Words, words, words ...

Fierce Language

A Column
by Jason DeBoer

Jason DeBoer

Jason DeBoer currently resides in Chicago, Illinois, where he is creating a new literary and philosophical publishing house called Trembling Sun Press. He is the managing editor of Eighteenth–Century Studies, an academic journal based at Northwestern University. His fiction has recently appeared in numerous journals, including
The Barcelona Review, Libido,
The Wisconsin Review, Eclectica, Exquisite Corpse, Suspect Thoughts, CrossConnect, and Linnaean Street. At the moment he is working on Stupor, his debut novel.

E-mail: tremblingsun@yahoo.com

 

Previous columns:

Eschatology 
and Orgasm

The Fatal 
“Theory-Fiction”
 of Jean Baudrillard

Masochism
and Regicide

Bataille 
versus Theory

Introduction

Fierce Language

Sublime Hatred: 
Nietzsche’s Anti-Christianity

“Almost two thousand years, and no new god!” —Nietzsche
 

As of August 25, 2000, Friedrich Nietzsche has been dead for exactly one hundred years. Perhaps the greatest thinker since ancient Greece, his intellectual legacy is still young, and will surely last for a thousand more years. As we contemplate the impact of Nietzschean thought after a century, I would like to take a brief look at his attacks against Christianity.

Atheism is a crucial part of Nietzsche’s thought: it informs his critique of metaphysics, his revaluation of morals and values, his ideas on nihilism, and his views on the history of mankind. Most famous for his refrain that “God is dead,” Nietzsche’s atheism is actually far more complex, and is easily the most comprehensive critique of religion ever assembled. His is not an unbiased critique: Nietzsche burns with hatred toward Christianity, and his atheistic writings are extremely vitriolic.

Nietzsche has many reasons for despising Christianity: he feels that it emphasizes the wrong values for mankind, preferring weakness, a herd mentality, and false morality to strength, individual genius, and honesty. As a religion, Nietzsche felt Christianity is inimical to truth-seeking, scientific inquiry, and sensuality; it replaced these values with blind faith, self-deception, and morbid piety. In fact, Nietzsche’s atheism is somewhat atypical, in that he takes the non-existence of God as a given, spending no time in argument against proofs of God, etc. The possible reality of a god is summarily ignored as a ludicrous notion by Nietzsche, who much preferred to analyze the philosophical and psychological foundations of religious belief. Since he views all such belief as error, Nietzschean thought serves foremost as an intellectual alternative to religion: “we experience what has been revered as God, not as ‘godlike’ but as miserable, as absurd, as harmful, not merely as an error but as a crime against life. We deny God as God.”

There are several key Christian ideas that Nietzsche abhors in particular, and these concepts have worked together to form a powerful psychological and ideological force that has lasted for two thousand years. Nietzsche tries to separate each concept from the whole and criticize each in turn. The Christian ideas that each person has an immortal soul and that all such souls are equal in the eyes of God are particularly appealing, and derive their power by appealing both to the anti-aristocratic sentiment of the lower classes, as well as to individual egos and their fear of death. Nietzsche writes: “That everyone as an ‘immortal soul’ has equal rank with everyone else, that in the totality of living beings the ‘salvation’ of every single individual may claim eternal significance . . . Christianity owes its triumph to this miserable flattery of personal vanity: it was precisely all the failures, all the rebellious-minded, all the less-favored, the whole scum and refuse of humanity who were thus won over to it. The ‘salvation of the soul’—in plain language: ‘the world revolves around me.’” The Christian soul serves a multifold purpose: as the locus for the transcendence of all earthly behavior, the vehicle into the beyond of heaven’s immortality, and the grand equalizer by which the lowest criminal has the same worth in God’s eyes as the greatest king or hero. The Christian soul is then maintained or purified by following the codes of Christian morality, which emphasizes negative enforcement of the moral code through fear, sin, guilt, etc., or positive enforcement by endorsing behaviors such pity, hope, love, etc. While it is easy for most to see the negative effects of sin and guilt, it is much more difficult to see such flaws in concepts like hope and love, or even to realize they are fundamentally Christian concepts at all.

Thus, Nietzsche concentrates his attack on these moral concepts, which falsely appear to most contemporary Westerners to be universal and eternal. On the dangerous side of pity, Nietzsche writes: “Christianity is called the religion of pity. Pity stands opposed to the tonic emotions which heighten our vitality: it has a depressing effect. We are deprived of strength when we feel pity.” Elsewhere, he continues: “What is more harmful than any vice? Active pity for all the failures and all the weak: Christianity.” Next, Nietzsche lambastes Christian hope as a malady: “Those who suffer must be sustained by a hope that can never be contradicted by any reality or be disposed by any fulfillment—a hope for the beyond. (Precisely because of its ability to keep the unfortunate in continual suspense, the Greeks considered hope the evil of evils, the truly insidious evil: it remained behind in the barrel of evils.)” Likewise, in On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche writes: “Hope is the worst of all evils, for it prolongs the torments of Man.” Finally, one of the most influential Western concepts, love, is purported by Nietzsche to be used by Christian thought as a tool to influence its subjects: “Love is the state in which man sees things most decidedly as they are not. The power of illusion is at its peak here, as is the power to sweeten and transfigure. In love man endures more, man bears everything. A religion had to be invented in which one could love: what is worst in life is thus overcome—it is not even seen any more.”

At bottom, Nietzsche also believed Christianity to be fundamentally anti-scientific, since much of its entire theology is based on obscuring or denying physical truth. At the heart of Christianity is an invisible, purely metaphysical god, a prime mover, an omnipresent and omniscient deity with the power to exist or interfere in every earthly process: this is the powerful, if absurd, first premise with which Christianity circumvents all threatening questions of a scientific nature. On this point, he writes: “In Christianity neither morality nor religion has even a single point of contact with reality. Nothing but imaginary causes (‘God,’ ‘soul,’ ‘ego,’ ‘spirit,’ ‘free will’—for that matter, ‘unfree will’), nothing but imaginary effects (‘sin,’ ‘redemption,’ ‘grace,’ ‘punishment,’ ‘forgiveness of sins’).”

As part of his polemic, Nietzsche repeatedly uses the same derogatory terms to describe Christianity. First, he sees it as a religion formed by the refuse or flotsam and jetsam of humanity, a religion of castoffs and disenfranchised rabble. As one example, he says: “The Christian movement is a degeneracy movement composed of reject and refuse elements of every kind: it is not the expression of the decline of a race; it is from the first an agglomeration of forms of morbidity crowding together and seeking one another out—It is therefore not national, not racially conditioned; it appeals to the disinherited everywhere; it is founded on a rancor against everything well-constituted and dominant—It also stands in opposition to every spiritual movement, to all philosophy: it takes the side of idiots and utters a curse on the spirit.” Second, he sees Christianity as a religion steeped in sickness, weakness, and illness: for him, Christian values are the most unhealthy of any religion or philosophy. Christianity, in fact, often points to the body and its senses as things to be reviled; the body becomes merely a site for temptations, and the senses mere mechanisms for triggering the temptation process. If the soul is the vehicle into heaven, then the Christian body is the vehicle into sin. For Nietzsche, this anti-sensuality in Christian thought can only lead to self-loathing and unhappiness: “Christianity . . . is the hatred of the spirit, of pride, courage, freedom, liberty of the spirit; Christian is the hatred of the senses, of joy in the senses, of joy itself.” In a similar vein, he writes in Beyond Good and Evil: “The Christian faith from the beginning, is sacrifice: the sacrifice of all freedom, all pride, all self-confidence of spirit; it is at the same time subjection, a self-derision, and self-mutilation.” Third, Nietzsche sees in Christianity the triumph of the unthinking lowest classes, of the herd: he speaks of “the domestic animal, the herd animal, the sick human animal—the Christian.”

It is interesting that Nietzsche, although one of the fiercest atheists in history, was in fact not entirely anti-religious, merely anti-Christian. He respected and admired many of the aspects of other religions, including paganism and even Buddhism. One of the reasons Nietzsche believed pagan gods to be superior mythically to Christian monotheism was that the Greek and Roman gods were always anthropomorphic: they reflected honestly all of man’s real strengths and foibles. In comparison, the Christian concept of God was entirely metaphysical, which tainted it with a fundamental dishonesty in the face of the physical world (and even life itself). For Nietzsche, this was abominable: “The Christian conception of God . . . is one of the most corrupt conceptions of the divine ever attained on earth. It may even represent the low-water mark in the descending development of divine types. God degenerated into the contradiction of life, instead of being its transfiguration and eternal Yes! God as the declaration of war against life, against nature, against the will to live! God—the formula for every slander against ‘this world,’ for every lie about the ‘beyond’! God—the deification of nothingness, the will to nothingness pronounced holy! . . . this pitiful god of Christian monotono-theism! This hybrid product of decay, this mixture of zero, concept, and contradiction, in which all the instincts of decadence, all cowardices and wearinesses of the soul, find their sanction!”

One of the other telling reasons why Nietzsche despised Christianity was due to its malicious effect on classical culture, especially that of ancient Rome. Nietzsche believed that the Roman Empire might still be standing today, had its progress not been derailed or undermined by early Christians, bringing an inevitable Dark Ages upon Europe. For Nietzsche, the classical or pagan ideals were infinitely superior to those of Christianity, and he viewed it as an unprecedented tragedy that many of the ancient world’s scientific and cultural achievements were subsequently ruined by the emergence of Christian ideology. The Christians were directly opposed to ancient ideals: they emphasized morality over sensuality, guilt over joy, pity over heroism, the lure of immortality over the embrace of life, etc. Thus, the entire Christian agenda served to destroy or soil many of the important strengths of early civilization that had enabled mankind to arise from primitive pre-history. Nietzsche writes: “Christianity is a rebellion of everything that crawls on the ground against that which has height . . .” All of the higher ideals that inhabited the noble, classical man of Greece or Rome, were aggressively denied or despised by the moral Christian. It is a theme that Nietzsche continually repeats, that Christianity’s eventual triumph over the classical religions was not a gentle victory of “moral truth” over “false paganism,” but rather the sad result of a battle of radically different ideologies: “Christianity should not be beautified or embellished: it has waged deadly war against this higher type of man . . . Christianity has sided with all that is weak and base, with all failures; it has made an ideal of whatever contradicts the instinct of the strong life to preserve itself . . .” He firmly believed that “Christianity has cheated us out of the harvest of ancient cultures,” instead replacing healthy, ancient values with the moralistic tripe of the Old and New Testaments. Nietzsche particularly despises the latter book: “I have looked in vain through the New Testament to descry even a single sympathetic feature: there is nothing in it that is free, gracious, candid, honest. . . .  There are only bad instincts in the New Testament, and not even the courage to have these bad instincts. Everything in it is cowardice, everything is shutting-one’s-eyes and self-deception.”

In his closing paragraphs of his irreligious masterpiece, The Anti-Christ, Nietzsche’s rhetoric reaches an almost feverish pitch. His hatred of religious sublimity becomes almost sublime in itself; his rage reaches an unprecedented, crystalline purity: “I condemn Christianity. I raise against the Christian church the most terrible of all accusations that any accuser ever uttered. . . .  The Christian church has left nothing untouched by its corruption; it has turned every value into an un-value, every truth into a lie, every integrity into a vileness of the soul. . . .  This eternal indictment of Christianity I will write on all walls, wherever there are walls—I have letters to make even the blind see. I call Christianity the one great curse, the one great innermost corruption, the one great instinct of revenge, for which no means is poisonous, stealthy, subterranean, small enough—I call it the one immortal blemish of mankind.” It is fierce words like these, born of fire and violence, which will continue to burn for many ages in the minds of Christians and atheists alike.

Works Cited

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann 
(New York: Vintage, 1968).

Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, in The Portable Nietzsche, trans. W. Kaufmann 
(New York: The Viking Press, 1954).

The Great Thoughts, ed. George Seldes (New York: Ballantine Books, 1985).

   

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