Nietzsche, Friedrich (1844–1900)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC057-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 24, 2019, from

7. The ‘death of God’ and nihilism

Nietzsche is perhaps best known for having proclaimed the death of God. He does in fact mention that God is dead, but his fullest and most forceful statement to this effect actually belongs to one of his fictional characters, the madman of Gay Science 125 ( Werke V.2: 158–60). Nietzsche’s madman declares not only that God is dead and that churches are now ‘tombs and sepulchres of God’, but also that we are all God’s ‘murderers’. Although the madman may accept these statements as literally true, they clearly function as metaphors for Nietzsche. The ‘death of God’ is a metaphor for a cultural event that he believes has already taken place but which, like the death of a distant star, is not yet visible to normal sight: belief in God has become unbelievable, the Christian idea of God is no longer a living force in Western culture.

Nietzsche views all gods as human creations, reflections of what human beings value. However, pagan gods were constructed from the qualities human beings saw and valued in themselves, whereas the Christian God was given qualities that were the opposite of what humans perceived in themselves, the opposite of our inescapable animal instincts. Our natural being could then be reinterpreted as ‘guilt before God’ and taken to indicate our unworthiness. Constructed to devalue our natural being, the Christian God is a projection of value from the viewpoint of the ascetic ideal (see §6 of this entry). That this God is dead amounts to a prediction that Christian theism, along with the ascetic ideal that forms its basis, is nearing its end as a major cultural force and that its demise will be brought about by forces that are already and irreversibly at work.

One such force, to which Nietzsche himself contributed, is the development of atheism in the West, a development that stems from Christian morality itself and the will to truth it promotes. The will to truth, a commitment to truth ‘at any price’, is the latest expression of the ascetic ideal, but it also undermines the whole Christian worldview (heaven, hell, free will, immortality) of which ‘God’ is the symbol. Inspired by the will to truth, philosophy since Descartes has progressively undermined the arguments that supported Christian doctrines, and science has given us reason to believe that we can explain all the explicable features of empirical reality without appealing to God or any other transcendent reality. Theism has thus become cognitively superfluous. In this situation we can justify atheism without demonstrating the falsity of theism, Nietzsche claims, if we also have a convincing account of how theism could have arisen and acquired its importance without being true. Even if there is no cognitive basis for belief in God, however, might not one still accept something on the order of William James’ will to believe? (see James, W. §4). Nietzsche nowhere treats this option as irrational, but he does deny that it is now a serious option for those who have taken most strictly and seriously Christianity’s ascetic morality. It may not be irrational, but it is psychologically impossible, Nietzsche thinks, to accept theism if the commitment to truthfulness has become fully ingrained, if hardness against oneself in matters of belief has become a matter of conscience. Atheism is ‘the awe-inspiring catastrophe of a two-thousand year discipline in truth that finally forbids itself the lie involved in belief in God’ ( Genealogy III §27 [ Werke VI.2: 427]).

Although atheism, especially among the most spiritual and intellectual human beings, undoubtedly weakens Christianity, depriving it of both creative energy and prestige, it does not bring about the death of God by itself. The modern world, as Kierkegaard had seen already, contains many other factors that weaken the influence of Christianity and its ideal; among these Nietzsche includes the development of money-making and industriousness as ends in themselves, democracy, and the greater availability to more people of the fruits of materialistic pursuits. Zarathustra’s statement that ‘when gods die, they always die several kinds of death’ suggests that just as the ascetic ideal has been accepted by different kinds of people for different reasons, the death of God and the ascetic ideal is also brought about by a multiplicity of causes that operate differently on different kinds of people. What matters, says Zarathustra, is that ‘he is gone’ ( Zarathustra IV §6 [ Werke VI.1: 320]).

According to Nietzsche, the loss of belief in God will initiate a ‘monstrous logic of terror’ as we experience the collapse of all that was ‘built upon this faith, propped up by it, grown into it; for example, the whole of our European morality’ ( Gay Science §343 [ Werke V.2: 255]). In notes made late in his career (published in The Will to Power), Nietzsche calls this collapse of values ‘nihilism’, the ‘radical repudiation of value, meaning, and desirability’. He predicts ‘the advent of nihilism’ as ‘the history of the next two centuries’, and calls himself ‘the first perfect nihilist of Europe’. However, he adds that he has ‘lived through the whole of nihilism, to the end, leaving it behind’ ( Will to Power Preface [ Werke VIII.2: 431–2]). Nihilism is therefore not his own doctrine, but one he diagnoses in others (including his own earlier self). He does not believe that nothing is of value (or that ‘everything is permitted’) if God does not exist, but that this form of judgment is the necessary outcome of the ascetic ideal. Having come to believe that the things of the highest value - knowledge, truth, virtue, philosophy, art - must have a source in a reality that transcends the natural world, we necessarily experience these things as devoid of value once the ascetic ideal itself leads to the death of God, to the denial that any transcendent reality exists.

Citing this article:
Clark, Maudemarie. The ‘death of God’ and nihilism. Nietzsche, Friedrich (1844–1900), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC057-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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