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Nietzsche: Morality and Religion

Morality and the revaluation of values are at the core of Nietzsches philosophical
project, but what role does religion play? The present essay will attempt to develop
and express the relation between morality and religion, taking into consideration two
main works: Beyond Good and Evil (BGE) and On the Genealogy of Morality (GM).
From these two texts and with the support of other scholarly works, the way in which
religion appears as a cluster of particular value judgements under the umbrella of
morality can be perceived. Nietzsche puts one and the other under the spotlight.
Experience and self-knowledge are the first ground in Nietzsches preface to GM. The
image of an absent-minded man interrupted of his thoughts by a clock striking midday
and his subsequent confusion as to when and where he is, illuminates the way in
which people poorly relate to those two words. Moreover, and although at first sight it
might seem unconnected, the polemic which gives the subtitle to his book is about
the descent of our moral prejudices.1
In 1887 and at this point, Nietzsche is confident that his thoughts on the subject have
undergone a process of maturation since his early writings. A certain scepticism
towards morality eventually led him to question the origins of good and evil, and this
stemmed, as he puts it, from a single root, from a fundamental will to knowledge
deep inside me which took control, speaking more and more clearly and making
clearer demands.2
The question he faces, apart from the origin of morality, is the one of the value of
morality, dealing especially with the value of the unegoistic, the instincts of
compassion, self-denial, self-sacrifice.3 The attempt of answering this makes him
able to understand the sickness of mankind. The task he sets himself, therefore, has
its roots in the conviction that we need a critique of moral values, the value of these
values should itself, for once be examined. 4 Religion, as it will be seen, is part of this
revaluation.
1

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, On the genealogy of morality, ed. by Keith Ansell-Pearson,

Cambridge texts in the history of political thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
2007), p. 4.
2

Ibid.

Ibid, p. 7.

Ibid.
1

Nietzsche posits that people have taken for granted the value of the values, without
questioning, having greater consideration to what he calls the good man instead of
the evil. To most people this idea could sound counterintuitive, but what if the
opposite were true? [] What if a regressive trait lurked in the good man, likewise a
danger, an enticement, a poison, a narcotic, so that the present lived at the expense
of the future? [] So that morality itself was the danger of dangers?5
Special attention is needed at the time of defining morality or when trying to know
what Nietzsche was trying to address when he wrote about morality. According to
Brian Leiter, this is especially important, although not always clear. For this reason, he
introduces morality in the pejorative sense (MPS) as a technical term to mark
morality as the object of his [Nietzsches] critique. 6 Once this is established, he
continues by saying that Nietzsche makes plain his real objection to MPS: simply put,
MPS thwarts the development of human excellence, that is, the highest power and
splendor possible to the type man. This is the very heart of Nietzsches challenge
to morality.7
In a disturbing way, the effect of this MPS could be illustrated by the character Josef
K. in Kafkas novel The Trial. Here, the literary proficiency of the author makes the
reader experience what it is like to be worn out by the process. Moving towards the
end of the unfinished book it is impossible to escape the shared feeling of being
emotionally downtrodden.8 The burden of the normative system in which Josef K. is
entangled leads to a constant downhill sensation which prevents him from living.
With religion, it seems as if Nietzsche had aimed for a particular case of morality,
having its biggest exponent in Christian morality, but including, on the whole,
whichever one is pernicious for a higher type of individuals and for cultural greatness.
He attempts to describe what he calls The religious character in Part 3 of BGE. For
him, from the beginning, Christian faith has been sacrifice: sacrifice of all freedom, of

Ibid, p. 8.

Brian Leiter, Nietzsche and the Morality Critics, in Nietzsche, ed. by John Richardson and

Brian Leiter (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 221-254, p. 232.
7

Ibid, p. 234.

Franz Kafka, The essential Kafka: The castle, Metamorphosis and other stories, The trial,

(Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 2014).


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all pride, of all self-confidence of the spirit; it is simultaneously enslavement and selfderision, self-mutilation.9
Moreover, the consequences of religion are expressed as follows: religion gives them
[common people] an invaluable sense of contentment with their situation and type; it
puts their hearts greatly at ease, it glorifies their obedience, [] Religion, and the
meaning religion gives to life, spreads sunshine over such eternally tormented people
and makes them bearable even to themselves.10
One can find examples of this still present in contemporary expressions of culture
such as playwriting. David Lindsay-Abaires Rabbit Hole pictures his main character
Becca, a few months after the death of her child, unable and unwilling to find comfort
in group sessions where God-freaks make their way out of their grief through
expressions like Gods plan, At least hes in a better place or God wanting another
angel. Becca is confronted with the following line by her mother: Faith helps people
cope. Whats wrong with that?11
Although this issue will not be treated at length here, if the objection to the illusory
consolation that religion provides is valid, then Nietzsche faces the same problem
regarding philosophy which would also become part of that decadence.
In order to trace back these statements, it is necessary to go to GM. The First Essay
develops how Nietzsche finds unsatisfactory the psychological, English way of
dealing with the subject. He holds a philological and sociological approach to the
origin of morality, where good and bad emanate from the the noble, the mighty,
the high-placed and the high-minded, who saw and judged themselves and their
actions as good, [] in contrast to everything lowly, low-minded, common and
plebeian.12

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Beyond good and evil: prelude to a philosophy of the future, ed.

By Rolf-Peter Horstmann and Judith Norman, Cambridge texts in the history of philosophy
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 44.
10

Ibid, p. 55.

11

See David Lindsay-Abaire, Rabbit hole (London: Nick Hern Books, 2016).

12

Nietzsche, On the genealogy of morality, p. 11.


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One step further comes with his description of the priestly caste and how it introduces
a new and dangerous method of valuation which includes the word evil. 13 The Jews
considered priestly nation are then held responsible for this revaluation as revenge
against those who hold the power and are of a higher social class. The slaves revolt
in morality begins with the Jews: a revolt which has two thousand years of history
behind it.14
In the words of the scholar Philippa Foot, When the weak call the strong evil the
move is not merely defensive; it is also an expression of that peculiar malice which
Nietzsche referred to as ressentiment. Those who cultivate humility and the other
propitiatory virtues to cloak their weakness nourish an envious resentment against
those stronger than themselves.15 As bad and evil are in this light two different
terms, in the same way, there are two different origins for good. Two moralities: one
coming from the other.
Starting from this distinction, it can be said that Nietzsche portrays two types of
individuals. On the one hand, a stronger higher type of individual, bold,
independent, and ready to say yes to life. Such a man would not be much
concerned about suffering, whether his own or that of others. 16 On the other hand
stands the weak, decadent type accommodating, gregarious individual who was
mediocre, and dull. [] He tries to build himself a safe life which shall not require too
much exertion.17
The struggle of the higher type, strong man has to do with its nature being
oppressed: It is just as absurd to ask strength not to express itself as strength, not to
be a desire to overthrow, crush, become master, to be a thirst for enemies, resistance
and triumphs, as it is to ask weakness to express itself as strength. 18 In words of the
scholar, It is, then, for the sake of the higher man that the values of Christian

13

Nietzsche, On the genealogy of morality, p. 16.

14

Nietzsche, On the genealogy of morality, p. 17.

15

Philippa Foot, Nietzsche: The Revaluation of Values, in Nietzsche, ed. by John Richardson

and Brian Leiter (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 210-220, p. 211.
16

Ibid, p. 213.

17

Ibid.

18

Nietzsche, On the genealogy of morality, p. 26.


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morality must be abandoned, and it is from this perspective that the revaluation of
values takes place.19
However, Philippa Foots development encounters two possible problems. The first
one concerns the value given to one type of man in comparison to the other. To the
question of what is what makes them valuable, the answer is given in terms of
aesthetic value. The second one is the inclination to think of Nietzsche as an
immoralist rather than a special kind of moralist.20
A last important idea to introduce is the ascetic ideal. According to Brian Leiter, the
core argument of the Second Essay occurs in three parts but it is not until the last
paragraphs that the stage is set for the Third Essay in which the ascetic ideal is
explained.21 To get to that point, in the Second Essay we encounter the description of
acquiring a conscience and the role debts play, along with the origin of bad
conscience associated with guilt and the internalisation of cruelty. So the account of
conscience, as reconstructed here, moves through three stages: an account of
conscience, as the ability to remember debts; an account of bad conscience as the
product of the internalization of cruelty; and finally, (the beginnings of) an account of
how internalized cruelty turned into feelings of guilt. 22 It is the relationship between
debt and guilt and how being conscious of one turns into the other what becomes
problematic. A difficulty that contributes to preventing clarity, according to scholars like
Leiter, is the possible translation of the German word Schuld as debt or as guilt.23
The last sections of the Second Essay introduce the moralization of debt: I have so
far intentionally set aside the actual moralization of these concepts (the way they are
pushed back into conscience; more precisely, the way bad conscience is woven
together with the concept of God).24 But then, why atheism would not suffice to
defeat this entanglement with the concept of God? [] the claim that once debt is
moralized, lack of belief in God no longer suffices to erase the (moralized) feeling of
indebtedness.25
19

Foot, p. 215.

20

Ibid, p. 218.

21

Brian Leiter, Nietzsche on Morality, (London: Routledge, 2002) pp.224-225.

22

Ibid, p. 225.

23

See Leiter Nietzsche on Morality p. 238.

24

Nietzsche, On the genealogy of morality, p. 62.

25

Leiter Nietzsche on Morality , p.239.


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Now expressed in the words of Nietzsche:


You will already have guessed what has really gone on with all this and
behind all this: that will to torment oneself, that suppressed cruelty of animal
man who has been frightened back into himself and given an inner life,
incarcerated in the state to be tamed, and has discovered bad conscience so
that he can hurt himself, after the more natural outlet of this wish to hurt had
been blocked, this man of bad conscience has seized on religious
presupposition in order to provide his self-torture with its most horrific
hardness and sharpness. Debt towards God: this thought becomes an
instrument of torture.26
There is, however, a distinction of the relationship with this God Nietzsche describes
and the relationship the Greeks had with theirs. Leiter puts forward that it is the
ascetic ideal together with bad conscience what gives moderns the guilty conscience
that the Greeks lacked (or held at bay). 27 Being beyond the scope of this essay I will
limit here the discussion of the ascetic ideal, not intended as a source of nihilism, but
as a strategy to avert it. It was invented to make life worth living for the weak, by
giving suffering a meaning.28
In conclusion, it can be said that religion from Nietzsches perspective is understood
as a system of value judgements like what has been here expressed here mostly
under the name of Christian morality. In this sense, it stems from or is a particular
development of morality. Those life-negating values perpetuate and foster decadence
leading to nihilism. The relationship between debt and guilt leading to the ascetic ideal
becomes a key issue when trying to understand the connection between morality and
religion. In Nietzsches project, the main problem is not the existence of lower types
of individuals who increase the herd but of those higher types trapped under the
harmful effects of MPS.
Bibliography

26

Nietzsche, On the genealogy of morality p.63.

27

Leiter Nietzsche on Morality p. 244.

28

Bernard Reginster, The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism, (Cambridge:

Harvard University Press, 2006), p. 261.


6

Foot, Philippa, Nietzsche: The Revaluation of Values, in Nietzsche, ed. by John


Richardson and Brian Leiter (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).
Kafka, Franz, The essential Kafka: The castle, Metamorphosis and other stories, The
trial, (Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 2014).
Leiter, Brian, Nietzsche and the Morality Critics, in Nietzsche, ed. by John
Richardson and Brian Leiter (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 221-254, p.
232.
---, Nietzsche on Morality, (London: Routledge, 2002).
Lindsay-Abaire, David, Rabbit hole (London: Nick Hern Books, 2016).
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, Beyond good and evil: prelude to a philosophy of the
future, ed. By Rolf-Peter Horstmann and Judith Norman, Cambridge texts in the
history of philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, On the genealogy of morality, ed. by Keith AnsellPearson, Cambridge texts in the history of political thought (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2007).
Reginster, Bernard, The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism,
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006).