Feuerbach’s “Essence of Religion”

In 1846, the German philosopher and anthropologist Ludwig Feuerbach published The Essence of Religion. It is a deceptively simple book about which much has been written. This may have something to do with the fact that Feuerbach was, in his philosophical moments, a Hegelian who emphasized the grand (and vague) sweep of ideas in human history. This opaqueness goes some way to explaining the various interpretations that have been imposed upon the Essence of Religion. There are some who read it metaphysically and others who read it psychologically. The latter is, in my estimation, the more persuasive.

Feuerbach argued that humans form internal images of themselves and then project or transfer that image onto the world. By this rendering, God is essentially an anthropomorphism who represents what humans conceive to be the ideal of the species.[i]

It is Feuerbach the anthropologist, however, who offers perhaps the most penetrating insights into the origins of religion. He prefaces these insights with observations that seem oddly out of place in a book on religion (all page citations are to the 2004 Prometheus edition):

Every higher degree of development presupposes a lower one, not vice versa, for the simple reason that the higher one must have something below it, in order to be the higher one (14). The earth has not always been in its present state, on the contrary, it has come to its actual condition through a series of developments and revolutions, and geology has discovered that in the different stages of development several species of plants and animals existed, which no longer exist nor even have existed for ages (16).

These are neither random nor gratuitous comments – Feuerbach is here laying the groundwork for an evolutionary approach to religion which begins with earlier forms of belief. His description is these ideas is distinctly animist:

Nature is to man originally, i.e., where he regards her with a religious eye, rather an object of his own qualities, a personal, living, feeling being. Man originally does not distinguish himself from Nature, therefore the sensations which any object in Nature excites in him appear to him immediately as qualities of the object. Thus man involuntarily and unconsciously…transforms the essence of Nature into a feeling, i.e., a subjective, a human being. Besides, uneducated natural man does only presuppose human motives, impulses and passions in Nature, he even sees real men in natural bodies (26).

The feeling of dependence upon Nature, in combination with the imagination of her as an arbitrarily acting, personal being, is the motive of the sacrifice, the most essential act of natural religion (28). In order now to propitiate his conscience as well as the object of his imaginary offense; in order to show that his robbery has its origin in want, not in arrogance, he diminishes his enjoyment and returns to the object [Nature] a part of its plundered property (29). The sacrifice makes perceptible to the senses the whole essence of religion. It source is the feeling of dependence, fear, doubt, the uncertainty of success, of future events (30).

This is a remarkable early description of the animist worldview, which Feuerbach improperly characterizes as “religion” rather than relations. It could appear, without alteration, in any modern treatment of animism and not be out of place. Foragers the world over often describe their views in precisely this manner. Feuerbach is equally astute when he explains what this relation accomplishes – or how it works:

Religion has – at least originally and in relation to nature – no other office and tendency other than to change the unpopular and haunted essence of Nature into a familiar and known one; to melt Nature, who in herself is impliant and hard as iron, in the glowing fire of the heart for the sake of human purposes, [the goal] is no other than to make Nature theoretically an intelligible and practically pliable being, agreeable to the wants of man (35).

In this remarkable passage, Feuerbach cuts right to the cognitive and social heart of the matter: the animist worldview makes sense of the world and renders it intelligible. Such a world can be can be negotiated and negotiated with. As such, this worldview has all the appearance of a long developing adaptation.


[i] This projection is, as Paul Schilling summarizes (1969:24) Feuerbach in God In An Age of Atheism, deeply emotional:

Man’s earthly existence is filled with pain, frustration, failure, anxiety, heart-breaking injustice, and the awareness of his own infinitude 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.

It should be noted that this rendering of the human condition is typical of theorists reflecting on life in large-scale or “complex” societies. This angst-filled assessment is not universal and certainly is not typical of foragers. They rarely express these kinds of concerns, and if they obsess, it is about an entirely different set of issues.

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