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Meditation 1088
The Essence of Religion

(Part 3)

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.

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20. The ancient Greeks derived all springs, wells, streams, lakes and oceans from Oceanos; and the ancient Persians made all mountains of the earth originate in the mountain Albordy. Is the derivation of all beings from one perfect being anything different or better? No, it is based upon the same manner of thinking. As Albordy is a mountain like all those which have their origin in it, so also the divine being, as the source of those derived from it, is like them, not different from them as to species; but as the Albordy is distinguished from all other mountains by preserving their qualities preeminently, i.e. in a degree exaggerated by imagination to the utmost, up to heaven, beyond the sun, moon and stars, so also the divine being is distinguished from all other beings. Unity is unproductive; only dualism, contrast, difference is productive. That which produces the mountains is not only different from them, but something manifold in itself. And those elements which produce water, are not only different from the water, but also from themselves, nay, even antagonistic to one another. Just as genius, wit, acumen and judgment are produced and developed only by contrasts and conflicts, so also life was produced only by the conflict of different, nay, of antagonistic elements, forces and beings.

21. “How should he who made the ear not hear? How should he who made the eye not see?” This biblical or theistical derivation of the being endowed with the senses of hearing and seeing from another being endowed with the same senses, or to use an expression of the modern, philosophic language, the derivation of the spiritual and subjective being from another spiritual and subjective being, is based upon the same foundation, and expresses the same as the biblical explanation of the rain from heavenly masses of water collected beyond or in the clouds, or the Persian derivation of the mountains from the original mountain, Albordy, or the Grecian explanation of fountains and rivers from Oceanos. Water from water, but from an immensely great and all-embracing water ; mountain from mountain, but from an infinite all-embracing mountain; so spirit from spirit, life from life, eye from eye -- but from an infinite, all-embracing eye, life and spirit.,

22. When children inquire about the origin of babes, we give them the explanation that the nurse takes them from the well where they swim like fishes. The explanation which theology gives us of the origin of organic or natural beings in general is not much different. God is the deep or beautiful well of imagination in which all realities, all perfections, all forces are contained, in which all things swim already made like little fishes. Theology is the nurse who takes them from this well, but the chief person, Nature, the mother who brings forth the children with pangs, who bears them during nine months under her heart, is left entirely out of consideration in such an explanation, which originally was only childlike, but now-a-days is childish. Certainly such an explanation is more beautiful, more pleasant to the heart, easier, more intelligible and conceivable to the children of God than the natural way, which only by degrees and through numberless obstacles rises from darkness to light. But also the explanation which our pious forefathers gave of hailstorms, epidemics among cattle, drought and thunderstorms, by tracing them to the agency of weather-makers, sorcerers, and witches, is far more practical, easier, and, to uneducated men even now-a-days much more intelligible than the explanation of’ these phenomena from natural causes.

$ 23. “The origin of life is inexplicable and inconceivable.” Be it so; but this incomprehensibility does not justify us in drawing from it the superstitious consequences which theology draws from the deficiencies of human knowledge, nor in going beyond the sphere of natural causes: for we can only say, “we cannot explain life from these natural phenomena and causes which are known to us, or as far as they are known to us”-- but we cannot say, “life cannot be explained at all from Nature,” without pretending to have exhausted already the ocean of Nature even to the last drop.

This incomprehensibility does not justify us in explaining the inexplicable by the supposition of imagined beings, and in deceiving and deluding ourselves and others by an explanation which explains nothing. It does not justify us in changing an ignorance of natural material causes into a non-existence of such causes, and in deifying, personifying, representing our ignorance in a being which is to destroy such ignorance, and which yet does not express anything but the nature of such ignorance, the deficiency of positive, material reasons of explanation. For what else is the immaterial, incorporeal, not natural, extramundane being to whom we thus try to trace back all life, but the precise expression of the intellectual absense of material, corporeal, natural, cosmical causes ? But instead of being so honest and modest as to say frankly: “We do not know any reason, we do not know how to explain it, we have no data nor materials,” you change these deficiencies, these negations, these vacancies of your head by the activity of your imagination into positive beings, into immaterial beings, i.e. into beings which are not material nor natural, because you do not know of any material or natural causes. While ignorance however is contented with immaterial, incorporeal, unnatural beings, her inseparable companion, wanton imagination, which always and exclusively indulges in the intercourse with beings of the highest perfection, immediately elevates these poor creatures of ignorance to the rank of super-material, supernatural beings.

24. The idea that Nature or the universe in general has a real beginning, and that consequently at sometime there was no Nature, no universe, is a narrow idea, which seems acceptable to man only as long as he has a narrow, limited conception of the world. It is an imagination without sense and foundation -- this imagination that at some time nothing real existed, for the universe is the totality of all reality. All qualities or definitions of God which make him an objective, real being are only qualities abstracted from Nature, which presuppose and define Nature, and which therefore would not exist if Nature did not exist. It is true, if we abstract from Nature: if in our thoughts or our imagination we destroy her existence, i.e. if we shut our eyes and extinguish all images of natural things reflected by our senses and conceive Nature not with our senses (not in concreto as the philosophers say) there is left a being, a totality of qualities such as infinity, power, unity, necessity, eternity ; but this being which is left after deducting all qualities and phenomena reflected by our senses is in truth nothing but the abstract essence of Nature, or Nature “in abstract,” in thought. And such derivation of Nature or the universe from God is therefore in this respect nothing but the derivation of the real essence of Nature, as it appears to our senses, from her abstract, imagined essence, which exists only in our idea -- a derivation which appears to be reasonable because in the act of thinking we are accustomed to consider the abstract and general as that which is nearer to thought, and which therefore must be presupposed to the individual, the real, the concrete, as that which is higher and earlier in thought, although in reality just the reverse takes place, inasmuch as Nature exists before God, i.e. the concrete before the abstract. that which we conceive with our senses before that which is thought. In reality, where everything passes on naturally, the copy follows the original, the image the thing which it represents, the thought its object but on the supernatural, miraculous ground of theology, the original follows the copy, the thing its own likeness. “It is strange” says St. Augustine, “but nevertheless true, that this world could not exist if it was not known to God.” That means: the world is known and thought before it exists; nay, it exists only because it was thought of -- the existence is a consequence of the knowledge or of the act of thinking, the original a consequence of the copy, the object a consequence of its likeness.

25. If we reduce the world or Nature to a totality of abstract qualities, to a metaphysical, i.e. to a merely imagined object, and consider this abstract world as the real world, then it is a logical necessity to consider it as finite. The world is not given to us through the act of thinking, not at least through the metaphysical and hyperphysical thinking which abstracts from the real world and founds its true and highest existence upon such abstraction -- the world is given to us through life, by perception, by the senses. For an abstract being which only thinks there exists no light, because it has no eyes, no warmth, because it has no feeling, in general no world because it has no organ for its perception; for such a being there exists in reality nothing. The world, therefore, exists for us only because we are no logical or metaphysical beings, because we are other beings, because we are more than mere logicians and metaphysicians. But just this plus appears to the metaphysical thinker as a minus, this negation of the art of thinking as an absolute negation. Nature to him is nothing but the opposite of mind. This merely negative and abstract definition he makes her positive definition, her essence. Consequently it is a contradiction to consider as a positive being that being, or rather that nonentity which is only the negation of the act of thinking, which is an imagined thing, but according to its nature an object of the senses, that is antagonistic to the act of thinking and to the mind. The being which exists in thought is for the thinker the true essence, therefore it is self-evident to him that a being which does not exist in thought cannot be a true, eternal, original essence. It implies already a contradiction for the mind to think only of its opposite; it is only in harmony with itself when it thinks only itself (on the standpoint of metaphysical speculation,) or at least (on the standpoint of theism) when it thinks an essence which expresses nothing but the nature of the act of thinking, which is given only by thought, and which therefore in itself is nothing but an imagined being.

Thus Nature disappears into nothing. But still she exists, though according to the thinker she neither can nor should be. How then does the metaphysician explain her existence? By a self-privation, a self-negation, a self-denial of the mind which apparently is a voluntary one, but which in very truth is contradictory to, and only enforced upon his inner nature. But if Nature on the standpoint of abstract thinking disappears into nothing, on the other hand on the standpoint of the real observation and contemplation of the world, that creative mind disappears into nothing. On this standpoint all deductions of the world from God, of Nature from the mind, of physics from metaphysics, of the real from the abstract, are proved to be nothing but logical plays.

26. Nature is the first and fundamental object of religion, but she is such an object even where she is the direct and immediate object of religious adoration, as e.g. in the natural religions so-called, not as such, as Nature, i.e., in the manner and in the sense in which WC regard her from the standpoint of theism or of philosophy and of the natural sciences. Nature is to man originally, i.e., where he regards her with a religious eye, rather an object of his own qualities, a personal, living, feeling being. Man originally does not distinguish himself from Nature, nor consequently Nature from himself, therefore the sensations which any object in Nature excites in him appear to him immediately as qualities of the object. The beneficial, good sensations and effects are caused by good and benevolent Nature, the bad, painful sensations, such as heat, cold, hunger, pain, disease by an evil being, or at least by Nature in a state of evil disposition, of malevolence, of wrath. Thus man involuntarily and unconsciously, i.e., necessarily – although this necessity is only a relative and historical one -- transforms the essence of Nature into a feeling, i.e. a subjective, a human being. No wonder that he then also expressively, knowingly and willingly transforms her into an object of religion, of prayer, i.e. an object which can be influenced by the feelings of man, his prayers, Ins services. Really, man has made Nature already subservient and subdued her to himself by assimilating her to his feelings and subduing her to his passions. Besides, uneducated natural man does not only presuppose human motives, impulses and passions in Nature, he sees even real men in natural bodies.

Thus the Indians on the Orinoco think the sun, the moon and the stars, to be men --  “those up there,” they say “are men like unto us;” The Patagonians think the stars to be “former Indians;” the Greenlanders think the sun, moon and stars, to be their ancestors, who at a particular occasion were translated into heaven.” Thus also the ancient Mexicans believed that the sun and the moon which they adored as gods had been men in former times.

Behold thus the assertion made in my “Essence of Christianity” that man in religion is in relation to an intercourse with himself only, and that his God in reality reflects only his own essence-this assertion is confirmed even by the most uncultivated, primary manifestations of religion ; where man adores things the most distant from and most unlike to himself, such as stars, stones, trees, nay, even the claws of crabs, and snail shells ; for he adores them only because he transfers himself into them, because he believes them to be such beings, or at least to be inhabited by such beings as himself. Religion therefore exhibits the remarkable contradiction, which however is easily understood, nay, even necessary, that, while on one hand (from the standpoint of theism or anthropologism) she worships the human essence as a divine one, because it appears to her as different from man, as an essence not human-on the other hand (from the materialistic standpoint) she adores vice versa the essence which is not human as a divine one, because it appears to her as a human one,

$ 27. The mutability of Nature, especially in those phenomena which most of all cause man to feel his dependence on her, is the principal reason why she appears to man as a human, arbitrary being, and why she is religiously adored by him. If the sun stood always in the sky, he would never have kindled the fire of religious passion in man. Only when he disappeared from man’s eye and inflicted upon him the terrors of night, and when again he reappeared, man fell down on his knees before him, overcome by joy at his unexpected return. Thus the ancient Apalachites in Florida greeted the sun with hymns at his rising and setting, and prayed to him at the same time that he might return and bless them with his light. If the earth always produced fruits, where would there be a motive for religious celebrations of the time of sowing and harvesting Z Only in consequence of her now opening, now closing her womb, her fruits appear to be her voluntary gifts which oblige man to be grateful. The changes in Nature make man uncertain, humble, religious. It is uncertain, whether the weather to-morrow will be favorable to my undertakings; is it uncertain whether I shall harvest what I sow, and therefore I cannot depend upon the gifts of Nature as upon a tribute due, or an infallible consequence. But where mathematical certainty is at an end, there theology commences, even now-a-days in weak minds. Religion is the conception of the necessary-or of the accidental -- as of something arbitrary, or voluntary. The opposite sentiment, that of irreligion and ungodliness, on the other hand, is represented by the Cyclops of Euripides, when he says: “Earth must produce grass for feeding my flock, whether she be willing to do so or not.”

28. The feeling of dependence upon Nature in combination with the imagination of her as of an arbitrarily acting, personal being, is the motive of the sacrifice, the most essential act of natural religion. The dependence upon Nature is particularly sensible to me by my want of her. The want is the feeling and expression of my nothingness without Nature; but inseparable from want is enjoyment, the opposite feeling, the feeling of my ,self-existence, of my independence in distinction from ‘Nature. Want, therefore, is pious, humble, religious – but enjoyment is haughty, ungodly, void of respect, frivolous. And such frivolity, or at least want of respect in enjoyment, is a practical necessity for man, a necessity upon which his existence is founded-but a necessity which is in direct contradiction to his theoretical respect for Nature as for an egotistic, sensible being, which suffers as little as man that anything be taken from her. The appropriation or the use of Nature appears therefore to man, as if it were an encroachment upon her right, as an appropriation of another one’s property, as an outrage. In order now to propitiate his conscience as well as the object of his imaginary offence; in order to show that his robbery has its origin in want, not in arrogance, he diminishes his enjoyment and returns to the object a part of its plundered property. Thus the Greeks believed that if a tree were cut down, its soul, the Dryad, lamented and cried to Fate for revenge against the trespasser. Thus no Roman ventured to cut down a tree on his ground without sacrificing a farrow for the propitiation of the god or goddess of this grove. Thus the Ostiaks, after having slain a bear, suspend its skin on a tree, pay to it all sorts of reverences, and apologize as well as they can to the bear for having killed him. “They believe in this manner politely to avert the damage which the spirit of the animal possibly could inflict upon them.” Thus North American tribes by similar ceremonies propitiate the departed souls of slain beasts. Thus the Philippines asked the plains and mountains for their permission, if they wished to cross them, and deemed it a crime to cut down any old tree. And the Bramin hardly dares to drink water or to tread upon the ground with his feet, because each step, each draught of water causes pain and death to sentient beings, plants as well as animals, and he must therefore do penance “in order to atone for the death of creatures which he possibly, although unconsciously might destroy by day or night.”(6)

29. The sacrifice makes perceptible to the senses the whole essence of religion. Its source is the feeling of dependence, fear, doubt, the uncertainty of success, of future events, the scruples of conscience on account of a sin committed; but the result, the purpose of the sacrifice is self-consciousness, courage, enjoyment, the certainty of success, liberty and happiness. As a servant of Nature I observe the sacrifice; as her master I depart from it. Therefore, although the feeling of dependence upon Nature is the source and motive of religion: its very purpose and end is the destruction of such feeling, the independence from Nature. Or, although the divinity of Nature is the basis, the foundation of religion generally and of Christian religion in particular, still its end is the divinity of man.

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(6) Under this head we may also mention the many rules of etiquette which the ancient religions lay upon man in his intercourse with Nature, in order not to pollute or to violate her. Thus, e.g. no worshiper of Ormuzd was permitted to tread barefoot on the ground, because earth was sacred; no Greek was allowed to ford a river with unwashed hands.

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