A Critique of Nietzsche’s Atheism

When one mentions Friedrich Nietzsche’s name, most people, even many who have not read him, would immediately think of a Nietzsche’s quote that implies a very troubling and even dangerous concept, this is, “God is dead”. Such concept could be referred to as the core of his entire philosophy. It is possible to find it in most of his texts, either implicitly or explicitly, be it The Anti-Christ, Twilight of the Idols, On the Genealogy of Morals, but most prominently in his Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It is precisely Zarathustra, the fictitious character of this philosophical and poetic text, who acts as a preacher of God’s death. Nietzsche was, undeniably, a genius, a man of unquestionable brilliance. But, let’s be precise about this. He is not able to present any solid argument against the existence of God.

Nietzsche is entirely correct when he refers to himself as the philosopher with the hammer. His rhetoric is so passionate and many times so eloquent that it may have the power to destroy whatever it may be directed against. However, if one pays close attention to his arguments, it is possible to arrive at the conclusion that his militant atheism was specifically oriented toward the Judeo-Christian concept of God, more than towards the idea of God per se. Here is a good example.

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What sets us apart is not that we recognize no God, either in history or in nature or behind nature – but that we find that which has been reverenced as God not ‘godlike’ but pitiable, absurd, harmful, not merely an error but a crime against life…We deny God as God… If this God of the Christians were proved to us to exist, we should know even less how to believe in him (Nietzsche, 2003, pp 175-176)

Nietzsche insistence in condemning the idea of God as presented by the Judeo-Christian tradition overshadows his atheism. It is true, of course that he admits to the fact that he recognizes no God behind nature, but, again, because he concentrates so much on his anti-Christian perspectives, he fails to provide a substantiated explanation of why he refuses to accept the existence of God. Hence, it is not surprising that his atheism comes out more as a matter of dogma than a pure philosophical approach to the problem of God’s existence or inexistence.

Now, by carefully reviewing Nietzsche’s writings, it is possible to conclude that by stating that God is death, he means that, given the fact that there is presumably no substantiated (in the scientific sense) evidence of God’s existence, or that no superior being seems to be intervening in human affairs, therefore, God does not exist. Nietzsche’s conclusion, carefully analyzed, emerges as a flawed conception. Let’s imagine, just for a moment, the existence of an indifferent god, a god who inhabits, either physically or spiritually somewhere in the universe in a state of perpetual tranquility, that does not pay attention to whatever may take place on earth. Let’s move a step further and assume that such god is the creator of all things and that, after the process of creation, he decided to adopt a position of inactivity and contemplation. If this supposition of ours were a tangible reality, Friedrich Nietzsche would obviously deny the existence of that god, basing his denial on the fact that there is evidence activity.  The conclusion that something does not exist merely because that something does not seem to exercise influence over our lives or because such a thing is unknown to us is simply an act of bad reasoning.

That something is unknown or even incomprehensible not necessarily implies its inexistence. There are many examples we could use to illustrate this point, but let’s pay attention one of them. Ironically, this illustrative perspective, trying to prove God’s existence and tangentially contradicting Nietzsche’s approach comes from a man who was not precisely a believer. Such man is Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges. Here is one of the most beautifully eloquent arguments in favor of the existence of God.

I close my eyes and see a flock of birds. The vision lasts a second, or perhaps less; I am not sure how many birds I saw. Was the number of birds definite or indefinite? The problem involves the existence of God. If God exists, the number is definite, because God knows how many birds I saw. If God does not exist, the number is indefinite, because no one can have counted. In this case I saw fewer than ten birds (let us say) and more than one, but did not see nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, or two birds. I saw a number between ten and one which was not nine, eight, seven, six, five, etc. That integer–not-nine, not-eight, not-seven, not-six, not-five, etc.–is inconceivable. Ergo, God exists (Great Science Fiction, 2007).

While it is true that Nietzsche seems to be successful in presenting humanity with a philosophical mirror in which it must contemplate itself, and only itself, without the intervention of God, and subsequently embrace its destiny, it is also true that he fails to present a convincing argumentation in favor of God’s inexistence. In other words, Nietzsche does not seem to be preoccupied with offering philosophical and logical arguments to explain his atheism, nor is he able or willing to analyze any ideas presented in favor of the existence of God. He simply denies God. He is very passionate in his critique of the Judeo-Christian conceptions, but passion must not be taken as proof of anything.

In the introductory paragraphs of his most troubling text, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche presents us with something that clearly exemplifies what would be his approach of the question of God’s existence. After going into the forest, Zarathustra meets an old man who professes his faith in God. Zarathustra spoke with this old man, also identified as a saint, “but when Zarathustra was alone, he spoke thus to his heart: ‘Could it then be possible! This old saint in his forest has not yet heard of it, that God is dead!’” (Nietzsche, 2005, p. 9). Within the poetic and symbolic context of this text, we might conclude that the old man’s character is a metaphor about humanity. That being the case, Zarathustra is surprised that humanity is still attached to the ideal of God. Then Zarathustra continues walking through the forest preaching the news about God’s death. All this has a distinctive literary flavor. Nietsche’s work here is entertaining and poetic. But that is all. There is no philosophical argumentation to prove or disprove anything.

It is obvious that Nietzsche’s fixation with the idea of God’s death prevents him from carefully and logically organize an argumentation against the existence of God. As professor

Costica Bradatan, author of an introduction to Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, puts it, “both Ivan Karamazov [Fyodor Dostoevsky’s character] and Nietzsche were philosophers of the ‘death of God’. They were equally obsessed with God’s disappearance from the world (and from people’s minds), and with the terrible question, ‘If God is dead, then what happens with the man?’” (2006, p. xii). What Nietzsche conceives as the tragic reality of man’s eternal solitude, is precisely what drives him to argue that God is dead.

When Nietzsche’s conceptions are analyzed, it may be also helpful to bear in mind that his father was a Lutheran Pastor. This, along with what he viewed as the hypocritical or even malignant fake piousness of his mother and sister had a very important influence on his character. The instinctive rejection that Nietzsche shows toward the idea of God seems to be, in a way, a reaction against his family. In short, his excessive passion against the Judeo-Christian values blinds him and does not allow him to take the time to answer essential questions related to the issue of the existence of a superior being. Instead, he puts his faith in his so-called overman. In spite of his brilliance, his intelligence and his eloquence, Nietzsche atheism reveals itself as nothing more than a dogmatic rhetoric. When it comes to the question of God, Nietzsche gives us poetry, symbols, narrative, fictitious characters, an ingenious speech, but no good reasons.