Feuerbach and Comte: Religion and Human Nature

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In his classic work A Secular Age, Charles Taylor argued that the shift away from religious and toward a secular worldview turns not sheerly on scientific, but more fundamentally upon ethical, considerations.  If, as materialism holds, the world is ultimately impersonal, then the demands of a personal God to evade activities that seem pleasant, natural, or innocent, struck some thinkers as an imposition of a primitive and even immoral mindset upon a modern world. Taylor writes that the “moral outlook of modernity . . . calls on us to rise to a universal standpoint” of impartiality. The goal is to “rise above and beyond our particular, narrow, biased view on things, to a view from everywhere, or for every man . . . .”[1]

In fact, as theologian Claude Welch has discerned, morality served as the main component that even the severest critics of revealed religion in the Enlightenment wished to retain for the modern age. For Enlightenment skeptics like Semler and Tindal, the core of religion, and the one element they believed could still be supported by a study of nature, was the moral law. Reductively, therefore, “. . . the genuine elements in the Bible are the moral truths taught by Christ,” were on this view reconfirmed by natural reason. In the “radical strain of deism” there was a suspicion that “the church . . . was filled with superstition, pious fraud, and invention, the constructs of priestcraft.” This appeal to moral indignity had by the mid-19th century long formed a component of the intellectual critique aimed at churchmen blithely founding morality upon revealed religion.[2]

By the 1840s, German atheist Ludwig Feuerbach was insisting: “Wherever morality is based on theology, wherever the right is made dependent on divine authority, the most immoral, unjust, infamous things can be justified and established.”[3] Indignant at the continuing influence of traditional religion, both Ludwig Feuerbach and Auguste Comte sought its demise. For Feuerbach this meant unmasking belief in God as nothing more than human self-worship and an illusion. For Comte this meant a reconstruction of religion as a religion of humanity. Yet neither approach could guarantee any dignity for the humanity to remain when they were done.

Feuerbach and Human Self-Worship

Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) was born in Bavaria, and studied theology at Heidelberg and Berlin. Influenced toward philosophy by his mentor G. F. W. Hegel, he received a doctorate at Erlangen in 1828 and taught briefly. His published criticisms of Christianity in the early 1830s got him dismissed from the faculty by 1836. With independence due to family wealth and income from his writings, Feuerbach spent many years writing about religion and philosophy. In 1848 and 1849, during the revolutionary foment convulsing Europe, he lectured independently at Heidelberg. His critiques of Hegelianism allied him with Marx and Engels, and he spent many years attacking religion as an illusion or a dream appropriate only to a bygone era. In the 1850s he devoted himself to the study of natural science, and published Theogonie in 1857. After his wife’s business interests failed in the 1860s, and after several strokes, Feuerbach died in relative poverty in 1867.[4]

Few authors exemplify the shift from theocentric to anthropocentric theological anthropology more clearly than Ludwig Feuerbach. The key terms of natural theology, such as providence and creation, underwent a radical shift in his 1841 work in German, The Essence of Christianity, whose 2nd edition was translated into English in 1855. Reflecting the influence of Hegel and the philosophy of Idealism regnant in Germany at this stage, Feuerbach wrote: “Providence is the conviction of man of the infinite value of his existence, a conviction in which he renounces faith in the reality of external things; it is the idealism of religion.” The subjective turn is central to a radical reframing of the human as central to theology itself, but for Feuerbach this is problematic. “Faith in Providence is faith in one’s own worth, the faith of man in himself,” Feuerbach insisted. In a sarcastic mode, he expressed the internal monologue that allegedly occurs: “God concerns himself about me; he has in view my happiness, my salvation, he wills that I shall be blest; but that is my will also: thus, my interest is God’s interest, my own will is God’s will, my own aim is God’s aim,–God’s love for me nothing else than my self-love deified.”[5]

On creation, Feuerbach averred that: “The point in question in the Creation is not the truth and reality of the world, but the truth and reality of personality, of subjectivity in distinction from the world.” Idealism held that the fundamental reality is within the mind, in the form of ideas, and that the external world is at best secondary in importance, if not outright ontologically nonexistent. The inner, psychological dimension had already been valorized in the previous generation by Friederich Schleiermacher. While Schleiermacher thought the subjective turn would redound to the benefit of theology and pious churchmanship, for Feuerbach it was the last stage prior to an honest and bracing abandonment of belief in any deity extant outside the human mind.

The blending of the human and divine assumed center stage in Feuerbach’s view. He identified the status of the divine in the modern world, to wit: “The point in question is the personality of God; but the personality of God is the personality of man freed from all the conditions and limitations of Nature.” The created order, he averred, “like the idea of a personal God in general, is not a scientific, but a personal matter; not an object of free intelligence, but of the feelings. . . .”[6] Using Hegelian dialectic as a point of departure, Feuerbach sought a synthesis between personalism and pantheism, yielding a result that could transcend both. His criticism was caustic, as when he called upon theologians to “exchange your mystical, perverted anthropology, which you call theology, for real anthropology . . . .” He urged them to “admit that your personal God is nothing else than your own personal nature, that while you believe in and construct your supra-and-extra-natural God, you believe in and construct nothing else than the supra-and-extranaturalism of your own self.”[7] William James would later take this admission in the direction of the will to believe; Freud in the direction of religion as pure illusion, to be displaced by a quasi-divinized internal superego, or an idealized father figure.

Feuerbach sought to turn the classical arguments for the existence of God against themselves. He argued that “His existence being proved, God is no longer a merely relative, but a noumenal being . . . a being external to us, –in a word, not merely a belief, a feeling, a thought, but also a real existence apart from belief, feeling, and thought.” This distancing, this shift away from the subjective toward transcendence, held a danger. He warned: “But such an existence is no other than a sensational existence; i. e., an existence conceived according to the forms of our senses.” The power of the phrase “no other than” indicated the ultimate reductive materialism of Feuerbach’s critique. “He does not exist for me, if I do not exist for him; if I do not believe in a God, there is no God for me,” was his conclusion.[8] As Alister McGrath has summarized Feuerbach’s take, “God is a human wish fulfilled and sustained by an illusion. Christianity is a fantasy world inhabited by people who have failed to realize that when they think they are talking about God, they are simply disclosing their innermost hopes and fears.”[9]

These statements illustrate Feuerbach’s larger lifelong project: reducing religion and theology to anthropology, “the study of concrete embodied human consciousness and its cultural products.”[10] With hindsight we might note he aided in constructing an ideological bridge from the more theologically-oriented G. F. W. Hegel to the anti-religious Karl Marx in the development of the idea of religion as essentially, and at best, a useful yet oppressive illusion. Objectivity simply vanished from theology, replaced by a divinized humanity, with the option simply to cease belief in the reality of the divine. Feuerbach’s thought was a hard sell in a Europe that still retained strongly vested institutional religions, and saw episodic revivals of religious fervor. Yet another figure sought to undermine religion by replacing it with a better religion, a religion reshaped in the human image. His project was born in France, the quintessential home of revolutionary ideas.

Auguste Comte and the Religion of Humanity

Born in Montpellier, France at the end of the 18th century, Auguste Comte (1798-1857) announced to his parents at age 14 that he had abandoned belief in God. In a Catholic Royalist family this was no small admission. He studied advanced sciences at The École Polytechnique from 1814-1816 encountering the thought of atheist scientist Laplace, and was fascinated by the Analytical Mechanics of Lagrange. After a political shakeup at the school and his resultant expulsion, Comte began to study political philosophers such as Adam Smith and David Hume, as well as the writings of Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794) whose progressive account of history would later influence Comte’s own views of sociological change over time.

Comte saw the work of the French Revolution as inadequate and incomplete. He applauded its attack on Catholicism, but faulted it for failing to create a positive alternative to the old religious order. A new religion, grounded in a scientific priesthood, was the dream of Comte’s system of social reorganization. Eerily similar to French Revolutionary Maximillien Robespierre’s attempt to create a new secular religion with its own sacerdotal forms and secular saints, Comte too envisioned a new, albeit kinder and gentler, anthropocentric faith-system. According to one account, Comte “appointed himself the high priest of a new religion of humanity,” with its own calendar of saints and a new catechism.[11]

A look at Comte’s Catechism of Positive Religion of 1858 reveals the specific contours of Comte’s vision. Comte sought out a moral order every bit as reliable as the natural order with its laws such as the law of gravity. Yet in tension with this desire for certitude, he also espoused its superiority over theology precisely because of its gradual modifications and improvements, over against the “immutability” that had by then become, in his view, the downfall of theology.[12]

Certain core principles recur often in Comte’s catechism: the inevitability of progress, the lawlike constraints on human freedom imposed by the material world, and the inherent sociality of human endeavor. Not entirely dissimilar to the Catholicism he had rejected, Comte espoused a hierarchical arrangement for society. His dialogue in fact takes the form of “the priest” addressing a woman he calls “my daughter.” The choice of a female interlocutor befitted his new systematic rearrangement of societal structure. At the top of the order he placed “the sex in which affection prevails” i.e. womanhood. Then came the “contemplative class, that is, the priesthood,” otherwise known as “the theoretical class” responsible for “systematic education.” Finally, at the bottom of the social hierarchy, Comte arranged “the active class.” This “decrease in dignity” for the active or proletariat class was in his view compensated by an “increase in independence” and by their serving as the “necessary basis of the whole economy of the Great Being.”[13] Doubtless they were grateful even to have a place in such a grand scheme.

Comte further elaborated this new hierarchy as “the moral providence exercised by women,” followed by “the intellectual providence vested in the priesthood,” by which he intended academicians or scientists, along with “the material providence of the patriciate.” Last of all, the entire system required for its fulfilment “the general providence of the proletariat.” In a utopian vein, Comte soothingly assured the reader: “With this complement we perfect the constitution of the admirable system of human providence.” Progressivism will prevail, and “thus all the powers of man, each according to its nature, are made to conduce to the preservation and improvement of Humanity.”[14]

It is not hard to formulate a critique of Comte’s project, which frankly serves even for many ardent Comte supporters as a bit of an embarrassment in their literature. First, the apparent feminization of Comte’s system still maintained social stereotypes about the prevalence of affective or emotional elements in what Comte regarded as the feminine ideal. Thus the full humanization of the female remained something of a mirage or false promise. Secondly, Comte completely humanized the classic theological doctrine of providence, indicating his fulsome optimism in the powers of modern science. Thirdly, his capitalization of the term “Humanity” reified it into a metaphysical condition akin to a divine status. Fourthly, while his affirmational statements about the essential role of the proletariat bespoke an aura of progressiveness, the fact remains that this active group remained at the bottom of the hierarchy in Comte’s vision of a Positivist society. In fact, the success of the whole system was contingent on their remaining there in subordination, and happily upholding the superstructure by their arduous efforts. The revolutions of the era, as well as the rising influence of Marx and Engels, overtly hostile toward religion, should have given some pause to his optimism.

Comte sought to displace the Christian theological distinction between nature and grace, inherited from the Apostle Paul, and codified in medieval theology. In its place he would set forth a modification of Franz Josef Gall’s localization of higher functions within the physical human brain via phrenology. Noting that Gall had fallen into several errors, Comte nonetheless believed that Gall had “succeeded in giving an adequate idea of the general method of analyzing our compound existence,” especially our “benevolent inclinations.” The “imaginary conflict between nature and grace” could now be replaced by “the real opposition between the posterior part of the brain,” i.e., the instinctual part, and “its anterior region, the seat of both our sympathetic impulses and our intellectual faculties.” This was no minor matter to Comte, as evidenced by his rhetoric: “Such is the indestructible basis on which, as the founder of Positive religion,” he proclaimed, “I proceeded to construct my systematic theory of the brain and the soul.”[15] Yet by the end of the 19th century, Gall’s phrenology was dead as a credible science, and social schemes built on his ideas suffered damage as a result.


Comte, especially in his later life, seemed to be susceptible of flights of fancy. He was overly optimistic about the demise of organized religion, or the possibility of making an overt religion of his positivistic account of science. For Feuerbach, religion was ultimately an illusion. For Comte religion’s previous forms were deeply flawed, but the concept of a new religion, the religion of humanity, grounded in the objectivity of science, was too attractive to cast aside. The lingering question remains, however. Without a transcendent God and without objective truth-claims about that God, what remains to ennoble the human? Apart from the image of God, wherein does human dignity reside? Must humanity embrace a collective illusion, or create a solipsistic religion that worships itself? The next step (outside the scope of this paper) was the announcement of God’s death, and the rise in his place of the Nietszchean Ubermensch, and all the horrors unleashed on Europe in the name of the will to power.  Fragmented western culture is littered with the shattered remains of societies who embraced the stripping away of human dignity, a dignity only sustainable by its grounding in the tradition of the imago dei.



[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 363.

[2] Claude Welch, Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century: Volume 1, 1799-1870 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972), 37, 39.

[3] Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, 2nd ed., trans. George Eliot (New York, C. Blanchard, 1855, German ed., 1841), 344.

[4] Hayden V. White, “Feuerbach, Ludwig Andreas,” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 3:190-2.

[5] Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, 143-4.

[6] Ibid., 145-6.

[7] Ibid., 147.

[8] Ibid., 257-8, 262. Haunting are the words that conclude this chapter: “Belief in God is wrecked, is stranded on the belief in the world, in natural effects as the only true ones.”

[9] Alister E. McGrath, Intellectuals Don’t Need God & Other Modern Myths: Building Bridges to Faith Through Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 95.

[10] Jere Paul Surber, “Feuerbach, Ludwig Andreas,” in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed., ed. Robert Audi, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 307.

[11] Bruce Mazlish, “Comte, Auguste,” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 1:176.

[12] Auguste Comte, The Catechism of Positive Religion, trans. Richard Congreve (London: John Chapman, 1858), 268-9.

[13] Ibid., 233.

[14] Ibid., 237, 239.

[15] Ibid., 253.

Dennis Durst

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Dennis L. Durst is an Associate Professor of Theology at Kentucky Christian University. He is author of Eugenics and Protestant Social Reform (Pickwick/Wipf & Stock, 2017).