I remember once reading some literature in which Nietzsche was classified as a reluctant atheist. The piece made the point that in Thus Spoke Zarathustra Nietzsche seems to be bemoaning the perceived reality of atheism rather than rejoicing in it. So when he says "God is dead we have killed him", it is more a confession of regret than a triumphal nihilistic sentiment; sorry I don't remember exactly where this came from and I haven't read that much Nietzsche myself.

Nietzsche also once said of Dostoevsky that he was "the only psychologist from whom I had something to learn"; even though his works oppose all of Nietzsche's atheistic hypotheses. The respect seems to go both ways as well. I read the biography of Father Seraphim Rose (a teacher and monk in the Eastern Orthodox church) and I was interested by some of his comments:

“Atheism,” Father Seraphim wrote in later years, “true ‘existential’ atheism, burning with hatred of a seemingly unjust or unmerciful God is a spiritual state; it is a real attempt to grapple with the true God Whose ways are so inexplicable even to the most believing of men, and it has more than once been known to end in a blinding vision of Him Whom the real atheist truly seeks. It is Christ Who works in these souls. The Antichrist is not to be found in the deniers, but in the small affirmers, whose Christ is only on the lips. Nietzsche, in calling himself Antichrist, proved thereby his intense hunger for Christ…”


So how do different scholars classify Nietzsche? Is he more triumphal in his Atheism and derogatory against those who believe, or is there room to conceive of him as Father Seraphim does? Also, is there seen to be any philosophical contradiction in how Nietzsche longs for something he claims to have destroyed (if indeed this is a valid view).

  • 1
    I don't have the information to answer but the first paragraph seems problematic. The main character is Zarathustra and it's written from that character's point of view. For this reason, I think it would be a bit quick to ascribe Zarathustra's emotional reaction to the death of God to Nietzsche himself.
    – Dennis
    May 14, 2016 at 4:03
  • 1
    Are those the only options? How about a no-adjective athiest or a tea-and-crumpet athiest?
    – Weaver
    May 14, 2016 at 6:41
  • Great question. For the record, Thus Spoke Zarathutra references the death of God expiicitly only in passing (see Z Prologue 2 and Z II 3, On the Pitying). "We have killed him" appears in The Gay Science 125, The madman. "God" refers to an absolute source of moral authority. Aug 14, 2016 at 15:07
  • yes i liked this question. i guess i would ask, add the question, which god?
    – user34654
    Aug 26, 2018 at 6:59
  • Nietzsche's beef was always with the Christian God. He was raised a Lutheran, so we can assume that he refers to that God as the default.
    – Ian
    Aug 27, 2018 at 15:58

4 Answers 4


Nietzsche does not seem to rejoice in the reality of atheism in any of his works. He doesn't seem to regret it either (as it just is). As to nihilism, he saw it as a crisis, a crisis that must be overcome.

As to Father Seraphim Rose, what he said about “true ‘existential’ atheism” might apply to Nietzsche as follows: Nietzsche had a burning hated for Christianity – not to be confused with Christ or “God” – and a deep admiration, if not love, for Christ himself. Consider, for example, the following excerpts from The Antichrist (which perhaps would have been more aptly titled The Anti-Christian):

A 33: In the whole psychology of the “evangel” the concept of guilt and punishment is lacking; also the concept of reward. “Sin" -- any distance separating God and man -- is abolished: precisely this is “the glad tidings”. Blessedness is not promised, it is not tied to conditions: it is the only reality -- the rest is a sign with which to speak of it.

The consequence of such a state projects itself into a new practice, the genuine evangelical practice. It is not a “faith” that distinguishes the Christian: the Christian acts, he is distinguished by acting differently: by not resisting, either in words or in his heart, those who treat him ill …

The life of the Redeemer was nothing other than this practice -- nor was his death anything else. … He knows that it is only in the practice of life that that one feels “divine,” “blessed,” “evangelical,” at all times a “child of God”. Not “repentance,” not “prayer for forgiveness,” are the ways to God: only evangelical practice leads to God, indeed, it is God! What was disposed of with the evangel was the Judaism of the concepts of “sin,” “forgiveness of sin,” “faith,” “redemption through faith”— the whole Jewish ecclesiastical doctrine was negated in the “glad tidings”.

A new way of life, not a new faith.

A 35: This “bringer of glad tidings” died as he lived, as he had taught -- not to “redeem men” but to show how one must live. This practice is his legacy to mankind: his behavior before the judges, before the catchpoles, before the accusers of all kinds of slander, and scorn -- his behavior on the cross. He does not resist, he does not defend his right, he takes no step which might ward off the worst; on the contrary, he provokes it. And he begs, he suffers, he loves with those, in those, who do him evil. Not to resist, not to be angry, not to hold responsible -- but to resist not even the evil one -- to love him.

A 39: I go back, I tell you the genuine history of Christianity. The very word “Christianity” is a misunderstanding: in truth, there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross. The “evangel” died on the cross. What has been called “evangel” from that moment was actually the opposite of that which he lived: “ill tidings”, a dysangel. It is false to the point of nonsense to find the mark of the Christian in a “faith”, for instance, in the faith of redemption through Christ: only Christian practice, a life such as he lived who died on the cross, is Christian.

A 38: At this point I do not suppress a sigh. There are days when I am afflicted with a feeling blacker than the blackest melancholy -- contempt of man. And to leave no doubt concerning what I despise, whom I despise: it is the man of today, the man with whom I am fatefully contemporaneous. The man of today -- I suffocate from his unclean breath. My attitude to the past, like that of all lovers of knowledge, is one of great tolerance, that is, magnanimous self-mastery: with gloomy caution I go through the madhouse world of whole millennia, whether it be called “Christianity”, “Christian faith”, or “Christian church”—I am careful not to hold mankind responsible for its mental disorders. But my feeling changes, breaks out, as soon as I enter modern times, our time. Out time knows better.

What formerly was just sick is today indecent -- it is indecent to be a Christian today. And here begins my nausea. I look around: not one word has remained of what was formerly called “truth”.

With regard to those who have been "known to end in the blinding vision of Him Whom the real atheist truly seeks," in the months, weeks, and days leading up to his collapse in Turin on January 3, 1889, Nietzsche wrote a number of letters, some of which he signed “Dionysus” and some of which he signed “The Crucified.” (Nietzsche -- A Critical Life, Hayman, 1982) And he ended Ecce Homo with the words, “Am I understood – Dionysus versus the crucified.” (EH Destiny 9). In the latter case, however, he was clearly referring to Christianity, not to Christ himself.

  • thanks. fwiw i tend to imagine begrudging, equivocal, respect, rather than love. is he seeking redemption, let alone a "Redeemer"? perhaps not
    – user34654
    Aug 26, 2018 at 7:01
  • i mean yeah, the ubermensch redeems humanity, for Nietzsche, i think... but i don't suppose that's what motivated Nietzsche to go over man. rather, his own worth. just my ignorant opinion!
    – user34654
    Aug 26, 2018 at 7:10

Nietzsche's claim that "God is dead and we have killed him" is the crossroad between ontology and epistemology. The quote doesn't neccesarily mean that God is ontologically dead, but the belief in God is dead. This is where ontology is conditioned by epistemology. However, in order for God to exist, for us, we have to believe that he does so exist. When we stop assenting to this epistemological belief then we have also stopped ascertaining the ontological existence of God- even though there still may be a God that exists outside of our beliefs. But more importantly, the ascension to that belief is all up to us, its a matter of choice.

What you have to remember with philosophers like Nietzsche (and Kierkegaard for example) is that they will never give you a conclusion to their arguments nor would they give you a straight forward answer. Their goal is to wake up the subject in us and think for ourselves. So when Nietzsche says "...we have killed him", it is a question to the reader: "have you killed your belief? Why?"

  • This would be in stark contrast to the more contemporary atheist figures like Dawkins then.
    – Ian
    Aug 14, 2016 at 16:53
  • Yes it very well may be. With Dawkins he doesn't believe in God because he has something to replace him with such as natural selection. But Nietzsche would go deeper than that, he would ask us "why are there still people that still believe in him?", and I, personally, would answer back because people and societies still have a "utalitarian or pragmatic" belief in God, because natural selection doesn't give people "hope", but once they don't find any "use" for him they will kill the belief. But I don't think everyone has lost that sense of practicality.
    – Mr. Smith
    Aug 14, 2016 at 17:27

No, in Plato's cave one has to ascend upwards, remember one has to move upwards of the divided line to enter the realm of Ideas, and one has to look up to the "sun" (aka Form of the Good). Zarathustra is a polemic on Judeo-Christian prophets. It was Moses that went up to the mountains and met the Burning Bush (the sun as Nietzsche calls it) and came down to his people.

Whether God could be separated from morality- it does not matter to Nietzsche whether he can or cannot, it is morality that he wants humanity to urgeny overcome, as he saw it as our degeneration. (If the belief of God has to be killed in the overcoming of morality- "so be it" Nietzsche would say). As he says in Ecce Homo: "In order to understand anything at all of my Zarathustra, one must perhaps be similarly qualified as I am — with one foot "beyond" life..." Beyond in the sense of going "beyond good and evil".

And then he also goes onto say in Ecce Homo: "The overcoming of pity I reckon among the noble virtues: in “Zarathustra’s Temptation” I have invented a case where a great cry of distress reaches him, where pity suddenly falls upon him like a final sin and wants to lure him away from himself. To remain master here, to keep the loftiness of his task pure here of the many baser and more shortsighted impulses which are active in so-called selfless acts, that is the test, the final test perhaps, that a Zarathustra has to pass — his own real proof of strength..." It feels as if Nietzsche is talking to us here, it feels as if the character Zarathustra is something we could possess personally and from taking on the role of this character we could become Master of ourselves and overcome our pity for noble virtues. By becoming Master of ourselves, we no longer need a Master up above sending down prophets to us to tell us to be more-than-moral, we can do it ourselves...

Other quotes from Ecce Homo regarding Zarathustra: "When Doctor Heinrich von Stein once honestly complained about not understanding a single word of my Zarathustra, I said to him that that was as it should be: to have understood six sentences from it, that to have "lived" them, raises one to a higher plane of the mortal than “modern” men could attain..."

"...a word that in the mouth of a Zarathustra, the annihilation of morality, becomes a very thought-provoking word — has been understood almost everywhere with complete innocence in the sense of those values whose antithesis the figure of Zarathustra was meant to represent: that is to say, as the “idealistic” type of a higher kind of man, half-“saint,” half-“genius”..."

" My Zarathustra, for example, is still looking for such as those the while — alas! he will still have to look for a long time! — One must be worthy of trying him out...And until then there will be no one who grasps the art that has been wasted here: no one has ever had artistic means to waste which were so new, so unheard of, and so expressly designed only for that purpose. "

  • Didn't Zarathrusta ascend the mountain and then descend? Is Nietzsche, not then a master to master-types? Plato, on the whole is against pathos for his class of guardians, but also says that there is an essential role that this emotion plays in their formation. Aug 13, 2016 at 22:49
  • No you're incorrectly putting plato and nietzsche's small point on pity together. My plato point was just correcting yours that it's not a reference to his cave. His cave is grounded on his divided line method and in his method one has to move upwards. And yes Moses as well ascended and descended...
    – Mr. Smith
    Aug 13, 2016 at 23:02
  • And yes to your question on master-types. Nietzsche was an elitist and his characterization of Zarathustra leads into his point on the Superman (Ubermencsh).
    – Mr. Smith
    Aug 13, 2016 at 23:10
  • Smith: you're welcome to your pov; however, small points are often essential; I tend to take a historical view on philosophy and align philosophers along that axis; it works for me, if not for you. Aug 13, 2016 at 23:14
  • Yes I don't like to do that because once you start finding relations between philosophers in a historical sense you start focusing more on the similarities than the differences, and those differences are sometimes more important than those small points... Besides Nietzsche hated Plato (look into his book Twilight of the Idols).
    – Mr. Smith
    Aug 13, 2016 at 23:23

I'd suggest that this is problematic. Zarathustra after all was a prophet and Nietzsche has him praising the sun, high in the mountains before beginning his descent and sojourn in the world. This appears to be an obvious reference to Plato's cave and a symbol of the moment of philosophical revelation and then the descent back into the world.

I'm not sure that Nietzsche is an atheist. He might not be a Christian, or one in any orthodox sense. Tolstoy, for example, talks about the god of the philosophers.

To put this into context, Nadine Gordimer, the South African writer, in an interview said she was an atheist, yet also profoundly religious. In any conventional and literal reading, this simply does not make sense; yet I don't find it troubling.

  • In colloquial usage, do you think this is something along the lines of the "religious vs. spiritual" distinction, or is there something genuinely, colloquially "religious" here?
    – commando
    Aug 14, 2016 at 19:37
  • @commando: I'm not sure what you mean by colloquial spirituality - movements like new ageism? I'd suggest that N had a real respect for the genuinely religious spirit, which is at odds with some contemporary expressions of Athiesm. Aug 14, 2016 at 21:20

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .