Lectures on the Essence of Religion

Ludwig Feuerbach

[Excerpts from Lectures 4-13]

Fourth Lecture

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.

[pp. 29-31]

Fifth Lecture

I have further maintained in my books and will prove in these lectures that in religion man projects his essence. Of this assertion nature religion itself provides a first confirmation. For what are the feast days of nature religion (and the religion especially of the simple, earthy peoples of antiquity expresses its essence most unmistakably in their feast days) if not expressions of the feelings and impressions which nature with its seasonal changes and other striking phenomena arouses in man? Certain French philosophers have seen nothing but physics and astronomy in the religions of antiquity. That is correct, provided we think of physics and astronomy not in a scientific sense as did the French philosophers, but in a purely aesthetic sense. The original elements of the ancient religions are merely projections of the sensations, the impressions which physical and astronomical phenomena arouse in man so long as he does not see them as objects of science. Later, of course, even among the ancient peoples, notably in the priestly caste who alone had access to science and learning, observations—the rudiments of science—took their place side by side with the religious view of nature; but such observations cannot be regarded as the original version of nature religion.

Besides, even though I identify my view with nature religion, I must ask you to remember that even nature religion contains an element which I reject. For although, as the name itself indicates, the object of nature religion is nature and nothing else, nevertheless, to man in his earliest stage, that of nature religion, nature is not an object as it is in reality, but is only what it seems to his uncultivated and inexperienced reason, to his imagination and feeling. Even here, accordingly, man has supernatural desires and consequently makes supernatural—or what amounts to the same thing,—unnatural demands on nature. Or to put it differently and more clearly: not even nature religion is free of superstition, for in their natural state, that is, without education and experience, all men, as Spinoza recognized, are subject to superstition. And when I speak in favor of nature religion, I do not wish to be suspected of also favoring religious superstition.

In nature religion I recognize neither more nor less that what I recognize in all religion, including the Christian, namely, its simple fundamental truth. And this truth is only that man is dependent on nature, that he should live in harmony with nature, that even in his highest intellectual development he should not forget that he is a part and child of nature, but at all times honor nature and hold it sacred, not only as the ground and source of his existence, but also as the ground and source of his mental and physical well-being, for it is only through nature than man can become free of all morbidly excessive demands and desires, such as the desire for immortality. “Learn to know nature, recognize it as your mother; then you will descend peacefully into the earth when the time comes.” No more than I deify man—the absurd accusation leveled at me in connection with The Essence of Christianity—no more than I try to set him up as the God of theologico-religious faith (whom precisely I dissolve into His human, antitheological. elements by defining Him as the goal of man)—no more do I wish to deify nature in the spirit of theology or pantheism when I define it as the ground of human existence, as the reality on which man should know himself to be dependent, from which he should know himself to be inseparable. Just as I can honor and love a human individual without deifying him, without even overlooking his faults and failings, I can also recognize that without nature I am nothing, and yet not for that reason forget its lack of heart, reason, and consciousness, which it first acquires in man; I can recognize nature for what it is without falling into the error of nature religion and of philosophical pantheism, namely, of making nature into a god.

Man’s true culture and true task is to take things as they are, to make no more, but also no less of them than they are. Nature religion, pantheism, makes too much of nature, while conversely, idealism, theism, Christianity make too little of it, and indeed ignore it. Let us try to avoid the extremes, the superlatives or exaggerations of the religious emotion, to look upon nature, to speak of it and revere it as what it is—as our mother.


Twelfth Lecture

IN THE LAST LECTURE I elucidated by the example of man one of the first and most common proofs of the existence of God, the so-called cosmological proof, to the effect that everything in the world is finite and dependent and therefore presupposes something infinite and independent. My conclusion was that although man was originally a child, he is at the same time a father, that although he is effect he is also cause, that though dependent he is also independent. But, obvious differences aside, what is true of man is also true of other beings. For all its dependency on other beings, each being is an independent self; each being has the ground of its existence in itself—to what purpose would it otherwise exist? Every being has come into existence under conditions and through causes—regardless of their nature—which could have given rise to no other being; each being owes its existence to a set of causes which would not be operative without it. Every being is both effect and cause. Without water there would be no fish, but without fish, or some other animals capable of living in water, there would also be no water. The fish are dependent on water; they cannot exist without it; they presuppose it; but the ground of their dependence is in themselves, in their individual nature, which precisely makes water their need, their element.

Nature has no beginning and no end. Everything in it acts upon everything else, everything in it is relative, everything is at once effect and cause, acting and reacting on all sides. Nature does not culminate in a monarchic summit; it is a republic. Those who are accustomed to a monarchy cannot conceive of a human society [100/101] without a prince, and likewise those who have grown up with the idea of a Father in Heaven find it hard to conceive of nature without a God. But it is just as possible to conceive of nature without a God, without an extranatural and supernatural being, as of a state or nation without a royal idol situated outside and above it. Indeed, just as the republic is the historical task, the practical goal of man, so his theoretical goal is to recognize the republican constitution of nature, not to situate the governing principle of nature outside it, but to find it grounded in nature. Nothing is more absurd than to regard nature as a single effect and to give it a single cause in an extra-natural being who is the effect of no other being. If I cannot refrain from spinning out fantasies, from looking further and further afield, if I am unable to stop with nature and content my intellectual need for causes with the universal action and interaction of nature, what is to prevent me from going beyond God? What is to prevent me from looking for a ground and cause of God as well? Do we not in God find the same situation as in the concatenation of natural causes and effects, the very situation that I wished to remedy by positing the existence of a God?

If I conceive of God as the cause of the world, is He not dependent on the world? Is there any cause without an effect? What is left of God if I omit or think away the world? What becomes of His power if He does nothing; of His wisdom, if there is no world for Him to govern? Where is His goodness if there is nothing for Him to be good to—where His infinity, if there is nothing finite? For He is infinite only in contrast to finiteness. Thus if I omit the world, nothing remains of God. Why then should we not confine ourselves to the world, since in any case we cannot go above or outside it, since even the idea and hypothesis of God throws us back on the world, since if we take away nature, we deprive the world of all reality and consequently negate even the reality of God insofar as He is conceived as the cause of the world?

Thus the difficulties arising from the question of the beginning of the world are only postponed or thrust aside or glossed over by the notion of a God, a being outside the world; they are not solved. Is it not then more reasonable to assume that the world always was and always will be, and consequently that it has the ground of its existence within itself.


Thirteenth Lecture

The existence of God has always been a source of difficulties to philosophers and theologians, as its so-called proofs indicate. Here we have the answer to these difficulties, the resolution of the contradictions raised by the various explanations and conceptions of God’s existence. Now we can understand why on the one hand a spiritual existence is attributed to God, while on the other hand this spiritual existence is given sensuous trappings and even localized in heaven. In short, the contradiction, the conflict between spirit and sense in the conception of divine existence, the ambiguity and mystical vagueness of this existence, are explained by the simple fact that God’s existence is abstracted from the sensuous existence of real things and beings, but that for this same reason an image of sensuous existence is necessarily injected into this abstract existence, just as sensuous characteristics are necessarily injected into the essence of God.

But if, as we have seen, all the features or attributes that add up to the essence of God are derived from nature, if the essence, the existence, the attributes of nature are the original from which man has taken his image of God; or if, to go into the matter more deeply, God and world or nature differ only as a class differs from individuals, so that the nature which is the object of sense perception is true nature, whereas the nature which, abstracted from its materiality and corporeality, is an object of thought, of the spirit or mind, is God; then it is proved, then it becomes self-evident, that nature did not spring from God, that the real, corporeal, material being did not spring from the abstract, spiritual being. To derive nature from God is tantamount to deriving the original from its image or copy, or deriving a thing from its concept.

For all its absurdity, this inversion is the secret of theology. In theology things are not thought and willed because they exist, they exist because they are thought and willed. The world exists, because God thought and willed it, because He still thinks and wills it. The idea, the thought, is not abstracted from the object, thought is the author, the cause of the thought object. But this doctrine—the core of Christian theology and philosophy—is an inversion in which the order of nature is stood on its head. How then did man arrive at such an inversion? In speaking of the first cause, I have already said that man, quite rightly so from a subjective point of view—or quite rightly at least so long as he has not understood his own nature—sets the class or class concept before the species and individuals, the abstract before the concrete. This explains and resolves all the difficulties and contradictions arising from attempts to explain the world as God’s creation.

Thanks to his faculty of abstraction, man finds common factors in nature or reality; these he abstracts from things of like or similar nature and makes them into an independent being, distinct from things. For example: from physical things man abstracts space and time as universal concepts or forms, common to them all, since all things are extensive and subject to change, dispersed and successive. Thus every point in the earth is outside of every other and follows the other in the motion of the earth; where one point is now, the other will be in a moment. But although man has abstracted space and time from spatial and temporal things, he posits them as the first grounds and conditions of these same things. Accordingly, he conceives of the world, i.e., the sum of real things, the matter and content of the world, as having originated in space and time. Even for Hegel matter not only originates in space and time, but springs from them. Precisely because man sets space and time before real things, in philosophy as universals, in polytheistic religion as gods, and in monotheistic religion as God’s attributes, he also made gods of space and time or identified them with God.

The famous Christian mathematician and astronomer Newton still spoke of space as God’s immensity, or even as God’s sensorium, i.e., the organ whereby God is present to all things and perceives all things. Newton also regarded space and time “as consequences of the existence of God, for the Infinite Being is present in all places, hence this immeasurable space exists; the Eternal Being has existed from all eternity, hence an eternal time exists.” And there is indeed no reason why time, separated from all sensuous things, should not be identified with God; for abstract time, in which there is no difference between Now and Then (for the different content is lacking), cannot be distinguished from dead, stable eternity. For eternity itself is nothing other than the concept of time, abstract time, time disjoined from temporal differences. Thus it is not to be wondered at that religion should have made time into an attribute of God or into an independent god. In the Bhagavad-Gita the Hindu god Krishna takes time as one of his predicates, that is, titles of honor, though of course he has many more. “I am time,” he says, “time which preserves all things and destroys all things.” [13] Among the Greeks and Romans time was deified under the names of Kronos and Saturn. The Persian religion goes so far as to make Zaruanoakarana, i. e., uncreated time, the first and uppermost being, the pinnacle of its edifice. Similarly among the Babylonians and Phoenicians the god of time, the lord of time, or the king of eternity as he is also called, was the supreme god.

This example shows that man, in keeping with the nature of the activity by which he abstracts and forms universal concepts, but in contradiction with the nature of real things, presupposes representations or intuitions of space and time, as Kant calls them, prior to sensuous things, and regards space and time as the conditions, or rather as the first grounds and elements, of the existence of real things, forgetting that in reality the exact opposite is true, that things do not presuppose space and time, but rather that space and time presuppose things, for space or extension presupposes something that is extensive, and time, or motion—for time is merely a concept abstracted from motion—presupposes something that moves. Everything is spatial and temporal; everything is extensive and moved; so far so good; but extension and motion are as diverse as extensive and moved things. All the planets move around the sun; but each has its own motion, the orbit of one requires more time than the orbit of another, the farther removed the planet is from the sun, the more time is needed.

All animals move, though all do not change their location; but how infinitely diverse their movement is! Each variety of motion corresponds to a particular structure and mode of life, in short, to the nature of each individual. How can I expect to derive such diversity from space and time or explain it on the basis of mere extension and motion? Extension and motion, on the contrary, are dependent on the body or being that is extensive and moved. Accordingly, what is first for man, or at least for his faculty of abstraction, is last for or in nature; but because man turns the subjective into the objective, because he transforms what is first for him into the first as such or in nature, he regards space and time as the first foundations of nature, and since the universal, that is, the abstract, has thus become the foundation of the real, man comes to regard the being who is nothing but a bundle of universal concepts, the thinking, spiritual being, as the first being, as the being who precedes all other beings not only in rank but also in time, who is indeed the ground and cause of all being and the Creator of all beings.

The question of whether a God created the world, the whole question of God’s relation to the world, is the question of the relation between spirit and sense, between the universal or abstract and the real, between the class and the individual. It cannot be solved unless these other questions are solved; for God is nothing other than the sum of generic concepts. I have just discussed this question on the basis of the concepts of space and time, but it requires further examination. It is among the most important and also the most difficult of all the questions bearing on human knowledge and philosophy. Indeed, the whole history of philosophy revolves around it; it has been the crux of all the controversies between Stoics and Epicureans, Platonists and Aristotelians, sceptics and dogmatists in ancient philosophy, between Nominalists and Realists in the Middle Ages, and in modern times between idealists and realists or empiricists. And it is one of the most difficult questions, not only because philosophers, the more recent philosophers in particular, have introduced endless confusion by the most arbitrary use of words, but also because we are hampered by and misled by the nature of language and of thought itself, which is inseparable from language, in short, because every word is a universal, so that language in itself, with its inability to express the particular, is often taken as proof that the sensuous particular is nonexistent.


SOURCE: Feuerbach, Ludwig. Lectures on the Essence of Religion, translated by Ralph Manheim. New York: Harper & Row, 1967. Excerpts from lectures 4, 5, 12, 13.

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