Holy Atheism: The Puzzle of Heidegger’s “Letter on Humanism”

The origin of this little essay is a conversation I had a few nights ago when I was asked, quite unexpectedly, what books I might recommend to students seeking a deeper understanding of the world. Without much thinking, I pointed to Heidegger. Reflecting afterward, I realized that for most people Heidegger is merely “difficult” and that for many analytical philosophers (Ayer comes to mind) his writing is “rubbish.” In the right hands however, Heidegger can change minds and change lives.

Martin Heidegger is never an easy read, but he becomes more difficult with every new claim to offer a proprietary interpretation of his thought. In 1947 Heidegger published his Brief ueber den Humanismus (“Letter on Humanism”) in which he sorts through some of the tangles left behind in his 1927 opus, Being and Time and a treatise usually translated as What is Metaphysics? To come at this essay without some notion of Heidegger’s technical vocabulary, especially his complex views on metaphysics, is quickly to sink into linguistic mud. It’s equally difficult to sort through the later work without approaching it problematically. By that I mean that for all its emulsion, Heidegger was working through a very specific set of problems and a level of despair that has occasionally occupied philosophers to such an extent that paradox, aphorism and obscurity have seemed the only way to express the intractability of the problems themselves. Nietzsche comes immediately to mind, but there are tempting if imperfect analogies between Heidegger’s views and those of the negative theologians Gregory of Nyssa, Catherine of Sienna and Meister Eckhart.

The style he preferred in responding to his admirers—like Sartre–as well as his critics, such as Hannah Arendt—was never unconditionally generous, leaving the impression that Heidegger saw his particular mode of expression as appropriate to the subjects he tackled and most interpretation as being either reductionist, or erroneous.

He was not unaware of the power of double-speak as a tool in both political and philosophical discourse. In a 1966 Der Spiegel interview concerning his alleged Nazi sympathies (which finally cost him his teaching career and diminished his reputation in Germany), Heidegger said that in 1935 he had counted on the power of words to convey different meanings to two constituencies (his cleverest students and determined Nazi informants) when he praised the “inner truth and greatness of our movement.”

Hannah Arendt

His sense of how words shape reality and can thus misshape perception and meaning is a constant prickle for anyone who wants to “interpret” Heidegger. It makes equally difficult the task of determining his influence on other thinkers, especially the French philosophers in whose eyes he found grace after 1967.

What makes the “Letter on Humanism” worth discussing is that he pulls no punches about his agenda: to locate in history the source of modernity’s ills. In the politically charged climate of postwar Europe, the easy answers focused on economic, religious, technological and social evils. The cure, it was often proposed, was to restore meaning to the term “humanism” as a category that rises above the particular expressions of modern culture.

In an important article, Gail Soffer notes that “What is peculiar to Heidegger and really questionable in his critique is his diagnosis of the cause of modernity’s ills: not capitalism and its greed; not Protestant religious beliefs; not even runaway technology or the Gestalt of the worker; but rather the humanism of the Western philosophical tradition. For Heidegger, “humanism lies at the root of the reification, technologization, and secularization characteristic of the modern world” (“Heidegger, Humanism and the Destruction of History,” Review of Metaphysics (49) 1996).

Heidegger was not, of course, unaware of the history of the term humanism in early Renaissance thought or even earlier glimmerings in Christian thinkers such as Abelard and Pico della Mirandola. But he was not especially interested in this history of discussion, or at least such discussion could only be useful in deconstruction (Destruktion).

In a strictly connative sense, humanism is that philosophy which either assigns a defined universal essence to man as “a rational animal,” characterized primarily by voluntary action, or it is the denial of essence—a position leading ultimately to Sartre’s conclusion that existentialism is a pure form of humanism. Man is what he is through choice and action. The political appeal of the latter position is that a non-essentialist view of humanism leaves open the possibility for human beings to create worthy social institutions, human rights, Bildung in the humanities and “true” sciences (as opposed to mere technological expertise), and also to reject unworthy ones—such as Nazism.

In none of his writings, however, does Heidegger suggest that “man has no essence.” His message in the “Letter” is that this essence has been misconstrued: that to say “Man is a rational animal” is to predetermine what the nature of man is at a metaphysical level, and that to do so shuts off discussion of the relationship between Being and being human.

To be a knowing subject in relation to known objects is, for Heidegger, to determine the essence of man “downward.” Out of a range of possible definitions, we have chosen the ones that equate science and reason with the sufficient definition—the essence—of humanity. In historical context, we have taken the historical determinants of humanism, which Heidegger sees as a set of familiar phenomena, as being the same as the underlying essence of these phenomena. Heidegger rejects the idea that humanism as we understand the term can provide an understanding of what it means to be thrown into a world of possibilities and others. It does not provide an “analytic” that can help us to understand authenticity, mortality, responsibility. Humanism can provide no escape from the “vulgarity of calculation” or a sense of the temporality of existence.

This leads to the question of God and the matter of Heidegger’s atheism. To an extent, we are playing with language in a way Heidegger would, approvingly, have found amusing. The a-theism he subscribes to is a rejection of God–literally being without the God of history and tradition–and a quest for a non-metaphysical God. It is this aspect of Heidegger’s thought and the subject of die Kehre or “turning” (biographical or procedural?) in his thinking about Dasein that frustrates interrogation—in spite of a small embarrassment of new sources published since his death.


In the world of poetry and technology, God remains the subliminal (literally, beneath the limit) problem. Theologians since Ebeling and Bultmann have exploited this aspect of Heidegger’s almost mystical argot on the topic, and Stuart Elden has analyzed the subject in a useful article (“To Say Nothing of God”, Heythrop Journal, 45/3, 2004, 344-48.). It has been frustrating to students of Heidegger that this “refusal of a theological voice” (Laurence Paul Hemming, 2002) tweaks the nose of theology rather than encourages theological speculation. But, as with humanism, any unconcealed definition of God would be trivialization, and it has been the role of historical theology to offer familiar formulas and definitions in place of concealment.

Thus Heidegger has theology precisely where he wants it: trying to figure him out. His challenge to humanism: that we cannot employ it to address questions of meaning, value and authenticity. His challenge to theology, that the discovery of God cannot be something as simple as forming objective images from subjective data, mainly historical. The possibility of a God without being must be considered. Aquinas considered it. But the axiom “There is no God” cannot be derived from the possibility.

One thought on “Holy Atheism: The Puzzle of Heidegger’s “Letter on Humanism”

  1. I’m in love. Thank you for this timely and even-handed discussion of Heidegger’s objections to the twisting definitions of humanism.

    I’ll feebly mimic: openness and possibility as determinants of authenticity, of real humanism, rather than any doctrinal, assigned definition is just the thing that ought to be discussed (though perhaps in non-Heideggerian language) with devotees of both theism and atheism. The packet of science and reason brandished as a new hope for humanity is in important and relevant ways nothing new under the sun, and a sad mirror of many modern devotions. Watching atheists deify science and reason scares me, quite frankly — the movement is breeding what looks like a bunch of sociopaths, or worse. Being in relation to God needs to be part of any theistic conversation.

    Mm. Sorry to gush, and likely misinterpret. This just resonated with my frustrations well. I think the discourse would benefit from a translation of key Heideggerian terms out of playful German into similarly playful English.

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