I ask my students not merely to learn about but to do philosophy; I thus ask them to be willing to disagree. For disagreements to be profitable, though, we need to try to see the issue from the standpoint of those with whom we disagree. When we do, we may realize that we are the ones who are mistaken; or, we can learn something about the foundations of our beliefs. My scholarly work is centered on a philosopher with whom I disagree about almost everything: Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s atheism has not led me to renounce my belief in God, and yet he is someone from whom I continue to learn a great deal.

When Nietzsche railed against the slavishness of Christians and bestowed upon himself the title of “Antichrist,” I could be sure he took Christian belief seriously. His proclamation that “God is dead” was warning as much as invitation; before walking along the philosopher’s path, Nietzsche asks that we count the costs.

Nietzsche thought something like Christian belief is needed to make sense of the idea that moral laws are absolute and objective, not relative and subjective. Therefore, when religion falls, morality falls. We might wonder whether this is such a bad thing. Shouldn’t we stop being so judgmental and respect everyone as an equal?

It’s at this point that Nietzsche’s challenge becomes clear. For he asks: Why should we think everyone is to be respected as an equal? The only viable answer, he says, is one that invokes God: All human beings have an immortal soul. Following this line of logic, when God dies, so, too, does the conceit of basic, equal human worth.

It is undeniable that religious language is often invoked to defend the notion of basic human worth. My own Catholic faith tells me that all humans bear the image of God. America’s founding document speaks of our being “created equal.” But why think the commitment to basic human equality only makes sense or has grounding if one believes in God?

To answer that question, first consider another: What is it about human beings that would make us all of equal basic worth? A satisfying response, according to Nietzsche, would need to cite a characteristic that is (1) shared equally by all human beings and that (2) confers substantial worth upon us. Now, it’s easy to find characteristics of the first sort; for example, being a member of the species homo sapiens. And it’s equally easy to find properties of the second sort; for example, having the ability to think abstractly, work creatively, love selflessly.

But it is difficult — Nietzsche thought it was impossible — to find a suitably secular property with both these characteristics. (Consider: Not all members of the species homo sapiens are equal in their ability to think, work, and love in these ways.) Given the impossibility of justifying equality in this way, Nietzsche concludes that human beings are not equal; some are higher, and others lower. 

Not many of us will agree with Nietzsche’s rejection of basic human equality. In our day of increasing intolerance and division, though, his challenge is timely: What grounds basic human equality? Christian belief provides an answer — one that Nietzsche rejected. Does the rejection of God lead to Nietzsche’s conclusions? My journey with Nietzsche continues, but that is not a path I plan to take.

David Dudrick, the George Carleton Jr. Professor of philosophy, teaches courses on Nietzsche and Foucault, existentialism, and philosophical theology. Some of his best friends are atheists.