Thursday, July 31, 2008

Nietzsche, Atheism and the Eucharist

Nietzsche is indispensable in understanding the dynamics of atheism.

Mocking religion, undermining the authority of its institutions, and evacuating the meaning of its symbols is the easy part for atheism, just as the easy part in constructing a new building is knocking down the rickety old one occupying the lot. But there is a moment of danger once that old building is destroyed; while it existed, it at least provided some modicum of shelter however unsatisfactory. After its destruction, there is no shelter at all until the new building is constructed. The challenge for the building's occupants is to somehow make it through that transitional period of time between the destruction of the old one and the construction of the new.

Like an old building, traditional religion provides a system of meaning, a "building", within which man can live, however unsatisfactory any particular religion might be. The real challenge for atheism is to build a new system of meaning and significance to replace the one that disappeared with the destruction of religion, an event known as the "death of God." Just as homelessness is the threat that faces man after the destruction of his old dwellings, so nihilism is the threat that faces man after the destruction of his old systems of meaning. Nietzsche saw that facing and overcoming the threat of nihilism was the true task of atheism, not merely mocking religion.

How is nihilism to be overcome? By the creation of a new system of meaning. This is the task of Zarathustra, Nietzsche's "uberman." Nietzsche was not himself Zarathustra; he did not and never attempted to create a new system of meaning. He was Zarathustra's prophet, the way John the Baptist was the prophet of Jesus Christ, pointing the way to the One who would come. Nietzsche thinks of Christ as a kind of earlier incarnation of Zarathustra; far more than a merely political rebel, Christ managed a revolution in meaning, a "transvaluation of values." Christ managed to overturn the allegedly "noble" pagan virtues of strength, virility, ambition and pride in favor of the "slave" virtues of humility, mildness, patience and submission; Christ's victory is attested by the fact that we now look on the old Roman virtues as practically vices.

Just as Christ was not really a political figure, although he was mistaken for one, so Zarathustra, when he comes, will not really be a political figure. The revolution Christ effected went much deeper than politics, and a similar sort of revolution will be necessary if atheism is to succeed. What will be the measure of Zarathustra's success? Zarathustra succeeds to the extent that he is able to create a new system of meaning that is substantial in its own right, and in which people can live; to the extent that he fails in his act of creation, the threat of nihilism becomes ever more pressing - and people come to resent Zarathustra as a mere destroyer and become nostalgic for the old building they left.

There is another Biblical image relevant here, and that is Moses, an earlier incarnation of Zarathustra. The key to Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt was convincing them that they were meant to be free, that God Himself was behind their liberation. The best way to keep a slave a slave is to convince him that it is in the nature of things that he is in bondage; the only way to really liberate him is to overturn the system of meaning that places the noble master over him. Thus Moses effected a revolution by proclaiming Yahweh, the God of the Slaves who was more powerful than the Gods of Pharoah (a revolution that was finally completed by Christ, the New Moses and thus a New Zarathustra.) But Moses and the Israelites had to wander in the desert for forty years while their new system of meaning was built; a time when nihilism threatened, Moses was regularly denounced as a destroyer, and the Israelites pined to return to Egypt and slavery, where they would once again be in bondage but be comfortable in their old system of meaning. As Nietzsche saw, man finds nihilism unbearable and would rather be enslaved than endure it.

Atheism succeeded a long time ago in liberating man from religion's systems of meaning; in fact, the Enlightenment can be thought of as this very project, and it had largely succeeded by the turn of the 19th century. What followed was a wandering in the desert; a stroll that was initially fascinating and thrilling as new lands were explored, but one that became increasingly anxious as man was unable to make a home for himself anywhere. Nietzsche, writing at the end of the nineteenth century, understood the spiritual situation of man and the looming threat that nihilism posed.

The difference between John the Baptist and Nietzsche is that the Baptist knew that Christ was coming, whereas Nietzsche only recognized the need for a Zarathustra, whether one was actually coming or not. As it turned out, the twentieth century was full of false Zarathustras, tyrants who played on man's desperate need for meaning to impose their own degenerate visions through a combination of seduction, intimidation and unrestrained violence. A Hitler, a Stalin, and a Mao are only possible in a world made vulnerable by the threat of nihilism, a world prepared to submit to slavery if only the void in its center is filled.

The true Zarathustra is not a tyrant. He does not need to be; men follow him as sheep follow a shepherd, because his voice speaks to the meaning they so desperately need. But no true Zarathustra has appeared, and the experience of the twentieth century has made us wary of the false Zarathustra and better at recognizing him. We begin to wonder if perhaps God is not dead after all, and if maybe it is Zarathustra (or the myth of Zarathustra) that is really dead. Maybe Moses was not a Zarathustra, a creator of meaning, but truly what he said he was: A prophet of the One True God.

And who are the most visible faces of atheism today? They are Richard Dawkins, P.Z. Myers, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, etc., who don't even attempt to address the real problem of atheism. Instead, they avoid the problem altogether by returning to a thumb-in-the-eye-of religion atheism of the early days of the Enlightenment. It's as though Moses, after twenty years in the desert and lacking anything better to do, but hearing the increased grumbling of the Israelites, decided to crack his staff on the ground and call down a plague of locusts on Pharoah, hundreds of miles away and whom they hadn't seen in decades, if he was still alive at all. I scratch my head when I hear the fulminations of Hitchens, Myers, etc. against allegedly oppressive religion. Has Voltaire been caught in a time machine and unknowingly transported from 1750 to 2008? The chains, my friend, were broken a long time ago and melted down to make machine guns and barbed wire.

Sam Harris, one of the "new atheists" who is actually a reincarnation of very old atheists, wrote a book called "The End of Faith." The title is apt, but the faith that is ending is more likely faith in Zarathustra than faith in God. When atheists, after having a clear field for two hundred years, having nothing better to say than a return to the mocking of the Sacraments with which they started, but without the style, we know that atheism as a significant cultural force has about run its course.

I think the most appropriate response to P.Z. Myers'Eucharist stunt is not outrage, but laughter.


Samuel Skinner said...

It is refered to as "The Preacher's Daughter" dilemmia- when taking apart old systems, what do you keep?

Actually that is a requirement for humanism, not atheism. Atheism doesn't imply that you give a damn about what happens.

Atheists don't have to build a new system of meaning- after all, it is obvious they have one right now!

And Nietzsche is a good example of the "raving lunatic type" (also seen in Marx) who declares there will be monumentous change.

Epicureous and Carl Sagan are the epitome of the "love of knowledge" type.

Thoas Paine and Ignersol are the epitome of the "selfless reformer" type.

There are more types as well- there is no one atheism "type".

As for the chains of religion... need I remind you that the US has a policy called the "War on Drugs" that is proped up basically by religion? We know have one of a hundred citizens in bars.

Or the constant ground swell of madness? The choas in Paris, the threat of terrorism across Europe, the murder of gays, abortion doctors, and those who are differant, the secretarian wars based off religious divides, and, of course, the witch hunts.

The present still follows the past- and men still die over how many Gods there are and what book was written in his name.

edtye said...


Another great post. Very insightful.


What book in what God's name did Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Kim Il-sung etc use to justify their slaughter of millions? What religious divide?

Does religion get used as a justification for war or other "madness"? Sure,by some, but the individuals noted above seem to do pretty well without it. Thus, your link (pun intended) to the "chains of religion" as the root cause of this type of madness seems unfounded.
- Ed

Samuel Skinner said...

Stalin and the other commies did it for power, nationalism and the proletariet. What? A lot of killing is secular- Richard the Lion Heart was imprisoned by a pissed of leader who had his standard taken down by the King's troops.

However, saying religion gets of because most atroctities aren't religiously based is falacious- if we didn't have religion, we would have religiously based crimes.

It is like if I said MLK was killed due to racism and then you point out JFK wasn't- his killer was an egalitarian. Well yeah- but it doesn't change the fact that racism is unnecesary and has resulted in death.

Hussein was a socialist as well.

Hitler believed he was acting in Gods name. Like all Christian he... "interpreted" the bible. Jesus was an Aryan being the most blatant change.

Of course, if I wanted to be a bastard, I could argue WW2 flowed from WW1 and that came from extreme nationalism, which was heavily butressed by religion which helped keep everything "in its proper place" as well as make it easier for the idea of nationalism (almost a atheistic religion) to take hold.

Samuel Skinner said...

Also, you completely ignored my example. Nice job!

edtye said...


I didn't ignore your example, the link did not work. I did some searching and found the article you referenced. It is about killing child witches in Nigeria in the name of Christianity?

I guess I agree with your post: Bad things are done in the name of religion. Does this lead you to a conclusion?

Are you concluding that a true system of meaning would never be (mis)used by anyone anywhere as a justification for bad actions?

- Ed

Doug Indeap said...

Your point, I gather, is that religion is useful "like an old building" or at least more so than atheism, so we should retain religion and base our cultures and our lives on it. This, though, says nothing of whether religion is valid (in the sense of true) and whether god(s) exist. Should we retain religion because of its perceived utility even if it is false? And if it is false, is its utility worth living a lie and failing to see, or even look for, the truth about reality?

While religion's usefulness, netting out the good and the bad, may be fairly debated, that strikes me as a sideshow to the fundamental issue of whether it is true.

David said...


Your comment is a fair point. But my post is not directed to the basic question of the truth of either atheism or theism. My post is directed to the question: As a Catholic, how should I respond to the desecration of the Eucharist by an atheist?

Some Catholics are outraged and want to get secular authorities involved. My reaction is much more sanguine, for reasons I explain in the post. Mocking religion has a point when religions are so dominant and overpowering that people can't even think outside their parameters, as they were back in the time of Voltaire. But the time of Voltaire is long since gone... and mocking relgion doesn't advance the atheist cause so much as testify to the sterility of atheism.

That was the point of the building analogy. Voltaire comes along, throws a rock through my window, and laughs at my apartment building because it has a leaky roof and poor heating. Fair enough; I see that Voltaire has a point about my building. But I'm not leaving the building just yet; I'll wait until I see a better place to live. I wait for the atheist to build one.

Two hundred years later, P.Z. Myers comes along and throws another rock through my window and laughs at my roof and heating. Now I'm just bored with atheists. Been there, done that. I know the atheist can break windows; can he build a building? (Metaphorically speaking, building = philosophy of life and the culture it supports.)