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Religion from New Perspectives


Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872): Religion and Humanistic Atheism
Karl Marx (1818-1883): Religion and Politics
Émile Durkheim (1858-1917): Religion and Society
Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923): Religion and History
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939): Religion and Psychology
The End Result


The Enlightenment critiques of religion were challenging enough, but they were answered in due course more or less effectively. Here are three of the most important of them.

  • The challenge that there is after all no such a thing as "religious knowledge"—a pattern of critique that we have traced through Locke, Hume, Kant and beyond—produced a number of creative replies.
  • The challenge that God was not a transcendent being but was entirely immanent within the world historical process—a critique that we have traced through Spinoza and especially Hegel—stimulated creative responses in thinking about the nature of God and World.
  • The challenge that Jesus Christ was, after all, merely an inspired human being—a critique present preeminently in deism and in Kant—produced a variety of theological responses, some sympathetic and others less so, but all of which enabled theology to continue to speak sensibly of Jesus Christ as the center of the worshipping life of Christianity.

The 19th and early 20th centuries, following the pattern of the Enlightenment, produced a series of enormously compelling, genuinely new perspectives on religion. But the critiques implicit (and sometimes explicit) in these new perspectives were so forceful that their reverberations are still being felt in contemporary theology to this day.

The most important of these new perspectives on religion can be associated with the names of important European intellectuals—some of whom were theologians—and will be described briefly in what follows. Some caveats as we get started:

  • Keep in mind that some of these figures thought they were friends of religion, so that the perspectives on religion that they offer were not intended by them to be devastating, but only clarifying. Others can more properly be described as antipathetic toward religion as they encountered it.
  • Also keep in mind that we are here summarizing just one sliver of each person’s thought; we are bypassing enormously fruitful insights that in many cases promise solutions to the very problems these thinkers raise.
  • Finally, remember that this is not an exhaustive list of the perspectives on religion generated in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but it is a list of most of the major conceptual pieces of any interpretation of religion that has had much influence on theology since the Enlightenment.

Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872): Religion and Humanistic Atheism

1. A Sampling of Feuerbach's Aphorisms

Some key phrases from Essence of Christianity that express Feuerbach’s thesis:

"God is man, man is God." (p. xxxvi)

"Atheism is the secret of religion." (p. xxxvi)

"Religion itself, not indeed on the surface, but fundamentally, not in intention or according to its own supposition, but in its heart, in its essence, believes in nothing else than the truth and divinity of human nature." (p. xxxvi)

"Theology is Anthropology." (p. xxxvii)

"While reducing theology to anthropology, [I] exalt anthropology into theology, very much as Christianity, while lowering God into man, made man into God." (p. xxxviii)

"Religion takes the apparent, the superficial in Nature and humanity for the essential, and hence conceives their true essence as a separate, special existence." (p. xxxviii)

"Religion is the dream of the human mind…in these days, illusion only is sacred, truth profane." (p. xxxix)

2. Principles of Feuerbach’s Thought

Humanity is wonderful beyond measure. It is wonderful enough to be worthy of the same kind of lofty evaluation we accord to God in religion. Taking the wonder of humanity seriously means that we ought to try to explain the world in terms of human self-consciousness. When we do this, several conclusions follow.

First, religion can be exhaustively explained as the result of the projection of human needs and desires onto the universe; it can only survive so long as the projective process is unconscious.

Second, God can be exhaustively explained as the result of self-alienated projection by humans of their own, infinite self-consciousness (cp. Hegel, for whom humanity was the result of God’s self-alienation). Each attribute of God expresses an aspect of the hope humans have to be free from their limitations. So:

  • God’s holiness is a projection of human desire to be free of sin
  • God’s creativity is a projection of human failure to realize full potential
  • God’s power is a projection of human sense of finitude and vulnerability
  • God’s presence is a projection of human sense of loneliness and mutual separation
  • God’s Trinitarian nature is a projection of the human need to be whole through being an "I" participating in, though distinct from, a "Thou"
  • The same method is applied to each of the doctrines of Christian theology: incarnation, trinity, sacraments, prayer, the holy spirit, resurrection, etc.

The influence of Feuerbach is enormous. There are connections from his thought to existentialism, atheism, psychology, history of religions, Marxism, etc., etc., etc.

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Come back here soon for more on projection and Feuerbach's reversal of Hegel's dialectic.

Karl Marx (1818-1883): Religion and Politics

Marx owes his philosophical awakening to Feuerbach, whom he described by way of Feuerbach's name as the "brook of fire" through which all had to pass in order to lay hold of truth and freedom. From Feuerbach he learned that:

  • humans make religion in their own image;
  • they cling to religion so long as they feel the continued need to project themselves onto the universe, so long as they love the illusion of their dreams more than the reality of the waking world;
  • one of the signs of human maturity is the self-conscious attempt to overcome human self-alienation, to be conscious of the projective impulse that gives rise to religion, and then to leave religion, as such, behind.

But Marx also pushes further than Feuerbach to give a precise analysis of human self-alienation, of the reasons why humans get involved in clinging to an illusory world of projections in the first place. The problem, thinks Marx, is fundamentally political.

According to Marx, Feuerbach didn’t see something crucial that he should have: the essence of the human, with which Feuerbach was so enamored, is either a mere abstraction—theoretical and useless, and so just another of Feuerbach’s projections—or it is the collection of actual living situations in which humans find themselves. In the latter case, we can see that humans and their self-alienation has to be understood in concrete social, political terms.

With regard to religion, then, we don’t project an ideal, unalienated realm in religion for nothing; we are desperately trying to deal with ourselves in an unhappy, oppressed, dismal situation.

"The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for real happiness. The demand to give up the illusions about its condition is the demand to give up a condition that needs illusions…Thus the criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of earth…the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics." (On Religion, p. 42.)

Religion, therefore, must be understood in terms of the conditions that produced (and produce) it. The details of a religion’s nature are the result of social, and especially economic and political, forces, since these forces give shape to human alienation in a particular place and time.

Marx is therefore a fierce critic of religion, though he is aiming not primarily at religion as a cause of the problem, but only as a symptom that, once present, becomes part of the corrupt socio-political order and only perpetuates the very problem it professes to solve.

Émile Durkheim (1858-1917): Religion and Society

For Durkheim, religion is the reflection of society. Religious concerns and values are socially sanctioned, extraordinarily expressive, and powerfully controlling enactments—focused around sacred objects and places—of the nature and values and concerns of society.

Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923): Religion and History

For Troeltsch, history is not guided in any particular way, for there is no supernatural providence to guide it. History is the creation of human beings in groups, and it will be what they make it. God is a reality for Troeltsch, and it is our spiritual connection with God that gives rise to religions and to aspirations for history. But there are no absolute standards for assessing historical developments, either within the church or in society at large. History without absolutes must recognize the genuinely competitive situation of religious pluralism. The religion will survive that is made to survive by its adherents, for God is not active in the world in such a way as to define or defend the one true faith.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939): Religion and Psychology

Freud’s various theories about the origins and nature of religion are presented in Totem and Taboo, The Future of an Illusion, and Moses and Monotheism.

Freud's basic approach to religion is through his analysis of the psychological structure of the human person, together with the assumption that if you can produce a sufficient explanation of religion without invoking God, then you ought not invoke God. The explanation of religion without reference to God does not imply that there is no God, or that traditional theological assertions are necessarily false. But Freud argued against those assertions independently. The real interest in Freud, and the real challenge to theology, however, lies in his alternative explanation of religion. In this way, Freud is an instance of a common challenge to Christianity, for many theorists of religion (including Durkheim) offer explanations of the origin, efficacy and authority of religion without supposing that the religions are correct in their assertions about ultimate reality.

Profoundly indebted to Feuerbach, Freud argues that religion is the product of the human desire to have wishes fulfilled; we project what we long to be the case. Religion is thus illusion.

More than this, however, religion is dangerous. Consider the religious belief in God as a perfect father—this is in compensation for our own imperfect fathers. But then belief in God perpetuates the infantile longing for a perfectly loving, comfortable parental figure. Religion, in other words, retards human development. It also interferes with the larger goal of attaining human maturity, because science aims to be clear about what is real and what is illusion, and religion systematically blurs this distinction.

The End Result

The fundamental conclusion of these new perspectives on religion has only become stronger since the time of these great thinkers, thanks especially to advances in the human sciences and to the development of the neurosciences and such hybrid forms of inquiry as sociobiology. And what is that fundamental conclusion?

The world and human beings can be adequately described without reference to God. There is no place anywhere in the sphere of human concerns that is privileged in the sense of needing God for its adequate explanation.

This means that these new insights into religion are, at one level, neutral to the realities with which religion has to do. This is the case even though some theorists rightly (though perhaps one-sidedly) point out the dangers of religion. For the first time in the history of the West, a Godless universe was rendered rationally feasible and atheism achieved the status of an intellectually serious option rather than a knee-jerk reaction against a despised religious establishment. Theology has been profoundly changed by this accomplishment of human reason.

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