Quotes & Commentary #55: Nietzsche

Quotes & Commentary #55: Nietzsche

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.