The Essence of Religion
by: Ludwig Feuerbach
The Essence of Religion is a classic Freethought book from 140 years ago. Please bear in mind when reading it that it is a product of its time.
It is a lengthy work and I have broken it up into several parts (for my editing convenience - copyediting scans of old texts is more time consuming than you might think - and your reading convenience) which will be added over the next several days. These breaks are not part of the original work, but I've attempted to choose logical sections.
Feuerbach is claimed by both agnostics and atheists. This particular work seems almost pantheistic.
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The Essence of Religion
God the Image of Man. Man's Dependence upon
Nature the last and only Source of Religion
Author of "The Essence of Christianity," &c., &c.
Alexander Loos, A. M.
A BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH.
IN submitting to the American public the subsequent argument for the natural origin of religion, by a thinker whose name has, during the last year, received a well-deserved but long withheld prominence on this side of the Atlantic, by the eloquence of one of his noblest peers in the realm of thought, as well as by the lamentable news of his recent death: we consider it not altogether supererogatory to introduce it by a brief sketch of the author’s life, especially for the sake of assigning to the following paragraphs their true place in his life work.
Ludwig Feuerbach was the fourth of the five sons of the celebrated German criminality Anselm von Feuerbach, born July 28th 1804, at Landshut in Bavaria. The vicissitudes of his simple life do not present any sensational features, and neither his position in life, nor his inclination tended to bring him prominently before the public. His life was eminently a life of thought, and his writings are his real biography.
What Feuerbach was at any time of his life, he was with his whole soul. In his youth, as a pupil of the Gymnasium at Anspach, he was a pious Christian -- pious with all the energy of his character. In the fervor of his piety, he devoted himself from free choice to the study of theology at the University of Heidelberg, but without finding there any satisfactory nourishment for the restless cravings of his aspiring mind. He therefore left Heidelberg in 1824 for Berlin, whence he wrote to his father as follows: “I have abandoned theology, not however wantonly or recklessly or from dislike, but because it does not satisfy me, because it does not give me what I indispensably need. I want to press Nature to my heart, from whose depth the cowardly theologian shrinks back; I want to embrace man, but man in his entirety.” Feuerbach could not resist the power with which Hegel then attracted the young students ; but he possessed too independent a mind to swear upon the master’s word, and gradually not only emancipated himself from Hegel’s philosophy, but determined to throw off speculative philosophy altogether and to exclusively devote himself to the only true science, that of Nature. But the death of King Nax the First of Bavaria, whose liberal patronage had enabled Anselm von Feuerbach to give to each of his five talented sons a liberal education, frustrated this intention, and prevented Ludwig Feuerbach from continuing his studies. He accordingly settled in 1828 as a private tutor at the University of Erlangen and lectured on Logic and Metaphysics, but he soon realized that the prevailing scholasticism of a royal university was not a congenial atmosphere for his independent mind, and throwing up all official connection with licensed institutions and systems, he retired into the rural solitude of Bruckberg, a small village near Anspach,where Nature and Science absorbed all the fervor of his enthusiasm and inspired him, during a residence of 25 years, with the most important of his literary creations -- a residence that was interrupted only by a short visit at Heidelberg in 1848, whither he had been invited by the student youth to give a course of lectures before a promiscuous audience on “The Essence of Religion.” The feelings with which he hailed this self-emancipation from the thraldom of office and scholastic influences can best be realized from the words in which he gave vent to his exultation, when in1838 he had been united in blissful wedlock to the sister-in- law of the friend who had secured for him the asylum at Bruckberg: “ Now I can do homage to my genius; now I can devote myself independently, freely, regardlessly to the development of my own being.”
Among his writings which have been published in a uniform edition comprising ten volumes, the following deserve especially to be mentioned: Thoughts on Death and Immortality, (1830) ; History of Modern Philosophy from Bacon of Verulam to Spinoza, (1833); Representation, Development and Criticism of Leibnitz’s Philosophy, (1837); Pierre Bayle, (1838); Essence of Christianity, (1841, second edition 1843, third edition 1848-translated by Marion Evans); Essence of Religion, (1845).
This last named work which is here for the first time presented to the American public in translation, forms the principal basis for the thirty lectures on “ The Essence of Religion,” which Ludwig Feuerbach, as before stated, held in the winter of 1848-1849 at Heidelberg before a promiscuous audience, and in which he endeavored to fill a gap left in his “Essence of Christianity,” by enlarging the argument of the latter, according to which “all theology is anthropology” by the addition of “and physiology,” so that his doctrine and conception of religion is embraced in the two words Nature and Man. The last principal work of Ludwig Feuerbach is “ Theogony according to the sources of Classic, Hebrew and Christian antiquity,” which forms the 9th volume of his works; the 10th volume (1866) consisting of a promiscuous collection of essays on “Deity, liberty and immortality from the stand-point of anthropology.”
Afterwards Feuerbach transferred his residence from Bruckberg to Rechenberg near Nuremberg, where he lived exclusively to his family and a small circle of intimate friends. Solely devoted as he had been to the service of science, he had not hoarded up any riches and in consequence suffered toward the evening of his life from severe and annoying deprivations. A due sense of gratitude on the part of his contemporaries in Europe and America, secured the success of a national subscription, intended to relieve him and his family from want and cares for the rest of his life. But his health, undermined by severe mental labor and deprivation, failed more and more rapidly and disabled him even from fully realizing the enjoyment of a nation’s grateful recognition, when a repeated stroke of apoplexy overshadowed his existence with the gloom of partial unconsciousness, until, on the 12th of Sept., 1872, he died at Rechenberg.
In trying to briefly point out, in conclusion, the substance of Ludwig Feuerbach’s writings in general and of the subsequent argument in particular, we do not know how to do this better or more strikingly, than in his own words in which he speaks of his life-work as follows:
“ My business was, and above everything is, to illumine the dark regions of religion with the torch of reason, that man at last may no longer be a sport to the hostile powers that hitherto and now avail themselves of the mystery of religion to oppress mankind. My aim has been to prove that the powers before which man crouches are creatures of his own limited, ignorant, uncultured, and timorous mind, to prove that in special the being whom man sets over against himself as a separate supernatural existence is his own being. The purpose of my writing is to make men anthropologians instead of theologians; man-lovers instead of God-lovers ; students of this world instead of candidates of the next; self-reliant citizens of the earth instead of subservient and wily ministers of a celestial and terrestrial monarchy. My object is therefore anything but negative, destructive, it is positive : I deny in order to affirm. I deny the illusions of theology and religion that I may affirm the substantial being of man.”
ESSENCE OF RELIGION
GOD THE IMAGE OF MAN.
MAN’S DEPENDENCE UPON NATURE THE LAST AND ONLY
SOURCE OF RELIGION
[The following treatise forms the basis and substance of the author’s larger work, published under the same title, as a complement to his previous: “Essence of Christianity ” (translated into English by Marion Evans, the translator of Strauss’ “Life of Jesus.”) It will recommend itself to the unbiased reader as by far the most striking and powerful argument for the human origin of religion in general, and Christianity in particular, before which all claims and pretensions of dogmatism sink into naught. -- Translator.]
1. That being which is different from and independent of man, or, which is the same thing, of God, as represented in the “ Essence of Christianity,“-the being without human nature, without human qualities and without human individuality is in reality nothing but Nature.(2)
2. The feeling of dependence in man is the source of religion; but the object of this dependence, viz., that upon which man is and feels himself dependent, is originally nothing but Nature. Nature is the first original object of religion, as is sufficiently proved by the history of all religions and nations.
3. The assertion that religion is innate with and natural to man, is false, if religion is identified with Theism; but it is perfectly true, if religion is considered to be nothing but that feeling of dependence by which man is more or less conscious that he does not and cannot exist without another being, different from himself, and that his existence does not originate in himself.
Religion, thus understood, is as essential to man as light to the eye, as air to the lungs, as food to the stomach. Religion is the manifestation of man’s conception of himself. But above all man is a being who does not exist without light, without air, without water, without earth, without food, -- he is, in short, a being dependent on Nature. This dependence in the animal, and in man as far as he moves within the sphere:of the brute, is only an unconscious
and unreflected one; but by its elevation into consciousness and imagination, by its consideration and profession, it becomes religion. Thus all life depends on the change of seasons; but man alone celebrates this change by dramatic representations and festival acts. But such festivals, which imply and represent nothing but the change of the seasons, or of the phases of the moon, are the oldest, the first, and the real confessions of human religion.
4. Man, as well as any individual nation or tribe considered in its particularity, does not depend on nature or earth in general, but on a particular locality -- not on water generally, but on some particular water, stream or fountain. Thus the Egyptian is no Egyptian out of
Egypt; the Indian is no Indian out of India. For this very reason those ancient nations which were so firmly attached to their native soil, and not yet attained to the conception of their true nature as members of mankind, but which clung to their individuality and particularity
as nations and tribes, were fully justified in worshiping the mountains, trees, animals, rivers and fountains of their respective countries as divine beings; for their whole individuality and existence were exclusively based upon the particularity of their country and its nature -- just as he who recognizes the universe as his home, and himself as a part of it, transfers the universal character of his being into his conception of God.
5. It is a fantastic notion that man should have been enabled only by “Providence,” through the assistance of “ superhuman ” beings, such as Gods, Spirits, Genii and Angels, to elevate himself above the state of the animal. Of course man has become what he is not through himself alone ; he needed for this the assistance of other beings. But these were no supernatural creatures
of imagination, but real, natural beings -- no beings standing above but below himself, for in general every thing that aids man in his conscious and voluntary actions, commonly and pre-eminently called human, every good gift and talent, does not come from above, but from below; not from on high, but from the very depths of Nature. Such assistant beings, such tutelary genii of
man, are especially the animals. Only through them man raised himself above them; only by their protection and assistance, the seed of human perfection could grow.
Thus we read in the book of Zendavesta, and even in
its very oldest and most genuine part, Vendidad: “Through the intellect of the dog is the world upheld.
If he did not protect the world, thieves and wolves would rob all property.” This importance of the animals to man, particularly in times of incipient civilization, fully justifies the religious adoration with which they are looked upon. The animals were necessary and indispensable to man ; on them his human existence depended -- but on what his life and existence depends, that is his God. If the Christian no longer adores Nature as God, it is only because in his belief his existence does not depend on Nature, but on the will of a being different from Nature ; but still he considers and adores this being as a divine, i.e. supreme being, only because he deems it to be the author and preserver of his existence and life.
Thus the worship of God depends only on the self-adoration of man, and is nothing but the manifestation of the latter; for suppose I should despise myself and my life -- and man originally and normally does not make any distinction between himself and his life-how should I praise and worship that upon which such pitiful and contemptible life depends? The value which I consciously attribute to the source of life reflects therefore only the value which I unconsciously attribute to life and myself. The higher therefore the value of life, the higher also the value and dignity of those who give life, viz. of the Gods. How could the Gods possibly be resplendent in gold and silver, unless man knew the value and the use of gold and silver? What a difference between the fullness and love of life among the Greeks, and the desolation and contempt of life among the Indians -- but at the same time what a difference between the Greek and Indian mythology, between the Olympian father of the Gods and of man and the huge Indian opossum or the rattlesnake -- the ancestor of the Indians!
6. The Christian enjoys life just as much as the Heathen, but he sends his thankofferings for the enjoyments of life upward to the father in Heaven: he accuses the Heathen of idolatry for the very reason that they confine their adoration to the creature and do not rise to the first cause as the only true cause of all benefits. But do I owe my existence to Adam, the first man? Do I
revere him as my parent? Why shall I not stop at the creature? Am I myself net a creature? Is not the very nearest cause which is equally defined and individual with myself, the last cause for me, who myself am not from afar, as I myself am a defined and individual being? Does not my individuality, inseparable and undistinguishable as it is from myself and my existence, depend on the individuality of my parents? Do I not, if I go further back, at last lose all traces of my existence? Is there not a necessary limit to my thus going back in search of the first cause? Is not the beginning of my existence
absolutely individual ? Am I begotten and conceived in the same year, in the same hour, with the same disposition, in short under the same internal and external conditions as my brother? Is not therefore my origin just as individually my own as my life without contradiction is my own life? Shall I therefore extend my filial love and veneration back to Adam? No, I am
fully entitled to stop with my religious reverence at those things which are nearest to me, viz., my parents, as the cause of my existence.
7. The uninterrupted series of the finite causes or objects, so-called, which was defined by the Atheists of old as an infinite and by the Theists as a finite one, exists only in the thoughts and the imagination of man, like time, in which one moment follows another without interruption or distinction. In reality the tedious monotony of this causal series is interrupted and destroyed by the difference and individuality of the objects, which individuality causes each by itself to appear new, independent, single, final and absolute. Certainly water, which in the conception of natural religion is a divine being, is on the one hand a compound, depending on hydrogen and oxygen, but at the same time it is something new, to be compared to itself only, and original, wherein the qualities of its two constituent elements, as such, have disappeared and are destroyed. Certainly the moonlight, which the Heathen, in his religious simplicity, adored as an independent light, is derived from the immediate light of the sun, but at the same time, different from the latter, the peculiar light of the moon, changed and modified by the moon’s resistance, and therefore a light which could not exist without the moon, and whose particularity has its source only in her.
Certainly the dog, whom the Persian addresses in his prayers as a beneficial and therefore divine being on account of his watchfulness, his readiness to oblige and his faithfulness, is a creature of Nature, which is not what he is through himself; but still it is only the dog himself, this particular and no other being, which possesses those qualities that call for my veneration. Shall I now in recognition of these qualities look up to the first and general cause, and turn my back on the dog But the
general cause is without distinction just as much the cause of the friendly dog as of the hostile wolf, whose existence I am obliged to destroy, in spite of the general cause, if I will sustain the better right of my own existence
8. The Divine Being which is revealed in Nature, is nothing but Nature herself, revealing and representing herself with irresistible power as a Divine Being. The ancient Mexicans adored among their many Gods also a God ( or rather a Goddess ) of the salt. This God of the salt may reveal to us in a striking exemplification the God of Nature in general. The salt ( rock-salt ) represents in its economical, medicinal and other effects, the usefulness and beneficence of Nature, so highly praised by the Theists ; in its effect on the eye, in its colors, its brilliancy and transparency, her beauty ; in its crystalline structure and form, her harmony and regularity ; in its composition of antagonistic elements, the combination of the opposite elements of Nature into one whole -- a combination which by the Theists was always considered as an unobjectionable proof for the existence of a ruler of Nature, different from her, because in their ignorance of Nature they did not know that antagonistic elements and things are most apt to attract one another and combine into a new whole. But what now is the God of the salt? That God whose domain, existence, manifestation, effects and qualities are contained in the salt? Nothing but the salt itself which appears to man on account of its qualities and effects as a divine, i. e., as a beneficent, magnificent, praiseworthy and admirable being. Homer expressively calls the salt divine. Thus, as the God of the salt is only the impression and expression of the deity or divinity of’ the salt, so also is the God of the world or of Nature in general, only the impression and expression of Nature’s divinity.
9. The belief that in Nature another being is manifested, distinct from Nature herself, or that Nature is
filled and governed by a being different from herself, is in reality identical with the belief that spirits, demons,
devils &c. manifested themselves through man, at least in a certain state, and that they possess him; it is in very truth the belief, that Nature is possessed by a strange, spiritual being. And indeed Nature, viewed in the light of such a belief, is really possessed by a spirit, but this spirit is the spirit of man, his imagination, his
soul, which transfers itself involuntarily into Nature and makes her a symbol and mirror of his being.
10. Nature is not only the first and original object but also the lasting source, the continuous, although hidden background of religion. The belief that God, even when he is imagined as a supernatural being, different from Nature, is an object existing outside of man, an objective being, as the philosophers call it ; this belief has its only source in the fact, that the objective being, which really exists outside of man, viz., the world or Nature, is originally God. The existence of nature is not, as Theism imagines, based upon the existence of God but vice versa, the existence of God, or rather the belief in his existence, is only based upon the existence of Nature. You are obliged to imagine God as an existing being, only because you are obliged by Nature herself to pre-suppose the existence of Nature as the cause and condition of your existence and consciousness, and the very first idea connected with the thought of God is nothing but the very idea that he is the existence preceding your own and presupposed to it. Or, the belief that God exists absolutely outside of man’s soul and reason, no matter whether man exists or not, whether he contemplates him or not, whether he desires him or not -- this
belief or rather its object, does not reflect anything to your imagination but Nature, whose existence is not based upon the existence of man, much less upon the
action of the human intellect and imagination. If,therefore, the theologians, particularly the Rationalists, find the honor of God pre-eminently in his having an existence independent of man’s thoughts, they may consider that the honor of such an existence likewise must be attributed to the Gods of blinded Heathenism, to the stars, stones and animals, and that in this respect the existence of their God does not differ from the existence of the Egyptian Apis.
Those qualities which imply and express the difference between the divine being and the human being or at least the human individual, are originally and implicitly only qualities of Nature. God is the most powerful or rather the almighty being, i.e., he can do what man
is not able to do, what infinitely surpasses his powers, and what therefore inspires him with the humiliating
feeling of his limitedness, weakness and nullity. “Canst thou,” says God to Job, “bind the sweet influences of Pleiades or loose the bands of Orion? Canst thou send lightnings, that they may go unto thee and say, here we are? Hast thou given the horse strength? Does the hawk fly by thy wisdom; Hast thou an arm like God, or canst thou thunder with a voice like Him?” No, that man cannot do, with the thunder the human voice cannot be compared. But what power is manifest in the power of the thunder, in the horse’s strength, in the
flight of the hawk, in the restless course of the Pleiades? The power of Nature.
God is an eternal being. But in the Bible itself we read: “One generation passeth away and another generation cometh : but the earth abideth forever.” In the books of Zendavesta, sun and moon are expressively called “immortal,” on account of their duration. And a Peruvian Inca said to a Dominican monk, “ You adore a God who died on the cross, but I worship the Sun which never dies.”
God is the all-kind being, “for he maketh the sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust;” but that being which does not distinguish between good and evil, between just and unjust, which distributes the enjoyments of life not according to moral merits; which in general impresses man as a kind being, because its effects, such as for instance the refreshing sunlight and rain-water are the sources of the most beneficial sensations : that being is Nature.
God is an all-embracing, universal and unchangeable being ; but it is also one and the same sun which shines ,for all men and beings on the earth; it is one and the same sky which embraces them all; one and the same earth which bears them all. “That there is one God,” says Ambrosius, “ is proved by common Nature: for there is only one world,” “ just as the sun, the sky, the moon, the earth and the sea are common to all,” says Plutarch, “although they are differently called by each one, so exists also one spirit, who rules the universe, but he has different names and is worshipped in different ways.”
God “dwelleth not in temples made with hands,” but Nature neither. Who can enclose the light, the sky, the sea, within human limits? The ancient Persians and Germans worshipped only Nature, but they had no temples. The worshipper of Nature finds the artificial, well-measured halls of a temple or of a church too narrow, too sultry ; he feels at his ease only under the lofty, boundless sky which appears to the contemplation of his senses.
God is that being which cannot be defined with human measure, a great, immeasurable, infinite being; but he is such a being only because his work, the universe, is great, immeasurable and infinite, or at least appears to be so. The work praises its master: the magnificence of the creator has its origin only in the magnificence of his
product. “How great is the sun, but how much greater
is he who made it”
God is a superterrestrial, superhuman, supreme being, but even this supreme being is in its origin and basis nothing but the highest being in space, optically considered: the sky with its brilliant phenomena. All religions of some imagination transfer their Gods into the region of the clouds, into the ether of the sun, moon and stars: all Gods are lost at last in the blue vapor of heaven. Even the spiritual God of Christianity has his seat, his basis above in heaven.
God is a mysterious, inconceivable being, but only because Nature is to man, especially to religious man, a mysterious inconceivable being. “Dost thou know,” says God to Job, “ the balancings of the clouds? Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea? Hast thou perceived the breadth of the earth? Hast thou seen the treasures of the hail?”
Finally, God is that being which is independent of the human will, unmoved by human wants and passions, always equal to himself, ruling according to unchangeable laws, establishing his institutions unchangeable for all time. But this being again is nothing but Nature, which remains the same in all changes, never exhibiting the vacillations of an arbitrary, willful ruler, but subject in all her manifestations to unalterable laws: inexorable, regardless Nature.(3)
- The theme of this treatise, or at least its starting point, is Religion, inasmuch as its object is Nature, which I was obliged to disregard in my “Essence of Christianity,” since the centre of Christianity is not God in Nature, but God in man. -- [Author’s note].
- Nature, according to my conception, is nothing but a general word for denoting those beings, things and objects which man distinguishes from himself and his productions, and which he embraces under the common name of “Nature,” but by no means a general being, abstracted and separated from the real objects and then personified into a mystical existence.
- All those qualities which originally are derived only from the contemplation of Nature, become in later times abstract, metaphysical qualities, just as Nature herself becomes an abstraction or creation of human reason. On this later standpoint, where man forgets the origin of God in Nature, when God no longer is an object of the senses, but an imaginary being, we must say: God without human qualities, who is to be distinguished from the properly human God, is nothing but the essence of reason. So much as regards the relation between this work and my former ones “Luther” and “The Essence of Christianity.”
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