To Be an Atheist: “Thou Shalt” Becomes “I Will”

Here’s an example of one of the things that it necessarily means to be an atheist, and, therefore, why it shouldn’t be taken lightly: The “Thou shalt” of religion becomes the “I will” of individual choice and action. This particular consequence of atheism was discovered by Friedrich Nietzsche in his Thus Spake Zarathustra (part 1 section 1):

All these heaviest things the load-bearing spirit taketh upon itself: and like the camel, which, when laden, hasteneth into the wilderness, so hasteneth the spirit into its wilderness. . . . Its last Lord it here seeketh: hostile will it be to him, and to its last God; for victory will it struggle with the great dragon. What is the great dragon which the spirit is no longer inclined to call Lord and God? “Thou shalt,” is the great dragon called. But the spirit of the lion saith, “I will.”

In this section of Thus Spake Zarathustra , Nietzsche introduces us to the metamorphosis of the soul on its way to a full-flowering atheism in the Superman. This metamorphosis comes via three animals—the camel, the dragon, and the lion. When one heads for a vital atheism, one enters the wilderness with the weight of the world, and with full responsibility for where it is going (as the camel is weighted down with a burden). What is encountered in the wilderness is the dragon of pre-ordained values—the dragon of “thou shalt”—which must be destroyed by the lion of “I will.” The inner lion destroys the values of the dragon, looking forward to the new value-system instituted by the Superman of “I will.” In other words, the prohibitions on the will to power, and the commands of religion with regard to equality and protecting the weak, are no longer accepted as given. The Superman’s “I will” must necessarily replace “thou shalt.”

Here’s Nietzsche fleshing out the dragon that is to be devoured by the atheist lion:

“Thou shalt” lieth in the path, sparkling with gold—a scale-covered beast; and on every scale glittereth golden, “Thou shalt!” The values of a thousand years glitter on those scales, and thus speaketh the mightiest of all dragons: “All the values of things—glitter on me. All values have already been created, and all created values—do I represent. Verily, there shall be no ‘I will’ anymore.” Thus speaketh the dragon.

The lion opens up the realm of freedom by killing the dragon, and the lion then looks to the Superman to arrive and create new values on the ground absented by the dragon. This is why it is so curious to see contemporary people declare for atheism even as they retain the traditional values of religion as if “thou shalts”—such as ‘love thy neighbor’ and ‘help the disabled’—were still operational and simply, in some sense, obvious and given. Nietzsche would have found this absurd. Nietzsche saw that atheists are not just the slayers of the old gods of “thou shalt not,” but the necessary creators of a new value system—of a will to power—the justification for which lies only in themselves. One can still love one’s neighbor, and treat all men as brothers, and help the weak, but one might just as well adopt different values, such as the marshal values of imperial Rome (which Nietzsche liked).

Value creation from scratch, and its justification from nothing in particular (save the “I will”), is a serious responsibility, entailing a good deal of danger, and it requires some thinking through, does it not?

It’s one thing to be Richard Dawkins playing the lion who, with “hostility” (Nietzsche’s word), kills the dragon. That’s the giddy and easy part. It is another thing to build on the ground cleared of the dragon—and then to actually govern.

Driver, where you takin’ us?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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