The figure of Ludwig Feuerbach dominates the history of atheism. His may not be the most philosophical argument against the existence of a God, but its compelling force has proven to be difficult to overcome. One of the reasons for this seems to be its initial plausibility to a vaguely curious listener. It echoes Dawkins’ argument for the origins of religion in The God Delusion, that it is an evolutionary byproduct of the obedience and reverence offered by children to parents and to elders and leaders. Natural selection, so the argument goes, favors this obedience since in general the maxims passed on from generation to generation serve to transfer old wisdom concerning safety and new insights about living to subsequent generations.
Dawkins uses the example of a moth to drive home his point. A moth navigates its way by means of the parallel beams of the moon’s light in order to fly a straight line. It is wired to use these beams as a navigational guide. Along with the creation of artificial light, however, the moth, continuing to use its nature given navigational device, now ends up flying straight into an artificial light. Without going into too many details of how this happens, the moth, whose eyesight formerly worked perfectly fine for what it was needed, now is the cause of its own suicide. The initial question was: Why does a moth commit suicide? Now however scientists have discovered that the apparent ‘suicide’ of moths is simply the byproduct of a perfectly adequate eyesight and navigational system that has not adapted to the advent of artificial light. Similarly, the argument goes, the built in tendency to listen to authority figures, which usually proves advantageous has, in the case of religion, given rise to the ridiculous notion of a God.
What Dawkins fails to explain in this case, however, is the why and the how of this. What is the analogue in this example to the artificial light? Is it God? If so, who created this light, and to what purpose? And who is the original “moon” in the analogy? And who created a light to replace the moon in the analogy? The moths? Of course not. Us? In which case, what Heidegger and Marion have been saying is exactly right: the god most people claim to worship is not God at all, but simply a projection. But that does not mean there is no God. It just means what many people call god is not God at all. We need to renew our search for the moon. Nietzsche is right about this. But in so doing, we should also destroy the lamp hanging from the ceiling. The best image I can think of for this is the scene in The Silver Chair where the green witch is trying to convince Eustace and Jill that Aslan is just a larger projection of a cat, and the sun of a lamp. Puddleglum finally stamps out the fire that is burning the incense clouding their minds. He knows that there is a lion, even though what the witch says makes a certain kind of sense. Aren’t we originally wired toward God, in Dawkins’ analogy, and then have been detoured by false projections? That is what seems right to me.
Yet that is not the case in Feuerbach’s pervasive thesis. As a Left Hegelian, he turned the Hegelian subject-predicate relation on its head. Feuerbach claimed that Hegelian idealism reversed the true relationship of the subject and the predicate. We have looked at ourselves as human beings and have seen what we like about ourselves and want to honor and celebrate, and we have projected these things outside of ourselves. For Feuerbach it is the things I admire that I project onto God. The atheist understands that all that God is is a human projection, the subject and predicate here have simply been reversed. Love is the subject and God is the predicate, not vice-versa. Marx used this language to talk about Hegel, and by doing so rejected his notion of Spirit. For Hegel the Idea is the subject, the Agent, and the Institution is the result of this agency. Marx simply asks why, and then reverses the subject-predicate relation that Hegel had set up.
The answer to the question: Why have a God, why not just switch back the subject-predicate relation and make human beings the end of life, continues to beg the question of the origins of this God. Projection is a natural human feature, and it can be found at some level in all activity of the human psyche. However, to move from the fact of projection to the claim that projection itself is the reason for the creation of a God seems dubious. We have seen its problems as an evolutionary explanation, and it remains a problem for Feuerbach as well. He is able accurately to point to the fact that for man, his desires remain infinitely unfulfilled. This does not seem to be the case for animals. Man seems to be an anomaly when it comes to his ability to live in his desires for the future, and also to experience depression based on futural non-existent projected states of affairs. It is precisely this “intentional infinity” that should be a problem for Feuerbach. Why are man’s desires infinite, when he himself is finite? What is the origin of this fact of consciousness and self-consciousness? Reducing the question of God to man may initially appear plausible, but it must be clear that it does not satisfy what Feuerbach wants it to. Taking back from God all that is great about being human will not, as even Feuerbach admits, make man himself happy. He will always remain frustrated by his intentional infinity. This fact, at least for a theologian, leaves the God question an open one. The fact of human projection itself fails to account for man’s intentional infinity that gave rise to the question in the first place. Feuerbach’s argument about God and human fulfillment lapses into a vicious circle.