38  The Death of God



After the Deists reduced God to an impersonal force, it was only a small step to get rid of the concept altogether. As a result, the 17th century also saw the rise of the first outspoken atheists. At the time, however, this viewpoint still lacked credibility since there was no way to explain the formation of life. How can complex organisms form without the existence of an intelligent creator? This question was finally answered in the 19th century when Darwin discovered the theory of evolution.

Although the scientific dispute was eventually settled, the consequences of the disappearance of God had yet to be explored. In one of his short passages, Nietzsche described a madman running into a marketplace, announcing the death of God, accusing mankind of having killed him, and warning the people of its implications for mankind.


The first true atheists

As we have read in an earlier chapter, a number of prominent Greek and Roman philosophers had critiqued established religion, but since atheism was considered a crime in those days, we have no first-hand evidence of anyone calling himself an atheist. Instead, this label was given to them by their critics. The same was true for a small minority of scholars from the Islamic Golden Age. The Middle Ages stayed almost completely quiet on the issue, and although Renaissance writers heavily criticized religious institutions, they did not question the existence of God.

So, what did the ancients consider so dangerous about atheism? First of all, they assumed that the prosperity and survival of the state was predicated on the support of the gods. If enough people denied their existence, they claimed, this favor would be withdrawn. On top of this, it was believed that the watchful eyes of the gods kept the people in check. Especially the Christians would make the case that without God, most humans would slide off into a state of moral corruption, with many people resorting to theft, rape, and murder.

The real birth of atheism had to wait until the 17th century. Pierre Bayle (1647–1706), an exile from France who took shelter in the Netherlands, although not himself an atheist, was the first to claim that atheists could, in principle, be more virtuous than Christians and that a society of atheists would not necessarily lead to moral corruption. One of the first true atheists was the Catholic priest Jean Meslier (1664–1729), who had kept his beliefs a secret, but wrote them down in his Testament, which was released after his death. The original title of the manuscript reads as follows:

Jean Meslier, Parish Priest of Etrepigny and Balaives on the Errors and Abuses of the Conduct and Government of Men Wherein We Can See Clear and Evident Proofs of the Vanity and Falsity of All the Divinities and of All the Religions of the World to Be Addressed to His Parishioners after His Death and to Serve as a Witness of Truth to Them and Their Fellow Men. [135]

In this work, Meslier strongly denounced the church as a complete fraud. He described the priests as corrupt liars who sold ludicrous and immoral ideas to a credulous people. He also considered the Bible to be so full of nonsense that only a fool would believe it, and he rejected the concept of God, the soul, miracles, and even the entire discipline of theology.

By the 1770s, various Western nations grew more tolerant of atheism, allowing some of them to come out in public. The first two people to openly call themselves atheists were Baron d’Holbach (1723–1789) and Denis Diderot (1713–1784). Both were influential thinkers who helped make atheism a respectable position. D’Holbach famously owned a salon, one of the coffee houses in Paris where new Enlightenment ideas were discussed, which attracted great thinkers such as David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, and Benjamin Franklin. When Hume came to the salon, he told d’Holbach he had never met an atheist and did not believe they even existed, after which d’Holbach pointed to the eighteen people present and replied: “Monsieur, count how many of us are here. […] It is a good start to be able to show you fifteen straight away. The other three haven’t yet made up their minds.” [38]

Diderot is most famous for publishing his Encyclopedie, which he wrote with many famous contributors, including VoltaireRousseau, and Montesquieu. The goal of the Encyclopedie was nothing less than compiling all of the knowledge in the world.

Diderot’s views on religion were remarkably modern. He claimed that religious scientists were intellectually dishonest. For instance, Newton had made a big fuss about “feigning no hypothesis,” but he did accept the existence of God without evidence. If he would have stayed true to his principles, Diderot claimed, Newton would have inevitably ended up an atheist.

Yet atheism, at the time, still had one big intellectual problem. Although science was able to explain the motion of the planets, it was still inconceivable how a world without a god could produce conscious lifeforms. Most thinkers considered it absurd to believe that life could be created by materialistic actions alone. Diderot, however, was willing to take the leap:

Just as in the animal and plant kingdoms an individual begins, grows, endures, perishes, and passes away, could it not be likewise with entire species? [What if the] elements happened to unite, since it was possible for this to happen; that the embryo formed from these elements passed through an infinity of organizations and developments; that it acquired in succession movement, sensation, ideas, thought, reflection, consciousness, feelings, passions, signs, gestures, articulate sounds, language, laws, sciences, and arts; that millions of years passed between these developments? [136]

Another important atheist of the time was Julien de La Mettrie (1708–1751), who wrote The Human Machine. While Descartes had claimed that the body was mechanically operated by muscles and sinews, he still believed that the soul existed separate from the body. In contrast, La Mettrie made the case that the mind was also part of human biology. This idea was deemed problematic, as it made man a soulless animal guided by the blind laws of nature. As a result, the book was banned and burned across Europe, even in the otherwise tolerant Netherlands. His publisher, Elie Luzac (1721–1796), a Frenchman who had moved to the Netherlands, loathed atheism, but nevertheless supported the publication, believing bad ideas should be countered in open debate. He developed this ideal in his Essay on Freedom of Expression, in which he wrote that he could not fully believe in something (for instance the existence of God) without seeing the arguments of his opponents and coming up with sufficient rebuttals. Yet this can never happen “as long as we prevent atheists, freethinkers, and others of that ilk from writing them down.” [38]

In the 19th century, more and more influential thinkers began to attack religion. Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872) made the case that religion was a psychological delusion as it required people to accept endless logical inconsistencies. In his view, humanity had brought the notion of God into being as a means to comfort itself with promises of divine justice and heaven. As a result, religion teaches us more about human desires than about the creator of the universe. Feuerbach thus concluded that theology should be regarded as a branch of anthropology. He wrote:

What religion earlier took to be objective, is later recognized to be subjective; what formerly was taken to be God, and worshipped as such, is now recognized to be something human. [137]

Feuerbach then added that religious people seem blissfully unaware of this fact, believing their fantasies to exist independently of themselves—“In fact, the absence of such awareness is the distinctive mark of religion.”

As time went by, Feuerbach claimed, humanity even became oppressed by its own invention. By attributing to God the highest attributes of humanity, religious people made themselves worthless and sinful. We read:

To enrich God, man must become poor; that God may be all, man must be nothing. [138]

August Comte (1798–1857) sketched history as a natural progression towards atheism. He argued that human development inevitably had to pass through three distinct stages: the theological, the metaphysical, and the scientific. In the first phase, it was perfectly legitimate to explain the world with the interventions of spirits and gods. During this stage, mankind slowly moved from animism to polytheism and finally to monotheism. In the second phase, the personal gods transformed into metaphysical abstractions, as happened with Deism during the Enlightenment. In the scientific phase, humanity was finally ready to let the notion of God go and instead relied solely on reason and evidence to explain the world.

Karl Marx (1818–1883) saw the idea of God as a human attempt to cope with the harshness of life by creating a utopic dream world. As a result, Marx predicted that religion would disappear when the economic circumstances of the people improved (this happened to a large extent in Europe, but to a much lesser extent in the United States). Marx also noticed how religion was used by the elites to intoxicate the masses, feeding them a narrative that made them accept their place in the lower class, thereby rendering them incapable of realizing they were being exploited. In his own words:

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. [139]

According to Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), the origins of religion lay not in society but in the unconscious. In agreement with Feuerbach, he claimed that religious ideas were “illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind.” He claimed that these illusions arise from within the unconscious as it seeks to fulfill its deepest yearnings and longings, which he called wish fulfillment. He wrote:

We shall tell ourselves that it would be very nice if there were a God who created the world and was a benevolent Providence, and if there were a moral order in the universe and an afterlife; but it is a very striking fact that all this is exactly as we are bound to wish it to be. [140]

Freud agreed with Comte that mankind had to transition in steps from religion to atheism, but he added that every individual also has to go through this process during his upbringing. According to Freud, children see their father figure both as a source of protection and as a rule-giver. As children grow up, they are expected to internalize both roles by creating what Freud called a superego, which acts as our moral compass. Those who miss out on this transition, Freud claimed, retain their infantile wish for a protective father figure, which they satisfy by holding on to the concept of God. He wrote:

It has shown us that a personal God is, psychologically, nothing other than an exalted father, and it brings us evidence every day of how young people lose their religious beliefs as soon as their father’s authority breaks down. Thus, we recognize that the roots of the need for religion are in the parental complex. [141]


Fig. 123 – Sigmund Freud, by Max Halberstadt (c. 1921)

Fig. 124 – Charles Darwin, by Leonard Darwin (1884)

Darwin and the theory of evolution

By far, the most important challenge to religion came from Charles Darwin (1809–1882). Before Darwin, it was widely believed that the creation of life required an intelligent designer. This case was made best by William Paley (1743–1805), who claimed that every aspect of the natural world seemed to have been designed for a specific purpose. This was particularly seen in the organs of the body, all of which perform specific functions. Paley also famously compared the human body to a watch. How could anyone look at a watch, with its complex system of interlocking wheels, springs, and other moving parts, and fail to see that it had been deliberately designed with a specific purpose in mind? We read:

[It] is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker—that there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer, who comprehended its construction and designed its use. [142]

Only a madman, Paley claimed, would suggest that such complex mechanical technology could come into being by purposeless chance. Many thinkers of the time regarded these arguments as irrefutable, and even Darwin himself claimed to have been “charmed and convinced by the long line of argumentation.” [143]

But then, in the 19th century, the fossil record began to show conclusively that species change over time. In the early 19th century, William Smith (1769–1839) and Georges Cuvier (1769–1832) independently discovered that rocks of different ages preserved different fossils and that these layers succeeded each other in a regular order, with the newer rocks containing more advanced species, a principle called faunal succession.

In his Principles of Geology (1830), Sir Charles Lyell (1797–1875) made a convincing case that layered sedimentary rocks must have been formed over hundreds of millions of years, much older than the Biblical date of creation, which according to the genealogy of the Bible had occurred around 6000 years ago.

In 1844, Robert Chambers (1802–1871) pulled many of these theories together in his Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, in which he presented the universe as forming from a gaseous cloud, which coalesced into planets, on which small life forms came to exist which eventually formed into apes and humans. However, Chambers still lacked a mechanism to explain how these changes came about.

This all changed in 1831, when Darwin made a five-year-long voyage around the world on the HMS Beagle. While touring the Galapagos Islands, he discovered that the same species of bird on different islands had slightly different characteristics (see Fig. 125), from which he concluded they had physically adapted to their different environments. From these types of observations, he managed to deduce the mechanism behind evolution, which he wrote down in 1844 but kept unpublished.

Fig. 125 – Darwin’s finches in his Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries Visited During the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle Round the World (1845)

He finally made the theory public in 1859 with his famous book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, which had as its subtitle: The Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. In the book he argued that predation, starvation, and many other factors in nature put continuous stress on life forms, causing only the most adaptable species to survive, which he named the law of natural selection. Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) became the first to summarize the mechanism as “survival of the fittest,” which Darwin added in a later edition of his book. Over millions of years, this process had weeded out species with unhelpful attributes while allowing the successful species to procreate.

Darwin also recognized a second mechanism. Natural selection could not explain some extravagant features in nature, such as peacock feathers, which are obviously unhelpful when trying to escape from a predator. Instead, these features can be explained by sexual selection. The females in many species have evolved sophisticated ways to select males with desirable traits. The fact that a particular peacock can survive with such burdensome feathers must mean it is in good health, improving the quality of her offspring. 

These two processes combined, and played out over millions of years, could explain the apparent purpose in nature that Paley had spoken of. Darwin remarked:

The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. [144]

Darwin also presented vestigial structures as evidence for evolution, which are anatomical features that have lost their function over time. For instance, some birds have wings that are too small to fly with and humans still have tailbones. Today, we also know that the human embryo has a tail and gill slits in its early phases of development, which we’ve inherited from our days in the water.

Since it was still a touchy subject, Darwin mostly avoided the implications of his theory for human evolution in On the Origin of Species. He only remarked that the theory would throw light on “the origin of man and his history.” He did address the topic in his 1871 book The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. In this book, he also referred to a Neanderthal skeleton, which had been discovered in 1857.

Since Darwin, many more remarkable discoveries have been made that further confirm his theory. For instance, many of the so-called “missing links” have since been discovered. Species such as Tiktaalik and Ichthyostega—who have both lungs and gills—form the link between fish and amphibians. The Archaeopteryx represents a link between dinosaurs and birds, the therapsids between reptiles and mammals, and Australopithecus, Homo erectus, Homo habilis, and Homo neanderthalensis between the great apes and ourselves.

In the 20th century, scientists also discovered how to use naturally occurring radioactive elements to date fossils. With this method, a family tree of species has been constructed that extends four billion years back in time. Another revolutionary discovery was the discovery of DNA and the mechanism whereby genes determine hereditary traits. Mutation of these genes turned out to be yet another factor allowing new variations of species to develop. By comparing the number of mutations in different species, it is now also possible to determine the time when these species evolved from a common ancestor. This method resulted in exactly the same family tree of species that was earlier obtained through the radioactive dating of the fossil record, conclusively proving Darwin’s theory.


Science versus religion

With Darwin’s discovery taking root, the idea arose that science and religion were at war. This was a remarkable shift, as a generation earlier, scientists had still interpreted their discoveries of natural laws as a vindication of God’s existence. Now, the scientific community began to see religion as the antithesis of science. Whereas scientists accept knowledge based on reason and evidence, they now claimed, religious faith—by definition—is about believing without evidence or even believing in the face of contradictory evidence. Exemplary of this war was a debate at Oxford in 1860 between Thomas Huxley (1825–1895), who called himself “Darwin’s watchdog,” and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce (1805–1873). It is said (although accounts differ) that the bishop sarcastically asked Huxley if it was through his grandmother or his grandfather that he was descended from an ape. In return, Huxley responded that he would rather be descended from an ape than from a bishop who prostituted the gifts of culture and eloquence in the service of falsehood.

Because science was methodically destroying one religious dogma after another, it was clear to many scientists that science was winning the war. In the words of Huxley:

Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science as the strangled snakes beside that of Hercules; and history records that wherever science and orthodoxy have been fairly opposed, the latter has been forced to retire from the lists, bleeding and crushed if not annihilated; scotched if not slain. [145]

Or in the words of the American writer Robert Ingersoll (1833–1899):

This century will be called Darwin’s century. He was one of the greatest men who ever touched this globe. He has explained more of the phenomena of life than all of the religious teachers. […] His doctrine of evolution, his doctrine of the survival of the fittest, his doctrine of the origin of species, has removed in every thinking mind the last vestige of orthodox Christianity. He has not only stated, but he has demonstrated, that the inspired writer knew nothing of this world, nothing of the origin of man, nothing of geology, nothing of astronomy, nothing of nature; that the Bible is a book written by ignorance—at the instigation of fear.

[...] The church teaches that man was created perfect, and that for six thousand years he has degenerated. Darwin demonstrated the falsity of this dogma. He shows that man has for thousands of ages steadily advanced; that the Garden of Eden is an ignorant myth; that the doctrine of original sin has no foundation in fact; that the atonement is an absurdity; that the serpent did not tempt, and that man did not “fall.”

Charles Darwin destroyed the foundation of orthodox Christianity. There is nothing left but faith in what we know could not and did not happen. Religion and science are enemies. One is a superstition; the other is a fact. One rests upon the false, the other upon the true. One is the result of fear and faith, the other of investigation and reason. [146]

Yet even Darwin, Huxley, and Ingersoll weren’t all-out atheists. Instead, they took the agnostic position. The term was coined by Huxley in 1869. He described it as follows:

I invented the word “Agnostic” to denote people who, like myself, confess themselves to be hopelessly ignorant concerning a variety of matters, about which metaphysicians and theologians, both orthodox and heterodox, dogmatize with utmost confidence. [147]

Yet others claimed that the agnostic position was too generous to the religious position. While scientists had generated a wealth of evidence for the materialistic functioning of the universe, theologians still hadn’t produced any evidence for divine intervention. This disparity, they claimed, placed the burden of proof on the religious. A modern version of this argument was made by physicist Bobby Henderson (born 1980). In response to an attempt to teach intelligent design in American schools, he created a divine being called the Flying Spaghetti Monster to show the ludicrousness of their demands. He wrote:

I think we can all look forward to the time when these three theories are given equal time in our science classrooms across the country, and eventually the world; one third time for Intelligent Design, one third time for Flying Spaghetti Monsterism, and one third time for logical conjecture based on overwhelming observable evidence. [148]

Henderson stated that his “belief” in the Flying Spaghetti Monster was no more rational than a belief in God. A believer could correctly claim there is no evidence to disprove the existence of God, but the same case can be made about the Flying Spaghetti Monster or any other imaginary being.

Since the time of Darwin, religion has largely disappeared from public life in the West, yet even in the 21st century, atheism remains a minority confession in the world. Among scientists, atheism is much more common, but not as common as you might imagine. In the United States, for instance, about 40% of scientists still hold active religious beliefs, and this number has not declined for over a century. The religious views of scientists, however, are generally more rational than those of the general population. For instance, biblical literalism is very rare among scientists, and 97% of scientists believe that mankind has evolved over time, with 87% believing this happened without any divine guidance.


The Brothers Karamazov

The Christian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–1881) investigated the negative consequences of the atheistic worldview. In his masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov, he let a discussion play out between a fierce atheist intellectual named Ivan and his brother, a mild and somewhat naive Christian named Alyosha. Ivan challenged Alyosha to explain how someone could believe in God while there was so much injustice in the world and with all the contradictions in Christianity. To further sharpen his argument, he asked his brother to imagine a shocking scene in which a child accidentally bruises the leg of a general’s favorite dog, after which the general sends a pack of dogs after the child, which tear him to pieces in front of his mother. This kind of brutality is not unheard of in the world. Why would God create a world in which such events occur? And how can we claim that God is good and just in the face of these events? He then continued:

Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature, that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance, […] would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth. [149]

Alyosha had to agree that he would not. Ivan continued:

And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket. [149]


Fig. 126 – Fyodor Dostoyevsky by Vasili Perov (1872) (Tretyakov Gallery).

Fig. 127 – Friedrich Nietzsche by Gustav Schultze (1882)

Although Alyosha shared Ivan’s doubts and accepted the validity of his arguments, Dostoyevsky still sided with Alyosha. He still preferred the soft and sensitive character of Alyosha and his faith in Christ-like love over Ivan’s harsh rational denouncement of God. In a famous letter, he wrote:

If someone proved to me that Christ is outside the truth and that, in reality, the truth were outside of Christ, then I should prefer to remain with Christ rather than with the truth. [150]

Dostoyevsky was also concerned that a world without God could lead to unprecedented brutality and oppression. Without absolute moral values and a cosmic judge to hold us responsible for our actions, what would keep evil people from stealing, murdering, and raping? In another letter, he wrote:

Now assume that there is no God, or immortality of the soul. Now tell me, why should I live righteously and do good deeds, if I am to die entirely on earth? [...] And if that is so, why shouldn’t I (as long as I can rely on my cleverness and agility to avoid being caught by the law) cut another man’s throat, rob, and steal? [151]

Or in The Possessed, he let his character Kirillov say:

If God does not exist, then everything is permitted. [152]

Are we ready to handle the freedom to live without God? Can the average person live with the heavy load of accepting responsibility for their own actions? Dostoyevsky believed that many of us cannot.


The death of God

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) also analyzed the consequences of the secularization of the West. In his view, any attempt to hold on to Christianity was futile as the “belief in the Christian God had become unbelievable.” [153] Humanity had woken up from its mythological past, and as a result, belief in God just didn’t seem a realistic standpoint anymore that any serious person could hold. A cultural shift had happened, about which he controversially wrote:

What is now decisive against Christianity is our taste, no longer our reasons. [153]

Instead of repeating the intellectual arguments of his predecessors against religion, Nietzsche instead wanted to capture the gradual disappearance of God. In one of his most famous passages, he imagined an apocalyptic madman running onto a marketplace and bringing the news of the death of God:

“Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!”—As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. “Has he got lost?” asked one. “Did he lose his way like a child?” asked another. [...]. The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

[…] How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? [...]. There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.” [153]

The crowd was not yet ready to hear his message, but the madman was right. The unthinkable had happened. The gods, who had been a part of mankind from the beginning, had lost their power. Even those who still wanted to believe, just weren’t able to do so to the same degree. When people used to enter a church, they could feel the presence of God, but now the best one could do was feel nostalgia for an archaic time. In Nietzsche’s words:

It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo [requiem for the eternal God]. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?” [153]

According to Nietzsche, however, the death of God wouldn’t immediately lead to a world without religion. We read:

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 [...]. When will all these shadows of God cease to darken our minds? When will we complete our de-deification of nature?

Fig. 128 – Copy of Picasso’s Guernica (Jules Verne Times Two, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The fall of God was also strongly felt in the arts. In the past, the concept of God had infused the universe with a deep sense of divine meaning, but without any transcendent ideals left to strive for, art plunged into banality. For instance, in his Guernica, Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) depicted a fallen hero of the bombing of Guernica as a hollow statue and his pierced horse as a fragmentary two-dimensional cut-out (see Fig. 128). To the left, the dead Jesus in the arms of Mary looks more like a doll.


The genealogy of morals

Nietzsche also analyzed the consequences of the disappearance of the religious underpinnings of our morality. About this, he wrote the following ominous words:

How much must collapse now that this faith has been undermined, because it was once built upon this faith, propped up by it, and grown into it—for example, the totality of our European morality. [153]

Morality used to be an absolute code of law designed by God, but it turned out to be nothing more than “herd instinct in the individual.” This view, Nietzsche realized, could easily lead to nihilism, which he defined as a philosophy that results in apathy toward life itself. He wrote:

A nihilist is a man who judges that the world as it is ought not to be, and that the world as it ought to be does not exist. [154]

According to Nietzsche, this threat would become a great challenge to mankind:

I believe it is one of the greatest crises, a moment of the deepest self-reflection of humanity. Whether man recovers from it, whether he becomes master of this crisis, is a question of his strength! [155]

According to Nietzsche, the fall of divine morality only leads to nihilism if we assume that heaven is the only thing that matters and mankind is worthless. The great mistake of religion, he claimed, was the invention of a perfect otherworldly realm that made the earth look undesirable in comparison. As a result, society had turned its back on the world. But after having cursed the earth for many centuries, we have now discovered that it is the only world that exists. Nietzsche recommended staying “true to this earth.” The way to do this, he claimed, was to embrace life, including all its negatives. Despite being ill for most of his life, Nietzsche proposed an uncompromising acceptance of reality as it is. He called this attitude amor fati (the love of fate). His motto was:

Saying Yes to life even in its strangest and hardest problems. [156]

Accepting reality, however, didn’t mean being a helpless victim. It meant to shape one’s life in a way that one would find meaningful, or, as Nietzsche phrased it, to live one’s life in such a way that if one were to be doomed to relive it exactly for all eternity, it would still be a joy. We read:

My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it […] but love it. [157]

But why have we filled our minds with these otherworldly ideals in the first place? To answer this question, Nietzsche attempted to discover the genealogy of our morals. With morality no longer God-given, Nietzsche deemed it necessary to reevaluate the “value of our values.” Since morality differs in different cultures, it became evident that much of our morality is not fixed but contingent on our history. While many of the values we hold seem common sense, most of them have been shaped over time, sometimes by the strange mythological forces of the past. This, Nietzsche claimed, might even be true of the martyr-like obsession that scientists have with finding truth:


Do you really believe then that the sciences would ever have originated and grown if the way had not been prepared by magicians, alchemists, astrologers, and witches whose promises and pretensions first had to create a thirst, a hunger, a taste for hidden and forbidden powers? Indeed, infinitely more had to be promised than could ever be fulfilled in order that anything at all might be fulfilled in the realm of knowledge. [153]


We godless anti-metaphysicians, still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by the thousand-year-old faith, the Christian faith which was also Plato’s faith, that God is truth; that truth is divine. [153]

In some cases, Nietzsche discovered that even our cherished values have an immoral origin. For instance, in the Bible, people are told to follow God’s moral code under the threat of eternal torture. But is this not called opportunism instead of morality? And what about preaching “love your enemy” while simultaneously feeling comforted by knowing that your opponents will eventually burn in hell for eternity? Since the early Christians were, in Nietzsche’s words, “weak people” in a world dominated by the Roman Empire, it became convenient for them to invent a paradise after death in which the weak would triumph. They even found a way to praise themselves for being weak, poor, and humble, which became the basis for Christian morality. Nietzsche called this type of morality slave morality.

Nietzsche also noted that Christianity wasn’t the only moral system around. In contrast, the Greeks were arrogant show-offs who wanted to win and achieve excellence in their pursuits. He called this system master morality. While arrogance was a negative emotion in Christian societies, for the Greeks, it was a virtue.


The abyss

Nietzsche also realized that looking too deeply into the meaninglessness of existence could be harmful. In his words:

If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you. [158]

The atheist writer Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) also recognized this problem. He realized that the death of God had set us free from divine rule but also took away what made us humans feel secure in a dangerous world. He wrote:

Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn; for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself [...] We are left alone, without excuse. That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free. [159]

Albert Camus (1913–1960) noted that when we ask the question “why” too much, we inevitably bump up against the “unreasonable silence of the world.” Without God, he claimed, our lives are in a real way futile, especially since we will all be faced by the “ultimate negation” of death. The only antidote to this, Camus claimed, was to rebel against the futility of life by throwing ourselves into life and making deliberate choices by creating our own meaning. And here we come to one of the biggest challenges for the Western individual. It is the challenge for every individual, despite the absence of a God, despite the temporality, the absurdity, and absolute meaninglessness of our existence, to use our freedom to create our own meaning through the experiences of our lives.

In his work The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus used the mythical Greek king Sisyphus as a metaphor for the absurdity of human existence. Having scorned the gods, Sisyphus was condemned to spend eternity in the underworld having to roll a rock to the top of a mountain. When almost reaching the top, however, the stone would roll back. Sisyphus was then obliged to begin the endless and pointless cycle all over again. This absurd hero, condemned to a futile, painful, and meaningless existence, was shockingly like ourselves. Then, Camus asked if it was possible for Sisyphus to be happy. He concluded affirmatively:

This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy. [160]