Nietzche and Christianity

Jim Farmelant farmelantj at
Sun Feb 11 17:41:30 MST 2001

On Sun, 11 Feb 2001 18:46:16 -0400 John Henry <johnh at>
> A couple of thoughts on the Nietzche thread:
> 1) Nietzche was an atheist yet his most famous quote is "God is
> dead". For
> God to be dead, wouldn't S/He have had to be alive some point? If
> so, and
> Nietzche believes in His (or Her) death, would that not be
> incompatible
> with atheism?

Far be it from me to say exactly what Nietzsche meant by the "death
of God" but I think that he meant by it that the idea of
God had lost the plausibility that it had long enjoyed in Western
culture.  For centuries the great majority of people in the West
whether intellectuals or ordinary folk had taken God's existence
for granted.  The medieval scholastics had debated over the
validity of the classical arguments for the existence of God
but regardless of their opinions concerning the various arguments,
no one questioned the existence of God.  In fact up until the
17th century, it seems that very few people ever ventured the
opinion that God might not exist.  It was not until the scientific
revolution of the 17th century that people in any signficant
numbers began to perceive that there might be any grounds
for questioning God's existence.  And it was not until the
latter half of the 18th century that people began to openly
call themselves atheists.  By then people like some
of the French philosophes (i.e. Helvetius, Holbach, and DIderot)
and the Scottish philosopher David Hume subjected all
of the traditional arguments for God's existence to critical
scrutiny and found them all to be wanting.  A little later
Kant, while sympathetic to religion also subjected the
traditional arguments to devastating criticisms.

All this was indicative of an important change in Western
culture.  By the end of the 18th century the idea of God had
begun to lose its plausibility for intellectuals at least.  And
not just for intellectuals.  France in the late 18th century
had seen rise of a popular freethought literature aimed
at common folk which attempted to debunk the claims of religion.
The French Revolution witnessed the attempt by some
radical Jacobins to replace both Christianity and even
Deism with a non-theistic cult of the goddess of Reason.

The early 19th century saw a revival of religion but later
developments during that century further undermined the
plausibility of religion.  Although David Hume had in the
18th century subjected the argument from design to
a devastating criticism, that argument still retained
considerable credibility for many thinking people
because there didn't seem to be any compelling alternative
hypothesis for explaining the apparent designed character
of biological organism.  However, eventually Charles
Darwin was able to offer such an alterative with his
theory of evolution by natural selection.  And Darwinism
delivered a death blow to traditional Christian faith
form much of Europe's intellectual and cultural elites.

It is these intellectual and cultural changes that I
think that Nietzsche was referring to when he
wrote about the death of God.

> I suppose that one could define atheism as meaning that there is
> *currently* no God but my understanding of atheism has always been a
> total
> denial of God's existence.
> 2) The quote that started the thread was something about
> Christianity being
> a fine religion for slaves. While I suppose one could argue that
> this is
> true, the fact is that the vast majority of Christians, historically
> and
> today have not been slaves. Christianity has true believers across
> all
> class lines.

Nietzsche was hardly the first person to refer to Christianity in such
terms.  Rousseau had called Chritianity a religion for slaves,
long before Nietzsche did.  Diderot had likewise made similar
comments too.  Nietzsche, however, I think was going beyond,
Rousseau or Diderot, by criquing what he referred to as slave
morality, which he saw as something that most Western thinkers
accepted uncritically, even those who were secualrists hostile
to Christianity.

> 3) Christianity, as a religion, did very little to stop slavery. At
> least
> until the 19th century when English Christians (specifically
> Quakers)
> embarked on a crusade which took slavery from being a rather
> unremarkable
> commonplace in most of the world to being generally viewed as vile
> and
> virtually ending it worldwide. Their story is really pretty
> remarkable in
> eradicating something that had been culturally ingrained in
> virtually all
> societies since time immemorial

As Marxists, we might suggest that the changes in both the
forces of production and the relations of production that
accompanied the rise of industrial capitalism had made
slavery as such no longer necessary.  When slavery had
ceased to he historically necessary, then its morality
along with its economic efficiency could now be called
into question.  Although in the antebellum South, slavery
had some very intelligent apologists (including clergymen
who pointed out that the Bible seemed quite accepting
of it as a social institution), now many people began to
find the practice to be unchristian amongst other things.

As Marx once put it:

"The social principles of Christianity have had eighteen hundred years
in which to develop and they need no further development at the hands
of Prussian ecclesiastical commissioners. The social principles of
Christianity justified slavery in the classic world and they glorified
serfdom, and if necessary they are quite willing to defend the oppression
the proletariat even if they should wear a somewhat crestfallen
the while. The social principles of Christianity preach the necessity of
a ruling
and an oppressed class, and all they have to offer to the latter is the
pious wish
that the former may be charitable. The social principles of Christianity
transfer the
reparation of all infamies to the realms of heaven and thus they justify
the perpetuation
of these infamies on earth. The social principles of Christianity declare
that all the
 villainies of the oppressors against the oppressed are either the just
for original or other sin, or tribulations which God in his inscrutable
wisdom causes
the redeemed to suffer. The social principles of Christianity preach
self-abasement, resignation, submission and humility, in short, all the
of the canaille, but the proletariat is not Prepared to let itself be
treated as canaille
and it needs its courage, confidence, pride and independence even more
it needs its daily bread. The social principles of Christianity are
sneaking and
hypocritical whilst the proletariat is revolutionary."

> 3) Christianity is not the only religion which turned a blind eye to
> slavery. Judaism supported it (see the Old Testament). Islamic
> traders
> invented the African slave trade 500 before the first European came
> to
> Africa and probably exported 30 million African slaves to the east
> over the
> 1000 years ending in 1900. (Another 30 million never lived long
> enough to
> be exported) This is in addition to the 9mm or so exported to South
> America
> and 1mm to North America.
> Buhdism, Confucianism, etc. Virtually all religions have either
> turned a
> blind eye or affirmatively approved of slavery in the past.
> This is certainly not an attempt to justify slavery or religion's
> attitude
> to it. Freedom must always be our ultimate political goal and
> slavery is
> freedom's antithesis. I simply wanted to shed a little light here.
> Best,
> John R Henry CPP
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