05 March 2009

Philosophy Quotations Explained: "God is Dead"

After Buddha was dead, his shadow was still shown for centuries in a cave—a tremendous, gruesome shadow. God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown.— And we—we still have to vanquish his shadow, too!
- Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Book III

God is dead. - Nietzsche
Nietzsche is dead. - God
- Bumper Sticker

This is one of the best-known of Nietzsche's aphorisms, and is one of the strongest statements of atheism in history. Nietzsche's contempt for religion is infamous, and this is simply the most pithy among many atheistic statements he made in his writings.

But pronouncing the death of God seems like a contradictory way to assert atheism. After all, if God is dead, that means that he used to be alive, doesn't it? And therefore Nietzsche seems to be shooting himself in the foot - in declaring God's death, isn't he implicitly acknowledging God's existence?

It's this mistaken reading that's reflected in the bumper sticker above. (Although Nietzsche himself probably would have gotten a kick out of that joke, he probably would have retorted with something like, "How convenient to believe in someone who doesn't exist - you can put whatever words in his mouth you like!")

The problem with the popular interpretation of "God is dead" is that it takes Nietzsche's aggressive rhetoric literally. Nietzsche is as famous for his rhetorical flourishes as he is for his atheism, and although this makes him enormous fun to read, it also can lead to misunderstandings like this.

By "God is dead," Nietzsche means to call attention to a cultural fact: that like the gods of ancient Greece, the Judeo-Christian God has lost his ethical power and philosophical importance. Since the Enlightenment, science has replaced religion as the only responsible way to explain worldly phenomena, and ethical systems have become less and less dependent on religious imperatives. Although Nietzsche criticized the Enlightenment values too, he was firm in asserting that the vestigial worldviews of religion are an obstruction to personal, intellectual, and cultural growth.

In another section of the Gay Science, Nietzsche tells the story of a madman who proclaims that "God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him!" We have killed God, because we have rejected - or perhaps outgrown - the worldview into which God and religion fit. Now that God is dead, our challenge is to replace him with a worldly, human ideal, and to supplant religion's conventional morality with a new, personal ethic that makes no claim to objectivity.

So "God is dead" should be understood as a powerful metaphor, not a literal claim about theological mortality. And although Nietzsche is physically dead, it's he who has the last laugh: in the world of ideas, he remains as relevant as ever.

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