Friedrich Nietzsche is unparalleled among critiques of religion, and of Christianity most especially. The son of a pastor, his was the kind of incisive attack upon the faith that can only come from someone profoundly familiar with the object of their derision. He famously loathed what he called the “slave morality” of Christians, as opposed to the powerful (and in many ways classical) freedom exercised by the Ubermensch:
“Weakness is being lied into something meritorious, no doubt of it…and impotence, which does not requite into ‘goodness of heart’; anxious lowliness into ‘humility’; subjection to those one hates into ‘obedience’ (that is, to one of whom they say he commands this subjection – they call him God.) The inoffensiveness of the weak man, even the cowardice of which he has so much, his lingering at the door, his being ineluctably compelled to wait, here acquire flattering names, such as ‘patience,’ and are even called virtue itself; his inability for revenge is called unwillingness to revenge, perhaps even forgiveness […] They also speak of ‘loving one’s enemies’ – and sweat as they do so.”
A great deal of atheist critique of Christianity is fairly simplistic. It is not difficult, even for thoughtful Christians, to come up with a laundry list crimes, hucksters, and injustices carried out under the banner of Christ. Much of the New Atheist critique turns on just this kind of amateurish argument: collecting anecdotes and then allowing the extreme fringe to represent the whole.
But Nietzsche goes right to the heart of the gospel, expressing the message of Jesus (as found in the Sermon on the Mount, for instance) better than many Christians no doubt could. Rather than the straw men favored by contemporary atheists, Nietzsche went after the messenger himself. That is why, on theologian David Bentley Hart’s account, the philosopher of the will to power was “a truly profound atheist.”
“A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.”
One of my professors in seminary put it bluntly: “If we’re wrong, Nietzsche is right.” Christians would do well to contend with him, our most profound critic. Atheists would do well to model not just his intellectual boldness, but his grasp of that which he critiqued.
Source: Friedrich Nietzsche, ed. & translated by Kaufman, On the Genealogy of Morals & Ecce Homo (New York: Vintage Books 1967), 47.