Did God Factor into the Philosophies of Some of the Greatest Minds in History?

Intellectual history cannot be told or understood without the idea of God. Badarayana, Confucius, Plato and Aristotle, Jesus, Marcus Aurelius, Augustine, Ibn Rushd, Thomas Aquinas, Copernicus and Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Leibniz, Spinoza, Kierkegaard, Darwin. East to west, ancient to modern, the story of human reflection on the world is the story of human reflection on God and God’s relationship to humanity and the world as a whole.

Indeed, until the last few centuries, prominent philosophical and religious traditions devoid of God stand out precisely because of their atheism. Perhaps surprisingly, though, the story of the development of modern, Western forms of atheism and naturalism is a story about the idea of God. Even prominent atheists, to put the point bluntly, construct their philosophies around the idea of God.

Friedrich Nietzsche, perhaps the most ardent critic of God and commitment to God in the Western intellectual tradition, is a case study in this irony. Nietzsche famously proclaimed the “death of God”. But in doing so he set his philosophy up as a contrast to Christianity. In this way, Nietzsche organized his thinking around the Christian tradition, despite rejecting all of its major tenets. He was concerned to have the world reckon with what it really means to reject God, to “unchain the earth from its sun”, as Nietzsche’s Madman puts it in The Gay Science.

Common understandings of morality, Nietzsche believed—and in this he echoed the philosophical tradition—required a creator God. Ideas of universal human dignity and therefore universal human rights, opposition to racism and oppression, and championing the weak and the marginalized had all been built on the idea that humans are made in God’s Image. This was the edifice Nietzsche sought to unravel and to replace. And yet Nietzsche failed to disentangle himself completely from the idea of God because his whole project concerned God’s death.

Even in His purported death at Nietzsche’s hand, God stands at the center of human intellectual history.


Timothy Pickavance, Ph.D., is Associate Professor and Chair of Philosophy at the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. His main interests lie in analytic philosophy and metaphysics.

Professor Pickavance's recommended reading on the Topic:

Evans, C. Stephen, A History of Western Philosophy: From the Pre-Socratics to Postmodernism.