God and the Philosophers

By Edwards, Paul | Free Inquiry, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview
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God and the Philosophers


Edwards, Paul, Free Inquiry


FROM NIETZSCHE TO LOGICAL POSITIVISM: PART 3 OF A THREE-PART SERIES

In the first and second part of "God and the Philosophers," Paul Edwards traced the development of philosophers' views of God from the ancient Greeks to the early twentieth-century pragmatists. Below, in Part 3, the final installment in this series, Professor Edward's analysis begins with the work of the famous Friedrich Nietzsche and ends with the "semantic" challenge that has dominated the twentieth century.

Professor Edwards, the 1979 winner of Columbia, University's Nicholas Murray Butler Silver Medal, has authored and edited numerous books and articles in his long and distinguished career. He teaches at the New School for Social Research. He is a member of the International Academy of Humanism.

The most interesting late nineteenth-century atheist was unquestionably Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), whose full influence was not felt until the early decades of the twentieth century. Nietzsche's rejection of God and immortality is combined with a subtle analysis of the emotions that inspire life-denying religions like Christianity. The notion of God, according to Nietzsche, is extremely harmful because it is employed, especially by Christian moralists, to denigrate earthly happiness and other secular values. "The concept of 'God,'" he wrote, "was invented as the opposite of the concept of life - everything detrimental, poisonous and slanderous, and all deadly hostility to life, was bound together in one horrible unit." Unfortunately, Nietzsche's works, especially those written near the end of his sane period, also contain tirades against compassion and vaguely worded recommendations to exterminate "the bungled and the botched."

Nietzsche denied that he was a Social Darwinist, but many passages in his writing show that this is precisely what he was. Along with other Social Darwinists and power-worshipers, Nietzsche was denounced by Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), who was probably the most influential atheist in the Anglo-Saxon world during the present century. Although he disagreed with Nietzsche on certain ethical and political issues, Russell's views were in every other respect quite similar. Like Nietzsche he attacked not only traditional views about God and the soul, but also the harmful influence of Christian moral teachings, especially those relating to sexual morality. Russell also made important contributions of a purely theoretical nature. Following Cantor, he showed that there is nothing contradictory in the notion of an infinite series, an insight that undermines the cosmological argument. Following Frege, he showed that the word exists is a logical constant comparable to such words as all and not, and not the name of a characteristic. This insight complements Kant's refutation of the ontological argument. Unlike most academic philosophers, Russell had a world-wide following because, among other things, he did not neglect such very human questions as how we should face death. "I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive," he wrote in Why I Believe, an essay published in 1925, but "I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting." Russell was greatly admired by several generations of freethinkers, not only for the brilliance of his writings but also for his courageous stands on public issues. He was hated by the communists (he had warned about the totalitarian developments in Russia even before the show trials of the 1930s) and by conservative Christians. In 1940, a bigoted Catholic judge nullified his appointment to a position at the City College of New York on the ground that he had to "protect health, safety and morals of the students." Russell's appointment would lead to "abduction" and rape and he would occupy a "chair of indecency.

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