In a scene from God’s Not Dead (a horrendous movie pandering to the persecution complex of conservative Christians in middle America), the philosophy professor, portrayed by Kevin Sorbo, gloats over the triumph of atheism over traditional religion and concludes his diatribe by quoting (or rather, misquoting) Friedrich Nietzsche that “God is Dead”.
It is so frustrating to see a brilliant philosopher like Nietzsche be so ruthlessly bastardized by a sub-par movie. Friedrich Nietzsche could rightfully be deemed a modern-day prophet. His famous quote “God’s Not Dead” proved his prophetic abilities.
Nietzsche’s declaration on the bereaved passing of the celestial diety is found in his work Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (The Gay Science or Science of Joy) where he wrote:
“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?”
Contrary to popular belief, Nietsche was not mocking religious believers or shoving Atheism down everyone’s throat. In fact, if he was alive today, he would be brutally lambasting the “New Atheism” movement.
Nietszche uses the term “God” as s metaphor for religiously-based objective morality in the Western world. Since the dawn of humanity, people attributed the mechanics of the universe to supernatural beings, which we called “gods”. The gods explained everything, from lightening and rain to where babies come from. The temple priests were the first scientists and it was their duty to mediate between the pantheon of deities and the common folk. In other words, religion was the repository of knowledge.
In addition to being a repository of knowledge, religion was also a framework of morals and ethics. After all, in any society, rules are necessary in order to ensure stability. A divinely-sanctioned rulebook was perceived to guarantee social cohesion. The Sumarians had the Hammurabi Code and the ancient Israelites had the Ten Commandments.
Even non-theistic religions like Taoism and Buddhism adhere to a code of ethics. While they may not explicitly affirm the existence of a creator God (as conceptualized in the Abrahamic tradition), those eastern traditions conform to a spiritual mindset that acknowledges the cosmic order and the nescessity for a defined, objective framework of ethics.
Since the reign of Constantine of the Roman Empire, Christian precepts, as defined by the Bible and Church tradition, served as the moral framework for Europe and the broader Western World.
Did everyone successfully conform to those prescribed morals? Of course not. Christian theologians themselves claim that no one can measure up to God’s standards. However, the presence of an objective moral standards provided people with common values and a shared heritage.
The Scientific Revolution and the subsequent Age of Enlightenment reeled in a paradigm shift in the Western World. Thanks to the printing press, philosophers and writers including Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, and Voltaire had their thoughts and ideas disseminated throughout the European continent. These ideas caused people to question not only the status quo of a monarchical society but also the validity of the doctrines espoused by the Christian churches.
By the 19th century, secularism emerged as a fresh, novel concept entertained within intellectual circles. By the time Charles Darwin published his magnum opus, The Origin of Species, religious beliefs, long cherished for generations, appeared to be nothing more than absurd superstitions.
In his younger days, Friedrich Nietsche had originally aspired to become a Lutheran minister, following the footsteps of his late father, Carl Ludwig Nietzsche. After a semester of studying theology at the University of Bonn, he had lost his faith after concluding that recent biblical scholarship contradicted the sermons preached from the pulpit. In fact, in defending his apostasy, he wrote to his deeply religious sister, Elizabeth:
“Hence the ways of men part: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire”
Since his deconversion, Nietzsche took a 180-degree turn and began vehemently criticizing Christianity. He denounced Paul of Tarsus, who could rightfully be called the chief architect of Christian theology, for devising a system that favored weakness and subservience.
Nietzsche also railed against the Christian church for their power trip during the middle age. He asserted that their history of warmongering stripped them of their own moral credibility.
Today, more and more people are leaving the pews. Especially among younger generations, religion is no longer considered important.
If a preacher or a social conservative activist passionately calls for the return of “family values” and a renewal of the “sanctity of marriage”, he/s is shamelessly branded as a “Bible-thumping religious fanatic”. And while it may seem that Bible-Thumper is imposing his religion on the rest of us, all he/s is trying to do is propose a divinely-sanctioned objective moral code, which societies have relied on for eons.
Today, our moral standards can be summarized as “do what you want, just don’t hurt anyone”. While that may sound good on paper, it’s incoherent and leaves more to be desired.
Nietzsche predicted that in the absence of Almighty God, we, humans, have become our own gods. Thus we are the arbiters of morality. In asserting that “God is dead”, Nietsche was not gloating, provoking the ire of devout churchgoers. To the contrary, Nietzsche was actually delivering a dire warning to people. It is a heavy responsibility to devise a universal moral system. Failure to do so will inevitably reel in an era of nihilism.
To solve this conundrum, Nietzsche posits the idea of eternal return. Although eternal return is a recurring theme in eastern spirituality, the concept was used by Nietzsche as a thought experiment. In The Gay Science, Nietzsche says:
“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’ … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.”
Nietzsche implores us to think about our lives and asks ourselves whether we have any regrets. Do you consider your life a success or a failure. And if you reply in the negative, how would you make your life a success? Nietzsche proposes an infinite amount of possibilities to live one’s life. How would we live an affirming life?
In a way, this thought experiment replaced the final judgement. Without the presence of an omniscient, omnipotent deity, we are our own judge.
Friedrich Nietzsche paved an unusual path, starting as a young seminary student, spending the majority of his adult life as an atheist philosopher before succumbing to mental illness and dying in isolation. He dived into the depths of the science of morality and ventured outside the boundaries of mainstream societal norms.