Lectures on the Essence of Religion

Ludwig Feuerbach

Second Lecture

JUST AS LEIBNIZ is the opposite pole to Spinoza, so Leibniz’s opposite pole from a theological point of view is the French scholar and sceptic Pierre Bayle. The maxim audiatur et altera pars applies not only in jurisprudence, but in all science. In accordance with that maxim, I thought it appropriate that the German philosopher, a believer at least in a philosophical sense, should be followed in the series of my works by the unbelieving or at least sceptical French philosopher. Actually my reason for writing this book was not only philosophical, but practical as well. All my works have been written in opposition to a period when every effort was made to force mankind back into the darkness of bygone centuries. This is also true of my Bayle. It appeared at a time when, particularly in Bavaria and Rhenish Prussia, the old conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism had flared up anew with the most repugnant violence. Bayle was one of the first and most outstanding champions of enlightenment, humanity, and tolerance unfettered by either Catholic or Protestant faith. The purpose of my Bayle was to teach and to shame a present immersed in folly and malice by arousing such a voice from the past.

In the first chapter I show that Catholicism, with its monasteries, its saints, its celibate clergy, etc., differs from Protestantism in that its essence lies in the antithesis between flesh and spirit. In the second, dealing with Protestantism, I show that it differs from Catholicism in that its essence lies in the antithesis between faith and reason. The third deals with the contradiction between theology and philosophy or the scientific spirit in general; for to theology, I say, only what it holds sacred is true, whereas to philosophy, only what it holds true is sacred. Theology is grounded on a particular principle, a particular book, which, it believes, contains all truths, or at least those that are necessary and salutary to man; consequently it is of necessity narrow-minded, exclusive, intolerant, bigoted. Philosophy and science, on the other hand, are not based on any particular book, but find the truth only in nature and history as a whole; they are grounded on reason, which is in essence universal—not on faith, which is in essence particular.

The fourth chapter treats of the conflict or contradiction between religion and ethics, or of Bayle’s ideas on atheism. Bayle held that man can be just as moral without religion, since most men are immoral and live immorally with and in spite of all their religion; that atheism does not necessarily imply immorality, and that a state can therefore perfectly well be made up of atheists. Bayle uttered these thoughts as early as 1680; yet only a   year ago* a baron and deputy was not ashamed to declare before the assembled Prussian Diet that he favored state recognition and political rights for all denominations, but not for atheists. The fifth chapter treats expressly of the autonomy of ethics, its independence of religious dogmas and opinions; what in the fourth chapter is proved by examples from history and daily life, is here demonstrated by the very nature of ethics.

The sixth chapter treats of the contradictions between the Christian dogmas and reason, the seventh of the significance of the contradiction between faith and reason in Bayle. For Bayle lived at a time when faith still possessed such authority that men believed, or forced themselves to believe, what their reason recognized to be false and absurd. The eighth chapter treats of Bayle’s importance as an opponent of the religious prejudices of his day. The ninth and last chapter deals with Bayle’s character and his place in the history of philosophy.

The book on Bayle is the last of my historical studies. My approach to more recent philosophers has been exclusively that of a critic, not that of a historian. The more recent philosophers differ in one striking respect from their predecessors. For the earlier philosophers separated philosophy and religion and even set them in opposition, arguing that religion is grounded on divine wisdom and authority, while philosophy is grounded solely on human wisdom—or, as Spinoza put it, that religion aims solely at the advantage and welfare of man, while philosophy aims at the truth; while the most recent philosophers stand for the identity of philosophy and religion, at least as far as content and substance are concerned. It was this identity that I set out to attack. As early as 1830, when my Thoughts on Death and Immortality appeared, I found myself involved in an argument with a dogmatist of the Hegelian school, who maintained that there is only a formal difference between religion and philosophy, that philosophy merely raised to the level of the concept what religion possessed in the form of images. I replied in the following verse:

Essence itself is form. You therefore destroy the content of
Faith by destroying the image, its own appropriate form

I criticized the Hegelian philosophy for regarding the essential as nonessential and the nonessential as essential in religion. The essence of religion, I declared, is precisely what philosophy regards as mere form.

A work deserving of special mention in this connection is a short pamphlet which appeared in 1839 under the title: On Philosophy and Christianity. Despite all attempts at compromise, I wrote, the difference between religion and philosophy is ineradicable, for philosophy is a matter of thought, of reason, while religion is a matter of emotion and imagination. But religion does not, as Hegel maintains, merely translate speculative ideas into emotionally charged images, but also contains an element that is distinct from thought, and this element is not merely its form but its very essence. This element can in one word be termed sensuousness, for emotion and imagination are also rooted in sensibility. Those who take umbrage at the word because it connotes carnal appetite are asked to consider that not only the belly, but the head as well, is a part of the human body. In my work sensuousness is nothing other than the true unity, a unity that is not cogitated or constructed but really exists, between matter and spirit; thus it is in my work tantamount to reality. To clarify this distinction between religion and philosophy, let me cite—but only as one example out of many—a doctrine which throws special light on it. The early philosophers, or some of them at least, postulated immortality, but only the immortality of the thinking part of us, of man’s spirit as opposed to his body. Some went so far as to teach explicitly that even memory died away and that only pure thought, an abstraction which of course has no existence in reality, remained after death. But this is an abstract, derived immortality, not what is meant by immortality in religion. Rejecting this philosophical immortality, Christianity professed the survival of the whole, real man body and soul, for this is the only kind of survival that means anything to feeling and imagination, and precisely because it is a bodily survival. What is true of this particular doctrine is true of religion in general. God himself is a sensuous being, an object of vision; not of physical vision to be sure, but of spiritual, that is, imaginative vision. Thus we can reduce the difference between philosophy and religion to the simple statement that religion is sensuous and aesthetic, while philosophy is nonsensuous and abstract.

Now, although even in my earlier works I recognized sensuousness to be the essence of religion as opposed to philosophy, I was unable to accept this religious sensuousness, first of all because it is merely imaginary and affective, in conflict with reality. The body—to stay with our example—the body, which is stressed in religious as opposed to philosophical immortality, is a mere product of the imagination and of emotion, a “spiritual” body, that is, to all intents and purposes no body at all. Accordingly religion is a recognition, an affirmation of sensuousness against sensuousness. A second reason why I was unable to accept the sensuousness of religion was that in this connection I myself still took the position of an abstract thinker, and had not yet grasped the full importance of the senses. At least I had not yet achieved full clarity in the matter. I arrived at a full appreciation of the world of sense on the one hand through further and more penetrating study of religion, on the other hand through the direct study of nature, for which my life in the country gave me excellent opportunity. Thus it was only in my later work on philosophy and the philosophy of religion that I resolutely attacked both the abstract inhumanity of philosophy and the fictitious, illusory humanity of religion. It was only then that, fully aware of what I was doing, I replaced the abstract, merely cogitated cosmic being known as God by the reality of the world, or nature; that I replaced the rational being deprived of his senses, which philosophy has extracted out of man, by the real, sensuous man endowed with reason.

Among my works on the philosophy of religion, those which provide the best over-all view of my intellectual development and its result are my Thoughts on Death and Immortality and my subsequent works on the same theme. I have dealt with the subject on three occasions: in 1830 in the book so titled, my first published work; in 1834 in The Author and the Man, and in 1846 in The Question of Immortality from the Standpoint of Anthropology. I first dealt with the matter as an abstract thinker; on the second occasion I emphasized the contradiction between thought and sensibility; on the third I took the standpoint of a thinker reconciled with the world of senses. Or, to put it differently: I wrote the first book as a philosopher, the second as a humorist, the third as a human being. Nevertheless, the Thoughts on Death and Immortality of 1830 already contain in the abstract what was fully developed in the later books.

In my more recent works I have given nature precedence over man, but already in that first book I took up cudgels against the idea of a natureless, absolute, and consequently eternal personality, in short, against the idea of a personality infinitely extended and free from the limitations of reality, as conceived in the usual doctrine of God and immortality. An excerpt from this book is published in my collected works. The first section is entitled “The Metaphysical and Speculative Ground of Death.” It deals with the relation of the personality to being, or nature. The limit of the personality, I say in substance, is nature; everything that exists outside of me is a sign of my finiteness, a proof that I am not an absolute being, that I have my limit in the existence of other beings, that I am consequently not an immortal person. This truth, first expressed in general or metaphysical terms, is developed in the other sections. The next is titled: “The Physical Ground of Death.” In it I write that the essence of human personality, of personality in general, implies spatial or temporal determinateness. Indeed, man is not only a spatial being, he is also essentially an earthly being, inseparable from the earth. How absurd it is, then, to impute eternal, supraterrestrial. existence to such a being! I framed this idea in the following verses:

Where you awoke to the light, there one day you will slumber;
Never will Earth release any man from its precinct.

The third and last section is titled: “The Intellectual or Psychological Ground of Death.” The simple underlying idea is: the personality is determined not only in a bodily or sensuous, but also in an intellectual sense; a man has a limited vocation, position, task in the great community of mankind, in history; and with this limitation eternal life is not compatible. He endures only in his works, in the influence which he has exerted within his sphere, his historical task. Moral, ethical. immortality means nothing else. This idea, contained in the third and last section, is also that of my “humoristico-philosophical aphorisms.” Intellectual, ethical, or moral immortality is solely the immortality a man gains through his works. A man’s soul is what he passionately loves, what he does with passion. Men’s souls are as diverse, as particular as men themselves. Accordingly, immortality in the old sense of eternal boundless being is consonant only with a vague, indeterminate soul that does not exist in reality but is merely a human abstraction and fantasy. However, I demonstrated these ideas, the fundamental ideas of the book, only for a special case, the example of the writer whose immortal spirit is nothing other than the spirit of his works.

For the third and last time I dealt with immortality in my treatise The Question of Immortality from the Standpoint of Anthropology. The first section treats of the common faith in immortality, found among most if not all peoples in their state of childhood or ignorance. Here I show that those who believe in immortality impute their own ideas to primitive peoples: that these peoples actually do not believe in another life, but only in this life, that for them the life of the dead is merely a life in the realm of memory, and that the living dead are merely personified images of the dead in the minds of the living. I show further that if you insist on a personal or individual immortality, you can only take the view prevailing among primitive peoples, for whom a man after death is in every respect the same as before death, endowed with the same passions, occupations, and needs, because a man is inseparable from these. The second section deals with the subjective necessity of the belief in immortality, that is, with the inner, psychological motives which give rise to man’s belief in immortality. The concluding proposition of this section is that immortality is really needed only by dreamy, idle people, whose imagination carries them away from their real lives, and not by energetic people concerned with the things of real life. The third chapter deals with the “critical belief in immortality,” that is, the view of those who no longer hold that the whole man with his flesh and bones continues to exist after death, but draw a critical distinction between the mortal and immortal essence of man. But this view, I say, is itself subject to doubt and criticism; for it is contrary to man’s immediate sense and consciousness of unity, which leads him to reject with incredulity any such a critical division and cleavage in man’s nature. The last chapter deals with the belief in immortality that still prevails among us, the “rationalistic belief in immortality,” which, torn as it is between belief and unbelief, seemingly affirms but actually negates immortality by confounding unbelief with belief, this world with the next, time with eternity, nature with God, and the profane heaven of astronomy with the heaven of religion.

Here I have given a brief and superficial survey of my ideas on immortality and death. I have done so because ordinarily, and quite justly, the problem of immortality forms a main chapter in any discussion of religion or the philosophy of religion, whereas I shall disregard the belief in immortality, or rather treat it only insofar as it is connected with, or rather is one with, the belief in God.

* I.e., in 1847.—TRANS.

SOURCE: Feuerbach, Ludwig. Lectures on the Essence of Religion, translated by Ralph Manheim (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), Second Lecture, pp. 10-16.

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