Ludwig Feuerbach, who claims human nature is “an object of thought,” states that religion is the separating of humans from themselves (1). He says humans divide themselves into a projection of God and their real selves (2). According to Feuerbach, humans determine that God is non-human, “infinite,” “eternal,” “holy,” and “perfect.” Humans, to Feuerbach, define themselves as the opposite of these godlike characteristics. Thus, religious humans, to Feuerbach, believe they are “human,” “finite,” “temporal,” “sinful,” and “imperfect” (3). To Feuerbach God and humans are opposites.
However, Feuerbach asserts that “in religion man contemplates his own latent (hidden) nature.” And Feuerbach wishes to show that the godlike nature humans call God is not God. He instead believes that God is really a manifestation of the “differencing of man with his own (godlike) nature” (4).
His statement communicates that he believes God is a projection of humans’ hidden godlike nature. Such a hidden nature includes infinitude, immortality, holiness, and perfection. And such characteristics, to Feuerbach, exist in all humans.
First, he states what these opposite characteristics are. Then he states they exist because humans do an inner-separation. Through such identification, Feuerbach explains why humans believe in God.
Therefore, Feuerbach holds that a belief in God exists because humans separate themselves psychologically. Such psychological separation occurs, according to Feuerbach, because humans want to believe in God. Humans also want to believe in a certain God. This psychological separation, to him, wrongly calls human “intelligence” God. To him, intelligence is the core and cause of human conduct and any quasi-god. For Feuerbach, God is a manifested abstraction of human thought.
Two key terms exist in Feuerbach’s statement: intelligence and separation. He says human intelligence precedes God. The concept of God, to him, must proceed from an act of intelligence-projection. Separation closely follows. Separation, for him, is the act of dividing a clear and latent nature. Such division, if true, implies a hidden nature exists.
For Feuerbach, God is the idyllic projection or image of humans separating themselves. And he wants to make this point clear by explaining that the concept of God starts with such separation.
His explanation of how the concept of God starts with differencing deserves space. Let’s look at some of his foundational thoughts.
Let’s examine what he says about the latent human nature. He describes such hidden nature as infinite, immortal, holy, and perfect. These hidden characteristics, for him, give rise to religious beliefs. Feuerbach does not, at least here, explicitly state how these characteristics are latent or hidden. He states, however, differencing as the only explanation for these characteristics being latent. He puts these characteristics in intelligence but does not know or explain how they could be inactive, underdeveloped, or hidden. Neither does he provide examples of immortal, infinite, perfect, or holy humans.
Conduct of Separation
Scripture shows how conduct separates these characteristics. However, Scripture does not attribute such separation to latent intelligence, as does Feuerbach. It attributes the separation to human conduct in the presence of God.
Scripture recounts God’s words regarding ancient Israel’s future conduct. It says, “People will rise and whore after the foreign gods among them in the land that they are entering, and they will forsake me and break my covenant that I have made with them. Then my anger will be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them and hide my face from them, and they will be devoured. And many evils and troubles will come upon them, so that they will say in that day, ‘Have not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?’ And I will surely hide my face in that day because of all the evil that they have done, because they have turned to other gods” (5). This passage shows separation between humans and God because of evil conduct.
In this passage, humans have evil qualities that place them in contradistinction to God. Later, Scripture similarly states, humans’ “iniquities have separated [them] from [their] God; [their] sins have hidden his face from [them], so that he will not hear” (6). But these passages do not identify the qualities of God or humans. In other passages, Scripture describes God as good, merciful, kind, and holy (7). Subsequently, God’s general characterization is opposite of humans’ sinful nature. From birth, according to Scripture, humans have an evil nature (8).
Augustine follows these sinful/good characterizations of humans and God. He remembers how pride and “conceit separated him from God. But he also remembers how God is eternal and merciful and is not angry forever (9). Augustine also says humans “are called God’s enemies who oppose His rule, not by nature, but by vice; having no power to hurt Him, but only themselves” (10). However, this privation of good statement appears to support Feuerbach. Nonetheless, there’s a difference how Augustine and Feuerbach use “nature.” Nature to Feuerbach is closer to reason or logic. Nature to Augustine is the intended purpose of humans. Therefore, one can reject Feuerbach’s description of nature without rejecting Augustine’s.
According to Scripture, humans have a disposition to evil. Thus, perfected godlike characteristics cannot hide in humans’ hearts. If humans are not perfect in action or nature, they must think of perfect godlike characteristics in God. Consequently, this God-thought is apart from the self. They cannot project these God-thoughts from their inner sinful nature.
Yet it’s interesting that humans have an example of combined perfection and humanity in Jesus Christ.
The Danger of Projection
Nevertheless, Feuerbach makes an apt statement when he says, “God as the antithesis of man…is the objective nature of the understanding.” To know God as holy, perfect, and eternal, one must know such characteristics exist. To Feuerbach, the understanding of these characteristics comes before God. These characteristics give birth to God, so to speak. Yet one could also say God gives birth to these characteristics. Such birth happens when people encounter God. And such characteristics appear more contradistinctive to the human, as the human cannot find them in his or her own nature.
Therefore, one should account for the possibility of undivided sinful intelligence. We should not presuppose that such godlike characteristics are in humans. One might argue “godlike” characteristics are innate. But the argument for innateness does not negate that godlike characteristics (in the sense of perfection and omniscience) are absent in all humans. Accordingly, Scripture states sinful intelligence is the norm for human nature (11). If we saw humans as sinful by nature, we could not claim humans divide their intelligence to project a perfect God. If people believe in humans’ sinful nature and ability to create a false god, such a false god would have to also be an evil and sinful god, closer to a demon or Satan. Therefore, an almighty and perfect God extremely differs from human nature.
With that said, Feuerbach appropriately warns of the danger of projecting a quasi-god. But his warning is less necessary when it warns of an abstract and perfect God. Such a perfect quasi-god poses less threat to human existence. One must ask, however, what abstracted quasi-god is more dangerous? A perfect God or a sinful god? The latter has greater and more threatening implications. One should not overlook this danger because of the presupposition that humans contain perfection in intelligence objectively. If humans do not, however, contain such perfection in intelligence, a projection of a sinful quasi-god would be the only possibility and could be the devil himself.
1. Ludwig Feuerbach, Essence of Christianity, Second Edition, trans. Marion Evans (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1890), Ch. 1.
2. Ibid. 2.
5. Deuteronomy 31:16-18.
6. Isaiah 59:2, 3.
7. Mark 10:18; 1 Samuel 2:2; Psalm 86:5; Psalm 36:7,8.
8. Psalm 51:5; Genesis 8:21; Ephesians 2:3; Job 14:4; Psalm 58:3.
9. Augustine, Confessions, VII.iii.5-VII.iv.6.
10. Augustine, The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2018), XII.iii.
11. Genesis 6:5; Jeremiah 17:9.