Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Who's Afraid of Friedrich Nietzsche?

When I was in high school I read Nietzsche's Twilight of the Idols (I now remember it was paired with The Anti-Christ in a Penguin books edition)It was heady stuff, and not only because I was only 16 and finding my way in philosophy untutored, but also because the 'trans-valuation of values' that Nietzsche proposed - the rejection of Christianity, and with it the 'concept' of guilt and conscience, in favour of an amoral vitalism - was a direct challenge to the still very conventional world in which I lived. My family and upbringing was culturally Christian though not church going. I kept the book hidden lest my mother should find it! Now, older and wiser, I know that Nietzsche's attack barely touched the sides of Christianity properly conceived (which is strange, given that Nietzsche was a son of the manse; perhaps the relationship of father and son needs to be looked into more?). In short, Christians have little to fear from Nietzsche, who is somewhat "out there" as far as critics go.

But it seems that these days Nietzsche does not trouble Christians so much as the so-called 'new atheists', the popular philosophers de jour who, despite their nomenclature, actually propose little that is new, but merely recycle the atheistic arguments of the last two hundred years for a largely middle brow audience that has, to borrow C.S. Lewis's phrase, just enough familiarity with Christianity to innocculate it against the real thing. These folk are the contemporary representatives of the bourgeois, liberal European culture (transposed to a new world setting in the case of Australia, Canada & the US) that Nietzsche despised. Nietzsche is an unwelcome presence in their thought because of his fundamental contention that, contrary to their deepest convictions, morality is dependent on theology for its justification. 

This is the contention of English agnostic philosopher, John Gray, who writes in the Guardian...

"The new atheists rarely mention Friedrich Nietzsche, and when they do it is usually to dismiss him. This can’t be because Nietzsche’s ideas are said to have inspired the Nazi cult of racial inequality – an unlikely tale, given that the Nazis claimed their racism was based in science. The reason Nietzsche has been excluded from the mainstream of contemporary atheist thinking is that he exposed the problem atheism has with morality. It’s not that atheists can’t be moral – the subject of so many mawkish debates. The question is which morality an atheist should serve.
 It’s a familiar question in continental Europe, where a number of thinkers have explored the prospects of a “difficult atheism” that doesn’t take liberal values for granted. It can’t be said that anything much has come from this effort. Georges Bataille’s postmodern project of “atheology” didn’t produce the godless religion he originally intended, or any coherent type of moral thinking. But at least Bataille, and other thinkers like him, understood that when monotheism has been left behind morality can’t go on as before. Among other things, the universal claims of liberal morality become highly questionable."

          Read it all here


Chris said...

Have you read "The Moral Landscape" by Sam Harris?

Chris said...

And Shermer's 'Science of Good and Evil':

Acroamaticus said...

Thanks for the recommendations, Chris.

I am familiar with those two authors but not those specific works; I am interested to know if they discuss Nietzsche in them?

In return, I recommend 'Atheist Delusions' by David Bentley Hart.

Lucian said...

Who's Afraid of Friedrich Nietzsche?

You mean apart from yourself ?

Acroamaticus said...

You really should read posts before posting your inane comments, Lucian.

Btw, the post title is a play on Edward Albee's play, 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf'.