When the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had his "madman" declare that "God is dead," he was referring to the fact that Western modernity no longer believed in a set of transcendent principles people could live by. Instead of a cosmic order that gave meaning, purpose and direction to people's lives, modern man has nothing but himself to play the role of the Archimedean point of existence. The mortal humans who had killed God, now have the chance to be the masters of the world without answering to a higher authority. With his typical flamboyant voice, Nietzsche was describing a turning point in 19th century Europe. The death of God does not mean that people stopped believing in God or going to the church or the synagogue. The majority of the world's population continue to believe in God. But they live as if this belief no longer mattered.
The death of God means the end of belief in any absolutes. It refers to the loss of higher principles to which human beings can be held accountable. It means that humans have removed God from His throne and now can claim it for themselves. In this "new brave world," to use Aldous Huxley's term, modern civilization has nothing but man as the measure of all things. Man with his reason, but also with his desires and ego has become the only absolute of the new world that he has created - the very world which now threatens his own existence.
The task of the post-God era is then to create a system of moral values and principles in the absence of a divine/transcendent order. Since the 19th century, secular humanists, materialists, positivists and atheists have tried their luck in this new enterprise. But Nietzsche, who claimed that the death of God could open new exhilarating, but also terrifying possibilities for humans, was aware of how an impossible task this was. That is why he described the aftermath of the death of God as a "wasteland" - a wasteland that spreads everywhere and makes human life empty and meaningless. The death of God becomes the death of man.
Man is guilty of killing God and this guilt in turn kills man. In "Gay Science," Nietzsche has his "madman" declare: "God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us?" There is no one to console him after the murder. No one can help him. No sacrament can cleanse him. The "madman" goes on: "What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?"
Man cannot comfort himself after this greatest of all crimes. So he must become "god" to have the appearance of being worthy of it. But what is the point of killing God in the first place if we end up making new gods? How can man, who has reached a low point by committing a terrible murder, claim to be the source of a high moral principle?
Has the death of God made man freer, happier, more rational or more ethical? Nietzsche doubts it and introduces what he calls a "wasteland" that expands. The "wasteland grows" inside us, in the outside world, in nature, in human relations or whatever is left of them. It encapsulates everything from Hiroshima and the Holocaust to the massacre of hundreds of thousands of human beings in Serebrenitsa, Rwanda, Halepce, Hama, Khums and Aleppo. The "wasteland grows" and we can do nothing about it. With all the sophisticated technologies, precision bombs, satellite communications, we cannot stop it. We have become the wasteland.
We do not have to take Nietzsche's path and settle for a sophisticated nihilism to overcome the death of God. Instead, we need to look for ways to reclaim our humanity and rediscover the deeper meanings of reality. By connecting to a higher principle, we do not diminish or give up our humanity. To the contrary, we substantiate and enrich it. We open ourselves to new possibilities that protect our agency and freedom and maintain meaning in our lives.
In contrast to the romantic humanists and Freudians, this view of humans presents them neither as angels nor demons, but as beings who have the potential to become either one. Endowed with reason and compassion on the one hand, and a carnal soul and destructive force on the other, humans have the free will to move in either direction. The question is, who will protect them against evil, cruelty, destruction, ugliness and violence? Who is going to lead them to goodness, mercy and justice?
Given the great crimes that have been committed in the name of God, the skeptics of traditional religions have a point. From the crusaders in the middle ages to the atrocities of ISIS today, the followers of authentic religious traditions need to protect their faith against such devastating distortions. But at the end of the day, we do not need to throw the baby out with the bath water.
You know the joke: Nietzsche said "God is dead" and God said "Nietzsche is dead." Which statement seems truer is something we should contemplate. But more importantly, we need to go beyond both the anti-religious fantasies of the death of God and the violent extremism that destroys the very meaning of religion in the name of God. Killing both God and man will not make this world a better place for any human being.