With a gleam in his eye, the madman rushed into a busy marketplace with a lantern lit, crying, “I'm looking for God! I'm looking for God!” Bystanders exchanged quizzical glances and began to ridicule the man. “Did he get lost?” one asked, “Or did he move?” “Maybe he went on vacation!” laughed another. The crowd cajoled him mercilessly. Soon the madman had enough.
With flashing eyes betraying his insanity, he sprang into the midst of the crowd and smashed his lantern on the ground. He silenced tormentors with a piercing glare. “Where is God?” he asked. “I shall tell you. We have killed him! He has bled to death beneath our knives. We are his murderers, you and I. Can you not hear the gravediggers as they work to bury him? Can you not see that he is dead? Gods can die just as we do. God is dead, and we have killed him.”
With his detractors silenced, the madman turned and walked away from the dumbstruck crowd. Not long after his tirade, the man visited several local churches. He sang a funeral requiem for God in every one he entered. When expelled from the premises and called to account for his actions, the man replied each time, “What are these churches if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”
In The Gay Science (1882), the German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche included a parable entitled "The Madman." A growing group of voices is heralding the death of God. They deride faith at every turn, blaming it for the worst evils in society. They lampoon believers as air-headed, puritanical snake-handlers who mindlessly do as they're told. They teach that religion should be disrespected and scorned - and publicly, if possible.
With the rise of the new atheism, three primary figures have come to the forefront. The most recognizable name is Richard Dawkins, Charles Simonyi chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. His work has grown increasingly acrid over time, and--along with numerous other militant atheists--recieved a boost after 11 September, 2001. An evolutionary biologist by trade, his book The God Delusion quickly became standard reading for atheists following its publication. Though it contains dozens of logical and factual errors, the book is treated as gospel for militant unbelievers.
A second figure is the late Christopher Hitchens, who was once voted by the British magazine Prospect as fifth on its list of the “Top 100 Intellectuals” in 2005. His contribution to the theist-atheist debate is God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. As the title suggests, Hitchens finds every way imaginable to lay the evils of the world at the doorstep of religion. His undisguised contempt for faith is more caustic than Dawkins, and just as popular.
The final figure of the three is American neuroscientist Sam Harris. He contends that religion is a principle source of violence, hate, and slavery, and that without it the modern world would be a much better place. In his Letter to a Christian Nation, Harris argues that faith hinders science, promotes violence, and is “murderously intolerant” of criticism. He understands Christianity much better than either Dawkins or Hitchens, but still shows an alarming ignorance of the faith he so virulently condemns.
One disquieting problem is that these authors consistently attack a god of their own invention that bears little resemblance to the God of the Bible. In The God Delusion Richard Dawkins says the “God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” Hitchens and Harris would agree. This leaves us with an important question: why do hundreds of millions of people around the globe still worship this supposedly hate-mongering God? It would seem that the criticisms levelled at Christianity are far more concerned with rhetoric and analysis. After all, militant atheists like Dawkins and Company aren't going to let factual inaccuracy stop them from trumpeting God's funeral dirge in every form of media from television interviews to the printed page. It seems Nietzsche's madman is alive and well.
The ideas presented by the militant atheists are neither new nor novel. They aren't terribly creative, either. The difference lies in their tone. The arguments used by the modern proponents of atheism are much more hostile than those of the past (and, one might argue, far less intellectually respectable). Christianity is labeled as an obscene religions system that brainwashes its believers and abuses its children. God's death in the West is celebrated. The Bible's morals are excoriated. The message is winning converts, in part because of the relentless passion of its messengers. It appears their goal is to make others just as mad.