Nietzsche and the New Atheists

Maverick Philosopher

The following quotation from a very interesting Guardian piece by John Gray entitled What Scares the New Atheists (HT: Karl White):

[1] The new atheists rarely mention Friedrich Nietzsche, and when they do it is usually to dismiss him. [2] This can’t be because Nietzsche’s ideas are said to have inspired the Nazi cult of racial inequality – an unlikely tale, given that the Nazis claimed their racism was based in science. [3]The reason Nietzsche has been excluded from the mainstream of contemporary atheist thinking is that he exposed the problem atheism has with morality. [4] It’s not that atheists can’t be moral – the subject of so many mawkish debates. [5] The question is which morality an atheist should serve.

Five sentences, five comments.

1. Yes.

2. Granted, the Nazis claimed their racism was based in science. But this is consistent with their racism having other sources as well.  So it doesn’t follow that it is an “unlikely tale” that the Nazis drew inspiration from Nietzsche.  I say it is very likely.  See Nietzsche and Nationalism Socialism.

3.  Spot on!

4.  Agreed, atheists can be moral.  Indeed, some atheists are more moral that some theists — even when the moral code is the Decalogue minus the commandments that mention God.  The question whether an atheist can be moral, however, is ambiguous.  While it is clear that an atheist can be moral in the sense of satisfying moral demands, it is not clear that an atheist can be moral in the sense of recognizing moral demands in the first place.  It is an open question whether an atheist, consistent with his atheism, could have justification for admitting objective moral demands.

5.  Before one can ask which morality an atheist should serve, there is a logically prior question that needs asking and answering, one that Gray glides right past, namely,

Q. Is there any morality, any moral code, that an atheist would be justified in adhering to and justified in demanding that others adhere to?

If  a negative answer is given to (Q), then Gray’s logically posterior question lapses.

Most of us in the West, atheists and theists alike, do agree on a minimal moral code.  Don’t we all object to child molestation, female sexual mutilation, wanton killing of human beings, rape, theft,  lying, financial swindling, extortion,  and arson?   And in objecting to these actions, we mean our objections to be more than merely subjectively valid. When our property is stolen or a neighbor murdered, we consider that an objective wrong has been done. And when the murderer is apprehended, tried, and convicted we judge that something objectively right has been done.  But if an innocent person is falsely accused and convicted, we judge that something objectively wrong has been done.  Let’s not worry about the details or the special cases: killing in self-defense, abortion, etc.  There are plenty of gray areas.  The existence of gray, however, does not rule out that of black and white…


Maverick Philosopher: Nietzsche and the New Atheists