Sunday, March 27, 2011

Atheism for Lent: Nietzsche

At "Atheism for Lent" tonight, we had the most heated discussion so far on the Course. Nietzsche's critique of religion, which is strongly connected to his genealogy of morality, furnished us with the material for such a great debate that it was hard to get the group to think not only about his atheistic scepticism (see this post for the difference between scepticism and suspicion) and "immorality" (see here) but also about what questions his hermeneutic of suspicion might raise about our own faith (whether atheistic, theistic or neither).

I began with a summary of the material I prepared about Nietzsche (which you can access using the links below), for whom the story of how belief in God arose is the only argument against belief in God that atheists need to employ. To explain the emergence of belief in God, Nietzsche puts forward two interlinking theses, an ontological one about the "will to power" and a more historical or sociological one about the "morality of mores," which taken together suggest that every morality is an expression of that community's will to power.

Nietzsche's "death of God" thesis, which is prophetic even to the atheists for whom God is already dead, highlights that the implications of this death have yet to be properly understood by humanity, since it entails the collapse of western morality. For Nietzsche, the atheists are still acting like theists; the atheists are still acting as if there is an eternally stable point of reference to guarantee the meaning and purpose of life.

It was hard to get some people in the group to really agree with Nietzsche that not even secular human Reason can attain a fixed reference point for morality. Many people felt very strongly that universal values had to exist for ethical and pragmatic reasons, but it was great trying to get them to grapple with Nietzsche's hypothesis that the will to power is what is operative even amongst action for equality, justice and peace - that self-interest, self-preservation, envy, aggression and resentment might be latent in manifestly humanitarian motivations and activism. I would've liked to have explored in a bit more detail about Nietzsche's identification of Pharisaism and moral superiority (see here) within Christian morality.

We talked quite a lot about master and slave moralities, and tried to help each other work through the differences between the two and about what the possibilities of hope might be in Nietzsche's work. But it was hard to do justice to Nietzsche's contention that master morality, with its open and honest revenge, hatred and anger (which are all-pervasive, given the will to power), is preferable to slave morality. Even if equality, justice and peace are functions of the "will to power," many within the group wondered, why isn't striving after these ideals at least a bit better than the "justice" of master morality in which the continued oppression of the powerless is justified as "just the way the world is" (see here).

Walking home, my partner Sim mentioned a Blake poem that would've been useful to illustrate the differences between an open and honest resentment (master morality) which exercises revenge and a festering, poisonous resentment (slave morality) which has no outlet for vengeance.

A Poison Tree, by William Blake

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I water'd it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright;
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine,

And into my garden stole,
When the night had veil'd the pole:
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretch'd beneath the tree.

Religion as Revenge: Nietzsche (1)
Religion as Revenge: Nietzsche (2)
Religion as Revenge: Nietzsche (3)
Religion as Revenge: Nietzsche (4)
Religion as Revenge: Nietzsche (5)

Next week we're going to watch a documentary by Derren Brown, but I've written a bit of material to go with it, so I'll post that here too as this week unfolds.

No comments: