Feuerbach, Dawkins and Puddleglum

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.


7 Responses to Feuerbach, Dawkins and Puddleglum

  1. Well written, Nathan, but itself follows the
    established epistemological tools predefined by
    those you attempt to circumscribe, or so I read it,
    when, what all God naysayers are doing, is falling
    into a very simple trap: the trap of Reason, as reason.

    We keep allowing the Greeks to dictate the terms of
    self-understanding two thousand years later as if
    we haven’t moved at all from their classroom, into
    a different one, which if nothing else since Antiquity
    admits to what they totally forgot about, and hence
    missed: studying the “existing” subject as Subject.
    All they did, and anyone attacking (ignorantly!) the
    existence of Theism do, is employ the wrong tool
    to legitimate the wrong answer!

    Reason is mere logic. Logic is not science, nor
    definitive infinity! Logic, resident within the
    mind, and equatable with the global term “reason”
    is as finite as our finite existence! “Existential
    Certitude” is all we have, which means, we are
    always and everywhere, ignorant of our ignorance!

    Anyway, this intuitive side of Subjectivity is a
    vast topic unto itself, and still insufficiently
    either explored or developed. Bergson is the Father
    of “intuition” vs. “intellection.” And I would say
    that the next significant contributor on this topic
    is Kierkegaard, with Carl Jung’s research ending
    this holy grail search by philosophy in the body
    of knowledge, scientifically validated, of Personality
    Type Theory (technically acronymed, the “MBTI”)….

    The days of sola Scholastic Philosophy, I would argue,
    end with Kierkegaard, and definitively so with Jung:
    atheists using the tool of reason will never disprove
    the existence of God, nor will theology prove it.
    Only the existing Subject can and does: not through
    reason, but through experience!

    A Part Two and even Three, Nathan, should be done for
    this excellent topic you have bravely tackled: now
    knock it to grounded reality! As Chesterton even
    states it: reason is an act of faith!

    Reason deals with possibilities, existence deals with actualities. We reason from existence, not towards existence!

    And it is instructive that even Jung has a last word
    against the atheistic minority in context of the
    above: when asked in an interview if he ‘believed’
    in God, he retorted, believe? No, “I know” !

    Some things by humankind can be discovered and known,
    others must first be experienced, before they can be articulated, and that, only approximately!

    And this New Millennium should also put a stop to
    the childish practise started by the Pagans in
    Antiquity of contrasting us to animals: animals were
    not created in the Image of God (!)

    So it’s time we raised the bar higher on this topic!
    And move beyond Placebo Christianity!

  2. crystal says:

    I read an article once about how various illnesses that affect the brain can affect how we percieve God, from epilepsy to Alzheimer’s disease. Maybe we are wired for God.

    We may not be the only ones who feel an intentional infinity. But still I think that feeling of intentional infinity is an interesting proof for God’s existence.

    I wish I knew how to tell if my experience of God was real or a projection, or what combination of the two.

  3. brettsalkeld says:

    “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.”

    An absolutely essential distinction. Similar reasoning can, and should, be applied to many convoluted questions.

  4. It’s a good questions Crystal and a real problem. Part of the solution is that all of knowledge is based on projection. We have to regularly separate the projections that our own nexus of meaning has created from new things, or even old things, that are trying to appear for what they are. Same with God.

    Second, there is a reason that there are so many different religions. Even though we all intend a divine figure on the nature level, our own projections come up with very different things. The Incarnation and its continuation in the Church help us deal with precisely the problem of projection.

  5. I enjoyed reading your blog. The argument against Feuerbach would be more compelling if you substantiated your claims about his arguments with quotations. In particular, from his major works: “The Essence of Christianity,” “The Essence of Religion,” “Lectures on the Essence of Religion,” and “The Question of Immortality.” I often find that Feuerbach is name-dropped, and a crude paraphrase is put forth about Feuerbach “flipping the subject and object” of a sentence. His arguments most certainly present more gusto than an uncharitable explication like that lets on. If it didn’t, then it wouldn’t make sense as to why Feuerbach played such an integral role within atheism.

    I recently read a quote from Feuerbach and when I read it Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Leo Strauss all came to mind:

    ‘This justification of the hereafter is in the same class as the argument in favor of believe in God adduced by many learned gentlemen who say that atheism is the sound view, that they themselves are atheists, but that atheism is suitable only for learned gentlemen, not for men in general– that is, the public at large or the common people — and that is therefore unfitting, impractical, and even criminal to teach them atheism publicly. But the gentlemen who express this opinion are merely hiding their own wishy-washiness, their own unclarity and indecision, behind the vague and broad word “people” or “public”; to them the people are a mere pretext. When a man is truly convinced of something, he does not fear to say it in public, in fact, he must say it in public. An idea that fears the light is a feeble idea that cannot bear scrutiny. The atheism that fears the light is an unworthy and hollow atheism. Such atheists have nothing to say, and that is why they are afraid to speak out. The cryptoatheist says only in private that there is no God; his atheism is summed up in this one negative statement, which stands all alone, so that his atheism changes nothing. And it is perfectly true that if atheism were a mere negation, a denial without content, it would be unfit for the people, that is, for man or for public life; but only because such atheism is worthless. True atheism, the atheism that does not shun the light, is also an affirmation; it negates the being abstracted from man, who is and bears the name of God, but only in order to replace him by man’s true being.’

  6. Jon Catholic says:

    I know that the contributors of this article will not even consider the opinions of others; however, the reason why there is no opposing comments to this is because the spiritual community has no room to even comment on such blatant ignorance. The writers of this article completely contradict themselves in many areas. For anyone who can not realize these contradictions, you need to educate YOURSELF. What you have been taught was influenced by many wealthy liars which have evolved a corrupt structure which takes advantage of religious belief. I understand that all of you will block out my words with your ‘faith,’ but it’s time to start thinking about the safety and progress of the United States. This country does not deserve to be violated by theocratic rhetoric. Your religion can say whatever it pleases, but your mind is a truly rational device, and it has the philisophical ability to make a change (no matter what limitations the church tells you.) Believe it or not, you’re special. WAKE UP AND FIGHT FOR YOURSELVES, AND LET’S MAKE THIS COUNTRY HONEST AGAIN. Go ahead and delete this, Jesuits. Suppressing opinions will get you no where.

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