Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1804-1872) German philosopher, a student of Hegel and associated with the "idealist" school of philosophy (with whom he subsequently broke); one of the first of whose work is centered in an anthropological criticism of religion.

In 1840, Feuerbach published his major work, a criticism of Christianity, under the title The Essence of Christianity . Although his criticism is of Christian belief and its theology, his views are also relevant to the sociological study of religion in general, not only Christianity.

Feuerbach's contribution to the sociology of religion can be summarized in two propositions. His first proposition states: The development of religion, central to which was the creation of God, has led to believers' self-alienation. If God is to be real and thus to have effect on us, we therefore must endow Him with a personality. The qualities with which we seek to endow the deity must be ones that give God a divine nature—a nature that expresses no limitations and no defects— and are qualities perceived by us as most desirable. However, by endowing God with all that is positive, we divest ourselves from all that can make us good. "To enrich God," he writes, "man must become poor; that God may be all, man must become nothing." This postulate has been empirically examined by Schoenfeld (1987), who found that attributing a positive quality to God does not automatically lead to attributing negative qualities to people.

In the second proposition, Feuerbach postulates that faith, which by its very nature is highly particularistic, leads to interpersonal alienation. Feuerbach suggests five reasons that religious faiths cannot lead to universal human integration: First, religion is particularistic. Monotheistic faiths stress the ideas that they alone have a monopoly on truth and they alone have a true conception of God. All other descriptions of God are false. The believer feels that his faith alone distinguishes and exalts him above other men; he alone is in the possession of special privileges. Second, faith is arrogant: That is, faith endows its adherents with a sense of superiority and pride stemming from the belief that they were singled out, chosen by God to be objects of particular favor. Third, faith is essentially determinate, specific; that is, faith is imperative—it changes its beliefs into dogma, into a set of principles of belief that cannot be altered or challenged. Faith is essentially illiberal—it is concerned not only with individual salvation but, most important, with the honor of God. Fourth, faith blinds: Faith is unwilling to accept any truth that exists outside itself. It is unwilling to accept the perspective that lies outside its own God. Faith and finally, faith necessarily, Feuerbach proposes, passes into hatred, and hatred into persecution.

Feuerbach's work had a great influence on Karl Marx's view of alienation as well as such existentialist writers as Martin Buber, Erich Fromm, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Feuerbach's views are also incorporated in Troeltsch's (1931) and Wilson's (1982) analyses of religious sects.

Eugen Schoenfeld


L. Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Harper, 1957)

E. Schoenfeld, "Images of God and Man," Review of Religious Research 28(1987):224-235

E. Troeltsch, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (New York: Macmillan, 1931)

B. Wilson, Religion in Sociological Perspective (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982).

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