To believe out of boredom

“People who find their daily lives too empty and monotonous easily become religious; this is understandable and excusable, only they have no right to demand religiousness from those whose daily lives do not pass in an empty and monotonous way.”

Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human (I) 115, translated by Gary Handwerk (SUP)

I must have heard it more than ten times this year: people saying their religion saved them from a life of mindless consumerism. Do modern people embrace these anachronistic answers simply because they’re bored? And if they are, how is that possible?

Naerøyfjorden, by Karamell  [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Naerøyfjorden, by Karamell [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Nietzsche’s aphorisms on religion are often cited; the most controversial ones can be found everywhere. But he did more than declare himself to be the Antichrist. According to Nietzsche, it was historically inevitable that Christianity would become obsolete. In “The religious life”, the third chapter of his book “Human, All Too Human”, he describes how, a long time ago, people regarded nature as inexplicable, lawless and extremely powerful. They reacted by inventing rules and customs for humans, hoping that these would serve to influence nature in a magical way. They were looking to make it rain at the right time, to compel the sun to rise in the morning and they had no sense of causality.

“If one rows, it is not the rowing that moves the boat, but the rowing is instead only a magical ceremony by means of which one forces a spirit to move the boat.”

Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human (I) 111, translation Gary Handwerk (SUP)

He describes how the ancient Greeks were the first to realise that moira (fate) reigned over both humans and immortal gods.  The interaction between the Greeks and their heroes and gods was quite natural, they [did] not need to be ashamed in each other’s presence. Compared to their way of life, the Christian vision can be seen as a step back. According to that, humans are not simply a lesser nobility when compared to those that live on Mount Olympus: instead they are awaiting a gleam of divine pity from a state of complete depravity.

So when Nietzsche hears the church bells on a Sunday morning, he asks himself rhetorically:

“Surely in our time the Christian religion is an anachronism projecting out of the distant past … ”

HH 113, translation Gary Handwerk (SUP)

Boats on a lake, by Hiroshige [Public domain]

Boats on a lake, by Hiroshige [Public domain]

Is religion a fitting answer to the ennui that stems from having it all (as long as it’s made of plastic, somewhere in China)? Nietzsche looked past Christianity and felt the threat of nihilism, a philosophy that would be hard to embrace and to eventually transcend. Those he saw around him were more confident; they trusted science to come up with all the answers and the army to bring them lasting victories. Nietzsche knew there would come a time when those answers would no longer be valid.

“Modern science has as its goal: as little pain as possible, as long a life as possible — hence, a sort of eternal bliss, admittedly a very modest one in comparison with the promises of religions.”

Human, All Too Human (I) translation Gary Handwerk

At the time he wrote Human, All Too Human he thought humanity was moving forward although it might take millennia to register any progress. I wonder how many of us are rowing our own boats today.


14 thoughts on “To believe out of boredom

  1. Your presentation of this post is fascinating as always. I’d have to agree that even in his day religion was anachronistic, how much more so in ours…I like the image Genetic Fractals uses here of eternal rowing…the focus of each generation sure that they are indeed making a better world ergo progress, when in fact, they’re living an illusion, which sooner or later becomes apparent. The river constantly flows and as we can never re-cross the same river we can never actually arrive at “making a better world” or make progress. What little I know of Nietzsche seems to point that he was not any more inamoured of science than he was of myticism…the idea of having to invent “free spirits” seems to validate the idea. As we have seen in our present age…often science itself is dogmatic enough to be labelled religious…and the passivity of a humainty awaiting miracles to solve all their problems and entertain them… seems to make the passage backwards easy…sorry, I’ve started to ramble as my thoughts jumble together with the many facets I’ve read here…Lovely!

    • Thank you for your comment, Bastet. You’re welcome to ramble 😉
      I think Nietzsche’s relations with science, mysticism and even religion are complicated. Which is one of the reasons why I’m so interested in Nietzsche! I agree that later on he became quite sceptical of scientific achievement, especially because it’s limited by the fact that humans ask the questions and make the observations. On the other hand you could say that many of his psychological observations, his thoughts on why people behave in a certain way and what exactly goes on in their heads, have since been proved by science. Some of the ideas in Human, All Too Human wouldn’t look out of place in a current book on psychology. I hope to one day write about certain concepts in Nietzsche’s work, like ‘nature’, ‘genius’ and ‘free spirit’ but that will have to wait until I’ve read all of it. So, for the moment, I’ll stick with the short observations and I’m happy to get comments like yours because they inspire further thought!

  2. I wonder whether there will ever be a time when we won’t simply row our boat. Each epoch in history has had it’s own critique and proposed way forward. Even though there appears to be development, that itself is merely a river which flows. Will we ever row faster than the stream and catch up with the spirit that moves us? I doubt it and if I were a sceptic I would relegate philosophy and science to futility. I won’t do that because I find both of them highly intriguing and entertaining. As your post(s). 🙂

    • Thank you for a poetic comment, Genetic Fractals! I think it’s hard to look at our own times without imagining how things might be better in future or how they may have been worse in the past. To see how all that is relative, like you describe, might actually be helpful.
      To catch up with the spirit by means of philosophy or science? Probably not, but a dive into the river is always a good idea, I think! 🙂

  3. I think it’s dangerous to say that Nietzsche thought humanity was moving forward. He was very skeptical of the notion of progress. At the time of Human, All too Human, he perhaps came across as a bit more optimistic about the prospects of science than he would later (though your last quote shows this up somewhat), but I think in this light the 1886 preface to it that he wrote is very illuminating. He says there that he invented the free spirits whose time he thought had come that they might keep him company, though in fact they did not yet exist. He did think they could come to exist in the future, which you could take as a form of progress, but since they were his own invention, it’s not like he was putting his finger on a trend already occurring: he was inventing, not foreseeing, the future. Progress, to me, implies that what comes in the future fills a pregiven hole: there’s a place for it, and we just have to work to fill it. Nietzschean “progress” is totally different: there, you have to invent the very hole that is to be filled. (I got this language from Poirier’s marvelous The Renewal of Literature.)

    • Thank you for your comment, dyssebeia! I agree with you that Nietzsche was very sceptical of progress in relation to humanity as a whole and I’m currently reading his 1872 lectures “On the future of our educational institutions” (written six years before Human, All Too Human), in which he also seems to be looking for the individual genius as the only useful aim of education. Maybe I should blog on them to put things in perspective. Actually, I’m surprised that so many of Nietzsche’s later ideas already seem present in these early works.
      I really like your description of Nietzsche inventing a future and I agree with it, although I keep thinking that he was inspired by the Ancient Greeks and expected to use their writings as a substrate for any free spirit or genius of the future. It’s just that he took a rigorous education in the Classics as a given, as it was in his day. To call that progress is too strong, perhaps; like you said it’s a dangerous word to use in this sense. 🙂

  4. In Letters from the Earth, Mark Twain presents a very interesting proposition, he writes about christians who want to go to heaven where they will endlessly be singing while they can’t sing in church on a Sunday once a week!
    Great post my friend and I agree with Nietzsche that it may take quite some time for humanity to register any proper progress, if we ever do, that is!

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