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God Is Dead…But Which One?
The real cause of modern nihilism
Bari Weiss recently gave one of the most powerful speeches I have ever seen. Observing the celebratory reactions across the world to the 10/7 attack on Israel, she says:
When antisemitism moves from the shameful fringe into the public square, it is not about Jews. It is never about Jews. It is about everyone else. It is about the surrounding society or the culture or the country. It is an early warning system—a sign that the society itself is breaking down. That it is dying.
It is a symptom of a much deeper crisis—one that explains how, in the span of a little over 20 years since Sept 11, educated people now respond to an act of savagery not with a defense of civilization, but with a defense of barbarism.
What explains this cultural nihilism? Bari points the finger at an anti-Enlightenment ideology that has come to dominate the universities and the culture over the last twenty years—movements like “postmodernism and postcolonialism and postnationalism,” which “sought nothing less than the deconstruction of our civilization from within.”
But according to thinkers such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Jordan Peterson, the roots of the problem stretch back much further. The rise of the nihilistic ideologies haunting the west was caused by the death of God.
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According to Ayaan, the west’s turn away from religion didn’t lead to an “age of reason and intelligent humanism” but a “God hole” or a “nihilistic vacuum” that has been “filled by a jumble of irrational quasi-religious dogma.”
This is merely a restatement of the view Jordan spells out in Maps of Meaning and 12 Rules for Life. Christianity provided the intellectual foundation for western civilization, but as religion gave way to Enlightenment, western values were left without a foundation. Christian morality continued to hold sway, but this was unstable in a world that had lost the conviction that Christianity was true. A godless culture had opened the road to nihilism. In the 20th century, this nihilism took the form of totalitarian movements like Communism and Nazism. In the 21st century, it’s taking the form of woke ideology.
Jordan takes his cue from Nietzsche. Nietzsche famously proclaimed that “God is dead,” by which he meant that belief in God had died, and with it the west’s ability to justify its values. And yet the men and women of his time went on acting if nothing had changed. As Nietzsche explains:
They [modern westerners] are rid of the Christian God and now believe all the more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality. . . . [But when] one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident. . . . Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands. . . . Christian morality is a command; its origin is transcendent; it is beyond all criticism, all right to criticism; it has truth only if God is the truth—it stands and falls with faith in God. (Twilight of the Idols, “Skirmishes of an Untimely Man,” §5)
God has died, say the Christian Nietzscheans, and his death has dissolved the moral foundations of western civilization. Atheists have been unable to supply a rational, secular morality to fill the vacuum and the result has been nihilism. The solution? Embrace Christianity or surrender to barbarism.
There is something right about this story. God did die, and it did unleash nihilism. But the god that died was not Yahweh, but Apollo. The solution is not return to Christianity—it’s to complete the Enlightenment project by defining and defending a morality of reason.
The Death of Apollo
“Apollo, in Nietzsche’s metaphysics,” writes Ayn Rand, “is the symbol of beauty, order, wisdom, efficacy (though Nietzsche equivocates about this last)—i.e., of reason.”
Rand was not, as is often said, a follower of Nietzsche. But she did study his works. And though she never explicitly commented on his death of God thesis, she did formulate her own narrative explaining the decline of western civilization and the rise of nihilism—one that covers much the same territory as Nietzsche’s, but which draws very different lessons.
According to Rand, the health, happiness, and freedom of a culture depends on its commitment to reason, and nihilism emerges when a culture rejects reason. In her view, the Enlightenment put reason on the cultural ascendency, but Enlightenment thinkers were unable to defend a secular morality of reason. This failure opened the door to the irrationalism and collectivism of the 19th and 20th centuries.
In Rand’s narrative, Christianity is not the solution to nihilism, but part of its cause. Christian morality had taught that self-sacrifice for your neighbor and your enemy is a moral ideal, that pride is a sin, that the meek shall inherit the earth. Enlightenment thinkers failed to put morality on a rational foundation because they refused to question the Christian doctrine and champion the only rational moral code there is: an earthly ideal of human happiness and individual self-interest.
Rand presents her narrative most fully in her 1960 talk, “Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World” and in the lead essay of her book For the New Intellectual, published in 1963. In Rand’s telling:
Western civilization was the child and product of reason—via ancient Greece. In all other civilizations, reason has always been the menial servant—the handmaiden—of mysticism. You may observe the results. It is only Western culture that has ever been dominated—imperfectly, incompletely, precariously and at rare intervals—but still, dominated by reason. You may observe the results of that.
Reason, as a cultural force, arose in ancient Athens. Athens saw the flowering of philosophy, math, science, art, and the first groping steps toward political freedom. But this was reversed by the rise of the Roman empire, which embraced the rule of brute force. Rome’s fall was greeted by the rise of Christianity, and what followed was the Dark and Middle Ages—periods where faith and force dominated. The modern world, says Rand, began with the Renaissance.
The Renaissance—the rebirth of man’s mind—blasted the rule of the [mystics] sky-high, setting the earth free of [their] power. The liberation was not total, nor was it immediate: the convulsions lasted for centuries, but the cultural influence of mysticism—of avowed mysticism—was broken. Men could no longer be told to reject their mind as an impotent tool, when the proof of its potency was so magnificently evident that the lowest perceptual-level mentality was not able fully to evade it: men were seeing the achievements of science.
The climax of this trend toward reason was the creation of the United States during the tail end of the Enlightenment. The principles enshrined in America’s founding documents insisted that the individual would no longer be forced to bow to religious or secular authorities, but would be free to live by reason.
But, thinks Rand, the achievements of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment were vulnerable—vulnerable philosophically. Although Enlightenment thinkers had successfully replaced revelation with reason and replaced force with freedom, they tried and failed to formulate a rational code of ethics.
Why did they fail? Because the ethical theories they tried to defend were all secular versions of Christian ethics. In one way or another, they all advocated a form of altruism—the moral doctrine that the individual’s moral duty is to serve and sacrifice for others. But altruism, Rand thinks, cannot be justified by reason.
Now there is one word—a single word—which can blast the morality of altruism out of existence and which it cannot withstand—the word: “Why?” Why must man live for the sake of others? Why must he be a sacrificial animal? Why is that the good? There is no earthly reason for it—and, ladies and gentlemen, in the whole history of philosophy no earthly reason has ever been given.
It is only mysticism that can permit moralists to get away with it. It was mysticism, the unearthly, the supernatural, the irrational that has always been called upon to justify it—or, to be exact, to escape the necessity of justification. One does not justify the irrational, one just takes it on faith. What most moralists—and few of their victims—realize is that reason and altruism are incompatible. And this is the basic contradiction of Western civilization: reason versus altruism. This is the conflict that had to explode sooner or later.
The real conflict, of course, is reason versus mysticism. But if it weren’t for the altruist morality, mysticism would have died when it did die—at the Renaissance—leaving no vampire to haunt Western culture.
For Rand, the key turning point—the moment when the Enlightenment died—was with the ascendency of the philosopher Immanuel Kant. “He was the philosopher who saved the morality of altruism, and who knew that what it had to be saved from was—reason.”
Kant argued that reason is unable to know reality as it is in itself. It can only know reality as it appears to us through the distorting filter of our mind. In morality, Kant held that reality as it is in itself issues orders—duties—that we have to obey without any concern for our own interests. “What Kant propounded,” according to Rand, “was full, total, abject selflessness: he held that an action is moral only if you perform it out of a sense of duty and derive no benefit from it of any kind, neither material nor spiritual; if you derive any benefit, your action is not moral any longer.”
The Enlightenment was predicated on the efficacy of reason and man’s right to pursue his own happiness. Kant’s philosophy, which rejected the efficacy of reason and the morality of the pursuit of happiness, ended the Enlightenment.
This, thinks Rand, is what unleashed nihilism—in theory and in practice. At a theoretical level, Kant unleashed an army of irrationalist-altruist-collectivist neo-Kantians, from Hegel to Marx to Dewey to Rawls. At a practical level, Kant was the ultimate source of political movements such as Communism, Fascism, and the New Left (a precursor to today’s woke activism).
But Kant did not simply inspire anti-Enlightenment forces, in Rand’s view. He discredited Enlightenment values. This explains the utter impotence of western leaders to stand up to collectivist thugs, murderous jihadists, and woke activists. Our leaders lack the intellectual resources to confidently defend western Enlightenment values such as reason, science, individualism, free speech, free markets, and free societies.
The west stands and falls with confidence in Apollo—and Apollo is dead.
Nietzsche Contra Rand
Rand’s narrative gives a different account of the rise of nihilism than the Christian Nietzschean narrative, and implies a different solution to the problem of nihilism. If Rand is right, then opponents of modern nihilism should not champion Christianity, but a secular philosophy of reason and rational self-interest that can provide a solid foundation for western Enlightenment values.
But Nietzsche would take issue Rand’s account. Rand believes she can offer a rational, non-Christian defense of western values and that nihilism consists of the open assault on those values. Nietzsche believed that only Christianity could support western values—and that the death of God revealed the bankruptcy of those values. They are not to be defended, but replaced.
What is Nietzsche’s argument—and can Rand answer it?
In his article “The Death of God and the Death of Morality,” philosopher and Nietzsche scholar Brian Leiter observes that the main idea Nietzsche thinks the west gets from Christianity, and which cannot stand without Christianity, is “moral egalitarianism.” Moral egalitarianism, in this context, is the view that “every human being is of equal moral significance or equal moral worth, such that it would be wrongful to discount and ignore the interests (rights, utility, etc.) of some human beings in favor of others.”
Moral egalitarianism, as Leiter defines it, is a problematic concept that packages together at least three separate claims:
Political equality - the view that each individual has the same rights as every other individual.
Moral universalism - the view that the same moral rules apply to every individual.
Moral impartiality - the view that each individual must weigh the interests (not just the rights) of all individuals equally when making decisions.
Christians have a ready-made answer when asked to justify each type of equality: each human being is made in the image of God, and God endowed them with equal worth. If that were the only argument offered for equality, then Nietzsche would be right: take God out of the equation, and the case for equality crumbles.
But this is far from the only justification for equality.
Equality first arose as a political ideal during the Enlightenment, and it was not God and the Bible Enlightenment generally thinkers appealed to defend it. Instead, they appealed to the natural, observable fact that we are all equally human beings. As Locke puts it:
A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another, there being nothing more evident than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of Nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another, without subordination or subjection.
The metaphysical equality of man—the fact that we are all human beings with the same faculties—forms the foundation for concluding that human beings share equal rights to life, liberty, and property. “This equality of men by Nature,” as Locke calls it, does not depend on any religious claims about man’s origin (though Locke himself believes we were created by God). It is built into man’s nature, whatever his origin.
Just as the metaphysical equality of man provides a basis for political equality, it also provides a basis for moral universalism: we are all equally human so all fall under the same moral rules. As Rand explained in a 1964 radio interview:
A moral code has to be based on man’s nature. Men do belong to the same species. . . . Since men are all examples of the same species, the fundamental rules of conduct, that which is common to all of them, and applies to all of them, will have to be the same. If some men are better than others, in certain talents or in certain achievements, this is merely a . . . difference of degree, not of kind. Therefore you couldn’t have different rules for so-called superior or inferior men. . . . [T]he basic rules will have to be the same for all men, since they are based on the fundamentals of man’s nature, not on degrees of their achievement or of their virtue.
In Rand’s ethics, each individual’s life is his ultimate value, and morality’s role is to teach him how to achieve his genuine interests. At the most fundamental level, these interests are the same for every human being. They consist of values such as reason, purpose, and self-esteem, and virtues such as rationality, independence, honesty, integrity, productiveness, justice, and pride. Rand thus preached a universalist morality of egoism: every individual should live by this moral code for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor others no himself. (See “What is Effective Egoism?”)
But Nietzsche sees a weakness in Locke’s and Rand’s arguments. In what sense are human beings actually equal? Leiter calls this “the basis of equality problem.” The problem, Leiter says, is that:
any feature of persons one might identify as justifying their equal treatment is not, in fact, shared equally by persons, thus raising the question how it could justify equality of moral consideration. People differ, for example, in their rationality, their sensitivity to pleasure and pain, and their moral capacities, not to mention, to put it in more banal terms, their intelligence, alertness, and empathy. If what warrants equal moral consideration is reason, sentience or moral sensitivity, then there is no reason to think humans per se warrant equal moral consideration given how much they differ in these attributes.
Most of us gloss over these differences between people and take political equality and moral universalism for granted. Nietzsche didn’t. He thought there were crucial, innate differences between human beings—that there were lower and higher types of humans beings, effectively different species subject to different moral rules. This, in turn, led him to be dismissive of liberalism and the “poisonous doctrine ‘equal rights for everyone’” (The Antichrist §43).
But Nietzsche here was simply wrong, and though Leiter tries to spin “the basis of equality problem” into some haunting dilemma, it just isn’t. Human beings do differ in the extent of their capacities, but those differences don’t threaten political equality or moral universalism any more than the differences between two laptops change the fact that both are equally reliant on electricity. Political and moral principles identify fundamental requirements of human flourishing and those requirements are the the same for everyone. You may be smarter than I am, but we both must use our intelligence to flourish and we both must be free to use our intelligence to flourish.
But there is one respect in which Nietzsche’s critique of moral egalitarianism does hold.
There are strong, secular grounds for concluding that each individual has the same political rights and is bound by the same moral rules (and there are strong, self-interested grounds for respecting others’ rights; see Greg Salmieri’s “Selfish Regard for the Rights of Others”).
But it is wrong—utterly wrong—to equate respecting the equal rights of others with the equal weighing of others’ interests in moral decision-making. There is a radical difference between the claim I should respect your right to pursue your own happiness and the claim that I should be as devoted to your happiness as I am to my own.
Yet it’s the latter claim that Christian morality makes—and that many atheists endorse. (See Ben Bayer’s “Religious Skeptics Should Question Their Moral Theology.”) For example, in his reply to Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s conversion essay, atheist Michael Shermer argues for the “interchangeability of perspectives,” by which he means moral impartiality. It is, he says:
the core of the oldest moral principle discovered multiple times around the world throughout history: the Golden Rule. [Steven] Pinker notes that it also forms the basis of “Spinoza’s Viewpoint of Eternity, the Social Contract of Hobbes, Rousseau and Locke; Kant’s Categorical Imperative; and Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance. It also underlies Peter Singer’s theory of the Expanding Circle—the optimistic proposal that our moral sense, though shaped by evolution to overvalue self, kin and clan, can propel us on a path of moral progress, as our reasoning forces us to generalize it to larger and larger circles of sentient beings.”
Shermer’s message: Christian morality says you should not prioritize your own happiness—and atheists say that too!
Shermer thinks he can dismiss concerns that atheism leaves us without a sound basis for morality by pointing to all of the attempts during and after the Enlightenment to justify Christian morality on secular grounds. But those attempts failed and had to fail. Moral impartiality is the demand for self-sacrifice, for altruism, and it cannot give an earthly, non-mystical, rational answer to Rand’s cutting question: why?
Nietzsche, in short, was right. Not right that political equality depends on Christianity. Not right that a universal morality depends on Christianity. But right that altruism depends on Christianity.
Altruism needs a mystical base because it can muster no rational arguments in its favor. If that base does not hold—if Yahweh is dead—then there is no reason why you should throw your life away for others.
The case for Apollo
The full evidence for Rand’s narrative would require far more space than I can give it. But we do get one powerful piece of evidence that Rand was right from Bari Weiss’s speech.
Describing the ideology that has led millions across the globe to cheer on the barbaric violence against Israel, Bari says this ideology:
seeks to upend the very ideas of right and wrong. It replaces basic ideas of good and evil with a new rubric: the powerless (good) and the powerful (bad). . . . People were to be given authority in this new order not in recognition of their gifts, hard work, accomplishments, or contributions to society, but in inverse proportion to the disadvantages their group had suffered, as defined by radical ideologues.
But this is not a new ideology: this is Christianity.
In his masterful book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, What Justice Demands, Elan Journo shows how the moral perspective unleashed by Christianity has conditioned us to root for the powerless in defiance of justice. He calls it the “underdog premise.” Instead of morally evaluating which side is good and which side is evil, we assume that the whichever side is poorer, weaker, and more anguished is in the right.
No one who believed in a morality of self-interest could accept such a proposition. No one who believed in reason, egoism, and freedom would cheer jihadists murdering the innocent residents of the only free, prosperous, happy nation in the Middle East. No one who had not inhaled the fumes of Christian self-sacrifice and victim worship would demand that Israel turn the other cheek and agree to a ceasefire so its attackers can rearm and unleash more slaughter.
The west does not need to return to Christian morality but to discover a new morality: Effective Egoism. Nothing less can cure modern nihilism. Nothing else can resurrect the Enlightenment.
Effective Egoism 101
The conception of earthly idealism I champion was defined by Ayn Rand. Here are three key works that summarize her perspective:
Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World by Ayn Rand
Causality vs. Duty by Ayn Rand
The Objectivist Ethics by Ayn Rand
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