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Meditation 1088
The Essence of Religion

(Part 6)

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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47. “Who has told the bird that it has only to raise its tail if it wants to fly downward, or to depress it, if it wants to ascend? He must be perfectly blind, who, in observing the flight of birds, does not perceive any higher wisdom that has thought in their stead.”Certainly he must be blind, not for Nature, but for man, who makes his nature the original ofNature, the power of intellect the original power, who makes the birds’ flight dependent upon the insight into the mechanical laws of flying, and who elevates his ideas abstracted from Nature into laws which the birds apply to their flight, just as the rider applies the rules of the art of riding, or the swimmer the rules of the art of swimming; with the only difference that to the birds the application of the art of flying is created with them.

But the flight of birds is founded on no art. Art is only where also the opposite of art is to be found, where an organ performs a function which is not, directly and necessarily connected with it, which does not exhaust its essence, and is only a particular function by the side of many other real or possible functions of the same organ. But the bird cannot fly otherwise than it does, nor is it at liberty not to fly; it must fly. The animal always knows how to do only that which it is able to do, and for this very reason it can do this one thing so perfectly, so masterly, so unsurpassably, because it does not know anything else, because its power is exhausted in this one function, because this one function is identical with its nature. If we therefore are unable to explain the actions and functions of the animals, especially those of the lower ones, which are endowed with certain artistic impulses, without presupposition of an intellect which has thought in their stead, this is only because we think that, the objects of their activity are objects to them in the same manner as they are objects to our consciousness and intellect. As soon as we consider the works of the animals as work of art, as arbitrary works, wemust necessarily also consider the intellect as their cause, for a work of art presupposes choice, intention, intellect, and consequently, as we know by experience that animals do not think themselves, another being as thinking in their behalf.(17)

“Do you know how to advise the spider how it is to carry and to fasten the threads from one tree to another, from one housetop to another, from a height this side of the water to another one on the other side?” Certainly not; but do you indeed believe that there is any advice needed in this instance, that the spider is in the same condition in which you would be, if you were to solve this problem theoretically, that for it, as well as for you, there is any difference between “this side” and “that side?” Between the spider and the object to which it fastens the threads of its net, there is as necessary a connection as between your bone and muscle; for the object without it is for it nothing but the support of its thread of life, as the support of its fangs. The spider does not see what you see; all the separations, differences and distances which, or at least such as your intellectual eye perceives them, do not at all exist for it. What therefore to you is an insolvable theoretical problem, that is done by the spider without any intellect, and consequently without all those difficulties which exist only for your intellect.

“Who has told the vine-fretters that they find their food in the fall of the year in greater abundance at the branch and at the bud than at the leaf? Who has shown them the way to the bud and to the branch? For the vine-fretter which was born upon the leaf, the bud is not only a distant but an entirely unknown province. I adore the creator of the vine-fretter and of the cochineal and remain silent.” Certainly you must be silent if you make the vine-fretters and cochineals preachers of Theism, if you endow them with your thoughts, for only to the vine-fretter viewed from the standpoint of man is the bud a distant and unknown province, but not to the vine-fretter itself, to which the leaf and the bud are objects not as such, but only as matter which can be assimilated and is chemically related to it. It is therefore only the reflex of your eye which shows you Nature as the work of an eye, which obliges you to derive the threads the spider draws from its hind part, from the head of a thinking being. Nature is for you only a spectacle, a delight of the eye; therefore you think that what delights your eye, also rules and moves Nature.

Thus you make the heavenly light in which she appears to you, the heavenly being which has created her; the rays of the eye the lever of Nature; the optic nerve the motory nerve of the universe. To derive Nature from a wise creator is to produce children with a look; to satisfy hunger with the perfume of food; to move rocks by the harmony of sounds. If the Greenlander derives the shark’s origin from human urine because it smells to man like it, this zoological genesis has the same foundation as has the cosmological genesis of the Theist, when he derives Nature from intellect, because she makes upon man the impression of intellect, and intention. Certainly the manifestation of Nature for us is reason, but the cause of such manifestation is as little reason as the cause of light is light.

48. Why does Nature produce monsters? Because the result of a formation to her is not the object of a preexisting purpose. Why supernumerary limbs? Because she does not number. Why does she place at the left hand side what generally lies on the right hand side, and vice versa? Because she does not know what is right or left. Monsters are therefore popular arguments, which for this very reason have been insisted on already by the Atheists of old, and even by such Theists as emancipated Nature from the guardianship of theology, in order to prove that the productions of Nature are unforeseen, unintentional, involuntary ones; for all reasons which are adduced for the sake of explaining monsters, even those of the most modern naturalists, according to which they are only consequences of diseases of the foetus, would be done away with, if with the creative or productive: power of Nature at the same time will, intellect, forethought and consciousness were connected.

But although Nature does not see, she is not therefore blind; although she does not live (in the sense of human, that is subjective, sensible life) she is not dead; and although she does not produce according to purposes, still her productions are not accidental ones; for where man defines Nature as dead and blind, and her productions as accidental ones, he defines her only so in contrast to himself,and declares her to be deficient because she does not possess what he possesses. Nature works and produces everywhere only in and with connection -- aconnection which is reason for man, for wherever he perceives connection, he finds sense, material for the thinking, “sufficient reason,” system-only from and with necessity. But also the necessity of Nature is no human, i.e. no logical, metaphysical or mathematical, in general no abstracted one; for natural beings are no creatures of thought, no logical or mathematical figures, but real, sensual, individual beings; it is a sensual necessity and therefore eccentric, exceptional, irregular, which, in consequence of these anomalies of human imagination, appears even as freedom, or at least as a product of free will.

Nature generally can be understood only through herself; she is that being whose idea depends on no other being; she alone admits of a discrimination between what a thing is in itself and what it is for our conception; she alone cannot be measured with any human measure, although we compare and designate her manifestations with analogous human manifestations in order to make them intelligible for us, and although in general we apply, and are obliged to apply to her, human expressions and ideas, such as order, purpose, in accordance with the nature of our language, which is founded only upon the subjective appearance of things.

49. The religious admiration of divine wisdom in Nature is only an incident of enthusiasm; it refers only to the means, but is extinguished in reflecting on the purposes of Nature. How wonderful is the spider’s web, how wonderful the funnel of the ant-lion in the sand! But what is the purpose of these wise arrangements? Nothing but nourishment -- a purpose which man in regard to himself degrades to a mere means. “Others,” said Socrates -- but these others are animals and brutish men -- “others live in order to eat, but I eat in order to live.”

How magnificent is the flower, how admirable its structure! But what is the purpose of this structure, of this magnificence? Only to magnify and protect the genitals which man in himself either hides from shame, or even mutilates from religious zeal. “The creator of the vine-fretters and of the cochinealswhom the naturalist, the man of theory adores and admires, who has only natural life for his purpose, is therefore not the God and creator in the sense of religion. No! Onlythe creator of man, and that of man such as he distinguishes himself from Nature, and rises above Nature, the creator in whom man has the consciousness of himself, in whom he finds represented the qualities which constitute his nature in distinction from external Nature, and that in such a manner as he imagines them in religion, is the God and creator such as he is an object of religion.

“The water” says Luther, “which is used in baptism and poured over the child is also water not of the creator but of God the Saviour.”Natural water I have in common with animals and plants, but not the water of baptism; the forms~’ amalgamates me with the other natural beings, the latter distinguishes me from them. But the object of religion is not natural water, but the water of baptism; consequently not the creator or author of natural, but of baptismal water is an object of religion. The creator of natural water is necessarily himself a natural, and therefore no religious, i.e. supernatural being. Water is a visible being, whose qualities and effects therefore do not lead us to a supernatural cause; but the baptismal water is no object for the corporeal eye, it is a spiritual, invisible, supersensuous being, i.e. one that exists and works only for faith, in thought, in imagination -- a being which therefore requires also for its cause a spiritual being that exists only in faith and imagination.

Natural water cleanses me only of my physical, but baptismal water of my moral impurities and diseases; the former only quenches my thirst for this temporal, transient life, but the latter satisfies my desire for life eternal; the former has only limited, defined, finite effects, but the latter infinite, all-powerful effects which surpass the nature of water, and which therefore represent and show the nature of the divine being, which is bound by no limit of Nature, the unlimited essence of man’s power to believe and to imagine, bound to no limit of experience and reason. But is not also the creator of baptismal water the creator of natural water? In what relation therefore does the former stand to the latter? In the very same as baptismal to natural water; the former cannot exist if the latter does not exist; this one is the condition, the means of that one.

Thus the creator of Nature is only the condition for the creator of man. How can he who does not hold the natural water in his hand combine with it supernatural effects? How can he who does not rule over temporal life give life eternal? How can he whom the elements of Nature do not obey, restore my body turned to dust? But who is the master and ruler of Nature unless it be he who had power and strength to produce her from naught by his mere will? He, therefore, who declares the union of the supernatural essence of baptism with natural water a contradiction, without sense, may also declare the union of the supernatural essence of the creator with Nature such a contradiction; for between the effects of baptismal and common water is just as much or as little connection as between the supernatural creator and natural Nature.

The creator comes from the same source from which the supernatural, wonderful water of baptism gushes forth. In the baptismal water we see only the essence of the creator, of God, in a sensible illustration. How therefore can you reject the miracle of baptism and other miracles, if you admit the essence of the creator, i.e. the essence of the miracle? Or in other words: how can you reject the small miracle if you admit the great miracle of creation? But it is in the world of theology just as in the political world; the small thieves are hanged, the great ones are suffered to escape.

50. That providence which is manifested in the order, conformity to purpose and lawfulness of Nature, is not the providence of religion. The latter is based upon liberty, the former upon necessity; the latter is unlimited and unconditional, the former limited, depending on a thousand different conditions; the latter is a special and individual one, the former is extended only over the whole, the species, while the individual is left to chance. A theistic naturalist says: “Many (or rather all those in whose conception God was more than the mathematical, imagined origin of Nature) have imagined the preservation of the world and especially of mankind as direct and special, as if God ruled the actions of all creatures, and led them according to his pleasure. But after the consideration of the natural laws, we are unable to admit such a special government and superintendence over the actions of men and other creatures. . . We learn this from the little care which Nature takes of single individuals.(18) Thousands of them are sacrificed without hesitation or repentance in the plenty of Nature. . . Even with regard to man we make the same experience. Not one half of the human race reach the second year of their age, but die almost without having known that they ever lived. We learn this very thing also from the misfortunes and mishaps of all men, the good as well as the bad, which cannot well be made to agree with the special preservation or co-operation of the creator.”

But a government, a providence which is no special one, does not answer to the purpose, the essence, the idea of providence ; for providence is to destroy accident, but just that is upheld by a merely general providence which therefore is no better than no providence at all. Thus, e.g. it is a “law of divine order in Nature,” i.e. a consequence of natural causes, that according to the number of years also the death of man occurs in a definite ratio; that for instance, in the first year one child dies out of from three to four children, in the fifth year one out of twenty-five, in the seventh one out of fifty, in the tenth one out of one hundred, but still it is accidental, not regulated by this law, depending on other accidental causes, that just this one child dies, while those three or four others survive.

Thus marriage is an “institution of God,” a law of natural providence, in order to multiply the human race, and consequently a duty for me. But whether 1 am to marry just this one, whether she is not perhaps in consequence of an accidental organic deficiency unfit or unproductive, that I am not told. But just because natural providence, which in reality is nothing but Nature herself, does not come to my assistance when I come to apply the law to the special, single case, but leaves me to myself just in the critical moment of decision, in the pressure of necessity; I appeal from her to a higher court, to the supernatural providence of the Gods whose eye shines upon me just where Nature’s light is extinguished; whose rule begins just where that of natural providence is at an end. The Gods know and tell me, they decide what Nature leaves in the darkness of ignorance and gives up to accident. The region of what commonly, as well as philosophically, is called accidental, “positive,” individual, not to be foreseen, not to be speculated upon, is the region of the Gods, the region of religious providence. And oracles and prayer are the religious means by which man makes the accidental, obscure, uncertain, an object of certainty, or at least of hope.(19)

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(17) Thus, generally, in all syllogisms from Nature to a God, the antecedent, the presupposition is a human one; no wonder therefore that their result is a human being or being similar to man. If the world is a machine there must necessarily be an architect. If the natural beings are as indifferent toward one another as the human individuals which can be employed and united only by means of higher power for any arbitrary purpose of state, as for instance war, there must naturally also be a ruler, a governor, a chief general of nature-a captain of the cloud: -if she shall not he dissolved into nothing. Thus man first makes Nature unconsciously a human work, i.e. he makes his essence her fundamental essence, but as he afterwards or at the same time perceives the difference between the works of Nature and those of human art, hi3 own essence appears to him as another, but analogous, similar one. All arguments for God’s existence have therefore only a logical or rather anthropological signification, since also the logical forms are forms of human nature.

(18) Nature however “cares” just as little for the species or genus. The latter is preserved because it is nothing but the totality of the individuals which by coition propagate and multiply themselves. While single individuals are exposed to accidental, destructive influence@, others escape them. The plurality is thus preserved. But still, or rather from the same reasons which cause the single individual to perish, even species die away. Thus the Dronte has disappeared, thus the Irish gigantic deer, thus even now-a-days many animal species disappear in consequence of man’s persecution and of the evermore extending civilization from regions where they once or even a short time ago still existed in great numbers, as, e.g. the seal from some inlands; and in time will disappear entirely from the earth.

(19) Compare in regard to this matter the expressions of Socrates in Xenophon’s writings as to oracles.

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