Philosophy thrives on bold, creative interpretations. But there is a big difference between a bold, creative reading and one that is audacious and misguided. Unfortunately Professor Young has aimed for the former but produced the latter. This author has written another book on Nietzsche (Nietzsche's Philosophy of Art) that is quite good. I read it in 1994 and was very impressed. Recently he has published a well-received biography of Nietzsche. To say the least, I was disappointed with his examination of Nietzsche's philosophy of religion. Occasionally the pressures of creativity push a writer into the realm of the implausible.
The book's important points may be summarized as follows:
(l) Nietzsche's concern is "...first and foremost, with community" (p. 2).
(2) Nietzsche is commonly regarded as an atheist, but in fact this was never the case (ibid.). Contrary to most scholarly opinion, Nietzsche had a religious attitude towards life (p. 173). It may be stated even more strongly: "...he is above all a religious thinker" (p. 201).
(3) The heart of Nietzsche's philosophy: How to overcome the "nihilism" of modernity and thus create a healthy society (p. 179). A "noble" religion is essential to any healthy society (ibid.).
I will discuss these points in some detail. First is Nietzsche's commitment to the notion of community. Young sees Nietzsche's philosophy as a conservative, backward-looking political vision. As such it resembles the "Volkish" tradition in German thought. This intellectual movement's essence was a radical antimodernism, a hatred of Enlightenment values. There was a virulent opposition to democracy. Nietzsche's views are strikingly similar. His opposition to modernism included a distain for any notions of equality or the concept of rights. Antifeminist and antidemocratic diatribes are common in many of Nietzsche's books. This is a popular interpretation of Nietzsche, and I am in complete agreement.
But there is a positive side to the Volkish viewpoint. Their ideal society was an organic unity committed to a certain Volksgeist, an ethos manifested in a "mission" or "destiny" (p. 5). Romanticism, hero worship, and nationalism were strong components of their thinking. Among the Volkish the idea of community was king--but only a certain type of community. They strongly believed in a social hierarchy, and social differences were paramount. A social arrangement similar to that of medieval estates was their concept of a good society.
Nietzsche would have strongly disapproved of the nationalism displayed by the movement. He thought of himself as a "good European." Putting this aspect aside, Young emphasizes the organic notion of community that he claims is an important thread running through Nietzsche's philosophy. Nietzsche's idea of a healthy society is an overriding concern that is found throughout his writings--from the Birth of Tragedy all the way through to Ecce Homo. And for Nietzsche a healthy society is a hierarchically organized community where everybody knows their place (and accepts it). The glue that holds everything together is a communal religion (p. 179).
What type of religion is best for our desired community of the future? Nietzsche, in his typically reactionary attitude towards modernity, advocates a return to his beloved Greeks. The solution is to be found in "Dionysian" pantheism--a revival of the life-affirming festival of the ancient Greek cults (p. 201). Nietzsche believed that Christianity, the face of Western modernity, was a decedent, anti-life religion for losers, appealing "...to the disinherited everywhere; it is founded on a rancor against everything well-constituted and dominant...it takes the side of idiots and utters a curse on the spirit" (Will to Power, section 154). The key to overcoming our current nihilism is overthrowing Christianity and reinstituting the noble religious beliefs of that glorious ancient Greek culture found in our distant past.
Did Nietzsche believe in a God as the necessary foundation of any successful religion? Or was his infamous "God is dead" rhetoric a sure sign of a fervent atheism? Young supports the former view (with important qualifications). He sees Nietzsche as a "Dionysian pantheist" (p. 110, n. 2). God is not a person and therefore it (not he or she!) can have no concern for humanity and its problems. God is the cosmos--Nature in its broadest sense. But the life-force, so important to Nietzsche's thinking, is the very essence of Nature. Nietzsche called it the "will to power." The noble religion of Dionysus is the perfect vehicle to express the joy, life-affirmation, and "yes-saying" that should be an integral part of any healthy society.
Does it make sense for Nietzsche (or any pantheist) to say that God is identical with the totality of nature? This position--foreign to the three great religions of Western civilization--empties the concept of any meaning. If God is everything, then God is nothing. It is, to use Hegel's famous phrase, the night in which all cows are black. Humans need a God who is a person--someone who cares for them and can be approached through prayer. This is not the pantheist's (or Nietzsche's) God.
But this is really a moot point. Contrary to Young's position, Nietzsche is really just a garden variety atheist. There is an explicit avowal of atheism in Ecce Homo ("Why I Am So Clever," sec. 1), and strong approvals of atheism in the Genealogy of Morals (Second Essay, sec. 20) and the Will to Power (sec. 707).
So what is the positive role that religion plays for Nietzsche? It is a "noble lie" in Plato's sense of the term. The ruling class needs an obedient, subservient mass of humanity in order to further its goals. Religious values must instill a deference to authority among the working class. Slaves (traditional or the modern wage type) should obey orders so they can reap their eventual heavenly reward. That Nietzsche's nihilism should engender cynicism should surprise no one.
In closing I would like to comment on Nietzsche as a communitarian. There have been two universal communitarian movements in Western history. Christianity was the first. It sought to unify mankind under the banner of the Spirit. Nietzsche detested Christianity. The second force espousing genuine community values was socialism. Nietzsche hated the socialists. As an alternative to these he offered the following: ardent approval of racial purity, the subordination of women, a denunciation of democracy, demands for cruelty and extermination, and a celebration of suffering. I can not imagine any civilized person wanting to live in this type of community.