Nietzsche’s checkmate: does atheism lead to totalitarianism?

A.C. Grayling, an atheist author that I tend to otherwise love, calls the idea that atheism gave birth to communism and fascism a theist “canard.” But, as an agnostic who has been doing a good deal of Nietzsche reading lately, I’m not so sure that Grayling has got this quite right.

The reason I say this is that Nietzsche is the first thinker to have fully absorbed what the Promethean Enlightenment and Charles Darwin’s radically contingent mechanism for making species—blind natural selection—mean for human purposes, ethics, politics, and aesthetics.

I would call Nietzsche the West’s prophet of contingency: the man who devoted himself to taking our purposeless, random flungness into existence to its fully logical conclusions. This is why, I believe, secular thinkers after Nietzsche have found it impossible to ignore him. Just as biology only makes sense in the light of Darwin, so atheism only makes sense in the light of Nietzsche.

Why is this so? Because Nietzsche drives us into a direct confrontation with an uncomfortable and difficult question:

  • What does it mean to make Darwinian contingency the supreme fact of our existence, and to clear Platonism, God, telos, and Christian ethics completely from the field?

This question, and how Nietzsche answered it, is why fascist theorizers, like Heidegger in the 1930s, found themselves grappling with Nietzsche. And it’s why communist intellectuals like George Lukacs, loathing Nietzsche for his support of aristocratic elitism, did so as well. It’s also why, in the 1960s, the existentialists and theologians of the “God is dead” movement wrestled with Nietzsche, and why 1980s-90s postmodernism has been characterized as a revival of ancient Greek sophistry via Nietzsche.

But it’s not that Nietzsche assisted in the birth, exactly, of any of these 20th century movements—fascism, communism, Death of God existentialism, or postmodernism. And it’s not that Nietzsche would have personally approved of any of them. It’s that Nietzsche, like a skilled chess player watching a chess game, saw the remaining moves available once certain pieces had been removed from the table (Platonism, God, telos, and Christian ethics in particular). It’s not that Nietzsche made the game, or the moves that would be subsequently taken, possible. It’s that Nietzsche, as the prophet of atheist contingency, heralded the game and recognized the moves that were remaining on the board.

And so to say, as Grayling does, that atheism leading to totalitarianism is a theist “canard” is not quite right. It is more accurate to say this: atheism opens the field for secular, heroic, dictatorship (Stalinism from the Left; Hitlerism from the right). It is one of the things that, on the chessboard of human moves, the removal of God from the board can come to. The stakes, in other words, are high. As Jacob Golomb and Robert Wistrich put it in the introduction to their edited collection of essays Nietzsche, Godfather of Fascism?  (Princeton 2002, pg. 4):

The radical manner in which Nietzsche thrusts himself against the boundaries of conventional (Judeo-Christian) morality and dramatically proclaimed that God (meaning the bourgeois Christian faith of the nineteenth century) was dead, undoubtedly appealed to something in Nazism that wished to transgress and transcend all existing taboos. The totalitarianism of the twentieth century (of both the Right and Left) presupposed a breakdown of all authority and moral norms, of which Nietzsche was indeed a clear-sighted prophet, precisely because he had diagnosed nihilism as the central problem of his society—that of fin de siecle Europe. . . . Nietzsche believed that only by honestly facing the stark truth that there is no truth, no goal, no value or meaning in itself, could one pave the way for a real intellectual liberation and a revaluation of all values. Nietzsche was more a herald and prophet of the crisis of values out of which Nazism emerged, rather than a godfather of the century’s fascist movement per se.

And Nietzsche was theorizing, please recall, on the contingent, and therefore ever shifting, ground of atheism.

The atheist who has not Jacob-wrestled with Nietzsche is like the Christian who has not Jacob-wrestled with Darwin, biblical archeology, and the Higher Criticism: both are unserious and pallid representatives of their kind.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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15 Responses to Nietzsche’s checkmate: does atheism lead to totalitarianism?

  1. yashwata says:

    Nietzsche did not know what to think about, or after, atheism. It was new for him. It terrified him. His thinking about it is not relevant to the 21st century. He may have been “the first thinker” to have thought about “what the … Enlightenment and Charles Darwin … mean for human purposes”, but that doesn’t mean that he got it right. If Nietzsche offers a method to think yourself into fascism, then he did not understand the issues properly, and people who still think he is interesting are living in the wrong century.

    • Gunlord says:

      I’d like to find this argument highly convincing, but the problem is, given the sorts of flirtations with fascism awesome secular humanists not very different from you have had through the twentieth through the twenty-first century, ranging from the aforementioned Communists to, more recently, Christopher “we should kill them” Hitchens (to take one example), I get the distinct feeling Nietzsche might not only still be interesting even today, but he just might have understood the issues better than even you.

      • santitafarella says:

        Gunlord:

        I’m increasingly persuaded by Nietzsche’s logic. If the world is contingent, then you have to pass through nihilism on your way to your own set of values. Nothing helps. Nothing can help. Science can’t tell you what to do. Nothing can. You’ve just got to make something from the raw contingencies of your brief existence (if you want to). It’s tight rope walking without a net.

        What will you do today? Nothing restrains you. The field is open. Now choose.

        Some people, freed of the taboos of religion in their psyches, will enter politics.

        —Santi

      • yashwata says:

        How can you imagine that it’s appropriate to address me this way?

        It is contentless to speculate that Nietzsche “might have understood the issues better than” me, given that you don’t know me.

        It is disingenuous to associate me with “awesome [??] secular humanists not very different from” me, given that you don’t know me.

        Why on Earth are you lashing out at me, Gunlord?

      • Gunlord says:

        If yashwata (a…Roy Sablosky, I think…when I clicked I was brought to the blog of a Roy Sablosky) thinks I’m “lashing out” at him, I suppose I must confess that wasn’t exactly my intent, and apologize to him and Santi. In my own estimation I’ve been harder on other commentators (like Gato Precambriano, for instance) and what I said to Mr./Dr. Sablosky was comparatively tame, but if our host feels differently, again, I do apologize.

      • santitafarella says:

        Gunlord:

        You were far from “lashing out.” I thought you were just offering an assertive opinion.

        No worries.

        Yashwata seems touchy. Give a rhetorical punch, take a rhetorical punch.

        —Santi

  2. santitafarella says:

    Yashwata:

    So Nietzsche is dead, huh?

    I do think it is curious that, in contrast with 20th century atheist-inspired movements, that the post-9-11 New Atheism is largely driven, not by the angst-laden philosopher concerned to grapple with Nietzsche, but by the scientist concerned with rational optimism and pushing back against resurgent fundamentalism.

    The New Atheism of the 21st century certainly has a different emphasis than 20th century versions of atheism, but do you really think Nietzsche is not important to grapple with?

    Really?

    Might it be that Nietzsche is not so much dead as that the average contemporary atheist, in the grip of an ahistorical innocence and an optimistic narrative—and obsessed with the ideological war against fundamentalism—might not yet be looking carefully at what Nietzsche had to say?

    Why do you suppose so many smart people have found themselves intellectually running aground (or, if you will, lost at sea) after their encounters with Nietzsche (if he is dead)?

    I say this: a spectre is haunting contemporary atheism; the spectre of Nietzsche.

    —Santi

  3. yashwata says:

    Oooooooh! I’m scared!

  4. santitafarella says:

    Yashwata:

    Boo!

    —Santi

  5. Excellent assessment of Nietzsche and in what I have dubbed the “reductive rationalism” of some atheist writers who love to snide and lash out at the excesses of the religious, but then when the shoe is fitted on the other foot (and fits rather well I might say), they pretend that there is no shoe at all.

  6. Whammerjammer says:

    My sick, perverted, and lazy simplification:

    Nietzsche – individualism (pushes against the rabble)
    Humanism – community (pushes against individual desire)

    Two sides of the same coin. They will always honestly be apart of each other, but never be allowed to honestly confront each other. Because for every other argument (stance) both sides seems to be easily justified by either bodies of work. Then it becomes questionable as to “who came up with the answer again”?

    Its how I sleep at night anyways.

    Why couldn’t have metaphysics led to fascism and totalitarianism just as easily as Nietzsche? Stoism, Christianity, Islam; should I really believe that these metaphysical philosophies never had dictators that would regulate every aspect of myself if they could? Nietzsche stands for everything but totalitarianism. Nietzsche led the way for us “to become who we are”. He showed us how to be ourselves through his blanket metaphysics, his aphorisms, his stories, his hypocrisies’, and guiding us through our prejudices. He foreshadowed fascism and totalitarianism, and people that do not understand his work or purpose take this foreshadow out of context.

  7. Whammerjammer says:

    I also don’t understand what is meant by “fully absorbed what the Promethean Enlightenment and Charles Darwin’s radically contingent mechanism for making species—blind natural selection—mean for human purposes, ethics, politics, and aesthetics”.

    My understanding is that Nietzsche argued against Darwin as much as he agreed with him. It has been awhile since I read his stuff but my understanding is he bitch slapped Darwin on a philosophical level pretty good. Maybe I’ll have to brush up on my Nietzsche and get back to this blog. I thought he was sick at the thought of Darwinian Philosophy. Interesting.

  8. Whammerjammer says:

    The only link I can think of between Nietzsche and Totalitarianism is the constant misconception of the Overman. Personally I see the Overman as a combination of Einstein (changes perception), Mother Teresa (uses power for kindness), Neapolitan Bonaparte (strong will for power), Richard Pryor (Laughs at everything – even himself), and a really snappy dancer. It presses the importance of raising children to their true and happy potential. Think about humanity if we accomplished this. We could literally overcome death, (we are so close already with circular DNA), we may use those atom- smashers to open portals / wormholes one day. Just imagine what we can’t imagine; much the same way Nietzsche could not fathom how far we have come, but he had faith in us to do it. The only philosophy, in my mind, that put that much faith in mankind, may I add.

    But mostly it’s a metaphor for our mental state (level), a state of us truly doing what we want, accepting of everything, and overcoming things easily. When he says the Overman will rule us, he is implying that a human with this mental state will rule. Not a power hungry dickhead will run the show.

  9. Whammerjammer says:

    When will we start a Neitzschian Temple in North America. I’ve got a pretty sweet name picked out allready. Contemplating patent.

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