What Nietzsche Has to Teach Us About Atheism and Humanism

On Thursday evening I sat in on one of Dan Fincke’s online courses on Nietzche, during which time we read part of Thus Spake Zarathustra. It was a very interesting couple hours and I learned much. I had never read Nietzsche before and only really knew of him from reading H.L. Mencken and I was struck by how similar their views were on a great many subjects. Dan is a terrific teacher, offering insights into the text that had missed me completely several times. And this passage from the book really spoke to me. He’s describing these three transformations, from camel to lion to child.

All these heaviest things the load-bearing spirit taketh upon itself: and like the camel, which, when laden, hasteneth into the wilderness, so hasteneth the spirit into its wilderness.

But in the loneliest wilderness happeneth the second metamorphosis: here the spirit becometh a lion; freedom will it capture, and lordship in its own wilderness.

Its last Lord it here seeketh: hostile will it be to him, and to its last God; for victory will it struggle with the great dragon.

What is the great dragon which the spirit is no longer inclined to call Lord and God? “Thou-shalt,” is the great dragon called. But the spirit of the lion saith, “I will.”

“Thou-shalt,” lieth in its path, sparkling with gold—a scale-covered beast; and on every scale glittereth golden, “Thou shalt!”

The values of a thousand years glitter on those scales, and thus speaketh the mightiest of all dragons: “All the values of things—glitter on me.

All values have already been created, and all created values—do I represent. Verily, there shall be no ‘I will’ any more. Thus speaketh the dragon.

My brethren, wherefore is there need of the lion in the spirit? Why sufficeth not the beast of burden, which renounceth and is reverent?

To create new values—that, even the lion cannot yet accomplish: but to create itself freedom for new creating—that can the might of the lion do.

To create itself freedom, and give a holy Nay even unto duty: for that, my brethren, there is need of the lion.

To assume the right to new values—that is the most formidable assumption for a load-bearing and reverent spirit. Verily, unto such a spirit it is preying, and the work of a beast of prey.

As its holiest, it once loved “Thou-shalt”: now is it forced to find illusion and arbitrariness even in the holiest things, that it may capture freedom from its love: the lion is needed for this capture.

But tell me, my brethren, what the child can do, which even the lion could not do? Why hath the preying lion still to become a child?

Innocence is the child, and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a game, a self-rolling wheel, a first movement, a holy Yea.

Aye, for the game of creating, my brethren, there is needed a holy Yea unto life: ITS OWN will, willeth now the spirit; HIS OWN world winneth the world’s outcast.

Three metamorphoses of the spirit have I designated to you: how the spirit became a camel, the camel a lion, and the lion at last a child.—

Thus spake Zarathustra.

I love the idea of calling the dragon “Thou Shalt.” The camel must transform into the lion and slay the dragon, which represents the idea of morality as a list of rules commanded from above — thus the “thou shalt.” But then the lion must transform into the child and learn anew to think about morality. I think this parallels the transition from religion to atheism and then, for me, to humanism.

In order to construct a new set of values, one must first reject the “thou shalt” conception of morality, but that is not enough by itself. That’s the “holy nay” that he speaks of. It’s necessary but not sufficient. The next step, perhaps ironically, parallels the great evangelical thinker Francis Schaeffer’s book and documentary entitled How Should We Then Live? Once we have rejected, said “nay” to “thou shalt,” what then? How should we treat one another? What are our obligations to one another? I find the answers to those questions in secular humanism, in the application of reason, compassion and shared humanity.

We had an interesting discussion about whether Nietzsche should be considered a humanist. Dan thinks he should in the broad sense and I would agree, but there is an anti-egalitarianism in his views that I think is decidedly anti-humanist, at least as I conceive of humanism. This is why I love having really smart friends who have experiences and knowledge that I don’t have. This, too, is an important part of humanism.

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  • StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    Dunno about atheism and humanism but apparently :


    “There’s nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ya bout the raising of the wrist!”

    According to the Four Bruces aka Monty Python anyhow. (Twenty second mark.)

  • Chiroptera

    All I know about Nietzsche I learned from insufferably smug college students who thought they were the Ubermenschen.

  • Synfandel

    I don’t think Nietzsche was a humanist.* He points out (as you have explained, Ed) that rejecting traditional, authority-derived morality is only half of the process and that one must then create one’s own morality in its place, but he doesn’t tell us what that morality should be; he doesn’t point to humanism or any other system. His point is precisely that he can’t tell you what your new morality should be, because you have to create it for yourself.

    *Decades have passed since I read Nietzsche and I don’t have any references handy. My impression may have come from some of his works other than “Thus Spake Zarathustra”—possibly from “The Gay Science”.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    All I remember about him is that his name sounds like a kitten sneezing. I hope that helps.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    … like the camel, which, when laden, hasteneth into the wilderness…

    So somebody has to chase the damn brute to get it and its load back, and the whole caravan falls behind schedule.

  • Matt

    “…great evangelical thinker Francis Schaeffer”…sorry, but I can’t agree with you here. I grew up in a fundamentalist home, and went to Christian high schools and colleges. Schaeffer was treated like a combination of Shakespeare, Plato, and Sophocles in these environments, but after going back as an adult and reading his stuff I’ve come to the conclusion that he has all the philosophical heft of a community college ethics professor. Yes, he know the right people to quote, but he doesn’t seem to have read them very closely, and only uses them to promote the shallow religious views he grew up with. His later books are especially bad, as they constantly reference his earlier works in self congratulatory footnotes. Honestly, there is not much there. You could boil all his writing down to: “Reformation good, everything after bad.”

  • LightningRose
  • jonathangray
  • Stevarious, Public Health Problem

    authority-derived morality is only half of the process and that one must then create one’s own morality in its place, but he doesn’t tell us what that morality should be;

    If he just TOLD you what morality should be, he would be setting himself up as an authority, thus defeating the whole point.

  • Nick Gotts

    I usually come across him either as the Christian’s favourite atheist – see jonathangray@7 for a typical example – or as the self-important atheist poseur’s favourite philosopher – see Dan Fincke as an example.

  • Compuholic

    Once I wanted to know why certain philosophers were regarded as great thinkers. I tried to read “Thus spake Zarathustra” and was gravely disappointed. Although I’ve read it in German (my native language) I very quickly gave up. If I had not known that Nietsche was regarded as a great philosopher I would have dismissed it as the incoherent ramblings of a mad man.

    I really don’t get it. If you have something profound to say: “Why not express it clearly so that everyone can understand?”

  • dingojack

    Poor old Nietzsche — If only he’d shaved off his walrus moustache he might have got laid, and the history of the Twentieth Century might have been vastly different.

    Instead he wrote philosophical works that come across as sounding like a teenaged Ayn Rand trying to ape a ‘ye olde’ translation of genealogies of Genesis.

    Even Marcus Aurelius isn’t quite as tedious as Nietzsche (at least MA comes across as earnest rather than pretentious).

    Still, if you can wring a few flecks of gold outta the sodden fleece….


  • http://reasondecrystallized.blogspot.com andrew

    I loved Nietzsche in college, but haven’t read him since deconverting. I need to get around to it again and see how much I’ve changed.

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    If only he’d shaved off his walrus moustache he might have got laid

    One likely theory is that he actually did get laid by a prostitute during his brief, disastrous, military experience – and that may be where he contracted the syphillis that eventually drove him mad.

    I do think his work was very important in terms of jamming open the Overton Window on critiquing religion. And, while his critique is largely a matter of “proof by vigorous assertion” a lot of the shots he fired hit home, establishing the verbal battle-ground for much fruitful discussion. There were many prior to Nietzsche who questioned the role of religion in social control, but he was a master of the flourishing sound-bite: “slave morality”! Brilliant!

    In college I read Nietzsche instead of Rand and it stood me well in the occasional beer-fuelled philosophical jousting tournament. It wasn’t until 6 years ago that I thought it a good idea to read a few critical biographies of the man, and that was what gave me the context to pretty much dismiss him as an insecure and mentally damaged person – nowadays he’d be an internet troll like thunderf00t (except a dangerous foe) another tortured weirdo with a keyboard and a Wagnerian fixation on an unattainable hated love. What he had going for him was a fevered way with words that left me surprised to discover that he was neither a fan of cocaine nor opium. Perhaps it was syphillis, after all. His willingness to kick christianity in the ass opened a lot of doors. He finished where Voltaire started.

  • jonathangray

    Nick Gotts:

    I usually come across him either as the Christian’s favourite atheist – see jonathangray@7 for a typical example

    You’re my favourite atheist, Nick.

    Nietzsche is of interest to the Christian because he saw. In an interview some years ago, Richard Dawkins attempted to rebut accusations that atheistic Darwinsim sanctions bad behaviour and if we’re just animals why shouldn’t we act like animals, eh? Presented with a ruthless, quasi-Nietzschean morality in which the strong are exalted over the weak and crush them under their bootheels, Dawkins rejected this view of things by invoking the is/ought distinction. You can’t derive an ‘ought’ from ‘is’ — so just because nature is red in tooth and claw, it doesn’t follow there is a moral imperative to accept this state of affairs. Description is not prescription and we are not obliged to be as selfish as our genes:

    “I see absolutely no reason why, understanding the way the world is, you therefore have to promote it. The darwinian world is a very nasty place: the weakest go to the wall. There’s no pity, no compassion. All those things I abhor, and I will work in my own life in the interests of thoroughly undarwinian things like compassion.”

    The trouble is Dawkins desperately wants to keep the ‘ought’ because he wants to say we ought to overcome our selfish instincts and ought not give free rein them. But he can’t do that because, being an atheist, he is constrained to acknowledge that there is only Nature and Nature is not prescriptive. The ‘is’ is all there is. Sure, he can point out that nature is not only red in tooth and claw, that there are natural instincts for empathy and cooperation and altruism &c, but there is no transcendent reason to foster these instincts rather than other, less humane ones. He can’t say the strong “ought” to protect the weak or that feelings of outraged empathy imply there is a moral imperative to strive to overcome our selfish instincts.

    In a moment of impressive and moving intellectual candour, Dawkins admits as much:

    “If somebody used my views to justify a completely self-centred lifestyle, which involved trampling all over other people in any way they chose, roughly what, I suppose, at a sociological level social Darwinists did — I think I would be fairly hard put to it to argue on purely intellectual grounds. … I couldn’t, ultimately, argue intellectually against somebody who did something I found obnoxious. … I don’t feel equipped to produce moral arguments in the way I feel equipped to produce arguments of a cosmological and biological kind.”

    So he lamely concludes:

    “I think it would be more: ‘This is not a society in which I wish to live. Without having a rational reason for it necessarily, I’m going to do whatever I can to stop you doing this.’ … I think I could finally only say, ‘Well, in this society you can’t get away with it’ and call the police.”

    The exquisite irony in that last statement is that he has just conceded the very Nietzschean premise he so vehemently rejected — it all boils down to competing wills striving for supremacy. There is no Morality, just moralities — yours, mine and the other fellow’s. Dawkins just happens to be lucky that his vision of right currently has a monopoly of might, that he can “call the police”. Big strong chaps with helmets and truncheons will protect weaker chaps like himself from other strong chaps who want to do them harm. At a particular moment in time and in a particular geographic location there are sheepdogs to guard the sheep from the wolves.

    But for how long? Nietzsche had some views on the matter. He realised that Christian morality depended on Christian metaphysics; if the latter goes, the former will go sooner or later. He reserved his most withering contempt for the kind of ‘happy atheist’ who claims to revel in the freedom that comes from breaking the oppressive shackles of Christian morality but who really only jettisons those elements of Christian morality he happens to find an inconvenient drag on his personal hedonistic gratification (ie sexual morality, the freedom to engage in fornication, buggery, wanking &c). Other aspects of Christian morality (eg that the strong should succour the weak) the happy atheist blithely assumes are an obvious given which nobody in their right mind could possibly question apart from a few crazy Republican voters who are probably racist anyway. He’s in for a big surprise.