Lectures on the Essence of Religion

Ludwig Feuerbach

Fourth Lecture

I SHALL briefly summarize the first paragraph of The Essence of Religion: the foundation of religion is a feeling of dependency; the first object of that feeling is nature; thus nature is the first object of religion.

The paragraph breaks down into two parts. The first explains the subjective origin or ground of religion; the second designates the first or original object of religion. To begin with the first part: the so‑called speculative philosophers have ridiculed me for putting down the feeling of dependency as the source of religion. They have held the words “feeling of dependency” in low esteem ever since Hegel, in response to Schleiermacher—who, as we know, found the essence of religion in man’s feeling of dependency—remarked that then a dog must also have religion because he feels dependent on his master. The so‑called speculative philosophers, be it noted, are those who, instead of fitting their concepts to the facts, fit the facts to their concepts. Thus it matters not at all whether my explanation appeals to the speculative philosophers; what matters is whether it is in keeping with the facts. And that it is.

When we consider the religions of so‑called savages, as reported by travelers, and of the civilized peoples as well, when we look into our own inner life, which may be observed directly and without fear of error, we find no other appropriate and all‑embracing psychological explanation of religion than the feeling or consciousness of dependency. The ancient atheists, and even a great many theists both ancient and modern, have called fear the ground of religion; but fear is merely the most widespread and obvious expression of the feeling of dependency. As the Roman poet said: Primus in orbe Deos fecit Timor—Fear first made the gods in the world. Among the Romans the word fear, metus, actually carries the meaning of religion, and conversely the word religio sometimes signifies fear or awe; thus a dies religiosus, a religious day, was taken to mean an unlucky day, a day that was feared. Even our German word Ehrfurcht (awe, piety)—expression of the highest religious veneration—is composed of Ehre (honor) and Furcht (fear).

The explanation of religion by fear is eminently confirmed by the fact that most primitive peoples take the frightening aspects of nature as the principal if not exclusive objects of their religion. According to Meiners,* the more primitive peoples of Africa, northern Asia, and America are afraid “of rivers, especially in places where they form dangerous whirlpools or rapids. When they navigate such places, they implore mercy or forgiveness, or beat their breasts and throw propitiatory sacrifices to the angry gods. Certain Negro kings who have chosen the ocean as their fetish are so much afraid of it that they do not dare look upon it, much less travel it, because they believe that the sight of this terrible god would kill them on the spot.” And W. Marsden tells us that when the Rejang of inland Sumatra first see the ocean, they sacrifice cakes to it and implore it to, do them no harm.† According to the reports of theistic travelers biased by their own religious ideas, the Hottentots believe in a supreme being but do not worship him; instead they worship the “evil spirit,” whom they regard as the author of all the evils that befall them in the world.

I note, however, that these travelers’ reports, especially the earlier ones about the religious conceptions of the Hottentots and of savages in general, are full of internal contradictions. In India too there are regions “where the greater part of the inhabitants observe no other religious cult than that of the evil spirits. . . . Each of the evil powers has a name of his own and the more forbidding and powerful he is thought to be, the more conscientiously he is worshiped.” Similarly, even those American tribes which according to theistic observers recognize “a supreme being,” worship only “evil

* See Bibliography, p. 357.

† See Bibliography, p. 357.

spirits” or beings, to whom they attribute all the evil and trouble, all the aches and ailments that come their way; this they do in the hope of mollifying them, in other words, out of fear. The Romans made objects of religion even out of diseases and plagues, fever; grain blight, to which they devoted an annual festival; infant mortality, to which they gave the name of Orbona; and calamity. Obviously such worship, as the ancients themselves, Pliny the Elder for example, pointed out, had no other ground than fear, no other purpose than to disarm the unfriendly gods; this was also noted by the ancients, Aulus Gellius for example, who writes that men worshiped or celebrated some gods in the hope that they might be helpful, and conciliated or appeased others in the hope that they might refrain from doing harm. Indeed, Fear itself had a temple in Rome and also one in Sparta, where, however—at least according to Plutarch—it had an ethical significance, namely, fear of evil, shameful actions.

The explanation of religion by fear is further confirmed by the fact that even among culturally more advanced peoples the supreme Godhead is a personification of those natural phenomena which arouse the highest degree of fear in man; he is the god of storms, of thunder and lightning. Certain peoples, indeed, have no other word for God than thunder, so that their religion expresses nothing other than the shattering impression which nature’s thunder makes upon man through the ear, the organ of terror. Even among the so highly endowed Greeks, the supreme God was named simply the Thunderer. Similarly the god Thor or Donar—i. e., the thunder‑god of the ancient Germanic peoples, or at least of the Norsemen and of the Finns and Letts as well—was their oldest, first, and most universally worshiped god. The English philosopher Hobbes derived the intelligence from the ears, because he identified intelligence with the audible word. Considering that it was thunder which pounded religion into man, we may with greater justice term the eardrum the sounding board of the religious sense and the ear the womb of the gods.

Indeed, if man had only eyes, hands, and the senses of taste and smell, he would have no religion, for all these senses are organs of critique and scepticism. The only sense which, losing itself in the labyrinth of the ear, strays into the spirit or spook realm of the past and future, the only fearful, mystical, and pious sense is that of hearing. Of this the ancients were well aware when they said: “An eyewitness is worth more than a thousand auditory witnesses”; “the eyes are more reliable than the ears”; or “what we see is more certain than what we hear.” That is why they the last and most spiritual of religions, Christianity, deliberately bases itself solely on the word, the word of God, as they call it, and consequently on the sense of hearing. “Faith,” says Luther, “comes from listening to the Lord’s preaching.” And elsewhere: “In the Church of God nothing is demanded but hearing.” This, by the way, shows how superficial it is, in speaking of religion and particularly of its first grounds, to serve up hollow phrases about the absolute, the supersensory and infinite, as though man were without senses; as though the senses had no bearing on religion. It is senseless to speak in any context whatever of a man without senses.

But I have digressed long enough. Our explanation is further confirmed by the fact that although Christians in theory at least attribute a purely supersensory, divine origin and character to religion, it is chiefly in moments and situations which arouse fear that a religious mood comes over them. When, for example, His Majesty the reigning King of Prussia,* venerated by the pious Christians of our day as the “Christian king” par excellence, convened the unified Diet, he decreed that prayers for divine assistance should be offered up in all the churches of the land. But what was the reason for His Majesty’s religious impulse and for this decree? Simply the fear that the evil appetites of the modem age might disrupt the plans and projects conceived in connection with the unified Diet, that masterpiece of Christian‑Germanic statecraft. Or, to give another example: a few years ago when the harvest was poor, God was fervently besought in all our churches to send His blessings and special days of prayer and penance were even set aside. What was the reason? Fear of famine. And that is  why Christians wish "godless" unbelievers every known calamity, and why, purely out of Christian love and solicitude, it goes without saying, they experience the utmost pleasure when a misfortune befalls the godless, for they are convinced that trouble will  bring them back to God and turn them into good believers. Of course  Christian theologians and

* Friedrich Wilhelm IV (1840‑60).

thinkers deplore, at least from the pulpit or in their writings, the fact that such phenomena as those I have just mentioned should be set down as characteristic of the religious principle; but the truth of the matter is that religion—at least in the usual or rather in the historical, dominant sense of the word—is characterized not by what is written in books, but by what happens in real life.

The only difference between Christians and uncivilized peoples or so-called heathen, is that Christians do not transform the phenomena that arouse their religious fear into special gods, but rather into special attributes of their God. They do not pray to evil gods; but they pray to their God when they think He is angry, or when they fear that He may become angry with them and strike them with harm and disaster. Just as evil spirits are virtually the sole objects of the worship of primitive peoples, so the angry God is the chief object of worship among Christian peoples; here too, in other words, the chief ground of religion is fear. In final confirmation of my contention, I cite the fact that in their attacks on Spinoza, on the Stoics, and on pantheists in general (whose God, viewed candidly, is nothing other than the naked essence of nature), Christian and other theologians or religious philosophers contend that their God is no God at all, that is to say, no true religious God, because he is not an object of love and fear, but only of cold reason, free from emotion. Thus, though rejecting the view of the ancient atheists that religion originates in fear, they implicitly admit that fear is at least an essential component of religion. [1]

Nevertheless fear is not the complete and sufficient ground and explanation of religion, and not only for the reason stated a little while ago, namely, that fear is a passing emotion; for the object of fear is enduring, at least in our imaginations, indeed it is a specific characteristic of fear that it reaches out beyond the present to tremble at possible future evil. No, the true reason why fear does not offer a complete explanation of religion is that, once the danger is past, fear gives way to an opposite emotion, and that, as a minimum of reflection suffices to show, this opposite feeling attaches to the same object as the fear. This is the feeling of release from danger, from fear and anxiety, a feeling of delight, joy, love, and gratitude. Indeed, the phenomena of nature that arouse fear and dread are by and large those with the most beneficial consequences. The god who destroys trees, animals, and men with his thunderbolt is the selfsame god who fructifies the fields and meadows with his rain. The source of evil is also the source of the good; the source of fear is also the source of joy. Why, then, should human feeling not combine effects which even in nature spring from a single cause? Only peoples who live in the mere moment, who are too weak, too dull, or too frivolous to combine different impressions, experience nothing but fear of their divinities and devote their cults to none but evil, terrible gods. Among other peoples, the fear aroused by an object does not cause its good and beneficial qualities to be forgotten; the object of fear becomes an object of veneration, love, and gratitude. Thus among the ancient Germanic peoples, or at least among the Norsemen, the god Thor, the Thunderer, is “the beneficent, kindly champion of mankind,” “the protector of agriculture, the mild philanthropic god,”* because the god of thunder is also the god of the fructifying rain and sunshine. Thus it would be quite one-sided, indeed, unjust to call fear the sole ground of religion.

At this point I differ radically from the earlier atheists and from the pantheists (I am thinking of Spinoza in particular) who in this connection held the same views as the atheists, for I cite not only negative, but also positive grounds of religion; not only ignorance and fear, but also the emotions opposed to fear, the positive emotions of joy, gratitude, love, and veneration as grounds of religion; and I maintain that not fear alone, but also love, joy, and veneration are makers of gods. “The feeling of those who have overcome affliction or danger,” I say in my notes on The Essence of Religion, “is very different from that aroused by existing or feared affliction or danger. In the first case attention is focused on the object, in the second on myself, in the first case I sing hymns of praise, in the second songs of lamentation, in the first case I give thanks, in the second I implore. The feeling of affliction is practical, teleological; the feeling of gratitude is poetic, aesthetic. The feeling of affliction is transient, but the feeling of gratitude enduring; it forms a bond of love and friendship. The feeling of affliction is base, that of gratitude noble, the former worships only in adversity, the latter also in happiness.” Here we have a psychological explanation of religion not only in its common, but also in its noble aspect.

Thus I cannot find the ground of religion in fear or in joy and love alone. But what universal term embraces both aspects, if not the feeling of dependency? Fear relates to death, joy to life. Fear is a feeling of dependency on an object without which I am nothing, which has the power to destroy me. Joy, love, gratitude are feelings of dependency on an object thanks to which I am something, which gives me the feeling, the awareness that through it I live and am. Because I live and subsist through nature, or God, I love Him; because I suffer and perish through nature, I fear it and stand in awe of it. In short, man loves the being who gives him the means or reason to enjoy life and hates the being who deprives him of these or has the power to do so. But both are combined in the object of religion—the very same thing that is the source of life is also, negatively speaking—that is, if I am without it—the source of death. “Good things and evil,” says Ecclesiasticus, “life and death, poverty and riches, are from God.” “Knowing therefore by these things that they are not gods,” we read in the Book of Baruch, “fear them not. . . . [For] whether it be evil that one doth to them or good, they are not able to recompense it; neither can they set up a king or put him down.” Addressing idolaters, the Koran speaks in similar terms (Sura 26): “Do they [idols] hear you when you call on them? Can they help you or do you harm?”** In other words: only that being is an object of religious worship, only that being is a god, who can curse and bless, harm and help, kill and restore to life, bring joy and terrify.

Thus the feeling of dependency is the only truly universal name and concept by which to designate and explain the psychological or subjective ground of religion. Of course there is no such thing as a feeling of dependency as such, but only specific, particular feelings of dependency—e. g. (to draw examples from nature religion) the feelings of hunger or discomfort, the fear of death, gloom when the weather is bad, joy when it is good, grief over wasted pains, over hopes shattered by natural catastrophes; all these are particular feelings of dependency; but to subsume particular phenomena of reality under universal names and concepts is precisely the task implicit in the nature of thought and speech.

1 For numbered notes, see Additions and Notes, pp. 287 ff.

* W. Müller, Geschichte und System der altdeutschen Religion.

** N. J. Dawood, trans. (London: Penguin Books, 1956), p. 199.

Now that I have corrected and amplified the explanation of religion by fear, I must mention still another psychological explanation of religion. Certain Greek philosophers said that admiration of the regular course of the heavenly bodies gave rise to religion, i. e., to the worship either of the luminaries themselves or of a being who regulates their course. But it is immediately obvious that this explanation of religion applies only to the sky, not to the earth, only to the eye and not to the other senses, only to theory and not to human practice. The stars, it is true, were also causes and objects of religious worship, yet not as objects of theoretical, astronomical observation, but only insofar as they were regarded as powers governing the life of man, in other words as objects of human hopes and fears. Actually the example of the heavenly bodies shows that a being or thing becomes an object of religion only when it is an object, a cause, of the fear of death or the enjoyment of life, hence of the feeling of dependency. The author of a French work entitled De l’Origine des principes religieux, which appeared in 1768, was quite right in saying: “Thunder and storm, the sufferings of war, plagues and death have done more to convince man of the existence of God (i. e., incline him to religion, convince him of his dependency and finiteness) than the constant harmony of nature and all the demonstrations of the Clarkes and Leibnizes.” A simple and constant order does not hold men’s attention. Only happenings bordering on the miraculous can reawaken it. I have never heard the common people find proof that God punishes drunkards in the fact that they lose their health and reason. But how often I have heard the peasants of my village cite as proof of God’s punishment the fact that a certain drunkard broke a leg on the way home.

SOURCE: Feuerbach, Ludwig. Lectures on the Essence of Religion, translated by Ralph Manheim (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), Fourth Lecture, pp. 25-32.

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