This post is derived from Episode #001 of the Bad Philosopher Podcast.

Back in ancient times, life was simpler in many ways.

For example, the existence of a god or multiple gods was a given. And this was nice. It was comforting. It simplified one's suffering and the toil of everyday life.

Back then, if you couldn't explain the "why" behind something, you could just cite your divine creator as the reason behind it all. If ever you wanted to know the meaning of life, well, that meaning could be provided to you in the form of divine scripture.

Certainly, belief in a deity provided a lot of consolation to us in our search for meaning. But not anymore. In our secular world, that belief in a deity as harbinger of truth has evaporated. And this, according to 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, is a big problem.

Perhaps Nietzsche's most (in)famous statement is his "God is dead" proclamation. Back when I was a young high-school lad, I came across this quote on a friend's t-shirt. And this t-shirt revelation is what set me on the path of philosophy.

What I thought it meant at the time was that god did not exist. And this was a mind-blowing idea to me. I'd never encountered atheism in a serious way, and never considered the idea that god might not exist.

But this is a pretty common misunderstanding of what Nietzsche is trying to say. When he's saying "God is dead," he isn't gloating about it like some self-congratulatory atheist, like I became in my teen years. Instead, he's expressing the idea that we, as a secular society, no longer believe in a god (keep in mind this was about 140 years ago, and things have gotten much more secular since then). And he's expressing concern about this fact.

Nietzsche is concerned because it's not clear to him what sort of metaphysical truth we'll replace belief in god with. What sort of morality can we have? What will give our lives purpose and meaning? How will we orient ourselves in this new world where humans replace god as the gatekeepers of right and wrong?

But above all what's most concerning to Nietzsche isn't just these pressing questions. It's also the fact that nobody seems to realize the gravity of the situation.

Let's take a closer look at what he was trying to communicate back in 1882, as originally quoted in his book The Joyous Science. [1]

The Madman and the Death of God

To frame this "God is dead" revelation, Nietzsche uses the format of a fable.

He doesn't just tell us straight up. Instead, he invents some characters to relay the message to us in the form of a story. And this mimics what happens in religious texts too: the most prolific religious doctrines today are also compiled in the form of stories. Because human beings are apparently really good at paying attention to and learning through storytelling.

The bible itself doesn't just tell us how to morally behave. I'm sure we all know from experience how boring it is to have someone lecture you about something. Instead, the bible attempts to teach us moral lessons by telling us fables.

Nietzsche begins passage 125 of The Joyous Science as follows:

"Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning light, ran to the marketplace and shouted incessantly, 'I seek God! I Seek God!'? As there were many people standing together who did not believe in God, he caused much amusement. 'Is He lost?', asked one. 'Did He wander off like a child?', asked another. 'Or is He hiding? Is he afraid of us?'... And in this manner they shouted and laughed." [1]

So here, Nietzsche begins this little tale with the appearance of a 'madman'. And this madman appears in this seemingly secular town, filled with people who "did not believe in God."

And this madman causes a stir, shouting out in the marketplace that he's looking for God. And the people here find this funny, they mock the madman and laugh at him. Clearly they don't believe in God, and they go out of their way to make a joke of the whole spectacle.

Here, Nietzsche is using this secular town as a metaphor for the whole of society. Religious belief was still present but also in a steep decline in Europe towards the end of the 19th century; the existence of a divine creator was no longer an unquestionable truth. And people were also of an increasingly liberal attitude; witches and heretics alike could rest assured that they were a bit less likely to be hunted down and killed (depending on where you lived, I suppose).

But the madman doesn't think this spectacle of his own making is very funny at all. In fact, he's trying to make a point. And here it is:

"Then the madman leaped into their midst, and looked at them with piercing eyes and cried, ‘Where did God go? I will tell you! We have killed Him – you and I! We are all His murderers! But how did we do this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun? Where is it heading? Where are we heading? Away from all suns?'" [1]

Here, the madman proclaims that humanity has killed God. Belief in a deity is no longer needed to explain the world, because now we have science (Darwin's theory of evolution was well known by this time). Belief in a deity is no longer required as the opium of the people [2]—they have real opioids now (also coffee and other stimulants). And belief in a deity is no longer needed to impart meaning on our lives, because now we have industrialization and capitalism to assign meaning to us.

With this, Nietzsche's literary madman proclaims that we've 'murdered' god. As soon as belief is no longer necessary or convenient to modern life, the whole notion of religion is cast aside. And this is a brutal picture to paint.

The way we would think about this in modern times is that we wouldn't say we 'killed' or 'murdered' god—just that we stopped believing in the existence of god. But what's the harm in that? Why is this madman being so dramatic?

Well, Nietzsche thinks this lack of belief is problematic. And in his literary fashion, he makes it seem momentous with these epic analogies: our drinking up the sea, wiping away the horizon, and unchaining the earth from the sun. What's being portrayed here is that the world as we know it has been thrown into chaos because we've suddenly done away with this deity that we've believed in for millennia.

And without this belief in a deity to orient ourselves by, how shall we navigate this great abyss?

The madman continues,

"Are we not straying as through an infinite nothingness? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is night not falling evermore? Mustn’t lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we hear nothing yet of the the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing yet of the divine putrefaction? For even gods putrefy! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed Him!" [1]

Here we get more great analogies. The cold, empty space of infinity. Night falling as though it's the twilight of humanity. The lighting of a lantern to illuminate the darkness. Let's also recognize the old biblical proclamation "Let there be light!" And Nietzsche himself was raised to become a pastor, like his father before him, and so these biblical allusions would have been burned into his skull.

In this manner, the death of God, the creator, is being treated by Nietzsche as this great undoing of the world. It's got the air of a religious funeral to it, but with an allusion towards the decay of mortal flesh. By usurping god from the throne, we bring him down to the realm of mortals. And down here, we bury our dead—lest we leave them to rot in the streets.

So Nietzsche's literary madman is really hammering home the point here that we messed up. And he goes on,

"'How shall we, the most murderous of all murderers, ever console ourselves? The holiest and mightiest thing that the world has ever known has bled to death under our knives – who will wash this blood clean from our hands? With what water might we be purified? What lustrations, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not become gods ourselves, if only to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed – and because of it, whoever is born after us belongs to a higher history than all history hitherto!’" [1]

There's a bit of a paradox to this section. On the one hand, the madman is asking how we'll console ourselves, how we'll wash the blood from our hands after this terrible deed. And yet, he also says that this removal of god is the best thing humanity has ever done!

Here, Nietzsche isn't saying that we should feel guilt for this 'murderous' act. Washing the blood of god from our hands isn't a way of washing away guilt or obscuring the act—rather, it's a way of moving on to bigger and better things.

Nietzsche isn't saying that we need to console our conscience. Rather, he's saying we need to console our impoverished souls, and to fill our cups to the brim with a new way of life.

Without a god to give our lives some objective meaning or purpose, do we need to become gods ourselves? Are we worthy of becoming our own meaning makers? Of living in accordance with our own purpose?

Without a divine scripture to give us morality, what games will we have to invent? What rules will we set for society, and what will be the authority for these rules? What systems of ethics will govern our lives now?

Sure it's great that we're unshackled from the authoritarian doctrines of religion, but doesn't this now create a power vacuum? How is secular morality going to work when there is no such thing as objective truth?

What Comes After the Death of God?

Nietzsche as a philosopher is unique in that he resists the temptation to give us answers in the form of a philosophical system. Instead, he's a great provocateur, or a great asker of questions. He plays this up by using a literary madman to deliver this message, to ask these questions of humanity. And of course Nietzsche's messenger is a madman! No sane person would think this way. No rational person thinks "well, now that I've stopped believing in god, I better find something to replace god with."

Our minds might naturally begin to seek some meaning or some metaphysical replacement for god. Maybe it's love, or reason, or oneness, or some form of secular spirituality. It's not something we actively seek; but rather it's a byproduct of the process of becoming secularized.

For me, I initially replaced belief in god with atheism—the firm belief in no god. And I do have to admit that this is its own form of belief (as opposed to agnosticism, which is the suspension of any belief). Atheism became my guide. And as a teenager/young adult, I found community in atheism too.

But for society as a whole, how can we find morality in this secular world? That's what Nietzsche is asking. He's not gloating about the death of god. He's concerned. He's asking, 'what are we going to do about this great calamity?'

Unfortunately, the significance of this act of usurping god is lost on the crowd. This passage continues,

"Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; they too were silent and stared at him, baffled. At last, he threw his lantern on the ground, so that it broke into pieces and went out. 'I have come too early,' he then said, 'this is not yet the right time. This tremendous event is still on its way and headed towards them – word of it has not yet reached men's ears. Even after they are over and done with, thunder and lightning take time, the light of the stars takes time, and deeds too take time, before they can be seen and heard. This deed is further away from them than the farthest star – and yet they have done it themselves." [1]

The crowd at the market, gathered around Nietzsche's literary madman, is dumbfounded. To be fair, some strange person just shouted at them about how they'd all murdered god and proceeded to demand answers from the crowd as to what it all means.

This sort of reminds me of how a vegan activist group might show up with pictures of animals being slaughtered and demand that the public explain themselves and account for their terrible treatment of other conscious beings. The problem, of course, is that there's some disassociation to be had here: the crowd can always say "It wasn't me who treated the animals poorly; I just buy and consume the product."

Similarly, the crowd gathered around the madman doesn't really appreciate or even understand their being called out like this. After all, it wasn't that they intended to murder god. They didn't set out to depose him. Rather, they were simply born into a culture that had become increasingly tolerant towards secularism, and the 'momentous act' being identified here by Nietzsche is something that just sort of happened as part of society's natural evolution.

But this is ultimately Nietzsche's point: we did this, but we don't realize what it is that we've done. We've oriented our society around belief in the divine for millennia, and now suddenly we're choosing not to? His argument is that we haven't really conceptualized the true meaning of this departure of god from our mortal lives.

This sort of leaves room for what Nietzsche proposes next: this sort of shift towards a new way of life, something he calls the Übermensch (translated as the "Above-man," "Beyond-man," or more commonly "Superman"). And he proposes this as a way to avoid the moral vacuum left behind by the death of god, which Nietzsche says would naturally lead to a world of nihilism. And Nietzsche, as the creative life-affirming philosopher he is, hates the inherently destructive nature of nihilism.

For Nietzsche, the goal of the Übermensch as a people (not so much as one single individual) is to transcend traditional ideas of value and morality and seek out something new (something "beyond good and evil"). It's never fully clear what he means by this, but it seems like more of a proposal than a doctrine: he's diagnosing the problem, and how we might go about searching for a solution, but never actually presents us with a concrete solution himself.

Seeking a New Morality

Perhaps for Nietzsche, solutions just weren't his thing. He's not a prescriber of wisdom. He's a question-asker. He's left the transcendental work of finding new forms of meaning and morality to someone else.

And now that we've set off in this secular ship, sailing off into this abyss, the great unknown—we don't know what comes next. How does one govern a globalized civilization made up of different cultures with their own beliefs about meaning and morality?

Well, as we've become more secular, we've seen a sharp rise in the concepts of universal human rights and cosmopolitan ethics. Humanity still seems far from having one homogenous culture with a shared system of universal ethics, but it seems we're trending towards this inevitable outcome.

And if we align ourselves as a global society with a shared sense of identity, maybe we'll arrive at a place where we worship different gods, or no god at all, and yet maintain some sense of a shared morality we can all agree on...

Now I'm starting to sound like a madman myself! But our modern world is in uncharted territory.

It seems not everyone has gotten Nietzsche's memo: that god is dead, god remains dead, and all of our notions of meaning and morality are entirely subjective.

Now what?

Works Cited:

  1. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Joyous Science, passage 125 (pp. 141-142). Translated by R. Kevin Hill. Penguin Classics 2019. Original text published in German in 1882; 2nd expanded edition in 1887.
  2. Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Introduction. Translated by Annette Jolin and Joseph O’Malley. Cambridge University Press, 1970. Original text published in German in 1844, shortly after Marx's death.