Atheism’s family squabble

The bleaker view rings truer

-Phil Burcham-

For those with good memories, my most recent column in AP was all about Nothing. Technically, belief in the ultimacy of Nothing is known as nihilism – the philosophical stance that denies ultimate meaning and moral obligation. We saw how nihilism is “atheism’s bedfellow”, since rejecting the divine origin of the physical world is predictably accompanied by a collapse of the transcendental realm of moral law and obligation.

Although today’s atheists insist one can be good without God, the greatest thinker in the history of atheism, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), dismissed such claims. The son of a Lutheran clergyman, Nietzsche was a gifted scholar who had lost his father in infancy and his faith as a teenager. Whether childhood fatherlessness inspired his adult nihilism is debated, but there is little doubt that the assault on Christian theism Nietzsche mounted within The Antichrist, Ecce Homo and Beyond Good and Evil have profoundly influenced intellectuals.

For one reason or another, Nietzsche looked at professing Christianity in 19th century Germany and decided the church was exhausted and irrelevant. Within German universities, the rise of modernism had assailed the biblical underpinnings of Christianity, and in the hope of remaining relevant to their era, German Protestantism capitulated to this modernist critique, substituting a moralistic faith that had little connection to historic Christianity.

Rather than following Enlightenment thinkers in salvaging a Christian ethic from the wreckage of 19th century German Protestantism, Nietzsche saw that the whole kit and caboodle – both theology and ethics – went down with the sinking ship. As he famously put it in The Genealogy of Morals (1877): “When one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality… Christianity is a system, a consistently thought out and complete view of things. If one breaks out of it a fundamental idea, the belief in God, one thereby breaks the whole thing to pieces.”

We should thank Nietzsche for forcing atheists to ask whether right and wrong can persist in the face of Nothing.

Among Nietzsche’s many criticisms of Christianity, few are more bracing than his condemnation of our Faith for standing on the side of the weak against the strong. Drawing support from Darwinian evolution, he dismissed the Christian compassion that fuelled the rise of social institutions that cared for the weak, elderly and infirm: “Pity on the whole thwarts the law of evolution, which is a law of selection. It preserves what is ripe for destruction.”

Nietzsche believed this “impure” Christian concern for the powerless must be abandoned to allow the “higher men” to reassert themselves. “Morality guarded the underprivileged against nihilism by assigning to each an infinite value, a metaphysical value…. Supposing that the faith in this morality would perish, then the underprivileged would no longer have their comfort – and they would perish.”

It is sobering that in seeing humans as inhabitants of a godless universe, Nietzsche can see no compelling reason to affirm the intrinsic value of every individual life, or to uphold the equality of all.

The Nietzschean outlook has significantly influenced contemporary thinking in our universities, medical schools and healthcare institutions. It is dangerous because, as Baptist ethicist D.P. Gushee put it, “Nietzsche has lost any sense of a God-given value to the average, humble, ordinary life… He is so impressed by what a flourishing life looks like for the greatest and most creative geniuses that he cannot appreciate the significance of just a bit of humble improvement in the lives of everyone else.”

Whatever we think of Nietzsche’s writings, we should thank him nevertheless for initiating an “in house” argument among atheists, for forcing them to face the question of whether moral obligations can survive within their godless worldview – for asking whether right and wrong can persist in the face of Nothing. Richard Dawkins would likely answer “Yes”, Friedrich Nietzsche a firm “No”. If the crises within Western societies and their healthcare systems are anything to go by, a great deal rides on the outcome of which gentleman we think is right.

Dr Phil Burcham lives in Perth.

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