"God is Dead" — What Nietzsche Really Meant
Not a statement of atheism but a warning of nihilism
“God is dead,” surely Nietzsche’s notorious soundbite (in a portfolio of notorious soundbites). It’s a statement that has saturated society as a cultural watershed moment. But the true meaning and power of Nietzsche’s dynamite phrase has often been missed in popular culture.
When you come across this statement in the varying corners of culture, it is often taken as a pithy formulation of Modernity’s revolution. Seen through this lens, “God is dead” is a merely a pithy restatement of something that had been brewing in Europe in centuries since Copernicus and Descartes.
But that is not what Nietzsche was doing.
“God is dead” isn’t simply Nietzsche signing the death certificate of the Christian God. Atheism was nothing new in his time; it may have been controversial but it was very far from the cutting edge.
God is dead was not a stating of the obvious; it is a much more profound (and much more horrifying) sentiment. When it comes down to it, this isn’t a Modernist but a Postmodernist statement.
When Nietzsche says that God is dead he doesn’t just mean that the Christian God is dead; God here doesn’t refer to the narrow religious definition but to the broader idea of the universal and transcendent truth.
A more accurate way of expressing what he meant would be “Truth is dead”.
It doesn’t pack the same poetic punch but the statement “Truth is dead” captures more of the postmodern horror that Nietzsche was really getting at. In this article, we are going to explore the meaning of this statement in depth, what Nietzsche really meant and why it was so much more revolutionary and groundbreaking than a mere statement of atheism.
A Statement of Atheism?
The madman.- Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place. and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!” -As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated? -Thus they yelled and laughed.
The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you … God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”
— The Gay Science §125
In the setup of this aphorism there is something that should immediately jar with an attempt to read this passage in a Modernist light. The audience that the madman speaks to are not simple religious people; they are not priests or bishops or upholders of the religious order. This is what we’d expect of a triumphant Modernist narrative which calls the religious deluded and mocks their beliefs as insane.
On the contrary, what we get is an audience of unbelievers who mock the madman in his search for God and ask him if God is lost or hiding. It’s the same sort of condescending attitude you see with the likes of Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris; it’s the crowd that see religious belief as a childish fairytale at best or a nefarious mind virus at worst.
In speaking to such a crowd, Nietzsche is signalling something important — the counterposition to the madman is not the religious believer but the modernist unbeliever. Which, if you think about it, makes sense; Nietzsche was at the cutting edge of dangerous thoughts and by the time he’s writing at the end of the 19th-century atheism was far from the cutting edge — remember this is already decades after Darwin had published On the Origin of Species which was really the final nail in the Christian coffin.
The price to be paid
Proceeding beyond this declaration of God’s death, Nietzsche paints a grim rhetorical image of doom — we have murdered God and there is some consequence to be paid for this action that we haven’t reckoned with just yet.
This price is the real message of the madman. By killing God, we have exposed the devouring vacuum of nihilism. This is the warning that Nietzsche is trying to communicate to the Modernist — the death of God presents a danger unheard of in the history of culture and we ignore it at our own risk.
The Modernist mindset hears the phrase “God is dead” and, like the audience of Nietzsche’s madman, they laugh and they mock. The death of God is a triviality. It is a non-event that we needn’t worry about. It is a great event to have put away these superstitions. Now we are more intelligent, now we are smarter, and, unlike our ancestors, we are longer being duped into believing silly stories.
The Modernist laughs sardonically at the faith of the religious in their holy books and proudly holds up the scientific canon and all its amazing discoveries as a counterargument. Science, great science, has liberated us from the stupidity of the ages.
Needless to say, Nietzsche is not so optimistic about the Modernist project. By the time of writing The Gay Science in 1882, Nietzsche has progressed beyond his earlier adulation of the scientific worldview. He is no longer infected with the enthusiasm of science and progress but by this time he has begun to turn his maxims and arrows on the great mammoth that was modern scientific optimism. Hence the madman’s audience being not religious believers but modernist atheists.
Nietzsche Contra Scientism
A few years after The Gay Science and his declaration of God’s death, Nietzsche takes aim at the place of science in his book The Genealogy of Morality.
In the third essay of the Genealogy, he is exploring the topic of the “ascetic ideal”. This is the ideal of asceticism that Nietzsche sees as underlying the evolution of organised religion. The belief in true reality as a transcendental realm beyond this world is the hallmark of the ascetic ideal.
In section 24 of this essay, Nietzsche says that he has looked around for a counterideal to this Ascetic ideal and he has found it everywhere lacking. He responds to the suggestion that science offers a counterideal, that it:
“has already conquered [the ascetic] ideal in all important respects: all of modern science is supposed to bear witness to that—modern science which, as a genuine philosophy of reality, clearly believes in itself alone, clearly possesses the courage for itself and the will to itself, and has up to now survived well enough without God, the beyond, and the virtues of denial. […] The truth is precisely the opposite of what is asserted here: science today has absolutely no belief in itself, let alone an ideal above it—and where it still inspires passion, love, ardor, and suffering at all, it is not the opposite of the ascetic ideal but rather the latest and noblest form of it.”
This is the beginning of Nietzsche’s critique of science. He is not attacking science itself or scientists for he says “I approve of their work” (GM 3.23). What he is going after, is the jump between science and scientism by which we mean Wittgenstein’s suspicion of the attitude “a reaction against the overestimation of science” (Culture and Value 70).
This overestimation of science is what Nietzsche is tackling. He is not anti-scientific for, as we have noted, he approves of the work of scientists. But he is going after the worldview that evolves around science — the ideologizing of science.
This attitude towards science contains an idealisation of science’s capabilities. It enshrines science on the lofty pedestal once occupied by Christianity. Science becomes the new religion.
So what Nietzsche is going after here is the atheistic science-loving type represented in the parable of the madman by those who laugh and mock him. The ironic thing about this type from Nietzsche’s perspective is that they think they are the opposite of the religious mindset. They think that they are better.
When Richard Dawkins calls religion a delusion, it goes without saying that he is superior to the religious mindset, that his rational worldview is the opposite of this religious mindset. But the irony for Nietzsche is that they are not opposites but merely varying manifestations of the same ascetic ideal.
Science, like the ascetic ideal, still preaches another world — the “objective” world of things-in-themselves.
“The truthful man, in the audacious and ultimate sense presupposed by the faith in science, thereby affirms another world than that of life, nature, and history; and insofar as he affirms this ‘other world,’ does this not mean that he has to deny its antithesis, this world, our world? … It is still a metaphysical faith that underlies our faith in science—and we men of knowledge of today, we godless men and anti-metaphysicians, we, too, still derive our flame from the fire ignited by a faith millennia old, the Christian faith, which was also Plato’s, that God is truth, that truth is divine.—But what if this belief is becoming more and more unbelievable, if nothing turns out to be divine any longer unless it be error, blindness, lies—if God himself turns out to be our longest lie?” (GM 3.24)
The fruit of questioning this ascetic ideal that underpins Christianity and science and denying our faith in it is that a new problem arises “that of the value of truth”.
This value of truth is something that we have taken for granted but as Nietzsche notes this faith is millennia old, it is the Christian faith which was also Plato’s. He wants us to question the idea of truth’s divinity.
Exploring what this looks like is beyond the scope of this article but a taster of what Nietzsche is talking about here is given in the first section of Beyond Good and Evil where he asks why we should prefer truth to untruth given that life is as reliant on untruth as it is on truth. Above truth in Nietzsche’s value scheme we find life and health and so rather than focussing on the truth as the highest value when looking at a belief or a behaviour we are better off asking:
“to what extent it is life-promoting, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps even species-cultivating”
—Beyond Good and Evil §4
The bottom line is that Nietzsche sees science not as the opposite of the religious mindset but as the latest manifestation of it. It is the obsession with the universal and transcendent truth that lies beneath these manifestations of the ascetic ideal.
And so when Nietzsche tells us that God is dead, he is not making a Modernist attack on the religious mindset in the way that Dawkins or Dennett might. He is making a Postmodernist attack on the Modernist worldview’s idolisation of science. He wants to reveal that this worldview is the fruit of the same tree as the religious worldview.
The Real Meaning of God’s Death
The true meaning of God is dead is much deeper than what had already become a platitude by the end of the 19th century. When he speaks about God he’s speaking of a broader faith “the Christian faith, which was also Plato’s, that God is truth, that truth is divine” (GM24).
This death of God is a potential calamity. To kill God in this broader sense is not just to do away with the mythos of Christianity. In throwing out the bathwater called God, we are also casting out our epistemic certainty and the grounding of truth. We are losing solid ground and so we are threatened with the potentially devastating problems of nihilism and relativism. Without God, Nietzsche asks:
“Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us?” — The Gay Science §125
Looking around him in the age of Modernity, Nietzsche sees that this worry hasn’t really dawned on his contemporaries and he concludes that:
“Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars” (GS 125)
130 years on it is worth contemplating whether this disaster has reached us yet or whether Nietzsche’s analysis was mere alarmism. Perhaps it is still too early to say. In the past decade we have seen terms emerge like post-truth which has been defined as: “the disappearance of shared objective standards for truth”. In our warped intellectual landscape where the waters of the epistemic commons grow muddier every day it is worth reflecting on the warning of the madman.
Nietzsche’s true heirs in our time are the Postmodernist thinkers who have wrestled with the problems of relativism and the value of science and for this dancing with dangerous questions they and Postmodernism itself have become boogeyman used to scare the population.
On a closing note, it is worth noting that despite the great dangers of the situation, the “sequence of breakdown, destruction, ruin, and cataclysm that is now impending,” Nietzsche is optimistic:
“Indeed, we philosophers and "free spirits ... feel, when we hear the news that “the old god is dead,” as if a new dawn shone on us; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectation. At long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright; at long last our · ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an ‘open sea!’”
— The Gay Science §343