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Meditation 1088
The Essence of Religion

(Part 7)

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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51. The Gods, says Epicurus, exist in the intervals of the universe. Very well; they exist only in the void space, in the abyss which is between the world of imagination and the world of reality, between the law and its application, between the action and its result, between the present and the future. The Gods are imagined beings, beings of imagination which therefore owe also their existence, strictly speaking, not to the present but only to the future and the past. Those Gods who owe their existence to the past, are those who no longer exist, the dead ones, those beings which live only in mind and imagination, whose worship among some nations constitutes the whole religion, and with most of them an important essential part of religion. But far more mightily than by the past, is the mind influenced by the future; the former leaves behind only the quiet perception of remembrance, while the latter stands before us with the terrors of hell or the happiness of heaven.

The Gods which rise from the tombs are therefore themselves only shades of Gods; the true living Gods, the rulers over rain and sunshine, lightning and thunder, life and death, heaven and hell, owe their existence likewise only to the powers of fear and hope, which rule over life and death, and which illuminate the dark abyss of the future with beings of the imagination. The present is exceedingly prosaic, ready made, determined, never to be changed, final, exclusive; in the present, imagination coincides with reality; in it therefore there is no place for the Gods; the present is godless. But the future is the empire of poetry, of unlimited possibility and accident -- the future may be according to my wishes or fears; it is not yet subject to the stern lot of unchangeableness; it still hovers between existence and non-existence, high over “common” reality and palpability; it still belongs to another “invisible” world which is not put in motion by the laws of gravitation, but only by the sensory nerves.

This world is the world of the Gods. Mine is the present, but the future belongs to the Gods. I am now; this present moment, although it will immediately be past, cannot be taken any more from me by the Gods; things that have happened cannot be undone even by divine power, as the ancients have already said.  But shall I exist the next moment? Does the next moment of my life depend on my will, or is it in any necessary connection with the present one? No; a numberless multitude of accidents ; the ground under my feet, the ceiling over my head, a flash of lightning, a bullet, a stone, even a grape which glides into my windpipe instead of passing into the aesophagus, can at any moment tear forever the coming moment from the present one.

But the good Gods prevent this violent breach; they fill with their external, invulnerable bodies, the pores of the human body which are accessible to all possible destructive influences; they attach the coming moment to the one that is past; they unite the future with the present; they are, and possess in uninterrupted continuity, what men -- the porous Gods-- are and possess, only in intervals and with interruptions.

52. Goodness is an essential quality with the Gods; but how can they be good if they are not almighty and free from the laws of natural providence, i.e. from the fetters of natural necessity, if they do not appear in the individual instances which decide between life and death, as masters of nature, but as friends and benefactors of men, and if they consequently do not work any miracles?

The Gods, or rather Nature, has endowed man with physical and mental powers in order to be able to sustain himself. But are these natural means of sustaining himself always sufficient? Do I not frequently come into situations where I am lost without hope if no supernatural hand stops the inexorable course of natural order? The natural order is good, but is it always good? This continuous rain or drought e. g. is entirely in order; but must not I or my family, or even a whole nation perish in consequence of it, unless the Gods give their aid and stop it? (20)

Miracles therefore are inseparable from the divine government and providence; nay, they are the only proofs, manifestations and revelations of the Gods, as of powers and beings distinguished from Nature; to deny the miracles is to deny the Gods themselves. By what are Gods distinguished from men? Only by their being without limits, what the latter are in a limited manner, and especially by their being always what the latter are only for a certain time, for a moment.(21)

Men live -- living existence is divinity, essential quality and primary condition of the Deity-but alas! not for ever; they die -- but the Gods are the immortal ones who always live; men are also happy, but not without interruption as the Gods; men are also good but not always, and just this constitutes according to Socrates the difference between Deity and humanity, that the former is always good; according to Aristotle, men also enjoy the divine happiness of thinking, but their mental activity is interrupted by other functions and actions. Thus the Gods and men have the same qualities and rules of life, only that the former possess them without, the latter with limitations and exceptions. As the life to come is nothing but the continuation of this life uninterrupted by death, so the divine being is nothing but the continuation of the human being uninterrupted by Nature in general -- the uninterrupted, unlimited nature of man.

But how are miracles distinguished from the effects of Nature? Just as the Gods are distinguished from men. The miracle makes an effect or a quality of Nature which in a given case is not good, a good or at least a harmless one; it causes that I do not sink and drown in the water, if I have the misfortune of falling into it ; that fire does not burn me ; that a stone, falling upon my head, does not kill me-in short, it makes that essence which now is beneficent, then destructive now philanthropic, then misanthropic, an essence always good.

The Gods and miracles owe their existence only to the exceptions of the rule. The Deity is the destruction of the deficiencies and weaknesses in man which are the very causes of the exceptions; the miracle is the destruction of the deficiencies and limits in Nature. The natural beings are defined and consequently limited beings. This limit of theirs is in some abnormal cases the cause of their injuriousness to man ; but in the sense of religion it is not a necessary one, but an arbitrary one, made by God and therefore to be destroyed if necessity, i.e. the welfare of man requires it. -- To deny the miracles under the pretext that they are not becoming to God’s dignity and wisdom in virtue of which he has fixed and determined everything from the beginning in the best manner, is to sacrifice man to Nature, religion to intellect, is to preach Atheism in the name of God. A God who fulfills only such prayers and wishes of men as can be fulfilled also without him, the fulfillment of which is within the limits and conditions of natural causes, who therefore helps only as long as art and Nature help, but who ceases helping as soon as the materia medica is at an end -- such a God is nothing but the personified necessity of Nature hidden behind the name of God.

53. The belief in God is either the belief in Nature (the objective being) as a human (subjective) being, or the belief in the human essence as the essence of Nature. The former is the natural religion, polytheism,(22) this one spiritual or human religion, monotheism. The polytheist sacrifices himself to Nature, he gives to the human eye and heart the power and government over Nature; the polytheist makes the human being dependent on Nature, the monotheist makes Nature dependent on the human being; the former says: if Nature does not exist, I do not exist; but the latter says vice versa: if I do not exist, the world, Nature does not exist. The first principle of religion is: I am nothing compared with Nature, everything compared with me is God; everything inspires me with the feeling of dependence; everything can bring me, although only accidentally, fortune and misfortune, welfare and destruction, (but man originally does not distinguish between cause and accidental motive); therefore everything is a motive of religion. Religion on the stand-point of such non-critical feeling of dependence is fetishism so-called, the basis of polytheism.

But the conclusion of religion is: everything is nothing compared with me -- all the magnificence of the stars, the supreme Gods of polytheism disappear before the magnificence of the human soul; all the power of the world before the power of the human heart ; all the necessity of dead unconscious Nature, before the necessity of the human, conscious being ; for everything is only a means for me.

But Nature would not exist for me, if she existed by herself, if she were not from God. If she were by herself and therefore had the cause of her existence in herself, she would for this very reason have also an independent essence, an original existence and essence without any relation to myself, and independent from me. The signification of Nature according to which she appears to be nothing for herself, but only a means for man, is therefore to be traced back only to creation; but this signification is manifested above all in those instances where man – as e.g. in distress, in danger of death-comes into collision with Nature, which however is sacrificed to man’s welfare -- in the miracles.

Therefore the premiss of the miracle is creation; the miracle is the conclusion, the consequence, the truth 0J creation. Creation is in the same relation to the miracle, as the species to the single individual; the miracle is the act of creation in a special, single case. Or, creation is theory; its practice and applicationis the miracle. God is the cause, man the end of the world i.e. God is the first being in theory, but man is the first being in practice. Nature is nothing for God -- nothing but a plaything of his power – but only in order that in an exigency, or rather generally, she is and can do nothing against man. In the creator man drops the limits of his essence, of his “soul,” in the miracle the limits of his existence, of his body; there he makes his invisible, thinking and reflected essence, here his individual, practical, visible essence, the essence of the world; then he legitimates the miracle; here he only performs it. The miracle accomplishes the end of religion in a sensual, popular way -- the dominion of man over Nature, the divinity of man becomes a palpable truth.

God works miracles, but upon man’s prayer and although not upon an especial prayer, still in man’s sense, in agreement with his most secret innermost wishes. Sarah laughed when in her old age the Lord promised her a little son, but nevertheless even then descendants were still her highest thought and wish. The secret worker of miracles therefore is man, but in the progress of time -- time discloses every secret-he will and must become the manifest, visible worker of miracles. At first man receives miracles, finally he works miracles himself; at first he is the object of God, finally God himself;at first God only in heart, in mind, in thought, finally, God in flesh.

But thought is bashful, sensuality without shame ; thought is silent and reserved, sensuality speaks out openly and frankly; its utterances therefore are exposed to be ridiculed if they are contradictory to reason, because here the contradiction is a visible, undeniable one. This is the reason why the modern rationalists are ashamed to believe in the God in the flesh i.e. in the sensual, visible miracle, while they are not ashamed to believe in the not-sensual God, i.e. in the not sensual, hidden miracle.

Still the time will come when the prophecy of Lichtenberg will be fulfilled, and the belief in God in general, consequently also the belief in a rational God will be considered as superstition just as well as already the belief in the miraculous Christian God in flesh is considered as superstition, and when therefore instead of the churchlight of simple belief and instead of the twilight of rationalistic belief, the pure light of Nature and reason will enlighten and warm mankind.

54. He who for his God has no other material than that which natural science, philosophy, or natural observation generally furnishes to him, who therefore construes the idea of God from natural materials and considers him to be nothing but the cause or the principle of the laws of astronomy, natural philosophy, geology, mineralogy, physiology, zoology and anthropology, ought to be honest enough also to abstain from using the name of God, for a natural princi$e is always a natural essence and not what constitutes the idea of a God. (23) As little as a church which has been turned into a museum of natural curiosities, still is and can be called a house of God, so little is a God really a God, whose nature and efforts are only manifested in astronomical, geological, anthropological works; God is a religious word, a religious object and being, not a physical, astronomical, or in general a cosmical one.

“Deus et cultus”  says Luther in his table-discourses, “sunt relativa,” God and worship correspond to one another, one cannot be without the other, for God must ever Be the God of a man or of a nation andis always in praedicamento relationis, both being in mutual relation to each other. God will have some who adore and worship him; for to have a God and to adore him correspond to each other, sunt relativa, as man and wife in marriage – neither can be without the other.”

God therefore presupposes men who adore and worship him; God is a being the idea or conception of whom does not depend on Nature but on man, and that on religious man ; an object of adoration is not without an adoring being, i.e. God is an object whose existence coincides with the existence of religion, whose essence coincides with the essence of religion, and which therefore does not exist apart from religion, different and independent from, it, but in whom objectively is contained no more than what religion contains subjectively.(24) Sound is the objective essence, the God of the ear ; light is the objective essence, the God of the eye; sound exists only for the ear, light only for the eye; in the ear we have what we have in sound: trembling, waving bodies, extended membranes, gelatinous substances ; but in the eye we have organs of light.

To make God an object of natural philosophy, astronomy or zoology, is therefore just the same thing as making sound an object of the eye. As the tone exists only in the ear and for it, so God exists only in religion and for it, only in faith and for it. As sound or tone as the object of hearing expresses only the nature of the ear, so God as an object which is only the object of religion and faith, expresses the nature of religion and faith.

But what makes an object a religious one? As we have seen, only man’s imagination and mind. Whether you worship Jehovah or Apis, the thunder or the Christ, your shadoww, like the negro on the coast of Guinea, or your soul like the Persian of old, the flatus ventris or your genius -- in short, whether you worship a sensual or spiritual being, it is’ all the same; something is an object of religion only in so faras it is an object of imagination and feeling, an object of faith; for just because the object of religion, such as it is its object, does not exist in reality, but rather contradicts the latter, for this very reason it is only an object of faith. Thus e.g. the immortality of man, or man as an immortal being is an object of religion, but for this very reason only an object of faith, for reality shows just the contrary, the mortality of man.

To believe, means to imagine that something exists which does not exist; e.g. to imagine that a certain picture is a living being, that this bread is flesh, wine blood, i.e., something which it is not. Therefore it betrays the greatest ignorance of religion it you hope to find God with the telescope in the sky of astronomy, or with a magnifying glass in a botanical garden, or with a mineralogic hammer in the mines of geology, or with the anatomic knife and microscope in the entrails of animals and men -- you find him only in man’s faith, imagination and heart; for God himself is nothing but the essence of man’s imagination and heart.

55. “As your heart, so is your God.” As the wishes of men, so are their Gods. The Greeks had limited Gods-that means: they had limited wishes. The Greeks did not wish to live forever, they only wished not to grow old and die, and they did not absolutely wish not to die, they only wished not to die now -- unpleasant things always come too soon for man -- only not in the bloom of their age, only not of a violent, painful death;(25) they did not wish to be saved in heaven, only happy, only to live without trouble and pain; they did not sigh as the Christians do, because they were subject to the necessity of Nature, to the wants of sexual instinct, of sleep, of eating and drinking ; they still submitted in their wishes to the limits of human nature; they were not yet creators from nothing, they did not yet make wine from water, they only purified and distilled the water of Nature and changed it in an organic way into the blood of the Gods; they drew the contents of divine and blissful life not from mere imagination, but from the materials of the real world; they built the heaven of the Gods upon the ground of this earth. The Greeks did not make the divine, i.e. the possible being, the original and end of the real one, but they made the real being the measure of the possible one. Even when they had refined and spiritualized their Gods by means of philosophy, their wishes were founded upon the ground of reality and human nature. The Gods are realized wishes; but the highest wish, the highest bliss of the philosopher, of the thinker as such, is to think undisturbed.

The Gods of the Greek philosopher -- at least of the Greek philosopher par excellence, of the philosophical Jove, of Aristotle-are therefore undisturbed thinkers; their happiness, their divinity, consists in the uninterrupted activity of thinking. But this activity, this happiness is itself a happiness, real within this world, within human nature -- although here limited by interruptions -- a defined, special, and therefore, in the conception of Christians, limited and poor happiness which is contradictory to the essence of true happiness; for Christians have no limited but an unlimited God, surpassing all natural necessity, superhuman, extramundane transcendental, i.e. they have unlimited, transcendental wishes which go beyond the world, beyond Nature, beyond the essence of man -- i.e. absolutely fantastic wishes. Christians wish to be infinitely greater and happier than the Gods of the Olympus; their wish is a heaven in which all limits and all necessity of Nature are destroyed and all wishes are accomplished;(26) a heaven in which there exist no wants, no sufferings, no wounds, no struggles, no passions, no disturb3ances, no change of day and night, light and shade, joy and pain  as in the heaven of the Greeks. In short the object of their belief is no longer a limited, defined God, a God with the determined name of Jove, or Pluto, or Vulcan, but God without appellation,’ because the object of their wishes is not a named, finite, earthly happiness, a determined enjoyment, such as the enjoyment of love, or of beautiful music, or of moral liberty, or of thinking, but an enjoyment which embraces all enjoyments, yet which for this very reason is a transcendental one, surpassing all ideas and thoughts, the enjoyment of an infinite, unlimited, unspeakable, indescribable happiness. Happiness and divinity are the same thing. Happiness as an object of belief, of imagination, generally as a theoretical object, is the Deity, the deity as an object of the heart, of the will,(27) of the wish as a practical object generally, is happiness. Or rather, the deity is an idea the truth and reality of which is only happiness. As far as the desire of happiness goes, so far, and no further, goes the idea of the deity. He who no longer has any supernatural wishes, has no longer any supernatural beings either.

A note on this version


(20) The Christians pray likewise to their God for rain as the Greeks did to Jove, and believe that they are heard with such prayers. “There was,” says Luther, in his table-discourses, “a great drought, as it had not rained for a long time, and the grain in the field began to dry up when Dr. M. L. prayed continually and said finally with heavy sighs: 0, Lord, pray regard our petition in behalf of thy promise . . .  . . . I know that we cry to thee and sigh desirously; why dost thou not hear us? And the very next night came a very fine fruitful rain.”

(21) It is true the omission of the limits has increase and change for its consequences; but it does not destroy the essential identity.

(22) The definition of polytheism generally and without further explanation as natural religion, holds good only relatively and comparatively.

(23) Arbitrariness in the use of words is unbounded. But still no words are used so arbitrarily, nor taken in so contradictory significations as the words God and religion. Whence this arbitrariness  and confusion? Because people from reverence or from fear to contradict opinions sanctioned by age, retain the old names (for on1y the name, the appearance, rules the world, even the world of believers in God), although they connect entirely different ideas with them which have been gained only in the course of time. Thus it way in regard to the Grecian Gods which in the course of time received the most contradictory significations; thus in regard to the Christian God, Atheism calling itself theism is the religion anti-Christianity calling itself Christianity is the true Christianity of the present day. -- Mundus vult decipi.

(24)A being therefore which is only a philosophical principle, and consequently only an object of philosophy, but not of religion, of worship, of prayer, of the heart; a being that does not accomplish any wishes, nor hear any prayers, is only a nominal God, but not a God in reality.

(25) While therefore in the paradise of Christian phantasms man could not die and would not die if he had not sinned, with the Greeks man died even in the blissful age of Kronos, but as easily as if he fell asleep. In this idea the natural wish of man is realized. Man does not wish for immortal life; he only wishes for a long life of physical and mental health and a painless death agreeable to Nature. To resign the belief in immortality requires nothing less than an inhuman Stoic resignation; it requires nothing but to be convinced that the articles of the Christian creed are founded only upon supernaturalistic, fantastic wishes, and to return to the simple real nature of man.

(26) Luther e.g. says: “But where God is (i.e. in heaven) there must also be all good things which even we may possibly wish for.” Thus in the Koran, according to Savary’s translation it is said of the inhabitants of Paradise: “Tous leurs desirs seront combles.” (All their wishes will be accomplished.) Only their wishes are of a different kind.

(27) The will however, especially in the sense of the moralists, does not constitute the specific essence of religion ; because what I can attain by my will, for that I need no Gods. To make morals the essential cause of religion is to retain the name of religion, but to drop its essence. One can be moral without God, but happy -- in the supernaturalistic, Christian sense of the word -- one cannot be without God; for happiness in this sense lies beyond the limits and the power of Nature and mankind, it therefore presupposes for its realization a supernatural being which is and can do, what is impossible to Nature and mankind. If Kant therefore made morals the essence of religion, he was in the same or at least a similar relation to Christian religion as Aristotle to the Greek religion when the latter made theory the essence of the Gods. As little as a God who is only a speculative being, nothing but intellect, still is a God, so little a merely moral being or a “personified law of morals” is still a God. It is true, Jove already is also a philosopher, when he looks smilingly down from Olympus upon the struggles of the Gods, but he is still infinitely more; certainly also the Christian God is a moral being, but still infinitely more; morals are only the condition of happiness. The true idea which is at the bottom of Christian happiness, especially in contrast to philosophic heathenism, is however no other than the one, that true happiness can be found only in the gratification of man’s whole nature, for which reason Christianity admits also the body. the flesh, to the participation in the divinity or what is the same thing, in the enjoyment of happiness. But the development of this thought does not belong here, it belongs to the “Essence of Christianity.”

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