Day 52: What Does “God is Dead” Mean?

Arguably one of the most misinterpreted quotes of all time is Friedrich Nietzsche’s “God is Dead” (i.e., the title of this post in case you haven’t noticed). This post is going to be a short one.

It occurs to me that many people to whom I have been talking interpret this famous quote by Friedrich Nietzsche in a variety of ways. Since we all have different ideas of “God” based on our faiths (and non-faiths), it’s not surprising that we may also have very different ideas of how it would be like for this figure (or non-figure) called “God” to be alive, let alone being dead.

As a devoted and practicing existentialist, I feel the urge to try to explain this quote, which, as many might argue, is the basis of the existentialist doctrine.

I’ll probably write a long(er) version explaining this quote at some point in the rest of the 100 days, but for now I want to provide you with a short version of my explanation. First, when there’s an imaginable omnipotent figure called “God” to look up to, we do not tend to take life seriously. Everything, whether it’s god or bad, can be explained as a “God’s will,” which removes all sorts of human’s responsibility from the equation. When things are good, it’s due to God’s will, and not to our ability to make good things happen. When things go bad, it’s also due to God’s will, and not because there is someone, a non-God human, who makes those bad things happen to us. Whatever happens happen because God wants it to happen. This way of thinking alone is problematic, but for the great philosopher such as Friedrich Nietzsche, he sees through one layer deeper: Nietzsche believes that the idea of God’s will is problematic precisely because the idea of the existence of God distracts us from reality.

As Karl Marx later put it, “religion is opium for the masses,” the idea of “God’s will” has the potential of making us feel as though we are in the powerless position owing to our own lack of ability to be in a better position.

Imagining you have a harsh life; and at the moment you are about to explode, rebel, and protest against your employer who unfairly work your ass off and benefit from your labor without paying you adequately, your employer offers you an opium pipe to calm you down. By curiosity, you try smoking it, and almost immediately what dons upon you is the feeling of content — that life isn’t as bad as it seems, and that your employer are actually quite awesome in many ways. The reason why you would feel that way has nothing to do with the sudden change of attitude because of your employer’s kindness in offering you an insatiable taste of opium, but the chemical substances in the opium that give you the euphoric feelings. For Marx, religion is precisely doing that to people. It makes us feel sleepy, drowsy, and euphorically relaxed, to the point that we forget why we were offered the opium to smoke at the first place. Marx disdains religions because he believes that the money that go into funding religion establishments and their monuments (such as churches) come from the rich — precisely because they know that by keeping the poor in check by giving them something to look up to would make them slaves forever. Religions, to Marx, is the most cost effective way for the rich to keep the poor believing in the unfortunately life that they live. Napoleon Bonaparte has a much more straightforward view on this, as he once said:

Religion is excellent stuff for keeping common people quiet. Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich.

There you have it: Napoleon and Marx are on along the same line when it comes to religions. Friedrich Nietzsche was never (and never deemed himself being) a social engineer as dealing with his own mind was already hard enough for him, so he never went as far as Napoleon and Marx in denouncing all forms of religiosity. This effect of religion makes us shy away from questioning why we are where we are and only take the difficulty in life as such. For an existentialist, to believe that there’s such a thing as a “God’s will” is to believe that there’s no free will. To have no free will is to make a choice to choose not to be — since to be is to choose to believe in your own responsibility to carry on your life — hence, to believe that God is alive is, by default, to choose not to live altogether.

Second, God, especially the anthropomorphic one, has long been a “role model” for human beings.

In particular, God provides the model for morality: God is good, and God is great.

But, as Nietzsche has written about in his 1887 book On the Genealogy of Morals, morality as such is not absolute, but socially and culturally constructed. In one of his famous examples, the idea of “to love your neighbors” is almost universally seen as “good,” and mostly everyone would agree that whoever disagree is, by default, a “bad person.” Nietzsche argues that this is a wrong way of thinking about morality, which has a long historical root in the teaching of the Christian faiths. Good or evil depends on the goal of a particular community. For instance, quite often it is in the name of “goodness” to perform an act of atrocity to protect the immediate community (even patriotic, in cases). But is that evil? Or is it just acting to survival (aka evolutionism)? At the end of the day, both goodness and evilness are religious concepts because it is only the normative guidance provided by religion by which believers follow strictly. Religious people do not have their own mental and moral space to analyze contextually and independently about what is good for them.

Questions that arise includes: What and how much do we know about our neighbor, whom God tells us to love?

Nietzsche goes so far as to say that not only should we not love our neighbors, but we should also be jealous of them if they’re better off than we are. Why? Because only through the jealously in wanting to have what we do not have that we could push ourselves to be better. In addition, a more crucial question also arises: What does it mean to “love” strangers — since by definition, a neighbors are not your relatives, and therefore not someone you would know very well? Wouldn’t that be considered pretentious to love strangers? Nietzsche does not want us to lie — neither should you want to do so anyway I believe. In this sense, Nietzsche urges us to re-think how we come to see things as moral and immoral, and to come up with our own set of morality based on our own free will to be, to exist, and and to be responsible for our own actions.

So, “God is dead,” for Nietzsche, in my opinion doesn’t have much to do with the rejection of the idea of religiosity as such. Nietzsche, like Marx, may be denouncing the idea of religion on the conventional and conservative grounds that the idea of religion provides nothing but euphoric illusion, but the message that Nietzsche, especially, is trying to send is much more conceptual: to see things as they are, and not as they appear through the reflection on a certain religious mirror. At the end of the day, to refuse the idea of religiosity outright is also killing free will.

Finally, let me also apologize for my long absence. Since I came back from Japan on X’Mas Day, I had been busy working on my actual writings (i.e., my doctoral dissertation) with my adviser, as well as my very good friend from my hometown, who happened to be in town at the same time (both of whom somewhat demanded my full attention, which I’d like to give to them anyway) for the past two weeks; hence, although I had so many ideas about what I’d like to write, I did not have the time to sit down and write anything. Here’re some of the ideas that I had during the last two weeks:

  1. My new year’s resolution. The idea of this post is divided into two parts: First, on the things I — and we all — can do, and should do to live better, such as drink more coffee (I am not kidding; it’s not been proven that coffee, which has long been used in many parts of the world as medicinal substances, is good for you), eat spicy food, consume red wine moderately, and so on; and, second, on what we might be able to do in order to see the world from a different angle, namely the angle that is not relying too much on the convention, such as, what if we do not have to believe that there’s a role into which we are born? What if there’s no specific set of belief that is set in stone to be true universally and timelessly? Since they have to do, by and large, with our existing beliefs, the ideas of my new year’s resolution that belong to the second set is, almost by default, more difficult to follow than those in the first set.
  2. On Sex: Part III. Since the last three posts on this topic have been receiving a large number of visitors, I have a feeling that I should try to satisfy the demand of my dear readers by providing the last post in the trilogy, which will be on the “ideal society” that I believe would promote both the equality and dignity between the men and the women. I want to write about a society in which both men and women are dignified beings. As Sigmund Freud might have argued (but still wouldn’t be as forceful as what I aim to write), the first thing to achieve is to getting rid of all forms and kinds of sex taboo, which will, almost instantly, put both men and women at the same playing field. In the similar fashion to the experimental psychologist Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works, my ideas for this ideal society are based on both the evolutionary as well as cultural understanding of sexual and gender dynamic. As Pinker argues in How the Mind Works, some aspects of evolution can explain why men hold the power to decide what women should do. But, no, it’s not the evolution as such: It’s not that evolution makes men stronger and therefore could wield more power. Quite the opposite, in fact, it’s that evolution tends to force men who have certain amount of chemical substances in their brains to want and desire to possess certain things (i.e., the genetic continuity of their DNA), and to be willingness to sacrifice their lives for a number of things (i.e., wars) — all of which have to do with the desire to reproduce and protect their right to do so for the survival for the human specie. Based on the statistics and economic underpinning of the unbalanced availability of reproductive resources (e.g., there, in general, are more women than men in the world in general), it seems plausible that the only function of men in reproductivity is providing a spoon full of semen, and the women could just take over the rest from there. For what both Freud and Pinker have to say about sexuality and the possible origins of gender inequality, I have a feeling that I could work out a blueprint for an ideal society. So, hang in there, I’ll write this eventually (hopefully in the next few days!)
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One thought on “Day 52: What Does “God is Dead” Mean?

  1. Non, in contrast to a giant puppet master, I see a God supremely concerned with the preservation of mankind’s free will. Without it, loving Him would be meaningless. He might as well have created robots. What we do with religion is another matter and I lament some theologians who have promoted the notion of God’s will as something deterministic or as some sort of hall pass to laziness or what you described. In the Bible, I see lots of examples of people (Abraham, Moses, Hezekiah, etc.) reasoning with God and changing His mind. I think what we are discussing is a matter of perspective and it is very difficult, if not impossible, for humans, confined as we are to pass through time in a linear progression, to understand a being not constrained by space-time. We interact in time and influence a progression that God can see in entirety. I don’t understand it; but, I don’t feel demotivated to strive to live life. In fact, in Jesus, I have a model and a motivation to live life better than I ever would have otherwise.

    As to morality, Jesus promises that if you really follow him and his teachings, you will know the truth and it will set you free. Knowing and not doing or not even really knowing isn’t going to help. What society does or accepts as morally appropriate may change. What morality is for me with respect to God or His word is ultimately an act of humility. When I’ve followed, I’ve been rewarded with understanding outside of myself.

    As to loving others, it is purely a matter of perspective. If you are only living for yourself and this life and believed in a “scarcity model” instead of an “abundance model,” I could see your point. However, if you believe in another reality beyond the veil of this existence and you believe that everyone is important, then, why wouldn’t you give what you could to help another? Why wouldn’t you be happy for another person’s success? It has no bearing on your capacity to succeed. What is success? Jealousy and selfishness are destructive to community.

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