Ludwig Feuerbach on Religion as a ‘Projection’: A Reflection

I enjoy reflecting on the views of those who are in worldview opposition to myself. I believe this is an important intellectual virtue and it is one I wish to embrace. I am willing to assert that those who I disagree with can have good and often true ideas that are worth mentioning and thinking about. I, therefore, want to briefly reflect on the hypothesis forwarded by the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) of religion being “projection”. I find value in Feuerbach’s view and I will attempt to apply it to a real-life example.

Feuerbach’s Basic Hypothesis

Feuerbach posited that religion is a “projection” of ideal human values into the cosmos “out there”. In other words, religion is nothing more than a human projection or abstraction into the cosmos of ideas that have purely human origins. It is the projection of the best qualities found within human nature which could have psychological, social, economic, or political origins. Feuerbach accepts that there is an “essence” to religion but unlike some other thinkers he saw this essence as being unreal and fictional. God is not “out there” as an existing agent; rather, humans have invented the illusion of God and projected this illusion into the cosmos. In its essence, religion is deceptive, fallacious, delusional, and unreal as opposed to being factual. Feuerbach proposed that humanity’s obsession with religious imaginings is because he is divided against himself, or alienated from his own true being.

The Value of Feuerbach Hypothesis

Feuerbach’s hypothesis is, quite understandably, not a popular one among religious believers. Some readers will also no doubt wonder why I see value in it. I believe Feuerbach’s hypothesis is an important one in the critical theory of religion for at least two reasons. First, it influenced other significant thinkers such as Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud who also presented theories of religion and who both deserve to be taken seriously. Second, because I think it speaks to a real feature of religion, at least as religion is embraced by some people.

I want to focus specifically on the second point. Like with most of the fascinating theories presented in the critical study of religion, I am hesitant to extrapolate Feuerbach’s hypothesis to a universal scale as if to treat it as applicable to all religions. In religious studies, it is very difficult to view just a definition, let alone a theory, as being sufficient enough to encompass all the world’s religions and their countless doctrinal varieties and devotees. This is a continued struggle in religious studies where variety continues to undermine definitional attempts. Some have any proposed that we throw away the term “religion” altogether, but most are unwilling to go that far.

To return to my second point, I do not want to give the impression that we cannot say anything about religion from the critical theory of religion. On the contrary, I think there is much value to be mined from the various theories. I see value in Feuerbach’s in its limited, rather than universal, applicability. Religion constitutes many things for countless people. It can be about what sociologist Christian Smith refers to as “secondary products” such as explanation, meaning, identity, solidarity, control, representations, and rewards. Religion can be about community, relationships, hope, the need to overcome trials and struggles, and even the belief that one has received a divine revelation or undergone some mystical experience. I am also willing to put Feuerbach into this frame: religion is also about projection. I believe projection, namely the projecting out from the human mind of ideal traits and values into the cosmos, is a historical and contemporary feature of religion and religious life. I am willing to view some of religion as fictional, such as a collective belief in a fictional deity and doctrines.

Examples of the Projection Hypothesis

There are many examples in religion to which one can apply Feuerbach’s projection theory. Consider the doctrine of heaven as it is for some Christians in the West, for whom it seems to be a projection of ideal human values: we on Earth struggle with death so in heaven we are conceptualized as immortal; we struggle with sickness and disease, so heaven is existence without sickness; we hate evil, so heaven is the domain of good; we desire a figure of ultimate justice, so at the center of heaven there is God who is supremely just. For some people at least, an argument could be made that heaven is a projection of ideal human values.

I believe the same could be said for the Islamic concept of Paradise, Jannah, as it is held by some and that would so appeal to desert-dwelling Arabs. What person living in the harsh climate of an unforgiving desert would not look forward to a heaven in which there are “dates and pomegranates” (Qur’an 55:68), an “abundance of fruit” (43:71, 73), and gardens bursting with a constant flow of water (3:136; 13:35; 15:45; 22:23)? The Islamic heaven is revealed to have lofty gardens, shady valleys, fountains, rivers of milk, water, and honey; most of which cannot be found in or around Mecca and Medina. It is not difficult to see how the Prophet, his companions, and the early Muslims would have so produced such an idea in their unforgiving context of seventh-century Arabia.

I remember engaging a lonely elderly woman who went through life with great struggle: she had little support in the way of family, almost no financial income, no car to get around, and she sometimes lived in shelters or, if she was lucky, she could find accommodation through some compassionate individual. Life was tough for this woman. I also learned that she looked forward to the Second Coming of Christ which she said would happen in exactly three years’ time. This was real for her and it was an authentic hope waiting to be fulfilled. But from my perspective Jesus, as he is conceived in this scenario, is a symbol on which this woman projected her desires. What person at her advanced age in life and in such undesirable circumstances wouldn’t want Jesus to come in the next year or two with the angels in the clouds of heaven? Who doesn’t want to be removed from an existence of existential struggle to a place where such struggles no longer exist? I can see Feuerbach being much annoyed by where this woman had placed her focus. Feuerbach had also criticized the religious for wasting their efforts by focusing on the supernatural and God. He believed that focusing here diverted the much-needed energy away from other important areas, such as in improving one’s own social and economic conditions. In other words, rather than placing her hope and efforts in the Second Coming of Christ, the woman should channel her energies into seeking employment and relationships to help her through her daily struggles. It is the latter that will assist her in the here and now, and not, according to Feuerbach, some future religious “illusion”.

I came to see the value of Feuerbach’s hypothesis of religion as a projection in this woman’s desires. It further seemed to support some of my other views of religion, which is that religion is, in part, the manifestation of humanity’s inability to live peaceably with the discomfort brought on by mundane, Earthly existence and for the help of superhuman powers. We tend to overwhelmingly approach religion as a means to overcome Earthly trials; our religion is geared more towards practical than spiritual concerns if we go on what empirical data suggests.

In conclusion, Feuerbach’s hypothesis does have some value in the study of religion. It also has real-life examples. I also want to conclude my reflection with a caveat: just because we can include projection as a real feature of religion this is not to say, as skeptics would certainly love to, that religion itself is merely a projection. As I stated, that is going too far with the data and owes itself more to philosophical convictions than anything else. It is not what I am saying.

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