Nietzsche and the Death of God

Posted by on November 10, 2010 in Thoughts | 9 comments

“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?” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche

Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche

People often take this passage so to mean that atheism is responsible for the death of the belief in God. It gets bandied about as a way to try to show that people need God, and without God, from whence do we draw out universal morality? It is also used by atheists to show that atheism is not a new thing, since it was written in the 19th Century. To tell you the truth, I think Nietzsche was being a little overly dramatic.

It seems to me that Nietzsche was actually quite afraid of the outcomes of a world without God, a world where theology has lost ground and therefore sees itself without moral constructs by which to live. Yes, that idea does seem like a daunting scenario, if you believe in universal morality. As I have illustrated previously, as have people like Sam Harris, morality is completely subjectively linked to the culture within which you live. The morality of an Islamic male in Afghanistan will be quite different to that of a Christian woman living in New York, and vice-versa. There is no universal morality, and to add to that, there cannot be a universal morality as long as people use their religions as a way to justify their petty hatreds, their misogyny and their wars.

Furthermore, I would add, if we were without the cultural interpretations of religions, whether Islam, Christian, Hindu or whatever, with that blinker lifted, I think we would find it easier to move toward a universal morality, once based upon the rights of individuals, the rights of our communities, and the rights of the entire planet.

Just to clarify a point here; I realise of course that morality is not really “about” rights in essence, but should it not be entirely about human rights?

Let’s just take a small step back and look at the conundrum we have. Some people see it this way:

If there is no God, then there is no deterministic meaning to life. If there is no deterministic meaning to life, then there is no “right or wrong” in the world, no “good or evil”. If there is no “right or wrong” nor “good or evil” then we are free to do whatever we want to do. By this token, rape, murder, torture and war are all perfectly justifiable, since there is nothing to rule over us to tell us that it is wrong.

This ideal always scares me a little bit, because anyone who needs to be told explicitly that rape and murder are wrong is someone I can never truly trust. Anyone who needs to be told that these things are unacceptable is far too unstable for my liking.

But let’s take a look at this idea.

On a cosmological scale, there is no right nor wrong, there is only right and wrong based on our own value judgements of what is “right” when dealing with others of our own species, or of dealing with the world around us.

War, rape and hatred are human constructs and human interpretations, vices that only concern humanity, and therefore we make a value judgement based ON humanity when looking at these things. When we see ants “going to war” with each other, do we see this as wrong? No we don’t, we simply call it nature. When humans do it, because we are self-aware, sentient and complex decision making creatures, we call it “wrong”. We call what Hitler did “evil” because it is something we would never wish upon others, would never like to experience, and would like to prevent in the future. That and the fact it cause untold suffering for so many, our empathetic selves tell us “this is abhorrent”.

We are empathic beings, we have mirror neurons, which make us “feel” what we see, this gives rise to our empathic selves. Our “right and wrong” judgments are directly related to the sensations we feel when we see things happen to others. We then make our value judgment based on our own ability to “know what this might be like” and find that we would either like or dislike this to happen to us. We see it as “right” to look after our own species, because well, we ARE our own species, so we have the best insight into ourselves. We can extend the idea of “right and wrong beyond our own species because we have empathy, not exclusively to  other humans, but to other animals, and to some extent, to more complex ideas like ecosystems.

It’s not just our “feelings” but also an extension of the one thing that makes us empathic and sympathetically able beings. Our brains are truly wonderous things, and I do find it beautiful that we developed “mirror neurons” in the first place, but surely one can see the evolutionary advantage in family units with strong empathy as opposed to those without.

Nietzsche’s dead God, while at the time may have seemed scary to him, is in fact the way societies seem to be evolving. He seemed to be alarmed at the prospect of a world without religion, but I see it as the only way forward. This is not to say we need to abolish religion, but we do need to stop it controlling the way we as humans make our decisions on a societal level. Most importantly, we need to work together to achieve a mutual goal, not just the survival of the species, but the thriving of societies, the ecosystem and the whole planet.

I for one do not think it is too late to do this. In fact, I’d say we need this period in human history in order to progress. We need to have the ability to see how bad things are in Afghanistan, we need to be able to see the bad decisions made in the Gulf of Mexico and the impact it has had, we need to see very clearly what the conflicts between our tribes, races and cultures are doing to the individuals involved. Without this, we remain blinkered to the problems we face as a planet, and can therefore ignore it.

Nietzsche said “God is dead”. I say he probably never was. Let’s get on with things, and make a difference regardless.

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9 Comments

  1. Mr. Pribble, please forgive me for nitpicking, but I think you have a typo in your entry about Nietzsche. I mean, he couldn’t possibly have noticed anything in the 1940’s, since he died in 1900.

    thanks, Alan

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    • OOH Quite right, I thought I had fixed that. That date was just a publishing date. I’ll fix it now. Can’t have bad research in the way of my point can I?

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  2. Very good article, I have spent much time contemplating that quote by Nietzsche and you have written a piece that forces me to go back and reevaluate its meaning. Thanks

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    • Some have told me that they believe Nietzsche was actually a fervent atheist, but I think, from this passage anyhow, that he has a fear of moral decay because of atheism, and therefore values religion quite highly, be he atheist or not.

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  3. Just to leave a few points in clarification concerning Nietzsche’s death of god.

    First, Nietzsche never claimed ‘god is dead’, rather, he places the claim within the mouth of a madman (Gay Science 125). In the same book, earlier, selection 108, Nietzsche refers to Buddha’s death by comparing it to what he called ‘the shadows of god’. Thirdly, Nietzsche explicates what he means by the death of god (later in the same book, selection 343 Gay Science) by stating “…the greatest recent event—that ‘God is dead,’ that the belief in the Christian God has become unbelievable—is already beginning to cast its first shadows over Europe….”

    Forth, it is worth full note that declaring ‘God is dead’ is not originally Nietzsche’s own invention. Martin Luther had declared it some three centuries earlier after visiting Rome, and being asked what he thought of his travel experience, “In Rome I know God is dead…”

    Hegel, some two centuries later warned that if the German conception of god did evolve that soon Martin Luther’s words would make it ‘truer’.

    It is rumored as well that R.W. Emerson had made a joke to a close friend while engaged in discussion with J.S. Mill in Rome, “It may be true the god is dead, but men’s belief keep resurrecting the issue…”

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    • Yes that appears to be the case. But if you place the words of Nietzsche into the mouth of a theist, the whole thing takes on a different meaning.

      In that case it was not Nietzsche who was proclaiming the fear of a dead god, but the church itself?

      I knew I was in trouble to tackle this topic, especially when so much has been written already, and there are so many differing interpretations of this exact passage.

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  4. I think it is Nietzsche who best demonstrates the difference between the so-called ‘old’ and ‘new’ atheists – at least he had the courage to realise that his ‘death of God’ led to nihilism.

    You write:

    As I have illustrated previously, as have people like Sam Harris, morality is completely subjectively linked to the culture within which you live. The morality of an Islamic male in Afghanistan will be quite different to that of a Christian woman living in New York, and vice-versa. There is no universal morality

    The logical outcome of this is that the woman in NYC has no grounds on which to criticise the Afghani man – if it’s truly culturally subjective then neither is better or worse a morality than the other, for to make such a value judgement requires an objective standard. According to your argument, while a New Yorker might think that subjugating women is morally reprehensible, that may not be so for an Afghani – in his culture it may be morally ok, which means there’s no grounds for another culture to criticise.

    Of course, in practice we do act like certain things are objectively and innately morally wrong.

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    • Andrew I see your point, however, just because morality is based subjectively in culture, this does not mean there are not objective constants that all people share, whether they are recognised by a culture or religious dogma. To deny the rights of humans as individuals is to go against the needs of us as humans, and any culture/religion that denies these basic human rights is at fault. I don;t care what justification people give for the rape and torture of women, it is reprehensible, and there are none on this earth who should see it as acceptable. Lift the blinkering veil of the culture/religious dogma these people live in, and within it you find people JUST LIKE YOU AND I who have been brought up to think that certain practices are acceptable, whether they appeal to an inner conscience or not.

      More often than not, the places where subjugation of women is acceptable, the men find it easy to accept it because not only are the men in control, it doesn’t harm them in any way. The women have a much harder time of it, they are told that “this is the way things are”. if they deny “the way things are” they find it impossible to live within the society, or they are brutalised, disfigured or executed.

      I, for one, will not sit idly by and let this happen in the “name of the culture” from which it springs. It is not acceptable, and to say otherwise is to condone it.

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  5. Nietzsche values religion? In other texts it is clear that he hates religions and says so many bad things about them. Christians are slaves, bound by slave morality. The master’s morality is not bound by anything other than himself and his needs and desires – no religion can offer that, since every religion bounds people to its values and dogmas.

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