By Staff - Posted on 28 August 2010


God Is Dead

by Matt Conley

April 22, 2010


Nietzsche first wrote Gott ist tot in his philosophical work Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, usually translated as The Gay Science or The Joyful Wisdom. When I heard this term mentioned in class, it intrigued me, namely because of its audacity and because I know that such an idea is not to be taken at face value. To the end of understanding this phrase and its implications, I took it upon myself to discover the context of Nietzsche’s bold claim, analyze it, and interpret what it would mean for the world we live in if cultures were to embrace this concise but powerful adage.

To put Nietzsche’s “God is dead” in context, here is its first use of it, Section 108 of The Gay Science entitled New Struggles.

After Buddha was dead people showed his shadow for centuries afterwards in a cave, - an immense frightful shadow. God is dead: but as the human race is constituted, there will perhaps be caves for millenniums yet, in which people will show his shadow. - And we - we have still to overcome his shadow! (Nietzsche 150).


For the sake of my own ignorance of Buddhism, I will overlook what criticism Nietzsche may have intended towards it and instead begin with the metaphor that he extends to the general idea of God: that he has “an immense, frightful shadow.” One of the most obvious questions provoked by this metaphor of a shadow is, “A shadow over what?” First and foremost, one must recognize that the expression of our idea of “God” is organized religion. A booming voice of God does not speak to the masses, rather the masses are taught what God is through holy texts and by those who hold religious authority. Secondly, as far as any human being has ever been able to tell, the only objects effected by organized religions are cultures and societies. There always have been religious practices that are meant, in some way, to affect the divine. From sacrifices to the Olympians in Ancient Greece to please the gods, to the Last Rites of Christianity attempting to influence God’s final judgement, religions are full of examples of practices meant to affect the immortal. However, as I am certain Nietzsche was well aware, there is no concrete evidence to show that any of these rituals have ever influenced the divine. The conclusion must be made that the only object effected by religion is society through the adoption or imposition of traditions, norms, values, and, in some cases, systems of power. With this in mind, one can deduce that because the expression of “God” is religion and the object effected by religion is mankind, that Nietzsche’s “shadow” is one that religion has cast over man.

Nietzsche’s choice of the words suggests that this “shadow,”  the effect that religion has upon mankind, is of a character that is negative at least and sinister at most. Let us examine this claim and explore how religions influence society today. Organized religions impose a set of morals, values, and traditions onto a given culture. Such religious impositions encourage the conformity of the members of that culture and discourage individuality and creativity. Some societies have been so intellectually diminished by the confines of organized religion that they allowed themselves to commit atrocities in the name of God, such as the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Salem Witch Trials. In all of these cases there was a marked lack of critical thought as religious leaders insisted that they were acting as God wanted. Based on all that they had ever been taught by that religion about the nature of God, these societies could do little but obey and simply do as their leaders asked.

To understand how society is effected by religion, however, one must examine how religion affects the individuals of that society. As the rules are applied to the group, the individual is pressured to conform and he is no longer allowed to be the person that he wants to be. Rather than using his curiosity to explore life and its possibilities, he is restricted to a very narrow definition of what it is to be a person and the extent of human spirituality. Individual human spirituality is an enormous part of the human person, one that should never be caged nor controlled in any way. People use spirituality in part as a guide for their morals, values, and behaviors. Restricting one’s ability to explore spirituality, therefore, is to restrict his ability to explore who he is and what his ideas are. For instance, a question that a devout Catholic would not ask is “Why is sex before marriage wrong?” To this person, there is no question of the fact that it is sinful for one to have sex before marriage. This belief is based on Church teaching that sex is an act specially reserved for marriage and should not be practiced under any other circumstances. Some more thoughtful Catholics might actually offer good reasons as to why sex before marriage is a bad idea, but there is a fine line between practical wisdom against a bad idea and the teaching that sex before marriage is considered adultery, a sin. The Church’s stance on sex is just one example of how religions coerce and confine their followers rather than encouraging them to question the validity of the ideas that they teach.

A profound, almost innate respect for organized religion has become so hegemonic in the collective consciousness of today’s societies, even in individuals that do not practice them, that it is unlikely that we shall be able to overcome the boundaries of our religions anytime soon. As Nietzsche himself says, “there will perhaps be caves for milleniums yet, in which people will show [God’s] shadow” (Nietzsche 150). But what if we could? Nietzsche offers a hint of what he believes would happen in such an instance in his teaching of will to power. I do not think that Nietzsche was naive enough to believe that all of society’s problems would vanish and mankind would be brought into a Utopian state upon truly embracing the idea of will to power. No, I believe his thoughts on the outcome were much more modest than that: societies would be better off than they are now because people would be happier. Nietzsche could envision a world in which people got over themselves, their need to make and follow cultural rules and could experience themselves not as sheeple or as unnaturally confined beings but instead as the natural persons that they were meant to be. He saw a world of creativity and personality without borders or boundaries, where the superficial, constraining rules of institutions did not apply. Shrugging off religions as we know them, he would argue, would be one of the greatest steps in creating such a world and realizing that natural, fulfilled state of the person.

Typically, an object that is described as dead was, at one point, alive. By saying that God is dead, Nietzsche is implying that these religions were, at one point, useful and beneficial to mankind. Perhaps the very earliest forms of these religions were the expressions and end results of a will to power, people searching for their own answers and choosing to share their musings and conclusions with others. That point, however, is moot and kaput. Where God may have once been alive, people now kneel to mindlessly worship a decaying and decrepit corpse. But Nietzsche offers a way to reverse this unnatural ignorance. To this end, Nietzsche would ask, “What is it to be alive?” To be alive is to change, to flow, to grow, to laugh, to dance, to love, to learn, to cry, and to mourn. And so it should be with religion. One of the popular ideas of organized religions, to wait piously for death and the hereafter, is comparable to listening to a song just to hear the silence that comes when it is over. The fact that far too many people forget is that while the music is playing, they were supposed to be singing. They were supposed to be dancing. We would be better off, Nietzsche argues, if people could remove the shackles that religion has used to make their limbs heavy for generations and just dance.   






Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche : The First Complete and Authorized English Translation.” n.p., n.d. April. 2010.


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