Ludwig Feuerbach was a German philosopher and anthropologist of the 19th century who published The Essence of Christianity in 1841. Feuerbach's work has become a staple of humanism and had significant impact upon the wish-fulfillment theory of Sigmund Freud, as well as the criticisms of religion put forward by Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx.
I. Finding the Essence of Religion
One of the big problems with the various attempts to account for religion either psychologically or sociologically has been the nearly inevitable tendency to fall into speculation. Unfortunately, archaeology has not given us much, if any, information on the earliest origins of religion, and whenever a theory is put forward based on available evidence, new discoveries often come to light that partially or totally unravel the theory. Religious critics frequently dismiss and ridicule theories like those of Freud, claiming that although to some people god may be a father figure born out of a desire for wish-fulfillment, that is not what he is to them. In short, a great deal of caution is needed when we venture to discuss the origins of religion, and we would do well to speculate as little as possible, but to make good use of reason when we do.
Feuerbach's work is partly written as a critique of a kind of theology known as speculative theology. During the 19th century, Germany was enraptured by Hegelian thinking, and Hegel's approach to religion was - as the name denotes - speculative. While some believers think that where the bible is silent, they should be silent, speculative theologians use metaphysical philosophy to ponder the other side of faith that isn't covered in revelation. Feuerbach saw that speculative theology had become a massive edifice of lofty assumptions that had lost touch with the true anthropological nature of religion. In response, he would encourage a return to reason and empiricism for the study of religion.
To really grasp the power of Feuerbach's deconstruction of Christianity, we need to understand the central idea behind it. The self, he argues, comes into consciousness by contrast with another self. By differentiating our self from this other self, we realize that we are a member of a collective, of a species. Feuerbach's contention is that, driven by our wishes and feelings, we placed the idea of our species into that of an individual being, then made ourselves subject to that being. An individual can have failings and weaknesses that the species as a whole will not. Thus, we unconsciously projected our desires and emotions into a god modeled on humankind, and subjected ourselves to it as a hopeful way of realizing those desires for ourselves, as well as understanding our species.
On the face of it, this notion looks highly speculative, but Feuerbach unpacks it throughout the book with impressive effort and clarity. That consciousness would arise from observation or experience of another self does seem reasonable, and as the examples of projection within Christianity pile up, it becomes increasingly fruitless to object that it could be wrong, as if the possibility alone would make it so. If we stop to consider how a species like us would try and comprehend ourselves through the guise of a higher being - never mind for a moment whether that higher being exists or not - it's very plausible that the anthropomorphisms Feuerbach finds in Christianity are quite real. In fact, even a few modern Christian denominations, like the Lutherans, will admit this to some degree.
II. Humanity Behind the Holy
Part of how Feuerbach reveals the true anthropological essence of Christianity is by undermining its traditional doctrines and supernatural claims. He takes on everything from the incarnation and the trinity to miracles, prayer, resurrection, and faith itself. Some of his points are stronger than others, particularly the arguments on the relationship of love to the Christian faith, shown in the excerpt above, and his comments on miracles, quoted in the excerpt below.
Far from mere speculation, Feuerbach lays out the inconsistencies in Christianity and provides alternative explanations that have reason, experience, and sometimes evidence on their side. Through it all, he does a remarkable job of tying in each article of faith with our deepest desires to illustrate that beneath all the facade, there is much less of a distinction between the human and the divine. Love is not divine because god is loving, but rather god is loving because we view love itself as divine. Miracle is not divine because god is a miracle-worker, but because we value the unlimited, imaginative realm of possibilities that miracle opens up before us, which gives our feelings and wishes a much greater field of fulfillment.
Many of Feuerbach's arguments are corroborated by experience and example too. A god that has no love in it we almost universally regard as unworthy of 'godship.' For countless religious believers, Christian or otherwise, miracles form an integral part of their faith. Christianity has a miracle at the very heart of it with the resurrection. Although Christians will often viciously rebuke those who suggest that god's actions in the bible are immoral, they seem to have no difficulty with declaring the morality of god based on their own understanding of the text. One need only look at the apologetics of Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell, or Paul Copan to find ready examples of these, but they can be found in virtually any form of Christianity as well, and they are just a few instances of how human desires can be found behind the holy - not as some incidental thing, but shaping and defining what is considered holy.
III. Explanatory Power
The strength of The Essence of Christianity mostly lies in its explanatory power. Whether or not one believes the supernatural claims of religion, it is an undeniable fact that religion is a human enterprise, at least in part. Christianity's central claim involves the relationship between human beings and god, and because human beings obviously participate in that relationship, it means human perspective is a part of religion. This is not a controversial thought in any form of Christianity, as far as I'm aware. Where things get more heated is with the question of whether or not there is more beyond this human perspective. Believers will say yes, non-believers will say no.
Yet the burden of proof is on the believer, because she has already consented to the non-believer's only positive claim, that religion is a human enterprise. Feuerbach's argument is persuasive because it accounts for the contradictions that faith cannot, it utilizes an already acknowledged component of religion as the explanation for it, and experience and reason strongly support many of his points. What is left now is for the believer to justify the rest of their religion, but in nearly 2,000 years, Christianity has repeatedly failed to produce reliable evidence of its supernatural claims.
Perhaps we should be glad for this, though. As Feuerbach explains in the second half of the book, there is a good deal of collateral damage that results from separating the divine and human so sharply. If the biblical god forms our conception of love, for example, we will have a very troubled and distorted idea of love. "[I]f we do not sacrifice God to love, we sacrifice love to God" and betray another important part of our humanity. Pascal's wager is naive indeed to pretend that the Christian loses nothing if he is wrong, but Feuerbach goes even further by illustrating that even if he's right, the Christian incurs a cost.
IV. In Summary
The Essence of Christianity is a classic in several ways: as an early work of atheistic thought, as a critique of Hegelian theology, and as a major influence on the psychological and sociological study of religion that continued under Sigmund Freud and others. I consider this one of the most important books in religious studies, and yet it is oddly absent from the majority of religious discussion today, even among atheists. Having been translated from German originally, and containing some fairly sophisticated ideas in an older literary style, it's not always easy to navigate and will require some careful reading. Some sections may feel a bit long and weary on the reader's interest too, but I would say it's worth persevering to read through the numerous insights of this wonderful book.
I should warn against the edition published by CreateSpace in 2011, however, as I have encountered numerous reviews that criticize it for inconsistent editing, poor notations, and questionable length. The edition I've reviewed here is the 2004 Barnes & Noble edition referenced below and linked to at the top left of this page, and I have no complaints against it. If you are interested in the anthropomorphic aspects of Christianity, or a humanistic theory on its origins, this is a highly recommended work.
1. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (2004, Barnes & Noble Publishing), p. 56.
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