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God is Dead
Killing God

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Have you 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 do not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter...

Whither is God," he cried. "I shall tell you. We have killed him - you and I. All of us are murderers.... God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him...

Friedrich Nietzsche. The Gay Science (1882), section 126 < full text, German & English>

The first thing to be clear about here is what should be an obvious fact: Nietzsche did not say "God is dead." Just like Shakespeare did not say "To be, or not to be," but instead merely put them in the mouth of Hamlet, a character he created.

Yes, Nietzsche certainly wrote the words "God is dead," but he also just as certainly put them in the mouth of a character - a madman, no less. Readers must always be careful about distinguishing between what an author thinks and what characters are made to say.

Unfortunately, many people aren't so careful, and thus it has become part of popular culture to think that Nietzsche said "God is dead." It has even become the butt of jokes, with some people imagining themselves clever by putting into the mouth of their god the words "Nietzsche is dead."

But what does Nietzsche's madman really mean? He can't merely mean to say that there are atheists in the world - that's nothing new. He can't mean to say that God has literally died because that wouldn't make any sense. If God were really dead, then God must have been alive at one point - but if the God of orthodox European Christianity were alive then it would be eternal and could never die.

So apparently, this madman can't be talking about the literal God believed in by so many theists. Instead, he's talking about what this god represented for European culture, the shared cultural belief in God which had once been its defining and uniting characteristic.


Europe Without God

1887, in the second edition of The Gay Science, Nietzsche added Book Five to the original, which begins with Section 343 and the statement: "The greatest recent event—that God is dead, that the belief in the Christian God has become unbelievable..."

As translator and eminent Nietzsche scholar Walter Kaufmann points out: "This clause is clearly offered as an explanation of 'God is dead.'" In The Antichrist (1888), Nietzsche is more specific:

The Christian conception of God... is one of the most corrupt conceptions of God arrived at on earth..." And, when he was already close to insanity, he called himself "the Anti-Christ.

We may now pause here and think. Nietzsche obviously means that the Christian notion of God is dead, that this notion has become unbelievable. At the time of Nietzsche's writing in the latter half of the nineteenth century, this shared belief was waning. Science, art, and politics were all moving beyond the religiosity of the past.

Why had most intellectuals and writers in Europe abandoned traditional Christianity by the end of the nineteenth century? Was it a result of industrial and scientific progress? Was it Charles Darwin and his insightful writing on evolution? As A.N. Wilson writes in his book *God's Funeral, the sources of this skepticism and disbelief were many and varied.

Where God had once stood alone - at the center of knowledge, meaning and life - a cacophony of voices was now being heard and God was being pushed aside. For many, particularly those who might be counted among the cultural and intellectual elite, God was gone entirely.

And far from replacing God, that cacophony of voices merely created a void. They did not unite and they did not offer the same certainty and solace that God once managed to provide. This created not simply a crisis of faith, but also a crisis of culture. As science and philosophy and politics treated God as irrelevant, humanity once again became the measure of all things - but no one seemed prepared to accept the value of that sort of standard.

Of course, it is perhaps better that God die rather than hang around unwanted like some Deus Emeritus - a doddering figure who has outlived its usefulness but refuses to accept a changed reality. Some residual authority might cling to it for a time, but its status as a supernatural has-been would be unalterable. No, it is better to put it out of its - and our - misery and get rid of it before it becomes too pathetic.

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