On Ethical Monotheism and Friedrich Nietzsche

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”  — Friedrich Nietzsche, influential 19th-century philosopher and cultural critic

Late last year, I posted excerpts from the Introduction to Dr. David Bentley Hart’s book, Atheist Delusions. I finally starting reading the rest of the book — slowly, now and then — and am really appreciating Hart’s clear thinking, fair-mindedness, and eloquent prose. (He also throws in the occasional word that I am unfamiliar with, so I am expanding my vocabulary, as well.) So, I decided to share a few more excerpts from the book on various topics, which I will likely spread out over the next few months. Here is the first:

“I can honestly say that there are many forms of atheism that I find far more admirable than many forms of Christianity or of religion in general. But atheism that consists entirely in vacuous arguments afloat on oceans of historical ignorance, made turbulent by storms of strident self-righteousness, is as contemptible as any other form of dreary fundamentalism. And it is sometimes difficult, frankly, to be perfectly generous in one’s response to the sort of invective currently fashionable among the devoutly undevout, or to the sort of historical misrepresentations it typically involves.

WRONG_ReligionCausesWarTake for instance Peter Watson, author of a diverting little bagatelle of a book on the history of invention, who, when asked not long ago by the New York Times to name humanity’s worst invention, blandly replied, ‘Without question, ethical monotheism…. This has been responsible for most of the wars and bigotry in history.’ Now, as a specimen of the sort of antireligious chatter that is currently chic, this is actually rather mild; but it is also utter nonsense. Not that there is much point in defending ‘monotheism’ in the abstract (it is a terribly imprecise term); and devotees of the ‘one true God’ have certainly had their share of blood on their hands. But the vast majority of history’s wars have been conducted in the service of many gods; or have been fought under the aegis, or with the blessing, or at the command of one god among many; or have been driven by the pursuit of profits or conquest or power; or have been waged for territory, national or racial destiny, tribal supremacy, the empire, or the ‘greater good’; or, indeed, have been prosecuted in obedience to ideologies that have no use for any gods whatsoever (these, as it happens, have been the most murderous wars of all).

The pagan rhetorician Libanius justly bragged that the gods of the Roman Empire had directed the waging of innumerable wars. By contrast, the number of wars that one could plausibly say have actually been fought on behalf of anything one might call ‘ethical monotheism’ is so vanishingly small that such wars certainly qualify as exceptions to the historical rule. Bigotry and religious persecution, moreover, are anything but peculiar to monotheistic cultures, as anyone with a respectable grasp of human culture and history should know. And yet, absurd as it is Watson’s is the sort of remark that sets many heads sagely nodding in recognition of what seems an undeniable truth. Such sentiments have become so much a part of the conventional grammar of ‘enlightened’ skepticism that they are scarcely ever subjected to serious scrutiny.

My only impatience with such remarks, I should confess, would probably be far smaller if I did not suffer from a melancholy sense that, among Christianity’s most fervent detractors, there has been a considerable decline in standards in recent years. [Here, Hart proceeds to mention and give proper due to a few critics of Christianity from the past, from Celsus and Prophyry to David Hume and Edward Gibbon.] The extraordinary scientific, philosophical, and political ferment of the nineteenth century provided Christianity with enemies of unparalleled passion and visionary intensity.

The greatest of them all, Friedrich Nietzsche, may have had a somewhat limited understanding of the history of Christian thought, but he was nevertheless a man of immense culture who could appreciate the magnitude of the thing against which he had turned his spirit, and who had enough of a sense of the past to understand the cultural crisis that the fading of Christian faith would bring about. Moreover, he had the good manners to despise Christianity, in large part, for what it actually was — above all, for its devotion to an ethics of compassion — rather than allow himself the soothing, self-righteous fantasy that Christianity’s history had been nothing but an interminable pageant of violence, tyranny, and sexual neurosis.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche

He may have hated many Christians for their hypocrisy, but he hated Christianity itself principally on account of its enfeebling solicitude for the weak, the outcast, the infirm, and the diseased; and, because he was conscious of the historical contingency of all cultural values, he never deluded himself that humanity could do away with Christian faith while simply retaining Christian morality in some diluted form, such as liberal social conscience or innate human sympathy. He knew that the disappearance of the cultural values of Christianity would gradually but inevitably lead to a new set of values, the nature of which was yet to be decided. By comparison to these men, today’s gadflies seem far lazier, less insightful, less subtle, less refined, more emotional, more ethically complacent, and far more interested in facile simplifications of history than in sober and demanding investigations of what Christianity has been or is.”

I have commented before about how atheistic ideologies have been responsible for more deaths by far than any other ideology, which Hart alludes to with his comment about “the most murderous wars of all.” But his main point in that section was that, when one counts up the number of wars and looks specifically at the supporting ideological causes, a rather (surprisingly?) small percentage are/were based on religion of some sort. I did a little more digging and came up with the image above, which gives some numbers to illustrate the point.

The other thing that was news to me and of particular interest was the bit about Nietzsche. I don’t really know all that much about him, to be honest, but I suppose his abhorrence of the Christian mandate to care for “the weak, the outcast, the infirm, and the diseased” is consistent with the general sense I have of the harshness of his views.

There are many other such places in the book, but this is also an example — and this goes to the fair-mindedness I mentioned earlier — of Hart’s willingness to acknowledge the strengths of past opponents of Christianity, if only to demonstrate the rather inferior quality (in many ways) of today’s “new atheists” in comparison.


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