of these women or Pastor’s who abuse their congregation or pedophile priests. Christians have plenty of dirty laundry and to use Robert and Jim as examples of an atheist mindset is as misleading as using the above women as the consequences of a Christian mindset. Again, feel good stuff for Christians reading the book but dishonest by someone who is supposedly “truth” oriented and from a “higher” moral ground.
Location numbers are from the Kindle edition of The Real Face of Atheism.