Monday, September 01, 2014

Ludwig Feuerbach and the origins of religion

I just came across a popular sketch of the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) Dale DeBakcsy Philosophy Now Jul/Aug 2014.

DeBakcsy doesn't mention Feuerbach's status as one of the Young Hegelians, among whom he's often grouped. Instead he stresses Feuerbach's criticism of Hegel, his atheism and his critique of philosophy in general. Atheism was far more consequential for an academic's career in the German lands of the early 19th century than it is today in Western countries. This psychological-anthropological analysis of the human origins of religion pretty much excluded him permanently from a conventional academic life:

After five years of searching unsuccessfully for a permanent university post, Feuerbach fired off Thoughts on Death and Immortality in 1830 – a merciless, ironic, and downright fun broadside leveled at the Christian notion of personal immortality. You can hear him chortling while laying down lines like, "The entire pietistic or modern mystical theology rests only on a game of ball. The individual throws himself away only in order to have God throw him back again; he humbles himself before God only in order to be reflected in him. His self-loss is self-enjoyment, his humility is self-exaltation. He submerges himself in God only to surface again intact, and, refreshed and renewed, to sun himself in his own excellence."
But he also notes:

Even the [neo-orthodox] theologian Karl Barth, who recommends that the best way to criticize Feuerbach is to "laugh in his face" has to concede that "In his writings – at least in those on the Bible, the Church Fathers, and especially on Luther – his theological skill places him above most modern philosophers" and "No philosopher of his time penetrated the contemporary theological situation as effectually as he." And this is what you intimately feel when reading The Essence – the words of a man who has made the contemplation of religion his life's work, offering us his dearly-bought insight into its psychology.
As DeBakcsy says, The Essence of Christianity (1841) is generally consider Feuerbach's most important work.

Feuerbach basic idea in Essence was, "The secret of theology [is] anthropology." Hans Küng in Das Christentum (1994) calls Feuerbach's view a "projection argument," according to which humanity is projecting important elements of themselves onto an abstract, imaginary entity, God. Küng calls attention to the similarity between Feuerbach's projection concept of religion and that of Sigmund Freud in the 20th century.

Küng challenges Feuerbach's argument on two major points. One is that understanding the human psychology of religion does not exclude a theistic faith. "The fact of projection in no way determines whether the object to which it applies exists or doesn't exist." Or, "A real God can correspond to the wish for God." It's one thing to say that projection is present in human religion. But that in itself doesn't mean that the divine object of the religion is only a projection.

The popular joke expresses a similar idea about projection: Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you!

Küng also argues that historical developments since Feuerbach's time don't give much confirmation so far to the notion that religion will fade away and be replaced by reason, a more just social order or scientific knowledge: "But rather what appears more in fact is exactly the opposite: the faith (!) in the good nature of humanity (Feuerbach) as an understandable projection, the faith in the fjuture socialist society as an interest-determined consolation, the faith in rational science as a dangerous illusion."

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