Nietzsche’s Critique of Religion
By G. J. Mattey,
University of California: Davis
Lecture Notes, Philosophy 151
November 21, 1995
Modern Christian civilization, Nietzsche declared, is sick and must be overcome. Much of On the Genealogy of Morals is devoted to an etiology of the modern sickness, and the cause is said to be two-fold. There has always been the seething resentment of the “herd,” the base, the powerless mass. By itself this resentment is not sickness; it becomes so through the ministrations of the priests, who manage the resentment by turning it inward.
Civilization itself sets the stage for the disease. In civil society, individual humans are confined and their the exercise of their wills repressed. Like a wild beast in a cage, a civilized human hurls himself at the walls in a frenzy of self-destruction. Thus arises bad conscience in its natural form. In its religious form, bad conscience becomes much more: it becomes guilt.
Society as a whole finds itself indebted for what it has to its ancestors. As civilization becomes more powerful, the ancestors are made into powerful gods, to whom the debt is even greater. The Christian God is the most powerful of all, and the debt owed that God is the greatest. It is so great that it cannot be discharged by any action, any sacrifice. Redemption comes only through grace, which is granted only through God’s will, which might be turned by the intercession of the priest. Thus the human being is a sinner and the priest is his greatest hope.
The values of the priest are ascetic values. The priestly virtues of poverty, chastity, obedience are all forms of self-denial. Shortly we shall see how they are said by Nietzsche to give meaning to the life of the masses. But first we will turn our attention to the meaning of ascetic values for the philosopher.
It was Socrates who invented the type of the philosopher: “theoretical man,” one whose entire being is devoted to thought. The activity of the philosopher is the discharge of his power, and it is to be enhanced in any way possible. Asceticism, self-denial, is the effective means to philosophical thinking. All philosophers up to his time that Nietzsche marked as great — Heraclitus, Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, Schopenhauer — were unmarried. One could not even imagine them married. “A married philosopher belongs in comedy, that is my proposition — and as for that exception, Socrates — the malicious Socrates, it would seem, married ironically, just to demonstrate this proposition” (On the Genealogy of Morals, Third Essay, section 7). A philosopher gives up the possibility of fame, fortune, sensuality for the prize of enhancing the fundamental activity which makes him what he is.
The ascetic priest generalizes self-denial to a repudiation of the natural world as a whole. He begins with a general disgust with life, which holds nothing but pain and suffering. Moreover, this miserable condition is meaningless. One response to this situation (that of Buddhism and Schopenhauer) is to attempt to give up willing altogether. But the ascetic priest repudiates this way out, instead giving life a purpose.
Suffering has a meaning after all: it is the sufferer who brings it upon himself! The response is for the sufferer to turn against himself, to deny himself, to adopt ascetic ideals. “‘I suffer: someone must be to blame for it’ — thus thinks every sickly sheep. But his shepherd, the ascetic priest, tells him: ‘Quite so, my sheep! someone must be to blame for it: but you youself are this someone, you alone are to blame for it — you alone are to blame for yourself!'” (On the Genealogy of Morals, Third Essay, Section 15). In this way, resentment is turned inward and the herd is rendered harmless. Self-punishment for one’s own guilt is the most effective regulator at all, and at the same time, it gives a meaning to life.
Thus Nietzsche condemned Christianity as a movement led by sick men whose aim was to infect everyone else. It is a religion of resentment, at its very beginning blaming the Jews for the death of its founder. Its stance toward life, toward everything sensual, is one of hostility. It must tame every natural instinct, just as it tamed the barbarian tribes of the north (thus accomplishing what the Roman Empire could not). Hegel had stated that this taming process was necessary to bring forth the genius of the German people, but to Nietzsche all that resulted was the loss of all that was noble in them.
In this respect, Christianity is far different from the older religion of the East, Buddhism, which grew out of an already-mature culture. Far from needing to be tamed, the ancient Indians were overly civilized, with the result that they were hyper-sensitive to pain. They sought release from pain by slipping gently into nothingness, by giving up the will.
Nietzsche also distinguished Christianity from the teachings of Jesus Christ. The message of the Christ was one of glad tidings, that heaven is to be found in how one lives. It is not by following the law, not through redemption from sin, but only through a benevolent disposition, which might best be summarized in the commandment to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. “The ‘kingdom of Heaven’ is a condition of the heart — not sometihng that comes ‘upon the earth’ or ‘after death'” (The Anti-Christ, section 34).
Christian doctrine, however, is little concerned with the glad tidings, Nietzsche went on. After the death of Jesus, it turned in the opposite direction, to become a religion of hatred. This began by Jesus’s followers blaming the Jews for putting their leader to death. But it could not be the whole story, for God had to have permitted the event to occur. “And now an absurd problem came up: ‘How could God have permitted that?’ For this question the deranged reason of the little community found a downright terrifingly absurd anser: God gave his Son for the forgiveness of sins, as a sacrifice” (The Anti-Christ, section 41). Guilt, which played no part in the glad tidings of Jesus, took center stage once again. Nietzsche accused the disciples, Paul in particular, of having gone on to falsify the history of Christianity, for example by putting words of vengeance in the mouth of Jesus.
Christianity had its battles with secular civilizations of Greece and Rome, with the northern barbarians, and it emerged victorious. The last battle was fought by Luther against the re-emergence of noble values in the Renaissance. Thus Nietzsche was uncompromisingly anti-Christian, for Christianity was the most potent force against those values which he prized most highly. It is a life-and-death struggle that may someday be won, but in the present day is more difficult than ever. “I call Christianity the one great curse, the one great intrinsic depravity, the one great instinct for revenge for which no expedient is sufficiently poisonous, secret, subterranean, petty — I call it the one immortal blemish of mankind” (The Anti-Christ, section 62).