Friedrich Nietzsche has a strong claim to being the first real atheist. Of course there had been unbelievers in abundance before him, but it is Nietzsche above all who confronts the terrifying, exhilarating consequences of “the death of God.” As long as God’s shoes have been filled by Reason, art, culture, Geist, imagination, the nation, humanity, the state, the People, society, morality, or some other such specious surrogate, the Supreme Being is not quite dead. He may be mortally sick, but he has delegated his affairs to one envoy or another, part of whose task is to convince men and women that there is no cause for alarm, that business will be conducted as usual despite the absence of the proprietor.
What Nietzsche recognizes is that you can get rid of God only if you also do away with innate meaning. The Almighty can survive tragedy, but not absurdity. As long as there appears to be some immanent sense to things, one can always inquire after the source from which it springs. Abolishing given meanings involves destroying the idea of depth, which in turn means rooting out beings like God who take shelter there. Like Oscar Wilde in his wake, Nietzsche is out to replace what he sees as a vacuous depth with a profundity of the surface.
Max Weber comments in his essay “Science as a Vocation” that every theology presupposes that the world has meaning, and that only a plucky few can acknowledge that it does not. The true Übermensch (or Overman) in his view is the social scientist, who can confront the blankness of the universe and live without religious consolation. For those who cannot attain this dangerous truth, Weber remarks, “the doors of the old churches are open widely and compassionately.” It is a modern-day version of the double-truth thesis: the average citizen may be allowed to live in salutary illusion, while the intelligentsia gaze unflinchingly into the void. One might add that in Weber’s view the epitome of life’s senselessness is death, which for Christianity is where it is most charged with meaning.
Nietzsche sees that civilization is in the process of ditching divinity while still clinging to religious values, and that this egregious act of bad faith must not go uncontested. You cannot kick away the foundations and expect the building still to stand. The death of God, he argues in The Gay Science, is the most momentous event of human history, yet men and women are behaving as though it were no more than a minor readjustment. Of the various artificial respirators on which God has been kept alive, one of the most effective is morality. “It does not follow,” Feuerbach anxiously insists, “that goodness, justice and wisdom are chimeras because the existence of God is a chimera.” Perhaps not; but in Nietzsche’s view it does not follow either that we can dispense with divine authority and continue to conduct our moral business as usual. Our conceptions of truth, virtue, identity, and autonomy, our sense of history as shapely and coherent, all have deep-seated theological roots. It is idle to imagine that they could be torn from these origins and remain intact. Morality must therefore either rethink itself from the ground up, or live on in the chronic bad faith of appealing to sources it knows to be spurious. In the wake of the death of God, there are those who continue to hold that morality is about duty, conscience, and obligation, but who now find themselves bemused about the source of such beliefs. This is not a problem for Christianity—not only because it has faith in such a source, but because it does not believe that morality is primarily about duty, conscience, or obligation in the first place.
Nietzsche speaks scornfully of French freethinkers from Voltaire to Comte as trying to “out-Christian” Christianity with a craven cult of altruism and philanthropy, virtues that are as distasteful to him as pity, compassion, benevolence, and suchlike humanitarian claptrap. He can find nothing in such values but weakness cunningly tricked out as power. These, too, are ways of disavowing God’s disappearance. God is indeed dead, and it is we who are his assassins, yet our true crime is less deicide than hypocrisy. Having murdered the Creator in the most spectacular of all Oedipal revolts, we have hidden the body, repressed all memory of the traumatic event, tidied up the scene of the crime and, like Norman Bates in Psycho, behave as though we are innocent of the act. Modern secular societies, in other words, have effectively disposed of God but find it morally and politically convenient—even imperative—to behave as though they have not. They do not actually believe in him, but it is still necessary for them to imagine that they do. God is too vital a piece of ideology to be written off, even if it is one that their own profane activities render less and less plausible. To look at the beliefs embodied in their behavior, rather than at what they piously profess, is to recognize that they have no faith in God at all, but it is as though the fact has not yet been brought to their attention. One of Nietzsche’s self-appointed tasks is to do precisely that.
If God really has expired, however, this is by no means unqualified good news. If he is dead, then, as Jacques Lacan claims contra Dostoevsky, nothing is permitted, since for one thing there is no one to grant permission. We now have nobody to assume the burden of responsibility but ourselves, whereas having a signed and certified warranty to act as we do is a great assuager of guilt. We may expect, then, that our moral unease will intensify in the wake of God’s demise, as angst and mauvaise foi tighten their hold on humanity.
Nietzsche’s struggle, as Andrew Wernick notes, was not just one of Dionysus against the Crucified, to adopt his own words, but one against Christianity’s “enlightened afterlife.” The Overman is he who has freed himself from those forms of sham religion known as Nature, Reason, Man, and morality. Only this audacious animal can peer into the abyss of the Real and find in the death of God the birth of a new species of humanity. As with Christian faith, the only place to begin is with a confession that our hands are steeped in the blood of divinity. Man, too, must be dismantled, insofar as he is modelled on the unity and infinity of the godhead. He is defined so completely by his dependence on his Creator that the two must fall together. There can be no obsequies for the Almighty without a funeral ceremony for humanity as well. The death of God must herald the death of Man, in the sense of the craven, guilt-ridden, dependent creature who bears that name at present. What will replace him is the Overman. Yet in his sovereignty over Nature and lordly self-dependence, the Overman has more than a smack of divinity about him, which means, ironically, that God is not dead after all. What will replace him continues to be an image of him.
That the death of God involves the death of Man, along with the birth of a new form of humanity, is orthodox Christian doctrine, a fact of which Nietzsche seems not to have been aware. The Incarnation is the place where both God and Man undergo a kind of kenosis or self-humbling, symbolized by the self-dispossession of Christ. Only through this tragic self-emptying can a new humanity hope to emerge. In its solidarity with the outcast and afflicted, the Crucifixion is a critique of all hubristic humanism. Only through a confession of loss and failure can the very meaning of power be transfigured in the miracle of resurrection. The death of God is the life of the iconoclast Jesus, who shatters the idolatrous view of Yahweh as irascible despot and shows him up instead as vulnerable flesh and blood.
The absence of God may be occluded by the fetish of Man, but the God who has been disposed of would seem little more than a fetish in the first place. As with William Blake’s Urizen or Nobodaddy, he was a convenient way of shielding a humanity eager to be chastised from the intolerable truth that the God of Christianity is friend, lover, and fellow accused, not judge, patriarch, and superego. He is counsel for the defense, not for the prosecution. Moreover, his apparent absence is part of his meaning. The superstitious would see a sign, but the sign of the Father that counts is a crucified body. For Christian faith, the death of God is not a question of his disappearance. On the contrary, it is one of the places where he is most fully present. Jesus is not Man standing in for God. He is a sign that God is incarnate in human frailty and futility.
POSTMODERNISM IS IN many ways a postscript to Nietzsche, though a Nietzsche shorn of the quasi- metaphysical baggage—of the Will to Power, the Übermensch and the quasi-teleological tale of how humanity might pass from savagery to moral splendor. It also abandons his tragic vision. It is a post-tragic form of culture—though post-tragic in the sense that Morrissey is post-Mozart. It is not as if it has been hauled through tragedy in order to emerge, suitably transfigured, on the other side. In its eyes, a lack of inherent meaning in reality is not a scandal to be confronted but a fact to be accepted. Whereas modernism experiences the death of God as a trauma, an affront, a source of anguish as well as a cause for celebration, postmodernism does not experience it at all. There is no God-shaped hole at the center of its universe, as there is at the center of Kafka, Beckett, or even Philip Larkin. Indeed, there is no gap in its universe at all.
If postmodern culture is depthless, antitragic, nonlinear, antinuminous, nonfoundational and anti-universalist, suspicious of absolutes and averse to interiority, one might claim that it is genuinely postreligious, as modernism most certainly is not. Most religious thought, for example, posits a universal humanity, since a God who concerned himself with only a particular section of the species, say Bosnians or people over five foot eight inches tall, would appear lacking in the impartial benevolence appropriate to a Supreme Being. There must also be some common ground between ourselves and Abraham for the Hebrew Scriptures to make sense. Postmodernism, however, is notoriously nervous of universals, despite its claim that grand narratives have everywhere disappeared from the earth, or that there are no stable identities to be found, wherever one looks. As a current of thought, it inherits most of those aspects of Nietzsche’s philosophy that make for atheism; but since in its streetwise style it rejects the notion of the Übermensch, it refuses to smuggle in a new form of divinity to replace the old. Skeptical of the whole concept of a universal humanity, it repudiates Man as well as God, and in doing so refuses the quasi-religious consolations of humanism. In this sense, Nietzsche’s warning that the Almighty will rest quiet in his grave only when Man lies alongside him is finally taken seriously.
Nietzsche himself salvages a vision of the active human subject from the ruins of classical humanism. The Overman stamps his image on a world which in itself is mere flux and difference. He also brings his own desires under his dominion in much the same fashion. In this sense, Michel Foucault’s doctrine of self-fashioning in his History of Sexuality strikes an authentically Nietzschean note. Yet it is one untypical of poststructuralism and postmodernism as a whole. For them, the flux of reality has now infiltrated the subject to the point where its unity dissolves and its agency is undermined. The postmodern subject, like the Übermensch, is clay in its own hands, able to change shape at its own behest; but by the same token it lacks the indomitable will with which Nietzsche’s Overman bends reality to his demands. It is aesthetic not in the Nietzschean or Wildean sense of turning oneself into a work of art, but in the Kierkegaardian sense of lacking all unity and principle. Since Man is no longer to be seen primarily as agent or creator, he is no longer in danger of being mistaken for the Supreme Being. He has finally attained maturity, but only at the cost of relinquishing his identity. He is not to be seen as self-determining. The self is no longer coherent enough to be so. This is one way in which postmodernism is post-theological, since it is God above all who is One, and who is the ground of his own being. It follows that if you want to get rid of him, you need to refashion the concept of subjectivity itself, which is just what postmodernism seeks to do.
Perhaps, then, the latter decades of the twentieth century will be seen as the time when the deity was finally put to death. With the advent of postmodern culture, a nostalgia for the numinous is finally banished. It is not so much that there is no redemption as that there is nothing to be redeemed. Religion, to be sure, lives on, since there is more to late modern civilization than postmodernism. Even so, it would not be too much to claim that with the emergence of postmodernism, human history arrives for the first time at an authentic atheism.
ONE REASON WHY reason why postmodern thought is atheistic is its suspicion of faith. Not just religious faith, but faith as such. It makes the mistake of supposing that all passionate conviction is incipiently dogmatic. Begin with a robust belief in goblins and you end up with the Gulag. Nietzsche had a similar aversion to conviction. It was passion, not belief, that governed the greatest minds. Fixed doctrines spell the death of the transient, provisional, unique, and sensuously specific.
In Nietzsche’s eyes, truly noble spirits refuse to be the prisoners of their own principles. Instead, they treat their own most cherished opinions with a certain cavalier detachment, adopting and discarding them at will. It is what Yeats, who like many a modernist felt the influence of Nietzsche, and for whom opinions were fit meat for bank clerks and shopkeepers, called sprezzatura. One’s beliefs are more like one’s manservants, to be hired and fired as the fancy takes you, than like one’s bodily organs. They are not to be regarded as constitutive of personal identity, but rather as costumes one can don or doff at will. For the most part, as with kilts and cravats, it is aesthetic considerations that govern the donning and doffing. The left-wing historian A. J. P. Taylor once informed an Oxford Fellowship election committee that he had extreme political views, but held them moderately. In The Gay Science, Nietzsche scorns what he calls the “longing for certainty” of science and rationalism, an itch for epistemological assurance behind which it is not hard to detect a deep-seated anxiety of spirit. In his view, the compulsion to believe is for those who are too timid to exist in the midst of ambiguities without anxiously reaching out for some copper-bottomed truth. The desire for religion is the craving for an authority whose emphatic “thou shalt” will relieve us of our moral and cognitive insecurity. The free spirit, by contrast, is one that has the courage to dispense with “every wish for certainty,” supporting itself only by “slender cords and possibilities,” yet dancing even so on the verge of the abyss.
In an age in which the concept of certainty smacks of the tyrant and technocrat, a certain agnosticism becomes a virtue. Indeterminacy and undecidability are accounted goods in themselves. Conviction suggests a consistency of self that does not sit easily with the volatile, adaptive subject of advanced capitalism. Besides, too much doctrine is bad for consumption. Beliefs are potentially contentious affairs, which is good neither for business nor for political stability. They are also commercially superfluous. The fervent ideological rhetoric needed to found the system thus fades as it unfolds. As long as its citizens roll into work, pay their taxes, and refrain from assaulting police officers, they can believe pretty much what they like.
The faithlessness of advanced capitalism is built into its routine practices. It is not primarily a question of the piety or skepticism of its citizens. The marketplace would continue to behave atheistically even if every one of its actors was a born-again Evangelical. Yet God has of course by no means vanished. Consumer capitalism may have scant use for him in practice, but it is still mortgaged to some extent to its own metaphysical heritage. By and large, advanced capitalism remains caught in the state of denial that -Nietzsche denounces. The economy may be a rank atheist, but the state that stands guard over it still feels the need to be a true believer. Not, to be sure, necessarily a religious believer, but to subscribe to certain imperishable moral and political truths that cannot simply be derived from the size of the deficit or the unemployment statistics.
In his Faith of the Faithless, a title that might be used to characterize a whole current of recent leftist thought, Simon Critchley acknowledges what he sees as the limits of any entirely secularist worldview, and records his doubt that radical politics can be effective without a religious dimension. It is now some on the left, not the right, who look to a religious “supplement” to the political—partly, no doubt, in response to the spiritual vacuity of late capitalism, but also because there are indeed some important affinities between religious and secular notions of faith, hope, justice, community, liberation, and the like. A range of prominent left thinkers, from Badiou, Agamben, and Debray to Derrida, Habermas, and Žižek, have thus turned to questions of theology, to the chagrin or bemusement of some of their acolytes.
There is a dash of pathos, not to speak of a mildly comic touch, in the spectacle of a group of devout materialists speaking in strenuously Protestant terms of the “claims of infinity,” “heeding the call,” “infinite responsibility,” and the like. If Graham Greene’s fiction is thronged with reluctant Christians, men and women who would like to be rid of the Almighty but find themselves stuck with him like some lethal addiction, there are also reluctant atheists—thinkers who can sometimes be distinguished from the Archbishop of Canterbury only by the fact that they do not believe in God.
Alongside the leftist fellow travelers, there are also those defenders of capitalism who, troubled by its crassly materialist climate, are out to hijack the religious spirit in order to lend this way of life some sweetness and light. Religious faith, suitably cleansed of its primitive propositions, may figure as a kind of aesthetic supplement to an uncouth social order. Alain de Botton’s unwittingly entertaining Religion for Atheists is symptomatic of this trend. There are, de Botton argues, “aspects of religious life that could fruitfully be applied to the problems of secular society.” One and a half centuries in the wake of Matthew Arnold, de Botton is still wistfully hoping that culture may wrest the baton from religion. “We are unwilling,” he writes, “to consider secular culture religiously enough, in other words, as a source of guidance.” Religion “teaches us to be polite, to honor one another, to be faithful and sober,” as well as instructing us in “the charms of community.” Intellectually speaking, religion is pure nonsense; but this is hardly to the point as long as it makes for some much-needed civility, aesthetic charm, social order, and moral edification. A committed atheist like himself, de Botton argues, can therefore still find religion “sporadically interesting, useful, and consoling.” Since Christianity requires that one lay down one’s life if need be for a stranger, de Botton must have a strange idea of consolation. His notion of faith is not quite that of a prophet who was tortured and executed by the imperial powers for speaking up for justice, and whose followers must be prepared to meet the same fate.
Reluctant atheism has a long history. Machiavelli thought that religious ideas, however vacuous, were a useful means of terrorizing and pacifying the mob. Voltaire feared infecting his own domestic servants with his impiety. Gibbon, one of the most notorious skeptics of all time, considered that the religious doctrines he despised could nonetheless prove socially useful. There is something unpleasantly disingenuous about this entire legacy. “I don’t happen to believe myself, but it is politically expedient that you should” is the catchphrase of thinkers supposedly devoted to the integrity of the intellect. One can imagine how they might react to being informed that their own most cherished convictions—civil rights, freedom of speech, democratic government and the like—were of course all nonsense, but politically convenient nonsense, and so not to be scrapped. It took the barefaced audacity of Friedrich Nietzsche to point out that the problem was less the death of God than the bad faith of Man, who in an astonishing act of cognitive dissonance had murdered his Maker but continued to protest that he was still alive. It was thus that men and women failed to see in the divine obsequies an opportunity to remake themselves.
If religious faith were to be released from the burden of furnishing social orders with a set of rationales for their existence, it might be free to rediscover its true purpose as a critique of all such politics. In this sense, its superfluity might prove its salvation. The New Testament has little or nothing to say of responsible citizenship. It is not a “civilized” document at all. It shows no enthusiasm for social consensus. Since it holds that such values are imminently to pass away, it is not greatly taken with standards of civic excellence or codes of good conduct. What it adds to common morality is not some supernatural support, but the grossly inconvenient news that our forms of life must undergo radical dissolution if they are to be reborn as just and compassionate communities. The sign of that dissolution is a solidarity with the poor and powerless. It is here that a new configuration of faith, culture, and politics might be born.
This essay is adopted from portions of the author's new book, Culture and the Death of God (Yale, 2014).