Lectures on the Essence of Religion

Ludwig Feuerbach

Third Lecture

I NOW COME to those of my writings which embody my doctrine, religion, philosophy, or whatever you may choose to can it, and provide the subject matter of these lectures. This doctrine of mine is briefly as follows. Theology is anthropology: in other words, the object of religion, which in Greek we call theos and in our language God, expresses nothing other than the essence of man;  man’s God is nothing, other than the deified essence of man, so that the history of religion or, what amounts to the same thing, of God—for the gods are as varied as the religions, and the religions are as varied as mankind—is nothing other than the history of man.

Let me illustrate and clarify this assertion by an example, which however is more than an example: the Greek, the Roman, or any other pagan god, as even our theologians and philosophers admit, is merely an object of pagan religion, a being who exists only in the faith and imagination of a pagan, but not in those of a Christian people or individual; consequently, he is only an expression, an image, of the pagan spirit and disposition. Similarly, the Christian God is merely an object of the Christian religion and consequently only a characteristic expression of the spirit and disposition of Christian man. The difference between the pagan god and the Christian God is solely a difference between pagan and Christian man, taken both collectively and individually. The pagan is a patriot, the Christian a cosmopolitan; consequently the pagan’s god is a patriotic god, while that of the Christian is a cosmopolitan; the pagan, in other words, has a national, limited god, because the pagan did not rise above the limitations of his nationality but placed the nation above man; the Christian has a universal, world-encompassing God because he rises above the limitations of nationality and does not restrict the dignity and essence of man to any particular nation.

      The difference between polytheism and monotheism is merely the difference between the species and the genus. There are many species, but only one genus, since it is in the genus that the different species come together. There are different species of man, different races and peoples or whatever else we may choose to can them, but they all belong to the one genus, the genus homo. Polytheism is at home where man does not rise above the concept of the species, where he recognizes only men of his own species as his equals in rights and endowment. But the concept of species implies multiplicity; consequently there are many gods wherever man regards the essence of the species as the absolute essence. Man rises to monotheism where he rises to the concept of the genus, in which all men come together and their differences of species, race, nationality disappear. The difference between the One or its equivalent, namely, the universal God of monotheism, and the many or their equivalent, namely, the particular national gods of the pagans or polytheists, is merely the difference between the many different varieties of men and the genus homo in which all are one. The visibility, palpability, in short, the sensuous character of the polytheistic gods is nothing other than the sensuous character of the human distinctions of species and nationality—the Greeks, for example, differed visibly, palpably from other peoples; the invisibility, the nonsensuous character of the monotheistic God is nothing other than the nonsensuous character, the invisibility, of the genus, in which all men come together, but which does not exist visibly and palpably as such; for only the species exist.

In short, the difference between polytheism and monotheism reduces itself to the difference between species and genus. Genus is indeed different from species, for in considering the genus we disregard specific differences. But this does not make the genus a distinct independent reality, since it is merely the common head under which we subsume species. The generic concept stone cannot be said to transcend the mineral realm, though it is equally far removed from the concept of flint, limestone, or fluorite, and indeed designates no particular stone to the exclusion of others. Similarly God as such, the one universal God, from whom the bodily, sensuous attributes of the many gods have been removed, does not transcend the genus homo; he is only the most objectified and personified generic concept of mankind. Or put more clearly: as the polytheistic gods are human beings, so likewise is the monotheistic God a human being, just as man, though he transcends the many particular varieties of human being—Jew, Greek, or Indian—is not for that reason superhuman. Accordingly, nothing can be more absurd than to say that the Christian God descended from heaven to earth, or to trace the origin of the Christian religion back to the revelation of a being distinct from man. Just like the pagan gods, the Christian God originated in man. If He differs from the pagan gods, it is only because Christian man is different from pagan man.

I first developed this view or doctrine of mine—to the effect that the secret of theology is anthropology and that, objectively as well as subjectively, the essence of religion reveals and expresses nothing other than the essence of man—in my book The Essence of Christianity,* and subsequently in certain shorter books and articles relating to that book, for example, The Essence of Faith According to Luther, 1844,† The Difference Between the Pagan and the Christian Deification of Man, and finally, in the second edition of my History of Philosophy, where it is dealt with in various contexts, and in my Principles of Philosophy.

The view, or doctrine stated in The Essence of Christianity, or more exactly that part of my doctrine which it was possible to set forth in a book on Christianity, shows an important gap. For that reason the book gave rise to the most preposterous misunderstandings. Because, confining myself to my subject, I disregarded nature in treating of Christianity; because Christianity itself ignores nature; because Christianity is idealism, an edifice crowned by a natureless God or spirit who makes the world by merely thinking and willing, and apart from whose thinking and willing the world has no existence; because The Essence of Christianity therefore starts from, and deals exclusively with, the essence of man; precisely because Christianity does not worship the sun, moon, and stars, fire, earth, or air, but only the human essence as distinguished from the forces underlying nature; because it worships will, intelligence, consciousness as divine powers and beings—for these reasons it was thought that I looked upon man as a creatio ex nihilo, a being without premises or antecedents, and this supposed deification of man on my part was held to conflict with our immediate feeling of dependency, with our natural insight that man did not make himself, that he is a dependent being who originated in something, in other words, that the ground of his existence lies outside himself, that he points outside and above himself to another being.

You are perfectly right, gentlemen, I said inwardly to those who attacked and ridiculed me; I know as well as you, perhaps even better, that a human being conceived absolutely, exclusively, in terms of himself is an absurdity, an idealistic chimera. But the being which man presupposes, to which he necessarily relates, without which neither his existence nor his essence is conceivable, this being, gentlemen, is none other than nature, and not your God. I first filled in this gap in The Essence of Christianity with a short but significant book, The Essence of Religion, a book which, as the title page itself indicates, differs from its predecessor in dealing with the essence not only of Christianity but of religion in general, and accordingly takes in the pre-Christian, pagan religions of nature. Its far wider range gave me an opportunity to counteract the stigma of idealistic one‑sidedness which in The Essence of Christianity I had brought upon myself in the eyes of my uncritical critics; my enlarged field enabled me to make good the deficiencies of The Essence of Christianity.

Yet here again, needless to say, I did not proceed along the lines of theology and theistic or theological philosophy. The purpose of these two books and their relation to one another can best be stated as follows: Theologians, or theists in general, distinguish between the physical and the moral attributes of God—but God, as we have already said, is the name by which the object of religion is generally designated. God, says Leibniz, must be considered in two ways: physically as the author of the world, morally as the monarch, the legislator of mankind. According to His physical attributes, chief of which is power, God is therefore the cause of physical beings, of nature; according to His moral attributes, chief of which is goodness, He is the cause of moral beings, of men. In The Essence of Christianity, my sole subject was God as a moral being; thus it was impossible for me to give a complete exposition of my view and doctrine. Inevitably I disregarded God’s other half, His physical attributes, with which I was obliged to deal in another work. But a suitable and objective treatment of them was possible only in a book comprising also nature religion, the religion which has the physical God as its primary object. However, as I showed in The Essence of Christianity, God, considered in his moral or spiritual attributes, God as a moral being, is nothing other than the deified and objectified mind or spirit of man, and in the last analysis theology is therefore nothing other than anthropology. Accordingly, in The Essence of Religion I showed that the physical God, or God regarded solely as the cause of nature, of the stars, trees, stones, animals, and of man, insofar as they too are natural, physical beings, expresses nothing other than the deified, personified essence of nature, that the secret of physicotheology is therefore nothing other than physics or physiology—physiology not in its present restricted sense, but in its old universal sense of natural science in general. A moment ago I summed up my doctrine by saying that theology is anthropology. I should now like to complete that statement by saying: anthropology and physiology.

My doctrine or view can therefore be summed up in two words: nature and man. The being which in my thinking man presupposes, the being which is the cause or ground of man, to which he owes his origin and existence, is not God—a mystical, indeterminate, ambiguous word—but nature, a clear sensuous, unambiguous word and thing. And the being in whom nature becomes personal, conscious, and rational is man. To my mind, unconscious nature is the eternal, uncreated being, the first being—first, that is, in time but not in rank, physically but not morally; man with his consciousness is for me second in time, but in rank the first. This doctrine of mine, insofar as it takes nature as its starting point, invokes the truth of nature and opposes this truth to theology and philosophy, forms the substance of the last‑mentioned book. But it is dealt with on the basis of concrete historical material, namely, nature religion; for I never develop my ideas in the thin air of abstraction, but always ground them in real historical facts and phenomena, independent of my thinking. Accordingly I have developed my view or doctrine of nature on the basis of nature religion.

In that book, by the way, I not only set forth the essence of nature religion, but also in a brief survey described the entire development of religion from its first elements to its conclusion in the idealistic religion of Christianity. It thus comprises a succinct intellectual or philosophical history of human religion. I stress the adjective “intellectual,” for it was not my purpose to write a formal history of religion, one of those histories in which the various religions are reeled off one after the other, and as a rule classified according to highly arbitrary hierarchical distinctions. Apart from the major distinction between nature religion and the spiritual religion of man, I was more concerned with the common (i. e., similar or identical) factor in religions than with the arbitrary and usually so trifling differences between them. In general I concentrated in this book on the essence of religion, and went into history only insofar as religion cannot be understood without it. In this book, as in all my writings, my reasons for dealing with the essence of religion were not only of a theoretical or speculative character, but essentially practical. The principal reason for my interest in religion has always been that, if only in the imagination, it is the foundation of human life, the foundation of ethics and politics.

My primary concern is and always has been to illumine the obscure essence of religion with the torch of reason, in order that man may at least cease to be the victim, the plaything, of all those hostile powers which from time immemorial have employed and are still employing the darkness of religion for the oppression of mankind. It was my purpose to demonstrate that the powers which man worships and fears in his religious life, which he seeks to propitiate even with bloody human sacrifices, are merely creatures of his own unfree, fearful mind and of his ignorant unformed intelligence; to demonstrate that the being which man, in religion and theology, sets up as a distinct being over against himself, is his own essence. It was my purpose to demonstrate this so that man, who is always unconsciously governed and determined by his own essence alone, may in future consciously take his own, human essence as the law and determining ground, the aim and measure, of his ethical and political life. And this will inevitably come to pass. Whereas hitherto misunderstood religion, religious obscurantism, has been the supreme principle of politics and ethics, from now on, or at some future date, religion properly understood, religion seen in terms of man, will determine the destinies of mankind.

It was this aim, an insight into religion that would promote human freedom, independence, love, and happiness, that determined the scope of my historical treatment of religion. Everything that was irrelevant to this purpose I set aside. Historical expositions of the various religions and mythologies of the peoples of the earth without a true insight into religion are to be found in innumerable books. And I shall lecture as I wrote. The purpose of my lectures as of my books is to transform theologans into anthropologists, lovers of God into lovers of man, candidates for the next world into students of this world, religious and political flunkeys of heavenly and earthly monarchs and lords into free, self‑reliant citizens of the earth. Thus my purpose is far from negative. It is positive; I negate only in order to affirm; I negate the fantastic hypocrisy of theology and religion only in order to affirm the true nature of man. No word has been so much abused in our day as the word negative. When I negate something in the field of knowledge, of science, I have to give reasons. And reasons instruct, cast light, create knowledge within me; every negation in the realm of science is a positive act of the mind. True, it follows from my doctrine that there is no God, no abstract, disembodied being distinct from nature and man who decides the fate of the world and of mankind as He pleases; but this negation is merely a consequence of an insight into the e ssence of God, of the knowledge that it denotes nothing other than on the one hand the essence of nature and, on the other, the essence of man.

Of course it is possible, since there must be a nickname for everything, to call this doctrine atheism, but it should not be forgotten that like its counterpart “theism” this name means nothing. Theos, God, is a mere name, which covers everything under the sun, whose content is as varied as are times and men; the crux of the matter is what we mean by God. As late as the eighteenth century, for example, Christian orthodoxy put so pedantically narrow a definition on the word that even Plato was looked upon as an atheist because he did not teach the creatio ex nihilo and hence failed to distinguish properly between Creator and creature. Similarly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Spinoza was almost universally regarded as an atheist; in fact, if my memory does not deceive me, a Latin dictionary of the eighteenth century goes so far as to translate “atheist” by “assecla Spinozae” (follower of Spinoza); but the nineteenth century has struck Spinoza off the list of atheists. Times change and men’s gods with them. It is equally meaningless to say “There is a God” or “I believe in a God,” and “There is no God” or “I do not believe in a God.” Whether we speak of theism or of atheism, what matters is the content, ground, and spirit.

And now I shall proceed to the subject itself, namely, my book The Essence of Religion, which I have chosen as the basis of these lectures.

* George Eliot, trans. (New York: Harper Torchbook, 1957).

† Melvin Cherno, trans. (New York: Harper & Row, 1967.

SOURCE: Feuerbach, Ludwig. Lectures on the Essence of Religion, translated by Ralph Manheim (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), Third Lecture, pp. 17-24.

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

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Ludwig Feuerbach: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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