Nietzsche: “Why atheism today? It seems to me that the religious instinct is indeed in vigorous growth – but that it rejects the theistic answer with profound mistrust.”
Nietzsche is perhaps best known for his literary persona as the madman, who ran into the marketplace with his lantern looking for God. It’s in that parable that he makes the fateful statement that “God is dead, and we have killed him.” While understandable, it is also unfortunate that Nietzsche has gone down in history as an arch-atheist, an enemy of religion. The above quote makes it clear that he distinguished between theism and religion – the one needing to pass or be pushed into extinction, and the other innately present in human beings as an “instinct.”
Most of Western history has been dominated by a theistic model of religion, which is why Nietzsche’s three cheers for atheism has been heard by many Western readers as a categorical rejection of religion. But theism is only one model, and the evidence of cultural archeology shows convincingly, I think, that it wasn’t the first on the human scene. What I’m calling religion here is a more-or-less systematic way that Nietzsche’s “religious instinct” finds expression in the shared life of a community. The most primitive form of religion was likely some precursor of animism and magic, where natural forces and the rhythms of life were revered. This early religion had a primary correlation with the body and its mysteries.
But as familial clans of early humans diversified into more sophisticated societies, the focal point of human wonder and concern shifted increasingly to tribal dynamics of membership. This is the evolutionary stage where an individual’s identity, or ego, became paramount. Belonging (fitting in) and recognition (standing out) were powerful preoccupations – just as they still are in the developmental stage of adolescence. The theory is that this is also the point in the history of religion when the mythological god was “born” – that is, when god was generated out of the creative imagination and projected into narrative constructs called stories, or myths.
Theism is a belief system organized around the presumed existence of the mythological god. As a literary product of the “religious instinct,” the mythological god exists only in myths – and then only as a metaphor of “the other” who sees me and knows me, who demands my worship and obedience. As my ego-ideal, this god also awakens my deeper potential and attracts my higher nature. So far, so good. But what happens when the mythological god fails to stay ahead of me, developmentally speaking? He becomes oppressive and an obstacle to my evolutionary advancement. God is moralistic and I remain mired in guilt. God is aloof and I am disoriented. God is jealous for glory and I must be nothing.
Obviously this theory of religion’s evolution leaves an open question: Is there a model of religion that might help us appreciate how the religious instinct finds expression at the level of soul? Unlike ego, soul is unconcerned over matters of identity. This spiritual dimension of human life is what opens us to the deeper ground of our being and the greater mystery of our place in the universe. What stands in the way of this expansion of awareness and experience of mystical communion with all things? Nietzsche’s answer is the ego; or rather, that co-dependent relationship of the ego and its mythological god.
If this god can die – if I can find the courage to let go of “my” god – then the possibility arises for the transformation of spirit into a form of religious life that is … Nietzsche called it “atheistic,” but perhaps the better term is “post-theistic.” Theism, along with the myths and the god who inhabits them, must be transcended. Maybe the first act of liberation is saying “no” to theism: The god of myth does not exist “up there” or “out there” separate from us. Only after we have sufficiently released this god – who has become largely irrelevant in our modern secular lives anyway – will we be able to catch a vision of the higher horizon that awaits.