The Parable of the Madman

Check out today’s guest post by Christopher Michael Luna. It is an exploration Nietzsche’s “parable of the madman,” and what implications it has for the atheist movement and the future of ethical discourse. Thanks for sharing your thoughtful and engaging writing with NonProphet Status, Christopher!

I‘m going to talk about Nietzsche. I know, whenever somebody says that most of us think of that kid who took the vow of silence in Little Miss Sunshine, and angry God-hating adolescent boys. If it helps, I have never taken a vow of silence, and I don’t hate God anymore, though he and I have had our disagreements (I’m looking at your opinion of menstruation and homosexuality among other things, God, because I know you’re reading this!).

So, I’m going to talk about the aphorism that contains Nietzsche’s most famous quote, generally referred to as the “parable of the madman.” It’s the one where Nietzsche’s madman says, “God is dead,” earning him a place forever in Wikipedia’s list of atheists (although “God is dead” seems obviously more nuanced and strange position than “God never existed and is a logically ridiculous idea”) and a special place in High School Evangelist witticisms like:

Nietzsche: God is dead.

God: Nietzsche is dead.

Hahahahaaa! Nice one, guys. But seriously, what’s the deal? What’s up with §125 of The Gay Science and why should you care?

First of all, I think you should read it (I really like Kauffman’s translation). It’s less than a page long, it’s beautiful, and it’s an important part of Western intellectual history.  Usually you have to slough through hundreds of pages to put one of those under your belt. But, if you don’t want to read it, here’s the Cliff’s Notes version:

A man goes out to the town square in the middle of the day with a lantern, looking for God. All the atheists laugh at him and mock him, amused that he should be looking for God.  But the man smashes his lantern and goes on a tirade, saying how no one understands the magnitude of what’s been done, or the impact of it. At last, he says that he has come too early, and that the implications of God’s death won’t see their fulfillment until many years later.

This was originally published in 1882, and it drives me crazy, because I feel like that madman today.

The modern atheist versus Christian debate is like a flame war on a discussion forum. Lots of people are half-educated on the topic, and everyone is pissed off (and consequently acting a hell of a lot less mature than they would be under other circumstances). The extremist minority opinions are getting the spotlight and further polarizing all discussion, and the result of it all is a sensational, but not very revolutionary, revolution. America may (or may not) be becoming less Christian, but it’s not learning as much as I’d like from the journey.

I’m going to pick on atheism here not because I’m pro-Christianity (I’m not), and not because I’m touchy-feely (I’m not) and not because I wish we could all just be friends and agree to disagree about everything (I don’t). I’m going to pick on atheism because that’s what Nietzsche is doing in this parable, and we really need to understand this critique if we’re ever going to move forward.

Our most vocal atheists today are very much like the atheists in Nietzsche’s parable.  They don’t believe in God — fine — and they think this is a juvenile matter — problematic.  Dawkins, the poster boy for the angriest, least informed atheists, has famously compared belief in God to belief in leprechauns in an attempt to justify his ability to debate God’s existence despite an ignorance of theology, religious history, and the variety of religious experiences.

The problems with this are many, and what it leaves us with is basically Puritan Atheists. Ignorant of the history and heritage of Christianity, the way it has shaped moral thinking and Western, then Anglo, then American values for the past fifteen hundred years, they reject God and then carry around a Christian morality.

I’ll give you a sampling of the often unexamined Puritan values that many atheists carry around with them, consciously or unconsciously:

– If you succeed in life, it’s because you are a good or valuable person.

– Peace is always preferable to war.

– Revenge is not acceptable.

– A good deed is its own reward.

– Humans have “rights” that should not be violated.

In addition, most Americans are still wrapped up in the very Puritan vision of millenarianism (the view that the world will end soon) and Manifest Destiny (the notion that God has chosen us to rule, and that we’re involved in an epic struggle between good and evil to do just that). This rhetoric is picked up by all kinds of secular, progressive causes:

“If we don’t change the way we burn fossil fuels, the polar ice caps will melt and kill everyone.”

Is it true? Possibly. There’s considerable debate both on the speed at which global warming is progressing, and also on whether such things are all that predictable. But the interesting thing is that most of us who have a position on global warming see it as this Earth-shattering doom that awaits us due to our own devilish human nature (sin, anyone?).

Or, how about the mission to “spread freedom” across the whole world?

I’m on board with this one, and I’m not bringing these examples out to trash them, but when you step back from it for a moment, doesn’t it really have the trappings of the good versus evil apocalypticism of a fanatic? The dictators and oil barons are the demons and unbelievers, and the good guys (us, most of the time), are fighting to improve the freedom of people the world over.

Now, I know what you’re going to say: the evidence for our belief in global warming and the philosophical reasoning that brings us to value freedom are of an entirely different kind than those used by Puritans (and their descendants) to justify belief that the End of Days is just around the corner or that Evangelism is a kind of righteous ideological holy war. But even if I grant that this is true, that the evidence and reasoning that leads to modern secular convictions is of a different type than that used by Christians, I do not believe that the axioms we proceed from and the tropes into which we fit this evidence are the product of some kind of pure, objective reason (there is no such thing, of course).

These axioms and tropes, the bedrock of our modern morality and the dramatic stories of how we imagine those moralities playing out are still very much a part of our particularly Puritan heritage. These tropes have an overwhelming influence on our behavior, even when we are conscious of them.

Now, I don’t think that Nietzsche is suggesting that atheists have to throw out everything that a Christian group ever believed in — and I’m not suggesting that either. I think, instead, he’s spelling out the great task that lies before us. When he asks, “What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” he’s literally asking what we’re going to do next: and that’s what I want to know. Now that God is dead, what are we going to do next?

I’m not impressed by the modern attempts at a “science of morality” to replace the Puritan values because this so-called science usually proceeds from moral axioms that are derived from our Puritan heritage. So far we’ve only played this game at the elementary-school level. We have no more sophisticated answers to the problem of what constitutes morally acceptable violence than did the best theologians. Most people still behave as though they believe in sin, mired in guilt and shame for their mistakes. We still extol a childish understanding of selflessness. We are so boxed in by our fear of messing with gender roles and romance that even talking about alternative relationships is taboo. We celebrate commercialized Christian holidays and say things like “for God’s sakes,” for God’s sakes. When are we going to take control of those powerful tropes that drive us, and use them as our cultural paintbrush? When are we going to invent something?

This may seem like a righteous tirade, and a pessimistic one at that, but it isn’t meant to be. I, for one, am hopeful. If Nietzsche was able to look “beyond good and evil”, then I think one of my generation’s tasks will be to look beyond ‘atheist’ and ‘Christian’. When Nietzsche talked about seeing beyond good and evil he didn’t, as so many moralizers misread, extol values traditionally considered evil — instead, he marginalized the question of evil in favor of new ways of valuing. When I talk about moving beyond atheist and Christian, I don’t mean to be “obviously atheist.” I mean to marginalize the decision in favor of the real poetic/scientific project at hand; to look deep, deep into ourselves with unforgivingly honest eyes, and to bring the treasures and monstrosities we find there to the light; to invent new gods and monsters, and, in the process, to become something greater ourselves.

When one of my closest friends, a very un-Christian Christian, read this article he said to me, “So, what’s next? What comes after the death of God?”

To this I replied, “Something new. Something we’ve never seen before.”

He said, “I want the balanced version. What’s the downside?”

But here’s the punchline: “That is the balanced version: something new. It remains to be seen whether that’s better or worse than what we left behind.”

LunaChristopher Michael Luna studied Religious History and Education at Hampshire College, where he was also the Bible Study Instructor for the Hampshire Christian Fellowship.  Since breaking with Christianity, Christopher has been teaching and developing open-source media for political change.  He will begin a study of Humanism and American religiosity at Harvard Divinity School in 2011.

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