Lectures on the Essence of Religion

Ludwig Feuerbach

Eleventh Lecture

AS I HAVE ALREADY said, the paragraphs underlying the present lectures merely provide scientific justification and proof of the insight which, from antiquity to the present day, naïve primitive peoples have expressed, though not consciously, in their worship of nature as a divine being, namely, the insight that nature is primary and fundamental, and cannot be derived from anything else. But before going any further, I must counter two objections.

First, it may be argued: Come now, you unbeliever—do you really mean to justify nature religion? You who have been so merciless in your criticism of the philosophers who justify the Christian dogma? Are you not putting yourself in their position, with the sole difference that the dogma you are setting out to justify is that of nature religion? I reply: I do not look upon nature as an origin because nature religion worships it as such; rather, I start from the fact that nature is the ultimate and immediate origin, and infer that it must also have appeared as such to primitive peoples, who were close to the origin and hence to nature. In other words, the fact that men deified nature does not demonstrate the truth of the underlying idea; but it does, to my mind, confirm the impression that nature makes on me as a sensuous being; it strengthens the reasons that impel me as an intellectual, philosophical, civilized being to ascribe to nature not the same significance as that ascribed to it by nature religion—for I deify nature no more than I deify anything else—but a similar significance, corrected only by the natural sciences and philosophy.

Yes, I sympathize with the religious worshipers of nature; I passionately [89/90] admire and revere nature; not through books, not on the strength of learned proofs, but by my own immediate observations and impressions of nature, I understand how the ancient peoples and even certain peoples of our own day have been able to worship nature as a god. I still find grounds for this divinity or deification not only in my heart, with its power to be moved by nature, but in my mind as well. From this I infer—since the worshipers of sun, fire, and the stars are as human as I—that they deified nature on grounds similar to mine, though differing in accordance with their historical situation. I do not, like the historians, draw inferences from the past to the present, I do the opposite. Unlike them I regard the present as the key to the past, not the past as the key to the present, for the simple reason that, though often unconsciously and involuntarily, I always appraise, judge, know the past in accordance with my present situation. That is why each epoch creates a different history of an inherently dead and immutable past. Consequently I acknowledge the value of nature religion, not because I take it as an external authority, but solely because even today I find within myself the motives of nature religion, motives which, if they were not countered by culture, science, and philosophy, would still make me a nature worshiper today. Such a statement may smack of arrogance; but what a man does not know by his own lights, he does not know at all. Anyone whose own feeling does not make it clear to him why it was possible for men to deify the moon, plants, and animals will also be unable to understand the historical fact of nature worship, regardless of how many books he may read and write about nature religion.

The second objection is this: You speak of nature without giving us a definition of nature, without telling us what you mean by nature. Spinoza speaks of “nature, or God” as synonymous. Do you too take the word in this indefinite sense, which makes it child’s play to prove that nature is the origin, since by nature you mean nothing other than God? I reply in few words: By nature I mean the sum of all the sensuous forces, things, and beings which man distinguishes from himself as other than human; in general, as I said in one of the first lectures, I argue with Spinoza in defining nature, not as a supernatural God, a being acting with will and reason, but as a being which acts only in accordance with its inner [90/91] necessity. But unlike Spinoza, I do not look on nature as a God, as supernatural, supersensual, remote, recondite, and One; it is a manifold, public, actual being which can be perceived with all the senses.

Or in practical terms: nature is everything which man, notwithstanding the supernaturalist whisperings of theistic faith, experiences directly and sensuously as the ground and substance of his life. Nature is light, electricity, magnetism, air, water, fire, earth, animals, plants; nature is man, insofar as he is a being who acts instinctively and unconsciously—and I claim nothing more; there is nothing mystical, nothing nebulous, nothing theological in my use of the word. In my use of the word, I appeal to the senses. Jupiter, said one of the ancients, is everything you see; nature, say I, is every visible thing that is not the product of human hand or human thought. Or, if we wish to enter into the anatomy of nature, nature is the being, or the sum of beings and things, whose manifestations, expressions, or effects, in which its existence and essence consist and are revealed, have their ground not in thoughts or purposes or acts of will, but in astronomical or cosmic, mechanical, chemical, physical, physiological, or organic forces or causes.

Paragraphs six and seven, which will serve as the text of the present lecture, are a defense and justification of paganism against the polemics of the Christians, and tie in with an earlier assertion of mine, to the effect that the Christian religion does not differ from pagan religion in asserting the existence of a divine being, but only in the fact that its God is not a particular object in nature or even nature as a whole, but a being distinct from nature. The Christians, at least the more reasonable among them, condemned the pagans not for delighting in the beauty and utility of nature, but for finding the cause of these benefits in nature itself, for worshiping earth, water, fire, the sun, and the moon for their beneficial properties which, in the Christian view, stem from the author of nature, who should therefore alone be honored, feared and praised. True, the Christian critics went on, sun, earth, water bring forth the animals and plants that men live on, but they are only secondary causes which are themselves caused; the true cause is the first cause. [91/92]

In defending the pagans against this argument, I start by questioning the existence of a first cause such as that posited by the Christians, basing my argument on an example, or rather a parable, drawn from the Christian tradition. Adam is the first man; in the series of men he holds the place occupied by the first cause in the series of natural causes or things; my parents, grandparents, etc., are children of Adam, just as the causes in nature are effects of the first cause; Adam alone has no father, only the first cause has no cause. Yet I do not honor and love Adam as my father; Adam encompasses all men; in him all individuality is effaced. Adam is equally the father of Negro and white, Slav and Norseman, Frenchman and German; but I am not a man in general; my existence, my being, is individual, I am a member of the Caucasian race, and within this race of a particular people, the German people. Therefore the cause of my being is necessarily an individual, definite cause; that cause is my parents and grandparents, in short, the generations of people that are closest to me.

If I go further back, I lose all trace of my existence; I find no characteristics from which I can derive my own. A man of the seventeenth century could never, even apart from the time interval, be the father of a man of the nineteenth century, because the qualitative distance, the distance between customs, habits, ideas, attitudes—and these leave even a physical imprint—is too great. Just as man in revering the authors of his existence stops with his immediate ancestors and does not go back to the first ancestor, because in him he does not find his own inalienable individuality, so in considering the causes of his existence he stops at the sensuous beings of nature. I am what I am only in this nature, in nature as it is now, as it has been within the memory of man. It is only to the beings I see and feel—or which, if I myself do not see and feel them, are at least inherently visible, tangible, or otherwise sensuous beings—that I, a sensuous being who without senses would sink into nothingness, owe my existence. Even though this nature is the outcome of change, even though it was preceded by a nature of a different kind, I owe my existence only to a nature of the kind in which I live, the nature with which my nature is compatible. Even if there is a first cause as posited by theology, nevertheless sun, earth, water, in short all nature, had to be, and had to [92/93] be as they are before I could come into being; for without sun, without earth, I myself am nothing; I presuppose nature.

Why then should I go beyond nature? That would be justified only if I myself were above and beyond nature. But far from being supernatural, I am not even supraterrestrial; for the earth is the absolute measure of my being. Not only do I stand on the earth; the earth and the position it occupies in the universe also determine the way in which I think and feel. True, I raise my eyes to the remotest heavens; but I see all things in the light and measure of the earth. In short, I am an earthly being, not an inhabitant of Venus, Mercury, or Uranus, and this, as the philosophers say, constitutes my substance, my fundamental being. Even though the earth too has an origin, I owe my own origin to it alone, to its origin; for the existence of the earth is the sole ground of human existence, its being is the sole ground of human being. The earth is a planet, man is a planetary being, a being whose career is possible and real only within the career of a planet. But the earth differs from other planets. It has its own special character, its individuality, and this individuality is the salt of the earth.

Even if we justifiably assume that all the planets originated in the same cause, force, or substance, nevertheless the force that produced the earth was different from the force that produced Mercury or Uranus, a force so peculiarly constituted that it gave rise to this planet and no other. Man owes his existence to this individual cause, inseparable from the character of the earth. The revolutionary impact which released the earth from its mystical immersion in the matter common to the sun, the planets, the comets—a revolution which, as Kant puts it in his magnificent Theory of the Heavens, had its ground in the “diversity of the elements”—to this break or impact we can still trace the movement of our blood and the vibrations of our nerves. The first cause is the universal cause, the cause of all things without distinction; but in reality the cause that makes everything without distinction makes nothing at all, it is a mere concept, a figment of thought; it has only logical and metaphysical, but no physical significance; I, this individual being, simply cannot be derived from it. Those who speak of the first cause—first in the theological sense, I hasten to add—do so in order to cut short the infinite series of causes. This endless chain [93/94] of causes can best be elucidated by the above-cited example of the origin of man. The cause of my existence is my father, the cause of his existence is his father, and so on. But can I carry on this chain ad infinitum? Has man always given existence to man? Does such a series solve the problem of man's origin? Or am I not, by proceeding from father to father, simply postponing the answer? Must I not come to a first man or a first human couple? And where do they come from?

But the same applies to all the things and beings that make up this sensuous world. One presupposes another; one depends on another; all are finite, all came into being, one originating in another. But where, the theist asks, does the first member of the series come from? Accordingly we must effect a leap out of the series to a First which, itself without beginning, is the beginning of all originated beings, itself endless or infinite, the ground of all finite beings. This is one of the most common proofs of the existence of God; it is called the cosmological proof and variously formulated. For example: everything that is, the world, is subject to change, temporal, originated, contingent; but the contingent presupposes the necessary, the finite the infinite, the temporal the eternal; this infinite, eternal being is God. Or in another form: everything that is, everything sensuous and real, is a cause of certain effects, but a cause which is itself an effect and which itself has a cause, and so on; hence it is necessary, our reason demands it, to stop at a cause which no longer has any cause over it, which is not itself caused, which, as some philosophers put it, is self-caused or self-created. The ancient philosophers and theologians accordingly defined the finite, the not-divine, as that which exists through something else, and the infinite, or God, as that which is self-caused or self-created.

But against this inference the following can be argued. Even though reason rebels against tracing back causes ad infinitum in connection with man or even the earth, even though we cannot derive the present state of the earth from a previous state, but must eventually come to a point where man originates in nature and the earth in the planetary mass or whatever we choose to call its original substance—nevertheless, in its application to nature or the universe as a whole, such an endless series is by no [94/95] means incompatible with a reason formed by observation of the world. It is only the limitations of man’s thinking, his taste for convenience, that replace time by eternity, the endless chain from cause to cause by infinity, dynamic nature by a stable Godhead, eternal motion by eternal rest. True, for me, a man living in the present, it is unreasonable, unprofitable, tedious, in fact impossible, to think or even imagine that the world has no beginning and no end; but this need of mine to break off the endless series is no proof of a real break in the series, of a real beginning and end.

Even in the area of human consciousness, even in the realm of history, of things produced by man himself, we see how, partly out of ignorance to be sure, but partly out of the mere tendency to abbreviate and make things easy for ourselves, we break off our historical investigations and substitute One Cause, One Name for the many names, the many causes which it would be too complicated, too tedious to track down, and which in fact often escape man altogether. Just as man attaches the name of one individual to an invention, to the founding of a state, the building of a city, the rise of a nation, although any number of unknown names and individuals have played a part, so he attaches the name of God to the universe—and indeed all inventors, all founders of cities and states have been looked upon as gods. Most of the ancient names of historical or mythical men, heroes, and gods were collective names, which subsequently became individual names. Even the word “God,” like all names as a matter of fact, was originally not a proper name but a general or generic term. [9] Even in the Bible, the Greek word Theos and the Hebrew word Elohim are used for other objects than God. The principalities and powers are called gods, the Devil is called the God of this world, and even the belly is termed the God of mankind or at least of some men—a passage which horrified Luther. “Who ever heard such language?” he says. “Who ever heard it said that the belly is God? It would not be fitting for me to talk in this way if Paul had not done so, for I can think of no more disgraceful way of talking. Is it not deplorable that the shameful, stinking, filthy belly should be called a God?”

Even when used in accordance with the philosophical definition that God is the most real, that is, the most perfect being, the [95/96] epitome of all perfections, “God” is essentially no more than a collective name; for when I stop to consider the diversity of the attributes that are encompassed in God, I cannot dispel the impression that they are different things or beings, and I find that the word God is just such a collective or generic term as, for example, the words fruit, grain, or people.

Each of God’s attributes, as theology or theological philosophy tells us, is God Himself, each of God’s attributes can stand for God Himself. Even in everyday life people say Divine Providence, Divine Wisdom, Divine Omnipotence in place of God. But God’s attributes are very different and even conflicting in character. Let us confine ourselves to His most popular attributes. How different are power, wisdom, lovingkindness, justice! One can be powerful without wisdom, wise without power, kind without justice and just without kindness. Fiat justitia pereat mundus, let the world perish if only justice prevails, is a motto of jurisprudence, of justice; but in this characteristic expression of justice there is certainly no spark of kindness or even of wisdom; for man does not exist for the sake of justice, justice exists for the sake of man. Accordingly as I think of God’s power, the power which can destroy me if it so wishes, or as I think of God’s justice as characterized in the motto I have just cited, I conceive of very different beings under the name of God. And again I have a very different God than if I think only of His kindness.

Thus the difference between polytheism and monotheism is not so great as it appears. In consequence of the multiplicity and diversity of His attributes, there are many Gods in the One God. The difference is at most that between a collective term and a generic term. Or rather, this is the difference: in polytheism God is manifest and visible, a mere collective noun; in monotheism the sensuous characteristics vanish, the appearances of polytheism are dropped, but the essence, the thing itself, remains. That is why the various attributes of the One God among Christians have waged just as many wars with one another, and not only dogmatic but also bloody wars, as the many gods of Homer’s Olympus.

The early theologians, philosophers, and mystics said that God encompassed everything in the world, but that what in the world is multiple, dispersed, disjoined, sensuous, distributed among different [96/97] beings, is in God simple, nonsensuous, and united. Here we have a clear statement that in God man concentrates the essential attributes of the many different things and beings in One Being, One Name, that in God man did not originally or truly conceive a being different from the world, but merely represented the world in a mode differing from sense perception; what man conceived of in the world or in sensuous reality as extensive, temporal, and corporeal he conceived of in God as without extension, atemporal, and incorporeal. In eternity he merely sums up the infinite temporal series, the full extension of which cannot be conceived, and in omnipresence he merely sums up the infinity of space in an abbreviated generic term or concept; for sound subjective reasons, he makes use of eternity as a means of breaking off endless series of numbers and the infinitely tedious reckoning it entails. But neither this break, nor the tediousness of series of times and spaces progressing ad infinitum, nor even the contradictions connected in our minds or in the abstract with the concept of infinite time or infinite space, allow us to infer the necessity of a real beginning or end of the world, of space, or of time.

The very nature of thought and speech, the requirements of life itself oblige us to make use of abbreviations on every hand, to substitute concepts for intuitions, signs for objects, in a word, the abstract for the concrete, the one for the many, and accordingly one cause for many different causes, one individual for different individuals as their representative. In this sense it is perfectly right to say that reason, at least as long as reason, not yet disciplined by observation of the world, regards itself uncritically as the essence of the world, as the objective absolute essence, leads necessarily to the idea of divinity. But we must not single out this necessity, this idea, we must not isolate it from other phenomena, ideas, and representations which are equally necessary but which we nevertheless recognize as subjective, that is, based only on the peculiar nature of representation, thought, and speech, and to which we ascribe no objective validity and existence, no existence outside of ourselves.

The same necessity that impelled man to substitute the name of one individual for a series of individuals, indeed for whole generations and peoples, that impelled him to substitute number for [97/98] intuitable quantities and letters for numbers, that impelled him to say fruit instead of pear, apple, and cherry, to say money instead of dollars and cents, shillings and pounds, to say give me that thing, instead of give me that knife or book—the same necessity also impelled him, where he believed in an originated world, to replace the many causes contributing to the genesis and preservation of the world with One Being, One Name. But for that very reason this One is just as much a subjective being, that is, a being grounded and existing only in man, in the nature of man’s representation, thought, and speech, as thing, money, or fruit. And the fact that the idea or concept of God in its metaphysical significance rests on the same grounds as the idea or concept “thing” or “fruit” proves at the very least that the gods of polytheism are nothing other than collective or class names and concepts represented as beings.

The Romans, to stay with the examples already cited, had a goddess of money, Pecunia; they even made the chief kinds or classes of money, bronze money and silver money, into gods. They had a Deus Aesculanus or Aerinus, i. e., bronze or copper god, a Deus Argentinus, a silver-god. They also had a fruit-god, Pomona. If we do not find all the class names and concepts as gods among the Greeks and Romans, it is solely because the egoistic, bigoted Romans, in particular, deified only things connected with human egoism. Why, the Romans even worshiped a dung-god, a Deus Stercutius, in order that fertilizer might prosper their fields! But dung is a generic concept; there are many kinds of dung, pigeon dung, horse dung, cow dung, etc.

Now to another argument against the usual inference of a first, uncaused cause. Everything that is, is dependent, or, as others put it, has the ground of its existence outside of itself; since it does not subsist by and through itself, it presupposes a being that is not dependent on others, that is because it is. In refutation of this proof, I again adduce the example of man; for ultimately it is man alone that man takes as his starting point, man whose dependence and origin he takes as a model for the dependence and origin of all sensuous things. True, I am dependent on my parents, grandparents, etc.; if others had not existed before me, I would not exist; but nevertheless I am an independent being, different from my parents; I am what I am not only thanks to others, but also thanks [98/99] to myself; true, I stand on the shoulders of my ancestors, but even on their shoulders I stand on my own feet; true, I was begotten and conceived without my knowledge or will; but I did not come into the world without a drive, unconscious to be sure at the time, toward independence and freedom, toward emancipation from my dependence on the womb.

In short, I was begotten, I am or was dependent on my parents; but I myself am also a father and a man, and the fact that I came into being, that I was once a child, that I was once physically and mentally dependent on my parents, lies far behind my present self-awareness. This much is certain: despite the enormous conscious and unconscious influence of my parents, I do not live in the past. At present I have father and mother in myself alone, no other being, not even a God, will help me unless I help myself; I stand and fall by my own resources. The swaddling clothes in which parental providence once swathed me have long since rotted away; why then should my mind endure bonds that my feet long ago kicked off?

SOURCE: Feuerbach, Ludwig. Lectures on the Essence of Religion, translated by Ralph Manheim (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), Eleventh Lecture, pp. 89-99.

Ludwig Feuerbach: A Bibliography

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

Historical Surveys of Atheism, Freethought, Rationalism, Skepticism, and Materialism: Selected Works

Atheism / Freethought / Humanism / Rationalism / Skepticism / Unbelief / Secularism / Church-State Separation Web Links


Lectures on the Essence of Religion (1851)
First Lecture (unabridged)
by Ludwig Feuerbach

Ludwig Feuerbach -- Lectures on the Essence of Religion. lecture 1, pt 2
(YouTube audio)

Lectures on the Essence of Religion (1851)
Lectures I & XXX
by Ludwig Feuerbach

Ludwig Feuerbach @ Reason & Society

Ludwig Feuerbach: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Ludwig-Feuerbach-Gesellschaft Nürnberg e.V.

Home Page | Site Map | What's New | Coming Attractions | Book News
Bibliography | Mini-Bibliographies | Study Guides | Special Sections
My Writings | Other Authors' Texts | Philosophical Quotations
Blogs | Images & Sounds | External Links

CONTACT Ralph Dumain

Uploaded 8 March 2012

Site ©1999-2012 Ralph Dumain