Why Feuerbach? Most important to me: Feuerbach posits that God is a representation of humanity’s attempt to understand itself.
I wouldn’t recommend actually reading the Essence of Christianity unless you are the sort of person who can dive into something old and mostly useless and find nuggets of truth (which describes some of my friends, to be sure). To employ a Minecraft metaphor, if you’re the sort who’s willing to dig down through 64 blocks of stone, dirt and gravel, fight off the creepers, skellies and zombies, and avoid falling into the lava just to get a couple diamonds, go for it. Otherwise, let me sort it out for you.
Feuerbach himself seems to have wanted to promote a contrast between a religion of “faith” and a religion of “love”. In this he seems to have anticipated much liberal theology of the 20th Century, particularly after two World Wars and the Holocaust left much of Christendom a crater-pocked ruin. Others do it better, however.
What made Feuerbach famous among German leftists of the 1840s was his “materialism”. Among the Marxists this became “dialectical materialism”. By “materialism” they meant something different than what we would call “science” today, more of an orientation towards facts rather than fact-gathering. What a Hegelian philosopher of the 1840s would mean by “materialism” is simply the rejection of idealism, the philosophical trend which presumes that ideas cause reality, rather than being themselves merely the result of natural and/or mechanical processes. I would venture to suspect that both camps would be overwhelmed by the advances in determining the material causes of natural phenomenon since the 1840s, with quantum physics giving both sides plenty of new material to argue over.
Another feature of contemporary “science” is transparency: it is a collaborative and peer-reviewed process. While this may mean that your reports are fully comprehensible only to other specialists in your “field”, there is at least some attempt to make yourself understood by others, for the purpose of having your work replicated by others. Hegelians like Feuerbach liked to pretend that their work is perfectly transparent (and I daresay Feuerbach is a bit easier to understand than Hegel himself) and they certainly imagined they were building conceptual “systems” which could be understood and reproduced and enhanced by others, they mostly failed at this. The exception, of course, was Marxism, which did indeed create a set of portable concepts which could and did spread around the world and find application in an amazing variety of circumstances. Feuerbach…. not so much.
By “anthropology”, the word Feuerbach uses to describe his account of the origins and purposes of Christianity, he means merely the study of man. He does not mean a science based on empirically-gathered data, that is, what we would call “anthropology”. Basically he is saying his viewpoint is human, not divine; it’s about about human beings want and need, not what God wants and needs. Why the Christian God would want or need anything was always a mystery anyway, but traditional theology was always trying to discern and explain God’s agenda for us. Feuerbach, instead, is working on our agenda for God, which you might think of as an exegesis of the import of Voltaire’s remark “if God did not exist, we should have to invent Him.” Why, indeed, would invention be necessary?
Today we can discuss, for example, the “hyperactive agency detection device” theory as to why people believe in supernatural entities. Ideas like this can now be grounded in notions of natural selection and evolution, which do not ensure accuracy but at least allows us to understand one another. The intellectual tools to discuss such theories didn’t exist in the 1840s. Darwin’s Origin of Species wasn’t published until 1859. That is not to say that such ideas might not have occurred to a thinker like Feuerbach. What he lacked, however, was a set of presumptions and methods which enjoyed widespread acceptance among his readers, which now make the job of giving “material” explanations for religious beliefs much easier.
Likewise, a historian of science might be interested to trace Freud’s ideas on the psychology of religion back to Feuerbach. There’s an obvious connection between Feuerbach’s remarks on “wish-fulfillment” and ideas developed more fully by Freud. (Briefly, we fear death and wish for immortality, so it makes us feel happy to believe in an entity that has the power to grant us eternal life.) But again, these ideas were developed more fully and freely by Freud in the 20th Century, so there’s no reason to go back to Feuerbach to read them in mere embryonic form (unless you are an academic, which I am not).
I don’t read Feuerbach as “science” but rather as political theory. Ultimately, the “materialism” of Feuerbach is a political statement against conservative, traditional approaches to religion which allow supernatural explanations to pass as unexamined fact, or grant authority to Scripture as the revealed word of God, rather than a set of texts written and compiled by human beings.
While it may be contrary to his intent to read his work as a political tract rather than a scientific monograph, today’s readers cannot indulge Feuerbach in this respect. If a “science of religion” is what we are looking for, we need to look elsewhere. Despite efforts to be “concrete”, Feuerbach has no data and doesn’t seem to think he needs any data. I find support for my approach, however, in how contemporary readers understood Feuerbach. His development of what came to be known as “dialectical materialism” gave him fans and financial supporters among the emerging radical socialist movement in Germany. This transformed the thinking of the “Young” or “Left” Hegelians and made them Marxists. For posterity, however, those fans and supporters pigeon-holed Feuerbach as the transition between Hegel and Marx. Today, you can find an online version of the Essence of Christianity, translated by George Eliot (!) at marxists.org. Marxists, however, have little interest or use for religion, and so most of Feuerbach’s insights are wasted on them.
Events of the time also doomed Feuerbach’s theories to obscurity. The revolutions in Germany in 1848 were a dismal failure. Germany did not become a democratic republic then, indeed, Germany failed to become a unified nation of any kind, until a generation or so later (1870) it was unified under Prussian militarism. When you read Marxist comments on Feuerbach, then, they have a bitter disappointment to them born of political failure. Here, for example, is how Marx concludes Theses on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”
I admire Marx’s attempt to ground his ideas in concrete, historical and factual settings, and in human social practice, rather than mere ideological speculation. That this is difficult does not mean we shouldn’t try. But today we can’t read “the point is to change it” without thinking of the failures of Communism and hearing the Beatles’ “Revolution” play in our head. Disaster waits for those who seek to change the world without first understanding it.