Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology

Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872)

Table of Contents
1. Background
2. Works (Selected List)
3. Themes
4. Outline of Major Works
5. Relation to Other Thinkers
6. Bibliography and Works Cited
7. Internet Resources
8. Related Topics

1. Background

Ludwig A. Feuerbach was born in a Lutheran family on July 28, 1804, in Landshut, Bavaria; the fourth son of Anselm von Feuerbach and his wife Wilhelmine. Anselm von Feuerbach was a distinguished German jurist and criminologist, who "ranks at least as high in the history of legal thinking and criminological studies as his son Ludwig does in the history of philosophy and of ideas." (Kamenka 1970, 18) Anselm gained fame as the first Protestant to be elected to a chair at the Roman Catholic dominated University of Bavaria. His father reworked Bavarian civil law on behalf of Napoleon while Ludwig was still a youth, and later wrote what remain several classics in criminology. Anselm was so hot tempered and tyrannical that his family nicknamed him “Vesuvius” (Kamenka 18-21). Perhaps this provides some insight into why Ludwig would eventually feel imprisoned by the faith of his youth.

The other members of the Feuerbach family were equally talented. Joseph Anselm, the eldest son, was a professor of classical philology and a well-known archaeologist. (His own son, another Anselm, was the famous German painter of "Nanna".) The second son, Karl, was a high school professor of mathematics. His alternative proof of a proposition in geometry is remembered today as Feuerbach’s theorem. The third one, Eduard, was a professor of jurisprudence. Friedrich, Ludwig’s younger brother and defender, first studied theology and then turned to philology and oriental literature.

After attending primary school in Munich, Feuerbach entered the Gymnasium in Ansbach. At the age of 16 he showed a clear religious tendency. (He took lessons in Hebrew from the son of a local rabbi.) Ludwig Feuerbach became interested in religion in his earliest teens. At sixteen he studied Hebrew with the son of a local rabbi. At eighteen he left home to study theology at Heidelberg in 1823, where he was first introduced to Hegel’s philosophy. During this time Ludwig sat under the Hegelian philosopher Karl Daub, and the famous Kantian and church historian H. E. G. Paulus. His enthusiasm in his studies was so high that his father felt obliged to warn him against excess in virtue. Within one year, however, Feuerbach was no longer satisfied with the second-hand education in Heidelberg and transferred to Berlin, the centre of intellectual activities where Hegel himself was lecturing. Feuerbach soon became strongly interested in Hegel’s thought, and so petitioned his father for permission to transfer to the University of Berlin where he could hear Hegel at first-hand. He arrived in Berlin in 1824 and quickly became a Hegelian disciple (Kamenka, 21).

From Hegel Feuerbach would have learned about the development of the mind of God. Hegel taught that God develops through a “world-historical” process in which tensions between conflicting ideas are progressively resolved toward an increase in divine freedom and self-awareness. This development takes place in the minds of human beings that together comprise the mind of God. Hegel’s interpretation of God/history thus implied the inevitability of progress, valued mental and devalued material existence, and suggested that the world was just as it should be at any given moment. Though the locus of progress was ultimately in Mind according to Hegel, this played out in the political arena as struggles between individuals, classes, and states. And though the improvement of the divine mind might occasionally manifest in an increase in human happiness, this was by no means the point of the world-historical struggle.

Feuerbach evidently found these teachings initially satisfying. His sudden satisfaction with philosophy cast a shadow over his theological interests however—as he later put it: “the theological mishmash of freedom and dependence, reason and faith, was completely repellent to my soul with its demand for truth, i.e., unity, decisiveness, absoluteness”—so in 1825 Feuerbach dropped theology to study philosophy at Berlin (Kamenka, 23). Financial troubles forced him to transfer to Erlangen the following year, where he continued to devote himself to philosophy (Kamenka, 23). In the middle of 1826, due to financial difficulties caused by the Bavarian Government’s refusal to renew his stipend, Feuerbach left Berlin for Erlangen, where the cost was much lower. In 1828, Feuerbach got the degree with his thesis De ratione una, universali, infinita (Of Reason, One, Universal, Infinite), an Hegelian treatment of the notion of reason that discussed reason as the synthesizing activity of the universal mind and derogated the value of the senses; except for its criticism of Christianity it was thoroughly Hegelian. The thesis was published in the same year. The following year Feuerbach became a docent in philosophy at Erlangen, lecturing first on Descartes and Spinoza and later on logic and metaphysics until 1832.

Feuerbach’s ride on the Hegelian bandwagon was brief. In 1830, Feuerbach anonymously published his first book, Thoughts on Death and Immortality, in which he denied the traditional Christian concept of the immortality of the soul and argued that "if there is life after death, there cannot be life before death." (Feuerbach 1980, 133)  He both denied immortality and affirmed death as that which makes the continuity of human beings with our natural environment most evident (Kamenka, 24). Feuerbach argued that recognition of this continuity—urged upon us by the fact of our eventual death—is prerequisite to a fully lived life, and that Christianity (especially Protestant Christianity) makes the full life impossible by virtue of its emphasis on personal immortality (Massey xi). It was in this emphasis on material, earthly life that Feuerbach departed from Hegelian philosophy. Like many of Hegel's students, he eventually came to part ways with his teacher forming what has been titled ‘left-wing Hegelianism.’  This parting of ways was based primarily on Hegel's interpretation of religion where religion was placed as a grand part of the dialectic movement of history.  Feuerbach rejected this notion of religion for a more typically Enlightenment view, which saw the passing away of religion as a key to the progress of scientific society.

In other respects, however, Feuerbach remained very Hegelian. He was still committed to the view that reality is ultimately unified in the historically developing mind of God. He also believed that individuals are phenomenal manifestations of this much deeper, spiritual reality (Massey, xxi, xxix). He emphasized material, earthly existence from the conviction that human existence qua human must be embodied in time and space, that the limits which make human existence both possible and valuable are such as to render unsatisfactory the overemphasis on spirit that Feuerbach found in Hegelian philosophy and Protestant Christianity:

Spirit exists without body and beyond body, for its existence is thinking, knowledge, and will. But the individual, who is not Spirit, but lives only by participation in Spirit, does not exist without a body. Rather, as a temporally and spatially determined being, the individual of necessity is a corporeally living or a live corporeal being; the individual is an individual only in this, his corporeal life (Thoughts on Death, 87).

In emphasizing the divine mind in time Hegel had neglected the development of that mind in spatially limited and distributed human beings. As Feuerbach saw it, Hegel’s philosophy was not so much wrong as incomplete. It needed to be spread out, actualized in the lives of men and women living in community (Massey, xxii). Without such embodiment it would only continue to contribute to the devaluation of earthly life by re-affirming the supposed split between transitory human existence on earth and the essential existence of humanity as spirit. Feuerbach believed that Hegel’s thought required further development, and told him so in a letter in 1828. Thoughts on Death and Immortality represents Feuerbach’s attempt to make just such a development (Massey, xxi).

These views were radical for the day—so radical that Feuerbach subsequently found himself all but unemployable as a philosopher. He left Erlangen in 1832 and was thereafter unable to secure a university teaching position. Because of this he was forced—and, he thought, freed—to become an independent thinker. In 1837 he married Bertha Low, who had inherited a porcelain factory in Bruckberg upon the death of her father. The Feuerbachs lived off the income provided by this business (plus a little from Ludwig’s publications) until 1860, when its liquidation became necessary and they were forced to leave Bruckberg.

The fiery part of this book, however, was its appendix of 80 pages of theological-satirical epigrams, one of which is, just for a taste, titled "an interesting remark": What is the most miserable chatter that one can hear? A gentleman of divinity talking about philosophy! (Feuerbach 1980, 216, ‘!’ added) The appendix aroused the wrath of the censor and other imaginable readers, and the discovery of Feuerbach’s authorship of this book virtually ruined his career as a university professor. From 1832 to 1840, many attempts at gaining promotion or senior teaching posts failed: for a time, Feuerbach was even considering the idea of immigrating to Paris. His publications at this time included a series of academic works in the history of philosophy.

In 1834, Feuerbach met Bertha Löw, three years later they got married and settled down in a rural castle at Bruckberg. Mrs. Feuerbach partially owned a pottery factory in Bruckberg—a historically significant fact because it was mainly this pottery factory that supported the Feuerbachs financially for the next 23 years until its bankruptcy in 1860.

The move from Erlangen to Bruckberg marked the beginning of Feuerbach as an independent thinker; the decade before the 1848 revolution saw the most creative and perhaps also the happiest Feuerbach of his life. In 1839 he published the "Contribution to the Critique of Hegelian Philosophy," which clearly shows his departure from Hegelian idealism. Two years later, the Essence of Christianity appeared, and it was an instant success. "[I]t burst like a bombshell on the German intellectual scene in the early 1840s…it became like a Bible to a group of revolutionary thinkers, including Arnold Ruge, the Bauers, Karl Marx, Richard Wagner, and Friedrich Engels. David Friedrich Strauss…wrote that Feuerbach’s book ‘was the truth of our time’; and Friedrich Engels…reported that ‘at once we all became Feuerbachians.’" (Harvey 1995, 25-26) Two more books, published in Switzerland due to censorship, quickly followed: the Preliminary Theses for the Reform of Philosophy and the Principles of the Philosophy of the Future. Reluctant to be too closely involved in political activities, Feuerbach preferred a life of revising the Essence of Christianity in his private study—in seven years three editions came out. In 1846, he published the Essence of Religion as well as the first two volumes of his Collected Works.

The 1848 revolution and its failure were a huge disappointment for Feuerbach. In spite of some positive talks and signs, he was not offered a university chair. The students at the University of Heidelberg, however, recognized his importance and invited him to give a series of public lectures on the essence of religion. The lectures, held twice a week from December 1848 to March 1849, drew a large audience of all kinds of people, including the physiologist Jacob Moleschott. Feuerbach was very impressed with Moleschott’s "medical materialism" and was quoted to have written that "Foodstuffs become blood; blood becomes heart and brain, the stuff of thought and attitudes. Human fare is the basis of human education and attitudes. If you want to improve the people give it, instead of homilies against sin, better food. Man is what he eats." (Kamenka 1970, 30) In 1851, Feuerbach published the Heidelberg Lectures on the Essence of Religion as the 8th volume of his collected works. In the same year he also published a biography of his father, but both were not very well received—a sign that Feuerbach’s reputation and appeal were declining since the defeat of the revolution. During this period Feuerbach thought of the possibility of moving to America, but his tight financial situation killed this idea. He remained in Bruckberg and devoted his attention to the study of Greek religion. In 1857, he published the Theogony as the ninth volume of his collected works—it was not a success.

In 1860, after the failure of the pottery business, the Feuerbachs moved to a small place at Rechenberg, near Munich, with the financial help from their friends and admirers. Six years later Feuerbach published the last volume of his collected works, titled "God, Freedom and Immortality from the Standpoint of Anthropology"—it was not a success, either. Facing the combined approach of poverty and old age, Feuerbach "decided" to have his first stroke in the summer of 1870, which left him easily confused and apathetic. Money poured in from all over the world, but little help could be done by now. On September 13, 1872, Feuerbach died, at the age of 68. His wife died 11 years later, at the age of 80. Both of them were buried in Nuremberg. This is of course an expected end, for, as the title of W. B. Chamberlain’s 1941 book on Feuerbach’s philosophy tells, "Heaven Wasn’t his Destination."

The Shout

During one brief decade, Sydney Hook writes, the whole of German philosophy and culture stood within Feuerbach’s shadow, "If Hegel was the anointed king of German thought in the period from 1820 to 1840, then Feuerbach was the philosophical arch-rebel from the time of the publication of his Das Wesen des Christenthums to the eve of the revolution of 1848" (Hook 1950, 220). At a time when Hegel was seemingly marching down the history in all glory, Feuerbach caught him in his nakedness by pointing out the unreal nature of his theory. Hegel’s mistake lies in his tendency to treat "abstract predicates—reason, thought, consciousness, and being—as entities." (Harvey 1987, 317) In the Hegelian system, nature exists "only as the alienation of the absolute Idea, as it were a degradation of the Idea." (Engels 1903, 52) For Feuerbach, Hegel’s system was standing on its head; it must be inverted in order to get the simple truth, namely all the predicates are only predicates of existing individual human beings. "[Feuerbach] placed materialism on the throne again without any circumlocution. Nature exists independently of all philosophies." (Engels 1903, 53)

Rather than saying that the Absolute Spirit achieves self-realization by actualizing itself in the finite world, Feuerbach argued that the human spirit obtains self-knowledge by objectifying itself in the idea of God. "Religion is not, as Hegel thought, the revelation of the Infinite in the finite; rather, it is the self-discovery by the finite of its own infinite nature. God is the form in which the human spirit first discovers its own essential nature." (Harvey 1995, 27)

Feuerbach’s shout was not aimed at the naked Hegel alone: it was also meant to disrobe the theologians. If we have to condense the whole book of the Essence of Christianity into a single sentence, it would be "Look, theology is anthropology!" Feuerbach claims that it is not him, an insignificant individual, but religion itself that says "God is man, man is God." (Feuerbach 1957, xxxvi) He, as a listener and interpreter of religion, not its prompter, discovers that the Christian God is nothing else but an abstraction made up of all the characteristics we would wish for ourselves. God is the projection of the human mind, therefore what religion really worships is not God but humankind itself. Feuerbach later finds further proofs concerning this human nature of God in Martin Luther’s statements (see Feuerbach 1967). Religion, thus understood, is an expression of human being’s alienation: "Religion is the disuniting of man from himself; he sets God before him as the antithesis of himself. God is not what man is—man is not what God is." (Feuerbach 1957, 33)

The function of religion, according to Feuerbach, is that it is a wish-fulfillment, a way to deal with frustrations one encounters in his or her life. Religion reflects the (weak) nature of human feelings:

It is pleasanter to be passive than to act, to be redeemed and made free by another than to free oneself; pleasanter to make one’s salvation dependent on a person than on the force of one’s own spontaneity; pleasanter to set before oneself an object of love than an object of effort; pleasanter to know oneself beloved by God than merely to have that simple, natural self-love which is innate in all beings; pleasanter to see oneself imaged in the love-beaming eyes of another personal being, than to look into the concave mirror of self or into the cold depths of the ocean of Nature; pleasanter, in short, to allow oneself to be acted on by one’s own feeling, as by another, but yet fundamentally identical being, than to regulate oneself by reason. (Feuerbach 1957, 140)

One can easily see that instead of sharply criticizing religion, Feuerbach has a rather sympathetic attitude toward it. This sympathy is also manifested in the carefully designed structure of the Essence of Christianity. The first part is called "The True or Anthropological Essence of Religion," which tries to show that the theory of projection best explains the Christian doctrines. It is a positive construction because Feuerbach is in fact building up anthropology into theology. The second part is titled "The False or Theological Essence of Religion," in which Feuerbach endeavors to expose the negative side of religion, namely all those contradictory statements made by theologians who have further objectified what has already been objectified in the first place. Both parts, says Feuerbach, directly or indirectly support the single claim, that theology is anthropology. Feuerbach does not want people to read or notice the second part only, because it is not his intention at all to say "religion is nothing, is an absurdity." (Feuerbach 1957, xxxviii)

The real intention or motivation, then, of Feuerbach’s philosophy lies in his balanced view of religion, in his seeing the human body beneath the emperor’s fancy clothes (be it there or not), as well as in his accepting the clothes as a natural developmental product. His stand on the issue of religion is, to make a personal judgment, not only beyond his own time, but also (unfortunately and sadly) beyond ours. In 1846, in the preface to the first volume of his collected works, Feuerbach spelled out his philosophy of religion. His eloquent message remains as fresh and meaningful today as it was written more than 150 years ago (except for its "sexist" language); it is such an important message that one must quote it excitedly and shamelessly no matter how inappropriate the occasion might be.

It is a question to-day, you say, no longer of the existence or the non-existence of God but of the existence or non-existence of man; not whether God is a creature whose nature is the same as ours but whether we human beings are to be equal among ourselves; not whether and how we can partake of the body of the Lord by eating bread but whether we have enough bread for our own bodies; not whether we render unto God what is God’s and unto Caesar what is Caesar’s but whether we finally render unto man what is man’s; not whether we are Christians or heathens, theists or atheists, but whether we are or can become men, healthy in soul and body, free, active and full of vitality. Concedo, gentlemen! That is what I want, too. He who says no more of me than that I am an atheist, says and knows nothing of me. The question as to the existence or non-existence of God, the opposition between theism and atheism belongs to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but not to the nineteenth. I deny God. But that means for me that I deny the negation of man. In place of the illusory, fantastic, heavenly position of man which in actual life necessarily leads to the degradation of man, I substitute the tangible, actual, and consequently also the political and social position of mankind. The question concerning the existence or non-existence of God is for me nothing but the question concerning the existence or non-existence of man. (Hook 1950, 222-223)

This is a profound insight that nevertheless can be easily lost in time: part of human nature seems to be thus that in its feeling of dependence it insists on looking for the Other, for the Unknowable, and for the labels.

2. Works (Selected List)

Thoughts on Death and Immortality: from the Papers of a Thinker, along with an Appendix of Theological-Satirical Epigrams, Edited by One of His Friends (1830, English translation [ET] 1980); The Essence of Christianity (Das Wesen des Christentums, 1841, 1843, ET 1854); Principles of the Philosophy of the Future (Grundsätze der Philosophie der Zukunft, 1843, ET 1966); The Essence of Faith According to Luther (Das Wesen des Glaubens im Sinne Luthers, 1844, ET 1967).

3. Themes

Theory of Projection

Feuerbach's central thesis was that the notion of the ‘divine’ or ‘God’ was actually only a human projection; to quote Feuerbach:

The object of the senses is in itself indifferent-independent of the disposition or of the judgment; but the object of religion is a selected object; the most excellent, the first, the supreme being; it essentially presupposes a critical judgment, a discrimination between the divine and the non-divine, between that which is worthy of adoration and that which is not worthy.  And here may be applied, without and limitation, the proposition: the object of any subject is nothing else than the subject's own nature taken objectively.  Such as are a man's thoughts and dispositions, such is his God. (Feuerbach 1957, 12, emphasis added)

What Feuerbach is saying is that the idea of God stems from humans separating and projecting of their own nature, from humans turning their subjective nature into an object which they think independent and outside of themselves.  The root of the objectification of human nature into God is, according to Feuerbach, desire for comfort, security, and meaning: “God springs out of the feeling of a want; therefore conscious, or an unconscious need,-that is God.  Thus the disconsolate feeling of a void, of loneliness, needed a God in whom there is society, a union of beings fervently loving each other” (Feuerbach 1957, 73).  In continuation of this chain of reduction, the reason why humans have these desires is because they are ‘displaced’, they are coping with the realities of the physical world around them, the emotional drives within them, and searching for their place in the world.  The physical world can be hostile, so humans seek shelter; the emotional life can be chaotic, so humans seek stability and fulfillment; the search for meaning can become discouraging, so humans seek hope; all of these, according to Feuerbach, are the reasons why humans project the fulfillment of their desires, thus creating a God who answers them.  Commenting on Feuerbach, Schilling summarizes his position:

Man’s earthly existence is filled with pain, frustration, failure, anxiety, heart-breaking injustice, and the awareness of his own finitude and approaching death.  But he longs for unlimited fulfillment, perfect happiness, and everlasting life.  He therefore posits a God who will realize for him in another world the wishes which are thwarted on earth and the evils which are so devastating here.  But this God is nothing else than the illusory externalization of human hopes. (Schilling 1969, 24)

It is obvious that Feuerbach constructed a web of interrelated theories which lead to the logical conclusion that God is only a projection, but we must ask if these theories and the conclusions they arrive at are plausible explanations of religious claims.  Are humans truly ‘displaced’, is God only a projection, does the concept of God stem from deep seated wishes, is religion really confused anthropology, and must we as Feuerbach end in atheism?  Through the rest of this paper I will attempt to answer these questions and arrive at a quite different philosophy of religion.          

Human Displacement

The starting point of Feuerbach’s philosophy of religion is human nature.  As an anthropologist, Feuerbach saw that humans are constructed in such a way that they are needy and searching, intelligent and learning, and able to be both subject and object (via metacognition).  When discussing what the sine qua non of human nature is Feuerbach answers with: “Reason, Will, Affection”, and says that man “is nothing without them” but then continues to say that ‘Man is nothing without an [external] object’ (Feuerbach 1957, 3-4).  Through external objects (i.e. the physical world and other humans) humans discover themselves and become conscious of their own nature, they realize that they are ‘species-beings.’    Progressively, humans reason in relationship to external objects and become self-conscious; this self-consciousness is described by Feuerbach as ‘a being becoming objective to itself’ (Feuerbach 1957, 6).  In this process of self-consciousness by which individuals become both subject and object, they become confused.  They mistake their own subjective nature for something distinct from themselves (i.e. God or spirits), thus displacing themselves.

Is it truly the case that humans mistake their own nature for something beyond themselves?  If humans do then surely they are deluded by the “opiate of the people” and have been completely confused about who they are and who God is (Marx 1963, 44).  Understandably humans make mistakes regarding their identity and their place within the world, but to this extent?  As Max Stirner once said:

To God, who is spirit, Feuerbach gives the name "Our Essence." Can we put up with this, that "Our Essence" is brought into opposition to us--that we are split into an essential and an unessential self? Do we not therewith go back into the dreary misery of seeing ourselves banished out of ourselves? (Stirner 1907, 40)

Stirner rightly notes that Feuerbach places our own natures in opposition to ourselves; they become as opposed and different to us as God is to humankind.  It seems troublesome to conclude that because humans think of themselves as objects that this grand and elaborate projection occurred; because I am conscious of something external to myself does not make me think that this object is anything other than what it is, in fact, it does the opposite, it makes me realize what it truly is and what it is not, what I truly am and what I am not.  Couldn’t humans just as easily have realized that their self-consciousness merely referred to themselves and conclude that God does not exist? The difficulty for Feuerbach is explaining how such a frequent practice as self-consciousness could spawn such a complex web of metaphysics. 

God as Projection

The central thesis of Feuerbach, and the one which necessarily follows from human displacement, is that God is only a projection of the idea of human nature perfected.  He writes: “Man- this is the mystery of religion- projects his being into objectivity, and then again makes himself an object to this projected image of himself thus converted into a subject” (Feuerbach 1957, 29-30).  Religious persons, according to Feuerbach, see the positive elements of their nature and through wish and imagination extend them to perfections; nature becomes supernatural, power becomes omnipotence, and knowledge becomes omniscience.  It is as if we are in Plato’s cave, only this time the shadows cast are our gods and we are shining the light on our own objectified natures.  What must be noted here is that Feuerbach says that individuals are the ones projecting, but what they project is the consummation of all human qualities; they project the potentialities of all the human species:

God is the idea of the species as an individual-the idea or essence of the species, which as a species, as universal being, as the totality of all perfections, of all attributes or realities, freed from all the limits which exist in the consciousness and feeling of the individual, is at the same time again an individual, personal being. (Feuerbach 1957, 153)

Feuerbach concludes that as part of the human species, self-conscious individuals view their human nature abstracted from finitude and place upon it the title ‘God’, thus projecting and attributing to God all perfected human qualities. There are numerous critiques of Feuerbach’s projection theory, but only two will be noted here. 

Firstly, the projection theory is not something strictly provable, is it only a hypothesis which correlates the psychological aspects of humans with theology.  For instance, one could just as easily suppose that God created humans in such a way that they would ponder abstracta and arrive at the knowledge of his infinite nature; as David Beutel has pointed out, “Feuerbach’s aphorism that humans created God in their own image can easily be inverted: God made humans in his image and therefore they—by virtue of their theomorphic nature—project out a God who is personal, like them (Beutel, nd) .”

Secondly, Feuerbach ignores the evils and vices of human nature: why is it that humans only project the good aspects of their nature and not the bad?  If we are, as Feuerbach says, projecting the totality of human nature onto God we must not forget the ills of humanity, yet no one, including Feuerbach, could imagine believing in a purely evil, entirely deceptive, wholly wrathful God.

Deep Seated Wishes

Feuerbach’s answer to this dilemma would be something like this: ‘God is only a projection of positive attributes of human nature because that is what humans want.’  This comes back to Feuerbach’s foundation of projection theory: deep seated wishes.  As was noted earlier, Feuerbach says “God springs out of a feeling of want”, that is, God is nothing but the fulfillment of our inner and most central desires.  Sigmund Freud, one of Feuerbach’s great disciples, summed up this position succinctly: “religious ideas, which are given out as teachings…are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind” (Freud 1961, 30).  The questions before us are whether or not these human wishes can provide a cogent argument against and reducibly explain classical theism.

The first difficulty with Feuerbach's emotive foundation for projection is in its misunderstanding of religion.  Many religions, including Christianity, do not run as one would wish for.  For instance, it is difficult to see how humans could wish for being guilty before a holy and wrathful God, or having to surrender one's self interests for the sake of God's own glory.  Commenting on Christianity, and more particularly on this subject, C.S. Lewis notes: "rendering back one's will which we have so long claimed for our own, is, in itself, extraordinarily painful.  To surrender a self-will inflamed and swollen with years of usurpation is a kind of death" (Lewis 2001, 89).  How could this be what humans actually wish for?

Secondly, even if in some strange way humans wished for this self-denial and sacrificial obedience to God, would this prove that God does not exist?  Feuerbach's theory can again be inverted: God could have created humans in such a way that they ultimately desire self-denial and to be obedient to him, thus providing reasons for belief in God. Thirdly, it must be noted that not all people want God to exist.  Atheism could equally be guilty of following their deep seated wishes by having God not exist and interfere with their lives.  Armand Nicholi, speaking on the debate between Freud and Lewis over Feuerbach's wish theory, notes:

Lewis astutely notes that Freud's argument stems from his clinical observations that a young child's feelings toward the father are always characterized by a "particular ambivalence"-i.e., strong positive and negative feelings.  But if Freud's observations hold true, these ambivalent wishes can work both ways.  Would not the negative part of the ambivalence indicate the wish that God not exist would be as strong as the wish for his existence? (Nicholi 1957, 12)

Therefore it seems just as likely that God exists as it does that he/she does not in Feuerbach's theory, thus leaving the argument inconclusive.

Religion Reduced To Anthropology

If Feuerbach's theories of human displacement, projection, and wishes hold true than religion is simply confused anthropology.  If humans are projecting their own natures and thinking them to be attributes of God, what follows is that when we understand religion we are not coming to knowledge of God, but knowledge of ourselves.  Feuerbach says this quite explicitly: "Consciousness of God is self-consciousness, knowledge of God is self-knowledge.  By his God thou knowest man, and by the man his God; the two are identical" (Feuerbach 1957, 12).  What Feuerbach is getting at is that the idea of God is reducible to humankind, it is in essence, anthropology.  One leading scholar on Feuerbach, Eugene Kamenka, notes this reduction: "Feuerbach presents each of these reductions so forcefully, with so much rhetoric, that he appears to regard each of them as the true essence in terms of which the whole of religion should be explained" (Kamenka 1969, 56).  If religion is, strictly speaking, anthropology than we must, if we are religious persons, grow up and realize that God and humanity are identical. 

Many problems come to light when religion is reduced to anthropology, one of which is the demise of objective standards.  If humans are God (in the Feuerbachian sense) then humans are "the measure of all things" (epistemologically and ethically), as Protagoras once said; we as the standard determine what is true, false, good, and evil (Plato Theaetetus, 152ª).  Feuerbach sums up his position on truth: "That is true which another agrees with me-agreement is the first criteria of truth; but only because the species is the ultimate measure of truth" (Feuerbach 1957, 158).  Yet what is the outcome if someone diametrically opposes another's thesis?  Are they both true?  What is the standard by which we can judge between individuals?  Feuerbach would answer that it is society or the human race as a whole that judges in these cases.  Yet it is obvious that different societies judge differently, so who judges between them?  Similarly the whole of humanity is divided on matters of truth and ethics, so how could we depend upon them to judge anything?  What happens, upon the reduction of God to anthropology, is that there becomes no standard by which we judge truth claims and ethics other than ourselves, we relativize all standards, or as Nietzsche put it "transvaluate all values" (Nietzsche 1920, 62).  The question is whether or not humans can establish and verify an objective standard by which they can judge truth claims and ethics.

Feuerbach's Final Destination: Atheism

If God is reduced to humanity, than there is no ‘God’ in the classical sense of the term.  Feuerbach himself acknowledges his atheism: "If therefore my work is negative, irreligious, atheistic, let it be remembered that atheism—at least in the sense of this work—is the secret of religion itself” (Feuerbach 1957, preface 36).  The philosophical trajectory of Feuerbach is the elevation of humankind and the reduction of anything considered ‘divine’ to the hopes and aspirations of humankind.  Feuerbach lays the groundwork for later humanist traditions with the promotion of his “new philosophy", which "makes man-with the inclusion of nature as the foundation of man-the unique, universal and highest object of philosophy."  It is at this atheistic humanism where Feuerbach wishes to leave us that we may cultivate the revolution from God-centeredness to human-centeredness and lead others to a similar location. 

4. Outline of Major Works

In 1841 Feuerbach published The Essence of Christianity, a book that was to make him “the most talked of philosopher in Germany” (Kamenka 26). In it, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels found a comrade in their struggle against various institutionalized mechanisms of alienation—which included, as they saw it, the religion and popular philosophy plus the economic and political structures of their day (Singer, 20-24). Feuerbach and these fathers of Marxism were initially united by a common desire and a common method of actualizing it—to authenticate the material existence of human beings via the reworking of Hegelian philosophy. But all three of them increasingly departed from Hegelian philosophy, and Marx eventually grew critical of Feuerbach for not taking his materialism far enough. He complained in Theses on Feuerbach that whereas Feuerbach was satisfied to make earthly existence a matter of contemplation, what society needed was transformation through action (On Religion, 69). With Feuerbach in mind, Marx wrote, “the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it (On Religion, 72).” We should keep Marx’s criticism in mind as we survey Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity.

The Essence of Christianity

Feuerbach divided The Essence of Christianity into two parts. In the first part of the work he argues directly for his conclusion that Christianity expresses human hopes and convictions about humanity under the guise of religious practices and symbols (Essence, xxxvi-xxxvii). He argues from the viewpoint of an empiricist and materialist. He presupposes that human beings have no understanding of the world besides their own as mediated through the senses (xxxiv) and so concludes that religion is projection and wish, “not foreign but native mysteries, the mysteries of human nature” (xxxviii).

I. The True or Anthropological Essence of Religion

Feuerbach believed that we human beings are continuous with nature and therefore significantly constituted by our bodies and the communities to which we belong, necessarily existing in space as well as in time. He criticized and sought to improve Hegelian philosophy on just this point in Thoughts on Death and Immortality. In The Essence of Christianity Feuerbach similarly criticized and sought to purify Christianity.

Because Feuerbach emphasizes the material and communal aspects of human nature he recognizes that human beings ultimately depend for their very existence on nature and each other. Human beings are material and social and therefore require food, clothing, shelter, human solidarity, and the like. (This dependence is material and practical, not spiritual as in Schleiermacher) (Kamenka, 41). One significant aspect of human nature implied by this dependence is therefore need. But the constitutive limits of human nature that issue in a feeling of dependence and need are also something against which human beings struggle to liberate themselves. Because these limits constitute human nature—more than that, because life itself requires such limits (Thoughts, 77)—humanity’s struggle against them is in vain, and so takes the form of a wish (Essence, 73, 122). Dependence and wishfulness are thus two very significant characteristics of human nature for Feuerbach, and it is these characteristics that he used to identify the essence of Christianity.

Feuerbach argued that human beings must have created religion in an attempt to assert themselves against their natural limitations. He saw religion as the denial of dependence and the projection of a wish (Essence, 29). Religion, he believed, is an objectification of human wishing about limitless existence. Gods, dogmas, and religious rites are for Feuerbach but the means by which human beings wish, hope, and assert (against the evidence of sense) their true dominance over the limitations of earthly life. Thus, Feuerbach supposed, in an earlier stage of history when human beings lived more isolated lives and largely depended on nature, religion was polytheistic: humans found things they could not control in rivers, storms, and seasons, and therefore personified them in hope of manipulating them. But with the development of a more thoroughly social form of existence came the development of monotheism. In monotheism humans asserted their dominance over both nature and their own antisocial tendencies (Kamenka, 43). In Christianity this outward projection of human wishes reaches a sort of pinnacle: humanity declares its ultimate dominance over the limitations of its nature by making “man the end of God” (Essence, 30). In incarnation and passion, God sacrifices Godself to the service of humankind, thus finally overcoming human limitations on behalf of humans (Kamenka, 46).

Though the projection involved in religious wishing is an (unconscious) attempt to exist more fully and truly than even nature allows, Feuerbach believes that it in fact results in the alienation of humanity from itself. “Religion is the disuniting of man from himself” (Essence, 33). Furthermore, religion—insofar as its origin and nature is obscured—is a problem because it prevents us humans from taking responsibility for the challenges that face us. Feuerbach believes that human capacities are so great that we might realize some of our most cherished hopes if only religion didn’t stand in our way, projecting that project onto God:

I do not regard the limits of past and present as the limits of humanity, of the future; on the contrary, I firmly believe that many things—yes, many things—which with the short-sighted, pusillanimous practical men of today pass for flights of imagination, for ideas never to be realized, for mere chimeras, will tomorrow, i.e. in the next century…exist in full reality (Essence, xxxiv).

For these reasons, the significance of Christianity must be exposed, and Feuerbach devotes most of The Essence of Christianity to this end. His method is simple, suggested as it is by his theory of religion; “that which in religion is the predicate we must make the subject, and that which in religion is a subject we must make a predicate, thus inverting the oracles of religion; and by this means we arrive at the truth (Essence, 60).”

What follows are some examples of the results of Feuerbach’s method.

The Trinitarian God (chapters 1-6)

Feuerbach develops an interpretation of God in chapters 2 through 9 of The Essence of Christianity. We humans, he suggests, are frustrated with our reasoning faculties because they fail to attain to what seems a limitless potential (35). Human reason sets the limits of the possible by setting limits to the conceivable, and yet not all that is possible according to reason is actual. Considered by itself, abstracted from human frames, reason seems unified in its inability to think what is incoherent (41), infinite because no genus can contain it as a species (42), and necessary “because if there were no reason, no consciousness, all would be nothing; existence would be equivalent to non-existence” (42). But though aware of the seemingly infinite potential of reason, humans are frustrated by their material limits from realizing it. Therefore “God,” he says, “is reason expressing, affirming itself as the highest existence” (36). In affirming itself as God, human nature affirms itself as ultimate in spite of its limitations.

A God of reason only is, however, a God too far removed from human life to fulfill the wishes of humankind. As Feuerbach says:

God as God—the infinite, universal, non-anthropomorphic being of the understanding, has no more significance for religion than a fundamental general principle has for a special science; it is merely the ultimate point of support—as it were, the mathematical point of religion (44).

So, although Feuerbach thinks it is important for religion that its object should be radically distinct from humanity (44), it is equally necessary that it come down to earth, so to speak, if it is to be religiously relevant. For this reason, Christianity teaches the Incarnation. In Incarnation the Creator of heaven and earth, ruler of the universe, possessor of all knowledge, author of all law, is conquered—suffers the indignity of birth, the pain of suffering, and the emptiness of death—out of love for humankind (53, 59-64). Thus in the Christian doctrine of Incarnation Feuerbach finds the ultimate expression of human self-love and the surest indication that religion is projection:

The clearest, most irrefragable proof that man in religion contemplates himself as the object of the Divine Being, as the end of the divine activity, that thus in religion he has relation only to his own nature, only to himself—the clearest, most irrefragable proof of this is the love of God to man, the basis and central point of religion (57).

In the doctrine of Incarnation above all others, Feuerbach believes, humans receive back all that they have surrendered to God.

So, the Christian Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is for Feuerbach a projection of human reason (in the Father), human feeling (in the Son), and Love that binds the two together (the Spirit, which Feuerbach identifies with the Son) (65,66).

Prayer (chapter 12)

In the intimacy of prayers of deep feeling Feuerbach finds revealed the “ultimate essence” of religion (122). “In prayer, man addresses God with the word of intimate affection—Thou; he thus declares articulately that God is his alter ego…” (122). In prayer human beings again press against the limits of their nature, expressing their dearest wishes to a Being capable of fulfilling them. In fact, because God loves humankind, and because love requires but a request for its fulfillment, a supplicant even binds God in prayer.

But because God is also a grand projection of humankind, the supplicant is divided in two in prayer (123). Therefore, though prayer is an expression of dependence, it is a dependence of the supplicant on the supplicant. For this reason the supplicant is supremely confident that the answer prayer receives will be favorable.

In this way Feuerbach goes through numerous Christian idea and practices—God, moral law, Incarnation, Trinity, Logos, the cosmogonical principle, mysticism, creation, providence, prayer, miracle, resurrection, immaculate conception, heaven, and voluntary celibacy—and shows how each can be interpreted in light of his conclusion that humanity is ultimately the object of religion:

Our most essential task is now fulfilled. We have reduced the supermundane, supernatural, and superhuman nature of God to the elements of human nature as its fundamental elements. Our process of analysis has brought us again to the position with which we set out. The beginning, middle and end of religion is MAN (184).

II. The False or Theological Essence of Religion

So ends Part I of The Essence of Christianity. Feuerbach argues negatively for the same thesis in Part II. That is, he attempts to show that religion must be a human projection on the grounds that “the contrary is absurd” (xxxvii). He does so by arguing that the central theological doctrines of Christianity are incoherent, embodying “contradictions” that reveal their origins in projection (xxxvi-xxxvii). His concerns in this section are, first, to reinforce the conclusions reached in Part I, and second, to directly attack theology, which he sees as an especially pernicious form of religion. He writes:

Religion is the relation of man to his own nature—therein lies its truth and its power of moral amelioration; but to his nature not recognized as his own, but regarded as another nature, separate, nay, contradistinguished from his own: herein lies its untruth, its limitation, its contradiction to reason and morality…. [W]hen religion becomes theology, the originally involuntary and harmless separation of God from man becomes an intentional, excogitated separation (197).

Consider some of Feuerbach’s “contradictions.”

The Contradiction in the Revelation of God (chapter 21)

In revelation, Feuerbach complains, the postulate of God in religion becomes the certainty of God in theology. But the certainty provided by revelation comes at the cost of asserting the absolute incompetence of human beings as knowers. “The general premiss of this belief is: man can of himself know nothing of God; all his knowledge is merely vain, earthly, human” (206). By appealing to revelation as the source of religious certainty the theologian therefore “makes himself a negation” (206). But Feuerbach finds a contradiction in this, for according to the logic of revelation, God cannot reveal Godself to humankind as God, but must take on the human mind in revelation, for otherwise revelation would be incomprehensible. But if so, then “revelation” is but a circle: “humankind” reveals to humankind. The idea of revelation, Feuerbach concludes, is incoherent, and this is “striking confirmation that the secret of theology is…anthropology” (207).

The Contradiction of Faith and Love (chapter 26)

Feuerbach picks out faith and love as two central aspects of Christian religion and attempts to reveal a contradiction between them. Faith, he tells us, discriminates between ‘genuine’ and ‘false’ belief, anathematizing the ‘false’ and exalting the ‘genuine’ (248). In this way faith inspires partisanship and arrogance in its possessors and so divides human beings from themselves and from each other (255). Love, on the other hand, is the opposite of faith. Love finds the loveable even in error and untruth (257). It overcomes differences to unite. For this reason faith and love exclude each other. “A love which is limited by faith is an untrue love” (264).

Once again, Feuerbach believes that the contradiction between faith and love establishes the inappropriateness of the theological habit that tries to turn the projections of religion into fixed and certain objects for belief. This effort is inappropriate, first, because it results in contradiction, second, because its results are loveless and ugly.

The loveless and unlovely dogmatism of theology renders “palpable” the conclusion, as Feuerbach sees it, “that we should raise ourselves above Christianity, above the peculiar standpoint of all religion” (270). And so, in the concluding section of The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach urges his readers to embrace the fact that:

The necessary turning-point of history is therefore the open confession, that the consciousness of God is nothing else than the consciousness of the species; that man can and should raise himself only above the limits of his individuality, and not above the laws, the positive essential conditions of his species; that there is no other essence which man can think, dream of, imagine, feel, believe in, wish for, love and adore as the absolute, than the essence of human nature itself (270).

5. Relation to Other Thinkers

Feuerbach is not regarded as a careful, systematic thinker; he is remembered mainly for his original insights and imaginative mind. This in a sense is not bad at all, because systems usually collapse in time like the Roman palaces, often what have survived are pieces of the bricks and stones of the walls. "Feuerbach’s influence on subsequent generations has thus understandably been primarily that of an Anreger, an exciter of thoughts and ideas, and not that of a systematic teacher, producing a Feuerbachian school in the history of ideas." (Kamenka 1970, 149) His impact on D. F. Strauss can be seen clearly in the latter’s work, the Life of Jesus Critically Examined. Bruno Bauer, too, was greatly influenced by Feuerbach and abandoned Hegelianism for naturalism.

However, Feuerbach is most often seen by many critics as the transitional figure between Hegel and Marx. This view perhaps was also held by Marx and Engels themselves. For example, Engels wrote that "But the step which Feuerbach did not make had not yet been made…This advance of Feuerbach’s view beyond Feuerbach himself was published in 1845 by Marx in the ‘Holy Family’" (Engels 1903, 90-91) In the same book Engels went on to describe Feuerbach as a composite philosopher, "the under half of him was materialist, the upper half idealist." (Engels 1903, 92) In Marx’s famous Theses on Feuerbach, jotted down in Brussels in the spring of 1845, Marx saw in Feuerbach’s resolving the religious essence into the human a lack of emphasis on human practice. His last thesis goes, "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point however is to change it." (Engels 1835, 75) Still, Marx and Engels’ dialectical materialism owed some debt to Feuerbach’s thought, especially his empirical, anthropological method of addressing issues from the viewpoint of common experience.

Though Feuerbach enjoyed considerable fame after the publication of The Essence of Christianity, it was of the sort that didn’t last. Critics and supporters alike contributed to his fall from favor by taking too literally and seriously the details of his presentation, which he intended to be more literary than philosophical (Kamenka, 37). Because he was suspicious of systems, Feuerbach had no intention of offering a system of his own. His aim was not, it seems, to reveal the proper interpretation of any given piece of Christian doctrine so much as to demonstrate that each piece could, in principle, be accounted for in terms of his theory of projection (Kamenka, 60). In this he was, in the minds of certain of his followers, entirely successful (Kamenka, 37).

Sigmund Freud would later adopt and extend Feuerbach’s ideas in The Future of an Ilusion (1927). In that book Freud uses language very similar to Feuerbach—projection, wish, etc.—to argue a very similar general thesis that is, however, rather different in its details. In fact, it seems to me that Feuerbach’s general approach to the interpretation of religion is paradigmatic among social scientists, who attempt to understand such ideologies in terms of their social functions just as Feuerbach did.

The significance of Feuerbach’s life and thought seems to be increasingly re-recognized in contemporary world. Many readers still find the Essence of Christianity fascinating and/or disturbing. One reason for this phenomenon is that, according to Harvey, Feuerbach anticipated so many themes of the twentieth century: "a Marxist theory of alienation, the Freudian emphasis on the role of wishing and desire, the empiricist’s stress on sense experience, the phenomenologist’s concern with the body, and the existentialist concern with the confrontation of the consciousness with death and anxiety." (Harvey 1995, 30) We can certainly interpret this anticipation as Feuerbach’s lasting influence on humankind.

6. Bibliography and Works Cited

Feuerbach, Ludwig. 1957 [1841]. The Essence of Christianity (Das Wesen des Christentums). Translated by George Eliot (Marian Evans), based on the second German version (1843), first published in English in 1854. Introductory essay by Karl Barth. Foreword by H. Richard Niebuhr. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.

Feuerbach, Ludwig. 1966 [1843]. Principles of the Philosophy of the Future (Grundsätze der Philosophie der Zukunft). Translated with an introduction by Manfred H. Vogel. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc.

Feuerbach, Ludwig. 1967 [1844]. The Essence of Faith According to Luther (Das Wesen des Glaubens im Sinne Luthers). Translated by Melvin Cherno. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.

Feuerbach, Ludwig. 1972. The Fiery Brook: Selected Writings of Ludwig Feuerbach. Translated by Zawar Hanfi. New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday & Company, Inc.

Feuerbach, Ludwig. 1980 [1830]. Thoughts on Death and Immortality: from the Papers of a Thinker, along with an Appendix of Theological-Satirical Epigrams, Edited by One of His Friends. Translated with introduction and notes by James A. Massey. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Arvon, Henri. 1957. Ludwig Feuerbach ou La Transformation du Sacré. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Beutel, David. Nd. “Intellectual Foundations of the Christian Faith,” course at Stanford.

Brudney, Daniel. 1998. Marx’s Attempt to Leave Philosophy. Cambridge (MA) & London: Harvard University Press.

Bulgakov, Sergei. 1979 [1907]. Karl Marx as a Religious Type: His Relation to the Religion of Anthropotheism of L. Feuerbach. Introduction by D. W. Treadgold. Edited with a preface by V. R. Lang. Translated from Russian by Luba Barna. Belmont, MA: Nordland Publishing Company.

Engels, Frederick. 1903. Feuerbach: the Roots of the Socialist Philosophy. Translated with critical introduction by Austin Lewis. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company.

Engels, Frederick. 1935. Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy. Edited by C. P. Dutt. New York: International Publishers.

Engels, Friedrich. 1957. On Religion. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.

Freud, Sigmund. 1927, 1961. The Future of an Illusion, translated by James Stracey. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

Harvey, Van A. 1987. "Feuerbach, Ludwig" in the Encyclopedia of Religion. Mircea Eliade, ed. in chief. Volume 5. New York: Macmillan Publishers.

Harvey, Van A. 1995. Feuerbach and the Interpretation of Religion. (Cambridge Studies in Religion and Critical Thought v.I) Cambridge: University Press.

Hook, Sidney. 1950. From Hegel to Marx: Studies in the Intellectual Development of Karl Marx. New York: The Humanities Press.

Kamenka, Eugene. 1969, 1970. The Philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach. New York: Praeger Publishers Inc.; London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.

Lash, Nicholas. 1982. A Matter of Hope: a Theologian’s Reflections on the Thought of Karl Marx. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press.

Lewis, C.S. 2001. The Problem of Pain. New York: HarperCollins.

Marx, Karl. 1963. Early Writings. London: C.A. Watts & Co. Ltd.

Marx, Karl and F. Engels. 1947. The German Ideology. Parts I & III. Edited with introduction by R. Pascal. New York: International Publishers.

Marx, Karl and F. Engels. 1975. On Religion. Collected and translated into Russian by the Institute of Marxism-Leninism of the C.C., C.P.S.U. [1957] Translated into English by Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Massey, James A. 1980. “Translator’s Introduction to Feuerbach, Ludwig,” in The Essence of Christianity, ix-xliii.

Nicholi, Armand. 1957. The Question of God. New York: The Free Press.

Schilling, S. Paul. God in the age of Atheism. New York: Abingdon Press.

Schirmacher, Wolfgang, ed. 1997. German Socialist Philosophy: Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels. New York: The Continuum Publishing Company.

Singer, Peter. 1980. Marx. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stirner, Max. 1907. The Ego and His Own. New York: Benj. R. Tucker.

Strauss, D.F. Selected Works.

Williamson, Raymond Keith. 1984. Introduction to Hegel’s Philosophy of Religion. (SUNY Series in Hegelian Studies, Quentin Lauer, editor) Albany: State University of New York Press.

7. Internet Resources

Ludwig Feuerbach on Wikipedia

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Feuerbach

The Feuerbach Internet Archive

8. Related Topics

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831)

David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874)


Edited by Derek Michaud, incorporating material by Xiang He (1998), Richard Peters (2004), and Kile Jones (2007).


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