“Towards the light, towards knowledge!” A 1960s Soviet propaganda poster advocates science over religion. (Bridgeman Art Library)
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The ghost at the atheist feast: was Nietzsche right about religion?

John Gray reviews “The Age of Nothing” by Peter Watson and “Culture and the Death of God” by Terry Eagleton.

The Age of Nothing: How We Sought to Live Since the Death of God
Peter Watson
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 624pp, £30

Culture and the Death of God
Terry Eagleton
Yale University Press, 264pp, £18.99

There can be little doubt that Nietzsche is the most important figure in modern atheism, but you would never know it from reading the current crop of unbelievers, who rarely cite his arguments or even mention him. Today’s atheists cultivate a broad ignorance of the history of the ideas they fervently preach, and there are many reasons why they might prefer that the 19th-century German thinker be consigned to the memory hole. With few exceptions, contemporary atheists are earnest and militant liberals. Awkwardly, Nietzsche pointed out that liberal values derive from Jewish and Christian monotheism, and rejected these values for that very reason. There is no basis – whether in logic or history – for the prevailing notion that atheism and liberalism go together. Illustrating this fact, Nietzsche can only be an embarrassment for atheists today. Worse, they can’t help dimly suspecting they embody precisely the kind of pious freethinker that Nietzsche despised and mocked: loud in their mawkish reverence for humanity, and stridently censorious of any criticism of liberal hopes.

Against this background, it is refreshing that Peter Watson and Terry Eagleton take Nietzsche as the central reference point for their inquiries into the retreat of theism. For Watson, an accomplished intellectual historian, Nietzsche diagnosed the “nihilist predicament” in which the high-bourgeois civilisation that preceded the Great War unwittingly found itself.

First published in 1882, Nietzsche’s dictum “God is dead” described a situation in which science (notably Darwinism) had revealed “a world with no inherent order or meaning”. With theism no longer credible, meaning would have to be made in future by human beings – but what kind of meaning, and by which human beings? In a vividly engaging conspectus of the formative ideas of the past century, The Age of Nothing shows how Nietzsche’s diagnosis evoked responses in many areas of cultural life, including some surprising parts of the political spectrum.

While it is widely known that Nietzsche’s ideas were used as a rationale for imperialism, and later fascism and Nazism, Watson recounts how Nietzsche had a great impact on Bolshevik thinking, too. The first Soviet director of education, Anatoly Lunacharsky (who was also in charge of state censorship of the arts and bore the delicious title of Commissar of Enlightenment), saw himself as promoting a communist version of the Superman. “In labour, in technology,” he wrote, in a passage cited by Watson, “[the new man] found himself to be a god and dictated his will to the world.”

Trotsky thought much the same, opining that socialism would create “a higher social-biologic type”. Lenin always resisted the importation of Nietzsche’s ideas into Bolshevism. But the Soviet leader kept a copy of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy in his personal library and one of Zarathustra in his Kremlin office, and there is more than a hint of the cult of the will in Lenin’s decree ordering the building of “God-defying towers” throughout the new Soviet state.

It seems that few if any of these towers were constructed, the Soviet authorities devoting their energy instead to incessant anti-religion campaigns. A League of Militant Atheists was set up to spread the message that “religion was scientifically falsifiable”. Religious buildings were seized, looted and given over to other uses, or else razed. Hundreds of thousands of believers perished, but the new humanity that they and their admirers in western countries confidently anticipated has remained elusive. A Soviet census in 1937 showed that “religious belief and activity were still quite pervasive”. Indeed, just a few weeks ago, Vladimir Putin – scion of the KGB, the quintessential Soviet institution that is a product of over 70 years of “scientific atheism” – led the celebrations of Orthodox Christmas.

In many parts of the world at present, there is no sign of religion dying away: quite the reverse. Yet Watson is not mistaken in thinking that throughout much of the 20th century “the death of God” was a cultural fact, and he astutely follows up the various ways in which the Nietzschean imperative – the need to construct a system of values that does not rely on any form of transcendental belief – shaped thinking in many fields. A purely secular ethic had been attempted before (the utilitarian philosophies of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill are obvious examples) but Nietzsche made the task incomparably more difficult by identifying the theistic concepts and values on which these and other secular moralities relied. Ranging widely, Watson tracks the pursuit of a convincing response to Nietzsche in philosophers as various as Henri Bergson, William James and G E Moore, painters such as Matisse and Kandinsky, futurist composers and modernist poets (notably Mallarmé and Wallace Stevens), movements such as the Beats and the Sixties counterculture and a host of psychotherapeutic cults.

If Watson shows how Nietzsche’s challenge resonated throughout pretty well every area of cultural life, for Eagleton this focus on culture is a distraction, if not a crass mistake. Discussing Edmund Burke and T S Eliot, both of whom viewed religion largely in cultural terms even though they were believers, he asks rhetorically: “Might culture succeed in becoming the sacred discourse of a post-religious age, binding people and intelligentsia in spiritual union? Could it bring the most occult of truths to bear on everyday conduct, in the manner of religious faith?” Historically, the idea that religion is separate from culture is highly anomalous – a peculiarly Christian notion, with no counterpart in pre-Christian antiquity or non-western beliefs. But Eagleton isn’t much interested in other religions, and for him it is clear that the answer to his question must be “No”.

It’s not simply that culture lacks the emotional power of religion: “No symbolic form in history has matched religion’s ability to link the most exalted of truths to the daily existence of countless men and women.” More to the point, religion – particularly Christianity – embodies a sharp critique of culture. A standing protest against the repression that accompanies any social order, the Christian message brings “the grossly inconvenient news that our forms of life must undergo radical dissolution if they are to be reborn as just and compassionate communities”. In making this demand, Eagleton concludes, “Christianity is arguably a more tragic creed than Nietzsche’s own doctrine, precisely because it regards suffering as unacceptable.”

It’s an interesting suggestion, but neither the Christian religion nor Nietzsche’s philosophy can be said to express a tragic sense of life. If Yeshua (the Jewish prophet later known as Jesus) had died on the cross and stayed dead, that would have been a tragedy. In the Christian story, however, he was resurrected and came back into the world. Possibly this is why Dante’s great poem wasn’t called The Divine Tragedy. In the sense in which it was understood by the ancients, tragedy implies necessity and unalterable finality. According to Christianity, on the other hand, there is nothing that cannot be redeemed by divine grace and even death can be annulled.

Nor was Nietzsche, at bottom, a tragic thinker. His early work contained a profound interrogation of liberal rationalism, a modern view of things that contains no tragedies, only unfortunate mistakes and inspirational learning experiences. Against this banal creed, Nietzsche wanted to revive the tragic world-view of the ancient Greeks. But that world-view makes sense only if much that is important in life is fated. As understood in Greek religion and drama, tragedy requires a conflict of values that cannot be revoked by any act of will; in the mythology that Nietzsche concocted in his later writings, however, the godlike Superman, creating and destroying values as he pleases, can dissolve and nullify any tragic conflict.

As Eagleton puts it, “The autonomous, self-determining Superman is yet another piece of counterfeit theology.” Aiming to save the sense of tragedy, Nietzsche ended up producing another anti-tragic faith: a hyperbolic version of humanism.

The anti-tragic character of Christianity poses something of a problem for Eagleton. As he understands it, the Christian message calls for the radical dissolution of established forms of life – a revolutionary demand, but also a tragic one, as the kingdom of God and that of man will always be at odds. The trouble is that the historical Jesus seems not to have believed anything like this. His disdain for order in society rested on his conviction that the world was about to come to an end, not metaphorically, as Augustine would later suggest, but literally. In contrast, revolutionaries must act in the basic belief that history will continue, and when they manage to seize power they display an intense interest in maintaining order. Those who make revolutions have little interest in being figures in a tragic spectacle. Perhaps Eagleton should read a little more Lenin.

Although he fails to come up with anything resembling serious politics, Eagleton produces an account of the continuing power of religion that is rich and compelling. Open this book at random, and you will find on a single page more thought-stirring argument than can be gleaned from a dozen ponderous treatises on philosophy or sociology. Most of the critical turning points in modern thought are examined illuminatingly. Eagleton’s discussion of the religious dimensions of Romanticism is instructive, and his crisp deconstruction of postmodernism is a pleasure to read. He is exceptionally astute in his analysis of “the limits of Enlightenment” – nowadays a heavily mythologised movement, the popular conception of which bears almost no relation to the messy and often unpleasantly illiberal reality.

Evangelical rationalists would do well to study this book, but somehow I doubt that many of them will.

Was Nietzsche right in thinking that God is dead? Is it truly the case that – as the German sociologist Max Weber, who was strongly influenced by Nietzsche, believed – the modern world has lost the capacity for myth and mystery as a result of the rise of capitalism and secularisation? Or is it only the forms of enchantment that have changed? Importantly, it wasn’t only the Christian God that Nietzsche was talking about. He meant any kind of transcendence, in whatever form it might appear. In this sense, Nietzsche was simply wrong. The era of “the death of God” was a search for transcendence outside religion. Myths of world revolution and salvation through science continued the meaning-giving role of transcendental religion, as did Nietzsche’s own myth of the Superman.

Reared on a Christian hope of redemption (he was, after all, the son of a Lutheran minister), Nietzsche was unable, finally, to accept a tragic sense of life of the kind he tried to retrieve in his early work. Yet his critique of liberal rationalism remains as forceful as ever. As he argued with masterful irony, the belief that the world can be made fully intelligible is an article of faith: a metaphysical wager, rather than a premise of rational inquiry. It is a thought our pious unbelievers are unwilling to allow. The pivotal modern critic of religion, Friedrich Nietzsche will continue to be the ghost at the atheist feast.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is “The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths” (Allen Lane, £18.99)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

An artist's version of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler blamed on the communists. CREDIT: DEZAIN UNKIE/ ALAMY
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The art of the big lie: the history of fake news

From the Reichstag fire to Stalin’s show trials, the craft of disinformation is nothing new.

We live, we’re told, in a post-truth era. The internet has hyped up postmodern relativism, and created a kind of gullible cynicism – “nothing is true, and who cares anyway?” But the thing that exploits this mindset is what the Russians call dezinformatsiya. Disinformation – strategic deceit – isn’t new, of course. It has played a part in the battle that has raged between mass democracy and its enemies since at least the First World War.

Letting ordinary people pick governments depends on shared trust in information, and this is vulnerable to attack – not just by politicians who want to manipulate democracy, but by those on the extremes who want to destroy it. In 1924, the first Labour government faced an election. With four days to go, the Daily Mail published a secret letter in which the leading Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev heralded the government’s treaties with the Soviets as a way to help recruit British workers for Leninism. Labour’s vote actually went up, but the Liberal share collapsed, and the Conservatives returned to power.

We still don’t know exactly who forged the “Zinoviev Letter”, even after exhaustive investigations of British and Soviet intelligence archives in the late 1990s by the then chief historian of the Foreign Office, Gill Bennett. She concluded that the most likely culprits were White Russian anti-Bolsheviks, outraged at Labour’s treaties with Moscow, probably abetted by sympathetic individuals in British intelligence. But whatever the precise provenance, the case demonstrates a principle that has been in use ever since: cultivate your lie from a germ of truth. Zinoviev and the Comintern were actively engaged in trying to stir revolution – in Germany, for example. Those who handled the letter on its journey from the forger’s desk to the front pages – MI6 officers, Foreign Office officials, Fleet Street editors – were all too ready to believe it, because it articulated their fear that mass democracy might open the door to Bolshevism.

Another phantom communist insurrection opened the way to a more ferocious use of disinformation against democracy. On the night of 27 February 1933, Germany’s new part-Nazi coalition was not yet secure in power when news started to hum around Berlin that the Reichstag was on fire. A lone left-wing Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, was caught on the site and said he was solely responsible. But Hitler assumed it was a communist plot, and seized the opportunity to do what he wanted to do anyway: destroy them. The suppression of the communists was successful, but the claim it was based on rapidly collapsed. When the Comintern agent Gyorgy Dimitrov was tried for organising the fire, alongside fellow communists, he mocked the charges against him, which were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Because it involves venturing far from the truth, disinformation can slip from its authors’ control. The Nazis failed to pin blame on the communists – and then the communists pinned blame on the Nazis. Dimitrov’s comrade Willi Münzenberg swiftly organised propaganda suggesting that the fire was too convenient to be Nazi good luck. A “counter-trial” was convened in London; a volume called The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror was rushed into print, mixing real accounts of Nazi persecution of communists – the germ of truth again – with dubious documentary evidence that they had started the fire. Unlike the Nazis’ disinformation, this version stuck, for decades.

Historians such as Richard Evans have argued that both stories about the fire were false, and it really was one man’s doing. But this case demonstrates another disinformation technique still at work today: hide your involvement behind others, as Münzenberg did with the British great and good who campaigned for the Reichstag prisoners. In the Cold War, the real source of disinformation was disguised with the help of front groups, journalistic “agents of influence”, and the trick of planting a fake story in an obscure foreign newspaper, then watching as the news agencies picked it up. (Today, you just wait for retweets.)

In power, the Nazis made much use of a fictitious plot that did, abominably, have traction: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged text first published in Russia in 1903, claimed to be a record of a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world – not least by means of its supposed control of everyone from bankers to revolutionaries. As Richard Evans observes, “If you subject people to a barrage of lies, in the end they’ll begin to think well maybe they’re not all true, but there must be something in it.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler argued that the “big lie” always carries credibility – an approach some see at work not only in the Nazis’ constant promotion of the Protocols but in the pretence that their Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 was spontaneous. (It is ironic that Hitler coined the “big lie” as part of an attack on the Jews’ supposed talent for falsehood.) Today, the daring of the big lie retains its force: even if no one believes it, it makes smaller untruths less objectionable in comparison. It stuns opponents into silence.

Unlike the Nazis, the Bolshevik leaders were shaped by decades as hunted revolutionaries, dodging the Tsarist secret police, who themselves had had a hand in the confection of the Protocols. They occupied the paranoid world of life underground, governed by deceit and counter-deceit, where any friend could be an informer. By the time they finally won power, disinformation was the Bolsheviks’ natural response to the enemies they saw everywhere. And that instinct endures in Russia even now.

In a competitive field, perhaps the show trial is the Soviet exercise in upending the truth that is most instructive today. These sinister theatricals involved the defendants “confessing” their crimes with great
sincerity and detail, even if the charges were ludicrous. By 1936, Stalin felt emboldened to drag his most senior rivals through this process – starting with Grigory Zinoviev.

The show trial is disinformation at its cruellest: coercing someone falsely to condemn themselves to death, in so convincing a way that the world’s press writes it up as truth. One technique involved was perfected by the main prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky, who bombarded the defendants with insults such as “scum”, “mad dogs” and “excrement”. Besides intimidating the victim, this helped to distract attention from the absurdity of the charges. Barrages of invective on Twitter are still useful for smearing and silencing enemies.


The show trials were effective partly because they deftly reversed the truth. To conspire to destroy the defendants, Stalin accused them of conspiring to destroy him. He imposed impossible targets on straining Soviet factories; when accidents followed, the managers were forced to confess to “sabotage”. Like Hitler, Stalin made a point of saying the opposite of what he did. In 1936, the first year of the Great Terror, he had a rather liberal new Soviet constitution published. Many in the West chose to believe it. As with the Nazis’ “big lie”, shameless audacity is a disinformation strategy in itself. It must have been hard to accept that any regime could compel such convincing false confessions, or fake an entire constitution.

No one has quite attempted that scale of deceit in the post-truth era, but reversing the truth remains a potent trick. Just think of how Donald Trump countered the accusation that he was spreading “fake news” by making the term his own – turning the charge on his accusers, and even claiming he’d coined it.

Post-truth describes a new abandonment of the very idea of objective truth. But George Orwell was already concerned that this concept was under attack in 1946, helped along by the complacency of dictatorship-friendly Western intellectuals. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he warned in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on pain of damnation, but on the other hand they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.”

A few years later, the political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that Nazis and Stalinists, each immersed in their grand conspiratorial fictions, had already reached this point in the 1930s – and that they had exploited a similar sense of alienation and confusion in ordinary people. As she wrote in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” There is a reason that sales of Arendt’s masterwork – and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – have spiked since November 2016.

During the Cold War, as the CIA got in on the act, disinformation became less dramatic, more surreptitious. But show trials and forced confessions continued. During the Korean War, the Chinese and North Koreans induced a series of captured US airmen to confess to dropping bacteriological weapons on North Korea. One lamented that he could barely face his family after what he’d done. The pilots were brought before an International Scientific Commission, led by the eminent Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham, which investigated the charges. A documentary film, Oppose Bacteriological Warfare, was made, showing the pilots confessing and Needham’s Commission peering at spiders in the snow. But the story was fake.

The germ warfare hoax was a brilliant exercise in turning democracy’s expectations against it. Scientists’ judgements, campaigning documentary, impassioned confession – if you couldn’t believe all that, what could you believe? For the genius of disinformation is that even exposure doesn’t disable it. All it really has to do is sow doubt and confusion. The story was finally shown to be fraudulent in 1998, through documents transcribed from Soviet archives. The transcripts were authenticated by the historian Kathryn Weathersby, an expert on the archives. But as Dr Weathersby laments, “People come back and say ‘Well, yeah, but, you know, they could have done it, it could have happened.’”

There’s an insidious problem here: the same language is used to express blanket cynicism as empirical scepticism. As Arendt argued, gullibility and cynicism can become one. If opponents of democracy can destroy the very idea of shared, trusted information, they can hope to destabilise democracy itself.

But there is a glimmer of hope here too. The fusion of cynicism and gullibility can also afflict the practitioners of disinformation. The most effective lie involves some self-deception. So the show trial victims seem to have internalised the accusations against them, at least for a while, but so did their tormentors. As the historian Robert Service has written, “Stalin frequently lied to the world when he was simultaneously lying to himself.”

Democracy might be vulnerable because of its reliance on the idea of shared truth – but authoritarianism has a way of undermining itself by getting lost in its own fictions. Disinformation is not only a danger to its targets. 

Phil Tinline’s documentary “Disinformation: A User’s Guide” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm, 17 March