Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, whose book American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas was reviewed in Commentary, published an essay in The Wilson Quarterly on how Friedrich Nietzsche was embraced by Americans eager to see in him a reflection of their own image. In summarizing the German philosopher’s views, Ratner-Rosenhagen writes:
Friedrich Nietzsche thought that if a culture was clutching calcified truths, one needed to sound them out relentlessly. And that’s exactly what he tried to do… this “philosopher with a hammer” (as he came to identify himself) spent his career tapping that hammer against Western ideals turned hollow idols. Central to his philosophical project was challenging the notion of eternal truth. Nietzsche sought to demonstrate that nothing is inherently good or evil, but rather that all values are culturally and historically contingent. Likewise, he argued that all claims to truth are nothing more than “human, all-too-human” desires for a particular version of the good life, not mirrors of a supra-historical reality.
While Nietzsche sought to dismantle the notion of universal morality, so too did he try to upend his readers’ faith in God. He shocked them with the declaration that “God is dead,” and disturbed them with his insistence that God had not created man in his image; it was man who had created an image of God in order to give his life meaning, purpose, and a moral center. According to Nietzsche, the entire basis of modern Western culture was a slippery slope of lies: transcendent truth, the Enlightenment faith in reason and scientific objectivity, absolute morality, a Supreme Maker. These were mere fictions, products of human imagination and the struggle for power.
From time to time, Nietzsche put down his hammer as he tried to imagine a world after moral absolutes. Even he wondered what would happen once every article of faith had been shed and every claim to universal truth exposed as a human construct.
Nietzsche was right to wonder, and Ranter-Rosenhagen’s work raises an old and enduring set of questions. Is there such a thing as a universal moral law, truths that are objective and permanent rather than subjective and contingent, ethical codes that are anchored in God rather than human choice, human desires, and human invention?
During the years, I’ve asked friends of mine, including several very intelligent and well-read atheists, the grounds on which a person who doesn’t believe in God makes the case for inherent human dignity. Absent a Creator, what is the argument against capriciousness, injustice, and tyranny? How does one create a system of justice and make the case against, say, slavery, if you begin with two propositions: one, the universe was created by chance; and two, it will end in nothing? How do you derive a belief in a moral law that is binding on you and others apart from theism? How do you get from the “is” to the “ought”?
To press the point a bit further, why would a materialist or a relativist have any confidence that their beliefs are (a) rooted in anything permanent and (b) applied to themselves and to others? It’s not obvious what the response is to a Nietzschean who says, “Your belief is fine for you, but it is simply non-binding on me. God is dead—and I choose to follow the Will to Power. You may not agree, but there is no philosophical or moral ground on which you can make your stand.”
Steve Hayner, president of Columbia Theological Seminary, once told me something that adds an important layer to this discussion. We believe we have worth because we are created in God’s image, he said. But even more basic is the declaration that we have value simply because God values us. Gold is valuable because someone values it, not because there is something about gold that is intrinsically of worth. Sure, gold is aesthetically beautiful and has particular physical qualities which set it apart (it is highly conductive, non-corroding, et cetera). But gold would not be valuable if it were not thought to be so by someone. In this case, value is attributive. Similarly, human beings are of worth simply because we are valued by God. Indeed, God demonstrated the value of humanity by His continuing involvement with us.
It is the attributive quality of worth which underlies Christian and Jewish anthropology. Comparative worth opens the door to an economic or utilitarian assessment of the value of an individual. Intrinsic worth may also be open to some debate. But attributive worth, according to Hayner, is not derived from culture or circumstances. Here, worth comes from the understanding that all people are precious in God’s sight.
It’s still unclear to me, then, on what basis we can argue that people can have intrinsic or attributive worth if we deny God and transcendent truth. I’m not claiming it can’t be done; I’m simply asking what a non-theistic moral code would be grounded in. Those who embrace atheism/anti-theism and the philosophy of Nietzsche would do well to understand, as he did, just how ugly and terrifying a world after moral absolutes would be.
It turns out taking a hammer to God doesn’t damage Him; but it does damage us.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Follow Mr. Wehner on Twitter at @Peter_Wehner.