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A (Philosophical) Conversation on Religion

Updated on January 14, 2010

The following is an imagined conversation between two famous religious scholars: Ludwig Feuerbach and Friedrich Schleiermacher.  In quotes are actual words they wrote.  They are discussing the question: What is religion's role in our lives?

Schleiermacher: By muddling the concept of religion, people give themselves the moral wiggle room to perform bad acts in the name of their religion, when in fact religion should not inform action choices at all. The three aspects of reality are governed by metaphysics, morality, and religion.

These things are separate, but they are also dependent. Problems arise when people assign too much meaning to religion by saying that it can better explain the aspects of the world that science explains or that it can dictate how we should behave. These two tasks are not within the domain of religion, which is why thinking that religion can extend beyond its true reach can be so dangerous.

Feuerbach: If religion is neither metaphysics nor morality, then it sounds like you are excluding it from the picture altogether. Who is to say that life must involve anything more than those two components? You are not on the side of religion at all; if we accept your premise, then where is there room for religion in the daily life of individuals?

Schleiermacher: We need religion because it is the basis for feeling. “We should do everything with religion, nothing because of religion” (emphasis added). The Enlightenment tried to draw hard lines of reason, definition, and logic, but in doing so it lost the essence of human life.

Morality can and should be determined by logic and increasing understanding. Metaphysics is the best and only way to explain the natural universe. But these two things alone are ignoring religion, which underlies everything. Religion is passive because it is always happening within all of us, but its passivity does not make it any less important.

We are entirely dependent upon religion because it is the feeling that moves us, and this is not a bad thing.

Feuerbach: I agree that religion can be a necessary part of our lives, but you are neglecting to mention that religious beliefs are not true. We think that God made us in his image, but really we made him in our image; we project our own human essence onto God and then perceive this to be true and therefore real. “The qualities of God are nothing else than the essential qualities of man."

Will and Reason are (and should be) separate from Feeling, as you seem to be saying, but Feeling need not be informed by religion. Instead, religion often confuses people into blindly following when they should be actively thinking, focusing on our relationship with God instead of bettering our relationships with one another.

Schleiermacher: But now you are talking about institutionalized religion, which is not the internal, daily religion that is necessary in our lives. In institutionalized forms, religion is at its most dangerous. It tries to force religion from being passive to becoming active because we want to be able to make our intuition tangible. In an attempt to find community through affinity with others who hold the same beliefs, religious zealots begin to focus on the wrong types of questions such as, “How are we better than other ‘religions’?”

Religious communities need to remain dynamic, constantly beginning anew and reforming themselves, not sitting stagnant or centering around one ancient dogma. This is Protestantism in the purest sense of the word, and this constant self-revision is necessary if we want to have religion as an institution in society.

Feuerbach: Why use religion at all, then? If it carries within it the potential to be so harmful, then why not encourage people to form secular communities to fulfill that need of dependency? That way we could avoid these “dangers” of institutionalized religion altogether.

Religion, after all, is simply man’s way of taking power away from himself by ascribing it to God. “To enrich God, man must become poor; that God may be all, man must be nothing… Man has his being in God; why then should he have it in himself?” Well, by reclaiming that power we have ascribed to God, we could rid the world of the many disputes that religion has caused. If we could all acknowledge this, then man would be able to recognize the infinite potential within himself and would take control of his own actions.

Schleiermacher:  You are looking at religion as too narrow; it does not need to be about God at all.  We can have religious feeling and intuition of the infinite without any need for God as an intermediary.  “To accept everything individual as a part of the whole and everything limited as a representation of the infinite is religion."  This intuition of the universe is innate; everyone has it, and in many people it exhibits itself as organized religion, but others – even atheists – still have this intuition.  This is what makes us human.

Feuerbach:  What makes us human is our ability to recognize ourselves as a species, to see our individuality as a part of the whole of humanity.  Animals barely have self-recognition, but man can both recognize himself in a mirror and understand that he is part of the human race, which has infinite potential. 

You are close with your definition, but you seem to be misunderstanding the infinite nature of man.  Our infinite nature lies within our ability to believe in the infinite; by defining God as infinite, we are only proving that we ourselves have the potential of infinity within us.

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Schleiermacher:  Infinity is a negative concept.  You cannot define it except to say that it is anything that is not finite.

Feuerbach:  And fear of the finite comes from our fear of existence, our fear that we are mortal.  So we project this idea of God, who is immortal, and this gives us both comfort and protection from our mortality.  “Dread of limitation is dread of existence," so out of this dread stems our hope that an infinite being such as God could exist.  And once we believe in Him as truth, He is made real in our minds. 

But all the while, we have forgotten the fact that God is nothing more than ourselves, reflected back at us.  Our bodies may be mortal, but by partaking in the human community, we each participate in the infinite process of humanity.  Religion prevents us from realizing our true potential as human beings.


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    • Artin2010 profile image

      Artin2010 8 years ago from Northwestern Florida, Gulfcoast

      This a very interesting hub HTG. I commend you for sharing. I am a student of the KJV 1611 authorized Bible and I look at the inspirational words of this book as chronological and historical told events of the people from early BC when documenting and recording was being discovered as a way to preserve events of those people in that part of the world at that time. Anything mankind can not understand or explain can cause fear. I also believe that religion in it's many forms can be a good thing for those who actively participate.Thank you for sharing this. It makes me want to go read Aristotle, Plato and more Socrates whom all believed in higher powers beyond mans comprehension. So many years and so many discussions of all things and we are still at it today. I guess that is what keeps the world going on, outside of the fact that our Universe/Galaxy has existed for a long long time, so we think. Thus the controversy begins and ends somewhere in space and time.

    • helenathegreat profile image

      helenathegreat 8 years ago from Manhattan

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment, stevenschenk. I think it's precisely that problem that Schleiermacher insists we do with organized religion: continually revise it and revisit the purpose for its creation. This is the only way to stay on task and avoid asking the wrong questions.

      I disagree with you, though, that organized religion was created only to keep the leaders in power. Originally, every religion became "organized" because people were trying to maintain or perpetuate a feeling they got from their leader/teachings/etc. Just because the organizations turned bad doesn't mean that they were created to be that way.

    • stevenschenck profile image

      stevenschenck 8 years ago from Sacramento California

      After years to theological study and research the moment of clarity came when the Pope was talking about poverty and helping the poor, while wearing eight rings that each would have paid for a ten thousand meals for the poor.

      God has nothing to do with organized religion. The worship of God is only to increase the money and power for those running the religion. The rules and reward of heaven are the sales pitch. Worst, is the concept of fear that is the driving force of the followers. The fear of being responsible to worship God without someone telling them how to do it.

      When men blame God for their actions they can do the most immoral and corrupt acts with great feelings of being led by a higher power, it is sick, perverted and disgusting, yet right now we fight two wars that many leaders of our military believe is an answer to a call from God.

      Dick and George were even so cowardly as to end two major speeches on the wars they started evoking God. They had lied, now we know they lied and they did not want to be questioned, so they pulled the God card out, we are going to kill thousands of people and make billions in profits for defense contractors, but it is OK because they are Muslim and as such hate our God, While we are Christians and we love God enough to kill for him.

      Thanks for the great post, it sure makes one think.