Briefly examining his “death of God” thesis will enable us to begin to recognise the relationship between his genealogy of morals and his critique of religion. The parable that most clearly expresses this thesis is found in Section 125, “The Madman,” of The Gay Science,
Primarily addressed to those who do not believe in God, the madman’s proclamation of the death of God remains prophetic even to atheists, since this death is ‘too great, too remote from the multitude’s capacity for comprehension even for the tiding of it to be thought of having arrived as yet’ (The Gay Science, cited in Spinks, Friedrich Nietzsche, p.118). The idea of God’s death is ‘too great’ to comprehend because, when, as Nietzsche observes, God has become nothing more than the foundation for and guarantee of meaning and purpose, the death of God brings the death of any absolute (religious or non-religious) systems of value and morality.
Haven’t you heard of that madman who in the bright morning lit a lantern and ran around the marketplace crying incessantly, “I’m looking for God! I’m looking for God!”
Since many of those who did not believe in God were standing around together just then, he caused great laughter. Has he been lost, then? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone to sea? Emigrated? – Thus they shouted and laughed, one interrupting the other.
The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Where is God?” he cried; “I’ll 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 entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Where is it moving to now? Where are we moving to? Away from all suns? Are we not continually falling? And backwards, sidewards, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an up and a down? Aren’t we straying as though through an infinite nothing? Isn’t empty space breathing at us? Hasn’t it got colder? Isn’t night and more night coming again and again? Don’t lanterns have to be lit in the morning?
“Do we still hear nothing of the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God? Do we still smell nothing of the divine decomposition? – Gods, too, decompose! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How can we console ourselves, the murderers of all murderers! The holiest and the mightiest thing the world has ever possessed has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood from us? With what water could we clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what holy games will we have to invent for ourselves? Is the magnitude of this deed not too great for us? Do we not ourselves have to become gods merely to appear worthy of it? There was never a greater deed – and whoever is born after us will on account of this deed belong to a higher history than all history up to now!”
Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; they too were silent and look at him disconcertedly.
Finally he threw his lantern on the ground so that it broke into pieces and went out. “I come too early,” he then said; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightening and thunder need time; the light of the stars needs time; deeds need time, even after they are done, in order to be seen and heard, This deed is still more remote to them than the remotest stars – and yet they have done it themselves!”
It is still recounted how on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there started singing his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but, “What then are these churches now if not the tombs and sepulchres of God?”
As a ‘prophet of doom’ to both theists and atheists, then, Nietzsche’s madman announces the death of any viable “God’s eye” perspective on, transcendent source of, or justification for any universal moral principles, including those provided by atheistic Reason. When Martin Heidegger writes that, now, ‘[t]he ultimate blow against God and against the suprasensory world consists in the fact that God, the first of beings, is degraded to the highest value,’ he explains that, after the death of God, “God” becomes – in an elevation that is simultaneously a degradation – a “value,” a tradition, a custom to obey, an instrument of the human will to power. ("The Word of Nietzsche: 'God is Dead'" in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, p.105).