Friedrich Nietzsche (1844—1900) was born in Rochen, Prussia, to a Lutheran pastor who ultimately died of a disease of the brain. The women in Nietzsche’s life (mother, sister, two aunts, and grandmother) strongly dominated his early life. Although given a strong religious upbringing, Nietzsche rejected Christianity initially in college and more strongly while serving in the Prussian medical corps.
Those influencing Nietzsche from a philosophical sense included Heraclitus (act of becoming), Kant (agnosticism), Schopenhauer (atheism), Darwin (evolution), F. A. Lange (materialism), and Voltaire (anti-Christianity, anti-supernaturalism). Nietzsche’s written works include Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, The Genealogy of Morals, The Antichrist, and Ecce Homo, an autobiography written near the end of his life.
Nietzsche’s philosophical bent was toward existentialism; he was one of the few existentialists to confess that, without God, life has no ultimate meaning (i.e., nihilism) and no objective moral values. With respect to morality, Nietzsche admitted, “You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist” (paraphrased from Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. by Walter Kaufmann, Penguin Books, 1966, p. 195).
Nietzsche was furiously opposed to Christianity and declared God was dead in his 1882 short work, “The Parable of the Madman.” However, he acknowledged that his rejection of the Christian faith was not rational but instead volitional: “It is our preference that decides against Christianity, not arguments” (quoted by Henri Lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism, Ignatius Press, 1995, p. 49). Being committed to evolution and the survival of the fittest, Nietzsche had strong contempt for Christ because of the mercy He showed to the weak and outcasts: “What is more harmful than any vice?—Practical sympathy for the botched and the weak—Christianity. . . . Mankind . . . doesn’t have to thank mere tolerance and humanitarianism for its own existence” (The Antichrist, trans. by H. L. Mencken, Alfred A. Knopf, 1924, pp. 43, 63). This stance may have had some influence on his anti-Semitism: “The whole history of Israel ceased to be of any value: out with it!” (ibid., p. 84).
Like many atheists, Nietzsche wrongly viewed the Christian faith as an epistemology (i.e., a method for gaining knowledge) versus a response to previously acquired knowledge: “But when faith is thus exalted above everything else, it necessarily follows that reason, knowledge and patient inquiry have to be discredited: the road to the truth becomes a forbidden road” (ibid., p. 76). He went so far to say, “Whatever a theologian regards as true must be false: there you have almost a criterion of truth” (ibid., pp. 51– 52, emphasis in the original).
At its core, Nietzsche’s philosophy consisted of a hatred for and rejection of love. On love, he wrote, “When a man is in love he endures more than at any other time; he submits to anything. The problem was to devise a religion which would allow one to love: by this means the worst that life has to offer is overcome—it is scarcely even noticed.—So much for the three Christian virtues: faith, hope and love: I call them the three Christian ingenuities”(ibid., p. 77, emphasis in the original).
In 1889, at the age of 44, Nietzsche suffered a psychotic breakdown and was admitted to the mental asylum in Basel, Switzerland. He was later transferred to the asylum in Jena, Germany. For over a year, Nietzsche lingered in a state of complete mental collapse, and he died in August 1900.
Today, Nietzsche’s relativism, naturalism, and nihilism continue to impact philosophy, art, and culture. His defiant rejection of religion, especially Christianity, and his advocacy of violence and self-seeking make his ideas the antithesis of biblical love and self-sacrifice. Various individuals have attempted, with little success, to integrate Nietzsche’s ideas with religion, creating such philosophies as “Christian atheism.”