Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Why Do Atrocities Occur in the Name of God?

Why have atrocities been associated with religion—even having been committed under religious auspices? Four Crusades were fought, for example, by popes whose God is love—whose god-man extolls love of enemies and turning the other cheek rather than hitting back. In the modern era, Christianity has been tame, but terrorist acts have been committed in the name of God by people who presume that they cannot possibly be wrong in their beliefs. If Feuerbach is correct, the underlying problem inheres in the belief in God's very existence—that belief pointing us to a still deeper problem in the very nature of faith itself, to a vulnerability or susceptibility that has been overlooked or conveniently glossed over for as long as religion has existed on the face of the Earth.

Feuerbach lays out the problem in the following terms: “If the existence of God, taken by itself, had not rooted itself as a religious truth in minds, there would never have been those infamous, senseless, horrible ideas of God which stigmatise the history of religion and theology.”[1] Senseless ideas of God stigmatize the history of religion. Senseless people carried those ideas into practice, stigmatizing human history. Feuerbach’s surprise is that the belief in the existence of God—this belief in itself—may have a sordid byproduct or be inherently problematic.

“The belief in the existence of God is the belief in a special existence, separate from the existence of man and Nature.”[2] Feuerbach rejects the special existence precisely because it is external. This belief is sheer artifice, he argues, because God represents the best of our human nature—without its limitations: perfect love, all powerful, the highest good, infinite knowledge, and present everywhere. This is the origin of religious consciousness, which has been replaced by the conceptualization of the divine as an external object whose existence is portrayed as separate. To Feuerbach, that object is simply a product of the human imagination. 

The content of revelation is human. Revelation “must not be regarded as outside the nature of man.”[3] By nature, Feuerbach is referring to an instinctual urge. “There is within [man] an inward necessity which impels him to present moral and philosophical doctrines in the form of narratives and fables, and an equal necessity to represent that impulse as a revelation.”[4] This is not to say that religion reduces to morality; rather, what we take to be objective religious truth comes from within. The human imagination plays a vital role. “Man, by means of the imagination, involuntarily contemplates his inner nature; he represents it as out of himself,” as God.[5] As such, God “is an inward, spiritual being.”[6] Denied here is the transcendence of God, which I submit is vital, and, which interestingly does not require the conceptualization of God as an intelligent being or object; the important thing is that the reference point of the religious consciousness lies beyond the limits of human conception and perception.

To Feuerbach, God is rightly understood experience of mankind’s inner nature. At least it is not the actual inner nature that furnishes the divine content. Revelation comes “from the ideal nature of man to the phenomenal man, from the species to the individual.”[7] Even so, “between the divine revelation and the so-called human reason or nature, there is no other than an illusory distinction;--the contents of the divine revelation are of human origin, for they have proceeded not from God as God, but from God as determined by human reason, human wants, that is, directly from human reason and human wants.”[8] Rather than an external object willowing its revelation of itself to fit within human understanding, the source of divine revelation is the human imagination acting on the instinctual wish that our limitations be dissolved. “The imagination is, in general, the true place of an existence which is absent, not present to the senses, though nevertheless sensational in its essence.”[9] God loves and gets angry—vengeance is mine, saith the Lord—but these emotions are cut off from their source as manifesting in a quantitatively less way in human beings as soon as the divine is rendered as an external object whose existence transcends Creation.

As artificial as the cleavage or division is, the certainty of the severed, limitless sensibilities in an external object—not to mention that such an object exists—is perhaps even worse. “The religious mind . . . has the immediate certainty that all its involuntary, spontaneous affections are impressions from without, manifestations of another being.”[10] Such certainty is tantamount to factual knowledge, even though the being transcends the limits of human cognition (and perception). In fact, “a God who gives me a knowledge of himself through his own act is alone of a God who truly exists, who proves himself to exist,--an objective God.”[11] So the knowledge of an objective, externalized God is known to reveal itself as though a fact. Put another way, the belief in the existence of God as an external object carries with it the presumptuousness of belief rendering itself as factual knowledge.

Of course, the presumptuousness is limited to extant beliefs qua facts. “Were not the gods of Olympus also facts, self-attesting existences? Were not the ludicrous miracles of paganism regarded as facts?”[12] Yet in a later age the divine narratives are labeled as myths devised by the human mind. The “religious consciousness itself admits, in relation to past times, the essentially human quality of revelation. The religious consciousness of a later age is no longer satisfied with a Jehovah who is from head to foot a man, and does not shrink from becoming visible as such. It recognizes that those were merely images in which God accommodated himself to the comprehension of men in that age, that is, merely human images. But it does not apply this mode of interpretation to ideas accepted as revelation in the present age, because it is yet itself steeped in those ideas.”[13] Every religionist takes their own religious beliefs as facts of reason yet while insisting on faith, which implies belief rather than knowledge.

Clearly, religious “facts” are problematic. To Feuerbach, a religious “fact is every wish that projects itself on reality: in short, it is everything that is not doubted simply because it is not—must not be—doubted.”[14] To block doubt is not to establish a fact. Hence the wish for unlimited sensibilities impressed on reality in the form of a separate entity is not a fact; such an instinctual urge ought not glorify itself as a fact of reason.

It is important to isolate as problematic the human presumption to immediate certainty that revelation is indeed revelation. “The belief in revelation exhibits in the clearest manner the characteristic illusion of the religious consciousness. The general premiss of this belief is: man can of himself know nothing of God; all his knowledge is merely vain, earthly, human.”[15] We cannot know beyond the limits of our cognition and perception. In fact, what knowledge we do have is tainted. Feuerbach does not go with the obvious conclusion that even if an external intelligent being reveals itself to us we can’t know this. Rather, he claims that God reveals itself to us in terms that we can understand. “God is a superhuman being; God is known only by himself. Thus we know nothing of God beyond what he reveals to us. The knowledge imparted by God is alone divine, superhuman, supernatural knowledge. . . . But nevertheless the divine revelation is determined by the human nature. God speaks not to brutes or angels, but to men; hence he uses human speech and human conceptions.”[16] God’s revelation makes it into our realm through the dark window because the all-powerful knowledge can fit within human terms. “In the scheme of his revelation God must have reference not to himself, but to man’s power of comprehension.”[17] To reach us, God’s revelation of the divine nature must fit within our cognitive limits. Even so, given those limits, we cannot be certain that what we take to be revelation really is from an external intelligent being. Hence we cannot be certain even that such a being exists and yet we assume to have such certainty anyway.

From our presumptuous entitlement to infallibility concerning the belief in the existence of God as an external object follows immediate certainty regarding the religiously sourced morality of our actions, which we deem as righteous because the very existence of the external law-giver cannot even be doubted. “Moral rules are indeed observed, but they are severed from the inward disposition, the heart, by being represented as the commandments of an external lawgiver. . . . What is done is done not because it is good and right, but because it is commanded by God. The inherent quality of the deed is indifferent; whatever God commands is right.”[18] The severing is dependent on the belief in God’s existence as an external object or being. To be sure, Feuerbach seems to have missed Paul’s dictum, “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”[19] Yet a willing heart may embolden the moral certainty that is all too permissive of the sort of blind-spot that can seek in an atrocity or two. Even if God is taken as idealized, unlimited human feeling as Feuerbach urges, such a conception of God can be subject to the sort of religious rationalizations that can twist moral systems into accommodating atrocities under religious auspices.

What if such rationalizations pertain, moreover, to the nature of faith itself? What if atrocities are fallout stemming from faith itself, as a phenomenon in its own right? In his visit to Cairo, Egypt at the end of April, 2017, the Roman Catholic Pope Francis said, “Peace alone is holy and no act of violence can be perpetrated in the name of religion or in the name of God. Together, let us affirm the incompatibility of violence and faith, belief and hatred.”[20] Beyond treating belief and faith as synonymous, Pope Francis assumes that hatred and violence are extrinsic to the nature of faith. This is the common view.

Yet Feuerbach sees a more intricate structure in the nature of faith itself. Within it “lies a malignant principle.”[21] Within the faithful, say a congregation, the partisan nature of faith is obscured by the unity of the faithful. The prejudiced nature of faith—its “(d)ogmatic, exclusive, scrupulous particularly”—does not play out among the faithful, except as it cuts off part of itself as heretics.[22]

Hence in Christianity, it is Christian faith that “is the ultimate ground” of the persecution of heretics.[23] “Faith recognizes man only on condition that he recognizes God.”[24] To the person who does not believe in the divine personality, religious hatred, it should be admitted, comes naturally, eclipsing even “universalistic” Christian neighbor-love. Far from being universally applicable, love gives way only within the confines of the faithful. “He is not for Christ is against him; that which is not christian is antichristian.”[25] It would be to dishonor God to love those who dishonor God. “Hence faith has fellowship with believers only; unbelievers it rejects. It is well-disposed towards believers, but ill-disposed towards unbelievers.”[26] Hence Luther declares, “What I cannot love with God, I must hate; if they only preach something which is against God, all love and friendship is destroyed;—thereupon I hate thee, and do thee no good. For faith must be uppermost, and where the word of God is attacked, hate takes the place of love.”[27] Yet does not hate actually attack a deity which Augustine points out is love itself? Even so, Luther insists, “Rather than God’s word should fall and heresy stand, faith would wish all creatures to be destroyed; for through heresy men lose God himself.”[28] Is it not rather through hatred though? That even a faith of love admits so readily of partiality and thus of hatred suggests that malevolence enjoys a place at the table of faith, eclipsing morality at times altogether. Therefore, a religious faith not only allows for atrocities; faith itself may provoke religionists to partake, even with a clean conscience.



1. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957): 202.
2. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957): 203.
3. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957): 208.
4. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957): 208.
5. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957): 208.
6. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957): 226.
7. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957): 207.
8. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957): 207.
9. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957): 202.
10. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957): 206.
11. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957): 204.
12. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957): 205.
13. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957): 207.
14. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957): 206.
15. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957): 206.
16. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957): 206.
17. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957): 207.
18. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957): 209.
19. 2 Cor. 9:7.
20. Francis X. Rocca, “In Egypt, Pope Decries Religious Violence,” The Wall Street Journal, April 29-30, 2017.
21. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957), 252
22. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957), 251.
23. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957): 321.
24. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957): 321.
25. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957): 251.
26. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957): 252.
27. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957): 325.
28. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957): 325.