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 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:
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:
The influence of Feuerbach is enormous. There are connections from his thought to existentialism, atheism, psychology, history of religions, Marxism, etc., etc., etc.
Come back here soon for more on projection and Feuerbach's reversal of Hegel's dialectic.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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?
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.
The information on this page is copyright ©1994-2010, Wesley Wildman (basic information here), unless otherwise noted. If you want to use ideas that you find here, please be careful to acknowledge this site as your source, and remember also to credit the original author of what you use, where that is applicable. If you want to use text or stories from these pages, please contact me at the feedback address for permission.