In the historical development of religious studies, some theorists, despite possessing a keen interest in the subject, have been critical of the claimed truths of religion. These theorists made little, if any, attempt to conceal their views that religion was at its essence false and that it did not correspond to the way the world truly is. Some of these thinkers came across as condescending while others still saw some value in religion itself. This short article presents several of these theorists, all of whom have made some contribution to the development of the discipline of religious studies.
The empiricist philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) is remembered for his philosophical views, arguments, and convictions and was also one of religion’s most famous detractors of his day. Hume traced religion’s development from polytheism to monotheism and, as an empiricist, argued that since there is no way to prove that anything existed beyond the range of senses then there is no way to prove the existence of deities or gods. Hume did not blame the early “primitive” human beings for their superstitions but he explained that modern man had no excuse for their superstitions fueled by dogmatism, intolerance, and zealotry.
The French positivist philosopher and mathematician Auguste Comte’s (1798-1857) goal was to employ a progressive view of human history so that humankind’s social and political condition might be improved. He believed that human thought passed through three major stages: from the theological, to metaphysical, and scientific stages. He associated religion with theological thinking and placed it at the beginning stage of human intelligence which he deemed as the mental childhood of the human race. He saw theological thinking as necessary because it provided modes of thought that could be examined and improved upon, and eventually transcended. Comte proposed that this took place via “a gradual transition,” and that as human thought progressed so the thought belonging to the theological frame of mind was left behind. Religion may have served a useful function during the mental childhood of humankind but it had lost viability in the modern age.
German philosopher and anthropologist Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) believed that religion had a fundamental, core essence which could be discovered but that this essence was unreal and false. Feuerbach agreed with how others conceived of religion, namely to be a product of imagination, illusory, or the result of faculties that produced fictions. He saw religion as a mere projection, and as something deceptive, unreal, and opposed to being factual (not something objectively or empirically real). He focused on Christianity and contended that the God of Christianity was an illusion, and went further to argue that because religion put so much focus on the supernatural and deity that it actually took away much needed human attention required to improve society itself. The false promises of religion deluded humans into believing that they needed things which they did not, and often convinced them that they could not improve upon their own social and economic conditions. In this light religion resulted in much wasted energy because it used such energy which could have been utilized elsewhere in improving the human condition.
Feuerbach would have an influence on the anti-Christian publicist, philosopher, and theologian David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874). Similarly, Strauss viewed religion to constitute mythology and therefore not constituting something objectively, empirically, and historically real. Christianity, for example, was created due to wish-making and to fulfill the desires of the earliest Christian community. He argued in his work The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1856) against the the historical value of the gospels accounts, rejected the supernatural claims within them, and described them as “historical myth.” He argued that they were a legendary embodiment of the primitive Christian community’s popular hopes. In his later work Strauss attempted to replace Christianity with scientific materialism although he would receive criticism over his inadequate understanding and use of the biblical and theological texts he criticized. Strauss did, however, believe that religion, despite devoid of factuality in its essence, possessed capacities to inspire creativity and give rise to hope and aspirations.
The German philosopher and social theorist Karl Marx (1818-1883) also provided his critique of religion although he did not address the topic as much as he did other subjects. Marx is most well-remembered for his social ideas and theories which hinged on the notion that human societies develop through class struggle between the bourgeois (the rulers and those who own things) and the proletariat (the common workers who work for the bourgeoisie). Marx believed that religion too developed and was the result of productive, and economic forces, and that it represented a process against whatever dehumanizing conditions keep human beings in social and political bondage. He believed that should such dehumanizing conditions not have been present then religion would also not have been necessary. He reasoned that by disposing political, cultural, and social dehumanization one could essentially eliminate religion.
Marx is also remembered for his claim that religion is “the opium of the people.” He thought that religion provided people with a delusional happiness, and is therefore irrational. He did did not wish to seek after delusions, and instead wanted to discover a real and lasting happiness. The existence of religion was to Marx a sign that emancipation had not yet been achieved, and that for humans to obtain happiness they needed to be emancipated from religion. He suggested that religion had been created by human beings out of their experience of alienation, and that it would be misguided to somehow believe that alienation would be overcome by theology, philosophy, or imagination. Rather, the only way to achieve happiness would be through basic changes in socioeconomic relationships that required revolutionary political action.
James Frazer (1854-1941), a Scottish social anthropologist remembered for his dislike of religion, attempted a reconstruction of the sequential history of the modes of human thought (of which he gave three: magic, religion, science). He hoped to provide a description of the “chemistry of the mind” that would propel forward the journey of human progress, and also an examination of religious phenomenon as he saw it practiced in the historical record as well as within his own time of writing. He proposed an evolutionist view of religious thought and consciousness arguing that magic, religion, and science belonged to an evolutionary sequence. He attempted to show that human intelligence formed progressively, and he thought that cognitive development, stemming from the beginning of time to the present (which Frazer refers to as a “chain”), could be measured. The thoughts of the earliest human beings contained the content from which more complex ideas evolved and developed. He argued that the failure of magical thought led to religious thought, and that the failure of religious thought similarly led to scientific thought. Given science’s emphasis on empirical observation and rational analysis, it outplayed the idea of magic and religion. Frazer’s thesis would be confrontational to his religious peers. For instance, he suggested that Christianity was comparable to pagan religions and thus, at least by implication, stripped of its uniqueness.
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), known for his psychosexual analytic theory, too saw religion as belonging to the realm of illusion, and as a fabrication produced out of a desire to fulfill a wish. Freud suggested that religion was a product of human weakness and helplessness, and that religious experiences were expressions of human action and thought. He particularly directed his attacks against Christianity and Judaism.