When in 1931 the popular historian of philosophy Will Durant sent a number of famous contemporaries a letter asking about the meaning of life, H.L. Mencken replied, “What the meaning of human life may be I don’t know: I incline to suspect that it has none. All I know about it is that, to me at least, it is very amusing while it lasts.… When I die I shall be content to vanish into nothingness. No show, however good, could conceivably be good forever.”
A lifelong unbeliever, Mencken mocked religion in all its forms as a vice of weak minds. Atheists such as Christopher Hitchens have attacked religion as an enemy of democracy and equality and cited Mencken in support of their attacks. Yet for Mencken the modern faith in human equality was as much a delusion as any religion. He rejected religion as an insult to reason, but he never imagined human beings could be rational. Convinced of the irredeemable stupidity of the mass of humankind, he expected nothing of the species apart from the endless entertainment it gives an impartial observer of human folly.
It would be hard to find any echo of Mencken’s cavalier atheism among today’s evangelical unbelievers. Twenty-first century irreligion comes in several varieties, each engaged in furious controversy with the rest, but these sects have one thing in common: They are all made up of missionaries. “I like to think that most of my ideas have been sound ones,” Mencken wrote in his reply to Durant, “but I really don’t care. The world may take them or leave them. I have had my fun hatching them.” In contrast, atheism is nowadays essentially a project of conversion. Universal unbelief, today’s atheists are unshakably convinced, will bring about a new world of rationality and progress. There the consensus ends, however. For just as most of the world’s religions have fought over the central tenets of their faith, so these evangelists for godlessness are locked in contention as to what atheism means for ethics and politics. Now, as in the past, unbelievers are as much at war with one another as they are with believers.
At present the most influential atheists are liberal humanists. It would no more occur to Richard Dawkins that an atheist would reject liberal values of freedom and equality than that he or she would take up witchcraft. A world that had abandoned religion would be far from perfect, he would admit, but it would surely realize liberal ideals more fully than the one we live in. For Dawkins, as for most well-known unbelievers today, atheism and liberal humanism are sides of a single coin.
In historical terms this is an extremely parochial view. Many atheist thinkers have been critics or outright opponents of liberal values, while a campaigning form of atheism was an integral part of some of the last century’s most despotic regimes. In believing that religion could be relegated to the past, Lenin and Trotsky were unquestionably secular humanists; they were also virulently anti-liberal. An incessant war against religion has been integral to communist regimes everywhere in the world. The intellectual founder of French fascism, Charles Maurras, was a convinced atheist, but he also favored the church as a buttress of state power. Most of the leading Nazis—atheists whose worldview was shaped by a vulgarized version of Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas and a distorted form of Darwinism—looked to a future in which Christianity and Judaism would be exterminated and replaced by a revamped version of paganism. If fascism and Nazism had triumphed in Europe, any religion that remained would have done so only as a state cult. In much of the past century, it was militant atheism and totalitarianism that were sides of the same coin.
Evangelical atheism’s links with illiberal values are not only a matter of history. Today in America, an atheist faction has joined forces with Christian fundamentalists in the Tea Party. The churchgoing habits of libertarian former congressman Ron Paul did not stop him from professing his admiration for the rabidly atheist novelist Ayn Rand. In an improbable-looking alliance with Christian evangelicals, Rand’s disciples have promoted a fantastical vision of the free market. Happily, there is as much prospect that laissez-faire capitalism will ever come into being as there is of realizing Lenin’s hideous utopia. For the most part, the free market invoked by Rand is a mythic version of an American past that never existed. After all, the American economy was founded on federal subsidy, protectionism and, for a time, slavery—not the free market. Even so the appeal of Rand’s ideas will persist, since, like many supposedly secular belief systems, Rand’s philosophy offers the comforts of faith while insisting it is based on reason.
Atheism today is mostly a cult of science. For Dawkins and others who attack religion, science—particularly Darwin’s theory of evolution—provides the only rational view of the world. Scientific inquiry is not for these atheists simply the most reliable tool humans have invented for getting to know the world; it is a means to salvation, the only way through which humankind can find deliverance from immemorial evils of ignorance and unreason. There have been many variants of this kind of atheism, but in each case a type of pseudoscience was used to give intellectual legitimacy to a political program—a development rightly described as scientism. A version of evolutionary theory shaped the thinking of Ernst Haeckel, the “German Darwin.” Giving scientific authority to the idea of racial hierarchy and founding a new, anti-Christian and anti-Semitic religion of monism that attracted a significant following in German-speaking central Europe, Haeckel was one of the thinkers who formed the intellectual climate from which Nazi “scientific racism” developed. Aiming at a new world of another kind, Soviet “scientific atheism” exemplified a similar pattern of thinking. Though its adherents profess liberal values, the “new” Darwinian atheism is not much more than a recycled version of 19th century scientism.
Rand was unusual in basing her system on an ersatz brand of philosophy rather than pseudoscience, but she too recycled the ideas of an earlier time. Growing up in Russia, from which she emigrated in 1926 at the age of 20, she (like many other young Russians) was steeped in the writings of Nietzsche. In the first edition of her earliest published novel, We the Living (1936), the heroine—a stand-in for Rand herself—tells her Bolshevik lover that the masses are nothing but “mud to be ground underfoot, fuel to be burned.” These and similar passages were prudently removed from later editions of the book, but there can be no doubt that they illustrate a Nietzschean strand in Rand (even if it was a crudely simplified version of Nietzsche’s thinking that she drew on). What Rand did was Americanize Nietzsche’s Übermensch, turning the German thinker’s fantasy into an embodiment of intransigent capitalism. In a bold exercise in syncretism, a superhuman elite became the heroic entrepreneurs of right-wing folklore. If he could have known what was to become of the myth he had created, Nietzsche—who, along with nearly all German intellectuals of the period, hated capitalism—would have turned in his grave.