Book Review: The Drama of Atheist Humanism

Frederick Nietzsche

Frederick Nietzsche

The Drama of Atheist Humanism brings together into book form several long articles by Henri de Lubac. The articles and subsequent book were published during the Second World War under the Vichy regime in France when it was not possible to mention the Nazis by name, but when people were naturally thinking about the causes and nature of the totalitarian regimes that dominated Europe in those years.

De Lubac approaches the thought of the major atheist thinkers of the 19th century: Ludwig Feuerbach, Frederick Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and Auguste Comte.

Their atheism was not like the atheism of previous generations, or like that of today. “Standard” atheism, whether pre-Feuerbach or contemporary, is a negative, critical posture towards religion that is incapable of constructing anything convincing to take its place; at best it is a corrective, at worse it is a cultural parasite.

These 19th century philosophers however were proposing a positive, creative atheism: by removing the notion of God they were consciously attempting to create an entirely new kind of human being, and a new kind of society.

Feuerbach starts the process by applying the concept of alienation to the the human idea of God: men create for themselves an ideal being (God) who is the fullness of goodness, beauty, power and love. This abstract ideal which they worship is not really something outside themselves, it is rather the projection of everything they want to be. But because they project it outside of themselves they become incapable of achieving the ideal. Religious man, therefore, can never rise out of himself. Only by removing the idea of God can man achieve his ideal.

God, for Freuerbach, is all the best things of humanity writ large. Without God, man will become God: pure, powerful, loving, beautiful, holy and good. The proper object of worship is not God but man himself; not the individual human being, but the human race. The proper religion is therefore the worship and veneration of humanity.

Of course, the individual man is of no account on this system, only the abstraction “humanity” counts and the individual person, no longer a beloved child of a personal God, is lost.

Much of Freuerbach’s thought is incorporated into Marx. Marx saw Freuerbach as an important theorist, but one lost in abstractions. For Marx the matter was entirely practical: the true alienation is economic: the worker class divorced from the product of its labor. The obstacle is not only the concept of God, but all attendant cultural baggage from common morality to the nuclear family. The culture must be overturned for the working class to realize its alienation, rise up against its oppressors, and achieve the end of history.

Once again, all that matters here is class; the individual is of no account.

Nietzsche, whose debt to Freuerbach is indirect, through Wagner (whose Twilight of the Gods plays on Freuerbach’s themes), also sees God as the enemy of human fulfillment, but unlike Freuerbach he does not see God as the ideal to which man aspires, but as a perverse creation of the weak who wish to bully the strong.

Weak, ignoble men (i.e. Jews, and to a lesser extent, Socrates) who lack the ambition to achieve greatness, and yet are jealous of the strong and bold, invent God as a way to shame the strong into becoming weak: morality, and above all the beatitudes, are in reality perverse power plays; a way for the weak to control the strong.

De Lubac’s analysis thus far is not much different than what a cursory reading of any of the above authors can give. Where he really begins to get into depth is his extended analysis of Nietzsche (whom De Lubac considers a genius) and his extended comparison of him to two Christian authors: Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky.

What Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky have in common are 1) a deep revulsion towards 19th century rationalism, because in a mechanistic universe there is no space for freedom. 2) Frustration with rationalized religion in the forms of liberal Christianity and Deism. 3) Frustration with self-satisfied and conventional atheists who lacked the imagination to recognize what true atheism really entailed. While Nietzsche attempted to embrace the full implications of atheism, Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky tried to express a more authentic Christianity.

All three men see 19th century Western Europe as a decaying, somnambulant culture, and in some ways it was: the Europe of the 19th century was blissfully unaware of the the horrors to befall it in the 20th. Those horrors were, to a large extent, the products of Marx’s and Nietzsche’s work.

If I have one criticism of the book it is the long chapters on Auguste Comte and his ridiculous attempt to set himself up as Pope of a rationalist cult. While a study of scientific rationalism is worthwhile, there are surely more serious proponents of it.

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6 comments

  1. Hi, I just posted a review, at Front Page Magazine, of Michael Shermer’s new book “The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom”

    One person recommended to me “The Drama of Atheist Humanism,” a book I have not read. I am now looking for reviews of that book and came across this review by you. Thank you for it.

    I would be really grateful if you would have a look at my review of the new Shermer book and tell me if you think it and “The Drama of Atheist Humanism” are related.

    Thanks in advance.

    Here’s a link to the “Moral Arc” review:

    http://www.frontpagemag.com/2015/danusha-v-goska/michael-shermers-unmoral-arc/

    1. Thanks for the link, I enjoyed reading it.

      1. Thank you. Do you think that this book you are reviewing, “The Drama of Atheist Humanism,” offers insight into Shermer’s proposals?

        Again, I have not read the book you review, and to be honest, I probably won’t, because it is long and it is not in my main field.

        But I wish I could better grasp it because it was recommended to me as pertinent to Shermer’s model.

        is Shermer a rehash of these previous atheists? Not completely of course but some parts?

        It seems that way from your review.

        I looked for reviews of “The Drama of Atheist Humanism” in scholarly databases and so far I have found only one. I guess it’s not a very well known book.

      2. It is still being published. I think it is the most popular of De Lubac’s works, at least in English.
        It does not try to rebut 19th century atheism, just understand it. It is worth reading, but I couldn’t get through the part on Comte.
        Anyway, contemporary atheists tend to be shallow thinkers, they don’t really stop and consider what the implications of the non-existence of God are. They don’t really have the guts to stare into the abyss. Nietzsche and Marx were utterly different animals who realized that without God “morals” were nonsensical. They would eat guys like your Shermer for breakfast.

      3. Hi, thanks for that reply. I think it’s important to be aware of folks like Comte. Ideas have histories and this idea has a history so we should be aware of it. I love what you say about Marx and N eating Shermer for breakfast. Not that I want to see anyone eaten, mind you. It’s just an amusing figure of speech.

  2. By the way, I really like your review.

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