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.’

—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Religion has long been a source of tension for me. On the one hand I find it to be extraordinarily interesting. Religions seem to reveal so much about our separate cultures and our shared human condition. Further, tolerance is important to me—both personally and philosophically. I would never want to be a zealot who could only be friends with like-minded people; nor do I want to be dismissive or scornful of other views.

Nevertheless, while I am comfortable with religion in the abstract, when I confront religious sentiments and behavior in person I feel uneasy. I have trouble understanding or accepting why people I know and respect would choose to be religious. And my uneasiness stems from being wholly and completely unconvinced of the validity of supernatural beliefs of any kind.

In brief, my skepticism is partly evidential (I see no compelling evidence for religious claims), partly philosophical (theological arguments are fallacious, and supernatural explanations are vapid), partly anthropological (the huge abundance of difference beliefs across the world, revealing religion to be a social institution and not a divine gift), and partly historical (the clear evidence that religions changed markedly over time, and the wars and persecutions that religious beliefs have given rise to).

In short, supernatural beliefs are wholly incompatible with how I think and what I know about the world.

While many religious people in the modern world would grant all this—saying it makes perfect sense to be an atheist—they might still argue that it makes just as much sense to be religious. “Nobody knows, right?” is the classic phrase. And indeed, nobody does or can know if there is a supernatural being who created the universe. So, in the absence of knowledge, isn’t faith an acceptable response? “Maybe I can’t prove God exists,” the argument continues, “but you can’t prove that He doesn’t exist.”

I think this reasoning is obviously fallacious. If there is something which is completely unknown, the only logical response is to suspend judgment. Further, the inability to disprove something has no bearing on whether it should be believed. I cannot disprove that there is a French teacup on Mercury, or a magic dragon sleeping in the center of the earth, or an army of invisible and intangible spirits living in my closet—but I would be wrong to believe these things.

The question is never, “Can this be disproved?” but “Is there any evidence to support this belief?” Believing in something just because it cannot be disproved leads to absurdities.

It might be argued, however, that suspending judgment is unreasonable since all of us will die one day and we risk eternal damnation if we are wrong. Indeed, there are situations in which we are forced, from practical necessity, to act in the absence of knowledge. If a roof is collapsing and there are three doors, you must choose one even if you don’t know where it goes.

But I think that the human condition is not comparable to this situation. We have every reason to believe that consciousness ends with death. There is no evidence for intangible, immaterial souls—indeed, everything we know supports the opposite conclusion: that consciousness is inextricably tied to the material brain. The very idea of souls and the afterlife was never supported by dependable evidence in the first place—it is a traditional idea, handed down to us by people who lived in more ignorant times. Besides, the psychological roots of such an idea in our fear of death and our sorrow for lost loved ones seems remarkably obvious.

In sum, since we have good reasons for believing that consciousness ends with life, the necessity of choosing in ignorance is taken away. We can safely suspend judgment. I have thus come to the conclusion that supernatural beliefs are irrational. (This issue can clearly be debated ad infinitum but this is supposed to be a short post!)

Given this conclusion of mine, I cannot help but feel uneasy around people whose religion plays a large role in their day-to-day life. Dietary restrictions, sartorial restrictions, fasting, praying, lengthy rituals, limits on whom one can marry or even befriend—all this strikes me as a severe limitation on life, with no justification whatsoever.

Of course not all religious people—maybe not even most—have a lifestyle markedly different from my own. Indeed, there are huge numbers of “moderate” religious people who seldom or rarely go to church or pray, who do not obey the numerous traditional lifestyle restrictions, and who basically lead secular or nearly secular lives—and yet who, when pressed, still identify as religious and who profess to believe in God.

Now, you might think that I would be less bothered by this sort of moderate religiousness. But I find it just as perplexing. For if God the Creator existed, and He were really the arbiter of morals and the source of good, and if there were really a heaven and a hell that awaited us in the next life—well, how could you logically believe all this and not do everything in your power to live in accordance with your religion? By definition, religion deals with ultimate questions and the most permanent consequences; and so it boggles my mind how somebody could believe in it and yet do nothing.

How can you be a Christian, for example, and be friends with atheists or Muslims or Jews? This seems like a silly question, since inter-faith friendships are very common. But I cannot help wondering: Can someone be a sincere Christian without believing that his non-Christian friends will be denied entrance into heaven? Thus for their sake shouldn’t this Christian do his very best to evangelize his non-Christian friends? And if these questions never even occur to the Christian, does he sincerely believe in what he says he does?

Moderate religiousness bothers me because it cheapens the entire question. To be moderately religious, in other words, strikes me as inevitably hypocritical—since it means not living in accordance with one’s stated views on the ultimate questions. Indeed, I think it is this very hypocrisy which led Nietzsche to accuse his contemporaries of killing God: they professed to believe in God, but lived without Him. Identifying as religious without living in accordance with any religious tenets is like saying, “Do these questions really matter?”

And to many people, perhaps these ultimate questions of Fate, God, and the origin of the universe really do not occupy much thought-space. But for me it is deeply important to find out the truth as far as possible, and to live my life in accordance with this truth. Thus I feel equally at odds with deeply religious people (I admire their conviction, but I think they are wrong) and moderately religious people (I admire their tolerance, but I am frightened by their lack of concern with living in accordance with their stated beliefs).

Thus, when I confront religion—serious or moderate—in people I know, I cannot help feeling uneasy.

13 thoughts on “Quotes & Commentary #55: Nietzsche

  1. First I will say that in general I agree with your sentiment and reasons around.

    On a more philosophical note;
    There is a certain overlapping feature of anthropological reckoning that you point out but then also failed to appreciate, it seems.

    The example of how could a Christian get along with the Muslim and yet still hold onto their basic religious beliefs of God, I think is a good and valid explanation of what we are calling “modern“;namely that it would appear that my believe in the one God would be invalidated or somehow nullified in my entertainment of someone else who has an idea, of say the extreme example, of polytheism. Because they both can’t be true, right? So it would seem that my belief in one God realize only upon the fact that I reckon it to be so and really has nothing anymore to do with any sort of proof or explanation that can be made or presented. It seems to rely only upon my ability to have faith.

    But in the same way I would have to put forth the idea that even this idea of modernity within which I have this kind of “nihilistic” ground upon which everything is suspended in belief, I have merely Asserted a sort of religion.

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  2. … and the cultural relativity of belief really is functioning for me to exclude myself from the proposal upon this exterior world where in everyone else is believing various religious things.

    Indeed the idea of oppression and power and race relations and things like that is based in the presumption of an enforcement of view. By the fact that I have grown up in a culture that has been “naturally“ placed in a position that systematically is able to enforce itself without any reflection upon its own situation of being merely in assertion, are you exclude myself from my philosophical propositions about the relativity of religious belief. It is the ironic situation whereby exclude myself from the world that I suppose my view as omniscient that I’m able to come to an idea that there is no God except that through belief.

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      1. Your faith in ‘rationality’ or whatever you might call it, preclude the view that understands your view as not religious.

        As if your view is exempted from the category of ‘human belief’.

        You can’t understand why people believe in God becuase your view tells you that “your view is God”. But using different terms for the purpose of placing your view as above or privileged from everyone else. This is the issue with modernity.

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        1. But I say this, as I said, after I said I agree with your post 😄

          .. and that it is philosophical. The problem with modernity is that it posits itself as exempt from it’s proclamations. For example in anthropology, the ‘participant observation’ method has always been problematic.

          But likewise I am unable to understand how ‘belief’ could be viable (for myself) because it admits, somehow inherently, that it must be false, and ultimately (this is the modern mode) that it requires “faith”.

          My question is why would I need faith in something’s truth if it indeed was true? Like God. Why would I have to say “I believe in God” if God’s existence was true? I wouldn’t need to say “I believe”. It would just be a fact, like this phone I’m using to reply. Lol.

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          1. This for the clarification! I’m afraid, however, that I still don’t understand how you can simultaneously hold that “belief” in rationality is epistemologically equivalent to religious belief, and then dismiss religious belief as requiring faith.

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          2. Because it is how consciousnesss/mind functions to grant is what the world is. We are not exceptional from being human. If one human being has a world that has spirits in it, and another has ‘no God’, it tells us how worlds are being manifested, and thus indicates how something of us is functioning.

            ‘Rationality’ in this case does not get us any closer to a ‘true’ world, it just gives us ‘another’ world, albeit one that is most popular due to our (one group of humans) more effective use of power.

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          3. I admit that my view is that anything that popular must be not that great. Lol. And I’m just kind of naturally resistant to any sort of power that’s trying to be leveraged upon me. But I’m not sure if that’s why I’m not religious in the institutional sense.

            There’s a lot going on in that that gets into philosophy and stuff and if you want to know My answers to thesethese things you could probably look back through my various blog postings. 🙂

            I think so far as your post goes: I would say that I don’t use my rational thought upon whether God exists or not as a way of understanding these people who believe that God does exist. That sounds weird but I think it goes to the point that I just don’t say anything about God and I let everyone else say things. I think my point I’m trying to get at is that there is no argument that can prove to me the existence or the nonexistence of God. If I walk into a wall I’m probably going to get a bloody nose or some sort of scrape on my had or some sort of injury is going to happen if I walk straight into a brick wall. It doesn’t matter what I say about the wall, it doesn’t matter whether I believe the wall exists, because when I walk into the wall I’m Shirley going to get my face messed up at least a little. 😄

            So even as I’m standing back from the wall what I have to say about it really is for the benefit of or in the consideration of what anyone else might have to say about it. So is interesting to me that someone might have something to say about the existence of the wall.

            I don’t really have anything to say about the existence of God except in response to what other people have to say about the existence of God.

            In the same light it doesn’t matter what I say or what anyone says about the wall when I plant my face upon it it’s going to hurt.

            Is that making any sense to my comments?

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          4. I guess the question is (to Use Shakespeare): Does a rose change because we call it something else? In a way it does, but in another way it doesn’t.

            Do we ever find the ‘most true’ rose or thing thing that we are naming ‘rose’?

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