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The Religious Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche

What was the religious philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche,

and how does it relate to his life and other philosophies?

Gary Chen

Candidate Number 000919 - 0016


November 1, 2013

Extended Essay Word Count: 3,410

Abstract Word Count: 262

Candidate Number 000919-0016


The religious philosophy of Prussian philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is generally known

to be nothing more than his Death of God philosophy, typically interpreted to show him as an

atheist. However, Nietzsches Death of God has many meanings beyond the blatant when taken

in context with his other philosophies to which it relates and with his life experience in a

religious family and with an early loss of faith. In saying God is dead, Nietzsche conveys the

loss of the sacredness of God and thus the validity of his moral law which has been historically

dominant over humanity; this approaches Nietzsches nihilist ideology, and also his perspectivist

attitude. Some theologians then propose that Nietzsche conveys a need for Gods moral law in

society. Nietzsche predicts as a goal for humanity, however, that an Ubermensch will create a

new law for man which transcends the ideas of right and wrong which were prevalent before and

instead be based off of happiness and love of the world; his desire for this Ubermensch

contradicts what the theologians assert, but does not quite prove his atheism or theism. It does,

however, reveal to us that Nietzsche idealizes master morality over slave morality, another one of

his key philosophies, which also is closely related to his dichotomy of the Apollonian and the

Dionysian. In studying Nietzsches religious philosophy, it is nigh impossible to determine the

true belief and spirituality of Nietzsche himself; however, much can be revealed about the nature

of Nietzsches works and ideas which could not be appreciated if not examined through the lens

of religion.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 4

History 4
Summary of Basic Ideologies 7

The Death of God 8

Origin of God is Dead 8

Proliferation in Media and Culture 9

Interpretations on Nietzsches Religious Philosophy 9

Interpretation as Atheism 9
Radical Interpretations 10
Interpretation as Subtle Divinity 10

Connection to Other Philosophies 12

Conclusion 13

Biblography 15

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God is dead is a statement many have heard and read, but which most either reject

immediately because it is too harsh and obstinate, or accept too easily because it is appears to be

so succinct and to-the-point. While some may know that the phrase originates from the writing

of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, most jump to the conclusion that his beliefs were

atheist after looking at it. The idea of the Death of God, however, is actually one of the most

ambiguous of those attributed to Nietzsche; many interpretations exist for what the true religious

philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche was. They interweave with his personal background, the

culture of his time period, and his other philosophies. In understanding what he truly meant by

the Death of God, Nietzsches other ideologies such as nihilism, perspectivism, and the

bermensch come to brighter light in the context of themselves and in the context of Nietzsches

personal biography, and one can thus better understand how Nietzsche laid the foundation for

later philosophical movements such as existentialism, and also better understand Nietzsche

himself as one of the most significant philosophers of the 19th century.


Friedrich Nietzsche was a man of Prussian descent, born in the Province of Saxony in

1844 to a Lutheran pastor, Carl Ludwig Nietzsche, and his wife, Franziska Oehler. Carl Ludwig

Nietzsche passed away in 1849 when his son was only five years of age, and Nietzsches family

subsequently moved to Naumburg where they lived with his grandmother and two aunts.

Studying at a highly respected and reputable school called the Pforta (which is celebrated even to

this day), Nietzsche showed exceptional talent from an early age in language, music, and poetry.

Nietzasches educational background was key to his development into the intellectual he became

later in life; his studies in Hebrew, Latin, Greek, and French would be key to his philological

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endeavors. These studies continued into higher education at the University of Bonn, where

Nietzsches experiences in religion and theology culminated in a dramatic loss of faith, much to

the displeasure of his very religious mother and sister. In a letter to them, he wrote, If you wish

to strive for peace and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of the truth, then

inquire (Nietzsche). Writings dating to even his time in the Pforta school show evidence of

his doubt in the teachings of Christianity. Nietzsches pursuits in philology lead him to the

Unversity of Leipzig in 1866, and in 1867, he enlisted in service with the Prussian military; an

injury, however, returned him to his studies, and he soon became a professor of classical

philology in Switzerland at the University of Basel. During the Franco-Prussian war in 1870,

Nietzsche returned to the military for medical service; his political background most likely

largely stems from his experience in the midst of war and observing the policies and actions of

Otto von Bismarck as he unified the German Empire afterwards. Nietzsches philological works

gradually turned him towards philosophy, a field in which he already expressed interest at an

earlier age; starting from his time at the University of Bonn, Nietzsche showed a fascination,

almost an obsession, with the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (Joshi 79). This

fascination would come to heavily shape his ideologies as an independent philosopher. His

health declined during this time, and as he cooled his lifestyle, becoming an independent

philosopher around 1880, his writing entered somewhat of a golden period, in which he produced

some of his most famous works including The Gay Science, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and The

Antichrist. His unconventional philosophies towards religion in his writings, however, made

them unpopular, and also discredited Nietzsche in the world of academia; he was thus rejected

from teaching at the University of Leipzig. Nietzsches work persisted, however, up until the

collapse of his mental health and stability in 1889 and subsequent death in 1900. It is also

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important to note that throughout his studies and travels, Nietzsche was heavily influenced by his

friends, who were intellectuals including philologists, philosophers, historians, theologists, and

even composers (Richard Wagner). His roots in religion from his family and development in

philosophy from his education are essential in understanding the nature of his ideologies.

In a rather tragic fashion, Nietzsche never lived to see his works reach much significant

success before his mental breakdown and death. After Germans began to discover his work in

the late 19th century, and after they were translated into English, Nietzsches philosophies gained

traction. In his works, one can see the roots of several other ideological movements; for

example, Nietzsches nihilism is closely related to the existentialist movement, and his ideas are

close tied to its roots. Many also cite Nietzsche as a precursor to expressionism and

postmodernism. Interestingly, the anarchist movement was also heavily associated with

Nietzsches works, even though Nietzsche himself criticizes anarchism (referring to anarchist

dogs in Beyond Good and Evil, an expansion of his ideas from Thus Spoke Zarathustra). They

came to influence poets, writers, and even musicians, including Jack London, Jean-Paul Sartre,

Ayn Rand, Albert Camus, Gustav Mahler, and Richard Strauss. To some extent, Nietzsche also

influenced the philosophy of the German Nazis (who used the Ubermensch to describe the Aryan

master race). Thus, from World War II until the 1960s, Nietzsches works became unpopular

once again after they were associated with Adolf Hitler. It was not until they were again

translated and analyzed by renowned German-American philosopher Walter Kaufmann, who

served as professor of philosophy at Princeton University for three decades, and the less prolific

R. J. Hollingdale, and English biographer and translator. Nietzsches works have been read by

figures such as Benito Mussolini, Richard Nixon, and Charles de Gaulle, and is now regarded as

a cornerstone of moral skepticism and existentialism.

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There are several specific ideas which Nietzsche is famed for, more fundamental than his

association with the major philosophical movements which he influenced. One such philosophy

is the dichotomy of the Apollonian and Dionysian, an idea based on Greek mythological figures

which conceptualizes the interplay of individuality, logical reason, and creative expression (the

Apollonian) with chaos, instinctive hedonism, and emotion (the Dionysian). This philosophical

dichotomy has expanded to become a common theme in the literary world, and even an

anthropological concept, describing cultural tendencies. Another one of Nietzsches key

philosophies is the definition of slave morality and master morality, two interpretations of

what is good and bad which Nietzsche places in a generic historical context. He argues that

morality originated as master morality (attributed to the ruling warrior aristocracy caste in

ancient civilizations), which prescribes happiness, strength, and wealth to being good, and the

opposite of which is being badweakness, poverty, or any attribute of the other slave castes

over which the ancient aristocracy ruled. Nietzsche then identifies a moral slave revolt which

came about in reaction to this master morality; under slave morality, to be good is to show

humility, piety, kindness, and mindfulness, and to be bad is to be aggressive, evil, selfish, and

wealthy. Neitzsche did not identify whether he preferred master or slave morality; rather, this

ideas on these concepts were purely descriptive, and one can see the semblance of them to the

Apollonian and Dionysian dichotomy, in which both identities were intertwined in harmony, not

necessarily contradicting or in conflict. Ties from the master and slave moralities can be made to

Nietzsches existential philosophies as well, which in essence reject moral rules altogether. This

aspect of Nietzsche is more broadly referred to as perspectivism, which rejects the idea of

objective reality and instead asserts that all metaphysical observations are subject to particular

perspectives. Even more intense is Nietzsches nihilist concepts, rejecting the meaningfulness of

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life altogether, and with it, the purpose of morality. One of the more recognizable-by-name of

Nietzsches philosophies is the bermensch. With the bermensch, Nietzsche idealizes a

super-human who comes to establish a new set of values and morals which transcend the

conventional notion of right and wrong, effectively replacing these useless morals after they are

rejected, the morals of God after he dies which segues into what can be considered the apex

of Nietzsches religious philosophy, the Death of God.

The Death of God

The Death of God philosophy is signalized in the recurring phrase God is dead in many

of Nietzsches works, first seen several times in The Gay Science from 1882, when Nietzsche

first began writing as an independent philosopher. Its most notable use is in Thus Spoke

Zarathustra, where it appeared in a part entitled The Madman:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms.

How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and

mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will

wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of

atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed

too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?


Going hand-in-hand with the Death of God is the bermensch, as is foreshadowed by the final

question of that passage. While the philosophical and moral meaning of these two sibling

concepts is relatively clear and understandable (societys rejection of the sacredness of

established morals), more ambiguous is what Nietzsches religious intentions are behind them.

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Theothanatology, or the death of God movement, is a theological idea that modern

secularized society has lost sight of sacredness and transcendentalism, and thus that God, in

His sacred holy sense, is dead and gone. This movement propagated starting in the mid-20th-

century. The phrase God is dead itself proliferated in media and American culture suddenly

when the April 6, 1966 Time magazine edition asked, in an article concerning the rise of atheism

in America, Is God dead? In 1998, heavy metal band Black Sabbath released a song entitled

God is Dead? The phrase spread and lingered in pop culture to be taken by the masses in the

myriad interpretations that they may. In the theothanatological movement, theologists such as

Paul Van Buren and William Hamilton applied this concept by suggesting Jesus Christ as not a

figure of faith necessarily, but one of human compassion and love. Others took more radical

interpretations of the phrase, and still others rejected it altogether. Throughout this movement,

however, many appeared to have lost track of the true origin of the statement God is dead: the

philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche.

Interpretations on Nietzsches Religious Philosophy

The most common interpretation of God is dead concerning Nietzsches stance on

religion is the most obvious onethat he is atheist and does not believe in the existence of God.

If this is indeed true, then Nietzsches fascination and interest in religious topics would have to

be that of appreciation for religions role in society, not of personal religious affiliation or belief.

As an atheist, Nietzsches writings concerning the role of God and His subsequent death would

be not in the manner of God as sacred, transcendental agent of the universe, but rather as an

agent of society, one of human genesis. In The Antichrist, Nietzsche even specifically attacks

Christianity as a wrong institution that fails to represent the life of Jesus Christ, a religion that is

instead over-institutionalized and commercialized; it has been tainted by centuries of humanity

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and organization, and has departed from the true spiritual roots of Christs teachings. Indeed,

Nietzsche shows strong disdain for Christianity and calls it an opposition to all intellectual well

constitutedness (Joshi 81). He sees Christianity as idiotic and a threat to intellectuality and

knowledge. Through the lens of the growing atheist body of Western culture, it is extremely easy

and plausible to see Nietzsches statement as an expression of his lack of faith entirely. In this

sense, Nietzsche philosophy would be a centuries-old parallel to the philosophy that the public

opinion is gradually turning towards, one of rationality and reason rather than spirituality and

divinity (Joshi 78). This interpretation of God is dead is that God does not exist, and society

is only just recognizing it now; we do not need god.

One very radical theory on Neitzsches Death of God philosophy, offered by theologian

Thomas J. J. Altizer, Professor Emeritus of religious studies at State University of New York at

Stony Brook, is that God literally died, instead pouring his life into the Earth through Jesus

Christ. Drawing influence from the philosophies of Hegel and the writings of William Blake,

Altizers interpretation is much more complex in terms of theology, and does not apply cleanly to

the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche, who approached religion in a much more fundamental,

philosophical sense.

In the light of Nietzsches personal and family background in religion, however, it is also

very plausible that when Friedrich Nietzsche wrote of God and religion that he truly did have

some personal spiritual connection to his philosophy. This is the conclusion that Walter

Kaufmann appears to have arrived at after extensive translation, study, and analysis of

Nietzsches works. Kaufmann, along with some other commentators of Nietzsche, suggest that

in declaring the death of God, Nietzsche, rather than rejecting God and the sacred altogether,

expresses his spirituality and appreciation for divinity in a more subtle way. Nietzsches ideas in

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The Antichrist were not against spirituality or even Jesus Christ; rather, they were against the

institutionalized church. Similar to the ideas of the theothanatologists of the 20th century,

Nietzsche meanwhile saw the sacredness of God lose meaning and value as Western culture

became more and more secular; no longer did He have the same grasp on intrinsic moral value

and basis that He had in humans for centuries and centuries. Through a lens of perspectivism,

Nietzsche saw his modern society lose the perspective of sacredness and divinity, and with it, the

basic moral codes that had prevailed since ancient times (Krell 15). Without God, there is no

right or wrong. Interestingly, this claim of subtle divinity can be supported by the some of the

same evidence used to support claims of Neitzsches atheism: Nietzsche denounced Christianity

as a religion and as an institution (Joshi 81). While this is, at first glance, taken as disdain for

faith and spirituality, it in fact may only be a disdain for the organized, institutionalized church of

Christianity, and not the spiritual substance of God and Christ. This resonates with the

aforementioned theories of Neitzsches subtle divinity; just as God is dead in society, so is the

church, and Nietzsche instead desires the true root of faith, of morality under the real God

(Hoover 83).

Beyond this, the death of God can even be extrapolated to actual nihilism, that without a

sacred God and a sacred moral code, life itself loses its sacredness, and thus its meaningfulness.

In this fashion, Nietzsche ascertains that religion and a divine God are the only things which

humans can cling to in order to protect and maintain purpose, morals, and meaning in life. Thus,

Nietzsche, rather than rejecting sacredness with the death of God, is a proponent for it as the one

agent of existential justification. This interpretation of God is dead is that God is dead to

modern society, but still important Himself as a fulcrum of meaningfulness and purpose; we need

God. While the interpretation of God is Dead as subtle divinity fits in with Neitzsches

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family religious background and even his loss of faith in his early years, when he declared that

he wanted to seek the truth rather than just peace and pleasure, it still raises suspicion as

Nietzsche never specifically identified his own religious beliefs explicitly, and it is possibly

dangerous to assume he believed the moral framework provided by God to be a valid one, more

so than not having one at all. One should consider that Nietzsche, with his perspectivist and

nihilist philosophies, simply defined the lack of an objective moral code or meaning to life, and

did not necessarily condemn it. In demonstrating a situation where moral frameworks

disintegrate and all things diving and sacred lose their potency, Nietzsche does not say whether

such a situation would be beneficial towards society or bad for it, whether it would be a step in

the right direction or a fall into the wrong one.

Connection to Other Philosophies

One more piece of evidence does exist, however, which contradicts the picture of

Nietzsche as a sympathizer with God as a framework for moral rectitude and purpose in life.

One must not forget that the Death of God is followed closely by the bermensch. After the

rejection of sacredness, holiness, and divinity by society (the same of which was described by

the aforementioned theologians who suggested Nietzsche was trying to demonstrate the need for

God and religion), Nietzsche paints the idea of a person who transcends the moral boundaries of

man, and is thus a solution to the absence of the moral framework of God (Joshi 79). The

Ubermensch is a goal for humanity; Nietzsche thus is predicting the nihilist situation of the death

of God as the fate of humanity, and subsequently prophesying the Ubermensch as the solution to

that undesirable fate. As described in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the Ubermensch creates values

which are not based on transcendental values as those of religion, but rather on the pleasure and

happiness of man on this world.

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These values, contradicted against divine Godly values such as humility, submission, and

charity, are blatantly reminiscent of Nietzsches master and slave morality philosophies.

Although earlier it was deemed that Nietzsche did not necessarily prefer one over the other and

merely defined both as descriptors of humanity, from the way Nietzsche idealizes the

Ubermensch and his somewhat hedonistic moral values in Thus Spoke Zarathustra make it

evident that Nietzsche does indeed see the master morality of the ancient aristocrats as the

ultimate fate of humanity. Furthermore, Nietzsches discussion of Jesus Christ in The Antichrist

specifically paints him as a sort of failed Ubermensch, who could have been a step toward the

direction of the Ubermensch goal, but instead chose the path of the Kingdom of God. Here,

Nietzsches Ubermensch ideals very clearly contradict the notion of him as a spiritual follower of


Friedrich Nietzsches attitude toward a nihilist fate for humanity is certainly not an

optimistic one, just as the theologians of the death of God movement thought; however, this does

not automatically mean that Nietzsche was a proponent of religion, divinity, and spirituality

under God as a moral code. On the contrary, one sees that Nietzsche rather believes in the

Ubermensch as the one who will restore a framework of rules and morals unlike any such rules

humanity has seen before in history. Whether he believes in God or not is not answered through

this philosophy, but one can see that Nietzsche does not value God as a giver of moral rectitude;

instead, he idealizes the Ubermensch as such.


In analyzing the religious philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, one can thus see new

aspects on not only the most obvious of his philosophical religious concepts of the death of God,

but also new aspects on the other major philosophies for which Nietzsche is so widely

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recognized for. While the question of whether Nietzsche believes in God or not is not answered

through such analysis, it is one that in reality cannot be solely from an examination of his

ideologies; such spirituality is personal to Nietzsche himself, and is thus most likely something

the world will never know. It is evident that religion was important to Nietzsche as a

philosophical topic, based off of his experience with family and religion and off of his heavy

usage of God as a moral law giver for humanity; in essence, however, what Nietzsche wrote

about God and spirituality is not religious philosophy, as the purpose and nature of religion is not

the main goal of his ideas. Rather, Nietzsche does not have a true religious philosophy, and

instead melds his attitudes and experiences of religion with his other ideologies. This is why in

understanding Nietzsches experience with religion, we can understand his work better. The

death of God, the Ubermensch, the Apollonian and the Dionysian, slave morality and master

morality, perspectivism, and nihilismall the major philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche are

beautifully interconnected and dependent on one another, and study into any one of them

inevitably reveals some new perspective on the others.

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Hoover, Arlie J., and Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. Friedrich Nietzsche: His Life and Thought. Westport, CT:

Praeger, 1994. Questia School. Web. 30 Sept. 2013.

Joshi, S. T. The Unbelievers: The Evolution of Modern Atheism. Amherst, NY: Prometheus,

2011. Print.

Kaufmann, Walter Arnold. Nietzsche, Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. Princeton, NJ:

Princeton UP, 1974. Print.

Krell, David Farrell. Infectious Nietzsche. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996. Print.

Miller, Jim. Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,

2011. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Walter Arnold. Kaufmann. Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book

for All and None. New York: Modern Library, 1995. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich W. "Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche." Wikisource. The Wikimedia

Foundation, 17 Apr. 2012. Web.

Young, Julian. Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography. Cambridge [England:

Cambridge UP, 2010. Print.

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