The Re-Discovery of Ludwig Feuerbach

Van A. Harvey

In the nineteenth century, he was recognized as Europe’s most famous and powerful atheist, the herald of a new anti- Christian and anti-idealist era. In the twentieth, he is men-tioned only in passing as one of the influences on the young Karl Marx and as a precursor of Sigmund Freud, who believed that the gods are projections of the human psyche. Then, he was revered by humanists in both Europe and America, so much so that, when it was learned he was destitute, a collection was taken up for him by his admirers in the United States. Now his name is scarcely recognized in this country.

Nevertheless, Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) was one of the profoundest critics of religion in the history of Western thought; more profound, in my opinion, than any of those three who have been singled out as “masters of suspicion”: Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud.1 What constitutes these three as “masters” is that, unlike their rationalistic eighteenth-century predecessors, they did not simply dismiss religion as the result of fear and ignorance but regarded it as rooted in the human psyche—in the deprivation of essential human needs (Marx), in the tendency of language to personify causes (Nietzsche), or in the need to provide some metaphysical support for human morality (Freud). Feuerbach also believed that religion was deeply rooted in human subjec-tivity, but he thought this could best be shown by a sympathetic interpretation of the religious consciousness itself. To demon-strate that the gods were really psychological projections, he did not invoke a wider theory of some sort but conducted a detailed analysis of the prayers, hymns, and beliefs of religious believers themselves. He attempted to enter into the religious conscious-ness and let it speak for itself. “I constitute myself,” he wrote, “only its listener and interpreter, not its prompter.”2 Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud rarely wrote directly about religion because, with the possible exception of Nietzsche, they were not very knowledgeable about it. Feuerbach, by contrast, was deeply acquainted with it both theoretically and practically. So much so that even the great Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, was forced to concede that Feuerbach’s knowledge of the Bible, Christian theology, and especially of Luther places him above most mod-ern philosophers so far as theological skill is concerned.3

Moreover, unlike Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, for whom reli-gion was only one human activity to interpret, Feuerbach was intellectually preoccupied with its explanation and interpreta-tion. His first major book, Thoughts on Death and Immortality (1830) was about it as was his last, Theogonie (1857). And between these two there are three major works: The Essence of Christianity (1832), The Essence of Religion (1845), and Lectures on the Essence of Christianity (1848). Like a tongue worrying a sore tooth, he returned to the problem of religion again and again, so that, despite the various classifications of his work, he could write that all of it was the expression of only one theme, “religion and theology and everything connected with it.”‘ His aim, he said, “was to illumine the obscure essence of religion with the torch of reason….”5

Ironically, one of the reasons Feuerbach is not better known is that he became so identified with the sensationally successful Essence of Christianity that all of his later writings on religion were largely ignored or were erroneously regarded as minor modifications of that earlier work. This identification became still more entrenched because that book was so deeply impreg-nated with Hegelianism, the reigning philosophy of the time. Hegel, the great idealistic philosopher, had argued that the Absolute necessarily objectifies itself in creation and then comes to complete self-consciousness in and through the self-con-sciousness of human beings. Christianity, he claimed, is the naïve and mythical symbolization of this cosmic process. Feuerbach cleverly stood Hegel “on his head,” so to speak. The creation is not the objectification of God by means of which the deity comes to self-consciousness; rather, the idea of God is the way in which the human species comes to self-consciousness about its own essential perfections.

The idea of God arises when the self (the I) differentiates itself from others (the Thou). The I, in coming to self-conscious-ness over against the Thou, necessarily realizes that this other is like itself; that the I is really a member of the species of which it is an imperfect instantiation. Aware of its own imperfections when compared with the species, the imagination seizes upon the perfections of the species—reason, will, and feeling—and per-sonifies them and makes them “divine.” Our own human nature is first contemplated as another, perfect being. The gods are really the earliest but indirect form of human self-knowledge.

This being so, the history of religions may be seen as the education of the human species regarding what is genuinely human. Religion is the “collective dream” of humanity by means of which the species comes to realize its own essential predicates. Christianity, Feuerbach argued, is the highest form of this dream-ing because through its symbolism and dogma the human race comes to see that love is the highest (absolute) human attribute. The doctrine of the Incarnation, for example, is the unconscious expression of the insight that God’s deepest anxiety is for the well-being of humanity and that He is willing to sacrifice his own Godhead on its behalf. Consequently, Feuerbach argued, the real but hidden meaning of the doctrine of the Incarnation is atheism; namely, that just as God “has renounced Himself out of love, so we, out of love, should renounce God. …”6

Feuerbach worked out this idea so imaginatively and system-atically—the book is still able to capture and disturb the minds of college students—that his name was virtually synonymous with the title of the book. It especially had a profound impact upon Karl Marx and his followers, so much so that Frederick Engels looking back on the period wrote that “we all became Feuerbachians.”7

Feuerbach, however, became dissatisfied with this argument. He believed that it was too abstract, too dependent upon Hegelian philosophy even if only negatively, and he revised his views in his subsequent works. In these virtually ignored books his argument, greatly oversimplified, goes something like this. The human subject comes to self-consciousness not only over against other selves but against nature as well, where the term nature refers not only to the external but to the inner world that operates independently of our knowledge and will. The real source of religion, then, lies in this relationship between the “I” and the “not I” of (nature).

In an extraordinary passage in his Lectures on the Essence of Religion that could have been written a century later, Feuerbach wrote

The ultimate secret of religion is the relationship between the conscious and unconscious, the voluntary and involuntary in one and the same individual. Man wills, but often he does so unwill-ingly…. He lives, and yet he is without power over the begin-ning and end of his life…. He has a body … and yet is a stranger in his own house; … in happy moments he feels that life is a gift … in unhappy moments a burden inflicted upon him against his will….

Man with his ego or consciousness stands at the brink of a bottomless abyss, that abyss is his own unconscious being, which seems alien to him and inspires him with a feeling which expresses itself in words of wonderment such as: What am I? Where have I come from? To what end? And his feeling that I am nothing without a not-I which is distinct from me, something other, which is at the same time my own being, is the religious feeling.8

Feuerbach thought that the gods were born out of the anxiety and helplessness felt towards these forces composing the “not I.” Driven by a rage to live and to flourish—the basic drive of all life—but absolutely dependent for life and death upon these forces, the conscious self personifies them or, in higher stages of culture in which nature comes to be viewed as whole, unifies these forces in the form of monotheism. The conscious self not only desires to transcend the limits of nature and death but, being a social creature, craves recognition above all. It cannot live without self-esteem, and the virtue of monotheism is that it con-fers the greatest possible form of self-esteem: the individual exists before an infinite and loving creator that will miraculously enable it to transcend nature and death.

Feuerbach was candid in his acknowledgment of the power-ful psychological comfort to be found in this belief in cosmic recognition. In the faith in miracle and intercessory prayer, which Feuerbach believed was basic to ordinary religion even though liberal theologians attempt to demythologize it, the devout believe that God will remove all obstacles to their salva-tion. But like Nietzsche he also believed that humanity pays a very high price for this psychological luxury. Apart from the nar-cissistic and irrational belief that the deity intervenes in nature for individuals, he thought that the quest for individual immoral- ity was a diseased Eros. The desire for individual immortality sets aside all the spatial and tem-poral limitations of nature that define the structures of human life as we know it. We are social creatures bound together in I-Thou relations, and the limita-tions of the body that religions seek to annul constitute the con-dition that make any authentic human existence possible. We are in fact creatures of the earth, and the desire for immortality is an “absurd extravagant desire.” Feuerbach had many more powerful criticisms of religion in general and of monotheism in particular, but basically his criti-cisms and his hopes are expressed in this last sentence of Lectures on the Essence of Religion.

My only wish is … to transform friends of God into friends of man, believers into thinkers, devotees of prayer into devotees of work, candidates for the hereafter into students of this world, Christians who, by their own procession and admission, are “half animal, half angel” into persons, into whole persons.9



  1. The phrase is Paul Ricoeur’s in Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, trans. Denis Savage (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), Chapter 2.
  2. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, trans. George Eliot, with an introductory essay by Karl Barth and forward by H. Richard Niebuhr (New York: Harper and Row, 1957), p. xxxvi.
  3. Ibid, p. x.
  4. Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion, trans. Ralph Manheim, (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), p. 5.
  5. Ibid, p. 22.
  6. Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, p. 53.
  7. Frederick Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1976), p. 14.
  8. Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion, pp. 310 f.
  9. ¡bid, p. 285.


Van A. Harvey

Van A. Harvey is professor of religion at Stanford University and the author of The Historian and the Believer, among many other books.