Nietzsche on Two Usages Of Religion
Beyond Good & Evil
Introduction to this series.
Nietzsche for sure had a lot to say about religion. He mercilessly dissected religion both on a philosophical as well as psychological level, the first ever to do so. And as elsewhere, he has some tremendous insights to offer. In this post, we will mostly focus on section 61 of Beyond Good & Evil.
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.
One might think that the philosopher who coined that famous dictum would unleash nothing but arrows upon arrows intended to completely uproot religion from human societies. However, as always, oversimplifications and unconditional yesses or noes quickly lead astray. One must remember that Nietzsche’s goal is to advance our species. He is one of those rare geniuses whose will encompasses all of mankind. It is in this context that his thoughts about religion must be understood.
Nietzsche asserts that religion could have a cultivating as well as an uncanny dangerous effect for humans. Needless to say, the end result, the actual effect is variant from the soil on which religion is planted, from the type of human psychology on which it flourishes.
In this section, he focuses on two usages of religion.
For the strong and independent
One way to view intelligence - as Nick Bostrom describes it- is as an optimization process that strees the future ‘possibilities’ into a particular batch of configurations. The more powerful the agent, the more powerful its effect on these ‘possible’ future configurations.
Therefore such people will be powerful enough Nietzsche says, to use religion to their ends.
For the strong and independent religion is one more means for overcoming resistances, for the ability to rule — as a bond that unites rulers and subjects and betrays and delivers the consciences of the latter, that which is most concealed and intimate and would like to elude obedience, to the former.
Religion quietens the heart of individuals in times of great loss, disasters, and deprivation, that is to say in those instances in which the government cannot offer a full consolation. It offers security in an inherently unsafe world. Thus the ruling people will almost always want to have religion on their side: as another means of controlling the people.
Whether it be Naram-Sin, one of the rulers of the Akkadian empire that declared himself a God, the ancient Indian Brahmins that functioned as kingmakers by means of a religious organization, the old French nobility, or pope Julius the second, one of the most powerful popes ever who even personally led armies to war, one thing is clear: those in a position of power have always managed to channel religion to their ends. They have used it as another tool that helps them in maintaining and expanding their power.
Indeed as late as the 19th century, Napoleon grasped: “Without the assistance of the priests even now no power can become legitimate”. What happened later with most of the communist regimes seems to rather be the exception as an opposition to religion lies in the heart of Marx’s philosophy. But then again even Mussolini and the leading Fascists, who were anti-clericals and atheists had to win them over as is shown in their pact with the church.
Even now in the 21st century, you see American politicians in need of frequently invoking the famous “God bless America” in virtually every important speech in one way or another. It is not that they are truly and deeply religions: it is simply that the USA happens to be a very religious country (albeit a very developed one).
For ordinary people
To ordinary human beings, religion gives an inestimable contentment with their situation and type, manifold peace of heart, something of a justification for the whole everyday character. Religion and religious significance spread the splendor of the sun over such ever-toling human beings and make their own sight tolerable to them.
So Nietzsche asserts that for the average individual religion is one of the most powerful means of consolation. And in one of his rare appreciations of Christianity, he calls its ability to teach the people how to place themselves into a higher order of things than reality, ‘venerable’. Thus religious piety is necessary for the people to maintain their contentment with the real and hard facts of life.
People want to escape suffering and if they can’t get out of it, they need to find meaning in it. This meaning seems to be provided by religion. And indeed the more secure and developed a society is, the more prevalent atheism seems to be (with the USA being an outlier).
In 2011, for example, a massive earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand which is a highly secular society. What was then noticed was a sudden increase in religiosity in the people who had experienced the event, while the rest of the country remained as secular as ever.
A new kind of attitude
I think there is something rather obsolete in this division for the 21st century, that is to say, it divides the people into two halves: the more intelligent part of a people who do not need religion and the plebs who ‘must have it’. It seems to me that this should not be the right way to proceed when it comes to religion.
I do not think that we can still afford such segregations as a species in the light of such powerful technologies which could essentially make it impossible for the lower part to move out of the zero-level and ingrain the upper part in that position, perhaps for a very long time.
What would rather be more beneficial, is if we all tried to deeply understand why as a society we have needed religion, how it evolved in the first place and why we have currently outgrown it.
That the development of the monotheistic Abrahamic religions comes out of the polytheistic religions, which themselves developed out of the many superstitions of early human mores and all of whom very likely trace their origin to a deeply ingrained bias in us. That is to say, we invented every Abrahamic religion after long periods of sublimations and improvements upon previous material and that none of them came out of the blue. In the end, their content is, like everything else, human-all-too-human.
And if one wants to find out more about one of them, namely Christianity then studying what Nietzsche has to say on the topic is a good way to go about when better studies seem to be almost entirely lacking.