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.