Philosophers are the pioneers of contemporary thought, men and women that have facilitated direct or indirect cultural and social change throughout history. Philosophy is an intellectual force that has spanned millennia and likewise speaks across millennia, with many contemporary scholars such as Noam Chomsky still referencing and contemplating the works of Socrates, Francis Bacon, Machiavelli, Voltaire and Marx. I would like to draw attention to and discuss an infamous quotation/train-of-thought championed by the 19th century philosopher and composer Friedrich Nietzsche.
Nietzsche is a controversial figure to say the least for his work, as influential and provocative as it is, has been connected to the establishment of radical 20th century political dogma such as the Nazi regime in Germany. Nietzsche himself died at the turn of the 20th century and therefore did not live to see the radical and misguided direction certain groups of people would take his philosophy. However if he had lived to see what happened in the mid 20th century I’m pretty certain he would have denounced those who abused his legacy.
The particular quotation I would like to discuss can be found in his 1882 work Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft. Nietzsche depicts a scene where a man runs into a crowded city center hysterically screaming at the top of his lungs “God is dead! God is dead!”. Unsurprisingly the local populace openly mock this seemingly absurd statement and nobody pays the man any ear. Rather than follow suit and discount this scenario Nietzsche later elaborates on what he believes the man means,
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms. 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?”
“God is dead, and we have killed him”
As far as Christian doctrine goes ‘God’ is omnipotent, all-knowing, and immortal – so how could he die? This seemingly simple statement in fact has multiple meanings behind it, all of which are hugely important to recognize.
Let’s start by looking at this from my own territory: History. What I think Nietzsche meant with that line is that the outcome of history itself has been the death of god, not on a physical level but on a spiritual level. Christianity in particular has been behind some of the most bloody chapters in world history: The Crusades, The Spanish Inquisition, and the Age of Imperialism to just name a few. It is through our blatant manipulation, abuse, and disregard of God’s name that humanity has collectively killed him and all that he stood for.
I should clarify something before I go any further: I am not an atheist. Truly, I am not. I am agnostic and find solace in the prospect that there is something or someone out there potentially greater than myself. I feel that true faith is a gift I have yet to receive and that the actions of Christianity throughout history have made me understandably uneasy about embracing it in it’s current form. Ironically, my stance on religion as a whole is summed up by a line in the bible itself.
“Lord, save me from your followers!” (Matthew 7:1–12)
Moving on from history I would like to address the apparent death of God on a modern cultural and societal level. Arguably, our society no longer needs ‘God’ or even theology for that matter. We have advanced and evolved to such an extent that God has become nothing more than an accessory, a comfort blanket, or a set of shackles if you’re more cynical, all of which aren’t needed anymore. In a recent post of mine I talked about the pressing issue of Transhumanism. Now, keeping that concept in mind let’s apply it to Nietzsche’s statement. We may very well, in our lifetimes, find that humanity as a species begins transcending natural limits through technology – completely obliterating the notion that God is omnipotent and all-powerful in the process – man may well himself become ‘God’. Therefore we will have inadvertently killed God through our own evolution as a species. I don’t think that in claiming “God is dead” Nietzsche is celebrating his demise, rather I think that he feels it was inevitable and that the whole concept of there being a ‘God’ is an inhibitive force that prevents the advancement of society.
So, if God is dead and his values have died with him what direction does that leave society? Nietzsche believed that with God being out of the frame man would become the master of his own destiny. Still, he recognized that God was the avatar for the supernatural and that the values he promoted that gave birth to Christian ideals – therefore belief in God nevertheless gave meaning to the life of many. If God died then he can no longer symbolize his values and because of that there is a real chance of widespread nihilism (belief in nothing) prevailing. Nihilism is the antithesis of philosophy and almost all forms of academia, one must have a belief in something… just preferably something logical!
I’ll leave you with this great interview with George Carlin.