A Critique of Ludwig Feuerbach’s Philosophy of Religion

© Kile Jones 2006


Abstract:  Ludwig Feuerbach has had enormous influence upon the study of Religion.  From his post-Hegelian reductionism, to his ideal humanism, Feuerbach brings to light the serious epistemic issues facing theology.  This paper is an attempt to explain and critique Feuerbach’s Philosophy of Religion.  This paper analyzes Feuerbach’s theory of displacement, projection, deep seated wishes, reductionism, and Atheism.  The hope is that by understanding the theories laid out by Feuerbach we may better understand the role of epistemology in theology.

Keywords:  Ludwig Feuerbach, Projection Theory, Deep Seated Wishes, Displacement, Atheism, Post-Hegelianism.   

The enlightenment had come sweeping through European academia with its grand idealism and dogmatism; Kant had shown that reason leads one to Metaphysics; Fichte grounded a true knowledge of science and human freedom; and Hegel constructed a philosophy of history based upon the immanent actualization of the Absolute world spirit, or Zeitgeist. It seemed as if philosophy had brought back the golden age of the Greeks, combined with the progress of Baconian science, to the creation of an ideal worldview of advancement, understanding, and creativity. This new and accepted paradigm was somehow able to balance the theology of Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus, with the rationalism of Leibniz, Locke, and Newton. “Finally”, academia said, “we have succeeded in what was once thought impossible, the joining of rationalism and theology”...or so they thought. What these seminal Metaphysicians did not realize was that soon they would have students who would not only part ways with them, but start a war that would last up to the present day. The mission of this war was the final eradication of theology, organized religion, and what was seen as their blindly assumed absolutism. Hume had laid the groundwork for what Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Marx would impress upon the masses: theology is delusional. Contemporary with this attack on theology, Ludwig Feuerbach, the former Hegelian, would find himself the great champion of religious iconoclasm earning the title of the “Father of Modern Atheism.”

All that to say, Feuerbach is a must read for philosophers as well as critical theologians. His ideas mark the pivotal shift from broadly accepted Theism to critical Atheistic Humanism. This paper will remark upon this very shift in thinking by examining the central tenets of Feuerbach's critique of religion.  Following this period of explanation, arguments against his theories will be brought forth with the hopes of finding out not only what is true but what is truly at stake. Feuerbach's influence has been tremendous, specifically though Freud, who translated Feuerbach's philosophy into psychological theories of human need. Similarly, Marx and Engels received Feuerbach with gladness to the point that when Engels read Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity he said: ‘we all became at once Feuerbachians’;[1] and the famed New Testament scholar David Strauss wrote of Feuerbach’s theory of religion: “It is the truth for this age”.[2]  Therefore Feuerbach is a necessity for the student of philosophy of religion, psychology of religion, and the history of philosophy, and anyone who takes religious epistemology to be of prime importance.

Feuerbach’s Life and Influences

Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach was born in Bavaria in 1804, to a liberally minded Protestant lawyer and professor, the famous Anselm Feuerbach. Anselm gained popularity as the first Protestant to be elected to a chair at the Catholic dominated University of Bavaria. Likewise, he is known for drafting, under the outside pressure of Napoleon, the Bavarian Penal Code, which laid the groundwork for Bavarian law throughout the succeeding centuries. Ludwig showed an enthusiasm for religious studies early in his lifetime by studying Hebrew during High School and choosing to further his education by attending the University of Heidelberg, where he studied theology. During this time Ludwig sat under the Hegelian Theologian Karl Daub, and the famous Kantian and Church Historian H. E. G. Paulus. It was at this time that Ludwig found himself captivated by the philosophy of Hegel and ‘within a year, Feuerbach, was resolved to learn no more second-hand and succeeded in gaining his father's consent to his transfer to Berlin, to the centre of real thought where Hegel himself lectured.’  Having transferred to Berlin Feuerbach increasingly accepted Hegelian philosophy, but like most of Hegel's students, eventually came to part ways with his teachers doctrines becoming what has now been titled ‘left-wing Hegelianism.’  This parting of ways was based primarily on Hegel's interpretation of religion where religion was placed as a grand part of the dialectic movement of history.  Feuerbach rejected this notion of religion for a more Enlightenment mentality which saw the passing away of religion as a key to the progress of scientific society.  Feuerbach's main thesis, the "Projection Theory", reveals part of this sentimentality and is the subject which will now be turned to. 

Feuerbach’s Central Thesis

            As was mentioned before, Feuerbach's central thesis was that the notion of the "divine" or "God” was actually only a human projection; to quote Feuerbach:

            The object of the senses is in itself indifferent-independent of the disposition or of the judgment; but the object of religion is a selected object; the most excellent, the first, the supreme being; it      essentially presupposes a critical judgment, a discrimination between the divine and the non-divine,         between that which is worthy of adoration and that which is not worthy.  And here may be applied,   without and limitation, the proposition: the object of any subject is nothing else than the subject's         own nature taken objectively.  Such as are a man's thoughts and dispositions, such is his God.[3]

What Feuerbach is saying is that the idea of God stems from mans separating and projecting of his own nature, from humans turning their subjective nature into an object which is independent and outside of themselves.  The root of the objectification of human nature into God is, according to Feuerbach, desire for comfort, security, and meaning: ‘God springs out of the feeling of a want; therefore conscious, or an unconscious need,-that is God.  Thus the disconsolate feeling of a void, of loneliness, needed a God in whom there is society, a union of beings fervently loving each other.’[4]  In continuation of this chain of reduction, the reason why humans have these desires is because they are "displaced", they are coping with the realities of the physical world around them, the emotional drives within them, and searching for their place in the world.  The physical world can be hostile, so humans seek shelter; the emotional life can be chaotic, so humans seek stability and fulfillment; the search for meaning can become discouraging, so humans seek hope; all of these, according to Feuerbach, are the reasons why humans project the fulfillment of their desires, thus creating a God who answers them.  Commenting on Feuerbach, Schilling summarizes his position:

Man’s earthly existence is filled with pain, frustration, failure, anxiety, heart-breaking injustice, and the awareness of his own finitude and approaching death.  But he longs for unlimited fulfillment, perfect happiness, and everlasting life.  He therefore posits a God who will realize for him in another world the wishes which are thwarted on earth and the evils which are so devastating here.  But this God is nothing else than the illusory externalization of human hopes.[5]

It is obvious that Feuerbach constructed a web of interrelated theories which lead to the logical conclusion that God is only a projection, but we must ask if these theories and the conclusion they arrive at are plausible explanations of religious claims.  Are humans truly ‘displaced’, is God only a projection, does the concept of God stem from deep seated wishes, is Religion confused Anthropology, and must we as Feuerbach end in Atheism?  Through the rest of this paper I will attempt to answer these questions and arrive at a quite different philosophy of Religion.        

Human Displacement            

The starting point of Feuerbach’s philosophy of Religion is human nature.  As an anthropologist, Feuerbach saw that humans are constructed in such a way that they are needy and searching, intelligent and learning, and able to be both subject and object (via Metacognition).  When discussing what the sine qua non of human nature is Feuerbach answers with: ‘Reason, Will, Affection’, and says that man ‘is nothing without them’[6] but then continues to say that ‘Man is nothing without an [external] object.’[7]  Through external objects (i.e. the physical world and other humans) humans discover themselves and become conscious of their own nature, they realize that they are ‘species-beings.’    Progressively, humans reason, will, and love in relationship to external objects and become self-conscious; this self-consciousness is described by Feuerbach as ‘a being becoming objective to itself.’[8]  In this process of self-consciousness by which individuals become both subject and object, they become confused.  They mistake their own objective nature for something distinct themselves (i.e. God or spirits), thus displacing themselves.

Is it truly the case that humans mistake their own nature for something beyond themselves?  If humans do then surely they are deluded by the ‘opium of the people’[9] and have been completely confused about who they are and what God is.  Understandably humans make mistakes regarding their identity and their place within the world, but to this extent?  As Max Stirner once said:

To God, who is spirit, Feuerbach gives the name "Our Essence." Can we put up with this, that "Our Essence" is brought into opposition to us -- that we are split into an essential and an unessential self? Do we not therewith go back into the dreary misery of seeing ourselves banished out of ourselves?[10]

Stirner rightly notes that Feuerbach places our own natures in opposition to ourselves; it is as opposed and different to us as God is to humankind.  It seems troublesome to conclude that because humans think of themselves as objects that this grand and elaborate projection occurred; because I am conscious of something external to myself does not make me think that this object is anything other than what it is, in fact, it does the opposite, it makes me realize what it truly is and what it is not, what I truly am and what I am not.  Couldn’t humans have just as easily realized that their self-consciousness merely referred to themselves and conclude that God does not exist? The difficulty for Feuerbach is explaining how such a frequent practice as self-consciousness could spawn such a complex web of Metaphysics. 

God as Projection

            The central thesis of Feuerbach, and the one which necessarily follows from human displacement, is that God is only a projection of perfected human nature.  He writes: “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.”[11]   

Religious persons, according to Feuerbach, see the positive elements of their nature and through wish and imagination extend them to perfections; nature becomes supernatural, power becomes omnipotence, and knowledge becomes omniscience.  It is as if we are in Plato’s cave, only this time the shadows cast are our gods and we are shining the light on our own objectified natures.  What must be noted here is that Feuerbach says that individuals are the ones projecting, but what they project is the consummation of all human qualities; they project the potentialities of all the human species:

“God is the idea of the species as an individual-the idea or essence of the species, which as a species, as universal being, as the totality of all perfections, of all attributes or realities, freed from all the limits which exist in the consciousness and feeling of the individual, is at the same time again an individual, personal being.”[12]

Feuerbach concludes that as part of the human species, self-conscious individuals view their human nature abstracted from finitude and place upon it the title “God”, thus projecting and attributing to God all perfected human qualities.

            There are numerous critiques of Feuerbach’s projection theory, but only two will be noted here.  Firstly, the projection theory is not something strictly provable, is it only a hypothesis which correlates the psychological aspects of humans with their theology.  For instance, one could just as easily presuppose that God created humans in such a way that they would ponder abstracta and arrive at the knowledge of His infinite nature; as David Beutel has pointed out: 

Feuerbach’s aphorism that humans created God in their own image can easily be inverted: God made humans in his image and therefore they—by virtue of their theomorphic nature—project out a God who is personal, like them.[13]   

Secondly, Feuerbach ignores the evils and vices of human nature: why is it that humans only project the good aspects of their nature and not the bad?  If we are, as Feuerbach says, projecting the totality of human nature onto God we must not forget the ills of humanity, yet no one, including Feuerbach, could imagine humans believing in a purely evil, entirely deceptive, and wholly wrathful God.

Deep Seated Wishes

            Feuerbach’s answer to this dilemma would be something like this: ‘God is only a projection of positive attributes of human nature because that is what humans want.’  This comes back to Feuerbach’s foundation of projection theory: deep seated wishes.  As was noted earlier, Feuerbach says “God springs out of a feeling of want”, that is, God is nothing but the fulfillment of our inner and most central desires.  Sigmund Freud, one of Feuerbach’s great disciples, summed up this position succinctly: “religious ideas, which are given out as teachings…are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind.”[14]  The questions before us are whether or not these human wishes can provide a cogent argument against and reducibly explain Theism.

The first difficulty with Feuerbach's emotive foundation for projection is in its misunderstanding of religion.  Many religions, including Christianity, do not run as one would wish for.  For instance, it is difficult to see how humans could wish for being guilty before a holy and wrathful God, or having to surrender one's self interests for the sake of God's own glory.  Commenting on Christianity, and more particularly on this subject, C.S. Lewis notes: "rendering back one's will which we have so long claimed for our own, is, in itself, extraordinarily painful.  To surrender a self-will inflamed and swollen with years of usurpation is a kind of death."[15]  How could this be what humans actually wish for?

      Secondly, even if in some strange way humans wished for this self-denial and sacrificial obedience to God, would this prove that God does not exist?  Feuerbach's theory can again be inverted: God could have created humans in such a way that they ultimately desire self-denial and to be obedient to him, thus proving God's existence.  Thirdly, it must be noted that not all people want God to exist.  Atheism could equally be guilty of following their deep seated wishes by having God not exist and interfere with their lives.  Armand Nicholi, speaking on the debate between Freud and Lewis over Feuerbach's wish theory, notes:

Lewis astutely notes that Freud's argument stems from his clinical observations that a young child's feelings toward the father are always characterized by a "particular ambivalence"-i.e., strong positive and negative feelings.  But if Freud's observations hold true, these ambivalent wishes can work both ways.  Would not the negative part of the ambivalence indicate the wish that God not exist would be as strong as the wish for his existence?[16]

Therefore it seems just as likely that God exists as it does that he does not in Feuerbach's theory, thus leaving the argument inconclusive.

Religion Reduced To Anthropology

       If Feuerbach's theories on human displacement, projection, and wishes hold true than religion is simply confused anthropology.  If humans are projecting their own natures onto the idea of God, what follows is that when we understand religion we are not coming to knowledge of God, but rather of ourselves.  Feuerbach says this quite explicitly: "Consciousness of God is self-consciousness, knowledge of God is self-knowledge.  By his God thou knowest man, and by the man his God; the two are identical."[17]  What Feuerbach is getting at is that the idea of God is reducible to humankind, it is in essence anthropology.  One leading scholar on Feuerbach, Eugene Kamenka, notes this reduction: "Feuerbach presents each of these reductions so forcefully, with so much rhetoric, that he appears to regard each of them as the true essence in terms of which the whole of religion should be explained."[18]  If religion is, strictly speaking, anthropology than we must, if we are religious persons, grow up and realize that God and man are identical.  Yet if we do not accept the theories upon which this conclusion is drawn then we must admit to something other than humankind, which is irreducible to the material world. 

         Many problems come to light when religion is reduced to anthropology, one of which is the demise of objective standards.  If humans are God (in the Feuerbachian sense) then humans are "the measure of all things" (epistemologically and ethically), as

Protagoras once said;[19] we as the standard determine what is true, false, good, and evil.  Feuerbach sums up his position on truth: "That is true which another agrees with me-agreement is the first criteria of truth; but only because the species is the ultimate measure of truth."[20]  Yet what is the outcome if someone diametrically opposes another's thesis?  Are they both true?  What is the standard by which we can judge between individuals?  Feuerbach would answer that it is society or the human race as a whole that judges in these cases.  Yet it is obvious that different societies judge differently, who judges between them?  Similarly the whole of humanity is divided on matters of truth and ethics, so how could we depend upon them to judge anything?  What happens, upon the reduction of God to anthropology, is that there becomes no standard by which we judge truth claims and ethics other than ourselves, we relativize all standards, or as Nietzsche put it "transvaluate all values."[21]  As soon as there is a defensible materialistic standard by which we objectively evaluate the world is as soon as Feuerbach's conclusion becomes less perilous.

Feuerbach's Final Destination: Atheism

If God is man, than there is no "God" in the standard sense of the term.  Feuerbach himself acknowledge his Atheism: "If therefore my work is negative, irreligious, atheistic, let it be remembered that atheism—at least in the sense of this work—is the secret of religion itself.”[22]  The philosophical trajectory of Feuerbach is the elevation of humankind and the reduction of anything considered "divine" to the hopes and aspirations of humankind.  Feuerbach lays the groundwork for later humanist traditions with the promotion of his "new philosophy", which "makes man-with the inclusion of nature as the foundation of man-the unique, universal and highest object of philosophy."[23]  It is at this Atheistic Humanism where Feuerbach wishes to leave us that we may cultivate the revolution from God-centeredness to Human-centeredness and lead others to a similar location.  What then are the problems with such a worldview?

            Firstly, as was noted earlier, their are numerous problems with humans being the ultimate authority on matters of truth and ethics.  Secondly, there have been numerous philosophical arguments launched against Atheism, but due to the scope of this essay only a few will be brought forth.  One argument, known as the Transcendental Argument, reveals that Materialistic Atheism cannot account for laws of logic, since within Materialism there cannot be immaterial, necessary, abstract entities existing apart from the material world, which is what laws of logic are.  Another argument consists of needing a rational foundation for induction, or otherwise being left in inductive skepticism (which is self-defeating).  In laymen's terms everyone presupposes the Uniformity of

Nature when seeking to make sense out of it, and Atheism cannot provide any reason for believing that the future will be like the past without assuming the Uniformity of Nature and thus begs the question.[24]  Yet regardless of whether or not someone ends up believing Atheism, it should be encouraged that this person should not do so on the basis of Feuerbachian critiques, for they do not present any determinate arguments against traditional Theism.   

In Conclusion

      If Feuerbach’s philosophy of religion is not adequate, you may ask, then what contributions does he give to religious studies in general?  Should we all together abandon him to the ruins of post-Hegelian reductionism?  I am of the opinion that we should not.  Feuerbach does contribute to the rise of inquiry into religious epistemology, philosophy of religion, and psychology of religion, by posing the great questions regarding human conceptions of God.  Feuerbach challenges the religious experientialist’s to take a further look and question whether they have made God in their own image, whether things seem to good to be true, and whether they can provide any warrant for their theology.  Likewise, Feuerbach reminds scholastic theologians that humans are psychological beings, attempting to cope with the world around them, and that many run to religion for these very reasons. 

On a pragmatic and ethical level, Feuerbach wanted men and women to center upon their own earthly progress by getting rid of the other-worldliness which has for so long characterized religion.  Feuerbach wanted to convert Abbots to Scientists, Monks to social activists and Ascetics to Economists by implementing a universal humanism that would better society.  It is for this position, I feel, that Feuerbach should be applauded and given the place he deserves.  Yet it must be noted that you do not need to be an Atheistic Humanist to be humanitarian, you can also follow the greatest commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.”[25]  What Feuerbach was reacting to was the dualistic bifurcation that characterized Medieval Christendom: spirit above flesh, heaven above earth, inner holiness above socialism.  If only Feuerbach could now see how this bifurcation has slowly collapsed with the rise of social and humanitarian communalism within the Church. Yet Feuerbach still speaks to those who would rather be having spiritual ecstasy than sitting as Jesus did, in the midst of those considered unclean.


[1] Friedrich Engels, On Religion, (Moscow 1957) 223

[2] D.F. Strauss, Selected Works, pg 184

[3] Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, (New York 1957) 12, italics mine  

[4] Ibid, pg 73

[5] S. Paul Schilling, God in the age of Atheism, (New York, 1969) 24

[6] Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, (New York 1957) 3

[7] Ibid, pg 4

[8] Ibid, pg 6

[9] Karl Marx Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1844, found at http://www3.baylor.edu/~Scott_Moore/texts/Marx_Opium.html 

[10] Stirner, Max, The Ego and His Own, Benj. R. Tucker: Publisher: New York, 1907, pg 40 found at: http://flag.blackened.net/daver/anarchism/stirner/theego0.html#contents

[11] Feuerbach, Ludwig, The Essence of Christianity, Harper and Row Publishers: New York, 1957, pg 29-30

[12] Ibid, pg 153

[13] Beutel, David, Intellectual Foundations of the Christian Faith, found at: http://www.stu.lmu.edu/wbeutel/write/ifcf.htm

[14] Freud, Sigmund, The Future of an Illusion, ed. and trans. J. Strachey, Norton Publishing: New York, 1961, pg 30

[15] Lewis, C.S., The Problem of Pain, HarperCollins: New York, 2001, pg 89

[16] Nicholi, Armand, The Question of God, The Free Press: New York, 1957, pg 12

[17] Feuerbach, Ludwig, the Essence of Christianity, Harper and Row Publishers: New York, 1957, pg 12

[18] Kamenka, Eugene, The Philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach, Praeger Publishers: New York, 1969, pg 56

[19] Protagoras, 490-420 B.C.E.

[20]Feuerbach, Ludwig, the Essence of Christianity, Harper and Row Publishers: New York, 1957, pg 158

[21] Nietzsche, Friedrich, The AntiChrist, translated by H.L. Mencken, 1920, pg 62, found at: http://www.fns.org/uk/ac.htm

[22] Feuerbach, Ludwig, The Essence of Christianity, Harper and Row Publishers: New York, 1957, preface pg  36

23 Feuerbach, Ludwig, The Principles of the Philosophy of Future, Bobbs-Merrill: Indianapolis, 1966, pg 70

[24] For a more in depth analysis of these arguments see "Atheism and Induction” by Greg Bahnsen, found at: bellevuechristian.org/faculty/.../Apol_Bahnsen_Tabash_Induction.pdf - 79k,  and " Does Induction Presume the Existence of the Christian God?" by Michael Martin published in Skeptic (http://www.skeptic.com/), Vol. 5, #2, pp. 71-75

[25] Matthew 22:37-38



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