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The Irrationality of Atheism Part 1: Nietzsche & Nihilism

This is the first of a multi part series to show the illogical and irrational conclusion of some of the most notable and famous atheist or anti-theist philosophers.  I hope to showcase the logical conclusions of such philosophies, and then offer a response and critique to them from a biblical worldview.  The first philosopher I am attempting to showcase is Friedrich Nietzsche.

 

Nietzsche: Part 1

 

“God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him!”[1] Perhaps no other philosophical statement has had so broad an impact across so many different spectrums. For the atheist, it is a victory cry which is less satirical and more of a truthful statement, and for the Christian, this statement brings about a shudder and a cringe as it sounds beyond blasphemous. Whatever stirring one might have at the mere mention of the name, Nietzsche, it cannot be understated the consequence and influence his ideologies have played and continue to play today. This paper will seek to give a small biography, present the major tenants of Nietzsche’s philosophy, and analyze them from a biblical worldview.

Life and Influence

 

Before one can dive too deeply down the rabbit hole of which Nietzsche’s ideas lead, it is imperative to first know something about his background before one can gain any real understanding of the man’s philosophies. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was born in 1844 in Saxony. Nietzsche was a descendent from a long lineage of Lutheran pastors. Even so, Nietzsche is said to have abandoned his Christian worldview and belief system at an early age.[2] This view was probably in some ways related to the tragic and early death of his father. Nietzsche in fact lived a tumultuous and difficult early life, and this no doubt shaped his major themes, demeanor, worldview, and subsequent philosophies.

He was a brilliant student of both theology and philology, but by 1865 he began truly studying under his favorite teacher, Friedrich Ritschl.[3] Nietzsche later became good friends with famed composer Richard Wagner. The relationship the two shared would be akin to a father and son relationship in many ways. As Nietzsche continued to gain prominence and a wider audience with his new and interesting, although absolutely controversial, dogmas he began to decline in both physical and mental health. Most people close to him believe he contracted syphilis.

Sadly, for Nietzsche it was not so much the physical ails which snubbed out his life, but it was rather mental deterioration. By 1889 Nietzsche was already demonstrating signs of insanity, but this reached a fever pitch when he saw a horse being beaten and thrust his arms around the neck of the horse and collapsed to the ground. He was ultimately treated at a clinic in Basel. He would endure a decade of madness, in which he would not discuss or comment on his earlier and quite famous philosophical tenants. While he was mostly calm and often lucid, reports from nurses and friends who visited him remarked at other moments he was frenzied and rather hectic. Finally, in 1900 at only 56 years of age, Friedrich Nietzsche passed away.

There is some sense of irony in Nietzsche’s apparent turn to madness and incoherence and the main character of one of his most famous works as cited earlier, The Madman. In truth, the oft quoted and misquoted words of the madman are in many ways what Nietzsche, at least in many circles, is most famous for writing. The one who is only nominally familiar with the philosopher’s work and worldview might simply reflect on Nietzsche as the author and purveyor of a satirical work which exists to promote his atheistic stance. However, if one only does a little digging, it is clear Nietzsche’s work is far more elaborate and influential than a piece of prose.

Nietzsche’s philosophy would be largely developed, at least early on, by his admiration and study of Schopenhauer. Nietzsche had great respect for Schopenhauer, although he would later disavow Schopenhauer’s ideologies. When he first began his infamous breakup with Christianity, Nietzsche was enamored as R.J. Hollingdale writes, “When he broke away from Christianity and religion, Nietzsche spoke of setting sail upon a sea of doubt, from the midst of which one would often long for firm land again: Schopenhauer was firm land upon which he temporarily came to rest.”[4]

After Nietzsche parted ways with Wagner and then Schopenhauer, he inevitably found Darwin. For Nietzsche, Darwin was fascinating because all things were simply passed down as purely animal instinct, and this of course corroborated in his mind the negation for a God to exist. The appeal for Nietzsche became the meaninglessness of all things, including life. This would have a profound impact on Nietzsche for the rest of his life as he adopted the view on nihilism.

Nietzsche would also derive a great deal of his philosophy from the ancient Greeks. Most notably perhaps, he began to see from the Greek culture a prominent idea which he regarded as a necessity, and that was that every culture (if they are to be on a higher level that is) must have at some level a slave society. These are people who serve no purpose other than being slaves and must learn their place and instead of attempting an escape. Nietzsche was also convinced that through Greek tragedy and life the underpinnings of genius could be found in and because of war. In fact, Safranski says, “Greek antiquity served as Nietzsche’s model of how war benefited culture…the necessary association of ‘battlefield and artwork’ (7,344) reveals the truth about culture.”[5]

Hopefully at this point there has been at least a template set for understanding (granted at a rudimentary level) a base for what would become some of the most aggressive and influential atheistic philosophy ever penned. It is now imperative to move from the foundational parts Nietzsche’s philosophy and arrive at some of the most prominent teachings and thoughts of the man. For the purpose of this writing, only a couple of his main tenants and writings will be addressed, and the one with the greatest notoriety is that of the God-myth and the “Superman.”

 

Notable Philosophies and Works

 

First, Nietzsche decrees God, most notably the Christian God, cannot and could not have ever existed. His argument for this arises from Nietzsche’s conclusion that this God must by definition be uncaused. He is unable to reconcile this and sees this as an impossible thing. He was also unable to understand how evil continued to exist, or even why it existed at all, if this God was supposedly benevolent. In other words, Nietzsche is asking what has become for many atheists, non-theists, and anti-theists, the juggernaut of all questions which can be asked of Christians.

For Nietzsche, culture, especially that of earlier times certainly enjoyed the God-myth, but his view is since culture has now advanced and society has moved on, the need for God has vanished as well. This obviously has a profound impact on the world and its inhabitants. If God does not exist then the world and the material therein is all that exists, and in fact, all that matters. Further, Nietzsche would regard the belief in God as not just unnecessary, but this belief would actually become hostile to life. Geisler remarks,

There is no God to which we must be faithful. Hence, each person is exhorted to ‘remain faithful to the earth.’ For Nietzsche viewed God ‘as the declaration of war against life, against nature…the deification of nothingness, the will of nothingness pronounced holy’…Indeed, Christianity ‘is the greatest of all conceivable corruptions…I call it the one immortal blemish of mankind.’[6]

It is quite clear for Nietzsche a belief in God is not only foolish, but it is detrimental to the growth of individuals and the society as a whole. This view clearly has bedrocks in the Darwinian camp. Nietzsche called for people to not rely on the Christian values and ideas of moral good and evil, but he rather called them to go beyond this and focus only on the material world.

Other than The Madman, perhaps Nietzsche’s other most famous work would that of The Antichrist. This thought would largely extend from the Darwinian model yet again. As noted previously, Nietzsche would argue society and mankind must not focus on the properly understood idea of Christian morality but must move past such thoughts. The question must be posed then, if these principles of morality are abandoned, where should man arrive instead? In The Antichrist Nietzsche seeks to answer this question by claiming power and weakness are the only things which have any real meaning and sentiment. He writes,

What is good? – Everything that enhances people’s feeling of power, will to power, power itself. What is bad? – The feeling that power is growing, that some resistance has been overcome. Not contentedness, but more power; not peace, but war; not virtue, but prowess…The weak and the failures should perish: first principle of our love of humanity. And they should be helped to do this. What is more harmful than any vice? – Active pity for all failures and weakness – Christianity.[7]

Nietzsche obviously is not just ambivalent of God or Christianity, but unmistakably he is behaving with grave antagonism for them both. His great accusation against God and Christianity is for those who are the weak, Christianity offers a defense or protection, and any belief in the spiritual is unfounded because the spiritual violates the natural.

Nietzsche’s indignation for Christianity or any belief in the spiritual (much less God) is palpable. He would equate all people who ascribe to any such idea as stupid and weak. Since God and the spiritual have met their demise, then what, if anything, replaces them according to Nietzsche? The answer comes in the Superman. Nietzsche is clearly not referring to Clark Kent or a man who flies around in the iconic red and blue saving citizens from harm, but he is speaking of a different kind of powerful Superman.

It has already been stated Nietzsche regarded power as the supreme meaning of all things. Nietzsche is brazen in his thinking that power is the ultimate goal of an individual, and the individual should do anything possible to gain said power. This is not meant to be merely a hypothetical thought for Nietzsche, but it is instead an absolute. It only makes sense in light of what has already been discussed, but Nietzsche evidently believes morality is subjective, and so is truth. If man embraces these truths the ultimate conclusion is nihilism. Nihilism is of course the philosophy of ultimate meaninglessness and nothingness. Nothing has meaning and nothing matters. It is in this mode of thinking and being where Nietzsche sees the Superman emerging.

Man is ultimately only a step above the other animals on the evolutionary spectrum (again the nod to Darwin), and as such finds himself tied inextricably to things of a spiritual connotation or religious belief. Man must sever this tie and instead recognize himself as the only concern possible. The Superman, however, cannot actually be achieved, but rather it is a relative understanding of becoming a Superman. Howey concludes, “With the doctrine of the Superman we get the other half of Nietzsche’s theory of man – man understood as a possibility.”[8] This possibility, should he ever exist is not a man which would invoke awe, but he would rather petition terror from anyone with whom he might encounter. In other words, “The Superman, Nietzsche tells us, is a warrior, a conqueror, a concentration of ego, who cares only for himself and his agenda.”[9] The Superman cares for no one and nothing other than achieving power by any means necessary. This means not only is morality subjective, but human life, as is evident by a nihilistic philosophy, is deemed meaningless and possesses no real value.

The consequences of such an idea cannot go unnoticed. Nietzsche’s ideas would be understood and believed by many, but in one particular case a man would use the idea of a Superman and give himself the authority to decide which, if any, human life mattered. He would use this idea to march across Europe leaving destruction, death, and heartbreak in his wake. He would commit genocide on an insane scale all in an attempt to actualize and realize the Superman. This man’s name, of course, would be Adolf Hitler. Esteemed apologist and scholar, Ravi Zacharias, posits,

So profound and operative was Nietzsche’s philosophy upon Hitler that it provided the conceptual framework for his demagogical onslaught to obliterate the weak and inferior of this world. That being done, Hitler would establish the supremacy of the “superman” in an unobstructed and dominant role. Hitler also personally presented a copy of Nietzsche’s work to Benito Mussolini.[10]

Andrew Pessin also notes, “For, quite infamously, Nietzsche’s philosophy became something like the official philosophy of the Nazis, and we all know what followed from that.”[11]

It is clear what the logical conclusion of Nietzsche’s philosophy can lead people. This is not to say anyone who has a leaning toward Nietzsche is a Hitler sympathizer, but it is paramount to understand his philosophies can drive people toward creating their purpose and meaning or else dive into the dark annals of nihilism, and in such a framework, what value does human life have at any level? The answer of course is none.

Bibliography

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche and Thomas Common, The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes (Overland Park, KS: Digireads, 2018), 104.

[2] Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy Volume VII: Modern Philosophy from the Post Kantian Idealists to Marx, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 390.

[3] Walter A. Kaufmann and Alexander Nehamas, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), 24.

[4] R.J. Hollingdale, Nietzsche: The Man and His Philosophy, rev. ed (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 199), 67.

[5] Rudiger Safranski, Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography (New York: W.W. Norton &​ Company, 2003), 71.

[6] Norman L. Geisler, The Big Book of Christian Apologetics: An A to Z Guide (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012), 402.

[7] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols, and Other Writings, ed. Aaron Ridley and Judith Norman, trans. Judith Norman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 4.

[8] R.L. Howey, Heidegger and Jaspers on Nietzsche: A Critical Examination, illustrated ed (Berlin: Springer Science &​ Business Media, 2012), 131.

[9] Barry Loewer, ed., 30-Second Philosophies: The 50 Most Thought-Provoking Philosophies, Each Explained in Half a Minute (East Sussex, UK: Ivy Press, 2009), 144.

[10] Ravi Zacharias, The Real Face of Atheism (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004), 26.

[11] Andrew Pessin, Uncommon Sense: The Strangest Ideas From the Smartest Philosophers (Lanham, MD: Rowman &​ Littlefield, 2012), 148.

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