Polytheism: “God Is Dead” By Nietzsche Essay, Research Paper

Reproduced, with permission, from THE FUTURIST, Published by the World

Future Society, 7910 Woodmont Avenue, Suite 450, Bethesda, Maryland


Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the German philosopher

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote a fictional account of a madman who went about

the town proclaiming that “God is dead.” Nietzsche’s story is

illustrative of a wave of atheism that spread through the intellectual

circles of Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,

but that never caught on in society at large.

The idea of the divine demise, however, did not die: A movement by

theologians resurrected Nietzsche’s thesis in the 1960s, amidst the

other forms of radical thinking that characterized that decade. The

cover of Time magazine for April 8, 1966, summarized it best with the

boldfaced headline, “Is God Dead?”

Despite the theologians’ doubts, the next few decades marked a rise

of religious fundamentalism among many Christians and Muslims and a

return to traditionalist thinking among many Jews. Today, 96% of the

U.S. population say they believe in God, a slight increase compared with

surveys done half a century earlier. If he were to appear today,

Nietzsche’s madman would still find that he had come too early.

What is the future of God? Will He ever truly die? One difficulty in

answering these questions is the word “God.” It may seem like a simple

word, but “God” doesn’t mean the same thing to everybody: Various images

and ideas of the deity appear throughout different times and cultures.

So the first issue we need to look at is semantic. We need to study the

way people have understood God in the past and what they believe today.

Then we can address what concept of God is emerging for future



One common theory about the Western image of a single, distinct God

is that He arose out of a more ancient era of polytheism. Indeed, the

first books of the Bible tell how the Israelite God Yahweh forbids his

people to bow down before other gods, suggesting the existence of

parallel deities. In many cultures today, God is not singular: A tribe

of deities perform their individual tasks and attract their own

followings. Hindus, for example, have never found reason to abandon

their pantheon. While polytheism may seem primitive to Westerners, who

have been reared with the idea that there can be only one God, it does

have certain advantages and may not be merely a less sophisticated

predecessor of monotheism.

For one thing, if there are many gods, it may be easier to find one

whose job description best fits your needs. If you are an artist or an

expectant mother, you might be able to seek the assistance of a god

specially attuned to your situation and more comforting to you than a

god who controls the weather (who might be favored by farmers). More

importantly, having a variety of gods who specialize in different

aspects of life relieves the single great deity of attending to a

multitude of specific concerns. This is simply the economic principle of

the division of labor applied to religion.

In addition, polytheism creates more confidence for the petitioner:

You are more likely to get an answer from a god with an interest and

expertise in your problem than to persuade the great God to become

interested in your trivial concern. In Roman Catholicism, praying to

saints for their intercessory power saves this advantage without

compromising monotheism.

The problem with polytheism, however, is that the gods who are

interested in specific human concerns generally begin to look and act

all too humanly themselves. It requires no stretch to imagine them

engaging in the same kinds of self-interested behavior, such as

bickering over jurisdiction and illicit love affairs, that we find among

humans. They become less divine and less worthy of worship.

By contrast, the problem with monotheism is that God becomes so

great and so incomprehensible that He ceases to be available for

ordinary human concerns. Thus the great trade-off: A God who is truly

God (in the Western sense) isn’t of much practical use; a god who is one

of many scheming, self-interested gods doesn’t inspire much awe.


Monotheism also contains another essential problem–one with

implications for the future. The Western God of the

Jewish-Christian-Islamic tradition illustrates the core difficulty in

monotheism, a philosophical conundrum that has been called the theodicy

problem. It is formulated as a trilemma and can best be illustrated this


Among the following three statements, it is logically possible to

reconcile any two of them, but the agreement of two implies that the

third is false. The three statements are:

1. God is omnipotent.

2. God loves us.

3. Evil exists.

In the first instance, if God can do anything (create the universe,

for example), and if the universe contains natural and moral evils

(hurricanes and Hitlers, for example), then it would seem that God lacks

compassion for the victims, especially when these victims are innocent

sufferers. Dostoyevsky’s character Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov makes

this case eloquently when he tells the story of innocent children

tortured by cruel soldiers in front of their parents. How could a loving

God allow this?

The second case is the acceptance of a loving, concerned God and the

existence of evil in the world. This implies that even God cannot find a

way to eliminate evil, or at least reserve it as punishment only for

those who deserve it. A God who cannot do this is less than omnipotent.

Finally, one can believe in the omnipotence of God and His loving

compassion, but then some explanation is required for the evil and

suffering we see around us. It may be that suffering is a test from God

(but surely an omnipotent God would know the outcome of such a test

before it were given), or that suffering is used by God for greater

purposes (but then God’s methods would seem either malevolent or

inadequate). Or perhaps there really is no evil. We think of suffering

and death, especially of the innocent, as evil, but perhaps in the

larger scheme of things these are really good things that we cannot

understand. God’s ways are not our ways, says the Bible. The omnipotent,

all-merciful God created the world this way because it is the best of

all possible worlds. (Voltaire develops this theme in Candide, where

Pangloss rationalizes his way to such a conclusion, whatever the

situation.) Since the existence of evil seems empirically evident, this

last approach requires great faith.


Is it possible to incorporate all three statements into a coherent

concept of God? Attempts to accomplish this task have occupied

philosophers and theologians ever since the emergence of monotheism, but

always with questionable success.

The solutions advocated by each epoch of thinkers are generally

based on the philosophical assumptions of their culture, but these

assumptions may not be ours. The ancient Zoroastrians, for example,

introduced the notion of Satan-like spirits emanating from the one great

God; these spirits are responsible for evil in the world. Somehow, for

the Zoroastrians, this compromises neither God’s essential goodness nor

His omnipotence.

A similar myth found widely in the Western tradition is that only

good spirits were created by God, but some of these freely chose evil,

the metaphysical origin of which is not addressed. Medieval thinkers

provided a solution that more or less follows the third resolution of

the trilemma (that evil has some divine purpose unknowable to humans),

but this solution has not been highly regarded since the Enlightenment.


Speculating about what concept of God future believers will

formulate requires a look at some of the fundamental concepts underlying

contemporary thought. These concepts might give us clues about what new

solutions may become plausible.

The rejection of the traditional God by nineteenth- and early

twentiethcentury thinkers, such as Nietzsche, Feuerbach, Marx, and

Freud, was influenced by a change in fundamental assumptions about the

nature of reality. The ideals of freedom and self-government obviated

the need for the traditional “supreme ruler” God.

Today, a new set of ideas that may influence concepts of God are

entering popular consciousness. Two major concepts to imbue modern

thinking come from science: the ideas of evolution in biology and of

relativity in physics. We can call these the Darwinian and Einsteinian

insights, although they extend well beyond the theories of Charles

Darwin and Albert Einstein.

A fundamental idea behind evolution is that all things are

constantly changing, that nothing stays the same. For some, this idea

sparks the need to reaffirm an image of God who is unchanging and

eternal. But this would make God an exception to the metaphysical

principles that govern all of reality. In other words, it would place

God outside the margins of understandability and availability. A God who

is outside of time and change is a God who cannot intervene in history.

Such a God would be useless, and believers in this God would be

hard-pressed to draw a practical distinction between their belief and

that of atheists.

A better solution, one more in keeping with the Darwinian insight,

would be a temporal and changing God, listening to prayers and

responding appropriately. Curiously, such a God could still be

omnipotent, at least according to one interpretation: that God is

all-powerful not in an absolute sense, but in a relative sense. God is

as powerful today as He can possibly be, but He can (and does) exceed

His own power at every point in the future. In other words, like us, God

is changing, growing, evolving. He is always more than He was and will

always be more than He is. And at every moment, this changing God is


Note also the second, or Einsteinian, insight here. God’s power and

God’s love are relative to the requirements of the current cosmic

situation, and God, at any given moment in time, is limited to the

exigencies of that situation. Divine immanence is stressed over divine

transcendence. As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead put it, “It is

as true to say that the World is immanent in God as that God is immanent

in the World.”


Whitehead developed a notion of the “consequent nature” of God that

encompasses all of reality, every puff of trivial existence. A similar

idea of God and His relation to the world can be found in a grand

synthesis developed by the French Jesuit thinker, Pierre Teilhard de

Chardin, for whom God is all in all, the final cause of reality,

overcoming all evil and drawing all things into his ultimate Self.

This image of God is in some ways similar to the Eastern (especially

Hindu) idea of pantheism, which literally means that God is all. Every

bit of matter and energy is a part of God; every event is a

manifestation of divine Being. God is these things, not a cause of them

and not separate from them. God is material because reality is material;

God is in time because reality is in time.

The Western counterpart of pantheism, as expressed by Whitehead and

Teilhard, for example, can better be called panentheism, which means

that God is all, yet more than all. Like pantheism, it identifies God

with the totality of reality, but it also asserts that God is more than

the sum total of everything. It is based upon the notion that the whole

is actually more than the sum of its parts, just as a person is more

than the sum of his cells or organs. In other words, the whole (God) is

more than the sum of His parts (all the elements of reality), yet He is

made up of these parts.


While few Americans would call themselves pantheists or

panentheists, I am convinced that this general way of thinking about God

will become more widespread in the future. Pantheism and panentheism

accord with many important themes in contemporary thought.

One often hears the word “force” in discussions about God. “May the

force be with you” is how Obi-Wan Kenobi blesses Luke Skywalker in the

original Star Wars film. For many, the problems inherent in the trilemma

do not require them to abandon belief in God, but the problems do cause

people to reconsider the traditional concept of God. The result is an

impersonal God, one who becomes the force we experience underlying all

of reality. This force is dynamic, changing. It is relative to, and

perhaps one with, events as they happen. Is this not what fervent

Christians mean when they describe the work of the Holy Spirit?

Likewise, one often hears believers speak about the “presence of

God.” God is everywhere, in everything. No one can escape the presence

of God. By this believers generally mean that God is present in the area

that surrounds things, but that He is distinct from physical things.

However, this belief in God’s separateness is problematic, because

these believers don’t think of God as merely being in the spaces; they

think of Him as immanent. “God is in you,” they may say. This idea isn’t

far from pantheism or panentheism. In other words, the presence of God,

a concept widely used by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, can easily

change to a God that is identifiable with everything, the totality of

reality, the universe in its ever-changing, relative state. The presence

of God is the force behind change and the unity of the evolving universe



Such a concept of God already resonates with many believers and may

become more acceptable as they ponder exactly what happens when God

interacts with them. Is it not through time and nature, according to

their belief, that God manifests His power (force) to them? Such an idea

also resonates with atheists and agnostics who might loathe the word

God, but would agree that the universe is the sole field of action. So

why all the fuss over a word?

Such a concept would surely find support among new-age thinkers, who

have borrowed heavily from the Hindu pantheistic philosophers for their

world view of spirituality and interconnectedness. Finally, it would

resonate most powerfully with environmentalists–atheist and theist

alike–who would find that identifying God with nature encourages a

profound respect for the nature of which we are a part.

To be sure, I have simplified this image of God egregiously. My

purpose here is not to work out the philosophical and theological

difficulties (and there are many!) inherent in this image, but to

suggest that it is likely to be acceptable to a wide variety of future


It seems to me that in our culture it is harder to wrap our brain

around an absolute God than a relative one; that a totally separate God

is less appealing than an immanent one; and that an eternal God is not

as religiously useful as a changing, evolving one. In other words, the

absolute, transcendent, changeless image of God inherited from our

ancestors may well be dead, or at least in its last throes. But most

people are loathe to embrace atheism. Instead, they will save God by

reconceptualizing Him. In the twenty-first century, Nietzsche’s madman

will still come too early.



Robert B. Mellert, a frequent contributor to THE FUTURIST, teaches

philosophy at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey. The author of

two books and numerous articles, he holds a doctorate from Fordham

University. His address is Philosophy Department, Brookdale Community

College, 765 Newman Springs Road, Lincroft, New Jersey 07738. Telephone

1-732-224-2918; e-mail Rmellert@brookdale.cc.nj.us

God’s creation of Adam, as depicted by Michelangelo on the ceiling of

the Sistine Chapel. ED CARLIN / ARCHIVE PHOTOS

A picture of God? According to some beliefs, yes: God is all the matter

and energy in the universe.

Equating God with nature may appeal to environmentalists, even those who

would call themselves atheists, the author argues.


A History of God by Karen Armstrong (Knopf, 1994).

The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche edited by Oscar Levy

(Macmillan, 1924).

God: A Biography by Jack Miles (Knopf, 1995).

“Belief by the Numbers” by Russell Shorto, The New York Times

Magazine (December 7, 1997).

Le Milieu Divin by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (Fontana Books, 1957).

Process and Reality by Alfred North Whitehead (Macmillan, 1929).

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