Is religion the cause of mental instability? An analysis of Nietzsche’s On The Genealogy Of Morals


“For with priests everything becomes more dangerous, not only cures and remedies, but also arrogance, revenge, acuteness, profligacy, love, lust to rule, virtue, disease—but it is only fair to add that it was on the soil of this essentially dangerous form of human existence, the priestly form, that man first became an interesting animal, that only here did the human soul in a higher sense acquire depth and become evil—and these are the two basic respects in which man has hitherto been superior to other beasts!” —Friedrich Nietzsche, On The Genealogy of Morals

This small excerpt from Nietzsche’s book supports the claim that—in the religious context—“good” can be “bad”.  “Good” was a term originally used to distinguish higher ranking members of society—such as nobility.  It was not until an even higher ranked group—the clergy—started using the term, that its meaning became askew.  Nietzsche states “it was only when aristocratic value judgments declined that the whole antithesis ‘egoistic’ ‘unegoistic’ obtruded itself more and more on the human conscience” (26). I took this to mean that the value of “good” became its opposite after the church got involved.  They took something that started out with right intentions, e.g. “For the longest time [the] Greeks used their gods precisely so as to ward off the “bad conscience,” … the very opposite of the use to which Christianity put its’ God” and, throughout time, gave it the modern meaning of “bad”.  What is one to do then in order to get beyond the confusion that is both “good” and “evil”?

Nietzsche establishes the origin of “good” by implying that “[man] approved unegoistic actions and called them good from the point of view of those to whom they were done…later one forgot how this approval originated and, simply because unegoistic actions were always habitually praised as good, one also felt them to be good” (25).  I interpret this to mean that the idea of “good” was started by an individual, presumably of high ranking—like a noble—and carried on through it being popular enough to become a precedent.  Unfortunately, after years and years of passing it on through the use of hearsay, the term “good” became contorted and confused; just as you might expect it to be.  This occured when Christians stepped in and took the word and claimed it as their own.

“One will have divined already how easily the priestly mode of valuation can branch off from the knightly-aristocratic and then develop into its opposite.”  For me, this foreshadows the descent of “good” into “bad”.  Christianity so very often, and wrongly, assumes that, because of their dedication and commitment to the church, what they do cannot be deemed as wrong.  Take this excerpt from On The Genealogy of Morals for example:

It is not unthinkable that a society might attain such a consciousness of power that it could allow itself the noblest luxury possible to it—letting those who harm it go unpunished…The justice which began with, “everything is dischargeable, everything must be discharged,” ends by winking and letting those incapable of discharge their debt go free: it ends, as does every good thing on earth, by overcoming itself. This self- overcoming of justice: one knows the beautiful name it has given itself—mercy; it goes without saying that mercy remains the privilege of the most powerful man, or better, his —beyond the law” (72-73).

Though lengthy, I like this passage because I believe that it perfectly summarizes the main argument of my paper: that Christians use their religious status as a “get out of jail free” card.  That in their eyes they can do no wrong—compared to that of a non-believer—because they decided to turn their lives over to a higher power.

We have been talking a lot about “good” and how religion is responsible for good’s descent into bad.  If that is the case, then what exactly is “bad”? Nietzsche defines a bad conscience as: “the serious illness that man was bound to contract under the stress of the most fundamental change he ever experienced—that change which occurred when he found himself finally enclosed within the walls of society and of peace” (84).  Though I do not consider “bad” as an illness, it is easy to see how the stress of a life-altering event could turn one against his better judgement; like a preist, monk, or disciple for example?  Think about it: a person of the church did not start out as so. So my question is, what form of rock bottom did they hit in order to feel like religion was the answer?  As a result, we now have have a person disguised as “good” —while still having “bad” seeded into their initial being—seated in a high-ranking religious position.

So how do we move past “good” and “bad”? The answer is simple: by renouncing religion.  Nietzsche mentions Atheism, but I am not so sure I would take it that far.

Presuming we have gradually entered upon the reverse course, here is no small probability that with the irresistible decline in the Christian God there is now also a considerable decline in mankind’s feeling of guilt; indeed, the prospect cannot be dismissed that the complete and definitive victory of atheism might free mankind of this whole feeling of guilty indebtedness toward its origin” (90-91).

This can be interpreted as meaning, that without claiming a specific religion as our own, we have no middleman—priests and etc.—to go through.  This in turn, relinquishes us of the guilt we are told to feel for our sins. Unfortunately, I do not see the renouncing of religions happening any time soon. For it is a deep-seated ideal planted into a child at a very early age.  By the time they are old enough to know the difference, their religious beliefs are too much a apart of who they are.  Nietzsche is quoted as saying, “man could never do without blood, torture, and sacrifices when he felt the need to create a memory for himself…all this has its origin in the instinct that realized that pain is them most powerful aid to mnemonics” (61).  What I think he is saying by this is that religion will never completely disappear. For the pattern of repentance is already too ingrained into a person to be completely erased. No matter how hard they try, some form of Christianity will remain within them.

Edited by Hamad Hussain

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