Friday, March 9, 2012

Ludwig Feuerbach 11: culture vs. religion

Christianity came into the world long after the invention of bread, wine, and other elements of civilization, at a time when it was too late to deify their inventors, when these inventions had long since lost their religious significance. Christianity introduced another element of civilization: morality. Christianity wished to provide a cure not for physical or political evils, but for moral evils, for sin. Let us go back to our example of wine in order to clarify the difference between Christianity and paganism, that is, common popular paganism. How, said the Christians to the heathen, can you deify wine? What sort of benefit is it? Consumed immoderately, it brings death and ruin. It is a benefit only when consumed in moderation, with wisdom, that is, when drunk in a moral way; thus the utility or harmfulness of a thing depends not on the thing itself, but on the moral use that is made of it. In this the Christians were right. But Christianity made morality into a religion, it made the moral law into a divine commandment; it transformed a matter of autonomous human activity into a matter of faith.

In Christianity faith is the principle, the foundation of the moral law: "From faith come good works." Christianity has no wine god, no goddess of bread or grain, no Ceres, no Poseidon, god of the sea and of navigation; it knows no god of the smithy, no Vulcan; yet it has a general God, or rather, a moral God, a God of the art of becoming moral and attaining beatitude. And with this God the Christians to this day oppose all radical, all thoroughgoing civilization, for a Christian can conceive of no morality, no ethical human life, without God; he therefore derives morality from God, just as the pagan poet derived the laws and types of poetry from the gods and goddesses of poetry, just as the pagan smith derived the tricks of his trade from the god Vulcan. But just as today smiths and metalworkers in general know their trade without having any particular god as their patron, so men will some day master the art of leading moral and happy lives without a God. Indeed, they will be truly moral and happy only when they no longer have a God, when they no longer need religion; for as long as an art is still imperfect, as long as it is in its swaddling clothes, it requires the protection of religion. For through religion man compensates for the deficiencies in his culture; and it is only from lack of culture that, like the Egyptian priest who makes sacraments of his rudimentary medicines, he makes sacraments of his moral remedies, makes sacred dogmas of his rudimentary ideas, and makes divine commandments and revelations of his own thoughts and emotions.

In short, religion and culture are incompatible, although culture, insofar as religion is the first and oldest form of it, can be termed the true and perfect religion, so that only a truly cultivated man is truly religious. This statement, however, is an abuse of words, for superstitious and inhuman notions are always bound up with the word “religious”; by its very nature religion comprises anticultural elements; for it strives to perpetuate ideas, customs, inventions that man made in his childhood, and to impose them as the laws of his adult age. Where man needs a God to tell him how to behave—as He commanded the Israelites to relieve themselves in a place apart—man is at the religious stage, but also at a profoundly uncivilized stage. Where man behaves properly of his own accord, because his own nature, his own reason and inclination tell him to, the need for religion ceases and culture takes its place. And just as it now seems ridiculous and incredible that the most natural rule of decency should once have been a religious commandment, so one day, when man has progressed beyond our present pseudo culture, beyond the age of religious barbarism, he will find it hard to believe that, in order to practice the laws of morality and brotherly love, he once had to regard them as the commandments of a God who rewarded observance and punished nonobservance. 

— Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion, translated by Ralph Manheim (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 23rd Lecture, pp. 212-213

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