How did philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the great hero among atheists, get mixed up with pantheism? He stated about atheism,
“I do not by any means know atheism as a result; even less as an event: it is a matter of course with me, from instinct. I am too inquisitive, too questionable, too exuberant to stand for any gross answer. God is a gross answer, an indelicacy against us thinkers—at bottom merely a gross prohibition for us: you shall not think!” (Ecce Homo, 1888)
Nietzsche is famous for his passionate proclamations, especially this one about God,
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whosoever shall be born after us – for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history than all history hitherto.” (The Gay Science, 1882)
Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche’s most well-known translator and scholar yet insists that Nietzsche was an agnostic, not an atheist. [John R. Hibbing, Denis Hickey, “Home from exile” p. 221]. This point of view, that Nietzsche is not an atheist, has been supported by many academics:
“Nietzsche was not an atheist in the sense that we usually mean that word.” [The Disappearance of God: A Divine Mystery By Richard Elliott Friedman p 208]
“Nietzsche was not an atheist” [Hating God: The Untold Story By Bernard Schweizer p 53]
“John A.T. Robinson maintained that Nietzsche was not an atheist…” [A Third Treasury of Kahlil Gibran By Kahlil Gibran]
“Nietzsche was himself not an atheist in the crude sense…” [An Open Life: Joseph Campbell By Michael Toms]
“In this sense, Nietzsche was not an atheist any more than the Buddha was.” [A Beginner’s Guide to Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil By Gareth Southwell p 147]
“Nietzsche is simply not an atheist” [Pious Nietzsche: Decadence and Dionysian Faith By Bruce Ellis Benson p 6]
How could so many scholars and even Nietzsche’s foremost scholar and translator suggest atheism is a mistaken, or at least incomplete label when he himself seemed to confirm it?
The famous philosopher Martin Heidegger explained that Nietzsche spoke specifically of “the God of morality” when writing about God. In other words, he spoke very specifically of the theistic version of God. Meanwhile, Nietzsche held his own idea of God, according to Heideggar, which was a God that is a question rather than an answer.
“Is Nietzsche here teaching a pan-theism”, asks Heidegger. “If it were pantheism, we would first of all still have to ask what pan — the universe, the whole — and what theos — God — here mean. At all events, here we have a question! So, then, God is not dead? Yes and no! Yes, he is dead. But which God? The God of “morality,” the Christian God is dead — the “Father” in whom we seek sancturary, the “Personality” with whom we negotiate and bare our hearts, the “Judge” with whom we adjudicate, the “Paymaster” from whom we receive our virtues’ reward, that God with whom we do business. Yet where is the mother who will take pay for loving her child? The God who is viewed in terms of morality, this God alone is meant when Nietzsche says “God is dead.” He died because human beings murdered him. They murdered him when they reckoned his divine grandeur in terms of their petty needs for recompense, when they cut him down to their own size. That God fell from power because he was a “blunder” of human beings who negate themselves and negate life (Nietzsche by Martin Heidegger, VIII, 62).
With the God of morality dead, Nietzsche says that he longs for,
“…the world-affirming human being who has not only made his peace and learned to get along with whatever was and is, but who wills to have it again precisely as it was and is into all eternity.”
He calls this, “amor fati” or the love of fate. Fate, to Nietzsche is a circle where we accept life in the same way over and over exactly as it was and is. He calls this “circulus vitiosus deus” which means, The vicious circle of God. It is a God as something incomprehensible, a mysterious question rather than an answer.
Philosopher Keiji Nishitani simply calls Nietzsche’s view “pantheism” (“The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism” p 65) Pantheists Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung suggested the same about Nietzsche. And Philosopher Adrian Samuel says,
Nietzsche’s psychological reductionism leads to his third principal reason for denying the reality of God. And this is Nietzsche’s pantheism. Pantheism is the belief that nature is divine – that everything participates in the divine reality. [Adrian Samuel, “Nietzsche and God”, Richmond Journal of Philosophy 14 (Spring 2007)]
But maybe more revealing than scholarly opinion was a postcard written in 1881, where Nietzsche wrote to his friend on his discovery of Baruch Spinoza, the man considered the “prince” and “prophet” of pantheism,
“I am utterly amazed, utterly enchanted! I have a precursor, and what a precursor! I hardly knew Spinoza: that I should have turned to him just now, was inspired by “instinct.” Not only is his overtendency like mine—namely to make all knowledge the most powerful affect—but in five main points of his doctrine I recognize myself; this most unusual and loneliest thinker is closest to me precisely in these matters: he denies the freedom of the will, teleology, the moral world-order, the unegoistic, and evil. Even though the divergencies are admittedly tremendous, they are due more to the difference in time, culture, and science. In summa: my lonesomeness, which, as on very high mountains, often made it hard for me to breathe and make my blood rush out, is now at least a twosomeness.”
Indeed, Nietzsche’s worldview is often compared to Spinoza. Nietzsche, the son of a Lutheran pastor and student of theology, was a critic of the theistic God. But, like Spinoza, his message was beyond that of a critic. He stated with fervor,
“We find in all philosophies the proposition – everything is one!”
And for Friedrich Nietzsche, that mysterious oneness was and is divine. Nietzsche is thus perhaps a leading example of a person considered both an atheist and a pantheist.