In The Drama of Atheist Humanism Henri De Lubac draws a contrast between the reception of Christian anthropology in the ancient world and its rejection almost eighteen hundred years later during the rise of modern atheism. What once was liberty, the view of human identity in the image and likeness of God, a creaturely identity that gave dignity and worth to humanity, came to be seen as a form of oppression.
De Lubac articulates the emancipating force of the Christian doctrine of man:
From the outset that idea had produced a more profound effect. Through it, man was freed, in his own eyes from the ontological slavery with which Fate burdened him. The stars, in their unalterable courses, did not, after all, implacably control our destinies.
Man, every man, no matter who, had a direct link with the Creator, the Ruler of the stars themselves. And lo, the countless Powers--gods, spirits, demons--who pinioned human life in the net of their tyrannical wills, weighing upon the soul with all their terrors, now crumbled into dust...But with the rise of what the 19th Century French philosopher and politician Proudhon termed the "humanists" or "new atheists" the freedom of the Christian view of humanity was rejected. Again De Lubac summarises:
Man is getting rid of God in order to regain possession of the human greatness that, it seems to him, is being unwarrantably withheld by another. In God he is overthrowing an obstacle in order to gain his freedom.Was it a fair exchange?
Did the perspective of seeing people as no more than a skin full of chemicals enhance human dignity?
Did it usher in compassion instead of cruelty?
Did the abandoning of the imago dei lead to an era where the weak and infirm, at the beginning and end of life, received more protection?
De Lubac got it exactly right. By extinguishing God the modern atheistic humanists found that "exclusive humanism is inhuman humanism":
It is not true, as is sometimes said, that man cannot organize the world without God. What is true is that, without God, he can ultimately only organise it against man.