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When You Wish upon a Star: The Projection Theory of Religion

Religion, Briefly Considered: Part 2

Winston Davis’ “Religion, Briefly Considered” series:
Part 1: Darwin’s Dog, or the Evolution of Religion
Part 3: Carving the Buddha: Was Feuerbach Right?.
Part 4: Dojo: Rethinking Projection Theory
Part 5: Religious Magic
Part 6: Religious Experience – An Open Letter.

Remember Jiminy Cricket’s solo in Walt Disney’s Pinocchio?“When you wish upon a star…anything your heart desires will come to you.”

German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) never heard this song, but he would have understood it. In fact, he turned it into an argument about the origin and nature of religion.1

Although Feuerbach was an atheist, he thought that disproving the age-old arguments for the existence of God was a waste of time.

The true atheist does not directly contradict the belief in God. He explains it; he acknowledges the factors that support it. He understands it as an objective, indeed an absolute necessity for the better part of humanity, even though for the atheist this necessity is only subjective.

Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872)

Human beings, Feuerbach argued, are dominated by a “happiness drive.” For the most part, we are able to satisfy this drive naturally, i.e., in a “secular” way. We do things for ourselves. When we are hungry we find something to eat. When we are cold, we find shelter.

The gods come into the picture only when we are frustrated, when we can only wish for what we want. The gods are merely imaginary beings who satisfy wishes. The wish is therefore the beginning of religion. God himself is made of wishes. He is, in Feuerbach’s German, a Wunschwesen [literally, “wish + being”]. Feuerbach calls the wish that creates the gods the “theogonic wish.”

We create the gods first by “projecting,” “objectifying,” or “reifying” them. Feuerbach describes this process in terms borrowed from the dialectical theory of his teacher G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831). In rather thick, philosophical prose Feuerbach writes:

Man—this is the mystery of religion—projects his being into objectivity and then again makes himself an object to this projected image of himself thus converted into a subject; he thinks of himself as an object to himself but as the object of an object, of a being other than himself. Thus…man is an object to God.

He compares the theogonic (god-generating) process to the beating of the heart:

As the action of the arteries drives the blood into the extremities, and the action of the veins brings it back again, so it is in religion. In the religious systole man propels his own nature from himself, he throws himself outward; in the religious diastole he receives the rejected nature into his heart again.

Diagram of the Theogonic Wish

We create the religious object by superimposing various aspects (“predicates”) of human nature such as goodness, anger, love, jealousy, concern, etc. upon nature and call the result “God.” We also attribute the predicates of nature itself to God, e.g., power, unity, necessity, inexorability, eternity, and infinity. These predicates come together, congeal, and take on a life of their own—in our imagination.

The religious object thus becomes a “subject” who, in turn, can address and/or act upon the human beings who first created it. Once they become actors in their own right, the gods begin to tell us what to do. They impose upon us their commandments and taboos. They bless and curse us. They make us kneel before authorities, sacred and secular. And when we suffer, they whisper in our ears words of consolation, “comfortable words.”

Eventually, the gods do what Jiminy Cricket hoped his star would do. Through prayer, sacrifice and priestly mediation, they become servants who make our wishes come true. This ultimately creates the illusion that we have a handle on fate.

For Feuerbach, the problem with religion is not just that it’s untrue. The real problem is that it’s a zero-sum game: what God gains, we lose. The more we invest in Him, the less we are ourselves. The more sheep we sacrifice, the fewer we have to eat ourselves. The more money we give to priests, the less we have for our families. The more we attribute to Heaven, the more our humanity is diminished.

In short, because we create the gods out of our own human nature, religion is ultimately contradictory and self-defeating.

Feuerbach says that the aim of his theory of religion was to

turn theologians into anthropologists, god-lovers into lovers of man, candidates for eternity into students of this world, and religious and political servants of heavenly and earthly monarchy and aristocracy into free, self-conscious citizens of the Earth. My goal is therefore not just negative. Rather, I negate only in order to affirm. I negate only the imaginary illusions of theology and religion in order to affirm the real essence of man.

Contemporary philosophers find Feuerbach’s distinction between objectivity (reality) and subjectivity (wishes) highly problematic. New philosophical trends make Feuerbach’s whole enlightenment project seem dated and dogmatic, if not dead. One thinks, for example, of the recent emphasis on the ubiquity and power of symbols, rhetoric and archetypes in human thought, or about the theory of the “social construction of reality,” post-modernism, hermeneutics, and, above all, the “linguistic turn” in philosophy.

Many of these trends have been absorbed by theologians determined to justify a “phenomenological” approach to religion that claims to “understand” and “appreciate” religion—without bothering to explain it. In the “fuzzed up” world of linguistic philosophy, the well-read theologian triumphantly crows: “Who’s afraid of Ludwig Feuerbach!”2

Some take a laid-back “I’m OK, you’re OK” tack, arguing that religion is simply a community’s incommensurable “language-game.” “We just happen to use language this way…” With post-modernist philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, they chant: “let us play, and let us play in peace!” In this way, they think they can claim respect—and some kind of putative “ontological density”—for whatever metaphysical game they happen to be playing.

Feuerbach himself realized that projection theory alone could not derail the juggernaut of religion. He therefore supplemented his theory of religion’s humble human origins with an extensive exposé of its internal contradictions.

Part 3: Carving the Buddha: Was Feuerbach Right?
Part 4: Dogo: Rethinking Projection Theory.


1 For an excellent treatment of the development of Feuerbach’s theory, see Van A. Harvey’s Feuerbach and the Interpretation of Religion (1997).

2 See, for example, Garrett Green, “Who’s Afraid of Ludwig Feuerbach: Suspicion and the Religious Imagination,” in Christian Faith Seeking Historical Understanding: Essays in Honor of H. Jack Forstman, ed. Duke and Dunnavant, Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1997.

Image Sources

Ludwig Feuerbach, on the website of Editorial Páginas de Espuma

Diagram of Feuerbach’s “Theogonic Wish”

Michelangelo’s ‘The Creation of Adam’ and the Brain of God, from the blog Raoul’s Right Brain, 7 April 2012. Raoul’s explanation:

Even though I’m not the first to recognize Michelangelo’s ‘The Creation of Adam’ section where we see God is actually the human brain, I like to think I’ve done better overlays than anyone else! In this final image you can see the hair is the cerebellum and the arm rest is the corpus callosum.

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