Feuerbach: a Theologian Who Wasn't

Dan Graves, MSL

Feuerbach: a Theologian Who Wasn't

The story of Christianity is also the story of attacks on Christianity. On this day July 28, 1804 Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach was born. His father was a well-known jurist who exerted tremendous influence in the field of German law. He was also a petty, moralizing tyrant at home who betrayed Feuerbach's mother for another man's wife. It has sometimes been remarked that the ranks of atheists are most often joined by men who hate their fathers. Feuerbach, who had much reason to dislike his father, attacked Christianity mercilessly. Like his follower Marx, he adopted materialist presuppositions and therefore considered his critique of the faith scientific.

As a youth Feuerbach became deeply interested in religion and pored over Hebrew. He studied theology at Heidelberg and then won permission to transfer to Berlin. Because of his involvement in a student club he came under the suspicion of the police and was held up from becoming a professor. He was able to show he was involved in no secret organization. On this day July 28, 1824, his 20th birthday, he was admitted to the theology faculty. He had, however, already become a follower of Hegel. He would never teach theology.

His first move was to transfer to the philosophy department. Financial difficulties led him to relocate to Erlanger where he lectured on philosophy for many years as a private lecturer. His first lecture attacked Christianity. By 1830 he had issued anonymously a book titled Thoughts on Death and Immortality. He wrote mockingly that religion was "merely a kind of insurance company." His authorship became known and it barred him from advancement. Feuerbach's father was appalled. Believe such things privately, but do not ruin your career by openly flaunting public opinion, he advised.

Feuerbach's response was to issue his Essence of Christianity. In this and his other works he declared religion a fantasy--an attempt at wish-fulfillment. "The more empty life is, the more concrete is God...Only the poor man has a rich God." He argued that man wants to be a god with godlike powers; because he cannot have these powers, he dreams up a god who does. Practical men, however, turn to science and technology which can satisfy real needs.

What would Feuerbach have thought of the life of his fellow-German George Müller, who proved the practicality of faith, scientifically recording every prayer and its answer? Feuerbach saw religion emerging from the feeling of dependence. Müller learned to come to God in Christ's name for every need.

Feuerbach's idea prospered for a decade. The Essence of Christianity went through eleven printings. After the failed revolution of 1848 it faded into virtual oblivion, though not without influencing Wagner and Nietzsche. George Eliot translated his work into English. Ernest Renan, who himself tried to "demythologize" the life of Christ, described Feuerbach as antichrist.

Bibliography:

  1. Kamenka, Eugene. The Philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach. New York: Praeger, 1970.
  2. "Feuerbach, Ludwig Andreas." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
  3. Vitz, Paul C. Faith of the Fatherless; the psychology of atheism. Dallas: Spence Publishing, 1999.
  4. Various encyclopedia articles.

Last updated April, 2007.

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