Feuerbach’s theory of religion involves the central assertion that religion is a projection – not, as Freud suggests, of humanity’s shameful desires and needs, but of humanity’s own best attributes, ‘that which is worthy of adoration’ (Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, p.12).
What man praises and approves, that is God to him… Religion is a judgement. The most essential condition in religion – in the idea of the divine being – is accordingly the discrimination of the praiseworthy from the blameworthy, of the perfect from the imperfect (p.97).For Feuerbach, then, ‘[m]an first unconsciously and involuntarily creates God in his own image, and after this [it is believed that] God consciously and voluntarily creates man in his own image’ (p.118).
However, rather than the unconscious projection of individual desires, religion for Feuerbach is the unconscious projection of collective ideals. He writes that ‘God is the idea of the species as an individual’ (p.153) and that, ‘[t]he divine being is nothing else than the human being, or, rather, the human nature purified, freed from the limits of the individual man, made objective’ (p.14). In other words, ‘while the perfections we represent to ourselves as divine are really human, they belong not to the individual but to the species,’ or to ‘the human spirit in some collective sense’ (Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, p.125-126).
This means that, according to Feuerbach’s theory of projection, ‘[t]he secret of theology is anthropology’ (Feuerbach, The Fiery Brook, p.153), such that ‘[c]onsciousness of God is self-consciousness, knowledge of God is self-knowledge’ (The Essence of Christianity, p.12). As the unconscious projection of the self-consciousness of humanity, then, ‘religion is man’s earliest and also indirect form of self-knowledge.’ It is a necessary, albeit juvenile, stage in humanity’s self-discovery, one which Merold Westphal suggests is analogous to the ‘discovery of the true ontological status of Santa Claus, who turns out to be but the personification of the human spirit of giving’ (Suspicion and Faith, p.127).
But Feuerbach, like Freud, naturalises or essentialises the unhappiness against which religion is a defence and escape. As such, Marx writes, ‘I approve of Feuerbach’s aphorisms, except for one point: he directs himself too much to nature and too little to politics’ (in Schlomo Avineri, The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx, p.10). For Marx, this unhappiness or hopelessness is not an inevitable condition of the essence of human nature but a social circumstance that is historical and contingent and, as such, capable of being altered. In other words, happiness and hope are possible.
It is in reference to Feuerbach’s critique of religion that Marx writes, therefore, that, ‘philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it’ (Marx, Selected Writings, p.158). His atheistic project makes explicit the links between religion and social complacency, between the critique of religion and the critique of ideology, and, therefore, between religion and the possibility of protest.