The Enlightenment critique of religion was not merely an intellectual critique but also a moral critique. This is the case with the atheism of today, which involves a moral denunciation of God’s role in the world as well as a condemnation of the evil influence of religion throughout history. Christopher Hitchens writes glibly of the “moral superiority of atheism.” The leading figure of this type of atheism was philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche accepted Darwin’s theory of evolution as true, but he detested Darwinism for what he took to be its exaltation of a certain brutish type that survived in nature through raw force. Nietzsche’s atheism is of a very different pedigree than Dawkins’s. Nietzsche would have taken Dawkins’s breed of Darwinism as the mark of a particularly low and unimaginative human type, widely found in England. Nietzsche too was interested in survival of the fittest, but to him this meant the cultural survival of great and noble and artistically imaginative forms of humanity. Nietzsche termed his superior type of human being the ubermensch, or “overman.”
Nietzsche hated religion, and most of all he hated Christianity. For him, Christianity represented hostility to life, a seething hatred of existence dressed up as faith in another life. Nietzsche also viewed Christianity as a foe of nature, depriving the greater man of his instinctive and rightful desire to subdue and crush the inferior man. In Nietzsche’s view Christianity invented morality as a device to keep the strong men of the world in check and to con them into sharing the fruits of their genius with lesser men. Christianity, in short, was a “slave morality” designed for losers, which for Nietzsche explained its immense popularity. Nietzsche’s aristocratic atheism has few open advocates today, but many themes from his polemic against Christianity remain influential.
One such theme is that the God of Christianity is an autocrat. Nietzsche’s objection was not to His tyranny, but to the fact that He represented the wrong kind of tyranny. Nietzsche condemned the Christian God for humbling the great and exalting the lowly. Modern atheists like Christopher Hitchens also castigate the Christian God for his “desert morality:’ Slavery and patriarchy are usually mentioned in the indictment, but the real objection is to the moral severity of Christian ethics, which imposes strict commandments and forecasts hell for those who fail to abide by them. Hitchens charges that “the religious impulse lies close to the authoritarian, if not the totalitarian personality,” and he especially faults religion for “sexual repression.” In this line of thinking, God is condemned in the name of freedom, especially the moral freedom for human beings to evaluate for themselves what is right and what is wrong.
A second major theme of atheist discourse is the historical crimes of religion. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the religious wars, and the witch trials all feature prominently in this moral indictment. “In the so-called ages of faith,” Bertrand Russell writes in Why I Am Not a Christian, “there was every kind of cruelty practiced upon all sorts of people in the name of religion.” In recent years, with the rise of Islamic radicalism and terrorism, atheists commonly invoke bin Laden and his murderous co-conspirators to show that religion in general is a motivating force for violence and oppression. Columnist Wendy Kaminer described the September 11 attacks as a “faith-based initiative.” The War on Terror is commonly portrayed as a clash of competing extremisms, with Christian extremists on the one side and Muslim extremists on the other. Sam Harris frets that “we are, even now, killing ourselves over ancient literature.”