Nietzsche and the Death of God
“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
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.