It's been a long time since Nietzsche announced that God is dead. But debates over the existence of God have taken on an urgency in the 21st century, mainly argued by atheists eager to take on those long-dead monks who counted the angels dancing on the head of a pin. Theology is not a popular subject at the dinner parties of urban political sophisticates; a host who says grace before a meal could curdle the gazpacho. But atheism is a fashionable topic in Washington.
Some atheist tomes become best sellers, but all taken together cannot remotely compete with sales of the Bible. No hotel guest reaches into the drawer of a bedside table for the "50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists," nor are any of these volumes ever likely to find a sponsor like the Gideons, who have distributed more than a billion Bibles, translated into 80 languages. The Bible has even made the top 10 highest grossing book apps for the iPad. Atheists think of themselves as nonconformists, but the catechism of unbelief is as old as the doctrines against the mythical Greek and Roman gods. A modern atheist is likely to quote Lucretius, the Roman poet who in the first century B.C. famously wrote: "To such heights of evil are men driven by religion." Who can dispute that? Or that "to such heights of evil are men driven by disbelief"?
Modern atheist intellectuals (and those who only imagine they're intellectuals) are more likely to mock believers as rubes, rascals and rednecks. Religious men and women -- descendants of those who endowed our great universities and medical centers -- have throughout history shown great acts of courage and sacrifice, like the medical missionaries slain in Afghanistan. But atheists are unwilling to celebrate the belief behind such generosity and goodness. Satan remains a more colorful figure than a benevolent God. Marlowe, Milton and Goethe knew that. Shakespeare understood that "the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones."
I've spent several long summer afternoons reading the books of the New Atheists, looking for original illumination on behalf of godlessness, but finding instead smug, shallow and arrogant assertions. Atheists by definition believe in nothing, and anyone would find it hard to make something of nothing.
The most rigorous criticism of the atheist authors comes from David B. Hart, cultural critic in "First Things," who says atheists make him melancholy because they lack the moral intelligence and courage of their forefathers in faithlessness, and thus purchase their atheism cheaply. Hart likens their pretensions to those of a man who considers himself a great lover because he has the price of admission to a brothel: "So long as one can choose one's conquests in advance, taking always the paths of least resistance, one can always imagine oneself a Napoleon or a Casanova ... one without a Waterloo, the other without the clap."
The latest into the fray are the brothers Hitchens, Christopher and Peter, both former Marxists who are the Cain and Abel of the contemporary duelists over God. Christopher, author of "God Is Not Great," wins arguments with wit and drollery. He speculates that the title of his book might be one word too long. But his writing on atheism is short on sophistication. "With all this continual prayer," he asks with the air of an adolescent, "why no result?" But since he's been diagnosed with cancer, he seems to appreciate not only his physicians but the "astonishing number of prayer groups" working on his behalf.
His brother Peter is less concerned with proving the existence of God, which he thinks is better done with poetry, than with showing the damage done to society by zealous atheists like those he and his brother once celebrated. More prosaic than Christopher, he is more successful in exposing the viciousness of the secular Leninists, Trotskyites and Stalinists.
In "The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith," Peter criticizes the culture of the 1960s, when adults, without a fight, surrendered their children to the adolescent rebellion where many of them still reside. He's tough on the double standard of leftists who boast of their contempt for the Judeo-Christian tradition and give Muslims, whose treatment of women, homosexuals and traditions of freedom of speech atheists say they abhor, a pass. The left's hostility toward Christianity is specific "because Christianity is the religion of their own homes and homeland." Even so, the leftists get no ticket to Utopia.
"The concepts of sin, of conscience, of eternal life and divine justice under an unalterable law, are the ultimate defense against the Utopian's belief that ends justify means and that morality is relative," he writes. These are the safeguards against the worship of human power. Believe it or not.