The ghost at the atheist feast: was Nietzsche right about religion?
John Gray reviews “The Age of Nothing” by Peter Watson and “Culture and the Death of God” by Terry Eagleton.
First published in 1882, Nietzsche’s dictum “God is dead” described a situation in which science (notably Darwinism) had revealed “a world with no inherent order or meaning”. With theism no longer credible, meaning would have to be made in future by human beings – but what kind of meaning, and by which human beings? In a vividly engaging conspectus of the formative ideas of the past century, The Age of Nothing shows how Nietzsche’s diagnosis evoked responses in many areas of cultural life, including some surprising parts of the political spectrum.
While it is widely known that Nietzsche’s ideas were used as a rationale for imperialism, and later fascism and Nazism, Watson recounts how Nietzsche had a great impact on Bolshevik thinking, too. The first Soviet director of education, Anatoly Lunacharsky (who was also in charge of state censorship of the arts and bore the delicious title of Commissar of Enlightenment), saw himself as promoting a communist version of the Superman. “In labour, in technology,” he wrote, in a passage cited by Watson, “[the new man] found himself to be a god and dictated his will to the world.”
Trotsky thought much the same, opining that socialism would create “a higher social-biologic type”. Lenin always resisted the importation of Nietzsche’s ideas into Bolshevism. But the Soviet leader kept a copy of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy in his personal library and one of Zarathustra in his Kremlin office, and there is more than a hint of the cult of the will in Lenin’s decree ordering the building of “God-defying towers” throughout the new Soviet state.
We have discussed Nietzsche ad infinitum here in the context of the ‘new atheism’. Nietzsche endured for a long time in the myths created by Walter Kauffman, but now the complexity of his relation to the issues of religion, politics, and fascism is more evident.
I think the issues tend to be overplayed by sophistical miscalculations of his brilliance: the foundations of his thought are insecure and the whole issue of ‘god’ is a miscalculation if the Darwinian framework is assumed. So we proceed immediately to a new set of perspectives. If Darwin’s theory is out, then the whole Nietzschean thunder seems to be in a void.
If evolution is so crucial to these questions, then they must be deferred until we get square on the evolution question. I think the issue, of the death of god, is too poised on the cusp of the clever cliche about to become a meme. Like the selfish gene the idea is a non-sequitur from the start.
To argue that god is alive or dead is a philosophic misfire. God must remain beyond life in a sphere of distinctions between being and existence, and the latter distinction forces us to be wary of the ‘existence of god’ concept. God can’t ‘exist’ if he/she/it/that is in a state of being beyond existence: manifestation. So remarkably the whole debate, the torrent of words, goes into the void with the rest of the phantoms in this opera.