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 (13)
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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.

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