Albert Camus once said, “If we believe in nothing, if nothing has any meaning and if we can affirm no values whatsoever, then everything is possible and nothing has any importance.” His prognosis of nihilism is a life of uncertainty, one in which the nihilist struggles every day with feelings of negativity as an option against suicide and death.
Camus wasn’t the only intellectual concerned with the problem of nihilism. Anyone who has studied Friedrich Nietzsche with minimal care will know how central the topic is in his philosophy. Indeed, Nietzsche sees the symptoms of nihilism underpinned by a defective Western culture that has been enfeebled by a longstanding religious tradition.
In many of Nietzsche’s works, we find myriads of aphorisms and notes that detail the inevitable [crippling] nihilism that diseases the West. This point is illustratively captured in Nietzsche’s gutsy claim that “God is Dead”, an event which Nietzsche deems the greatest one of recent times. The ‘Parable of the Madman’, reads:
“Have you ever heard of the madman who on a bright morning lighted a lantern and ran to the market-place calling out unceasingly: ‘I seek God! I seek God! […] Where is God gone?’ he called out. ‘I mean to tell you! We have killed him, – you and I! We are all his murderers! But how have we done it? […] Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? […] God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! […] There never was a greater event, – and on account of it, all who are born after us belong to a higher history than any history hitherto!’”
Consternated by the responses he receives, the madman asks, “What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Where is it moving to now? Where are we moving to? Away from all suns? Are we not continually falling?” What the madman understands is that the answers usually proffered for these questions are no longer intelligible. Those who do not believe in God now laugh at the madman’s babble, since they fail to recognise the implications of living a life divorced of God.
Of course, Nietzsche doesn’t think that humans have “killed God” per se; what Nietzsche means is that our modern intellectual conscience has rendered unbelievable the existence of God. “God is Dead”, which is deemed “the greatest recent event”, means that heaven or paradise is now divorced of any effective power.
It might be tempting to laud the “death of God” since many terrible injustices have been committed under the theological banner, but Nietzsche remains stubbornly cautious. With the extirpation of the much-coveted pearly gates, the problem of ‘value’ becomes increasingly apparent. In which case, it is arbitrary to spend time dallying with the question of ascertaining whether God does or does not exist; God’s ‘death’ does not merely refer to the traditional God of Abraham, but to Pascal’s “God of the philosophers”, the God who functioned as the centre of Western values.
If we accept Nietzsche at this point, New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have failed to comprehend the fact that the ‘idea’ of God is dead. The problem that confronts them is as stark as it is simple: our morality, Nietzsche argues, is considerably rooted in religion, particularly Judeo-Christian religion. When God is rejected, the stakes are garishly high; the whole moral tradition of the West is put into question. At best, a moral relativism will transpire; at worse, a dogged misanthropy and malaise will gain traction. In both cases, with the foundation of our moral tradition usurped, “The aim is lacking; ‘why?’ finds no answer”.
Heidegger paints the problem in rather rousing colours: “If God as the suprasensory ground and goal of all reality is dead, if the suprasensory world of the Ideas has suffered the loss of its obligatory and above all its vitalizing and upbuilding power, then nothing more remains to which man can cling and by which he can orient himself”.
It might be tempting to object that “New Atheists are secular humanists“, meaning that they have sired a new value system, albeit without the religious overtones. Nietzsche nevertheless admonishes such grounds—fashionable arguments for grounding ethical sensibilities was a particular rotten apple of discord for the German philosopher. For those unfamiliar with the typical arguments touted, New Atheists tend to offer cognitivist formulations (as humanism suggests), such as that we can work out what is objectively right and wrong on the grounds of its adherence to reason and the degree to which it maximises overall wellbeing. This is a sore point for Nietzsche since it is extremely unlikely that belief in any such first principle of value (such as human dignity) or objective moral order originally or subsequently had any critical role in the commitment New Atheists have to a value or in sustaining faith with it. This point is made unerringly in The Gay Science:
“The mistake made by the more refined among them [among the modern historians of morality] is that they uncover and criticize the perhaps foolish opinions of a people about morality, or of humanity about all human morality—opinions about its origin, religious sanction, the superstition of free will, and things of that sort—and then suppose that they have criticized the morality itself. But the value of a command, “thou shalt” is still fundamentally different from and independent of such opinions about it and the weeds of error that may have overgrown it—just as certainly as the value of a medication for a sick person is completely independent of whether he thinks about medicine scientifically or the way old women do. Even if a morality has grown out of an error, the realization of this fact would not as much as touch the problem of its value.”
What many New Atheists fail to recognise, Nietzsche would argue, is that moral action is always a negating; a negating of a current state of affairs, a state of affairs that is seen as something-to-overcome. Acting based on this unacceptability is “acting for a value”. The crucial factor is locating the source and meaning of such unacceptability in the first place, and we must do this without any recourse to a telos, common human nature, natural law, or some divine lawmaker. This crucial factor doesn’t sit well with New Atheists: they maintain that God’s absence really is vital, and then they construct a “faith” based on this rejection. Thus, being atheists reflects an absence: a fear or deep need unthought by the atheist.
This is why Nietzsche would consider New Atheists to be nihilists because their cognitivist sensibilities have unexplored motivations that have their root in Judeo-Christian morality, such as ideas about charity, puritanism, pacifism and pity. Being rooted in a Judeo-Christianity, it is inevitable, Nietzsche insists, that their values will be fleeced of their normative power.
The task is fairly simple for Nietzsche: commit ourselves to a revaluation of all our current values to the bottom, so to speak. For the self-proclaimed “perfect nihilism”, failing to perform this task will bring to pass an inevitable pratfall into decadence and weariness.
Indeed, Nietzsche is optimistic that with the insight that hitherto highest values are hogwash, that a new epoch, a revaluation of all our current values, will accordingly transpire, finally slaying metaphysics (along with God) permanently.
There are various works by Nietzsche that spell-out his ideas concerning the revaluation of all values, none more fundamental than his notebook: The Will-to-power: An Attempted Transvaluation of All Values. The ‘transvaluation’ characterises the task that needs to be executed, whilst the will-to-power is the principle used to achieve it. This twin formula comprises a ‘countermovement’, which will “take the place of” and thus overcome nihilism.
Assuming that reality is the will-to-power, this new mode of valuation stipulates that “there is nothing to life that has value, except the degree of power”. Nietzsche elsewhere states that: “What is the objective measure of value? Solely the quantum of enhanced and organised power”. Nietzsche’s goal is that the will-to-power brings about a “naturalisation” of values, one that is meant to both correct and oppose the traditional mode of valuation that has created a “denaturalization” of values. As is well-known, Nietzsche’s Übermensch, or superman, typifies this man of the future.
Naturally, Nietzsche’s visionary will not sit well with many of us. But, fashioning new systems of valuation that are divested of metaphysics is still a cardinal task for all of us, a new era that Nietzsche wasn’t afraid to lay his hands on. Of course, Dostoyevsky agrees with Nietzsche on those unreflective, ‘useful’, drab sorts who are happy to just go with the flow : “A lack of originality, everywhere, all over the world, from time immemorial, has always been considered the foremost quality and the recommendation of the active, efficient and practical man”.
New Atheists overlook the flipside of God’s decline. Godless folk need not be flimflammed by chichi New Atheists whose smooth-tongued narratives have inconvenienced the Godless era by prolonging Judeo-Christian relics. Nietzsche recognised, 120 years before New Atheist books like God is Not Great, The End of Faith, and The God Delusion, that there are various ways to be an atheist. Yes, he trumpeted some contentious ideas. However, at least he did so without stooping to any bootlicking or second-rate disputation. He knew the merits of engaging in philosophical inquiry—without recurring to question-begging—and, most importantly, he knew the full-significance of God’s death.