Lectures on the Essence of Religion

Ludwig Feuerbach

Fifteenth Lecture


As I have just said, I do not claim, with these remarks, to have explained the natural phenomena which theists explain teleologically. I will go further and contend that, even if natural phenomena could be explained only teleologically, this would by no means justify the consequences drawn by theology. Let us concede for the moment that the eye can be accounted for by the hypothesis of a being who in forming or creating the eye had in mind the purpose of vision; that the eye does not see because it is constructed as it is, but was so constructed in order that it might see. But even if all this is conceded to the teleologists, I still deny the need to infer the existence of a being who can plausibly bear the name of God; in other words, I deny that my concession carries us beyond nature. The means and purposes in nature are always natural means and purposes; why then should they refer us to a supernatural and extranatural being? You say that you cannot explain the world to your own satisfaction without assuming a personal, spiritual being to be its author. Very well. But will you then kindly explain how a world can spring from God, how spirit, mind, thought—for what does a mind produce but thought?—can engender flesh and blood? I am willing to concede that purpose as such, purpose as you conceive it in your minds, purpose disjoined from its content, object, or matter, points to a God, a mind; but I contend that this purpose and its author, the being who acts in accordance with purposes, exist solely in your heads, just as the first cause of theism is solely the personified concept of cause, just as God’s essence is merely the abstracted (i. e., abstracted from all particular determinations) essence of particular things, and just as the existence of God is merely the concept of existence.

For purposes are as different and as material as are the organs of these purposes; how can you, how do you propose to sever the purposes from their organs? How, for example, will you dissociate the purpose of the eye, namely, vision, from the sclera, the retina, the iris, the aqueous fluid, the vitreous humor, and the other elements requisite to vision? But if you cannot dissociate the purpose of the eye from the material means and organs that serve it, how are you going to dissociate the being who produced the purpose of the eye from the being who produced the various materials through which the purpose is carried out? But can a being who is not material or corporeal be the cause of purposes that are exclusively the consequence of material, corporeal instrumentalities and organs? How, from purposes that are dependent solely on material, corporeal conditions and means, can you infer an immaterial, incorporeal being as their cause? A being which carries out purposes by material means alone must necessarily be a material being. How then can the works of nature be proofs and works of a God?

A God, as we shall see later on, is merely the hypostatized and objectified essence of the human imagination. A God has all the wonders of the imagination at his command; a God can do everything; like man’s desires, like man’s fancy, He is unrestricted; He can make men out of stones; He even creates the world out of nothingness. And just as everything God does is a miracle, so He himself is in essence a miracle. A God sees without eyes, hears without ears, thinks without a head, in short, He is and does everything without employing or even having the means and organs requisite to His activities. Nature, on the other hand, hears only with ears, sees only through eyes; how then can nature be derived from God? How can we derive the organ of hearing from a being who hears without ears; how can we derive the conditions and laws of nature, which govern all its phenomena and workings, from a being who is bound by no conditions or laws? In short, the works of a God are mere miracles, not works of nature. Nature is not all-powerful. It cannot do everything; it can only do things for which the conditions are present; nature, the earth for example, cannot make trees blossom and bear fruit in winter, for the necessary warmth is lacking. But a God can do so with ease. “God,” says Luther, “can make the leather of your purse into gold and make dust into pure grain and the air into a cellar full of wine.” Nature cannot make a man unless two different human organisms, a male and a female, are present and cooperate; but a God brings forth a man from a virgin’s womb without the help of a male. “Is any thing too hard for the Lord?” In short, nature is a republic, the outcome of beings and forces that need and engender each other, that work together, and all of which enjoy equal rights. The entire animal organism, which may serve as an illustration of nature, can be reduced to nerves and blood. But a nerve is nothing without blood, blood is nothing without nerves; thus in nature it is impossible to tell who is the lord and who the vassal, because all things are equally important, equally essential; here there are no privileges; the lowest is as important, as necessary as the highest; my optic nerve may be ever so admirably constituted, but if some fluid, some membrane is lacking, my eye will be unable to see. And this very fact that the organism is a republican community, that it owes its existence to cooperation among equal beings, is the source of material evil, of struggle, illness, and death; but the cause of death is also the cause of life, the cause of evil is also the cause of good.

A God, on the other hand, is a monarch, an absolute, unrestrained monarch who does what he pleases, who is “above the law,” but makes his arbitrary commandments into laws for his subjects, regardless of how contrary such laws may be to the subjects’ needs. As in a republic the only laws are those that express the will of the people, so in nature the only laws are those that are appropriate to nature itself. It is a law of nature, for example, at least among the more highly organized animals, that generation and reproduction require the cooperation of two individuals of different sex. But this is not a despotic law; sexual differentiation is inherent in the nature of the higher organisms, and because of it each member of the species develops into an independent individual, different from all others; whence it follows that the higher animals reproduce in a more difficult, less direct way than lower organisms, such as the polyps, which reproduce simply by fission. And although we can give no reason for a natural law, analogy leads us to the belief, or rather the certainty, that the law has a natural cause. But a God gives a virgin the privilege of giving birth without benefit of a man, commands fire not to bum but to behave like water, and water to behave like fire, in other words, He tells them all to produce effects that are contrary to their nature and essence, just as the commands of a despot are contrary to the nature of his subjects. In short, a God imposes His will on nature, His rule is absolute and arbitrary, just as a despot expects unnatural things of men. It is specified, for example, in Emperor Frederick II’s decree on heretics: “Since 1èse-majesté against God is a greater crime than against men, and since God visits the sins of the fathers on the children, the children of heretics shall be deemed unfit for all public offices and posts of honor, with the exception of those children who have denounced their fathers.” Can any decree or exception be more contrary to human nature? One of William the Conqueror’s many tyrannical laws was that in the towns all gatherings should disband, and that fire and light should be extinguished, when the bells rang at seven o’clock in the evening. Can there be a more unnatural restriction of human freedom, a restriction more unworthy of man? As a matter of fact, we ourselves, only a few years ago, incurred similar regulations in our principalities. Thomas Paine relates that a soldier from Brunswick who had been taken prisoner in the American Revolution said to him: “Ah, America is a beautiful, free country, worthy that a people should fight for it; I know the difference, because I know my country. In my country when the prince says eat straw, we eat straw.” Can we conceive of an order more unnatural, more contrary to the nature of man, than the order to eat straw? Does not a monarch, or at least an absolute monarch, perform just such miracles in the realm of politics as God in the realm of nature?

But is such a regime compatible with nature? Where in nature, where everything is natural and in harmony with the essence of natural things, do we find any such miraculous regime? To infer the existence of a God, that is, of a supernatural, wonder-working being from nature, is no less absurd, shows no less ignorance not only of the essence of nature but also of the essence of God, than if I were to maintain, by some mental sleight-of-hand, that a republican chief of state is a prince, king, or emperor as in our German states, and from this conclude that no state can exist without a prince. A president stems from the blood of the people; in all his being he is one with the people, he is merely the personified will of the people; he cannot do what he likes, but merely executes the laws made by the people. A prince, on the other hand, is explicitly set apart from the people, he is different in kind, as is God from the world. He is of royal blood, he does not rule over the people as the personified will of the people, but as a special being, separate from the people, just as God rules over nature as a separate supernatural being. The actions of God and king are therefore nothing more than arbitrary decrees and miracles.

But in nature, as we have said, there is only one regime, and that regime is republican. My head may be the president of my life, but it is not an absolute monarch, king by divine right; for the head is just as much a thing of flesh and blood as is the stomach or the heart; it issued from the same substance, the same basic organic matter as the other organs. True, it is over the other organs; it is the caput, the first being; but it does not differ from them in kind, in race; it does not exert despotic power; it directs the other parts of the body to perform only such actions as are in keeping with their nature; and it is not irresponsible but is punished, stripped of its command if it tries to play the prince and make unnatural demands on the stomach, the heart, or any other organ. In short, just as a republic, at least the democratic republic I have in mind, is governed not by princes but by representatives of the people, so nature is not governed by gods, but only by natural forces, natural laws, and natural elements or beings. Accordingly, it is just as absurd, just as unreasonable to derive a God from the power that governs nature as it would be to sniff out a prince or monarch in the president of a republic.

SOURCE: Feuerbach, Ludwig. Lectures on the Essence of Religion, translated by Ralph Manheim (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), Fifteenth Lecture, pp. 131-139. This excerpt: pp. 135-139.

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