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Dec 24

An Atheist’s Message: Please Read About Your Religion (and the rest of them)

Religious BooksThere is an oft-quoted colloquialism that suggests the best way to encourage someone towards atheism is to give them a Bible.

Actress and comedian Julia Sweeney’s monologue “Letting Go of God” exemplifies this tried-and-true method of the emergence of skepticism through the study of holy texts. She discusses a reinvigoration of her Catholic faith that brought her to church, where she then enrolled in a Bible study class. As she progressed through the book, the girl who was once eager to join the sisterhood began seeing some serious discrepancies and injustices in the word of God. She mentions the child sacrifices of Abraham (although his son Isaac was spared) and Jephthah (his daughter was not so lucky), God’s afterthought about the necessity of the flood, and the characters flaws of the perfect Jesus among many other instances where she felt disinclined towards the holy book of her faith.

Along with her growing skepticism of the Bible and her “more conventional” Catholic faith, Sweeney recounts a story of two Mormon boys who came to her door to enlighten her about their faith. The two boys tell her the story of how the prophet Lehi came to Americaby boat in 600 BC with his family (the only good family in a totally evil Jerusalem). Lehi’s descendants from his son Nephi were the totally-good light-skinned people known as the Nephites while the rebellious son Laman’s descendants were the totally-bad dark-skinned people known as the Lamanites. If you sense some racial tension at this point, you would be spot on, as the Mormons tend to view the Native Americans as descended from totally-evil people. As the story continues, Jesus stops by America after his crucifixion on his way to heaven and tells the Nephites they will win the war against the Lamanites if they remain totally good. As Sweeney dictates it, “somebody blew it” and the Lamanites decimated all but one of the Nephites, a prophet named Mormon. He wrote down an entire account of what had transpired up to that point and this was later found in Palmyra, New York by Joseph Smith who translated the reformed Egyptian hieroglyphs with the aid of a special stone whilst looking into a hat into English. Today, we know these writings as the Book of Mormon, one of the canonical books of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which boasts over 13 million adherents.

At first, Sweeney says she wanted to feel self-satisfied that she was apart of a more traditional religious order. However, she admits she would have felt the same shock at hearing the Catholic dogma and tradition as she did the Mormon dogma if she had heard it for the first time. She cites the importance of the Virgin Mary as the untouched, God-inseminated mother of Jesus to Catholic and Christian lore as an example of a ridiculous story having crucial importance to her religion.

Julia Sweeney’s story eventually leads her to atheism and compels her to become one of the many activists working for the promotion of secular values in the world today. She serves on the board for the Secular Coalition of America. Please read and/or listen to her monologues and other work (links below). Sweeney’s Bible study-turned-atheism shows that the old adage may have some truth, and she is not the only one exploring it.

Cognitive scientist and philosopher Daniel Dennett offered in his book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, a plan that would make it compulsory for public schools to provide education on the facts, traditions, and histories of all the world’s religions without bias to any specific religion or religions. The driving force behind Dennett’s proposal:

“It’s just an idea, and perhaps there are better ones to consider, but it should appeal to

freedom-lovers everywhere: the idea of insisting that the devout of all faiths should face the challenge of making sure their creed is worthy enough, attractive and plausible and meaningful enough, to withstand the temptations of its competitors. If you have to hoodwink–or blindfold–your children to insure that they confirm their faith when they are adults, your faith ought to go extinct.” (Breaking the Spell, 327-8)

The idea has been accepted by some of the religious, but by others it has been called totalitarian and fascist. I find it hard to disagree with Dennett in saying that this approach seems almost libertarian. It helps create an educated and well-informed population while preventing parents from lying to their kids or indoctrinating them into their faiths without exposing them to other faiths. As Dennett says, “This knowledge will enrich their minds in uncountable ways, since it will acquaint them with some of the greatest music, art and literature that the world has to offer, and give them the sort of perspective on their own lives that you can only get from comparing your life with the lives of others.”

For more information about this idea, please watch Daniel Dennett’s TED presentation or his debate with Dinesh D’Sousza, an outspoken critic of the idea. (Links below)

I am very supportive of Dr. Dennett’s proposal for 3 main reasons:

  1. An informed citizenship.
    1. An unbiased teaching of the world’s religions to all increases the knowledge of cultures that are not one’s own in an extremely diverse world. It would allow for more stable connections between different religions and countries, and could move the goal of peace forward exponentially. Also, as Dennett points out, parents are stewards of their children and not their masters. They should not be allowed to lie to their children about their faith or anyone else’s faith and exclusively indoctrinate them into their religion.
  2. Open, honest discussion of religion
    1. A presentation of the facts, history, and tradition of all religions would allow us to sufficiently praise specific religions for the good they have brought to the world while also allowing us to examine the severely negative things that have happened in conjunction with religion. I think this may be the reason some people critique Dennett’s idea because they fear a true discussion of the facts, history, and tradition of their respective religions will diminish their influence and expose their inherent flaws.
  3. The Bible Theory
    1. As with Sweeney and the Bible Study, or the story of the Mormons, I believe that reading religious texts often breeds skepticism, and that skepticism is a healthy thing. We should never blindly accept anything we are told without research and should pursue truth, knowledge, and reason. Showing religions based on facts, tradition, and history should paint them in a positive light if they are worthwhile to have in our world but it often exposes inherent flaws. I think Dennett’s idea takes this idea and implements it for all to see.

Some critics of this idea will look at point 3 and say, “Exactly! Dennett’s basically trying to abolish religion!” However, look at what Dr. Dennett’s plan calls for. It calls for faith and religion exposure to all in an unbiased light. So if you believe this plan would destroy your religion, it might be because your religion inherently has flaws that can only be allowed to continue with indoctrination and the breeding of ignorance amongst your offspring.

What Dr. Dennett is calling for, and what I am supporting, is an open presentation and critique of religion. The religious right and many of its moderate members argue that political correctness is ruining America. (See Catholic League president Bill Donohue’s “discussion” with American Atheist president David Silverman in the link below) All Dr. Dennett and I are asking for is that religion be scientifically presented, bigotry and lies aside, and offered to all. If the Bible Theory rings true, maybe the atheists have a point after all.

Ben Conover is a philosophy, film, and classics major at Boston University.

Editor’s Note: I cannot write this article without mentioning the efforts of Sam Harris, founder of Project Reason, and Steve Wells, creator of the Skeptics Annotated Bible, Koran, and Book of Mormon, in the Scripture Project. Please take a look if you are interested in skepticism and religious texts.
http://www.project-reason.org/scripture_project/

Julia Sweeney’s TED talk (an excerpt from Letting Go of God): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OtIyx687ytk

Julia Sweeney’s Letting Go of God:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bqh53RCkURQ (part 1)

Daniel Dennett’s Ted talk:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DTepA-WV_oE

Daniel Dennett v. Dinesh D’Sousza:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iw7J15TeDG4 (part 1)

Dennett’s idea source:

http://www.stoa.org.uk/topics/education/Daniel%20Dennett%20-%20Teach%20Our%20Children%20Well.pdf (from the Washington Post)

Silverman and Donohue on FOX

http://www.youtube.com/user/AtheistMediaBlog?blend=2&ob=1#p/u/3/OewwDBMrF5Q

Dec 16

Is Atheism a Religion? (And Do Atheists have Faith?)

AtheismAs an atheist, I have truly grown to hate the title. Not because it holds ridiculous negative connotations, or because it is a title that is completely misunderstood, but because it legitimately says nothing. People define themselves by what they believe, not by what they reject (how many people do you hear calling themselves non-liberals or non-soccer players). Many people (atheists included) make the mistake of thinking that atheism is the belief that NO GOD exists. This is incorrect for about 99% of all non-believers. What most atheists really do is REJECT the claim that a deity exists. I understand that this seems like nothing but semantics; however, the distinction is important in order to truly understand what an atheist is.

To claim that there is no god is a faith-based position that I personally find as stupid as claiming that there is one. There is absolutely no testable way to prove that god does not exist and almost no one argues this point. There is no way to prove a negative, making such a claim unfalsifiable. However, no intelligent atheist will ever claim that there is no god (doing so is often referred to gnostic atheism or “hard atheism”). Most atheists will reject the claim that there is a god based on insufficient evidence (what is known as agnostic atheism or “soft atheism”). It is very important to understand the difference between asserting a negative (stupid in almost every case because a negative cannot by definition be verified) and rejecting a positive claim. What this means in simpler terms is that most atheists do not necessarily claim that there is no god (although most will say that they do out of simplicity); they believe that there is no good reason to assume god exists. Again, this is an important distinction because claiming that no god exists is a faith-based claim; it is totally and completely unverifiable under any empirical experiment.

I have recently become aware that many believers consider atheism to be a religion of nonbelief. This claim is of course ridiculous (unless the term religion is defined so loosely that it loses all actual meaning and comes to include every form of ideology). Not playing football is not a sport, not collecting stamps is not a hobby, and not accepting a faith-based assertion is not a religion. Only hard atheism may be considered a religion, because it is a faith claim, as opposed to soft atheism, which requires no faith in anything beyond the empirical.

The term atheism really has no meaning except “someone who does not believe that sufficient evidence exists in order to make the claim that god exists”. I am sure that many people will jump in arms after reading this and claim that what I am actually describing is an agnostic, and to a degree they would be correct. Colloquially, an agnostic is a fence-sitter of sorts. It is used to describe someone who claims that they are unsure if there is sufficient evidence to accept the claim that god exists. However, the true definition of an agnostic is someone who does not know, whereas the true definition of an atheist is someone who rejects theism (and for simplicity we also say they reject deism). Atheism and agnosticism refer to two different ideas: beliefs and knowledge. To be an agnostic atheist is to be someone who does not know whether god does exist, but believes that there is no reason to assume that a god exists, whereas a gnostic atheist would be someone who claims that they know (or almost certainly know) that god does not exist (and believes that there is evidence to support such a claim). Similarly, an agnostic theist would be someone who believes that god exists but does not know that sufficient evidence to make a claim either way exists, and a gnostic theist claims that they know (or almost certainly know) that god exists (and believes that there is evidence to support that claim).

Both gnostic theist and atheism present the same problem, which is belief without sufficient evidence (I am of course assuming that there is not sufficient evidence to adequately prove god’s existence, because that is not the point of this article). Agnostic theism provides a problem because the default position for any unknown claim of significance should be skepticism. For example, if someone told me that I would marry Scarlett Johansson, it would incredible foolish of me to live my life thinking that I will marry a millionaire until I was shown sufficient evidences (such as a wedding contract, or I actually talked to Mrs. Johansson). So unless evidence exists to make a gnostic claim, it makes no sense to believe such a claim to be true so long as the belief actually has some bearing. For example I might believe my friend if he told me that his brother had green eyes without fact checking, because such a belief has little bearing on my life.

So overall, atheism is a title based on the rejection of a deity, NOT the claim that such a deity does not exist (this excludes gnostic atheists, but I believe most atheists to be agnostic atheists, so I am generalizing). Atheists therefore do not possess faith (defined as belief without empirical evidence). Atheism is therefore not a religion in any strict sense of the term. It is not a lifestyle or an ideology. It is nothing more than title given to those who reject a claim.

Dec 13

The Intelligence of Design

Intelligent DesignThe world is a beautiful place.

The tides of the sea, the sun setting on the golden plain, the immortal ripples of lakes in the mountains. How could such an intricate and wondrous thing ever come to be by pure chance? If you find a shiny silver watch in the woods, does it not follow logically that it was created by an intelligent mind?

This is the classic emotional argument for the necessity of a Divine Creator, an Intelligent Designer. God simply must exist! Despite our continually expanding scientific knowledge of the vast universe and our own fanciful minds, the human race is determined to believe there is something supernatural behind it all.

The logically weak yet emotionally powerful argument of the watch and the watchmaker implies that an omnipotent super-being must have created the world because the chances of everything happening on its own are so very slim. Despite the incredibly low chances of this world forming into exactly the world it is today, it has―that we know. We know nothing definitive of any way it could have come to be otherwise, so there is no reason to assume so. The watch and the watchmaker argument does not reflect reality―no scientist could explain how a watch could have simply formed on its own, but this is not the case with the universe. Thanks to Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking, we have a perfectly logical explanation of how things could have happened without any help from anyone.

Furthermore, how on earth could you calculate the actual probability that a god exists? And that not only is he not another concocted deity like Zeus and Santa Claus, but also that he comes in paradoxical packs of three and frowns upon homosexual love and calls only men to be priests and sends us all off to the Demonic Fires of Hell or the Abstract Glories of Heaven or the Divine Waiting Room of Purgatory to be either punished eternally for our transgressions or rewarded eternally for our good deeds or cleansed indefinitely with expired holy articles on Natural Family Planning and Why You Should Have Heeded Christ Jesus from your local religious newsletter, all because he loves us? Someone please tell me, what is the probability of that?

I believe that somewhere in the world there is a legitimate Pink Elephant.

Natural and everything.

It’s capitalized because it is actually God.

Don’t disrespect my beliefs, people. It’s Faith.
The nice thing about the Pink Elephant is that elephants are real and pink is real and misfits are real and genetic mutations and toxic vats of chemicals of war and circuses and deserts are real. It is a legitimate possibility. And thus, it could be calculated (if I happened to know a thing or two about the various ways a pink elephant might come to be).

But can we say that for God? To make a long story short….no. To know the probability of the existence of the Pink Elephant, it is necessary that I know rather a lot about Loxodonta Africana and animal genetics. If I didn’t have such knowledge, any logical projection I made about the probability of such a thing actually existing would be completely worthless. Such is the way with God: there is absolutely no definite evidence of his existence, and there is no supporting argument in his favor that cannot be aptly refuted by physics and psychology. For all our electron microscopes and distant space probes and quantum physics equations, we know as much about the universe as an ant in a bottle knows about glass. Lacking the necessary omniscience, we must turn to what we do know of Reality­―which is significantly more than nothing, as meager as it is­­.

I happen to live nearby a herd of elephants and have in my days on this earth seen many an elephant, and the fact is that none of them are pink. That’s all I’ve got―and thus I must face the reality: the Pink Elephant is probably not real. All the elephants I see are gray, therefore it is fair to assume that all elephants of the Loxodonta Africana variety are gray. (Thankfully, I just care too much about the Pink Elephant to stop believing because of a little thing like evidence, and I am thus quite capable of ignoring a perfectly logical criticism if I feel like it.)

How many supernatural beliefs of ancient peoples can you think of that have been proven false, or gods whose mystical powers have been stripped by scientific discoveries? Remember when we used to believe that violent lunatics were possessed by demons? Remember when we used to believe the sun revolved around the earth? (Though that’s hardly supernatural―Lord only knows what exactly the Vatican was doing there). Remember when we thought lightning emanated from the fingers of Zeus? Remember when we used to think that supernaturally connected Seers could predict the future (and still do)? Remember when we believed in Santa Claus?

But yet again, humanity demonstrates its impeccable ability to adapt to even the most tumultuous changes―the sort of changes that are so shocking people simply refuse to accept they have happened at all and resort to algorithmic prayers for the souls of the reasonable. What happens when a scientist discovers that the sun actually does not revolve around the earth? He is imprisoned, of course. (Truth is all too often a threat to authorities such as the Church.) What happens when scientists discover that lightning is actually an atmospheric discharge of electricity? People find a new god that cannot be disproven. Unfortunately for humanity, it is far easier to find a mysterious facet of the natural world to worship and build temples for than it to scientifically or logically disprove it. As our understanding of the universe increases, our gods become increasingly abstract (although unceasingly particular about how we mere humans live our lives).

This is the course of history, as scientific knowledge increases and religious explanations eventually retreat into vague abstraction:

God made the lightning, Amen.

Actually, it turns out lightning is actually an atmospheric discharge of electricity―

Heresy! Burn him at the stake!

God made the lightning, Amen.

(much time passes)

Fine…. lightning is indeed an atmospheric discharge of electricity.

No! cry the fundamentalists

Actually, God is in all things. He still definitely created the lightning.

Well, that is to say, he created the clouds that created the lightning.

Well, he created the meteorological currents that created the clouds.

Well, he created the process of atmospheric stratification that created the meteorological currents.

Well, he created the molecules that created the process of atmospheric stratification.

Well, he created the atomic particles that created the molecules.

Well….he created the universe which created the atomic particles because, well, someone had to create it all, and he himself just….always was….because he’s God and he can do that. Why should the Almighty God be subjected to the laws of logic and physics he himself created? That would just be too logical to be True.

The more we understand about the universe, the less we rely on religious explanations. The reason so many people believe in God is that we all need something to believe in, something to help us understand the world around us. But it does not have to be a tyrannical supernatural being telling us all how to live our lives―the elephant in the room is that such a being probably does not exist. Whether or not we need God emotionally and morally is uncertain―although C.S. Lewis believed all morals derive from faith in God, an atheist would say that if God himself derives from our own imagination then so does our sense of morality. One thing is clear, though: scientifically, there is no need for God.

http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2010/09/02/god-didnt-create-universe-stephen-hawking-argues/

Dec 08

One Peppermint Mocha Please, Hold the Jesus and the Whipped Cream

pmochaA cursory glance inside the nearest department store makes it clear that Christmas has arrived. Shoppers flock to Macy’s, churches prop up trees and nativity scenes, and the Starbucks baristas bring out the extra peppermint syrup for extra holiday cheer with your morning caffeine fix. While many voices in the media (especially the Christian voices) rail against the corporate takeover of Christmas, it is impossible to forget the entirely Christian basis of this cultural event. And while I enjoy a white chocolate peppermint mocha as much as the next girl, obligatory deference to Christian tradition can be rather irksome.

I attend a Catholic high school, where I take required theology courses, stare off awkwardly during lunchtime prayer, and attend monthly masses. And though I try to get away with skimming the latest atheist blogs on my laptop during prayer time, I usually don’t get far before a teacher glares at me disapprovingly, hoping to chastise me for my grave lack of reverence to a religion I view as intrinsically damaging to society. The hypocrisy of participating in Catholic events stings, but in the end I take the theology credits and mouth along the words to the prayers just like everyone else. Ultimately, I view the occasional sign of the cross as a fair trade for a college-preparatory education superior to any available from nearby public schools.

Clearly I’m no stranger to forced displays of Christian reverence. Yet as Christmas rolls around, the skeptic’s social dilemma becomes more prominent. As I would imagine that a relatively low number of skeptics and atheists attend all-girl Catholic high schools, most of the non-religious community probably deals with a low level of religious activity in their daily lives. But every December, society hauls out the Christian imagery and tradition. Few escape hearing the nativity story or being asked to donate to their local church. The increased visibility of Christianity forces atheists to make hard choices.

How are skeptics to respond to Christian cultural traditions?

My personal favorite is to substitute in a secular holiday, mostly because I like presents and good food. But past my rather selfish appreciation for eggnog, there is the undeniable benefit of having a yearly opportunity to gather with friends and relatives, eat good food, and enjoy each others company. Who decided that religion has to have a monopoly on community and celebration? It is absolutely possible to have a good, enjoyable holiday season without accepting the unverifiable existence of an allegedly all-powerful deity. Luckily for us atheists, critical thinking and an appreciation for presents are not mutually exclusive.

Whether you choose to celebrate the Winter Solstice, Festivus (for the rest of us), Kwanza, New Years, or simply a secularized version of a traditional religious holiday, there are plenty of ways to join in with the worldwide season of giving without giving away your beliefs. Indeed, secular celebrations of the holidays provide atheists a chance to stand up for their beliefs and show that we are not, as commonly believed, just bitter Scrooges.

A trickier problem is dealing with outright displays of Christianity. While Santa Claus, reindeer, and department store sales barely hint at the religious foundation of the Christmas season, the nativity scenes, bible readings, and religious relatives clearly point towards the religious foundation. How should you react in situations where you are expected to join in with religious rituals you disagree with?

In the end, these delicate issues have no easy solution. One way or another, someone is going to be at least a bit bruised- whether it is your integrity or your Southern Baptist grandmother’s peace of mind. Courtesy and tolerance always help, of course. As important as atheist visibility is, family dinner is neither the time nor the place to stand up and start shouting about your qualms with the Catholic Church. There has to be some compromise from both sides. There’s no perfect solution.

So as Christmas season rolls around, I’m making mix CDs of non-religious Christmas songs, planning my Winter Solstice party, and carefully evading my mother’s attempts to get me to go to church. While I won’t be re-reading the nativity story to remind myself of its inherent contradictions, I still plan on enjoying myself this holiday season, hopefully without having to compromise my beliefs.

Happy Festivus

Dec 07

The Nietzschean Distinction

Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical frame of thought has made him the target of numerous writings by theologians, apologists, various Christian writers, and many other scholars and commentators.  Yet, his views pertaining to Jesus of Nazareth are often overlooked.  Unfortunately, most of his works are interpreted in the broad view of his criticisms of Christianity.  Typically, these ideas do not characterize his views of Jesus of Nazareth, but rather his opinion of St. Paul and the Church as an organization.  They also serve to provide a useful backdrop of contrast between Nietzsche’s position on Jesus and the Church. In fact, his primary “doctrine,” the will to power, actually intersects Jesus’ life and actions at certain points.  Christological sentiments expressed by Nietzsche appear to follow modern atheistic perceptions of Jesus’ life that detract from Jesus’ divine nature and label him as a moral thinker.  However, when he is viewed from a sociohistorical viewpoint, Nietzsche’s works tend to differentiate Jesus of Nazareth from his contemporaries insofar that Jesus instead begins to embody attributes of the Übermensch (overman).  Accordingly, these perspectives of Jesus greatly contrast with Nietzsche’s thoughts with the institution of Christianity; hence, it is useful to examine these thoughts to further cement his postulates relating to Christology.  Nietzsche’s oft-misinterpreted opinions of Jesus of Nazareth actually integrate exceedingly well with certain aspects of the will to power; in turn, Jesus’ human nature is illuminated from an atheistic angle that understands Jesus of Nazareth as an Übermensch instead of a divine prophet.

Regrettably, critics of Nietzsche have a propensity for distorting his views of Christianity as an institution (and by extension, St. Paul) and the individual known as Jesus of Nazareth.  Through the use of blanket statements that lack any philosophical depth or historical background, O’Malley attempts to label Nietzsche and his consequent views as pure power-lust.  Father William O’Malley writes, “Nihilism is literally the doctrine that might makes right” (Meeting, 187-188).  He presents even shallower criticisms when he writes, “In murdering God, Nietzsche empowered a line of self-justified Hitlers” (Meeting,188).  Clearly, O’Malley has been blinded by his undying subservience to the Catholic Church.  He fails to mention Nietzsche’s hatred of the anti-Semitism sweeping through Germany!  “Your association with an anti-Semitic chief expresses a foreignness to my whole way of life which fills me again and again with ire or melancholy…” (Kaufmann, 456-457) writes an angry Nietzsche in a letter to his sister in 1887. Through the mishandling of his estate by his sister, the Nazis adapted the idea of the Übermensch superficially and for their own needs. Philosophy professor Christopher Rodkey also attacks this appallingly uninformed perspective: “[It is]…like linking St. Francis with the Inquisition in which the order he founded played a major role.”  Ergo, Nietzsche’s primarily Christian critics are not only disgustingly misguided, but they also fail to distinguish between his attacks on overbearing and tyrannical institutions and his personal opinions of Jesus of Nazareth.  Furthermore, Rodkey shows that Nietzsche’s abhorrence of the Church stems from St. Paul’s “greedy” and compulsive need for institutionalization.  Christian apologist and writer C.S. Lewis nearly perfectly embodies what Nietzsche strived to destroy: the objectivity and Apollonian nature of Christian doctrine.  Yet, C.S. Lewis acknowledges Jesus’ revolutionary nature in Mere Christianity: “He is not merely a new man, one specimen of the species, but the new man” (221). In contrast with his detestation of the institution of the Church, Nietzsche sees Jesus as the only true Christian.  Rodkey wholly summarizes this notion wherein he writes, “In short, Nietzsche respects and admires Jesus of Nazareth, ‘but denies that he has any meaning for our age.’”

Certain attributes and characteristics embodied by an Übermensch manifest themselves within the psyche of Jesus of Nazareth.  In essence, Nietzsche portrays Jesus as an individual rebelling against the old order to bring about a more Dionysian and less-rigid system and code of laws (Rodkey). The fact that he has been remembered throughout the past two millennia is also a worthy accomplishment of an Übermensch. When viewed from this perspective, Jesus begins to take the form of a peaceful rebel, but a rebel nonetheless.  He encompasses many attributes of an individual engaged in their will to power.  Nietzsche essentially strips Jesus of Nazareth of his supposed divine nature and instead paints a portrait of the paradigm shifter.  Accordingly, when Nietzsche writes that “God is Dead” (Adler, 250), he is not merely stating that God does not exist and that Jesus’ divine nature is questionable, but also implicitly proclaims that the only Christian perished on the cross.  By doing so, Nietzsche devises a contrast between contemporary Christians and the original Jesus of Nazareth: he considers one to be of the herd mentality, and the other to be of the “overman” mentality – one who blazed new trails.  St. Paul and Jesus masquerade as these conflicting aspects of the human condition in The Antichrist. In reference to Jesus, Nietzsche writes, “He broke with the whole Jewish doctrine of repentance and reconciliation; he knows that it is only in the practice of life that one feels ‘divine’… only the evangelical practice leads to God, indeed, it is ‘God’!” (Kaufmann, 607). Nietzsche further iterates on this concept when he writes, “…one understood Jesus to have been in rebellion against the existing order” (Kaufmann, 614). Hence, Nietzsche and most Catholic theologians share similar views of Jesus’ anthropological and political temperament which manifests itself with Jesus’ rebellious actions against the old order.  However, where current theologians and Nietzsche differs lies in their respective viewpoints of the idea of the “kingdom of God.”  Nietzsche writes, “The ‘kingdom of heaven’ is a state of the heart – not something that is to come ‘above the earth’ or ‘after death’” (Kaufmann, 608).  Ultimately, this thought causes Jesus to perish under a scared Jewish hierarchy.  In this sense, Nietzsche proclaims that Christianity grew from the revenge of the original apostles rather than their forgiveness (Rodkey).

In essence, Nietzsche considers Christianity as a religious institution to be an inverse response to the death of Jesus by crucifixion.  As stated previously, Nietzsche blames this on the early disciples and specifically Paul.  Rodkey explains that Nietzsche believed Paul and these disciples were as power hungry as the original Jewish order that Jesus sought to disrupt.  In turn, Nietzsche believes that the ethical and so-called moral frameworks that Christianity proposes are inherently flawed.  Thus, Nietzsche derives that Christianity must be the antithesis of the very message that Jesus of Nazareth attempted to proclaim.  He writes, “[Christianity is] a radical betrayal of the life view that Jesus had espoused” (Rodkey).  This postulate is effectively summarized in The Antichrist in which Nietzsche contrasts the persona of Jesus of Nazareth with contemporary Christianity: “This ‘bringer of glad tidings’ died as he had lived, as he had taught – not to ‘redeem men’ but to show how one must live” (Kaufmann, 608-609).

Thus, Nietzsche considers Christianity to be the religion of the weak-minded through its adherents’ ignorance of the true nature of Jesus’ death when he writes, “[It is] the superiority over any feeling of ressentiment.” (Kaufmann, 615) Yet, he believes Jesus to have qualities of the Übermensch. Rodkey adequately sums up the contrast between Nietzsche’s opinions of Christianity and Jesus of Nazareth wherein he writes, “Furthermore, Nietzsche believes that Christianity has become the very establishment against which Jesus rebelled in Judaism: an already corrupt, stagnant, static, hierarchical religion.”  Nietzsche sees this reaction to the death of Jesus, known as Christianity, to be the ultimate irony and hypocrisy of the Apostles.  By elevating Jesus to a higher plane of existence, the disciples detract from what Nietzsche believes to be the true nature of Jesus; that of the evangel, the trailblazer, the inspired rebel.  Nietzschewrites, “…the whole and only actuality of the evangel, is conjured away – in favor of a state after death” (Kaufmann, 616).  Hence, in Nietzsche’s eyes, Jesus becomes tinted with characteristics of an Übermensch, which are subsequently erased by the disciples’ apparent necessity to justify their cause.  Thus, Nietzsche’s perspective of Jesus of Nazareth provides another useful analytical tool in the examination of not only his historical context, but also his impact on the Christian faith and the derivation thereof.

Works Cited

Adler, Mortimer Jerome. The Great Ideas: a Lexicon of Western Thought. New York: Macmillan, 1992.

Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity: a Revised and Amplified Edition, with a New Introduction, of the Three Books, Broadcast Talks, Christian Behaviour, and Beyond Personality. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001

Nietzsche, Friedrich, and Walter Kaufmann. The Portable Nietzsche. New York: Penguin, 1976

O’Malley, William J. Meeting the Living God. New York: Paulist, 1998.

Rodkey, Christopher Demuth. “NIETZSCHEAN CHRISTOLOGY.” Saint Vincent College. Web. 20 Nov. 2010. <http://facweb.stvincent.edu/academics/religiousstu/writings/rodkey2.html>.