Reading Nietzsche: Atheist Ghost

In “The ghost at the atheist feast: was Nietzsche right about religion?” John Gray reviews The Age of Nothing by Peter Watson and Culture and the Death of God by Terry Eagleton. Gray concludes that both Nietzsche and his intellectual descendants suffer from an internal contradiction: a tension between whimsy, mystery, and moral liberty on one hand, and the scientific method, the rule of parsimony, and cosmic determinism on the other. Also, people still believe in god, so he’s not, as Nietzsche so famously announced, kaput:

Was Nietzsche right in thinking that God is dead? Is it truly the case that – as the German sociologist Max Weber, who was strongly influenced by Nietzsche, believed – the modern world has lost the capacity for myth and mystery as a result of the rise of capitalism and secularisation? Or is it only the forms of enchantment that have changed? Importantly, it wasn’t only the Christian God that Nietzsche was talking about. He meant any kind of transcendence, in whatever form it might appear. In this sense, Nietzsche was simply wrong. The era of “the death of God” was a search for transcendence outside religion. Myths of world revolution and salvation through science continued the meaning-giving role of transcendental religion, as did Nietzsche’s own myth of the Superman.

Reared on a Christian hope of redemption (he was, after all, the son of a Lutheran minister), Nietzsche was unable, finally, to accept a tragic sense of life of the kind he tried to retrieve in his early work. Yet his critique of liberal rationalism remains as forceful as ever. As he argued with masterful irony, the belief that the world can be made fully intelligible is an article of faith: a metaphysical wager, rather than a premise of rational inquiry. It is a thought our pious unbelievers are unwilling to allow. The pivotal modern critic of religion, Friedrich Nietzsche will continue to be the ghost at the atheist feast.

Now, this selection doesn’t necessarily encapsulate Gray’s argument (how could it? I suggest reading the rest of the article), but it gives me more than enough fodder for critique. For one, “superman” is not the correct translation of Übermensch, as was pointed out by Nietzsche anthologist and translator Walter Kaufman (as I’ve previously written about here):

Shaw has popularized the ironic word “superman,” which has since become associated with Nietzsche and the comics without ever losing its sarcastic tinge. In the present translation the older term, “overman,” has been reinstated: it may help to bring out the close relation between Nietzsche’s conceptions of the overman and self-overcoming, and to recapture something of its rhapsodical play on the words “over” and “under,” particularly marked throughout the Prologue. Of the many “under” words, the German untergehen poses the greatest problem for translation: it is the ordinary word for the setting of the sun, and it also means “to perish”; but Nietzsche almost always uses it with the accent on “under”—either by way of echoing another “under” in the same sentence or, more often, by way of contrast with an “over” word, usually overman….

Secondly, why must we choose between the scientific method and a sense of wonder about the world? This straw-man choice has always been the false dichotomy of the critique of the “New Atheists.” As the now tired argument goes: one either has to enjoy the mystery of natural phenomena, or reduce it to rubble through explaining it scientifically. But why is the scientific explanation considered rubble? To me, if anything, the scientific explanation of something only increases the level of fascination about it, i.e. makes the natural world more (literally) wonderful. As Richard Dawkins and others have correctly pointed out, it’s the god explanation (if we can call it that) that’s boring; scientific explanations, by contrast, highlight the rarity, special-ness, and bind-boggling complexity of the universe in which we live.

With that said, Gray’s notion of “salvation through science” is indeed ridiculous, and approaches the level of internal contradiction that we see in almost every religion. But I don’t remember Nietzsche ever writing that salvation by any means was the goal. Yes, he did argue that we can and should transcend moral systems, especially those not based on material reality—and, in the case of Christianity, also based on a devaluing of human life, a hatred of the living world. But did he really offer the overman as a means of salvation for all? Or, rather, was the notion of the overman a challenge to all his readers to rise above: to carve their own paths, to find their own means to shed superstition, other-worldly delusions, and subjection to any kingdom (whether earthly or celestial) and finally, rightfully, protect and enjoy the terrifying beauty of the human condition?

As to the idea that god is dead, the continued prevalence of religious belief is not really the barometer by which to judge the statement. For Nietzsche didn’t really mean that people would by-in-large stop believing (if he thought that, then why even write the statement in the first place?), but rather, he was declaring, in vintage terseness, that one not need rely on god for their morality, or even for their general world-view. Religion will always be around, hence the need to always question it—and the need to kill god, over and over and as many times as is needed to inspire people to be true to the material earth and its (human and non-human) inhabitants.

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3 thoughts on “Reading Nietzsche: Atheist Ghost

  1. God is dead… any world view based on belief in a god is a dead end. I consider the overman, as I read it, to be the conscious mind of the reader. In some ways, I think we might relate Nietzche to a more familiar/popular situation: As the Vulcans in Star Trek struggled to lose their emotional side, it was their ‘overman’ that ruled yet the transition was difficult and remained a difficulty for Spok. That is probably a bad analogy, but it is what I am reminded of. I see Nietzche and others as trying to elucidate the effort to remove primacy from the primal mind and place it always in the advanced thought of the modern brain/mind through practice of thought and understanding of both primal and advanced minds.

  2. The death of god does not mean the absolute fall of myths: that we see through them [see them as false] is not enough to undo them. The reason “The era of ‘the death of God’ was a search for transcendence outside religion” is because society was at last making an enquiry into the structure of myth & transcendence. Gray certainly misses this point.

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