If science made God irrelevant, we can only find purpose in ourselves

Steven Gambardella
Jul 6 · 8 min read
We should imagine the possibilities for humanity with the same wonder our ancesters felt gazing at the stars. Vincent Van Gogh ‘Starry Night Over the Rhone’, 1888. (source: Wikimedia Commons)

“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”

So wrote Nietzsche in his book The Joyful Science. Even today it feels shocking to read.

It’s not to say that God does not exist, but that we killed God. What could he possibly mean by this?

The philosopher did not mean that a deity had actually died but rather that our idea of God had been killed off by the actions of our civilisation.

Nietzsche was an atheist, but the statement is by no means an atheist statement. You can still believe in God or be agnostic and understand that God has been displaced from His central place in our civilisation.

Nietzsche was simply observing that the consquence of the age of enlightenment was the terminal diminishment of God. In previous eras, where there was no explanation there was God, but the enlightenment gave us a lot of explanations.

God was no longer the official underlying cause for morality, value or order in the universe. The laws of nature were governed by physical laws, explainable by science. Morality, justice and governance were no longer thought to be divinely inspired, but based on reason. There was no longer any reason for God beyond spiritual comfort.

In the passage leading up to Nietzsche’s proclamation, he describes a man running into a marketplace holding a lit lamp in broad daylight, claiming to look for God. When he breaks the news that God is dead, the people around him laugh because he’s mad. He goes on:

“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

How does western civilisation come to terms with the idea that the savior of souls, the great judge, the all-seeing eye, the orderer of the universe, the reason for everything had just… vanished?

A civilization that had hinged on a deity for two thousand years, was a civilisation that was suddenly unhinged. Nietzsche saw that the death of God would lead to the death of all absolute values and the advent of nihilism — the belief in nothing at all.

Man is the believing animal. If what we believe in is snatched away we are bereft of purpose. Nietzsche wryly observed that people would believe in the void rather than be void of belief.

Nihilism is a sickness, a deficiency. Nietzsche knew that many would simply languish in this state, while others would search for meaning. That search would of course would lead many down the wrong paths. Nietzsche wrote,

“What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism […] For some time now our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe.”

As we now know, that catastrophe came to pass (or perhaps a worse catastrophe could come). Two world wars, the horrors of Nazism and Soviet Communism. Nietzsche anticipated the age of ideologies. Ideologies filled a void that God had left, Communism and Fascism gave human endeavor a meaning in the absence of any divine meaning.

People marched behind the swastica and the hammer and sickle in the same way the crusaders marched behind the cross. But these movements simply papered over the gaping God-shaped hole that science and reason had left.

Western civilisation and even mankind itself still struggles with meaning and purpose. We often talk of our belief in progress, but progress to what? What are we progressing to? Where’s the finish line? It’s getting easier to live, and we are living longer, but more people than ever are declaring themselves unsatisfied with their lives.

People since the 1950s have looked to exotic “new age” remedies for their spiritual sicknesses. Cults of all kinds have sprung up. Christianity has gradually waned from public life, even in European countries where there is no separation between church and state.

Nietzsche also saw the coming of a “last man” a “contemptible thing” that simply lives for comfort and shelter. “Last men” are people that choose not to believe in anything except their own superficial harmony with each other, the last man is interested only in contentment. Nietzsche compares them to a herd with no herdsman, nobody among them can see better.

While these “last men” acknowledge the death of God, they do not fully comprehend its meaning and implications. It is an event that is still dawning on us. He wrote in The Joyful Science:

“The event itself is far too great, too distant, too remote from the multitude’s capacity for comprehension even for the tidings of it to be thought of as having arrived as yet.”

But Nietzsche was ever the optimist. He wrote, “hearing the news that ‘the old god is dead’, we philosophers and ‘free spirits’ feel illuminated by a new dawn.”

“It is time for man to fix his goal,” Nietsche wrote of his concept of a future Overman. “It is time for man to plant the seed of his highest hope. His soil is rich enough for it. But this soil will one day be poor and weak; no longer will a high tree be able to grow from it.” Painting: Vincent Van Gogh, ‘The Sower (After Millet)’, 1888 (source: Wikipedia)

Superhumanity

What could that new dawn look like? In place of God and as an alternative to nihilism Nietzsche came up with the idea of the Übermensch — “Superman” or “Overman” (I’ll use “Overman” to avoid any associations with Clark Kent). At the time Nietzsche did not believe that the Overman had yet come to being.

(It’s worth noting that Übermensch is gender neutral: mensch in German means “person of integrity”. However, English translations cannot cope with gender neutrality, so I will have to refer to “men” and “man”.)

With Darwin’s theory of evolution in mind, Nietzsche made the startling claim that mankind is just a transitory phase between animal and Overman.

“Man is a rope, fastened between animal and Übermensch — a rope over an abyss.”

He suggested that compared to the Overman, mankind will be a laughing stock, a “painful embarrassment”. But he also suggests that the Overman is our purpose, he offers us a stark choice:

“Man is something that should be overcome. And what have you done to overcome him? […] do you want to be the ebb of this great tide, and return to the animals rather than overcome man?”

Perhaps returning to the animals is the “last man”, the human being who spends as much time as possible in front of the television, chewing snacks in bovine contentment.

The problem is that the Overman is more a vision than a theory. Nietzsche never quite described the Overman, he simply used hyperbolic metaphors like lightening bolts.

What he does state clearly is the the Overman is a creator of their own selves. He said, without God, “the spirit now wills its own will.” The Overman would create the meaning and purpose of their lives for themselves, without recourse to religion or dogma.

Nietzsche made frequent references to the idea that the Overman would also give meaning to life on earth. The philosopher had no truck with ideals, the reality of the universe around us is all we have, there is no other world — neither an afterlife, nor a world of perfect Platonic “forms” that bestow value on things.

Nietzsche showed that moral systems based on belief were no longer valid. The Overman creates their own values that are driven by “supreme achievement”, as opposed to being “good” in the moral sense.

Nietzsche conceived of the idea of a superhumanity, individuals who transcend the boundaries of what makes us “all too human”. He believed the power was within us, as human beings, to realise the Overman. The Overman is our purpose: the superhumanity that will find their own purpose.

The philosopher made references to historical figures when discussing the Overman. He suggested in correspondence that the German polymath Goethe came close to being one, suggesting that the Overman is a creator. But he also mentioned the statesmen Cesare Borgia (who likely inspired Machiavelli’s The Prince) and Napoleon Bonaparte, both of whom were dangerously amoral.

Do the seeds of a superhumanity lie in creative geniuses like Vincent Van Gogh? Or in gene-edited babies? Painting: Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe, 1889. (source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Ebb of a Great Tide

To think of our age — or our predicament — as the “ebb of a great tide” makes a lot of sense. Our modern age is one of bewilderment. Even our faith in reason is starting to wane and yet science and technology marches on. The late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have seen an explosion of technological discovery that will challenge the very essence of what it is to be human.

We have (allegedly) already seen genetically edited babies born. Artificial intelligence is developing at an accelerating pace, defeating human beings in tasks that we have previously remained supreme. A “cure for death” is being worked on as I write. The lifespans of the already-living rich are reckoned to stretch into hundreds of years, creating a new kind of inequality.

Are immortal plutocrats, or genetically perfected humans the Overman? Or just another kind of “last man” — perfected for a comfortable life? The Nazis of course had their own sinister interpretation of the Overman — the aryan “master race” — and experimented with eugenics themselves. Are we sleepwalking into a similar trap?

Nietzsche makes it clear that the Overman can find purpose without God, but that our purpose ought to be the Overman, otherwise there is only nihilism. I’ll repeat a phrase from the madman’s monologue above: “Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of [the murder of God]?” (My emphasis).

Perhaps we’ll discover the Overman — Nietzsche’s prescription for our purpose, if we aspire to hold true to the values that Nietzsche describes: overcoming our humanity with creative excellence, living the life we have for today (“no longer bury the head in the sand of heavenly things”), and finding meaning through self-creation. To get there we must follow Nietzsche’s three steps to a meaningful life.

Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

“I love him who lives for knowledge and who wants knowledge that one day the Overman may live. And thus he wills his own downfall. […] What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal.”

We still have the “chaos” within us to “give birth to a dancing star” (the Overman). But that chaos diminishes in us as the world is rationalised, classified and codified, as comfort becomes our goal, as life is treated like a balance sheet, as we mark up the cost of everything and value nothing. Nietzsche warned that the soil will only be fertile for so long for “man to plant the seed of his highest hope.”

Our purpose now — our liberation, even — is a journey of discovery. What great things, or what nightmare, might flow from us in the next millenia?


Thank you for reading, I hope you learned something new.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also like my article on Nietzsche’s three steps to a meaningful life:

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

Steven Gambardella

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I write about philosophy, art and history and how these subjects can help you in life and work. Email: stevengambardella [at] gmail [dot] com.

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

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