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Carving the Buddha: Was Feuerbach Right?

Religion, Briefly Considered: Part 3

Winston Davis’ “Religion, Briefly Considered” series:
Part 1: Darwin’s Dog, or the Evolution of Religion
Part 2: When You Wish upon a Star: The Projection Theory of Religion
Part 4: Dojo: Rethinking Projection Theory
Part 5: Religious Magic
Part 6: Religious Experience – An Open Letter.

The Chinese say that a person who carves the Buddha never worships him. Why should he? The carver of Buddha statues knows that the “Fully Enlightened One” is nothing but wood and cheap paint.

Wooden Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWood_Bodhisattva.jpg from the Chinese Song Dynasty (960-1279), from the Shanghai Museum, by Photo by Mountain (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.
As theology goes, that’s pretty crude stuff. But in his critique of religion, Feuerbach tacks in the same direction when he insists that God didn’t make man; man made God. Both the Chinese skeptic and the German philosopher reject religion because of its “human, all too human” origins.

What recommends Feuerbach’s theory is its utter simplicity. What better explanation is there for the staggering variety of religions and the vast number of gods in human history than to assume, with Feuerbach, that faith changes when wishes—the wishes dominating a society—change?

Why is the religion of Australian aborigines in the Outback different from the religions of modern Americans struggling to stay abreast of turbo-capitalism’s “gales of creative destruction?” Feuerbach would say it is because the needs, desperation and wishes of these societies are different.

Elegant as his theory is, Feuerbach still has his problems. First, his theory—especially in The Essence of Christianity (1841)—can be painfully abstract. Feuerbach says that “man” created the gods out of his own “human essence” (or the “predicates” of human nature).

Marx thought that Feuerbach’s criticism of religion provided a foundation for the criticism of capitalist society in general. But he didn’t like Feuerbach’s philosophical abstractions. “Human essence is no abstraction,” Marx said. “In its reality it is the ensemble of social relations.”

Feuerbach is interested in “man,” not in social relations. He also ignored the role played by the leaders of religious groups. By making “man” the creator of the gods, he ignored the specific prophets who first dreamed up religion’s myths, the priests who preside over its rituals and the ecclesiocrats who govern its institutions.

Feuerbach’s wish-based, “demand-side” theory needs to be counter-balanced by a “supply-side” analysis of the roles played by religion’s actual “fabulators.” I believe a detailed supply-side approach to religion would show (a) that the wishes and aims of religious leaders often differ from those of their humble followers, and (b) that religious wishes and needs are often artificially created and induced in others by religion-makers.

Second, in Feuerbach’s theory, anyone and/or anything can become a god. He overlooks the fact that divinity tends to evolve from the ranks of tribal elders, kings, warlords, mothers and, as Freud reminds us, fathers. That’s because religion preserves and magnifies the powerful infantile memories we have of these figures as primordial protectors and providers.

Third, Feuerbach’s theory explains why we create gods. It doesn’t explain why we feel obliged to worship them. According to Feuerbach, the gods are supposed to make us happy and lucky (glücklich) in this life and the next.1 But why not cast them aside after they fulfill our wishes? Perhaps because we subconsciously fear that if we do so, if we don’t give the priest the money he wants, if we violate taboos or neglect our ritual obligations, we might have bad luck.

Worship and other religious obligations often become neurotic obsessions. When I was a student at Columbia University, I once saw an old man crossing 114 th Street at Broadway. As he approached the curb, he began to cross himself again and again. After crossing the street, he performed the same ritual before crossing Broadway.

Apparently he felt that he simply had to make the sign of the cross if he wanted to cross the street safely. Compulsive behavior of this sort is what Freud had in mind when he defined religion as a universal (i.e. transpersonal) obsessional neurosis.2

To understand the obligatory nature of religion we have to take religion’s sociological aspect seriously.3 Feuerbach fails to see that people often submit to the demands of religion simply because they fear the censure of those who fear that deviance will bring bad luck (divine retribution) on the whole tribe.

Fourth, we have seen that Feuerbach believed that the critique of religion rests on a clear-cut bifurcation between the objective and the subjective. Unfortunately, he failed to provide a convincing philosophical criterion for this distinction. Admittedly, spotting other people’s illusions is easier than defining reality. Nevertheless, to say something is “unreal” implies that one knows what is real.

As a materialist, Feuerbach believed that “sensuousness” (Sinnlichkeit) is the royal road to reality. In his fight with German Idealism, Feuerbach comes close to embracing a theory of naïve realism.”4

Enough of words. Come down to real things! Show me what you are talking about! To sensuous consciousness it is precisely language that is unreal, nothing.

Today, we realize that we can’t perceive or think outside a linguistic grid. This not only undercuts Feuerbach’s naïve realism. It actually supports Hegel’s claim that there is no simple, unmediated awareness of a “this,” a “here” or a “now.” Most scholars today say that this is because human thought and actions are soaked in language.

To insist that perception (or “sensuousness”) is soaked in language does not mean that all knowledge is subjective, or that “anything goes.” Religion (like thought in general) may be permeated by language, but not all “language-games”—religious or secular—deserve the same respect.

Unless projection theory is joined together with a verifiable (or falsifiable) notion of truth and reality, we are left with no way to distinguish between superstition and the hard-won findings of science. Similarly, without a justifiable concept of humane behavior, we cannot criticize the inhumane behavior of some religions.

Part 4: Dogo: Rethinking Projection Theory.

Notes & Image Sources

1 From Feuerbach’s point of view, salvation—a state in which nothing bad ever happens to us again—can be defined as “lucking-out” once and for all.

2 It is also a good example of homeopathic magic—crossing oneself making it safe to cross the street.

3 Although Feuerbach recognized the importance of “I-Thou” relationships, his theory of religion is based on individual psychology. Martin Buber’s celebrated “I-Thou” philosophy was decisively influenced by Feuerbach.

4 Naïve realism, in effect, says “what you see is what is real.” See Karl Löwith, From Hegel to Nietzsche (1964).

Wooden Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara from the Chinese Song Dynasty (960-1279), from the Shanghai Museum, by Photo by Mountain (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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