One of Friedrich Nietzsche’s most famous phrases is his statement that God is dead. In The Gay Science, he tells the story of a madman who went to the marketplace and shouted that he was looking for God. This caused amusement among the onlookers; many of them no longer believed in God. The madman announced: “Where is God? I will tell you! We have killed him, – you and me! We all are his murderers! But how did we do it? How did we manage to drink the ocean? Who gave us the sponge to erase the horizon? What did we do, when we unshackled the Sun from the Earth? Where is it going now? Where are we going now? Away from all suns? Do we not fall incessantly? Backwards, sideways, forward, to all sides? Is there an above and below? Do we not wander in an infinite nothingness? Do we not feel the cold breath of empty space? Has it not gotten colder? Is there not more and more night? […] God is dead! God remains dead! And we all killed him! […] The holiest and most powerful the world possessed, it bled to death beneath our knives, – who will wipe this blood from us? With what water can we cleanse us? […] Is this deed not too great for us? Do we not have to become Gods ourselves, to be worthy of it?”. The madman and all the people around him fell silent. Then he announced that he had come too early, that the event still had to reach people’s ears.
Friedrich Nietzsche correctly saw that the discoveries of modern science had undermined the stability of the Western societies. Their value systems had become unmoored, the moral framework based on Christianity destabilized. There were three main attacks on the special status humanity had enjoyed so far:
- Copernicus found that it is the Earth that orbits the Sun, not the Sun the Earth. This dislodged humanity from its place at the center of the universe. Later it became clear that even the Sun is not at the center, but only one among trillions of other Suns in the Milky Way and other galaxies.
- Darwin found out that humans evolved from animals through evolution.
- Freud discovered that even in our own minds, we are not in control. A large part of our motivations and our personality is unconscious.
Thus from being God’s special creation, endowed with supreme insight, at the center of the universe, humans were demoted to the status of intelligent apes, who don’t understand their own minds, traveling trough space on one of the trillions of planets in the universe. This demolished the basis of the moral framework that had hitherto been in place; Nietzsche’s story captures the sense of disorientation and anxiety this caused. Nietzsche also intuited the moral disasters it would lead to. Indeed, the fascist and communist movements of the 20th century tried to replace the Christian moral framework with a new, pseudo-scientific framework that was not constrained by notions of compassion and mercy. Before, human beings had been creations of God and endowed with intrinsic dignity; now they were slaughtered like animals, with pseudo-scientific arguments about race and class. Nietzsche anticipated these developments decades before they actually came about; like the “madman” in the story, Nietzsche came too early.
Thus the outcome of the demolition of the Christian moral framework was nihilism (Nietzsche: “Nothing is true, everything is permitted”). Since the absolute reference frame God provided is gone, the world disintegrates into competing ideologies and life philosophies, all of which are equally arbitrary. The consequences of this nihilism are palpable even today – is it not a widespread life philosophy, explicitly or implicitly, to say that there is no God (or at least to behave as though he didn’t exist), to say that there is no absolute reference frame for good and bad, and that one should just try to be as successful as possible and to enjoy life? How many people spend their lives in the silent desperation of this nihilistic hedonism? Trying to numb themselves with television and the internet? Are not many of the problems of modern society results of the attempt to fill the void within and the lack of a moral coordinate system? Drugs, overeating, ruthless pursuit of self-interest, abuse, violence?
What, then, is the solution to this problem? The only way out of this dilemma is to create meaning by oneself – to create meaning in the inside, rather than taking it from the outside, “to become Gods ourselves”, as Nietzsche writes. Nietzsche did not say that religion and the existence of God had been refuted, he merely noted that the special status of humanity is no longer an obvious fact, and that this undermines the Christian morality. In the middle ages, the existence of God and the central status of humanity in creation was an obvious fact of human life, and this is no longer the case. We have to dig deeper if we want to find God – we have to become fully human, we have to look inside ourselves and find the truth there. In fact, mystics in many religions state that we have to become one with God, we have to empty ourselves of our selfish garbage, to make space for God within ourselves – to become God, in some sense. This is an answer to the problem of nihilism.
It seems to me that now, more than 120 years after Nietzsche, we are again in a similar situation of existential insecurity and fear. Only now, it is not the Christian worldview that has died, it is the modern belief in progress and the eventual victory of democracy. After the end of the Cold War, it was believed that the last big conflict had ended, that peace and democracy would reign supreme, that there would be “the end of history”. Now we have to recognize that this belief was wrong: the world is far from peaceful, we are about to destroy the planet with global warming, and in many regions of the world democracy is in retreat and autocratic systems take hold. This year, the coronavirus outbreak has shown that the stability of our systems is an illusion: the epidemic overwhelmed health care systems and stopped economies, and the economic, political and social repercussions will accompany us for a long time. The questions this raises are the same Nietzsche raised more than one hundred years ago: “Where are we going now? Away from all suns? Do we not fall incessantly? Backwards, sideways, forward, to all sides? Is there an above and below? Do we not wander in an infinite nothingness? Do we not feel the cold breath of empty space? Has it not gotten colder? Is there not more and more night?”.