Feuerbach’s Religious Illusion

by B. A. Gerrish

B.A. Gerrish is John Nuveen Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School and Distinguished Service Professor of Theology at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, April 9, 1997, pp. 362-367. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Feuerbach thought he had unmasked all religions, showing them to be products of human imagination and desire. Christian theologians should not simply ignore Feuerbach’s claims about the subjective roots of religion. Perhaps it is possible to argue that Mother Teresa believes in a God who just gives her what she wants. But it strains our credulity.


Feuerbach and the Interpretation of Religion. by Van A. Harvey. Cambridge University Press, 319 pp., $59.95.

Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols. —John Calvin


According to the Hebrew scriptures, humans were made in the image and likeness of God. But the perceived kinship between deity and humanity lends itself only too readily to the possibility of inversion. What if the gods are human creations, fashioned after the image and likeness of humanity?

Around 500 B.C.E., the Greek philosopher Xenophanes noticed that the gods of the Ethiopians were black and had flat noses, whereas the gods of the Thracians were blond and blue-eyed. He suggested that oxen, lions and horses, if they could make gods, would make them like oxen, lions and horses. Not that he found no use for the notion of deity. But his own God resembled mortals, he said, neither in shape nor in thought. He mocked the all-too-human gods around him for the sake of a better, purer concept of God. And so did the Hebrews, though a philosopher like Xenophanes might think that they had less success.

The God of the Hebrews, in whose likeness humanity was created, insists, "I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst" (Hos. 11:9). The Hebrew scriptures are replete with scorn for the "idolatry" that makes gods in the likeness of humans. Isaiah would certainly not have allowed that the God of Israel, "who sits above the circle of the earth . . . [and] stretches out the heavens like a curtain" (Is. 40:22), might exhibit the same idolatrous principle as the heathen gods he despised, only in the milder form of a mental image. What he proclaimed was a busy, active God rather than "an image that will not move." And yet he could only represent the divine activity as very like human activity.

The persuasion that the gods of the heathen are idols (Ps. 96:5), while the true God is God and not human, was carried over into the Christian community to affirm the sovereign uniqueness of the Christian deity. The Protestant Reformers, it is true, discovered the worst idolatries of all within the Catholic Church, much as the prophets of old accused the children of Israel of whoring after other, pagan gods; but they did not doubt that Christianity alone worshiped the true God without taint of idolatry. Throughout the history of the church, risky anthropomorphisms in Christian discourse were excused by appeal to the accommodated, analogical, symbolic or poetic form of the scriptural revelation.

Modern critical thought about religion arose when the privileged position of Christian discourse was finally challenged. In the 17th and 18th centuries, a distinction familiar in classical antiquity was revived: the dividing line was drawn not between Christianity and other religions, but between popular religion, including Christianity, and a purely rational theism. The rational theists wanted to marvel at the orderly course of nature without worshiping it or supposing it to be the activity of a cosmic Thou, open to the influence of sacrifice and prayer. This left the way clear for such early pioneers of religious psychology as John Trenchard to uncover the supposed pathological origins of religion in the soul while still appearing to be on the side of "God" (properly understood).

But in the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) the privileging of Christian discourse and the distinction between vulgar religion and rational theism both dissolve, and all talk of God is unmasked as the product of human invention. "Some day," he predicted, "it will be universally recognized that the objects of Christian religion, like the pagan gods, were mere imagination." And he had no interest in saving the "utterly superfluous, unnecessary God," whose activity adds nothing to the law-governed processes of nature.

Van Harvey’s book is the first volume in a new series: Cambridge Studies in Religion and Critical Thought. The series could hardly have been launched with better auspices. Feuerbach and the Interpretation of Religion is the ripe fruit of long reflection. The timeliness—even the urgency—of its central question is plain from the first chapter to the last: Can religion be plausibly explained without the assumption that "God" denotes a being of a higher ontological rank than the mundane objects of our daily experience? More than 14 years’ labor went into the writing of the book, and the author tells us that his preoccupation with Feuerbach goes back further still—to the time when he first encountered him in a graduate seminar at Yale Divinity School and found himself "strangely disturbed."

Feuerbach is well known as the author of The Essence of Christianity, first published in German in 1841. (The second edition was translated into English by the Victorian novelist George Eliot.) Harvey’s thesis is that fascination with this one work, interesting and important though it is, has obscured a shift in Feuerbach’s understanding of religion that is most evident in his later Lectures on the Essence of Religion (1848). We ought to read Feuerbach for two interpretations of religion, not just one, and in Harvey’s judgment the later, neglected interpretation is more interesting and persuasive. Not that an absolute break occurs. Rather, the passage from the earlier to the later writing is largely a shift of dominance: subordinate themes in The Essence of Christianity become dominant in The Essence of Religion.

The central thought in The Essence of Christianity is that the supposedly superhuman deities of religion are actually the involuntary projections of the essential attributes of human nature. In Feuerbach’s own words: "Man—this is the mystery of religion—projects his being into objectivity, and then again makes himself an object to this projected image of himself thus converted into a subject." What the devout mind worships as God is accordingly nothing but the idea of the human species imagined as a perfect individual. Once they are unmasked, shown for what they really are, religious belief and the idea of God can be useful instruments of human self-understanding, revealing to us our essential nature and worth. But taken at face value, they are alienating insofar as they betray us into placing our own possibilities outside of us as attributes of God and not of humanity, viewing ourselves as unworthy objects of a projected image of our own essential nature. Theology, as Feuerbach sees it, only reinforces the state of alienation by taking the objectifications of religion for real objects, and the theologians end up with dogmas that are self-contradictory and absurd.

Very differently, The Essence of Religion locates the subjective source of religion in human dependence on nature. The forces of nature on which our existence wholly depends are made less mysterious and more pliable by our perceiving them as personal beings like ourselves. And this, we are now told, is the meaning of religion, which is not so much encoded truth as pure illusion. "Nature, in reality, is not a personal being; it has no heart, it is blind and deaf to the desires and complaints of man." In short, religion is superstition, and science must eventually supplant it.

For all the striking differences between Feuerbach’s two theories of religion, there are strands that tie them together. One such strand, obviously, is the theme of anthropomorphism—picturing God or the gods as personal like ourselves. Another, closely connected with the first in Feuerbach’s mind, is the conviction that religion is wishful thinking. Feuerbach’s "felicity principle," as Harvey calls it, assumes that the point of being religious is to secure one’s well-being both here and hereafter. Hence the emphasis in the later work on the Glückseligkeitstrieb (the "drive after happiness") that motivates the entire business of religion. The God we imagine is the God we want, who can give us what we want, and this means a personal God who takes notice of us and guarantees us a blessedness that transcends the limits of nature. But that, according to Feuerbach, is "the religious illusion" (the expression is Harvey’s). We are inescapably bounded by the limits of nature, and even what we take for the goodness of God is nothing more than the utility of nature personified.

Small wonder if budding theologians find good reason in all this to be "strangely disturbed"! The unreflective believer may dismiss Feuerbach as a charlatan who trivializes religion. But Harvey fully vindicates his opinion that in any critical scrutiny of religion we must grant Feuerbach a place alongside Paul Ricoeur’s "masters of suspicion"—Nietzsche, Marx and Freud—and judge him worthy to be brought into the present-day discussion. The last two chapters of the book set the later Feuerbach’s interpretation of religion in the forum of more recent views of projection (Freud, Sierksma, Berger), anthropomorphism (Stewart Guthrie) and the need for illusion (Ernest Becker). Harvey concludes: "It is extraordinary how well Feuerbach’s later views stand up when compared with those of contemporary theorists; so much so that one can, by adopting his position, mount important criticisms of these theories."

The book’s aim, the author tells us, is "constructive," at least in part. This is why Feuerbach is brought into the company of recent religious theorists. Harvey does not venture a systematic statement of his own views on religion. He writes as if listening in to the conversation and notes the points at which his Feuerbach, if present, might speak up. Historians who insist on keeping past thinkers strictly in their own historical, social and intellectual contexts may raise their eye-brows at such a hazardous method. I, for one, welcome it. Of course, it cannot, and in this book it does not, replace historical description and painstaking analysis of the sources. If a constructive conversation is to be an honest conversation, it has to respect historical understanding and take to heart the historian’s warnings against anachronistic misreading of the sources. But a constructive interest in the past ("rational reconstruction," as Richard Rorty calls it) adds something to the sober exercise of setting the record straight and may even, on occasion, alert the historian to patterns and pieces in the record that she had overlooked.

Harvey’s main thesis is in fact both historical and constructive. That a shift occurred in Feuerbach’s thoughts on religion, and what it was—these are factual matters. The book seems to me to have settled them (though I should defer to the Feuerbach specialists). But why does Harvey think the shift marked an improvement over the more familiar projection theory in The Essence of Christianity? Why is the later theory to be preferred? Chiefly for two reasons: first, it is unencumbered by the arcane Hegelian speculation on which the analysis of consciousness rests in The Essence of Christianity; second, it does greater justice to the religious sense of encounter with an other. The second reason will bring less comfort to the believer than the first. It is one thing to be liberated from Hegel, another to be told that the other encountered in religion is nature. But the conversation, remember, is about academic theories of religion.

At first glance, Feuerbach’s later theory looks like an elaboration of a view that goes back at least to the Roman poet Statius and was revived by Spinoza, Hobbes, Hume and others: that fear of the terrifying forces of nature first created the gods—"in the ignorance of causes," as Hobbes explains. (Even Feuerbach’s Glückseligkeitstrieb seems to echo Hume’s "anxious concern for happiness.") In actual fact, Feuerbach made himself the critic of this view. The human encounter with nature is far too ambiguous and complex to be subsumed under the single emotion of fear. It includes joy, gratitude and love, all of which, Feuerbach inferred, must also be makers of divinity. And he believed that if we seek one all-embracing term for the full range of religious emotions, we will find it only in the "feeling of dependence," of which each religious response to nature is, so to say, a concrete individuation: fear of death, gloom when the weather is bad, joy when it is good and so on.

The merit of Feuerbach’s theory in his own eyes, and clearly also in Harvey’s, was that it put a determinate concept, nature, in place of the vague, mystical word "God." But was he right about religion? More modestly: How does his case look from the perspective of the historical and systematic theologian?

Shortly after publication of The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach followed a venerable German custom and undertook to demonstrate that he was only saying what Martin Luther had said already. (Luther’s name has been invoked in Germany to endorse an astonishing variety of mutually incompatible causes.) In The Essence of Faith According to Luther (1844), it turns out that the felicity principle is nothing other than Luther’s celebrated pro me ("for me"). For a man must believe that God is God only for the sake of his blessedness. It is the trust and faith of the heart that create both God and an idol. And so on. With dozens of Quotations from Luther, Feuerbach demonstrates to his own satisfaction that self-love—egoism, narcissism—motivates Protestant piety, and that the piety itself creates the God it needs and wants.

To be sure, a serious Luther scholar will wish to say a bit more about the function of the pro me in Luther’s theology and will point out some complicating counter evidence. The young Luther departed from the Augustinian tradition in taking the words "You shall love your neighbor as yourself " to forbid self-love, which he identified as the root sin. The mature Luther asserted that he knew his theology to be true because it takes us out of ourselves. And so we might go on. But when all is said and done, is it possible that Feuerbach had a point?

It is, of course, not Luther but Friedrich Schleiermacher who comes to mind when Feuerbach speaks of religion as the feeling of dependence. Feuerbach himself makes the connection. But Schleiermacher actually anticipated the naturalistic reduction of the religious feeling of dependence and rejected it as a misunderstanding. Our awareness of God is a feeling of absolute dependence, whereas our dependence on nature is qualified by our ability to influence the way the world goes. A highly controversial distinction, as the process theologians like to remind us. But the conversation is not yet closed.

Karl Barth doubted whether Schleiermacher had any defense against a Feuerbachian reduction of theology to anthropology: he believed that Feuerbach merely showed the world what Schleiermacher had already done to the queen of the sciences. In his own way, Barth liked Feuerbach. (Many of us first learned of him from Barth.) But Barth drew Feuerbach’s fangs by treating The Essence of Christianity simply as a critique of bad religion. For Barth the word "bad," strictly speaking, is redundant: all religion is the fruitless human quest for God. The Christian theologian is concerned not with religion but rather with revelation—the Word of God. From Barth’s viewpoint, then, Feuerbach gave us nothing to worry about. From Feuerbach’s point of view, however, Barth’s countermove was a relapse into premodern privileging of Christian discourse. For why should we presuppose at the outset that the one Word of God is Jesus Christ?

For myself, I think Christian theology must face Feuerbach’s relentless exposure of the subjective roots of religion—even worry a little about it. To be sure, the unmasking of narcissistic motives for being religious, though it may weaken the structures of plausibility, affords no logical grounds for an inference about the reality of the religious object. The God one would like to exist may actually exist, even if the fact that one wishes it encourages suspicion. Nonetheless, in our consumer society, in which success in the church, as elsewhere, is supposed to require market analysis of what people want, the mechanism of wishful thinking is something the theologian needs to hold constantly before us. So does the preacher, who is under pressure not to prophesy what is right but to speak smooth things, to prophesy illusions (Isa. 30:10). The question remains whether the only alternative for the theologian and the preacher is to offer another illusion.

Feuerbach was a good listener, and Harvey is a powerful spokesman for him. But Feuerbach’s theories work better with some kinds of religious experience than with others. There are religions of adjustment, as we might call them, that begin not with the felicity principle but with the reality principle and admonish us to adjust our lives to the brute fact that things are not as we would like them to be. Feuerbach was too good an interpreter of religion to overlook the phenomenon of self-abnegation, which he read as a subtle form of self-love. It is no doubt true that in adjustment to reality a person may find peace, but surely the category of self-love here looks suspiciously like a procrustean bed. In his remarks on Ernest Becker, Harvey himself hints that Feuerbach did not do justice to "participatory religions" of self-surrender.

Feuerbach’s theories also seem to me to work badly with religions of moral demand. (We will have to leave for another day the question whether Émile Durkheim’s theory works any better.) Feuerbach was convinced that religious belief corrupts morality as well as truthfulness, and he could even say: "It lies in the nature of faith that it is indifferent to moral duties." Well, some faith perhaps! But the function of religion has sometimes been to counter human desires, wishes and self-seeking with a moral demand. It might perhaps be just possible to outdo the ingenuity of the theologians and show how the life of Mother Teresa, say, which has every appearance of being motivated by an astonishing compassion rooted in religious conviction, has actually been driven by a subtle but irresistible Glückseligkeitstrieb. But it strains our credulity less to acknowledge the evidence in her life of a close bond between (some) religion and (some) morality.

It would be too cheap to conclude that Feuerbach’s religious illusion was to take one kind of Protestant piety for religion itself. Still, unless there is more to be said than Harvey has told us, Feuerbach’s account must strike us as lopsided and incomplete. An "explanation" of religion need not be ruled out just because it does not take religion at face value or keep to the first-order utterances of the believer. That would disqualify not only the masters of suspicion but a lot of theologians as well, myself included. The test is whether the explanation is adequate to the full range of the utterances (or phenomena) it intends to explain.

Feuerbach claimed with some justice that, unlike the speculative philosophers, he let religion speak for itself. However, it is hardly surprising that he heard best what came closest to home. Stung by the criticism that he offered an interpretation of Christianity as an interpretation of religion, he moved from The Essence of Christianity to The Essence of Religion and, later, to his Theogony According to the Sources of Classical, Hebraic, and Christian Antiquity (1857). And yet, throughout all these major works there seems to linger the influence of a strong dislike for Protestant pietism, which had appeared already in his Thoughts on Death and Immortality (1830). In pietism, he supposed, each person in his individuality became the center of his own attention.

This is by no means to conclude that I am done with Feuerbach because, like the rest of us, he heard selectively. Rather, as Harvey concludes, he "still has the power to compel us to define our own positions." Without qualifying as a Feuerbach scholar, I have found myself returning again and again, like Harvey, to this "devout atheist" (as Max Stirner calls him), fascinated by the richness, tenacity and nettling style of his thoughts on religion.

The options, at any rate, have become clearer to me. To return to our point of departure: Christian anthropomorphism could be wholly fictional, the reification of mere abstractions; or a misconstrual of purely natural phenomena; or an imperfect symbolization of our encounter with a transcendent reality. Feuerbach himself moved from the first to the second option. What I take to be the gap in his later position gives me some leverage on the third option. That the transcendent reality is experienced by the religious imagination as a commanding will may be conceptually problematic. But there is surely more to it than personification of some aspect of physical nature. A more nearly adequate theory of religion, or at any rate of the Christian religion, will have to give a better account of it.