Nietzsche: God is Dead


It is no secret that human beings are terrible about thinking about politics and religion.  Every in-group has its own collection of pet ideas (its own semiosphere). And every single one of these massive cultural apparati are apt to go awry:

  • Arguably, some pro-intellectual groups have gotten history wrong (c.f., the Galileo affair).
  • Arguably, some anti-intellectual groups have gotten biology wrong (c.f., natural selection).
  • Arguably, some anti-religion groups have gotten philosophy wrong (c.f., logical positivism).

Today, I’d like to illustrate a “culture war” meme whose origins some pro-religion groups have gotten wrong: the phrase “God is dead”. I do this for three reasons:

  1. The meme is still misused frequently, yet its correction is less well-known than to the three other errors above.
  2. Nietzsche is an exceptionally interesting writer.
  3. To explain why I view the cognitive science of religion as a subject worthy of our attention.

Below I reproduce where “God is Dead” comes from: a parable.

From Nietzsche’s The Gay Science

The Madman

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the marketplace, and cried incessantly, “I seek God! I seek God!” As many of those who do not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Why, did he get lost? said one. Did he lose his way like a child? said another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? Thus they yelled and laughed. The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his glances.

“Whither is God” he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? …

Do we not smell anything yet of God’s decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves? What was the holiest and most powerful of all the world has yet owned, has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there 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? Must not we ourselves become gods simply to seem worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever will be born after us – for the sake of this deed he will be part of a higher history hitherto.”

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they too were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke and went out. “I came too early,” he said then; “my time has not come yet. This tremendous event is still on its way – it has not yet reached the ears of man. Lightning and thunder requires time, the light of the stars requires time, deeds require time even after they are done, before they can be seen and heard.


Before reading on, please ask yourself:

  1. Who is Nietzsche addressing in this passage?
  2. Is Nietzsche discussing theology, or sociology?
  3. What is Nietzsche’s point?

Give yourself a minute to get comfortable with your answers.

Here’s my summary of what Nietzsche scholars think:

Nietzsche, speaking through the madman, is addressing atheists rather than theists. The theist is thus in a position to observe an inner dispute, in the midst of the “other team”. Nietzsche is in no way making a theological claim; rather, he is calling attention to the social and cultural consequences of the atheism. “God is dead” refers to how the tides of secularism are affecting the idea of God.

What is Nietzsche’s message? N is offering an (extremely) sharp condemnation against the uncritical atheism. His core message is that those who idly hope that the secularization thesis is true, without considering its consequences, are hopelessly naive. Religion, according to Nietzsche, is much too important public life to pass away without impact. He begs, he pleads, he cajoles nonbelievers to consider the implications of their disbelief.  (What does calling religious belief “the entire horizon” say about his views of the importance of religion?)

Concluding Thoughts

The above interpretation, in addition to being prima facie compelling, is fairly closely aligned with what you’ll hear  from nearly all professional philosophers (c.f.,  this article).  Of course, Nietzsche had many negative things to say about religion elsewhere (and yet, I have had conversations with Nietzschean Christians).

The first reason for this post was a simple correction. Perhaps misleading posters such as the following will now raise a few more eyebrows:


The second reason for this post was to present Nietzsche’s artistic talent. Perhaps you’ll find yourself sufficiently motivated enough to step through my summary of his Genealogy of Morals. (I should eventually get around to outlining how N has influenced my thinking.)

The third reason for this post was to draw attention to the cognitive science of religion. One of my great pleasures in Nietzsche is his psychological incisiveness (e.g., he influenced later theorizing about the subconscious). Here, Nietzsche puts his thumb on the peculiar power religion has over the mind of man, particularly in his search for meaning.  The religious impulse of our species is undeniably strong; you can even witness it within secular communities (Atheism 2.0 is an interesting illustration of this).

I have two books on my wish list that I intend to help accelerate my theorizing about religious cognition:

Ultimately, this research will find a home within my larger project of building a mental architecture!


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