To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.
Mar 29, 2015
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) was one of the most influential cultural figures of the 20th century, an honor he shared with Freud. Atheism was an essential part of what he had to say. In Atheists: The Origin of the Species, Nick Spencer provides an overview of his atheism, which we review here.
Nietzsche continues to fascinate us, whereas Freud has lost much of his charm. For example, consider the uncritical panegyric that the usually reliable Stanford Online Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers us. Stanford’s Nietzsche is a romantic Dionysian guru-hero encouraging healing, creativity, and playful exuberance:
[Nietzsche] challenged the foundations of Christianity and traditional morality. He was interested in the enhancement of individual and cultural health, and believed in life, creativity, power, and the realities of the world we live in, rather than those situated in a world beyond.
Nietzsche, it seems, affirmed life and inspired people:
Central to his philosophy is the idea of “life-affirmation,” which involves an honest questioning of all doctrines that drain life’s expansive energies, however socially prevalent those views might be. … Nietzsche’s revitalizing philosophy has inspired leading figures in all walks of cultural life, including dancers, poets, novelists, painters, psychologists, philosophers, sociologists and social revolutionaries.
Nietzsche, Christlike, even suffers great agony:
That Nietzsche was able to write so prolifically and profoundly for years, while remaining in a condition of ill-health and often intense physical pain, is a testament to his spectacular mental capacities and willpower. Lesser people under the same physical pressures might not have had the inclination to pick up a pen, let alone think and record thoughts which — created in the midst of striving for healthy self-overcoming — would have the power to influence an entire century.
There is something stunning – and strange – about these paragraphs, written by the respected clinical psychologist Robert Wicks, an active proponent of spirituality, therapy and prayer. (The whole of the Stanford piece continues in this lyrical and uncritical vein). Somehow Nietzsche’s dark side and the role that he played in encouraging a widespread embrace of barbarism – the vicious, murderous European barbarism of the 20th century – is sidestepped and ignored. And this uncritical reception of Nietzsche is common.
And Nietzsche survives even critical investigation. More careful thinkers – even those aware of Nietzsche’s fanatical hatred of liberal values – still admire his intellectual honesty, the force and power of his thought, and his extraordinary literary powers.
I have to make a confession here – I too fell under Nietzsche’s sway as young man. I too – like Nietzsche’s hero in Thus Spake Zaruthustra – went into the mountains and lived with my animals, a copy of Thus Spake Zaruthustra in my backpack. I too, emerged transformed. But I became a Baha’i, thank God, not a Nietzschien Overman!
“God is Dead” is how Nietzsche phrased it. Not “God doesn’t exist.” Not “God is the opium of the people.” Rather “God is dead. … And we have killed him.”
Here is how he phrases it in The Gay Science (as translated by Walter Kaufmann):
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
This is post-atheism. We have killed God. Now some of us – the best – have to become gods to replace Him. Nietzsche’s analysis is that European society has been fatally compromised by Christianity and has to be turned to a new direction. He suffered few illusions, according to Nick Spencer, about the difficulties, chaos, and confusion this would entail:
Perhaps because his childhood faith had been sincere, Nietzsche was never under any illusion about the enormity of what he – and Europe, he believed – was doing … Whereas Marx saw a new Jerusalem, ascending from the proletarian ground rather than descending from heaven, Nietzsche saw the ruins of a civilization. ‘[Very few have grasped] how much must collapse because it was built on this faith … our entire European morality … [few have grasped] the long dense succession of demolition, destruction, downfall, upheaval that now stands ahead’.
The collapse of Christianity, Nietzsche believed, was the collapse of a “slave morality” he saw as a fundamental part of European civilization:
[T]he historical origins of this slave morality could be traced beyond Christianity to slavery itself, specifically to the enslavement of the Jews in Babylon 500 years earlier. Having once been sovereign and belligerent, the Jews had found themselves conquered, captured and powerless to challenge their captors in any of the obvious ways. In response, through priestly cunning, they abandoned their more violent god of earlier ages, and worked out a deliberate act of revenge by which they might take power once again. By revaluing basic human values – so powerlessness became humility, impotence goodness, cowardice friendliness – they turned the tables, enervating their oppressors and elevating themselves.
This – of course – sounds like standard anti-Semitism. Nietzsche, however, took it further. Christianity, he opines, and then all of Europe, fell prey to this ‘Jewish slave morality’:
This morality, designed by slaves to emasculate their masters, was adopted and adapted by early Christians, especially in their attribution of equality and free will to all … The crucifixion ‘was the masterstroke in all this, locating triumph in failure, and placing all men for ever in God’s debt.
Christianity then spread not due to any genuine moral worth, still less on account of its inherent truth, but through a mixture of fear and guilt.
Modern Europe was so corrupted by Christianity that it rejected “everything self-glorifying, manly, conquering, autocratic, every instinct that belongs to the highest and best-formed type”.
Nietzsche had no room for liberal, humanitarian European values. To him, they reeked of “the decaying detritus of Christianity,” Its “other-focused slave morality.” They must be replaced – and they must be replaced by the “self-focused master morality” of his beloved Greeks (Nietzsche was, by trade, a professor of Greek philology). Or they must be replaced by Richard Wagner’s German heroes of pre-Christian mythology.
This led, logically and apparently irreversibly, to Nietzsche’s exaltation of the will to power:
The idea, with its roots sunk somewhere in Darwinism, was that every organism, including human, was driven by an ineradicable lust for strength and supremacy. This was more than mere survival. ‘Life itself is essentially a process of appropriating, injuring, overpowering the alien and the weaker, oppressing: being harsh, imposing your own form, incorporating, and, at least, at the very least, exploiting’.
And thus, German soldiers marched to war with Nietzsche’s books in their satchels and dreams of Nietzsche’s Übermensch driving them to deeds of valor – and their leaders dreamed of mass murder. And of course, to further designs to bring the end of Christianity:
Towards the end of his book The Antichrist, Nietzsche outlined various prospective laws against Christianity, such as all priests were to be either expelled or imprisoned and churches razed.
In this he would foreshadow much twentieth century atheism, although the twentieth century’s atheistic violence would owe more to scientific atheism than to Nietzsche’s unique and unflinching mixture of classical virtue and Darwinism. Nevertheless, his unflinching gaze into a future that no longer dwelt in the shadow of Christianity was to prove prophetic.
Analysis and Summary
It is not going too far say that Nietzsche is the closest thing in modern European society to an old testament Biblical prophet. His long flirtation with Wagner and his music, his rejection of Wagner because of Wagner’s anti-semitism, his infatuation with the beautiful and brilliant Lou Salome, his self-exile in the Alps and Italy, his final years of insanity, his embrace of a Dionysian Greek culture that he seemed constitutionally incapable of enjoying, and above all his extraordinary command of language and his searing criticisms of modern society – all of this works to strengthen an iconography of prophethood – of speaking truth to power – that is still deeply embedded in the European psyche.
Be that as it may, the content – as opposed to the style – of Nietzsche’s grasp of religion was mundane, stereotyped, firmly based on 19th century opinion and its rampant anti-clericalism, on social Darwinism, on an uncritical appropriation of an imagined Greek, Roman, and Germanic past, and on a glorification of artists, poets, and intellectuals typical of the time. And for all of Nietzsche’s claims to have rejected religion, he embraced ts pageantry, its mythology, and its dramatic turn while rejecting its civilizing values and while urging an uncritical embrace of the barbaric superstitions of the ancient past.
But, he is a great – even inspiring – read!
In the next blog, we will consider 20th century atheism, including that of the philosopher Bertrand Russell and of logical positivism.
This is the 40th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.