What Did Nietzsche Really Mean When He Wrote “God is Dead”?

nietzsche habits

The quote inspired an anx­ious 1966 Time mag­a­zine cov­er, and a preachy 2016 movie fran­chise that works hard to inoc­u­late the faith­ful against atheism’s threat­en­ing seduc­tions: “God is Dead,” wrote Friedrich Niet­zsche in his 1882 book of inci­sive apho­risms, The Gay Sci­ence, and unwit­ting­ly coined a phrase now insep­a­ra­ble from 20th cen­tu­ry cul­ture wars. Of course, Niet­zsche knew he was toss­ing a Molo­tov cock­tail into the fraught cul­ture wars of his own time, but he didn’t blow things up for the sheer plea­sure of it. Instead, his blunt asser­tion lay at the heart of what Niet­zsche saw as both a tremen­dous prob­lem and a nec­es­sary real­iza­tion.

To clar­i­fy, Niet­zsche nev­er meant to say that there had been some sort of god but that he had died in recent his­to­ry. “Rather,” writes Scot­ty Hen­dricks at Big Think, “that our idea of one had” been ren­dered a rel­ic of a pre-sci­en­tif­ic age. The philoso­pher, “an athe­ist for his adult life,” found no place for Chris­t­ian belief in a post-Enlight­en­ment world: “Europe no longer need­ed God as the source for all moral­i­ty, val­ue, or order in the uni­verse; phi­los­o­phy and sci­ence were capa­ble of doing that for us.” Accept­ing this brute fact can impose a heavy exis­ten­tial­ist bur­den, as well as a heavy philo­soph­i­cal and eth­i­cal one: the­o­log­i­cal think­ing is deeply embed­ded in West­ern phi­los­o­phy and lan­guage, or as Niet­zsche wrote, “I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in gram­mar.”

A com­mit­ted meta­phys­i­cal nat­u­ral­ist, Niet­zsche nonethe­less saw that just as he was haunt­ed by his strict reli­gious upbring­ing, unable to eas­i­ly rid him­self of the traces of the Chris­t­ian God, so too was Euro­pean civ­i­liza­tion haunt­ed, par­tic­u­lar­ly the bour­geois Ger­man soci­ety he often sav­aged. “God is dead; but giv­en the way peo­ple are, there may still for mil­len­nia be caves in which they show his shadow.—And we—we must still defeat his shad­ow as well!” The “shad­ow” of god trails our ideas about moral­i­ty. Fear­ing to give up reli­gious thought, we cling to it even in the absence of reli­gion. What is to take its place, we won­der, except for wide­spread, destruc­tive nihilism, a con­di­tion Niet­zsche feared inevitable?

Niet­zsche even saw sci­en­tif­ic dis­course as haunt­ed by ideas of divine agency. “Let us beware of say­ing that there are laws in nature,” he writes in The Gay Sci­ence, “There are only neces­si­ties: there is no one who com­mands, no one who obeys, no one who trans­gress­es. Once you know that there are no pur­pos­es, you also know that there is no acci­dent; for only against a world of pur­pos­es does the word ‘acci­dent’ have a mean­ing.” Far from pulling away the source of human mean­ing, how­ev­er, Niet­zsche seeks to lib­er­ate his read­ers from the idea that “death is opposed to life”—or that los­ing a cher­ished belief is a cat­a­stro­phe.

On the contrary—as philoso­pher Simon Critch­ley apt­ly para­phras­es in a brief video at Big Think— Niet­zsche  thought that belief in God made us “cring­ing, cow­ard­ly, sub­mis­sive crea­tures,” and pro­found­ly unfree. He believed we would con­tin­ue to be so until we accept­ed our place in nature—no easy feat in an age so steeped in god-think. “When will we be done with our cau­tion and care?” Niet­zsche won­dered, “When will all these shad­ows of god no longer dark­en us? When will we have com­plete­ly de-dei­fied nature? When will we begin to nat­u­ral­ize human­i­ty with a pure, new­ly dis­cov­ered, new­ly redeemed nature?”

For Niet­zsche, the mass of peo­ple may nev­er do so. He reserves his redemp­tion for “the kind of peo­ple who alone mat­ter; I mean the hero­ic.” Fail­ing to become heroes, ordi­nary peo­ple in moder­ni­ty are fat­ed to go the way of “the Last Man,” a fig­ure, writes Hen­dricks, “who lives a qui­et life of com­fort, with­out thought for indi­vid­u­al­i­ty or per­son­al growth.” A pas­sive con­sumer. We can read Nietzsche’s phi­los­o­phy as thor­ough­go­ing elit­ism, or as a call to the read­er to per­son­al hero­ism. Either way, the anx­i­ety he tapped into has per­sist­ed for 134 years, and shows lit­tle sign of abat­ing for many peo­ple. For oth­ers, the nonex­is­tence of a supreme being has no effect on their psy­cho­log­i­cal health.

For bil­lions of Daoists and Bud­dhists, for exam­ple, the prob­lem has nev­er exist­ed. Niet­zsche knew per­haps as much about East­ern reli­gion as his con­tem­po­raries, much of his knowl­edge taint­ed by Arthur Schopen­hauer’s pes­simistic take on Bud­dhism. “Com­pared to [Schopenhauer’s] world view,” writes Peter Abel­son, “which is very severe, Bud­dhism seems almost cheer­ful.” Niet­zsche could be equal­ly severe, often as a mat­ter of polemic, often as mat­ter of mood, some­times dis­miss­ing oth­er reli­gious sys­tems with only slight­ly less con­tempt than he did Chris­tian­i­ty. But he sums up one of his key athe­is­tic val­ues in a sup­posed quote from the Bud­dha: “Don’t flat­ter your bene­fac­tors! Repeat this say­ing in a Chris­t­ian church, and it will instant­ly clear the air of every­thing Chris­t­ian.” To live with­out belief in god, he sug­gests over and over, is to be ful­ly free from servi­tude, and ful­ly respon­si­ble for one­self.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Niet­zsche, Wittgen­stein & Sartre Explained with Mon­ty Python-Style Ani­ma­tions by The School of Life

Wal­ter Kaufmann’s Clas­sic Lec­tures on Niet­zsche, Kierkegaard and Sartre (1960)

The Dig­i­tal Niet­zsche: Down­load Nietzsche’s Major Works as Free eBooks

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (14)
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  • Greg says:

    Ah, no. This reads like an athe­ist man­i­festo, which is rad­i­cal­ly miss­ing the point of Niet­szche: the “death of God” was an exis­ten­tial trav­es­ty and the only path to over­com­ing that was to birth the Over­man. Specif­cal­ly: “To live with­out belief in god, he sug­gests over and over, is to be ful­ly free from servi­tude, and ful­ly respon­si­ble for one­self” is a wild mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion — rather it *could* be a path to great­ness through com­ing of the Over­man. Not sim­ply by unbe­lief, which he clear­ly thought was a kind of pro­found igno­rance and regres­sion. What­ev­er one makes of the Over­man, its clear his vision of the Last Men was prophet­ic.

    And while Niet­zsche saw the enor­mi­ty of Christ quite clear­ly and specif­i­cal­ly, the idea that Bud­dhism is some kind of com­pat­i­ble, non-the­is­tic reli­gion is rad­i­cal­ly off base: his cri­tique of Bud­dhism would almost cer­tain­ly have been quite sim­i­lar to his cri­tique of Chris­tian­i­ty.

  • Tufisi Radu says:

    Real­ly nice arti­cle ! I enjoyed read­ing it.
    Yes,Nietzche had his famous quote “God is dead!” and I’ve always wan­dered what he meant.Now I found a real­ly nice answear. Unfor­tu­natel­ly ‚I think that our world is far far away from accept­ing some of his beliefs.

  • Jimbo says:

    right on more posts explain­ing basic tenets of influ­en­tial thinkers: ex. what did Frued mean by the uncon­scious? what did Thore­au mean by self-reliance? more in the what did x mean by y for­mat por fa

  • MAK says:

    Check facts a lit­tle more. The Gay Sci­ence is not the book with “God is dead” sen­tence.
    It appeared in “Thus Spoke Zarathus­tra” ear­li­er thru the Zarathus­tra’s words after he descend­ed the moun­tain meet­ing the crowd: “And the still don’t know that God is dead?”

  • Josh Jones says:

    Hi MAK, I have a copy of The Gay Sci­ence right in front of me (you may wish to invest in one, or vis­it your local library). Indeed, the sen­tence appears in the book more than once. Yes, it also appears in Thus Spoke Zarathus­tra, which was pub­lished the fol­low­ing year, in 1883.

  • George Powell says:

    Niet­zsche led me to see that there is that of God in every­body. I had been an agnos­tic score that . His points are so much deep­er than just sci­ence knock­ing out the cul­tur­al God. Thus Spake Zarathus­tra, if under­stood in the gut as well as the head, makes this clear.

  • rainer says:

    “gott ist tot” ist kein satz, der die göt­ter bet­rifft, er bet­rifft den men­schen: “die wahrheit ist tot”… niet­zsche beschrieb ein (begin­nen­des) zeital­ter, in welchem er, der men­sch des 20. jahrhun­derts, den alten gott als ver­stor­ben (der begriff,die idee als über­lebt) erlebt, also den gottes­glauben als etwas vom men­schen notwendig erfun­denes begreift, sich ober­fläch­lich emanzip­iert und alles göt­tliche nurmehr belächelt, wie der erwach­sene die furcht des kindes über­he­blich mit augen­rollen begleit­et — aber in der tief­er­en struk­tur seines men­sch­seins noch längst nicht über die sehn­sucht nach ein­er uni­versellen wahrheit (für nichts anderes erfand der men­sch einst die göt­ter) hin­weg ist. wie der süchtige, der irgend­wann begreift, dass das objekt sein­er sucht nur täuschung und verder­ben und auswe­ichen ist, damit aber noch weit davon ent­fer­nt ist, dieses ver­lan­gen nicht mehr zu ver­spüren und ihm zu erliegen, es zu begehren! für manche wurde die wis­senschaft der ersatz für jenes unter­schwellige sehnen nach einem ulti­ma­tiv­en gesetz, für andere, intellek­tuell unberührte, der weltlich zele­bri­erte hedo­nis­mus und kult der film/pop-stars! und für die gle­ichzeit­ig dum­men und wüten­den blieb der trost und gebor­gen­heit ver­sprechende pfad in der schleim­spur ide­al­is­tis­ch­er fanatik­er weltlich­er meta­physik… ange­fan­gen bei hitler — über stal­in und dieter bohlen- hin zu don­ald trump — je ein­fach­er die ver­sproch­ene wahrheit, desto beque­mer der weg zum ver­sproch­enen heil — je schwäch­er und erbärm­lich­er das eigene selb­st, desto ein­fach­er und grausamer die erbet­telte erlö­sung…

  • Bill W. says:

    Niet­zsche is dead.–God

  • Joe says:

    You might want to read the last para­graph a lit­tle clos­er, par­tic­u­lar­ly the third to last sen­tence. Your last para­graph in your com­ment *rad­i­cal­ly* miss­es the author’s point.

  • LoedPatrick says:

    I have always enjoyed and often repeat­ed his say­ings.…. how­ev­er, you take on his beliefs con­vince me he was wrong, as with most reli­gions and such, I choose to find that gold­en thread of truth that flows through them all, dis­card the pol­i­tics and finance, and then extract the real stuff.…. I will still quote him, but not in this way.… how­ev­er, your arti­cle is well writ­ten and thought provoca­tive, well done sir, bra­vo.… unless one tru­ly “thinks” and chal­lenges belief, you can­not find the the truth… and ONLY the TRUTH can set You FREE :)

  • Jacob says:

    i don’t get it

  • MDK says:

    I think this short arti­cle is a more rea­son­able inter­pre­ta­tion of Niet­zsche’s intent. https://www.christianity.com/wiki/god/where-did-the-phrase-god-is-dead-come-from.html

    Basi­cal­ly, Niet­zsche did­n’t believe in god, but he knew that soci­ety need­ed a belief in god.

    Check it out.

  • JJay says:

    MDK: Thanks for the link. It’s like the East­er island stone stat­ues — there’s some­thing below those heads but nobody knew til they fol­lowed up. I appre­ci­ate being able to go deep­er in read­ing the rest of the “God is Dead” quote by Niet­zsche.

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