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Discovering the Truth within falsehood

Colin M. Harper on the non-reductive atheism of Ludwig Feuerbach.

Apart from some earlier attempts, it has been reserved in the main for our epoch to vindicate at least in theory the human ownership of the treasures squandered on heaven; but what age will have the strength to validate this right in practice and make itself its possessor?
G.W.F. Hegel (1800)

Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) started out as a student of theology but went on to articulate one of the most interesting critiques of religion we have. In his major work The Essence of Christianity (1841) he sought to uncover the hidden essence of religion as revealed in what he regarded as its most highly evolved expression, namely, Christianity.

Feuerbach was originally going to call his book ‘Critique of Pure Unreason’. This echo of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason can be seen in both the ambitions and the structure of the work itself. Copernicus had demonstrated that whilst it appears that the Sun revolves around the Earth, the reality is in fact the opposite; the Earth revolves around the Sun. Immanuel Kant had argued that although it appears that in knowing an object our concepts are formed by that object, the reverse is in fact true; namely, that the objects conform to our concepts, our minds actively giving form to the world of our experience. In The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach argues that religion reveals the true essence of human beings, but in an alienated form as the abstraction of the highest qualities of human nature: God. Feuerbach sought to correct an inversion in theology which was similar to that corrected by Copernicus in astronomy: Feuerbach insisted that God does not create man, rather man creates God. This is Feuerbach’s ‘Copernican Revolution’ in which what had previously been thought to be the case is shown to be the direct opposite of the true reality.

The first, positive, part of The Essence of Christianity consists of a demonstration that aspects of religion correspond to certain ineradicable features in the nature of human beings. The second part is a critical examination of those aspects of religion which are perversions or pure illusion. The first section seeks to articulate the true nature of religion as a veiled anthropology; the second seeks to discredit theology as the ideology of religion, as attempting to justify insupportable claims on the basis of a misunderstanding of the nature of religion.

Feuerbach argues that the divine essence and the human essence are really identical; religion creates a split within human beings and the highest qualities of human nature are projected into an imaginary realm and onto an imaginary being supposed to exist apart from man. For Feuerbach, “the absolute Being, the God of man, is his own nature” and the riches which properly belong to it are squandered in being attributed to an imaginary other.

The characteristics attributed to God in a particular society are those human virtues which are most highly valued in that society. The pagan Gods were held in high esteem for different reasons than the Christian God; sensual appetites, heroic qualities and the like were replaced by other values which were then venerated in turn. Whatever is thought to be best or most perfect about human beings is attributed to God or the gods. It is not that these attributes are thought to be the most perfect because they are the attributes of God, but the reverse; they are thought to be the attributes of God because they are the most perfect attributes of human beings. Different societies conceive of God differently and Feuerbach sees this as evidence for his view that all there is to the divine is these human conceptions. All that we know of God is our conception of Him; what He might remain in Himself is necessarily unknown to man. Our images of God are always anthropomorphic; insofar as God is seen as existing outside such images of Him, He is literally nothing to us. A being without attributes which make it a particular being is simply a non-being, in Feuerbach’s view. God is the imaginary possessor of human attributes whose real subject is man. It is a mistake, according to Feuerbach, to draw a distinction between God as He is in Himself and God as He is for us. All that we know of God is what He is for us and, unlike in other situations, we have no basis for asserting something beyond that. Copernicus could claim scientific knowledge as the basis for the distinction between the appearances of the movements of the Sun and planets in relation to one another and the reality of that movement, but there is no equivalent in theology. We have no knowledge of God beyond his appearance or the supposed revelation of his essence.

Feuerbach says that God has no existence outside his supposed characteristics, which are in fact human characteristics. The supposed divinity of God is nothing other than the divinity of those human attributes. For example, Feuerbach sees the truth of the claim that ‘God is Love’ as being the claim that ‘Love is God’, or ‘Love is divine’. For Feuerbach, therefore, what is necessary for ending human alienation is for man to realise that God’s attributes are in fact his own. This will restore man to himself as a whole integrated being who is no longer subjected to the idol of his own externalised nature. It is therefore the task of the true philosophy to reappropriate this alienated human essence for humanity by showing that the antithesis of the human and the divine is illusory; that what is attributed to God as divine in fact belongs to humanity.

For Feuerbach, religion has its origin in the nature of human beings as ‘species-beings’. By this he means that human beings are not just conscious of themselves, they are also conscious of being members of a species, of belonging to a universal group. Human individuals are finite as individuals, but infinite as members of the human species as a whole. For example, the mortality of the individual is matched by the immortality of the species. The perfections which really belong to man as a selfconscious member of the human species are treated in religion as if they belonged to another being rather than man. This misattribution enriches God and impoverishes man in direct proportion. The more perfect God is seen to be, the more imperfect man appears; the more loving, holy and good we consider God, the more selfish, sinful and bad man looks by contrast. This is, however, a false contrast. Religion in general sees God as being wholly other than man, whereas in fact the human essence and the divine essence are the same. The supposed omnipotence of God, for example, actually refers to the power of the human species as a whole which greatly transcends the power of any given individual human being. What is impossible for one person, is possible for all.

Although he had many criticisms of Hegel, Feuerbach was developing further a tradition to which Hegel belonged. Hegel’s religious thought is in some respects the philosophical expression of certain currents within Christian mysticism. In this tradition the distinction between the human and divine was not seen as absolute; there was not thought to be an unbridgeable gulf between man and God. Hegel understood human history as the return of God to himself, but with a full self-consciousness which he didn’t possess in the beginning. For Hegel, it is God who alienates Himself in nature and returns to Himself through human beings. History is the story of the selfovercoming of the alienation of God; God is the true actor in history, man the means of his action. For Hegel, God is real and human beings are comparatively unreal; God is the substance and human beings are a property of that substance. Human beings are dependent on a more ultimate reality as the appearance of that reality in the finite world. They are part of and inseparable from that divine reality.

Feuerbach developed what he saw as the atheistic implications of Hegelian philosophy. Feuerbach agreed with Hegel that there is no gulf between the divine and the human, but thought Hegel had distorted things, that he had the picture upside down. Human beings aren’t dependent on God, but rather God is dependent on human beings. Man is the absolute being and God, or the divine, is an appearance of the essence of man. God doesn’t alienate himself in humanity, rather human beings alienate themselves in God and must return to themselves from God. Whereas Hegel had suggested that “Man’s knowledge of God is God’s knowledge of himself”, Feuerbach countered that “Man’s knowledge of God is man’s knowledge of himself”. Theology mistakenly treats the divine essence as if it belonged to an alien other, as if it was the essence of a being other than man. For Feuerbach, the true secret of theology is that it appears to be a discourse about God, but is in reality a discourse about man. At the end of the first section of The Essence of Christianity, he concludes that: “The beginning, middle and end of religion is MAN.” (p.184)

Feuerbach’s atheism is thus of an nonreductive kind. It recognises the anthropomorphic nature of images of God and sees these images as indicating the true nature of human beings. If our images of God are anthropomorphic, then it is humanity rather than God who is essentially loving, wise and just. For Feuerbach, atheism does not lead to the impoverishment of man. It doesn’t abolish the illusory idea of God and yet still conceive human beings as they were conceived in contrast to God. Rather Feuerbach sees atheism as enriching man. The riches attributed to heaven belong to us and atheism is the recognition of this fact: his is an atheism of transference rather than reduction. We are God in the sense that the love and justice, the will and reason formerly attributed to God and worshipped as divine can now be correctly understood as our love and our justice, our will and our reason.

Religion is not something which can be, or should be, simply outgrown. Philosophers who say that it is conceive history in terms of the highly dubious metaphor of the development of an individual human being from infancy through childhood to adulthood. At the same time they speak of religion as if it were as trans-historical, uniform and ubiquitous an evil as the devil was previously thought to be. Religion is treated as if it were a bogeyman from the nights of the childhood of the human race which still haunts us. When a theory of ‘religion as immaturity’ addresses the question of the origin of religion at all, it is often implied that religion is an attempt by certain individuals to cunningly deceive others with illusions. This is a wholly inadequate account and also incompatible with seeing it as the natural perspective of a child. Such atheism fails to discriminate between different religions, the development of religious ideas, their complex interlocking histories and their social origins and background. ‘Religion’ as it exists as the object of such atheistic attack is itself an illusory object of criticism; such thinking deals in abstractions as great as those against which it directs its futile attacks and it remains simply the mirror image of religion conceived in the terms of penny catechisms. The philosophical criticism of religious ideas has not, and will never, of itself lead to the demise of religion. The bald exhortation to ‘Just Say No’ to the opium of the people has proved to be as ineffective against religion as similar campaigns against more mundane intoxications. The atheism of Karl Marx was heavily influenced by that of Feuerbach, but Marx saw more clearly that religion is an expression of the alienations of human life, not their cause. For Marx, the scientific view was precisely that which understood the nature and genesis of religion, not merely the view that competed with religious views. For Marx, the end of religion could therefore only come about through the overthrow of the social conditions which foster religion. Religions do not simply provide alternative accounts of the world which rival some purported ‘scientific’ account; they don’t just consist of claims about what the world is, but also of claims about how the world could and ought to be. Thus Marx insisted that religion is both “the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.” Religion has at least as much to do with what is not the case as with what is. To see it as no more than an explanatory theory to be discarded when it is thought to no longer fit the facts misses the point, just as much as seeing belief in Santa Claus as simply an attempt at a rational theory of where the presents on Christmas morning come from. It is not the task of philosophy to make quixotic challenges in mimicry of the genuine progress of the natural sciences in their own field; rather it should seek to answer the questions raised by human life confronted by a world which may or may not be increasingly disenchanted, but which is certainly still far from lacking in mystery. Philosophy begins in wonder and, as such, the philosophical attitude has as much in common with the child who has just discovered his or her presents on Christmas morning as it has with a scientist in a laboratory.

If part of maturity is recognising the world as it is rather than living life according to fictions and illusions, then the mature outlook on life surely recognises the reality of love and wisdom as well as of hate and ignorance, of justice as well as injustice. Any view of the world which fails to do this is not a rational view as opposed to religion, but is rather itself a kind of mythic view of the world, a myth of an impoverished reason or of science conceived narrowly in terms of the natural sciences. In its denial of the specific differences between human beings and other animals, such an atheism remains defined by its opposite rather than being a true humanism. The recognition of the non-existence of God is the recognition of human worth, not human insignificance. The divine has increasingly acquired a human face; to the point where in Christianity it was thought to have acquired not only a human form, but a human body and the title ‘Son of Man’. No doubt if fish had gods, then these gods would have fins and gills and, as Rupert Brooke put it, “in that heaven of all their wish, there would be no more land, say fish”. The point however is that fish don’t have gods. The existence of the religious illusion, the nonexistence of our gods, indicates our uniqueness, not our typicality; it denotes our difference from other animal species, not our identity with them.

© Colin M. Harper 1997

Reid, Les, ‘Santa Lives? The Challenge for Philosophy’, Philosophy Now No. 7 (Autumn 1993).

Colin Harper teaches political philosophy in the University of Ulster at Jordanstown.

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