Nietzsche's Atheism

Dr William Large

It would be impossible for us to cover the whole of Nietzsche's work in this lecture, and therefore we shall only concentrate on one part of it: the critique of Christian values. Such limitation has its disadvantages, as it might have the consequence of reducing Nietzsche to a caricature of his own self: Nietzsche as the rabid anti-Christian, who was incapable of producing a systematic philosophy. It does, however, also have an advantage for us in that this element of Nietzsche's work is perhaps the most relevant to the conjunction of theology and philosophy, which in this case is the raison d’être of our department, and also of some relevance to those who are attending this lecture, many of whom, I think, would profess themselves to be Christians.

Nietzsche is not easy. On the surface he appears to be so, since he writes, unlike most philosophers, well, and he does not have the tendency to express his thought in abstract and long-winded sentences, whose meaning has been quite lost by the time one has reached the end. But this easiness of style is what is most dangerous about Nietzsche. Since, at least first time around, he is so easy to read, one can take him too much at face value - one can miss the irony, the style, the exaggeration. It is only as one reads Nietzsche more that one sees how complicated and intricate his thinking is, and moreover how contradictory it is.

One of the most absurd misunderstandings about Nietzsche is that he is a anti-Semite and a philosopher of the Nazis. There are numerous passages in Nietzsche's work which show that he was more disgusted by the Germans than he was by the Jews. This does not mean that Nietzsche did not say critical things about Judaism. But being critical in this sense, is not immediately, so it seems to me, to be anti-Semitic in the way that this word is used to today: a blind hatred of other races simply because they are different from oneself.  This for Nietzsche, as we shall see, is that which he most despises, and which he calls slave morality.

Let us begin trying to think Nietzsche's attack on Christianity as it is presented in the Anti-Christ. These are Nietzsche's words at the end of the book:

I condemn Christianity, I bring against the Christian Church the most terrible charge any prosecutor has ever uttered. To me it is the extremest thinkable form of corruption, it has had the will to the ultimate corruption conceivably possible. The Christian Church has left nothing untouched by its depravity, it has made of every value a disvalue, of every truth a lie, of every kind of integrity a vileness of the soul. 
This condemnation sounds too strong in our ears. How could something like the Christian Church be such a terrible thing to have happened to the human species? Some of us might think that the past of the Christian Church is nothing to boast about, or that in modern times, with the development of science and a liberal morality, that the Christian Church has largely become irrelevant, but who of us would charge it with such a crime of having corrupted the human race? This is the stake of Nietzsche's interpretation. For Nietzsche, the Christian Church is not a relative untruth, but an absolute one and thus there is nothing at all worth preserving in the Christian tradition, if this tradition is understood as the tradition of Church.

The first thing that one must remark about this condemnation of the Christian Church is that it is value critique of Christianity. I wish to make a distinction between two different kinds of atheism. This distinction, I think, will help us to think about the meaning of atheism as a whole. The more traditional kind of atheism is the one that one finds taught in the philosophy of religion. Such an approach either tries to prove logically, or by using the methods of science, that the God does not exist, in the same way that one might try to disprove that a table does not exist.  This approach is quite wrong, if one accepts Kant's argument that God is not something that can be an object of possible experience, and therefore cannot be known. If it cannot be known, then the category of existence or non-existence cannot be attached to it. Of course this limitation is as true for the believer as it is for the atheist; for she cannot prove the existence of God either. Thus both the believer and the unbeliever are left with faith; one believing in the God and the other choosing not to do so.  Nietzsche would argue that the only possible reaction to this interminable, but in the end futile debate about whether God exists or not, or  the only serious philosophical reaction, is indifference.

Not that Kant himself give up any hope in showing the necessity of at least the idea of God in the postulates of practical reason. Rather than being a necessary existence, as in the ontological proof, God becomes a moral necessity. Quite crudely, Kant's argument is that one can not conceive of a moral system without postulating at least the subjective existence of God. I want to argue that Nietzsche's atheism quite naturally develops from the moral idea of God, and this atheism is of a very different kind that what I shall call the metaphysical atheism.  As we have said, Nietzsche is quite indifferent as to whether God exists in the abstract or not, that is to say whether one can philosophically disprove, by induction or deduction, the existence of God, rather he is interested in the value of the God which is believed in by a people, what kind of vision of the world  this moral idea of God portrays, and what kind of psychological type the believer is who has such and such a conception of God. Nietzsche’s attack upon Christianity is not whether God in the abstract exists or not, but what kind of value the particularly Christian God expresses, and thus what kind of vision of life it expresses. 

Nietzsche's argument is that the moral ideal that the Christian God expresses is the most degenerate and debased form of value, and thus expresses an extreme distortion of the reality, and its believers the lowest kind of psychological type.  In metaphysical atheism, we conceive of God as a being whose existence we might disprove, whereas in moral atheism we conceive of God as the crystallisation of social values at a given place and time.

The question is what allows Nietzsche to determine the difference between values? Why is one form of life better than another and why is the Christian form of life the most degenerate? One must understand that this is not a moral question for Nietzsche, but one of psychology and the psychology of unconscious processes which Nietzsche calls instincts. Morality is a product of these instincts rather than their cause. Morality begins with the assumption that ideals and values themselves are all that is needed to understand a form of live, rather than hidden and subterranean impulses which preserve it. In this emphasis on unconscious processes as opposed to the conscious ones Nietzsche is an important precursor to Freud. This means that Nietzsche does not attempt to confront the morality with a morality of his own, with another system of ideals and laws, but to thrown light upon the origins of our morality to shown their amoral origins, which is the will to power. This first of all appears merely as a negative critique, whose purpose is to demonstrate the impossibility of morality altogether, Nietzsche's or anyone else’s. But the difference between moralities or values becomes transposed to an different level, to a deeper one, which I would like to call "ways of life", which again are not directly products of the conscious, but have their source in the instincts. The opposition between Dionysius and the Crucified, which is one way that Nietzsche describes the whole of his work,  is not an opposition between a morality and another morality, or a morality and immorality, but an opposition between two difference forms of life and the instincts that they express, which only secondarily reveal themselves as one set of values opposed to another.

For Nietzsche there are only two fundamental basic instincts: reactive and active. He gives the most thorough investigation of these two forces in The Genealogy of Morals.  Reactive forces, as the words suggests only have their existence through an opposition to another force which it rejects. Reactive forces, Nietzsche says, are always a no-saying. It might be better to understand this relation in terms of political or social model; that is to say in terms of the relation between groups.  A reactive group is a group in which only obtains a feeling of power through hating another group and who only gains its values through this negation.  Everything that we do is good, whereas what they do is bad. Active forces, on the contrary are self-affirming; they have their values from the beginning, and do not obtain them through hatred of those that are different from them

It’s Nietzsche’s argument that Christianity has its source in essentially reactive unconscious processes. These unconscious processes manifest themselves in what Nietzsche calls ressentiment.  What is ressentiment? A hatred at many different levels. A hatred first of all of life, of nature; that life itself can not be good enough, so that we have to invent a world beyond this world which is better, more perfect. A hatred of oneself as a natural being, that is a hatred of one's instincts and desire to the point of self loathing - thus the invention of the soul, which is pure and holy, as opposed to the body with is sinful and disgusting. Finally, because of all these, a hatred of others, those who do not hate life and themselves, whom Nietzsche calls ‘noble spirits’. Thus, the invention of morality in which one distinguishes the sheep from the goats, the saved from the damned.
If one examines Christianity as a historical object, then it is the triumph of reactive forces, because it is the result of a reaction to an existing force, or ‘way of life’; Christianity is essentially negative. What is it that there was in the first place against which Christianity reacted? What is most natural, most real and most actual - Christianity is the negation of all of this.  It says no to life, inventing fictions and superstitions, so as to legitimate its hatred of reality.

The triumph of Christianity is also the triumph of certain psychological type and its will to power. Nietzsche is insistent that behind the ‘good’ words of the Church, there is the will to power of a certain form of life; the ‘priest’. The definition of the priestly type is one who turns their back upon reality. The archetype of this kind of type for Nietzsche is Paul. What really motivated Paul is power over others, and the only way that one can have power over others is to turn them into a herd; one makes thinking a sin; uniqueness, individuality itself as something sinful.

For Nietzsche, however, it is important to make distinction between Christianity and Christ. Christ and the Church are antithetical - whereas the Church seeks power and creates ‘followers’ through fictions and superstitions, Christ has no desire for power at all. His world is the inner world. Moreover, his language is the symbolic representation this inner world. The Christians mistook the symbols for fact; They thought there really was a kingdom of God not realising that the kingdom of God was themselves. They took Christ too literally. And rather than being a form of life based on hatred and judgement of others, he was a free spirit.  Being such a free spirit meant that his psyche was free of any opposition or conflict, and thus he abolished the necessity of sin and guilt. But we should not let Nietzsche’s admiration for Christ mislead us, for one can admire one’s enemy, and perhaps him above all, even when one disagrees with the utterly.  For Nietzsche was not slow to call Jesus an ‘Idiot’, though we should be careful again here of not thinking that this was simply an insult.  What differentiates finally Nietzsche from Jesus?  The love of knowledge.  The philosopher’s curse.

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