reports that one song title is now confirmed for the new Black Sabbath album, which will be the first album recorded with the original lineup (sadly minus Bill Ward) in 34 years. The title of the song is “God is Dead.” Having just published the book Black Sabbath and Philosophy, this is music to my ears.

The phrase “God is Dead” comes from the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and it is spoken by the Madman in a vignette in The Joyful Wisdom as well as by the prophet Zarathustra in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. “God is Dead” is one of the best known but least understood lines in all of Western Philosophy. Most people simply take it as a statement of atheism, but it is not. Rather, it is a statement of irrelevance. It means that the God of the Judeo-Christian has become obsolete; he is no longer the guiding force in people’s lives that he was in earlier times. Why? It’s science that has killed God. In earlier times science had to bow before scripture and theology (think of Galileo), but now to science God seems an unnecessary hypothesis. One wonders, of course, if God is lost as a source of moral value, where will value and meaning come from? With the death of God we are faced with the challenge of nihilism. We must somehow accept that there is no objective, God-given meaning or value in the world and still find a way to live and even flourish.

Of course we do not have the new Sabbath song to listen to yet, but in considering the philosophical significance of some of their earlier songs we can get a feel for what “God is Dead” may say. As I write in Black Sabbath and Philosophy, “To transcend a desperate situation, one must first face it. In this way, Nietzsche’s outrageous claim that ‘God is dead’ is echoed in the blasphemy of Sabbath’s celebration of Satan in songs such as ‘N.I.B.’ It is perfectly understandable why people take flight from reality and find comfort in religion, but Nietzsche finds Christianity to be a dangerous fiction that discourages people from living this life to the fullest. As he says in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ‘all things have been baptized in the well of eternity and are beyond good and evil; and good and evil themselves are but intervening shadows and damp depressions and drifting clouds.’ In Sabbath’s song ‘Supernaut’ we can hear Nietzsche’s rejection of religion and its ethic of rugged individualism and self-reliance: "Got no religion / Don’t need no friends / Got all I want / And I don’t need to pretend / Don’t try to reach me / ‘cause I’ll tear up your mind / I’ve seen the future / And I’ve left it behind." Our very existence is without pre-given meaning, yet that’s OK. We don’t need a pre-given purpose, and we can deal with a universe that is indifferent to us. We are free to choose how we will live our lives; nothing necessarily compels us to do one thing or another. In making our free choices we define who we are. Along these lines, "Under the Sun / Every Day Comes and Goes" presents an existentialist’s declaration of independence: "Well I don’t want no preacher / Telling me about the god in the sky / No I don’t want no one to tell me / Where I’m gonna go when I die / I wanna live my life with no people telling me what to do / I just believe in myself, ‘cause no one else is true."

Sabbath’s lyrics, penned by Geezer Butler, are rarely black and white. As I say in the introduction to Black Sabbath and Philosophy, the lyrics “are all about shades of gray, rich, suggestive, and ambiguous, often undercutting one message with its opposite. Sabbath flirt with the occult but embrace the divine. They tell cautionary tales of heroin’s hand of doom while themselves snowblind or high on sweet leaf. And they don’t passively plead to give peace a chance to the tune of jangling guitars; they rage in the "fight for peace to the beat of war drums.” So we can expect that the song “God is Dead” will not be a mindless, blasphemous romp. More likely, it will lament the loss of God and invoke his return. After all, Geezer Butler remains a committed Catholic. But this is simply speculation. The song remains to be seen, or heard, when the new Black Sabbath album is released in early 2013.

Plato on Pop

Philosophy and pop culture
David Kyle Johnson Ph.D.

David Kyle Johnson, Ph.D., is an associate professor of philosophy at King's College in Pennsylvania.

William Irwin, Ph.D.

William Irwin, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at King’s College in Pennsylvania.

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