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Updated: Sep 22, 2020

By Michaela Bunke

One obstacle often faced by those who deny the existence of God is how to account for the billions of people throughout history who have felt so deeply convinced of His existence. There is an anthropological response to this query that has become increasingly popular in our day: that man invents God out of his own psychological weakness. This claim has its roots in some of the greatest philosophers of the modern age. Marx called religion “the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.”[1] The defining quality of Nietzsche’s “Übermensch”[2] was his ability to overcome the psychological crutch of religion and renounce it for the truly divine—himself. Freud then went so far as to say that religion is like a childhood neurosis, and that hopefully mankind will eventually “surmount this neurotic phase, just as so many children grow out of their similar neurosis.”[3]

The ideas of these philosophers and many more were inspired by a lesser-known thinker named Ludwig Feuerbach, a 19th-century German philosopher who studied under Hegel at the University of Berlin before writing many works that focused on the issues of religion and Christianity. Feuerbach is often under-credited for the impact of his radical ideas.

Had he had not secularized the ideas of Hegel, which were based on Christian ideals, then Hegelian thought might never have intrigued atheist intellectuals the way it did, and thinkers like Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud would have lacked the philosophical backbone they used to formulate their ideologies, which became groundbreaking not only in philosophy, but in politics, religion, and psychology as well. To put it plainly, without Feuerbach, it is likely that some of the most formative philosophy of the modern age would have developed very differently—if at all. So it is in understanding Feuerbach that we are able to better understand the rationalizations against the existence of God used today, and by understanding them, to learn how to respond. In the end, we can use Feuerbach as a means to sympathize more effectively with those who hold to similar atheist paradigms, and even learn a great deal from a man whose words for Christians are unexpectedly convicting.

To begin to understand Feuerbach, one must first understand a bit of Hegel. Hegel’s greatest impact on Feuerbach was likely his concept of “Geist,” a German word often translated as “Spirit” or “Mind” in Hegel’s works. Hegel believed that history is guided by the slow, imperfect, yet steady movement of reason as it progresses through time until it becomes fully realized. The “Spirit” was Hegel’s explanation of the guiding force behind this process. He says in his famous Phenomenology of Spirit: “History, is a conscious, self-meditating process—Spirit emptied out into Time—.”[4]Inherent in this idea is the belief that history is ultimately progressive, i.e., if there were a line graph measuring how reasonable our societal beliefs and systems are over time, its slope would be positive (although the line would by no means be perfectly straight, as we often dip into regression for short periods). This Hegelian concept was enormously influential in philosophy thereafter, especially among German thinkers in the 19th century. It was the foundation upon which Marx predicted that society would thrive once it realized perfect communism, the reason Nietzsche claimed that when man finally progresses beyond his need for God, he will have reached “a higher history than any history hitherto,”[5] and the underpinning for Freud’s similar assertion that civilization direly needed to take the “forward step” from “religious illusion” to “reality.”[6]

But it was Feuerbach who bridged the gap between Hegel and these later giants of philosophy. Feuerbach took “Geist” and imposed it on religion in a way Hegel never did, claiming that religion—namely, Christianity—was a stage of history that humanity must go through in order to realize that religion is in fact a farce and that the true God lies within the individual. Not only was this a groundbreaking statement in itself, but Feuerbach’s explanation of how this phenomenon happens was radical also: that man’s own weakness of mind leads to an inability to admit his own power and therefore project his character onto an outer being he names “God.” Besides becoming the basis for many of Marx’s views on religion, this contention was also arguably the headspring of the school of psychoanalysis, which would not come into existence until several decades later.

Feuerbach also imposed empiricism on religion in a way that was unprecedented. Whereas Enlightenment thinkers like Spinoza and Hume scrutinized Christianity primarily through textual criticism, attempting to discredit the belief system by pointing out its presumed flaws, Feuerbach undertook the task of offering an empirical explanation for why this “false religion” came about in the first place, grounding his argument in anthropological and psychological[7] analysis. He scorned the very notion of faith, believing it to be an enemy of reason and empiricism: “I differ toto ceolo from those philosophers who pluck out their eyes that they may see better; for my thought I require the sense, especially sight; I found my ideas on materials which can be appropriated only through the activity of the senses.”[8] This necessity of the senses for Feuerbach is key in understanding his ideas, as he takes for granted that only man can be observed through use of the senses, and God cannot.

Since the best known and most influential work that Feuerbach wrote was his book The Essence of Christianity, it is from this source that we will examine his ideas. In this book, Feuerbach claims that there are three qualities that constitute man’s nature: “To will, to love, to think, are the highest powers, are the absolute nature, of man as man, and the basis of existence.” He explains that these abilities, as well as man’s consciousness, make him superior to all other living beings. Since it is obvious that God also possesses these unique qualities, so that the nature of God and the nature of man seem to mirror each other, standing apart from all other organisms, the implied dilemma is this: Did God create man in His image or did man create God in his?[9] Since Feuerbach denies the reliability of any claim which cannot be grounded in sensory experience and believes that God cannot be observed in such a way, he comes to the latter conclusion. Using “feeling” to mean the way in which man senses his own divinity, Feuerbach describes the process by which one denies this feeling and instead projects it onto an outward object (God):

Thou art simply too cowardly or too narrow to confess in words what thy feeling tacitly affirms…thou art terrified before the religious atheism of thy heart. By this fear thou destroyest the unity of they feeling with itself, in imagining to thyself an objective being distinct from thy feeling…Feeling is thy own inward power, but at the same time a power distinct from thee, and independent of thee; it is in thee, above thee; it is itself that which constitutes the objective in thee—thy own being which impresses thee as another being; in short, thy God.[10]

Feuerbach believed God—specifically the Christian God—to be an anthropomorphism created by the insecurity and cowardice of our minds.

After we grasp Feuerbach’s argument, we as Christians must ask ourselves how to respond, for one need not look far before finding the same narrative alive and well in our own day. Christianity and theism as a whole are often brushed off as silly inventions of those who are not intellectually evolved enough to face the obvious truth: that religion was created as a coping mechanism by our ancestors, and today we need not rely on such primitive constructs because of our extensive scientific knowledge (or any other modern development that can supposedly act as a proper replacement). There are many ways to respond to Feuerbachian claims, but two responses in particular are important for pointing out the deficiencies in assertions of this kind: first, that the lack of empirical evidence for God’s existence is too easily assumed, and second, that the evidence in favor of the idea that humans have the capacity to function well as their own “gods” is, in fact, lacking.

As previously stated, Feuerbach’s arguments are quickly undone when his assumption that God cannot be empirically observed is invalidated. Theists have long been accused of the fallacy of “argument from ignorance” when giving their reasons for God’s existence. This is to say that when the theist brings up evidence like the fine-tuning of the universe, the existence of morality, or the necessity of an “unmoved mover,” nay-sayers will respond that the theist is simply using God as a convenient “filler” to explain anything to which we do not yet know the answer (this is where we often hear the term “God of the gaps”). However, what is lacking in this assertion is an understanding of the difference between an argument from ignorance and an inference to the best explanation. The informed Christian does not believe in God because there is no evidence to the contrary or because He fits nicely as an answer to life’s insoluble mysteries. He believes in God because he sees a wealth of evidence in history and biology and astronomy, in every experience in his life, in every interaction, conversation, and connection with another human being, in the sensory experiences he has seeing, smelling, and touching the natural world—these are all arrows pointing emphatically to the heavens. If, upon finding muddy paw-prints on your carpet and hearing loud barking from the next room, you assume a dog has walked through your house, you are not making an ignorant assertion, but inferring the best explanation of the evidence. As Christians, it is important to be able to identify the evidence that points to the existence of God: the logical order within creation, the case for Christ’s resurrection, and so on—otherwise we may appear to have invented for ourselves a “filler God.”

The second element of our response to modern-day Feuerbachians should be to point out the hollowness of the idea that humans can be complete in themselves. Again, this claim, although it takes many forms, is no rarity in our day. Communism gained many followers because of its claim to be the means by which humans can cease to rely on religion and begin to rely on themselves; refashioned Buddhism has found a large audience in the West as it teaches the importance of “looking within” to find peace; our bookstores are filled with self-help manuals and our stages with feel-good preachers that cry out for us to “know thyself” rather than to know God. How often do we hear modern renditions of Feuerbach’s contention that “every being is in and by itself infinite—has its God…in itself”?[11] But what evidence do we have in support of the claim that man without God is, in fact, so well-off? What is more, what evidence do we have that man possesses in himself the capacity to reach perfect peace, reason, love, or any other honorable attribute? It is no exaggeration that religion has been used to justify the justification a profusion of violence, but atheism has not lacked its share of bloodshed as well. As societies have secularized and traditional religion has declined, have the trends of anxiety, depression, and loneliness followed suit? Are we not living in an era of unprecedented neuroticism? It seems that the evidence for the theory of the “god within” is wanting.

Aside from understanding an ideology and learning how to respond, we must not forget that, like many atheist philosophers, Feuerbach can also teach us much about our own shortcomings as Christians. He points out one such area as he describes the inconsistencies of those who claim to follow a God who is either “too great” to possess any particular attributes or simply exists as and invention of the believer so that he may change His attributes as seems convenient to him. He says:

On the ground that God is unknowable, man excuses himself to what is yet remaining of his religious conscience for his forgetfulness of God, his absorption in the world: he denies God practically by his conduct—the world has possession of all his thoughts and inclinations—but he does not deny him theoretically, he does not attack his existence; he lets that rest. But this existence does not affect or incommode him; it is merely negative existence…The denial of determinate, positive predicates concerning the divine nature is nothing else than a denial of religion, with however, an appearance of religion in its favor, so that it is not recognizable as a denial; it is simply subtle, disguised, atheism.”[12]

We must not forget that if we wish to demonstrate the validity and beauty of the existence of God, we must live in a manner that does not shy away from who this God is. This means that our words, our defense of the faith, and our explication of the gospel, although they be indispensable, must always be accompanied by a life of action and integrity. Without such integrity, all we are capable of becoming is what Paul deemed “a noisy gong or a clanging symbol,”[13] and what Feuerbach called disguised atheists.

[1] Marx, Karl. The Portable Karl Marx. Ed. Eugene Kamenka. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1983. Print.

[2] “Übermensch,” literally translated as “overman,” but often translated to “superman,” was one of Nietzsche’s best known ideas and was his representation of the more evolved human-like being he believed we should strive to become.

[3] Freud, Sigmund. The Future of an Illusion. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1975. Print.

[4] Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. Arnold V. Miller and J. N. Findlay. Oxford: Clarendon, 1977. Print.

[5] Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Gay Science. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2006. Print.

[6] Freud, Sigmund. The Future of an Illusion. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1975. Print.

[7] Psychology was not yet an official discipline when Feuerbach was writing his main works, but viewing his arguments retrospectively shows the obvious undertones of what we today call psychology.

[8] Feuerbach, Ludwig. The Essence of Christianity. Trans. George Eliot. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004. Print.

[9] Lecture XX, see Lectures on the Essence of Religion. Transl. Ralph Manheim. New York: Harper & Row. 1967. p. 187. German: Vorlesungen über das Wesen der Religion. Leipzig: Wigand. 1851. p. 241.

Nietzsche later posed a similar question in his Twilight of the Idols: “What is it: is man only a blunder of God, or God only a blunder of man?”

[10] Feuerbach, Ludwig. The Essence of Christianity. Trans. George Eliot. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004. Print.

[11] Feuerbach, Ludwig. The Essence of Christianity. Trans. George Eliot. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004. Print.

[12] Feuerbach, Ludwig. The Essence of Christianity. Trans. George Eliot. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004. Print.

[13] 1 Corinthians 13.1, The English Standard Version Bible. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

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