Every now and then a religious apologist comes along and bashes the New Atheists for being far shallower than the great atheists of yore. And when they reach into history for shining examples of admirably honest and deep atheists who had something at least worth taking seriously, they invariably laud Nietzsche. David B. Hart devoted a whole essay three years ago to how much more challenging Nietzsche is to both believer and non-believer alike. And last year Rabbi Jonathan Sacks made ripples with this comparison:
I love the remark made by one Oxford don about another: ‘On the surface, he’s profound, but deep down, he’s superficial.’ That sentence has more than once come to mind when reading the new atheists [...] Whatever happened to the intellectual depth of the serious atheists, the forcefulness of Hobbes, the passion of Spinoza, the wit of Voltaire, the world-shattering profundity of Nietzsche?
Then this month Michael Robbins wrote an article in Slate piggy backing off a book by a writer from a “theology think tank” (a very credible sounding institution for getting the real score on atheism) to make a similar pass at bashing atheists for not being more in touch with their inner-Nietzsche. It always bums me when I read pieces like Robbins’s which talk about how no “evangelical atheists”/New Atheists engage with Nietzsche or do the hard project of developing an integrating moral theory when this is the core of my own work and I’m not exactly invisible. I have what is probably one of the 20 or so most read atheist blogs. Is it too hard to actually research who is out there and what they’re doing before making these kinds of sweeping comments? And I’m not alone. Steve Neumann for one talks about Nietzsche over at Rationally Speaking, Massimo Pigliucci’s blog. Given how relatively few New Atheist writers are in the public square it’s not some great crisis that not more than a few are Nietzsche specialists and it’s no great crisis that people who are not Nietzsche specialists don’t presume to write about him. We have enough ill-informed people propagating superficial (and sometimes dangerous) interpretations of Nietzsche as it is. I’d rather my friends who aren’t qualified to talk about him keep not talking about him.
But as to the charge the New Atheists are all superficial compared to Nietzsche or failing to answer his challenge to create a post-theistic viewpoint with all vestiges of Christianity weeded out—I’ll admit, I don’t think the average atheist or any of the famous atheist writers holds a candle to Nietzsche in terms of profundity, so far as I have seen. And I don’t think that much atheist movement discourse has yet risen to constructive rigor that deals in depth with the kinds of problems he raises. Movement atheism is not, at least yet, a serious intellectual movement.
Rather, it is an activist movement arguing for reason in the public square and secularism in government. It is a science education movement aimed at pushing back against active, religiously motivated, scientific miseducation which plagues our contemporary world. It is an identity movement trying to make alienated and ostracized atheists proud of themselves. It is a recovery movement aiming to help people traumatized by the painful experience of leaving their religious beliefs and community behind because of their intellectual conscience. And it is an evangelical movement aimed at dispelling people’s faith-based illusions and freeing them from mental bondage to regressive pretenders to moral and intellectual authority. Finally, it is a community building movement in which atheists are working out how to meet the needs of fellow atheists that remain unmet in the void of religion.
I think that it’s great that it’s all these things. These are all very pressing needs. And meeting them allows us to create the conditions in which atheists will interact more and more with each other and start being, as a group, a more interesting intellectual force. As things stand, countless atheist scientists and academics and artists do profoundly interesting thinking in ways that are all the better for their implicit refusal to incorporate gods or undue deference to religious authorities into their thought processes at all. Atheistic thinking, in the sense of the kind that ignores gods and assumes a natural world, in practice is what has yielded leaps and bounds of intellectual progress in the last few centuries (whether its practitioners were also part of theistic religions on the weekends or not). Atheistic thinking, the kind that does not involve gods, is still what leads to our most profound ideas–not our airy pseudo-profound nonsense statements that are only superficially interesting–but our actual profoundly world changing discoveries and rigorous theoretical frameworks that have transformed life technologically, politically, socially, and morally in countless ways. These advances are the stuff of natural science and ethics and politics and social science done without superstitious consultations of deities.
But atheists under the banner of atheism doing serious intellectual work? Well, there are relatively few of us even trying. Most of the immense amount of excellent thinking that is god-free (and all the better for it) doesn’t even care about the god-free part enough to mention it–it’s just such an automatic assumption. But the atheist community needs people who bring together all this non-theistic truth and insight and relate it directly to what it actually means to be non-theistic and irreligious and how to live constructively without gods as a self-conscious program of action and practice and thought to replace theistically religious ones. So, yes, Nietzsche was calling for some of that and it’s only slowly happening.
But, I digress. One of the real reasons that a lot of theistic critics of the new atheists love at least some of the “old” atheists of yore and tout them over the “new” atheists is really underhanded and self-serving. You see there is a streak of nihilism whereby some of the “old” atheists can be read as nihilists who found that life without gods was meaningless. In fact, some of them really thought that. (I don’t think Nietzsche did, contrary to popular perception, but others did.) And theistic apologists love this because while a few brave nihilists may believe the world is meaningless and be inspired to brave affirmation nonetheless, the mass of people will skip that nihilistic doom and gloom and prefer narratives that are less bleak. This is all marketing, truth be damned.
But anyway, I think atheists who fall into the trap of nihilism just still haven’t shaken theistic messaging and categories as well as they think they have. It’s the one bit of poisonous bait theists offer atheists that some atheists gobble up. (For some explanation of why that is, read my posts on “nihilists mourning their Christian soul mates” and “rebutting the superstitions of disembodied atheism”.)
I think the current atheist movement’s wisdom is that they refuse to play that nihilistic game but instead simply insist that atheists can have and do have at least as positive and life affirming and ethically ennobling an approach to life as theists. This is totally true, even if we have some intellectual work to do in filling in some of the philosophical gaps in explicitly “atheistic” accounts of how all that works technically or in overcoming this or that Christian prejudice we inherited. And, here’s the thing—there is plenty of secular, god ignoring, reasoning about moral philosophy going on. And it’s rigorous and insightful and has transformed my understanding of the world in more ways than I can count.
Secular morality is not a hopeless project. It’s a vibrant one. Just to get beyond the banalities and the empty generalizations you have to do some rigorous work and engage with some technical detail. It’s much pithier to throw out a few empty rhetorical shots at atheists and misleadingly imply that the arbitrariness of faith traditions is a magic panacea for all the complicated questions of morality. But if any of the scoffers would actually dig into the literature, they’d find that secular moral philosophy is thriving. And the more the atheist movement gains traction, it will inevitably catch up, more and more, with explicitly incorporating the rich resources of secular moral philosophy and the social sciences. Does it matter that the average humanist does not know all the details of the best secular moral philosophy? Do they on that account live by a “religious belief” as Michael Robbins quotes John Gray saying? No. I recommend you read my detailed argument for why living by an ethics without having a moral philosopher’s grasp of its foundations is not akin to living by a religious faith in my post “How Ethics is More Like Physics Than Faith”.
And also let me point out that, even though I personally love reading Nietzsche’s works so much that I devoted six years to writing a dissertation on him, it’s quite valuable that few atheists at all are treating Nietzsche like some kind of prophet who must be revered or whose opinions must be given some sort of special weight. Nietzsche was wrong about some things. And some of his thinking is out of date or addressed to an entirely different cultural situation than our own and so not immediately and thoughtlessly applicable to the present. And Nietzsche is a deliberately esoteric and enigmatic writer who did not even intend to be read or understood by everyone. And Nietzsche’s nastier or more pessimistic or inegalitarian sides are not something any other atheist is especially obliged to agree with. That’s not those atheists being dishonest. It’s not them shirking “the real, terrible conclusions atheism logically leads to”. Nietzsche’s views need only be his own. His reasons for them should be rationally assessed like anyone else’s. We should learn from what is insightful, improve on what can be improved upon, and put aside as irrelevant or outdated that which is fairly useless to us. He’s not a prophet. He’s not the One Honest Atheist. And atheists would be less rational, rather than more, if they felt beholden to agree with him, venerate him, or defer to him where he’s wrong.
And while I think Nietzsche is a rich resource not yet exhausted by contemporary secular moral philosophy (which does underestimate him and avoid him too much–he’s unfortunately more culturally popular than popular among technical analytic philosophers), there are still numerous secular ethicists, spanning thousands of years and doing work at numerous present day universities, who also have insightful things to say about the nature of ethics that should undermine or qualify plenty of what Nietzsche says. Part of the whole point of New Atheism and of the university since the Enlightenment is to break the obsession with authority figures who cannot be questioned. The point is to appreciate that ideas are not true or false because some Great Philosopher said them but because they stand up to rigorous scrutiny. The point is not to replicate religious reverence and authoritarianism. And modern knowledge has progressed precisely because the academy and scientists and inventors started breaking problems down into manageable pieces rather than producing overly broad and sweeping grand statements about everything from metaphysics to physics to biology to who you should have sex with, all in the same overreaching book. The goal is to get the details more meticulously right, before putting the bigger theoretical puzzles back together.
Our understanding of ethics is advancing through technical work from a hundred angles. In the 20th Century metaethics spun off as a new field of concentrated deliberate inquiry, far more technically clarified than ever. Normative moral and political philosophy advanced the paradigms of deontology and consequentialism in a number of ways. Virtue theory charged back to the fore, reinvigorated. Care ethics evolved. A combination of deconstruction and critical theory made enormous contributions to our ethical understanding of the world in constant interaction with the post-World War II shift to a postcolonial and multicultural, post-Holocaust, neo-Imperialist world. Technological explosion has led to cottage industries in applied ethics. And as new challenges emerge, brought on by new technologies, new sexuality and gender paradigms, new global scale conflicts, new environmental threats, new horizons in AI, new economic and political arrangements, etc., new ethical thinking must be done and is being vigorously done. Both atheistic and theistic forms of literary and philosophical existentialism played enormous roles in these processes of reunderstanding ourselves. As did the revolution in psychology brought on by the rise of psychotherapy and the empirical efforts that have made Freud’s own paradigms obsolete. Plus, moral philosophy benefits from breakthroughs in neuroscience, evolutionary biology, primate studies, moral psychology, game theory, and computer science. Film and literature and the visual arts have exploded in myriad directions that give innumerable non-religious insights into human nature and ethics.
The idea that all of this requires vigilant attention and inordinate weight to a philosopher 125+ years behind with respect to the facts on the ground is more than a little naive.
Last but not least the sexual revolution drove (and still drives) enormous secular sea changes in ethics. And there Nietzsche is part of the picture. But of course only a part! In some ways he is an outdated misogynist no one should be too afraid to dismiss. In other ways he’s been an inspiration. Read this post on the LGBT movement in which I talked about how I see a lot of it as exactly in the spirit of Nietzschean value creation. One of the things about being Nietzschean is that Nietzsche was a philosopher who called for a proliferation of approaches to values. It would be wrongheaded to expect his legacy to be only Nietzschebots with religious fealty to him rather than those who embrace his clarion call to do their own transvaluations of all values in unexpected ways.
Secular, god-ignoring, work is being done on all the fronts I’ve just listed and more. By moral philosophers, social scientists, neuroscientists, primatologists, evolutionary biologists, literary theorists, activists, artists, filmmakers, novelists, professional ethical review boards, jurists, legislative bodies, social critics, social workers, journalists, bloggers, and parents. And there is the kind of empirical feed back loop that should exist where these changing real world conditions and reflections on them are affecting the work of theoretical philosophers responding to what those changes in reality and in perspective mean for ethics.
Those who cannot see this vastly improved, multi-front, decentralized, empirical process of secular ethics development as at all even existing are probably blinded precisely by the fact that it does not fit familiar religious, faith-based, models of authoritarian figures pronouncing overgeneralized a priori moral commands with fealty to sacred texts and prophets and traditions.
But atheistic morality shouldn’t take that form. And if it actually did–if every atheist you came across were mindlessly quoting Nietzsche at you instead of thinking–you’d be accusing atheists of being “just like the religious” anyway! There’s no way to win with this shell game. We’re “damned to be just like people of faith” whether we have their structural organization or don’t. But in the meantime, secularized culture, including the New Atheists who are its self-consciously secular product, is working out the changes in the world ethically in a rapid way and not waiting around desperate for a religious revival to save it with retrograde faith-based arbitrariness and authoritarianism.
What one brilliant 19th Century German philosopher had to say need only be a part of the conversation about ethics–and only as much a part as his insights are needed. My goal in my Empowerment Ethics ethical theorizing is to do lots of work systematizing what I see going on in ethics in a hundred places and highlighting the things I think that 19th Century German philosopher got through to me as important, which the rest of the discourse doesn’t appreciate enough. And of course, I try to build off this immense amount offered by Nietzsche and others and push our thinking forward wherever I possibly can. I’m also trying to popularize all this stuff by doing it on a blog instead of in journals.
But I’m not trying to be a “Nietzschean”. I’m not trying to prove that I am faithful to him. The worst thing I could do is try to agree with Nietzsche. My loyalty shouldn’t be to Nietzsche, it should be to the truth and to humanity. Faithfulness to Nietzsche where he’s wrong would be the end of my credibility. Prejudicially assuming Nietzsche is always right or hoping he will always be vindicated as right would also be counterproductive to rational thought. And the atheist movement is right to treat him similarly.
When I meet zealous Nietzscheans who quote Nietzsche at me as some sort of rebuke because I disagreed with him or some attempt to trump my arguments by an appeal to his authority, I worry for them. They’re being unhealthily religious about him, as far as I’m concerned. Raising his observations for consideration is valuable of course. But the attempt to bring me to heel by invoking him is a joke to me. And those hostile theists who try to quote something terrible he said to shame me or pin it on me don’t get it that I don’t have to own what’s wrong with Nietzsche the way they have to own their holy books which they claim are divinely inspired. Where Nietzsche’s wrong, I can disagree without implying my god is wrong. Because he’s not my god! He’s just a guy with some insights. And he’s not the only one! I even have some thoughts of my own!
Finally, my initial inspiration for writing this post in the first place was to make one thing abundantly clear. Whatever you think of the New Atheists, they are not a fraction as scathingly insightful or profound in their takedown of theistic religions as Nietzsche. Anyone who does more than quotemine Nietzsche for his prima facie nihilism and actually reads what he says about Christianity, Judaism, and theism generally can hardly affirm he’s profound and serious but judge that the anti-theist new atheists are just ignorant haters. I mean, here are just two representative passages, which appear back to back in Nietzsche’s Antichrist (which is available to read in its entirety for free online):
It is necessary to say just whom we regard as our antagonists: theologians and all who have any theological blood in their veins—this is our whole philosophy…. One must have faced that menace at close hand, better still, one must have had experience of it directly and almost succumbed to it, to realize that it is not to be taken lightly (—the alleged free-thinking of our naturalists and physiologists seems to me to be a joke—they have no passion about such things; they have not suffered—). This poisoning goes a great deal further than most people think: I find the arrogant habit of the theologian among all who regard themselves as “idealists”—among all who, by virtue of a higher point of departure, claim a right to rise above reality, and to look upon it with suspicion…. The idealist, like the ecclesiastic, carries all sorts of lofty concepts in his hand (—and not only in his hand!); he launches them with benevolent contempt against “understanding,” “the senses,” “honor,” “good living,” “science”; he sees such things as beneath him, as pernicious and seductive forces, on which “the soul” soars as a pure thing-in-itself—as if humility, chastity, poverty, in a word, holiness, had not already done much more damage to life than all imaginable horrors and vices…. The pure soul is a pure lie…. So long as the priest, that professional denier, calumniator and poisoner of life, is accepted as a higher variety of man, there can be no answer to the question, What istruth? Truth has already been stood on its head when the obvious attorney of mere emptiness is mistaken for its representative….
Upon this theological instinct I make war: I find the tracks of it everywhere. Whoever has theological blood in his veins is shifty and dishonourable in all things. The pathetic thing that grows out of this condition is called faith: in other words, closing one’s eyes upon one’s self once for all, to avoid suffering the sight of incurable falsehood. People erect a concept of morality, of virtue, of holiness upon this false view of all things; they ground good conscience upon faulty vision; they argue that no other sort of vision has value any more, once they have made theirs sacrosanct with the names of “God,” “salvation” and “eternity.” I unearth this theological instinct in all directions: it is the most widespread and the most subterranean form of falsehood to be found on earth. Whatever a theologian regards as true must be false: there you have almost a criterion of truth. His profound instinct of self-preservation stands against truth ever coming into honour in any way, or even getting stated. Wherever the in fluence of theologians is felt there is a transvaluation of values, and the concepts “true” and “false” are forced to change places: whatever is most damaging to life is there called “true,” and whatever exalts it, intensifies it, approves it, justifies it and makes it triumphant is there called “false.”… When theologians, working through the “consciences” of princes (or of peoples—), stretch out their hands for power, there is never any doubt as to the fundamental issue: the will to make an end, the nihilistic will exerts that power….
Yes, Rabbi Sacks is right. They sure don’t make atheists like they used to.
For links to many of my posts on Nietzsche, see my regularly updated permanent tab devoted to them.
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