top of page

Bad religion

"Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this..."

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche was the son of a minister. Far be it from me to cast aspersions on his up-bringing, but he emerged with a warped and negative view of religion, which he despised as being thin gruel for weak-minded individuals. Through his fictitious alter-ego, Zarathustra, Nietzsche infamously pronounced "God is dead". Rather then content himself with an alternative ethical framework, Nietzsche proposed transcending morality altogether, in favour of a superior level of existence. And so the "Übermensch" was born - and we know where that led to...

What Nietzsche thought he had done was to prove that there was no meaning in existence, a position which goes under the name of "Nihilism". Fellow German, Martin Heidegger, diagnosed the problem as deriving from the assumption that "being" is an objective reality. So when one loses confidence in the evidence, one arrives at the nihilist's bleak conclusion of non-existence. In response, Heidegger proposed a fresh approach whereby we regard the notion of "being" as subjective - ie according to our own experience. The name given to Heidegger's insight is "Perspectivalism'. We know it as "Relative morality": the idea that truth is a matter of opinion, rather than a universal standard.

Interestingly the definition of "Good religion" which the apostle James, brother of the Lord, offers in his New Testament letter is surprisingly pragmatic, if not entirely subjective. It is: "to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." Nietzsche wouldn't have been impressed but that kind of down-to-earth practical faith must surely accord with Heidegger's demand that metaphysical concepts prove their reality through dynamic operations?

Subjecting oneself to the interests of others, let alone God, flies on the face of our natural desire to be masters of our own destiny (and maybe of others' too?). The trouble is that giving free rein to these instincts always ends in disaster. Religion offers a means of curbing our selfishness and developing nobler characteristics. According to both the teaching and the example of Jesus, far from the servile non-existence the nihilists dread, abasing ourselves is what leads to greatness.



bottom of page