Thus, because religion rules over life and death, heaven and hell, because it transforms laws into the commandments of an all-powerful being—the essence of all human wishes and fears—religion gains control of, or is favored by, human egoism and so exerts a terrible power over man, especially uncivilized man, a power beside which the power of ethics, especially of abstract, philosophical ethics, pales to nothingness, and which for this reason seems indispensable.
But no one can fail to see that religion exerts this power through the imagination alone, that its power resides solely in the imagination; for if the power of religion were anything more than imaginary, if religion were really the positive foundation and support of justice and ethics, the promises and punishments of religion would have sufficed for the founding and preservation of states, men would never have devised all the many exquisitely cruel punishments they employ for the prevention of crime. Or if you will, we acknowledge that religion is the foundation of states, but with this limitation: only in the imagination, in belief, in opinion, for in reality states, even Christian states, are built not on the power of religion, though they have used it too (i. e., credulity, man’s weak point) as a means to their ends, but on the power of bayonets and other instruments of torture. In reality men act out of entirely different motives than their religious imagination leads them to suppose. In his chronicle of Louis XI, the pious Philippe de Commines writes: “All evils or transgressions come from lack of faith; if men firmly believed what God and the Church tell us about the eternal and terrible torments of hell, they could not do what they do.”
But whence comes this weakness of faith? From the fact that the power of belief is nothing other than the power of imagination, and that reality is an infinitely greater power, directly opposed to the imagination. Like the imagination, faith is hyperbolic; it moves only in extremes, in exaggerations; it knows only of heaven and hell, angels and devils; it tries to make more of man than he should be, and consequently makes less of him than he could be; it tries to make him into an angel and consequently, given the opportunity, makes him into a true devil. Faced with the resistance of prosaic reality, the hyperbolic fantasies of faith shift into their direct opposite! Human life would be in a bad way if law and ethics had no other basis than religious faith, which so easily turns into its opposite, because, as even the greatest heroes of faith have confessed, it flies in the face of sensory evidence, natural feeling, and man’s innate tendency to disbelief. How, indeed, can anything built on constraint, on the forcible repression of a sound inclination, anything exposed at every moment to the mind’s doubts and the contradictions of experience, provide a firm and secure foundation? To believe that the state—I mean of course the state as such, not our artificial, supranaturalistic political edifices—cannot exist without religious faith is to believe that our natural legs are not sufficient for man to stand or walk on, that he can only stand and walk on stilts. And these natural legs, the support of ethics and law, are love of life, self-interest, egoism.
Accordingly, nothing is more groundless than the fear that the distinction between right and wrong, good and evil, must vanish with the gods. The distinction exists and will continue to exist as long as there is a difference between me and thee, for this is the source of ethics and law. My egoism may permit me to steal, but my fellow man’s egoism will sternly forbid me; left to myself I may know nothing of unselfishness, but the selfishness of others will teach me the virtue of unselfishness. My masculine egoism may be inclined to polygamy, but feminine egoism will oppose my inclination and champion monogamy: I may be unaware of the beam in my own eye, but the merest mote in it will be a thorn in the critical eye of others. In short, though it may be of no concern to me whether I am good or bad, it will always be a matter of concern to the egoism of others.
Who has always been the ruler of states? God? Good heavens, no! The gods rule only in the heavens of the imagination, not on the profane ground of reality. Who then? Egoism and egoism alone, though not simple egoism, but the dualistic egoism of those who have devised heaven for themselves and hell for others, materialism for themselves and idealism for others, freedom for themselves but servitude for others, enjoyment for themselves but resignation for others—the egoism of those who as rulers punish their subjects for the crimes they themselves have committed, who as fathers visit their own crimes on their children, who as husbands punish their wives for their own weaknesses, who in general forgive themselves all offenses and assert their egos in all directions, but expect others to have no egos, to live on air, to be as perfect and immaterial as angels. Not the limited egoism to which the term is ordinarily confined but which is only one variety, though the most common; but the egoism which comprises as many varieties as there are aspects of human nature, for there is not only a singular or individual egoism, but also a social egoism, a family egoism, a corporate egoism, a community egoism, a patriotic egoism. True, egoism is the source of evil, but it is also the source of good, for what else but egoism gave rise to agriculture, commerce, the arts and the sciences? True, it is the source of all vices, but also the source of all virtues, for what gave rise to the virtue of honesty? Egoism, through the prohibition of theft! What molded the virtue of chastity? The egoism of those who did not wish to share their beloved with others, through the prohibition of adultery. What produced the virtue of truthfulness? The egoism of those who do not wish to be deceived and cheated, through the prohibition of lying.
Egoism was the first lawgiver and promoter of the virtues, though only out of hostility to vice, only out of egoism, only because what opposes my egoism strikes me as a vice—just as conversely, what to me is a blow against my egoism is to others an affirmation of theirs, and what to me is a virtue is to them a benefit. Moreover, vices are just as necessary, if not more so, for the preservation of states, at least of our despicable, unnatural and inhuman states, as are virtues. To cite an example that is close to me because I am writing on Bavarian soil, though not in a Bavarian spirit (or in a Prussian or Austrian spirit either, for that matter): if Christianity in our country were anything more than a clerical phrase, if the spirit of Christian asceticism and subjugation of the senses should take hold of the Bavarian people, leading them to abstain from beer drinking, or only from immoderate beer drinking, what would become of our Bavarian state? And despite its “substantial faith,” the Russian state finds its chief source of revenue in poison—in vodka. Without beer, then, there would be no Bavaria, and without distilled liquor no Russia or even Bo‑Russia.*
* The Latin form of “Prussia.”—TR.
— Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion, translated by Ralph Manheim (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), Additions and Notes, pp. 302-304.