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God, Buddha, and Another Obscure German Philosopher

March 10, 2011

'Wishful Thinking' by hotzeplotz courtesy of Flickr.

Feuerbach?  Who is that?

If there were a single originator of the term “wishful thinking,” it might well have been Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) and he may well have been using it to describe religion in general and the belief in God/gods in particular.  Naturally, as a well educated German philosopher of the nineteenth century, his theories on the matter are far more sophisticated and nuanced, but nonetheless boil down to humanity’s cognitive and emotional attempts at wish fulfillment and to achieve an understanding of our own nature.  Although he thought of himself as being among the “reformers and prophets of a new culture,” according to Van Harvey, Feuerbach is mostly remembered not for the impact he had on the world at large, but on those later philosophers, notably Marx and Engels, whose ideas would lead to literally revolutionary changes in society. (Harvey, Stanford Encyclopedia)

Karl Marx (1818-1883), among others, was Feuerbach’s only slightly younger contemporary and greatly influenced by his 1841 book The Essence of Christianity.  Feuerbach allowed Marx to synthesize the theories of materialism, which stated humans are shaped by their surroundings, and idealism, which believed humans capable of shaping their own world, doing away with the negative aspects of both. (Wolff)  “’Feuerbach’ Marx wrote, ‘is the only person who has a serious and a critical attitude to the Hegelian dialectic…’”  Because Feuerbach allowed Marx and those like him to utilize Hegelian theories without any of Hegel’s attendant metaphysics and idealism, he is commonly characterized as the link between the two.  Indeed, his early work has been described as “a masterpiece, a tour de force,” “meteoric,” and “genius.”  He would not, however, live up to the expectations The Essence of Christianity engendered as was later discounted and almost forgotten aside from this influence on Marx. (Harvey, Stanford Encyclopedia)

Like his communist contemporaries, Feuerbach disliked the way of the world and sought to change the social order in line with long-range goals.  However, unlike Marx, Engels, and others, he believed that “democratic political action in Germany was premature, since success in such a venture depended upon a prior spiritual change in the direction of universal secularism.” (Cherno, p.398) Unfortunately, despite the glowing reception of his Essence, Feuerbach’s failure to follow up with a “larger intellectual system” capable of bringing about this change “aroused the suspicion that he was incapable of doing so” in the manner of Marx of Freud. (Harvey, p.7)  Rather, what Feuerbach is remembered for was his ability to “stand [Hegel] on his head” in a way that was appealing to others. (Harvey, p.11)

Feuerbach’s Philosophy

Van Harvey is one of the few contemporary authors who goes into great detail of Feuerbach’s theories in his book Feuerbach and the Interpretation of Religion, where he identifies four basic traits that characterize Feuerbach’s writing.  First, that it presents an explanation for the origin of God/gods.  Namely, that human beings misunderstand their essential nature by projecting it on an external, abstract, and objective being.  Second, that this notion belongs to “a larger theoretical structure” that explains both the origin and endurance of religious belief.  Third, that this explanation and its structure guide the interpretation of religious symbols, especially as concerns their emotional power.  Fourth and finally, an almost evangelical atheism.  Regarding this last point, Harvey amends that:

“Feuerbach’s critique of religion is even more fervently evangelical than those of the other masters of suspicion [Marx, Nietzsche, Freud], not because he hated religion more passionately but, paradoxically, because he felt that when religion was properly understood it would be seen to contain a liberating truth.” (Harvey, p.4-5)

Although others were not so flattering of Feuerbach, the philosopher Karl Barth (1886-1968) appreciated Feuerbach for being “as positive as that of any theologian.”  John Glasse characterizes Barth as praising Feuerbach (while at the same time “tilting with a straw man,” as explained later) for the forthright question he posed to Christian theologians, saying that “he [Feuerbach] denies only in order to affirm … the real man.”  That person is both a “sensuous, material being” and one “who exists only in community.” (Glasse, p.69-71)  These two ‘truths’ of Feuerbach’s are key to his theory of projection.

In The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach laid forth a theory which stated that human consciousness comes about through self-differentiation when a person notices that they are a single individual among a collective species.  In seeking to understand oneself and one’s own nature, the individual projects or externalizes that nature, which becomes personified in the being “God.”  Originally, this occurred through the creation of numerous personified pagan gods of various human-like temperaments, reflecting the varied forces of nature that the sensuous individual perceived.  Later, this was refined in monotheism by projecting only the most ideal aspects of human nature onto the singular God.

“…the finite spirit comes to self-knowledge by externalizing itself in the idea of God and then realizing that this externalization is only the form in which the human spirit discovers its own essential nature.”

However, by doing this, Feuerbach contended, the individual harmfully objectified and alienated themselves from their own better nature. (Harvey, Stanford Encyclopedia)  This, he believed, was the source of much human strife.

Why an individual should, even unconsciously, project their own best nature onto a personified God is the result not of reason, which disenchanted Feuerbach, but of emotion, in particular: longing.  “Longing says: There must be a personal God, i.e. it cannot be that there is not; satisfied feeling says he is,” Feuerbach wrote. There must be such a God because the individual is “in the grip of the rage to live and longing for a reality that can grant its deepest wishes,” Harvey explains. (Harvey, Stanford Encyclopedia)  We fear death.  We want our worldly desires fulfilled.  We want to be loved.  Therefore, we create a God capable of granting eternal life, miracles, and all-powerful love.  In other words, wish fulfillment.

Emotion is what produces the longing, but it is the human imagination or ‘Phantasie’ that produces God and religion.  This is because imagination “produces images that have the power to stir the feelings and emotions.” (Harvey, Stanford Encyclopedia)  It is through imagination that the main language of religion is produced: symbols.  Thus we return to premise number three of Harvey’s understanding of Feuerbach as one engaging in the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” first characterized by Paul Ricoeur as a manner of interpreting religion as something with no objective object (i.e. God) and little more than a ‘bewitching illusion.’ (Harvey, p.1)

It is clear that Feuerbach ranks higher in Harvey’s estimation than in that of other thinkers and scholars.  Even Harvey recognizes that most view him as “a marginal figure … not worthy of serious consideration.” (Harvey, p.6)  Protestant theologians appealed to the “objective reference of religious consciousness” of religious experience to attack Feuerbach’s description of religion as an “illusory projection.”  Ironically, it was Barth who defended Feuerbach from this claim and upheld his theories more vigorously, only to later to “laugh in his face.” (Glasse, p.76)

Barth’s Critique of Feuerbach

Barth could not reconcile Feuerbach’s assertion that God was nothing more than or other than humanity with humanity’s propensity for evil and death.  Hartshorne and Reese characterized Barth as believing “God is wholly other than man and in no rationally explicable relation to him, either as like or as different.”  Glasse points out that by focusing on humanity’s evil features as proof of a lack of divinity, Barth could not then do justice to humanity’s good qualities, which Feuerbach affirmed and to which Barth had agreed. (Glasse, p.77, 81)

Feuerbach found this explanation inadequate – that one can attribute all things “…good to God and evil to man, the creature, and nature.”  Like other critics before and after, he could not reconcile the existence of evil and suffering with an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God. (Harvey, p.214-215)  Instead he argued that qualities (i.e. love, truth) are divine not because they come from God, but because they define God as divine.  “…God has not saved us, but Love, which transcends the difference between the divine and human personality,” he writes in Essence. (Harvey, Stanford Encyclopedia)

However, he believed when one sees that the nature of God is none other than the nature of the human individual projected outward, then the illusion of God disappears and so the human being is liberated.  That both good and evil exist is no longer contradictory and individuals can live up to their ideal, perfect nature.  Despite this belief that only by liberating oneself from the delusion of God can one truly come to understand one’s own nature, Feuerbach did not take a dim view of religion.  In fact, he viewed his own goal as the same as that of religion, the ‘salvation,’ that is, the well-being, of humanity. (Harvey, p.84)

Where religion went wrong was in removing the responsibility for that salvation from humanity, abdicating free will, and placing it in the hands of an omnipotent God.  In doing so, they also fed a dangerous cult of egocentrism in which this God so loved humans that he created the entire universe ex nihilo, sent prophets, and ultimately (in Christianity) his Son to be sacrificed for the sake of humanity.  This view subordinates the natural world and reduces it to “a mere object of Will.”  Likewise, it subordinates humans and endangers our ability to fulfill our true potential. (Harvey, p.84-86)

Buddhist Reflections on Feuerbach

Despite its contradictions, Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity, is every bit the “bombshell” Van Harvey makes it out to be.  That he was later forgotten for his inability to live up to the potential this work bespoke is a sad footnote in the history of German philosophy of religion.  To never have heard his name or studied his ideas is to be cheated of a major contribution to the religious landscape.

From a Buddhist perspective, Feuerbach was entirely correct in his theories of projection, longing, human beings’ sensuous relationship with nature, the use of symbolism and imagination, the ego-affirmation of God, and, though he affirmed free will, the contingency of human action on context, community, and culture.  These theories roughly correlate with Buddhist understandings of the nature of mind, desire, perception, skillful means, egocentrism or self, and karma, respectively.

Though the Buddha did not directly address the issue of a singular creator God, it being an unknown concept in India at the time, he did not discount the existence of gods or supernatural beings.  However, the existence of the former is often held to be in contradiction with statements as to the nature of causality and cosmology (i.e. the universe has always and will always exist).  The later is an acceptance of commonly held (i.e. ‘folk’) belief, but new cautions were presented by the Buddha that are much in line with Feuerbach’s warnings.  Namely, that such external deities, if they exist, do not have the ability to bring about human salvation, that is, the end of suffering.  Only by realizing our true nature can this be acheived.

“Among the fetters (samyojana) that bind to existence, theism is particularly subject to those of personality-belief, attachment to rites and rituals, and desire for fine-material existence or for a ‘heaven of the sense sphere,’ as the case may be.” (Thera)

Buddhist scholar Nyanaponika Thera characterizes the causes of theism in much the same way as Feuerbach, that it arises from “the devotee’s projection of his ideal — generally a noble one — and of his fervent wish and deeply felt need to believe.”  Moreover, he affirms Feuerbach’s theses (wittingly or unwittingly) that such “projections are largely conditioned by external influences,” be it nature or nurture or both and enhanced by the attendant emotions and operation of human imagination.  Thera (a representative of Buddhist opinion in general), like Feuerbach, does not discount the power of religious and mystical experiences, the efficacy of religion in leading a moral life, or the ultimate goal with which theistic religions are concerned (if we accept that salvation and the end of suffering are synonymous).  Likewise, neither holds their philosophy to be anti-religious, but rather very friendly to religion.  Perhaps this is part of what lends both such power – that through debunking the idea of God, they affirm the efficacy of religion, if not the methods used in its institutionalization.


Cherno, Melvin, “Feuerbach’s ‘Man is what He Eats’: A Rectification,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Jul-Sep 1963), pp. 397-406

Glasse, John, “Barth on Feuerbach,” The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 57, No. 2 (April 1964), pp.69-96

Harvey, Van A., Feuerbach and the Interpretation of Religion, Cambridge University Press, 1995

Harvey, Van A., “Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.

Thera, Nyanaponika, “Buddhism and the God-idea,” The Vision of the Dhamma, Buddhist Publication Society, 1994, republished with permission and accessed on Access to Insight, June 2010, URL = <;

Wolff, Jonathan, “Karl Marx”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = <;.

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