Nietzsche, on the Genesis of Religion

See Will to Power Reasonings I, II, III, IV, and V

Higher than Thou shalt is the I will of heroes – WtP 940

One thing that Nietzsche was good at was insisting on making us confront (in ourselves and in others) the (sometimes VERY creative) lies that we tell ourselves when we feel powerless. These lies make their way into religion–although in WtP 279, he concedes that the tendency to passively accept herd values is explained by the fact that constantly evaluating and creating / naming values is admittedly a tiresome practice. Still, he invites us to critique morality and to have the will to not deceive ourselves, saying that this is a function of our instinct of self defense (WtP 399) and that we risk being exploited by others if we don’t philosophize the way he did.

Nietzsche always sought to find ulterior motives for human behavior, and not only in irrational behavior like what we see in religion. Morality, which he described as an instinct of breeding in order to tame the tyrannical individual, was also a minefield of ulterior motives. In both cases these tendencies were mainly of a vindictive nature.

Even gratitude is evaluated as a possible revenge by the weak, for praise implies the power to judge, to assess, to be able to dispense honors; gratitude restores one’s sense of lost power at the hands of another.

Religion originates, Nietzsche says, to a great extent in resentment and in vengeful fantasies and other anti-social instincts. Gods are imagined as being in charge of justice, conveniently, so that they may enact our vindictive fantasies or tribal hatreds. This explains why so many right-wing televangelists have expressed joy at awful natural events like the Haiti earthquake and Katrina in New Orleans, which they perceived as judgement against liberal cities or against people who do not share their beliefs. Hateful instincts are dignified as “divine justice”.

But wishing ill upon others in this manner is not merely a function of thinly veiled bigotry. Human psychology plays a huge part in the genesis of religion. The death denial principle research suggests that much of what mortals do, and much of the culture they create, is the result of fear of death and a desire for immortality and transcendence:

… social scientists have recently been studying something called the death denial principle: an underlying and mostly unrecognized tendency in humans characterized by attempts to hide or reimagine death. Studies demonstrate that, when faced with the reality of their own mortality, people tend to hang on to that which is familiar and to exhibit hostility towards the unfamiliar, and religious people in specific tend to express hostility towards atheists and people of religions that deny their fantasies about the afterlife (Christians, for instance, exhibited more anti-Jewish and anti-atheist behavior). When judges were reminded of their own mortality and were given cases to judge, they also judged more harshly whereas a group of judges that was not reminded of their own death gave considerably less severe sentences.

These studies suggest that people’s bias against atheists, who according to recent studies are the most distrusted and hated minority in America, invariably have to do with the people that have the bias and their unconscious unresolved issues, not with the atheists.

The almost entirely unconscious ulterior motive that Nietzsche believed existed in religion found some justification in a study in which Ricky Gervais participated, which seems to indicate that people living in unsafe societies tend to develop more infantile psychological traits–like belief in an imaginary authority figure–as a coping mechanism. A Scientific American piece about the study results titled In Atheists We Distrust explains how “subjects believe that people behave better when they think that God is watching over them”, and cites another study that links people’s decreased sense of security and safety with increased belief in God. The study also reveals that secular authority figures (like judges or cops) are interchangeable with God and can produce in people a similar sense of safety.

Notice that religion is often fear-based. Thus far, the origin of religion–and Christianity in particular, which Nietzsche calls “the great lie” in WtP 141 and 200–frequently traces back to irrational (or even natural and rational) fears that have not been analyzed, particularly fear of death and fear for our safety, for which Epicurean philosophy offers specific therapeutic treatments. Epicurus taught that confronting these fears is among the universal and inescapable existential tasks that all mortals must complete during their lifetime. Like Epicurus, Nietzsche also dedicates time to diagnosing the diseases of the soul and clearly identifying the causes of false values so that they can be eradicated at the root (WtP 262).

But there are more than psychological roots to religion. There are the material roots that Marx would have understood: in Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche clearly links the rise of both Christianity and socialism (also, see WtP 209) with class struggle, and with the struggle–by the weak against the powerful–to control the means of production and means to power, as well as the struggle to control, to propose, the meaning-endowing narratives that legitimize such power. In WtP 47, Nietzsche talks about how the weak interpret their weakness and moralize–and how this is the origin of the most prevalent form of religion. Used in this way, Nietzsche warns that religion can become a tool of the mobs and of the mediocre against the aristocracy. N puts into vulgar relief this mediocrity in his indictment of the Pauline theory of salvation by faith, and then again when he compares this theory versus Jesus’ theory of salvation by works, in WtP 191-2. By removing their guilt or anger at their own failure–and without really doing anything heroic or of excellence–the weak feel themselves somehow redeemed, and can also enact vengeance against those who previously kept them from power.

Although Christianity originated in what N called slave morality, Nietzsche says in WtP 216 that the “masters” became Christian out of opportunism, to encourage docility and usefulness in the herd. Nietzsche casts his eye upon Constantine and his unifying imperial project, and upon the Spanish, English and other crowns during the American expansion, with their own imperial projects. But today we also find Republicans–who embody the exact opposite of Christian values–encouraging the Christian superstition and in general a cult of ignorance among the mobs and gaining their favor in order to advance an authoritarian agenda. And so the irony of slave moralities lies in their usefulness for self-appointed aristocracies who seize the opportunities they afford.

Two Post-colonial Examples

The materialist theories for the genesis of religion, just like the psychological ones, link religiosity to issues of power and hegemony. The cargo cults of the Pacific Islands, and the Rastafarian faith that was born among the communities of formerly enslaved Blacks in Jamaica, provide us with curious examples that shed light on both interpretations of the origins of faith.

The first Rastas were Jamaican Blacks who, having been raised in Protestant belief, turned the entire mythology and narrative of the Bible on its head in the early 20th Century by appropriating it in favor of an Afro-centric theology of liberation, placing in the center of their sacred narrative the messianic figure of Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia. If this is not an instance of ideological vindictiveness of the mobs, I don’t know what is.

When American troops were stationed in the islands of Oceania during the II World War, they also triggered a new form of religion that has fascinated anthropologists. The cargo cults emerged as primitive man’s awe at the technology of another culture, according to a law of science fiction that says that to a primitive enough people, the technology of an advanced enough people is magic. But they also were inspired in, and reacted against, ideas that the missionaries had brought and which were systematically dismantling the age-old customs of the locals. The messianic figure of John Frum, who seems to have been originally an American soldier from the II World War, became a spiritual entity that called aboriginals to return to their authenticity and to their custom traditions, and to reject the unhealthy way of life brought by the missionaries. Perhaps the trauma of the ideological and cultural attack by the missionaries and colonial overlords, together with the incredible magic and power of the Americans, made the natives conjure up this new spiritual power, John Frum?

Islanders of the Pacific, like Rastas, fashioned their messiah after the God of the missionaries in more ways than one. They believe–like Christians do–that their messiah John Frum will one day return … with cargo, of course, to usher a new era of prosperity.

In WtP 199, N mentions the pious fraud or holy lie (pia fraus), with the exclamation: “Petty people’s morality as the measure of things! This is the most disgusting degeneration culture has yet exhibited!” (in WtP 938 he laments again “the poetry of the petty”) … yet elsewhere in WtP 49, N says that to let oneself be determined by one’s environment is decadent. What would Nietzsche make of the cargo cults and the Rastafarian faith? Clearly, there is an instinct of power mixed into the vengeful instinct of the weak in these two examples. A people who are either enslaved by another race, or who see their island invaded by missionaries who teach a pious fraud, have the options of:

  • converting fully to the new faith and adopting the full awareness of their inferiority vis a vis the foreign imposition, in which case it is complete and confirmed; or
  • rebelling and proposing a counter-narrative that reverts moral authority.

The Black Jamaicans could have worshiped a white god. Yet the choice instead of a black emperor-God would still be considered decadent by Nietzsche because projection of our best upon Godhead implies our self-perception as our worst (WtP 136). In other words, we are still lying to ourselves, which is what Nietzsche calls us to revolt against in all religion. Herein lies an important component of Nietzschean liberation atheology. Ultimately, because only in the intimacy of our inner life can we stop lying to ourselves, it’s as individuals that we must posit our own truly emancipated and meaning-endowing truths, and not as members of this or that collective.

The Pagan Alternative

Nietzsche criticizes ignorance and mediocrity and praises excellence and power. He seems to have wanted individuals to be informed about the ulterior motives behind faith so that they would name and analyze their own intrapsychic issues with diligence, rather than sublimate them with no awareness of the real issues, breeding hypocrisy and lying to themselves in the process.

In this sense, Nietzsche contrasts the religious “instinct of revenge” with the Pagan notion that all existence is innocent, that there is no one (and no need) to blame for who or what we are, and that instead we are to create, to propose, and to act on our identity diligently and actively. The search for guilty parties–together with the emotional blackmail and guilt trips of traditional religions–ends with Nietzsche.

This Pagan innocence reminds me of the pervasiveness of the defense of innocence in A Few Days in Athens, and also of a Neo-Pagan friend of mine who once said that the Christianity that he grew up with felt like a transplanted organ that his body had rejected.

We have looked at the genesis of religion, but what are its repercussions? The search for guilty parties (WtP 397, 250) led to the Christian conception of the “sinner”, and made mortals distrustful of all that is beautiful, healthy, strong, and happy, distorting their natural life-affirming values.

Nietzsche’s praise of Pagan innocence once again has the effect of putting Christianity in vulgar relief against healthier alternatives, as N claims that Christian teaching that man is born in sin and ergo is inherently evil, becomes a self fulfilling prophecy and convinces men to abandon the desire to excel or be heroic (WtP 334), and instead to accept mediocre moral standards. The vast amount of research on the clear and undeniable statistical correlation between religiosity and crime, lack of educational attainment, and other signs of societal dysfunction unfortunately attests in Nietzsche’s favor with a huge body of empirical evidence to support him.

Self-blame and made-up, ridiculous notions of original sin are not the only outlets for our search for guilty parties. In WtP 403, N also warns that we should not say that “nature is cruel”, noting that nature is impersonal and has no will or motive. A mature philosophy is one that encourages mortals to take ownership for their own creation.

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014) and 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and founder of He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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2 Responses to Nietzsche, on the Genesis of Religion

  1. Pingback: Essays About Nietzsche’s Will to Power | Society of Friends of Epicurus

  2. Pingback: Essays About Nietzsche’s Will to Power – Epicurean Database

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