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Meditation 1088
The Essence of Religion

(Part 4)

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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30. Religion has for its presupposition the contradiction between will and ability, desire and satisfaction, intention and success, imagination and reality, thought and existence. In his desire, in his imagination, man is unlimited, free, almighty-God; but in his ability, in reality, he is bound, dependent, limited -- man; man in the sense of a finite being, in contradistinction from God. “Man proposes, God disposes,” as the saying is. “Man Plans and Jove accomplishes it differently.” The thought, the will is mine; but what I think and will is not mint, is outside of me, does not depend on me. The destruction of such a contrast or contradiction is the tendency, the purpose of religion; and that being in which it is destroyed, and wherein that which I wish and imagine as possible, which however my limited power proves to be impossible for me, is possible, nay even real -- that being is the divine being.

31. That which is independent from the will and the knowledge of man is the original, proper, characteristic cause of religion-the cause of God. “I have planted” says Paul, “Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither is he that planteth anything, neither he that watereth, but God that giveth the increase.” And Luther says: “We must praise and thank God that he suffers grain to grow, and acknowledge that it is not our work, but his blessing and his gift, if grain and wine and all sorts of fruit grow which we eat and drink to satisfy our wants.” And Hesiod says, that the industrious husbandman will richly harvest if Jove grants a good end. The tilling of the soil then, the sowing and watering of the seed, depends on me, but not the success. This is in God’s hand, therefore it is said: “God’s blessing is the main thing.” But what is God? Originally nothing but Nature, or the essence of Nature; but Nature as an object of prayer, as an exorable and consequently willing being. Jove is the cause or the essence of meteorological phenomena; but this does not yet constitute his divine, his religions character; also he who is not religious assumes a cause of the rain, of the thunder storm, of the snow. He is God only, because and in so far as these phenomena depend on his good will. That which is independent of man’s will is, therefore, by religion, made dependent upon God’s will as far as the object itself is concerned (objectively); but subjectively (as far as man is concerned,) it is made dependent on prayer, for what depends on will is an object of prayer and can be changed. “Even the Gods are pliable. A mortal can change their minds by incense and humble vows, by libations and perfume.”

32. The only or at least the principal object of religion is an object of human purposes and wants, at least where man has once risen beyond the unlimited arbitrariness, helplessness and accidentalness of Fetishism proper. For this very reason those natural beings which are most necessary and indispensable to man enjoyed also the most general and the highest religious adoration. But whatever is an object of human wants and purposes, is for the same reason an object of human wishes. I need rain and sunshine for the successful growth of my seeds. In times of continuous drouth I therefore wish for rain; in times of continuous rain I wish for sunshine. This wish is a desire whose gratification is not within my power; a will, but without the might to prevail, although not absolutely so, yet at least at a given time, under certain circumstances and conditions, and such as man wishes it on the stand point of religion. But just what my body, my power in general, is unable to do, is within the power of my wish. What I ask and wish for, that I enchant and inspire by my wishes.(7) While under the influence of an affect-and religion roots only in affect, in feeling -- man places his essence without himself; he treats as living what is without life, as arbitrary what has no will; he animates the object with his sighs, for he cannot possibly in a state of affect address himself to an insensible being. Feeling does not confine itself within the limits prescribed by intellect; it gushes over man; his breast is too narrow for it ; it must communicate itself to the outer world and by so doing make the insensible essence of Nature a sympathetic one. Nature enchanted by human feeling, Nature agreeing with and assimilated to man’s feeling, i.e., Nature herself endowed with feeling, is Nature such as she is an object of religion, a divine being. The wish is the origin, the very essence of religion -- the essence of the Gods is nothing hut the essence of the wish.(8) The Gods are superhuman and supernatural beings; but are not wishes also of a superhuman and supernatural nature? e.g. am I in my wish, in my imagination still a man, if I wish to be an immortal being, free from the fetters of the earthly body? No! He who has no wishes has no gods either. Why did the Greeks lay such a stress upon the immortality and happiness of the Gods? Because they themselves did not wish to be mortal and unhappy. Where no lamentations about man’s mortality ‘and misery are heard, no hymns are heard in honor of the immortal and happy Gods. Only the water of tears shed within the human heart evaporates in the sky of imagination into the cloudy image of the divine being. From the universal stream, Oceanos, Homer derives the Gods; but this stream abounding with Gods is in reality only an efflux of human feelings.

33. The irreligious manifestations of religion are best adapted to disclose in a popular manner the origin and essence of religion. Thus it is an irreligious manifestation of religion and therefore most severely criticized already by the pious heathen, that as a general thing man takes recourse to religion, that he applies to God and thinks of him, only in times of misfortune ; but this very fact reveals to us the source of religion. In times of misfortune or distress, no matter whether it be his own or another one’s, man realizes the painful experience of his inability to do what he wishes --he finds his hands tied. But the palsy of the motory nerves is not at the same time also the palsy of the sensory nerves; the fetters of my physical power arc not also at the same time the fetters of my will, of my heart. On the contrary, the more my hands are tied, the more boundless are my wishes, the more ardent is my desire for redemption, the more energetic my strife after freedom, my will not to be limited. The power of the human heart or will which by the influence of distress has been exaggerated and overexcited to a superhuman one, is the power of the Gods for whom there is no necessity nor limit. The Gods are able to do what man desires, i.e. they obey the laws of the human heart. What man is only in regard to his soul, the Gods are also physically; what he can do only within his will, his imagination, his heart, i.e., mentally, as e.g. to be in the twinkling of an eye at a distant place, that the Gods are able to do physically.

The Gods are the embodied, realized wishes of man – the natural limits of man’s heart and will destroyed – creatures of the unlimited will, creatures whose physical powers are equal to those of the will. The irreligious manifestation of this supernatural power of religion is the practice of witchcraft among uncivilized nations, where in a palpable manner the mere will of man appears as God, commanding over Nature. But when the God of Israel at Joshua’s command bids the sun stand still or suffers it to rain in compliance with Elijah’s prayer, and when the God of the Christians for the sake of proving his divinity, i.e., his power to fulfill all wishes of man, by his word alone appeases the raging sea, cures the sick, raises the dead : here as well as in the practice of witchcraft, the mere will, the mere wish, the mere word is declared a power that overrules Nature. The only difference is that the sorcerer realizes the end of religion in an irreligious manner, whilst the Jew and the Christians do it in a religious manner, inasmuch as the former places within himself, what the latter transfers into God, inasmuch as the former makes the object of an expressive will or command what the latter make the object of a still submissive will, of a pious wish; in short inasmuch as the former does by and for himself, what the latter do by and with God. But the common saying: “quod quis per alium fecit ipse fecisse putatur,” i.e. what one does through another one that is imputed to him as his own deed, finds its application also here: what one does through God that he does in reality himself.

34. Religion has -- at least originally and in relation to nature -no other office and tendency than to change the unpopular and haunted essence of Nature into a familiar and known one ; to melt Nature, who in herself is impliant and hard as iron, in the glowing fire of the heart for the sake of human purposes; i.e., it has the same end as civilization or culture, whose end also is no other than to make Nature theoretically an intelligible and practically a pliable being, agreeable to the wants of man -- with this only difference, that what culture tries to attain by means, and that too by means learned from Nature, religion attains without means, or what is the same, through the supernatural means of prayer, of faith, of sacraments, of witchcraft. Thus we find that everything which with the progress of the civilization of mankind became a cause of activity, of self-activity, of anthropology; in former times was a cause of religion or theology ; as, for instance, jurisprudence, politics, medicine, which latter even now-a-days among uncivilized nations is a thing of religion.(9) It is true, culture and civilization always come short of the wishes of religion, for it cannot destroy those limits of man which have their foundation in his Nature. Thus culture succeeds for instance in improving the- science of prolongating life (Macrobiotics) but it never attains to immortality. This as a boundless wish which cannot be realized is left to religion.

35. In natural religion man addresses himself to an object directly antagonistic to the original will and sense of religion; for here he sacrifices his feelings and his intellect to a being which in itself is without feeling and intellect; he places above himself what he would like to have below himself; he serves what he wishes to govern, adores what in reality he abhors, entreats for assistance that against which he seeks assistance. Thus the Greeks at Titane sacrificed to the winds in order to appease their rage ; thus the Romans dedicated a temple to the Fever in order to render it harmless; thus the Tungusians at the time of an epidemic pray devotionally and with solemn bows to the disease that it may pass by their huts (according to Pallas.) Thus the Widahians in Guinea sacrifice to the raging sea in order to prevail upon it that it may be calm and not prevent them from fishing ; thus the Indians at the approach of a storm address the Manitou (i.e. Spirit, God, Being) of the air, at the crossing of water the Manitou of the waters, that he may preserve them from all danger ; thus in general many nations expressively do not adore the good but the evil essence(10) of Nature, or at least what appears to them as such. Upon the standpoint of natural religion man declares his love to a statue, to a corpse; no wonder therefore, that in order to make himself heard he resorts to the most desperate, most insane means; no wonder that he divests himself of his humanity in order to render Nature humane, that he even sheds the blood of man in order to inspire her with human feelings. Thus the northern Germans believed expressly that “sanguinary sacrifices were apt to bestow human, language and feelings to wooden idols and to endow with the gifts of language and divination the stones which they adored in the houses devoted to gory sacrifices.” But in vain are all attempts to imbue her with life; Nature does not respond to man’s lamentations and questions; she throws him inexorably back upon himself.

36. As the limits which man imagines or at least such as he imagines them on the standpoint of religion (as e.g. the limit which is the cause that he does not know the future, or does not live forever, or does not enjoy happiness without interruption and molestation, or has no body without weight, or cannot fly like the Gods, or cannot thunder like Jove, or cannot add anything to his size nor make himself invisible at will, or cannot, like the angels, live without sensual wants and impulses, or in short cannot do what he wills and desires) -- as all these limits are such only in his imagination and mind, while in reality they are no limits, because they have their necessary foundation in the essence, in’ the nature of things; so also is that being which is free from such limits, the unlimited divine being, only a creature of imagination, of reflection, and of a mental disposition which is governed by imagination. Whatever therefore may be the object of religion, be it even only a snail shell or pebble, it is such an object only in its quality as a creature of the heart, of reflection, of imagination.

This justifies the assertion that men do not adore the stones, the trees, the animals, the rivers themselves, but the Gods within them, their manitous, their spirits. But these spirits of natural objects are nothing but their reflected images or they as reflected objects, as creatures of imagination in distinction from them as real, sensed objects, just as the spirits of the dead are nothing but the imagined images of the dead which live in our remembrance -- beings that once really existed, as imagined beings, which however by religious man, i.e. by him who does not discriminate between the object and its idea, are considered to be real, self-existing beings.

Man’s pious, involuntary self-deception upon the standpoint of religion is therefore within the natural religion an apparent, self-evident truth; for here man gives to his religious object eyes and ears which he knows and sees to be artificial eyesand ears of stone or wood, and yet believes to be real eyesand ears. Thus religious man has his eyes only in order not to see, to be stoneblind, and his reason only in order not to reason, to be block-headed. Natural religion is the manifest contradiction between idea and reality, between imagination and truth. What in reality is a dead stone or log, is in the conception of natural religion a living individual; apparently, no God, but something entirely different, yet invisibly, according to belief, a God. For this reason, natural religion is always in danger of being most bitterly undeceived, as it requires only a blow with an axe in order to satisfy her, e. g. that no blood flows from adored trees, and that therefore no living, divine being dwells within them. But how does religion escape these strong contradictions and disappointments to which she is exposed by adoring Nature? Only by making her object an invisible, not sensual one, by_ making it a being that, exists only in faith, reflection, imagination – in short, within the mind, which therefore itself is a spiritual being.

37. As soon as man from a merely physical being becomes a political one, or in general a being distinguishing  himself from Nature, and concentrating himself within himself, his God is also changed from a merely physical being into a political one, different from Nature. That which leads man to a distinction of his essence from Nature, and in consequence to a God distinguished from Nature, is therefore only his association with other men to a commonwealth, wherein the objects of his consciousness and of his feeling of dependence are powers distinguished from those of Nature and existing only in thought or imagination; political, moral, abstract powers, such as the power of law, of public opinion,(11) of honor, of virtue-while his physical existence is subordinated to his human, political or moral existence, and where the power of Nature, the power over death and life, is degraded to an attribute and instrument of political or moral power. Jove is the God of lightning and thunder; but he possesses these terrible weapons only in order to crush those who disobey his commandments, the perjurer, the perpetrators of violence. Jove is father of the kings -- "from Jove are the kings.”

With lightning and thunder therefore Jove sustains the power and dignity of the Kings.(12) “The King,” we read in the law-book of Menu, “ burns eyes and hearts like the sun, therefore no human creature upon earth is able even to look upon him. He is fire and air, he is sun and moon, he is the God of criminal laws. Fire burns only a single one who by carelessness may have approached too near to it, but a King’s fire when he is in wrath, burns a whole family with all their cattle and property…  In his courage dwelleth conquest and death in his wrath.” In a similar manner the God of the Israelites commands amid lightning and thunder his people to walk in all ways which he has commanded them “in order that they may prosper and live long in the land.” Thus the power of Nature as such and the feeling of dependence on her disappears before political or moral power! Whilst the slave of Nature is so blinded by the brilliancy of the sun, that he like the Katchinian Tartar daily prays to him : “do not kill me,” the political slave on the other hand is so much blinded by the splendor of royal dignity, that he prostrates himself before it as before a divine power, because it commands over death and life. The titles of the Roman Emperors, even still among the Christians were: “Your divinity,” “Your eternity.” Nay, even now-a-days among Christians “Holiness” and “Majesty,” the titles and attributes of the Deity, are titles and attributes of kings. It is true the Christians try to justify this political idolatry with the notion that the king is nothing but God’s representative upon earth, God himself being the King of kings. But such a justification is only a self-deception. Not considering that the king’s power is a very sensible, direct and sensual one which represents itself, while that of the King of kings is only an indirect and reflected one -- G od is defined and regarded as the world’s ruler, as a royal or political being in general, only where the royal being occupies, influences and rules man so as to be considered by him as the supreme being.

Brahma” says Menu, “formed in the beginning of time for his service the genius of punishment with a body of pure light as his own son, nay even as the author or criminal justice, as the protector of all things created. Fear of punishment enables this universe to enjoy its happiness.” Thus man makes even the punishment of his criminal code divine, world-governing powers, the criminal code itself the code of Nature, no wonder that he makes Nature to sympathize most warmly ‘with his political sufferings and passions, nay, that he even makes the preservation of the world dependent on the preservation of a royal throne or of the Holy See. What is important to him, naturally is also of importance for all other beings ; what dims his eye, that also dims the brilliancy of the sun; what agitates his heart, that also moves heaven and earth -- his being to him is the universal being, the world’s being, the being of beings.

Part 5 >


(7) The expression for to wish is in the ancient German language the same as that for to “enchant

(8) The Gods are blissful beings. The blessing is the result, the fruit, the end of an action which is independent from, but desired by me. “To bless” says Luther, “means to wish some thing good.” “If we bless, we do nothing else but to wish something good, but we cannot give what we wish; but God’s blessing sounds fulfillment and soon proves its effect.” That means: men are desiring beings; the Gods are those beings which fulfill the desire. Thus even in common life the word God, so frequently used is nothing but the expression of a wish. “May God grant you children!” That means: I wish you children, with the only difference that the latter expression contains the wish as a subjective, not religious one, while the former implies it as an objective religious one.

(9) Thus in uncultivated times and among uncivilized nations religion may be a means ofcivilization, but in times of civilization religion represents the cause of rudeness, of antiquity, and is hostile to education.

(10) Under this head we may also consider the adoration of pernicious animals.

(11) Hesiod expressly says: also pheme (i.e., fame, rumor, public opinion) is a deity.

(12) The original kings, however, are well to be distinguished from the legitimate ones, so-called. The latter, except in some extraordinary instances, are ordinary individuals, insignificant in themselves, while the former were extraordinary, distinguished, historical individuals. The deification of distinguished men, especially after their death, forms therefore the most natural transition from the properly naturalistic religions to the mythological and anthropological ones, although it may also take place at the same time with natural adoration. The worshiping of distinguished men, however, is by no means confined to fabulous times. Thus the Swedes deified their king Erich at the time of Christianity and sacrificed unto him after his death.


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