Friedrich Nietzsche on “What is Religious?”

In Part Three of Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche gives a detailed synopsis of his perception on the prominence of religiosity in human consciousness.

It is noteworthy that Nietzsche is unique amongst atheist thinkers—past and present—in that he never bothers to argue against the existence of deities, but simply asserts the nonexistence of gods as a given fact about reality (a reader might suspect that the philosopher would consider anything more as too generous of a move towards the religious mindset and its supernatural tenets).

To Nietzsche, gods (in all their varying forms and quantities) exist solely as elaborate conceptions of the human mind. Hence, the philosopher approaches the topic of religion from an entirely psychological standpoint, treating the occurrence of faith as an obvious neurosis plaguing the mind of man.

He states: “Wherever on earth the religious neurosis has appeared we find it tied to three dangerous dietary demands: solitude, fasting, and sexual abstinence.”[1]

Nietzsche views such manifestations of the religious spirit as indicative of its desire to both control and undermine the base nature of man; i.e., to rob man of his very humanity. He sees this as a reflection of religion’s unrealistic (in the sense of being anti-realistic) and inherently irrational temperament, making it futile for a person to try to decipher the cause and effect of its various supercilious decrees:

Among its most regular symptoms, among both savage and tame peoples, we also find the most sudden, most extravagant voluptuousness which then, just as suddenly, changes into a penitential spasm and denial of the world and will—both perhaps to be interpreted as masked epilepsy?[2]

Nietzsche recognizes how the idea of God serves as a testament to the creative capabilities of the human mind, but also paradoxically sees it as a catalyst of its ultimate deprecation—a “spasm and denial of the world” whose inevitable progress is bound to deprive mankind of his reasoning intellect, adding, “no other type has yet been surrounded by such a lavish growth of nonsense and superstition.”[3]

An apt criticism one could make of Nietzsche is that his polemics against religion seem to be largely centered on Abrahamic monotheism (particularly Christianity) with little regard given to the vastly divergent expressions of theistic godliness found throughout non-Western cultures. As far as Nietzsche’s major writings are concerned, this is not an unfair criticism, and it leads to two possible assumptions: the first being that Nietzsche may not have been familiar with non-Abrahamic faiths, and therefore is in no position to offer any viable commentary on them. While this is the simplest answer, it is also the more dubious.

In his younger writings Nietzsche actually does show a familiarity with Hindu theology (indicating that he had at least read the Upanishads[4]), as well as other variants of Dharmic spirituality.[5] A more plausible answer is that Nietzsche is doing what any good marketing professor would advise their intro-level students to do when selling an idea: know your audience. Nietzsche is writing in a predominately Christian country, to a predominately Christian readership; thus, one can see how spiraling off into protracted diatribes against ideas the majority of Nietzsche’s readership already rejects (there is no need to convince Christians that Hinduism/Buddhism/ Islam, etc, is false; they’re already convince of that), can appear like an unproductive effort for a philosopher who is looking to reform the values of his society—which in Nietzsche’s case happens to be largely Abrahamic (and more specifically Christian). Due to these reasons, Christianity receives the full brunt of Nietzsche anti-theistic polemics, because in his opinion it serves as the clearest embodiment of what he resents about religion as a whole:

From the start, the Christian faith is a sacrifice: a sacrifice of freedom, all pride, all self-confidence of the spirit; at the same time, enslavement and self-mockery, self-mutilation.[6]

To Nietzsche, Christianity symbolizes the decay of true moral values away from a positive affirmation of life through one’s personal innovation and will to power, and the embrace of a pitying death-cult that seeks to devalue the individual to a perpetual state of self-deprecation at the whims of a concocted, eternal higher power. The philosopher refers to this as the slave revolt of morality, because it illustrates the practitioner’s unrelenting wish to take on the lowly attributes of the common slave and demand that his weaknesses be seen as graceful virtues. And the dominance of this mentality in the consciousness of man Nietzsche traces to the rise of the Christian faith. Nietzsche emphasizes his point by adding, “Never yet and nowhere has there been an equal boldness in inversion, anything as horrible, questioning, and questionable as this formula: it promises a revaluation of all the values of antiquity.”[7]

He characterizes the rise of Christianity, and its slave morality, as a revolt against the earthly power which held dominance over it in its infancy, “it is the Oriental slave who revolted himself in the way on Rome and its noble and frivolous tolerance.”[8] One might want to challenge Nietzsche on his reference to Rome as a “tolerant” power, as much of its early dealings with Christianity (and many other groups) conveys the Empire’s high level of intolerance towards its subjects. But, I suspect, Nietzsche would counter this challenge by affirming that Rome’s often claimed harsh treatment of Christians stemmed from the faith’s inability to view itself as anything other than the meek, the victimized. Nietzsche maintains that to the Christian it is not the suppression of religious expression that infuriates its pious congregates, but the free expression of it, because such a state robs it of its ability to take on the perpetual role of the victim:

It has always been not faith but the freedom from faith, that half-stoical and smiling unconcern with the seriousness of faith, that enraged slaves in their master—against their masters. “Enlightenment” enrages: for the slave wants the unconditional; he understands only what is tyrannical, in morals, too; he loves as he hates, without nuance, to the depths, to the point of pain, of sickness—his abundant concealed suffering is enrages against the noble taste that seems to deny suffering (Beyond Good and Evil, “What is Religious,” section 46).

Although there may be something to be said about the seemingly inherent nature of Christianity to everlastingly cast itself in the role of the downtrodden outcast in an antagonistic world (after all, it cannot be forgotten that this is the same religion that at its most prominent and most powerful in the middle ages, still managed to continuously conjure up a never ending list of enemies in need of combating for the feeble and defenseless mother church), it is also undeniable that Nietzsche is heavily romanticizing ancient Roman values, simply to create a negative contrast against what he sees as the less virtuous Christian morals.

Ancient Rome, though capable of great pluralism in its multicultural Empire, was also capable of much cruelty against its subjects and anyone who dared show a semblance of discontent with its customs and practices. This is far from what we might call an enlightened society (though it is entirely possible that Nietzsche would agree that it may be far from what “we” call enlightened, but that this sentiment of ours merely stems from our passive acceptance of the slave morality, which seeks to undermine the virtue of strength in favor of submission, under the guise of egalitarianism).

Nietzsche’s primary contention with religion is that in contemporary society true religiosity is unfeasible, even among those who refer to themselves as religious.

It is unmistakable that people no longer refer to the divine to guide their lives’ affairs; not in any literal sense anyway. Pious devotion once implied a certain degree of sacrifice on the part of the practitioner, but this devotion today has been reinterpreted by adherents to conveniently avoid them any bodily discomfort. Take for instance the following Bible passage:

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off, and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.[11]

Very few people—and no sane person—living today would even bother trying to adhere to the mandate prescribed above, because it demands of the person to willingly partake in an act of self-mutilation—self-amputation—for purposes that have no spiritual bearing on his existence. Modern man cannot accept the value of this archaic decree, thus he must find ways to rationalize its seemingly clear implications away, without having to abandon the theological foundation on which the directive stands. Thereby, the whole matter becomes an elaborate metaphor to the believer. Why?—Because to be told to accept it as anything more would prevent her/him from being able to remain thoroughly satisfied in her/his superficial piety towards the divine. It is an example of preserving the emotional sentiment of one’s religious traditions, without having to commit to any of the clearly stated demands that modernity has rendered irrational. As Nietzsche characterized it:

This is what I found to be causes for the decline of European theism, on the basis of a great many conversations, asking and listening. It seems to me that the religious instinct is indeed in the process of growing powerfully—but the theistic satisfaction it refuses with deep suspicion.[12]

The contemporary shift to the vagueness of religious expression, the spiritual but not religious outlook, is to Nietzsche an indication of an intellectual retreat. Full confidence in the will of God is no longer an assailable aspiration, as indicated by the tendency to turn every uncomfortable divine command into some kind of broad metaphor or another.

People have reached a point at which the self, the I, occupies the role of the commander, the decider, the judge of values, a move that Nietzsche characterizes as antithetical to the Christian faith, because if man recognizes his role as the interpreter (not to mention the creator) of moral values, no need remains for divine guidance from above.

Nietzsche credits the advent of philosophy as a catalyst to the thinking person’s move away from the theistic mindset, even if the full implications of his actions are not readily apparent to the philosopher:

Modern philosophy, being an epistemological skepticism, is, covertly or overtly, anti-Christian—although, to say this for the benefit of more refined ears, by no means anti-religious.[13]

The early philosopher sought to use his reasoning to get closer to his deity, but Nietzsche argues that this very desire to probe deeper within ones theology for more substance on the religious question, betrays an overt dissatisfaction with the theistic explanation that was on offer. In other words, this sincerely pro-religious curiosity to ground one’s spiritual beliefs in something substantive resulted in the death of sincere religious belief, as man gradually began to discover that there wasn’t much substance for the divine to rest on. Nietzsche goes on to postulate that devout belief in God, and all things godly, will continue to decline, causing mankind to leave matters of the pious behind as a relic of our species’ infancy, though the basic longing for external values may remain:

Perhaps the day will come when the most solemn concepts which have caused the most fights and suffering,, the concept “God” and “sin,” will seem no more important to us than a child’s toy and a child’s pain seem to an old man—and perhaps “the old man” will then be in need of another toy and another pain—still child enough, and eternal child![14]

Nietzsche recognizes how nowadays religious expression has evolved to more of a cultural identification as much as a point of genuine belief. To these individuals, religion holds no real relevance in their lives, partly because they understand that religion holds no real relevance in assessing reality. What results, however, is not so much a disdain for religious matters, but a personal indifference towards its presence:

They are not enemies of religious customs; when participation in such customs is required in certain cases, by the state, for example, they do what is required, as one does so many things—with a patient and modest seriousness and without much curiosity and discomfort: they simply live too much apart and outside to feel any need for any pro and con in such matters.[15]

In other words, religion becomes a non-issue to the individual. At most s/he feels a sense of obligation to partake in the customs and celebrations of the once-devout society, but now it has been diluted to the point that one cannot even be bothered to evaluate any deep meaning behind the rituals (either favorably or unfavorably)—the whole debate is essentially meaningless to the average observer.

Nietzsche has little patience for the apathetic nonbeliever; or the sophisticated philosopher who knows better but chooses to indulge the masses with the musings about the seriousness of supernatural claims, because it allows him to “treat the religious man as an inferior and lower type that he has outgrown, leaving it behind, beneath him.”[16] (This makes the religious philosopher the most condescending of all nonbelievers.) Nietzsche has no interest to differentiate between the various expressions of religious faith; it is the religious mindset as a whole, in all its forms, that he opposes so vehemently:

It is the profoundly, suspicious fear of an incurable pessimism that forces whole millennia to bury their teeth in and cling to a religious interpretation of existence: the fear of that instinct which senses that one might get hold of the truth too soon, before man has become strong enough, artist enough.[17]

The idea here is that there exist those who know better than to cling to the promises of religion, but refuse to divorce the supernatural framework as an invalid interpretation of reality. They are like artists who use their talents to falsify reality to the observers by making the images they create more enjoyable to the naïve eye. Deep down, these individuals have long ago reached the conclusion that the version of reality they are promoting is flawed and baseless, but they continue to cheer on the masses they view to be too puerile in their reasoning to accept the truth about the nonexistence of gods, and the falsehood of religion:

Piety, the “life of God,” seen in this way, would appear as the subtlest and final offspring of the fear of truth, as an artist’s worship and intoxication before the most consistent of all falsifications, as the will to the inversion of truth, to untruth at any price. It may be that until now there has been no more potent means for beautifying man himself than piety: it can turn man into so much art, surface, play of colors, graciousness that his sight no longer makes one suffer.[18]

Nietzsche’s position is that man is no longer invested in the factual validity of religious claims, but only in the emotional satisfaction gained from them. It’s not about developing an accurate assessment of reality; it is about making life easier to cope with for the individual who thinks his existence (and his mistakes and failures) unbearable if it is not all ordained by some divine cosmic plan or another.

The specific decrees set out by religious scripture and traditions are meaningless to the religious person, since s/he will never tire of performing the mental gymnastics necessary to reevaluate and “metaphor-ize” any and every passage that s/he—as a rational, modern specimen of the human species—feels personally uncomfortable with.

The dietary restrictions, the sexual and anti-sexual demands, the call to bodily harm and sacrifice, have all become negligible trivialities to the religious person of today. What it really boils down to is the personal satisfaction gained from one’s religious experience—making it solely an internal pursuit, pretending to be externally based.

Nietzsche sees this fully reflected in the ease by which political players utilize the sensibility of religion to cement their self-serving authority over a pious populace, readily willing to ignore the hypocrisy of their leaders, and submit obediently to what is seen “as a bond that unites rulers and subjects and betrays and delivers the consciousness of the latter, that which is most concealed and intimate and would like to elude obedience, to the former.”[19]

The submission to a king-like figure comes easy to those who recognize an eternal higher power that will govern over them for all of existence, causing Nietzsche to speculate how consenting to earthly rulers claiming to be representatives of heaven gives people “the instruction and opportunity to prepare themselves for future ruling and obeying,”[20] in their coming kingdom of God.

Although Nietzsche appears to be suggesting how it would be best for people to abandon and move away from the religious instinct, he also grants the reality that for most people this is an impossible request:

To ordinary human beings finally—the vast majority who exist for service and the general advantage, and who may exist only for that—religion gives an inestimable contentment with their situation and type, manifold peace of the heart, an ennobling of obedience, one further happiness and sorrow with their peers and something transfiguring and beautifying, something of a justification for the whole everyday character, the whole lowliness, the whole half-brutish poverty of their souls.[21]

The concoction of a higher power that stands above all of humanity, is for Nietzsche a means by which those who lack the innovation, creativity, and confidence to elevate themselves as individuals, compensate for their inability to stand on their own and affirm their allegiance to this one and only life. It is an escape from their own ineptitude as individuals, a psychological prop that allows them to lower everything down to their level of destitute:

Perhaps nothing in Christianity and Buddhism is as venerable as their art of teaching even the lowliest how to place themselves through piety in an illusory higher order of things and thus to maintain their contentment with the real order, in which their life is hard enough—and precisely this hardness is necessary.[22]

The act of turning the downtrodden and meek into the noble and ideal is the means through which this mindset gained dominance in the contemporary conscience of man, because it finally gave a means by which the plebeian masses (who make up the majority of the human species) could shame their stronger counterparts into lowering their own standards in the name of empathy for those who not only embody suffering, but seek to preserve it as the highest of virtues:

They agree with those who suffer life like a sickness and would like to make sure that every other feeling about life should be considered false and should become impossible.[23]

As Nietzsche sees it, those who postulate and desire to gain access into paradise after death, are by definition proclaiming their despondency with this life. Thus, the religious tendency to extend hope to those who are suffering in life is also paradoxical a move that perpetuates it by not seeking to eradicate any source of suffering, but instead preserving it as a symbol of heavenly grace; heralding sufferers not as individuals being afflicted with a malady, but as blessed by the Almighty, who will reward their suffering in an unimaginable, yet-to-come, reality.

For Nietzsche, this is a deplorable view of one’s own existence, as it not only asks the individual to deny the reality of his state, but become content with his displeasure and pain as a necessary fulfillment of a higher will, making him forevermore dependent on an external authority for the hope of solace and happiness. As the philosopher summarized it, “the sovereign religions we have had so far are among the chief causes that have kept the type “man” on a lower rung—they have preserved too much of what ought to perish.”[24] All in the name of a God, who (if you agree with Nietzsche) is nothing more than a self-delusional extension of the believers who have created him so they can sheepishly submit to Him.

Therefore, to Friedrich Nietzsche the answer to “what is religious?” is best characterizes as the ultimate denial of reality, the deprecating wish to be a slave, and the negation of life.

[1] Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil, “What is Religious,” (1886) section 47.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Nietzsche, “Letter to Freiherr Karl von Gersdorff,” Naumberg, April 7, 1866.

[5] References to Buddhist imagery are made throughout Human, All-Too-HumanThe Gay Science, and The Antichrist.

[6] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (1886), section 46.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, section 48.

[10] Ibid, section 50.

[11] Matthew, 5:29-30.

[12] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (1886), section 53.

[13] Ibid, section 54.

[14] Ibid, section 57.

[15] Ibid, section 58.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid, section 59.

[18] Ibid, section 59.

[19] Ibid, section 61.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid, section 62.

[24] Ibid.