Nietzsche is indispensable in understanding the dynamics of atheism.
Mocking religion, undermining the authority of its institutions, and evacuating the meaning of its symbols is the easy part for atheism, just as the easy part in constructing a new building is knocking down the rickety old one occupying the lot. But there is a moment of danger once that old building is destroyed; while it existed, it at least provided some modicum of shelter however unsatisfactory. After its destruction, there is no shelter at all until the new building is constructed. The challenge for the building's occupants is to somehow make it through that transitional period of time between the destruction of the old one and the construction of the new.
Like an old building, traditional religion provides a system of meaning, a "building", within which man can live, however unsatisfactory any particular religion might be. The real challenge for atheism is to build a new system of meaning and significance to replace the one that disappeared with the destruction of religion, an event known as the "death of God." Just as homelessness is the threat that faces man after the destruction of his old dwellings, so nihilism is the threat that faces man after the destruction of his old systems of meaning. Nietzsche saw that facing and overcoming the threat of nihilism was the true task of atheism, not merely mocking religion.
How is nihilism to be overcome? By the creation of a new system of meaning. This is the task of Zarathustra, Nietzsche's "uberman." Nietzsche was not himself Zarathustra; he did not and never attempted to create a new system of meaning. He was Zarathustra's prophet, the way John the Baptist was the prophet of Jesus Christ, pointing the way to the One who would come. Nietzsche thinks of Christ as a kind of earlier incarnation of Zarathustra; far more than a merely political rebel, Christ managed a revolution in meaning, a "transvaluation of values." Christ managed to overturn the allegedly "noble" pagan virtues of strength, virility, ambition and pride in favor of the "slave" virtues of humility, mildness, patience and submission; Christ's victory is attested by the fact that we now look on the old Roman virtues as practically vices.
Just as Christ was not really a political figure, although he was mistaken for one, so Zarathustra, when he comes, will not really be a political figure. The revolution Christ effected went much deeper than politics, and a similar sort of revolution will be necessary if atheism is to succeed. What will be the measure of Zarathustra's success? Zarathustra succeeds to the extent that he is able to create a new system of meaning that is substantial in its own right, and in which people can live; to the extent that he fails in his act of creation, the threat of nihilism becomes ever more pressing - and people come to resent Zarathustra as a mere destroyer and become nostalgic for the old building they left.
There is another Biblical image relevant here, and that is Moses, an earlier incarnation of Zarathustra. The key to Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt was convincing them that they were meant to be free, that God Himself was behind their liberation. The best way to keep a slave a slave is to convince him that it is in the nature of things that he is in bondage; the only way to really liberate him is to overturn the system of meaning that places the noble master over him. Thus Moses effected a revolution by proclaiming Yahweh, the God of the Slaves who was more powerful than the Gods of Pharoah (a revolution that was finally completed by Christ, the New Moses and thus a New Zarathustra.) But Moses and the Israelites had to wander in the desert for forty years while their new system of meaning was built; a time when nihilism threatened, Moses was regularly denounced as a destroyer, and the Israelites pined to return to Egypt and slavery, where they would once again be in bondage but be comfortable in their old system of meaning. As Nietzsche saw, man finds nihilism unbearable and would rather be enslaved than endure it.
Atheism succeeded a long time ago in liberating man from religion's systems of meaning; in fact, the Enlightenment can be thought of as this very project, and it had largely succeeded by the turn of the 19th century. What followed was a wandering in the desert; a stroll that was initially fascinating and thrilling as new lands were explored, but one that became increasingly anxious as man was unable to make a home for himself anywhere. Nietzsche, writing at the end of the nineteenth century, understood the spiritual situation of man and the looming threat that nihilism posed.
The difference between John the Baptist and Nietzsche is that the Baptist knew that Christ was coming, whereas Nietzsche only recognized the need for a Zarathustra, whether one was actually coming or not. As it turned out, the twentieth century was full of false Zarathustras, tyrants who played on man's desperate need for meaning to impose their own degenerate visions through a combination of seduction, intimidation and unrestrained violence. A Hitler, a Stalin, and a Mao are only possible in a world made vulnerable by the threat of nihilism, a world prepared to submit to slavery if only the void in its center is filled.
The true Zarathustra is not a tyrant. He does not need to be; men follow him as sheep follow a shepherd, because his voice speaks to the meaning they so desperately need. But no true Zarathustra has appeared, and the experience of the twentieth century has made us wary of the false Zarathustra and better at recognizing him. We begin to wonder if perhaps God is not dead after all, and if maybe it is Zarathustra (or the myth of Zarathustra) that is really dead. Maybe Moses was not a Zarathustra, a creator of meaning, but truly what he said he was: A prophet of the One True God.
And who are the most visible faces of atheism today? They are Richard Dawkins, P.Z. Myers, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, etc., who don't even attempt to address the real problem of atheism. Instead, they avoid the problem altogether by returning to a thumb-in-the-eye-of religion atheism of the early days of the Enlightenment. It's as though Moses, after twenty years in the desert and lacking anything better to do, but hearing the increased grumbling of the Israelites, decided to crack his staff on the ground and call down a plague of locusts on Pharoah, hundreds of miles away and whom they hadn't seen in decades, if he was still alive at all. I scratch my head when I hear the fulminations of Hitchens, Myers, etc. against allegedly oppressive religion. Has Voltaire been caught in a time machine and unknowingly transported from 1750 to 2008? The chains, my friend, were broken a long time ago and melted down to make machine guns and barbed wire.
Sam Harris, one of the "new atheists" who is actually a reincarnation of very old atheists, wrote a book called "The End of Faith." The title is apt, but the faith that is ending is more likely faith in Zarathustra than faith in God. When atheists, after having a clear field for two hundred years, having nothing better to say than a return to the mocking of the Sacraments with which they started, but without the style, we know that atheism as a significant cultural force has about run its course.
I think the most appropriate response to P.Z. Myers'Eucharist stunt is not outrage, but laughter.