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.