Salman Rushdie, the embattled author of The Satanic Verses who was condemned to death by Ayatollah Khomeini on February 14, 1989 for its publication, believes that religion is the world’s problem and the worldview of the Enlightenment is its savior. He prefers European secularism to American Christianity. His article, “Life under religion’s thumb turns society into tyranny,”[1] which appeared in yesterday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is one of the most blatant expressions of atheism I have read in a long time. He quotes Clarence Darrow, the defense attorney in the Scopes Trial (1925), approvingly in his defense of the “secularist argument” against religion: “I don’t believe in God, because I don’t believe in Mother Goose.” So what does Mr. Rushdie believe in?

There is much in Rushdie’s article that needs an answer, but I would like to concentrate on his appeal to Darrow. (He also quotes James Joyce approvingly as well as Victor Hugo. Ironically, it was Hugo who described in Les Miserables how the kind act of a religious man transformed the hardened Jean Valjean into a new man.)  It was Darrow who pleaded for the lives of thrill killers and self-professed “supermen” Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb in 1924. To demonstrate their “superior intelligence,” these two psychopaths worked out a scheme to commit the perfect murder based on a worldview without God, like the one Mr. Rushdie advocates:

They worked out a plan during the next seven months. For a victim, they chose a 14-year-old boy named Bobby Franks. He was the son of the millionaire Jacob Franks, and a distant cousin of Loeb. They were already acquainted with the boy and he went happily with them on that May afternoon [in 1924]. They drove him to within a few blocks of the Franks residence in Hyde Park then suddenly grabbed him, stuffed a gag in his mouth and smashed his skull four times with a chisel. He fell to the floor and bled to death in the car.

When the brief bit of excitement was over, Leopold and Loeb casually drove away, stopped for lunch and then ended up near a culvert along the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks. After dunking the boy’s head underwater to make sure that he was dead, they poured acid on his face (so that he would be hard to identify) then stuffed his body into a drainpipe.[2]

Leopold and Loeb had pled guilty to the murder charges. It was Darrow’s job, in his 12-hour closing summation before the judge, to keep them from being executed. He pulled every courtroom trick he knew to keep his clients from facing the gallows. So what was Darrow’s defense for his thrill-killing defendants? He blamed everyone but the two murderers. During his exhausting oration, he appealed to Enlightenment principles reinforced by the dogmatism of Darwin by portraying his clients as products of evolution gone wrong:

Why did they kill little Bobby Franks? Not for money, not for spite, not for hate. They killed him as they might kill a spider or a fly, for the experience. They killed him because they were made that way. Because somewhere in the infinite processes that go to the making up of the boy or the man something slipped, and those unfortunate lads sit here hated, despised, outcasts, with the community shouting for blood.[3]

Leopold was attracted to the philosophical ramblings of Friedrich Nietzsche, especially his BeyondGood and Evil. Nietzsche criticized moral codes claiming that they did not apply to those who attained the status of the Übermensch, “the superman.” Leopold believed that the ideal “superman” was his compatriot in crime and homosexual partner, Richard Loeb. Instead of the death penalty, the two murderers were sentenced to 99 years in prison.

Has Mr. Rushdie actually thought through the consequences of Darrow’s worldview if we are the same products of chance and the mechanism of evolution that turned on Leopold and Lobe? How would Rushdie deal with the mass murders of the atheistic regimes of Marxism? Like Rushdie, it was Marx who claimed that religion was the “opiate of the people.” Consider Darrow again: “Nature is strong and she is pitiless. She works in mysterious ways, and we are her victims. We have not much to do with it ourselves. Nature takes this job in hand, and we only play our parts.”[4]

Brian Nichols, the man who killed three people in an Atlanta courthouse in a daring escape on March 11, 2005, unknowingly followed the path cleared by Darrow. It took Ashley Smith’s Christian faith to get Nichol’s to surrender. What would Rushdie have told Nichols if he had been held hostage? Rushdie makes it clear that there are no “special ethical truths.”[5] There is no way to judge Nichols within the confines of the purposeless universe concocted by Darrow and Rushdie.[6]

Providentially, Nichols found himself face to face with a woman who would disavow Nietzsche and the man-centered, anti-Christian worldview of Salman Rushdie. “You’re here in my apartment for some reason,” Smith told Nichols, saying he might be destined to be caught and to spread the word of God to fellow prisoners. She also read the Bible to Nichols. Nichols considered Smith to be “an angel sent from God.”

I wonder what Rushdie would have read to Nichols that would have made a difference? His own Satanic Verses or maybe a few lines from Darwin? How about this short paragraph from Darwin’s The Descent of Man:

At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes . . . will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.[7]

Thomas H. Huxley, an ardent defender of Darwin who garnered the nickname “Darwin’s Bulldog,” believed that “No rational man, cognizant of the facts, believes that the average negro is the equal, still less the superior, of the white man.” Huxley described whites as “bigger-brained and smaller-jawed.”[8] It’s just come out that Nichols acted against the justice system and the way it treats blacks. But if Darwin and Huxley are followed over against the Christian worldview, then blacks need to be treated differently because of evolutionary considerations.

Of course, Rushdie would not assent to my characterization of his moral worldview. He would claim that there are moral absolutes. Sodomy and abortion are high on his Enlightenment morality list. He disdains killing in the name of religion, but he doesn’t have a problem if people want to kill in the name of personal rights. I’m sure he would say that what Brian Nichols did was wrong. But why is what Nichols did different from what the French revolutionists did to public officials? Nichols didn’t act “in the name of God,” something that Rushdie disdains. He acted against perceived injustice, just like the leaders of the French Revolution who were guided by Enlightenment principles.

But without a Creator, why is anything wrong? Arthur Allen Leff pondered this question in his “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law” article that was published in the Duke Law Journal (December 1979). Without God, Leff argued, “everything is up for grabs.” Even so, Leff argued, “there is in the world such a thing as evil.” Rushdie would agree. But says who? This is Rushdie’s dilemma, and the dilemma of every atheist. Yes, some people use religion as an excuse to do bad things, but at least there is a standard by which people can debate what is good and bad (Rom. 13:4; Heb. 5:14). There is no self-correcting device offered by atheists.


[1] Salman Rushdie, “Life under religion’s thumb turns society into tyranny,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (March 14, 2005), A11. [2] A fictionalized account of the events are depicted in the movie Compulsion (1959), starring Dean Stockwell, Orson Welles, Bradford Dillman, and E.G. Marshall. The movie was based on the novel of the same name written by Meyer Levin in 1956. Three other movies are loosely based on the Leopold and Loeb case: Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), Tom Kalin’s Swoon (1992), and Murder by Numbers (2002).
[3] Quoted in Herbert W. Titus, God, Man, and Law: The Biblical Principles (Oak Brook, IL: Institute in Basic Life Principles, 1995), 14. [4]
[5] Rushdie’s entire article ultimately comes down to this single claim.
[6] Smith read portions of The Purpose Drive Life to Nichols. Whatever you think of the book and its theology, there is no purpose in Darrow’s worldview, only blind chance.
[7] Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 2nd ed. (New York: A. L. Burt Co., 1874), 178. Quoted in Henry M. Morris, The Long War Against God: The History and Impact of the Creation/Evolution Conflict (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1990), 60. [8] Thomas H. Huxley, Lay Sermons, Addresses and Reviews (New York: Appleton, 1871), 20. Quoted in Morris, The Long War Against God, 60.