Nihilist Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s Theory of Religion

In many ways, Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1844-1900) life was a tragic one. He was born in the small town of Röcken bei Lützen, Germany, and at a young age experienced the death of his father, a Lutheran pastor. He would also lose his younger brother. Much of Nietzsche’s life was one of “depressed moods and half moods” (1), and he had little luck when it came to romance, even at one point having a marriage proposal spurned. 

Nietzsche was religious in his younger years. He wrote in his diary that “in everything God has safely guided me… I have firmly determined to serve him forever” (2) and that “In everything God has led me safely as a father leads his weak little child… like a child I trust in his grace” (3). Nietzsche chose to study theology and philology but then soon lost his faith. Likely the tragic, early death of his father and brother played a role in his questioning God and why God allowed suffering in the world.

Nietzsche’s philosophy was inspired by Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1960), a thinker well-known for his pessimism. Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music (1972) is a deeply pessimistic text in which he asserts that the “best of all of things…” is “not to be born, not to be, to be nothing” and that the second best thing “is to die soon” (4).

In the final years of his life, Nietzsche began displaying signs of serious mental illness. There is a story that while taking a walk in the city of Turin, Nietzsche came across a man whipping his horse, a sight that profoundly disturbed him. Nietzsche ran to the horse, threw his arms around its neck to protect it from the whip, and wept uncontrollably before falling to the ground. He spent the following days in a catatonic state.

While hospitalized in the final years of his life, Nietzsche produced a series of texts called the “Madness Letters” or the “Letters of Insanity”. They were puzzling and startling writings addressed to his friends in which Nietzsche claimed to be Jesus, Buddha, and Alexander the Great, among other characters. He signed them with the titles “Dionysus” or “The Crucified”. Nietzsche spent much of his later life in an asylum and had a succession of strokes that partially incapacitated him and brought his life to an end at the age of 55.

Nietzsche on Religion

Nietzsche’s philosophical outlook was profound and his style of writing distinctive. He refused to hold back and often attacked ideas considered important or sacred to most people. The Greek philosopher Socrates, God, morality, and much else did not escape his attention. Nietzsche offered many scathing critiques of religion and Christianity especially.

Nietzsche’s protracted attack on religion was shaped by his era and its commitment to progress through reason and science, as well as the questioning of religious beliefs and institutional authorities. He makes mention of the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), known for his heliocentric (“Sun-centered) model positing the sun, rather than the Earth, to be at the center of the solar system. Copernicus’s theory had a profound impact on Nietzsche because “Since Copernicus man seems to have been on a downward path” (5). Man “seems to be rolling faster and faster away from the centre… into nothingness, into the piercing sensation of his nothingness?” Nietzsche perceives a “decay of the belief in the Christian God” and “the victory of scientific atheism” (6).

Some thinkers promoted critical ideas about religion during Nietzsche’s time. To come to mind are the likes of Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) and Arthur Schopenhauer. Both were critics of religion. Schopenhauer was in Nietzsche’s view the “first avowed and inflexible atheist” and it was not much later that Nietzsche famously declared the “death of God”. Nietzsche’s critical ideas of religion are discussed in several of his works, notably Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883) and The Antichrist (1895).

“God is Dead”

Nietzsche boldly, although somewhat despondently, declared the “death of God” in his The Gay Science (1882). This is for many an odd statement. Many religious people believe God is immortal. God cannot die and it makes no sense to say he can. But this was an intentional strategy of Nietzsche’s. He was deliberately playing on the idea that God could not die (7). Nietzsche did not believe that God was literally alive at one point and not at another. Rather, God’s “death” was his way of saying that belief in God could no longer be considered reasonable in the modern age. As he states, “the Christian God has become unworthy of belief” (8).

Nietzsche articulates the notion of the death of God through the mouth of “The madman” in The Gay Science. In this parable, there is a madman who runs to a marketplace “calling out unceasingly: “I seek God! I seek God!” This is amusing to those present because they do not believe in God. They sarcastically and mockingly respond: “Why! is he lost? said one. Has he strayed away like a child? said another. Or does he keep himself hidden? Is he afraid of us? Has he taken a sea-voyage? Has he emigrated?—the people cried out laughingly” (9).

The madman then “jumped into their midst and transfixed them with his glances. “Where is God gone?” he called out. “I mean to tell you! We have killed him,—you and I! We are all his murderers””. The madman has recognized the significance of murdering God: “Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker?… Gods putrefy! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him!”

The madman becomes silent and stares at his listeners who are also silent and staring back at him in surprise. They are not ready to hear and understand what he is saying so the madman threw his lantern to the floor and declared “I come too early…”

The madman wanted his listeners to comprehend the severity of killing God. They had not yet realized the nihilism demanded by a thorough atheistic philosophy. But, as he discovered, his message fell upon deaf ears. He was alone in his knowledge that killing God now requires humanity to face the emptiness and indifference of the universe, the “infinite nothing” and “empty space”. Nietzsche notices that even though God is dead, belief in him will continue: “God is dead: but as the human race is constituted, there will perhaps be caves for millenniums yet, in which people will show his shadow” This shadow, Nietzsche maintains, must be “overcome” (10).

Nietzsche’s was not a joyful atheism. He recognizes the inherent meaningless of life. It is nihilistic because God’s death has rendered life pointless and without ultimate value and purpose. No longer can humanity hold to its former cherished beliefs when God was the foundation of values.

Superman to the Rescue 

The story does not reach its end here. Nietzsche introduced his concept of the superman, or the Übermensch, which takes up significant space in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (11).

At the heart of the Übermensch is the “will to power”, an idea of Nietzsche’s influenced by Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation (1819). There Schopenhauer referred to an irrational, blind, and ceaseless force underlying human desires called “Will”. Will is a major cause of suffering and leads to our disappointment and frustration in life, and that can only be softened, Schopenhauer thought, through art.

Nietzsche thought that everyone has a will to power, namely an irrational, creative force and drive that expresses itself in different ways. But rather than Schopenhauer’s pessimistic view of Will, Nietzsche’s will to power is life-affirming. Those who exercise the will to power successfully are masters and strong individuals who are creative, free, and healthy. They are also superior to most other human beings. Nietzsche considered the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) an excellent example of the master.

The Übermensch is not only the next step in humanity’s development but rescues it from the pointlessness of existence. It is the recognition that humanity is responsible for murdering God and that, consequently, there has emerged a crisis of values. After all, without Christian morality and values, what value system is humanity to affirm? Humanity must overcome itself. It must overcome weakness and all that which hinders one from being who he wants to be.

Fortuitously, the death of God presents humanity with new opportunities, such as to become creative and produce new values. Human life is therefore like a work of art. The individual can be creative in developing his own style of living (12). It is being life-affirming, which entails accepting both the pleasure and suffering life has to offer. The Übermensch goes beyond and above other human beings. It is something to look forward to, as Zarathrusta teaches: “Well! Take heart! ye higher men! Now only travaileth the mountain of the human future. God hath died: now do WE desire — the Superman to live” (13).

Nietzsche on Christianity 

In The Antichrist, Nietzsche centers his attack on Christianity specifically. Nietzsche throws punches right out of the gate. He exhibits irritation that there is still in the modern period belief in Jesus who he calls “the crude fable of the wonder-worker and Saviour [who] constituted the beginnings of Christianity” (14). 

There is no historical truth in the gospels and the resurrection story is nothing more than a “lie of the “risen” Jesus” (15). Nietzsche claims the Apostle Paul, the one who “represents the genius for hatred, the vision of hatred, the relentless logic of hatred”, is the mastermind behind Jesus’ fictional resurrection. Nietzsche was impressed by Jesus to a degree, but certainly not by his supposed resurrection. It is Paul who “converts an hallucination into a proof of the resurrection of the Saviour” and then spread this teaching among “the idiots”. The resurrection, the very central pillar of the Christian faith, is no more than Paul’s greedy desire for power.

Nietzsche’s condemnation of Christianity is broad. Nothing in it has value. All its concepts are absurd. It is nothing more than the “imaginary causes” of “God”, “soul”, “ego”, “spirit,” “free will” and the purely “imaginary effects” of “sin”, “salvation”, “grace”, “punishment”, “forgiveness of sins” (16). Christianity does not “come into contact with reality at any point” and Christ’s Second Coming is merely a myth (17).

Christianity opposes life. Nietzsche decries the feeling of pity that “stands in opposition to all the tonic passions that augment the energy of the feeling of aliveness” (18). It is a “depressant” because a “man loses power when he pities”. It encourages humanity to value weakness

Christianity also devalues life in the present because it promises an afterlife. Paul is condemned again and this time for the “shameless doctrine of personal immortality” (19). This doctrine focuses attention on the heavenly realm which, like God, is merely fiction. Christianity thus produces the believer who Nietzsche refers to as “the domestic animal, the herd animal, the sick brute-man” (20). This leads to a thorough condemnation: “I condemn Christianity; I bring against the Christian church the most terrible of all the accusations that an accuser has ever had in his mouth” (21). Christianity contains a “hatred of the intellect, of pride, of courage of freedom… [it] is all hatred of the senses, of joy in the senses, of joy in general” (22).

Christianity is the most substantial “of all imaginable corruptions; it seeks to work the ultimate corruption, the worst possible corruption.” Nietzsche does not forget to mention the Church either which, he charges, has “left nothing untouched by its depravity; it has turned every value into worthlessness, and every truth into a lie, and every integrity into baseness of soul” (23). For example, sin, or the “worm of sin” as Nietzsche states it, has made people feel ashamed of their instincts and sexuality. 

For these reasons, Christianity must be opposed. It is life-denying and what humanity needs is the Übermensch who is life-affirming and self-mastering. Humanity must look not to religion but to the emergence of the Übermensch who exercises true freedom and creativity. 

Nietzsche does not despise all religions. He has a higher view of Buddhism that he deems “a hundred times as realistic as Christianity—it is part of its living heritage that it is able to face problems objectively and coolly” (24). Buddhism “promises nothing, but actually fulfills; Christianity promises everything, but fulfills nothing” (25). Buddhism has no concept of God and it is the product of “long centuries of philosophical speculation” (26). It is a realistic religion because it acknowledges the “struggle with suffering” and has no concept of “sin”. Unlike Christianity, Nietzsche alleges, Buddhism has no “hatred of unbelievers; the will to persecute” (27).

Nietzsche values the life of the Buddha, especially because “Prayer is not included, and neither is asceticism.” Nietzsche objected to asceticism because its practices (poverty, humility, chastity) are used to control the instinctual aspects of human nature (28). Asceticism demands withdrawal from the world and cannot therefore be life-affirming. 

Also more admirable to Nietzsche than the Christian God are the gods of the ancient Greeks. Of course, Nietzsche thinks, those gods also do not exist but yet are still superior because they exemplify the strength of the Greeks (29). By contrast, the Christian God is fashioned on the needs of the weak.

Further Reflections

A major point in which Nietzsche differs from many contemporary atheists pertains to his nihilism. Nietzsche pushed nihilism to its perceived logical ends by conceding there to be no objective purpose, meaning, morals, and values in life. He also denied that there is objective truth. But many contemporary atheists do not accept these views or implications of an atheistic worldview. Although they agree there is no God, some still maintain that objective truth, morals, and values are possible and can be justified on a naturalistic worldview (30).

Nietzsche, moreover, shares with modern atheists the realization of having to create values, which is what places him firmly in the existentialist philosophical tradition also inhabited by thinkers like Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), Albert Camus (1913-1930), and others. There is no transcendent God to invest humanity with any ultimate value so humanity needs to figure out how to create values for itself. Nietzsche maintains that individuals must be life-affirming which, one imagines, is how many atheists view the matter likely according to their subjective preferences of what it means to be life-affirming.

Nietzsche boldly declared the death of God. But the God question is far from settled as indicated in contemporary academic, philosophical debates on whether or not God exists (31). Further, Nietzsche’s statement that religion does not come into contact with reality will surely be disputed by apologists. For the apologist to accept that his religion is not grounded in reality is to consider it fictional, a point he does not wish to concede to his atheist opponent. 

Philosophically, it can be argued that Nietzsche does not always seem logically consistent. He affirms perspectivism and argues that truths are illusions. To Nietzsche, when it comes to truth there are many interpretations, namely perspectives or judgments one makes based on background assumptions, conceptual schemes, and so on. Nietzsche expresses this notion stating “there are many kinds of ‘truths,’ and consequently there is no truth” (32). But this appears self-refuting. Nietzsche claims there is no objective truth. But is this not itself a claim to objective truth? If it is, then truth exists and Nietzsche has undermined his initial proposition. Moreover, if there are only interpretations of truth, one of which is being offered by Nietzsche, then why take his one any more seriously than any other interpretation? To escape this, Nietzsche would have to argue that his view (“interpretation”) is superior to others because it represents the truth, or is closer to the truth. But as we noted, Nietzsche rejects truth, so he cannot claim his interpretation to be any more true than any other. He has dug himself a philosophical hole out of which he cannot climb.

Nietzsche does not offer much value to the academic study of religion and his value-laden approach would be considered problematic. Scholars aim to not let their personal biases infiltrate their work and theories. Of course, it is never possible to be wholly objective and bias-free, but as a scientific discipline, religious studies has methods and protocols scholars are to follow when conducting their work that strives for objectivity.

Nietzsche’s ideas regarding religion are nonetheless still important. His thought contributed to establishing an atheistic outlook in Western society that would influence other thinkers who also provided theories of religion, such as the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and existentialist Martin Heidegger (1889-1976).

References

1. Nietzsche, Friedrich W. 1996. Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing. p. 79.

2. Cybulska, Eva. 2016. “Nietzsche Contra God: A battle within.” Indo-Pacific Journal of Phenomenology 16(1&2):1-12. p. 2.

3. Cybulska, Eva. 2016. Ibid. p. 3. 

4. Nietzsche, Friedrich W. 2020. The Birth of Tragedy. GIANLUCA. p. 49 (ebook). 

5. Nietzsche, Friedrich W. 2012. “Third essay: what do ascetic ideals mean?” In On the Genealogy of Morality, edited by Keith Ansell-Pearson, 68-120. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 115.

6. Nietzsche, Friedrich W. 2012. The Gay Science. New York: Dover Publications. p. 488 (ebook). 

7. Warburton, Nigel. 2011. A Little History of Philosophy. Connecticut: Yale University Press. p. 171

8. Nietzsche, Friedrich W. 2012. Ibid. p. 455.

9. Nietzsche, Friedrich W. 2012. Ibid. p. 213.

10. Nietzsche, Friedrich W. 2012. Ibid. p. 189.

11. Nietzsche, Friedrich W. 2016. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Jester House Publishing. p. 13-15, 31-35, 58, 61, 80, 88, 94, 100, 106, etc. (ebook). 

12. Warburton, Nigel. 2011. Ibid. p. 173. 

13. Nietzsche, Friedrich W. 2016. Ibid. p 369.

14. Nietzsche, Friedrich W. 2010. The Antichrist. Digireads.com Publishing. p. 52.

15. Nietzsche, Friedrich W. 2010. Ibid. p. 60.

16. Nietzsche, Friedrich W. 2010. Ibid. p. 23-24.

17. Welson, Rex. 2014. The Philosophy of Nietzsche. Oxfordshire: Routledge. p. 37.

18. Nietzsche, Friedrich W. 2010. Ibid. p. 14-15.

19. Nietzsche, Friedrich W. 2010. Ibid. p. 59.

20. Nietzsche, Friedrich W. 2010. Ibid. p. 13.

21. Nietzsche, Friedrich W. 2010. Ibid. p. 99.

22. Nietzsche, Friedrich W. 2010. Ibid. p. 31

23. Nietzsche, Friedrich W. 2010. Ibid. p. 99.

24. Nietzsche, Friedrich W. 2010. Ibid. p. 28. 

25. Nietzsche, Friedrich W. 2010. Ibid. p. 59

26. Nietzsche, Friedrich W. 2010. Ibid. p. 27-28

27. Nietzsche, Friedrich W. 2010. Ibid. p. 31.

28. Moore, Charlotte. 2014. “Nietzsche, Friedrich: Religion and Religion.” Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion (PDF).

29. Welson, Rex. 2014. Ibid. p. 39.

30. See, for example, Martin, Michael, 2002. Atheism, Morality, and Meaning. New York: Prometheus Books; Harris, Sam. 2011. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Free Press; Aikin, Scott F., and Talisse, Robert B. 2011. Reasonable Atheism: A Moral Case for Respectful Disbelief. New York: Prometheus Books

31. Craig, William L., and Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter. 2003. God?: A Debate between a Christian and an Atheist. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Wallace, Stan. 2003. Does God Exist?: The Craig-Flew Debate. Oxfordshire: Routledge; Moreland, J. P., and Nielsen, Kai. 2009. Does God Exist?: The Debate Between Theists & Atheists. New York: Prometheus Books; Loftus, John. 2013. God or Godless?: One Atheist. One Christian. Twenty Controversial Questions. Ada: Baker Books; Shook, John R. 2011. The God Debates: A 21st Century Guide for Atheists and Believers (and Everyone in Between). John Wiley & Sons. 

32. Poellner, Peter. 200. Nietzsche and Metaphysics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 103. 

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