Christian Apologists, Stop Misusing Nietzsche’s “The Madman”

If you’re an atheist who has talked with a Christian who has read Christian apologists, you’ve probably run into the notion that atheist morality is a failure because it is bankrupt of assigned meaning from God. You have no purpose, you have no meaning, you have no value, you have no worth. This is horrifying, in the Christian scheme, and crippling to the core. You are trapped in a nihilistic nightmare, they claim.

The problem, I think, is worse than that for Christianity. And, at the same time, better than that for atheists. To illustrate why, I’ll share a common text that Christian apologists love to quote, which is from the atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. I know it’s long, but it is one of the most powerful discussions of God in history. If you are somewhere where you can do it, get the full weight of the passage by reading it aloud:

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!”—As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?—Thus they yelled and laughed.

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”

So, the Christian apologist will read this and say that this is terrible. There is no purpose in the atheist scheme, no value, no worth, nada. And, therefore, they’ll continue, isn’t it better to be Christian? Wouldn’t you prefer to have purpose and value in your life?

It has seemed to me that this argument, each of the thousands of times I have heard it in my lifetime, is not fundamentally based on a rational discussion on the existence of God. The argument is based on the assumption that I want there to be some foundation to thought, I want to have purpose and meaning in my life. More fundamentally, I want to belong in the world, and to know I have a place within it that is fully rationalized and reasonable. I want to know that I have a right to take in every breath, and to do that, the implication is, I have to have a purpose, a reason why I am here. 

And if God exists, the argument goes, that reason is straightforward. I can embrace and walk the world as if I have a right to be here. Let the vast universe overwhelm the miniscule dot on an infinite timeline, that infinitely small speck I call “me” — that doesn’t matter, because the God of it all said that I matter. That’s where I get my worth and value from.

And so, people become Christian because of that insecurity, and they try to force you to share that insecurity too, so they find a Nietzsche quote that seems to them the picture of that desperation, cast it onto you, and insist that you have to accept or convert.

That would be a mistake.

What Neitzsche is doing is changing up the game of morality more fundamentally than these Christian apologists imply.

Now, I don’t agree with the entirety of Nietzsche’s philosophy, but the part I do agree with is his eloquent removal of God from the equation. All the way, down to the dregs. For Nietzsche to build his morality, he has to start with a God-free existence, one in which God has absolutely no authority to assign anyone purpose, to tell anyone to be humble, to create our horizons, or to give us a foundation.

He is burning the chess board we have been playing on and then yelling in our faces that it is over, it is done, the game is up, and taunting anyone who would dare try to move the pieces back in place or set up a firm external meaning. There is no God. There is no purpose from God, no foundation made up by God…at all.

All of the God-based morality, the morality that insists you have to be subservient to some type of higher “master” God — all that is wiped away. That entire view of purpose as something that is ordained, that you are given from a Great Beyond — it’s gone. And all we have left is…what? What is left? God has been so integral to our morality, to the way that we think of ourselves and the world, that we have to start over.

And Nietzsche wants to start over; he wants nothing of God left. We are starting completely and totally from scratch. He’s not even just talking about the idea of God itself — he’s trying to rip out the roots of where the concept of God has made an impact on the way that we think about each other and the universe, including the way those roots sometimes sink into society for people after they have pruned the above-ground concept of God from their lives.

Lemme make this concrete. When I left Christianity, I had to unlearn a lot. I thought that I had left God, but the old ways of thinking still were there. I had puritanical views for the next couple years, for example, when it came to things like sex and alcohol. Today, I still find ways that the concept of God has infiltrated my thinking or the thinking of supposedly secular society in ways that I had not determined before.

Getting rid of that and starting over is an extreme project. It requires washing away the horizons we have taken for granted, deconstructing the morality we have taken for granted and re-examining the reasons we hold it, and embracing a godless universe — which can (and likely should) be a jolting paradigm shift at first, as Nietzsche is articulating the above quote.

But Nietzsche did not see the problem of finding your way in a godless universe as unsolvable. After the God-concept is wiped from the slate, after he has burnt the chessboard of divine morality so that there is no game on the table, and he has forcefully articulated that there is no divine morality available and we have to start over, he has another step in mind, as is revealed when the quote continues.

“Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

We have killed him.

What does that mean?

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