What Nietzsche Meant When He Said ‘God Is Dead’

Not that long ago, atheists were haunted by regret. Even as they denied God’s existence, they recognized that a world with God would be better than one without. Still, they found various arguments and evidence against God’s existence convincing—such as the problem of evil and the apparent ability of the natural sciences to account for the universe. As God came to be viewed as irrelevant for the cosmos, many found it difficult to reconcile his presence with evil and suffering. But as far as most atheists were concerned, that was unfortunate. By their own reckoning, they came to unbelief reluctantly.

Not so, however, with the so-called “New Atheists”—men like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. These brave thinkers see God’s alleged non-existence not as a cause for regret but as an occasion for rejoicing. Even so, their enthusiasm and accompanying vitriolic attacks on religious belief find precedent in the past, particularly in the writings of 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

Starting Point, Not Destination 

Despite the movement’s widespread appeal, New Atheism’s most interesting characteristics—its evangelistic fervor and militant rhetoric—don’t originate with Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. In fact, the only thing unprecedented in their writings is the weakness of their case. As careful readers will discern, cogent arguments and impressive evidence are not the stuff of which Dawkins’s God Delusion, Hitchens’s God Is Not Great, or Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation are made. On the contrary, their arguments are surprisingly anemic. If you’re looking for reasons to take the New Atheists’ views seriously, you’ll find their writings wanting.

Now, this doesn’t mean Nietzsche provides better arguments for his unbelief; he does nothing of the sort. Unlike Dawkins and company, he sees no need to do so. Nietzsche sees atheism not as a conclusion to be demonstrated, but an axiom to be exploited. In other words, he argues not for atheism but rather from it; unbelief is his starting point, not his destination. When he famously proclaims God’s death, for example, he does so not because he has shown—or even attempted to show—that God doesn’t exist. Rather, he takes the point for granted since, in his view, late 19th-century sophisticates like himself can no longer take belief in God seriously. Such belief, he claims, “has become unbelievable.”

Joyful Knowledge

Nietzsche makes this claim in The Gay Science, whose title deserves notice. Here, “gay” carries not the sense it’s acquired over the last 50 years, but rather the traditional sense of “joyful.” Moreover, the term “science” derives from scientia, a Latin term for “knowledge.” So Gay Science refers to “joyful knowledge”—a kind of knowledge that brings joy to the knower. From Nietzsche’s perspective, the joyful knowledge is the knowledge God has died.

In proclaiming God’s death, Nietzsche doesn’t mean to be taken literally. On his view, God never existed in the first place, so talk of his “death” is more about humanity than divinity. We humans, Nietzsche surmises, have found God’s existence both indefensible and undesirable. He therefore asserts rather than establishes the indefensibility of belief in God, even as he explains its undesirability.

And why is belief in God undesirable? Because God’s death frees us to become gods ourselves.

God Doesn’t Die Alone

To put the point plainly, God doesn’t die alone. When he dies, meaning, morality, and reason die with him.

First, if God does not exist, life has no meaning. Where there is no author, the story has no point; indeed, where there is no author, there can be no story. Moreover, if God does not exist, morality turns out to be illusory, and moral judgment becomes mere interpretation, corresponding to nothing more than personal taste.

Second, Nietzsche illustrates the fictive nature of morality by inviting us to consider predatory birds and the sheep on whom they prey. When birds feed on sheep, what they do is neither morally bad nor good. The birds simply act according to their nature; morality is irrelevant.

So while the sheep’s “condemnation” of the birds surprises no one—except, perhaps, the birds—their judgment corresponds not to some moral fact but to their understandable preference to not become birdfeed. Of course, as Nietzsche points out, the birds see the situation differently. But in neither case do moral categories apply—and as it goes for birds and sheep, so it goes for us as well. Moral judgments express our personal preferences; they don’t refer to objective realities.

Finally, God’s death reveals the impotence of reason. When it comes to human origins, unguided evolutionary processes are the only game in the atheist’s town. Since evolution selects for survival, the intellectual faculties arising from such processes would be well adapted to survive. But, as Nietzsche argues, there is no necessary connection between survival and truth; for all we know, he points out, a purely naturalistic universe would be one in which knowledge of the truth would impede rather than aid survival. By his own lights, then, the atheist has no reason to trust his own reason.

Liberated Into Slavery

For Nietzsche, God’s death entails the end of meaning, morality, and reason—which means he sees the implications of his unbelief more clearly than do other atheists of his day such as Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. Remarkably, though, Nietzsche views these implications as liberating rather than debilitating. Neither God, meaning, morality, nor reason constrains us, he cheers. We are free to live as we please, to make of our lives what it pleases us to make of them.

Only in this radically man-centered way does Nietzsche affirm life—and in so doing, he scratches itching ears. But, of course, Nietzsche’s way leads not to blessing, comfort, and life but to woe, pain, and death. May God give our friends and neighbors eyes to see this truth.