How to Laugh at God

Source: Stephen Akey, The Smart Set, March 15

…Aside from jeering at the cloddishness of his fellow Germans – keeping it in the family, so to speak, while avoiding criticism of other families – Nietzsche mostly left ordinary believers alone. He understood that atheism was and always will be a minority position. He wasn’t seeking converts.

For those already persuaded or perhaps sitting on the fence, he offered a savagely funny critique of priestly obscurantism, less as prescription than as description. Nietzsche was no populist. One of the attractions of atheism was that the masses could be counted on to reject it.

It’s not one of the more appealing aspects of his philosophy, but the alpine air that he preferred to breathe was for the few, not the many. Nevertheless, the form that religious observance takes is always a matter of public interest, and if that form seems to reduce the human spirit to servitude, a German philosopher – or for that matter, a bar-room drunk – has the right to say so.

Of course, some of those religious forms do more than reduce the human spirit to servitude: some of them torture and kill people. Then again, secular or atheist forms of power have been known to do the same. Whoever gets the worst of this argument – your atrocities are bigger than my atrocities – it’s rarely worth having in the first place.

If you really need to dump on religion, wouldn’t it be wiser to beat up on the safely dead St. Paul, for example, who roused Nietzsche to some of his most inspired ad hominem attacks? While there’s no end of error in Christianity, Nietzsche didn’t waste his time on easy targets like miracles or relics. He went after the guy who, basically, invented the religion.

It’s still exhilarating to read his attacks on St. Paul, partly because of his refusal to moderate his scorn into the sort of balanced critique one might expect owed to any important historical figure, let alone a saint: “Paul is the incarnation of a type which is the reverse of that of the Savior; he is the genius in hatred, in the standpoint of hatred, and in the relentless logic of hatred. And alas what did this dysangelist not sacrifice to his hatred! Above all the Savior himself: he nailed him to his cross. Christ’s life, his example, his doctrine and death, the sense and the right of the gospel – not a vestige of all this was left, once this forger, prompted by his hatred, had understood in it only that which could serve his purpose….”

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