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.