Thoughts on re-reading Ludwig Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity (1841)
Along with Marx and Freud, Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72) is generally held to be a detractor of religion, seeing it as a dangerous illusion and merely a projection of aspects of humankind, reducing it to the human and thereby depriving it of its power, mystery and supernatural beliefs. For Feuerbach, God is no more than a projection of the highest aspirations of Man.
But re-reading his The Essence of Christianity (in the translation made by George Eliot in 1853, from which all the quotes here are taken), I have been struck by just how positive and useful his analysis is, and how he can be something of a bridge between the older tradition of natural religion (deism) – which has its focus primarily on concepts to be believed – and what actually happens in the practice of religion.
First of all, as the basis of all that he has to say, is the conviction that religion is distinctive and positive human quality. His opening sentence:
‘Religion has its basis in the essential difference between man and the brutes – the brutes have no religion.’
And that difference is consciousness, the ‘feeling of self as an individual’ so that ‘man has both an inner and outer life.’ He therefore sees ‘feeling’ as the key to religion. ‘Whatever is God to a man, that is his heart and soul’ so that ‘Consciousness of God is self-consciousness, knowledge of God is self-knowledge.’
The problem is that we generally see the self as something separate from the world and separate from the ‘feelings’ that it experiences (blame Descartes for that). Once feeling is separated from self, Feuerbach suggests that, in bondage to what he calls ‘vulgar empiricism’ and incapable of appreciating the grandeur of feeling, we slip back and ask if God exists or not. [And, I would suggest, we equally start to ask whether we exist or not, with vulgar empiricism leading to the nonsense of identifying the self with the physical brain.] I sense that Feuerbach’s religious feeling is to be captured in the present moment – rather like the Buddhist exercise of mindfulness – and is lost when subjected to subsequent analysis.
Feuerbach is wonderful at one-liners; born a century later, he would have been a natural for the advertising industry! On p40 he says:
‘Existence out of self is the world; existence in self is God. To think is to be God.’
But in case you assume that this suggests a universal, non-anthropomorphic concept of deity, he adds that such a God can have no more significance for religion than a fundamental general principle has for special sciences. It is ‘merely the ultimate point of support.’ What he is after is much more immediate and religiously significant.
He suggests that religion is essentially a matter cultivating a sense of self within the world in a way that is distinctively human; that finding peace with God is a matter of becoming at one with one’s true nature.
I was surprised at just how much of the book Feuerbach devotes to specific Christian beliefs and teachings, and of the human and felt dimension of the sacraments. But towards the end, he delivers what really is a crushing argument against those who attempt to prove the existence of God:
‘The contradiction to the religious spirit in the proof of the existence of God lies only in this, that the existence is thought of separately, and thence arises the appearance that God is a mere conception, a being existing in idea only…
but he wants to emphasise that, for religion, God cannot just be a concept, a thought…
‘for to religion God is not a matter of abstract thought, - he is a present truth and reality.’
In other words, he is affirming God as a living experience – but doing so NOT in the sense that there is an ‘external’ God of whose existence one is convinced, but that God is essentially a feature of one’s own feeling life. So he is able to say:
‘The proofs of the existence of God have for their aim to make the internal external, to separate it from man.’
‘God is not seen, not heard, not perceived by the senses. He does not exist for me, if I do not exist for him; if I do not believe in a God, there is no God for me.’
He recognises that a consequence of there being no ‘sensational existence’ for God is atheism. Everything else that exists does so because we can sense it (or – I would add – consider it something capable of being sensed), and the ‘vulgar empiricism’ that dominates our lives takes this as the only genuine meaning of existence. So Feuerbach is able to say that, if I do not raise myself above the life of the senses, God has no place in my consciousness. He exists only in so far as he is felt, thought and believed in – shades of a 19th century version of Don Cupitt here, I sense!. At one and the same time, God therefore exists and does not exist. He is real, but not empirical.
The problem is that, once religious people try to articulate God, they start to project him as having a separate existence.
‘But when this projected image of human nature is made an object of reflection, of theology, it becomes an inexhaustible mire of falsehoods, illusions, contradictions and sophisms.’ (p123)
You can’t get much more critical than that, but in the end Feuerbach wants to reclaim something of value from all the sophistry. He sees the essence of religion as the identity of the human and the divine, but the forms that religion takes have exactly the opposite effect, namely to separate man and God. Rather, he wants to point (in a most conventional religious way) to the role of love: ‘Love identifies man with God…’ (p247) and then contrasts love with faith:
‘Love has God in itself: faith has God out of itself; it estranges God from man, it makes him an external object.’
And another of those wonderful one-liners:
‘The secret of theology is anthropology.’
It seems to me that the implication of all this – which is surely good theology – is that God is encountered in and through loving relationships, not because he endorses them, but because he is them.
Far from offering a negative critique of religion, Feuerbach makes a positive contribution to ‘natural religion’ here, and one that makes explicit what is implicit in much religious language, namely that the term ‘God’ should be used for an experienced reality, not for a possible external entity. The very idea of asking whether God exists implies a failure to understand what ‘God’ means.
A deist might say that belief in God is a matter of seeing structure, meaning and purpose in the universe. But surely that does not add anything to the statement that there appears to be structure, meaning and purpose in the universe – there is no added extra corresponding to God. What a glib atheist assumption misses, however, is the further point that reality is essentially something in which we live and with which we engage, not just something about which we speculate.
Clearly, if all Feuerbach meant was that theology could be replaced by anthropology – an attempt to speak of an objectively existing God replaced by objective statements about humankind, then his analysis does not do justice to what religion seeks to achieve – namely a deeper engagement with life, rather than an additional layer of speculation about life.
Marx and Freud both saw religious belief as a matter of projection, whether it is of a future compensation for present troubles, or a replacement for a lost father figure. Superficially, Feuerbach offers – and indeed lies behind – the same line of thinking, with God as a projection of the highest human ideals. But that would be to miss some of the key ideas in The Essence of Christianity, which is – as the title implies – an attempt to get to what religion is fundamentally about.
The key problem is that he sees religion as subverting moral sentiments. In other words, ascribing to God what should be ascribed to man. So, for example, a person who is helped to recover from an illness may ascribe that recovery to God rather than to the medical team who helped to bring it about. In other words, it has an essentially alienating effect of human awareness. This, of course, is why Feuerbach is seen as an important influence on Marx.
The other danger, which he outlines on p270, is that, if morality is made to depend upon divine authority, then ‘infamous things can be justified and established’. The problem is that human nature mixes the best with that which is sometimes the very worst, and both can be projected onto God, once that supposed object of projection is established and believed in.
Of course, like many of the most severe critics of religion, Feuerbach started off not as a philosopher but as a theologian. He experienced the discussion of religion from the inside, and was therefore able to get a broader perspective on his work, seeing his idea of God as existing only as a object of faith as something implicit in Protestantism.
So where do we place Feuerbach in the development of religious ideas? His rejection of both transcendence and immortality established him as a critic as well as an interpreter of Hegel, to whom he had turned after his study of Theology, and as a key ‘left’ or ‘young’ Hegelian. For him, Hegel is too abstract; too concerned with pure thought rather than reality itself. He wants to root both religion and philosophy in human life and experience. And this, of course, is why he can be seen as a stepping stone between Hegel and Marx. Reality is human reality, and any projection, whether into religion or philosophical speculation, is a wilful avoidance of the concrete reality with which we have to deal.
Feuerbach sees religion as essentially unhealthy as it deflects human interest away from the reality of life and to an abstract and ‘objective’ concept of God or immortality, and this, of course, is part of his legacy via Marx. Historically, religion may have had an important role in pointing to those qualities that are fundamental to human wellbeing, but it now impedes human progress, by continually projecting those qualities outwards on to the deity, rather than working with them in the human sphere. Rather than expecting supernatural forces to sort out our problems, we need to engage directly to the issues of human life and welfare.
As I read Feuerbach, I get continual hints at strands of philosophy and theology that he anticipated. Death of God theology is in there, as is politically engaged religious thinking; I get hints of Bonheoffer, Van Buren and Tillich, but also Heidegger and the existentialist movement.
Yes, religion can be unhealthy and projection can be an avoidance mechanism, but Feuerbach also pointed out that the religious impulse works at a level deeper than the subject-object split, an engaged level of reality which is killed off by subsequent rational analysis. Yes we do project – but we do it all the time; you don’t have to be in analysis to recognise just how often we project aspects of ourselves onto the external environment, or onto other people, or how often we use abstract concepts – like fairness or democracy - to avoid focusing on our inner uncertainties.
My personal view is that Feuerbach’s work has a great deal to contribute to the humanist and atheist appreciation of religion. It is suitably critical to appeal to those who are inherently suspicious of all religious ideas, but it also unpacks the mechanism by which religious awareness has resulted in the unfortunate projection of reality into a supernatural realm that it does not need, and which now impedes its intellectual acceptance.