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In Bad Faith: What's Wrong with the Opium of the People

In Bad Faith: What's Wrong with the Opium of the People

by Andrew Levine

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For readers interested in political theory and political activism, as well as anyone puzzled by the persistence of theistic conviction in the modern world, this critique of religious belief provides insightful analysis. 

In light of rational standards for belief acceptance that are universally acknowledged in enlightened circles, theistic convictions


For readers interested in political theory and political activism, as well as anyone puzzled by the persistence of theistic conviction in the modern world, this critique of religious belief provides insightful analysis. 

In light of rational standards for belief acceptance that are universally acknowledged in enlightened circles, theistic convictions are deeply problematic. Thus it is not surprising that some of the most important heirs of the Enlightenment tradition—Ludwig Feuerbach, Émile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche—wondered, implicitly, why belief in God persists and even flourishes among those who should and in some sense do know better.

This book provides fresh insight into the work of those thinkers by reflecting on the explanations they proffered and on their explanatory strategies. For all their many differences, their respective explanations share a common core and are driven by a similar (largely unelaborated) normative commitment. On Levine’s account, believers today believe in bad faith—in other words, they evince a fundamental intellectual dishonesty. If only for this reason, they merit reproach, even in the comparatively rare instances when "faith perspectives" do more good than harm.

From this standpoint, the author reflects on the liberal turn in the so-called Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and depicts liberal religion as a vehicle of exit for those who implicitly acknowledge the untenability of the beliefs they profess, yet are unable or unwilling to face this reality squarely. He argues that liberal religion is therefore a transitory phenomenon, albeit one that has survived for a long time and that is not about to expire soon. Levine then faults the religious Left on this account, arguing that even in those historically rare conditions where bad faith motivates welcome political engagement, it is nevertheless undermined by its deep inauthenticity.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"In this fascinating book, Levine combines an insightful analysis of important nineteenth-century thinkers who puzzled over why religion persists with a critique of twentieth-century liberal theologies as they have developed in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Levine argues that liberal theologies are intellectually flawed. They provide a means for those who cannot give up on religion to retain pale shadows of the traditions with which liberal believers try to remain in contact. Those shadows, Levine contends, are untrue to what liberal believers, in their hearts, already know."
-ELLIOTT SOBER, author, Did Darwin Write the Origin Backwards?

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Prometheus Books
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What's Wrong with the Opium of the People

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2011 Andrew Levine
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-470-8

Chapter One

ATHEISM Young Hegelian Style

Following the death in 1833 of Germany's and the world's leading philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a handful of students and young professors in Berlin set out to advance the cause of revolution in Germany, extending Hegel's ideas by launching a "critique" of contemporaneous ("Right Hegelian") Protestant theology. These Young (or "Left") Hegelians included David Strauss, Bruno Bauer, Karl Neuwerck, Ludwig Feuerbach, Arnold Ruge, Max Stirner, Friedrich Engels, and Karl Marx; as remarkable a group of fledgling thinkers as ever joined together in a common project. Their rationale, the methods they deployed, and the substantive views they advanced seem exotic today, a relic of a long-ago moment in German thought. Nevertheless, from roughly the 1950s through the 1980s, Marxists in Western countries took a keen interest in Young Hegelianism because they saw Marx's early, Young Hegelian writings as key to developing a "humanistic" version of Marxism. More recently, with interest in Marxism on the wane, interest in Young Hegelianism has subsided. This is unfortunate because what we can still learn from Feuerbach and the others is more timely than ever.

I will not dwell on the movement's history or internal divisions, but to understand its contemporary relevance, it is necessary to say something about Young Hegelianism in its own time and place. Following Marx's lead, I will assume that Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity was, at once, the movement's seminal work and crowning achievement. Because Feuerbach influenced Marx, and because Young Hegelianism is inevitably viewed through a Marxist prism, this is a standard position. But even if Feuerbach's place in the Young Hegelian movement was less central than it seems to those who are mainly interested in Marx, the fact remains that his masterwork is immensely instructive for anyone interested in Abrahamic religiosity. To contemporary readers, The Essence of Christianity can seem a strange collation. This is hardly surprising: it is an intervention into philosophical and political debates that faded into obscurity long ago, and its underlying metaphysics is problematic at best. However, this is a rare instance in which God is not in the details. Feurerbach's larger themes matter more than his particular contentions or his efforts to defend them.

* * *

In The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach had two interconnected aims: to develop a "philosophical anthropology," or, what comes to the same thing, an account of the human essence; and to explain theism in anthropological terms—revealing the human (anthropological) meaning that belief in God simultaneously expresses and conceals. Feuerbach also sought to uncover the human meanings of concepts that cluster around the God idea for which the concept of God is foundational. Criticism is the methodology Feuerbach devised for these purposes. It is a hermeneutical or interpretive method; a translation program, so to speak, that aims at what would nowadays be called a "theoretical reduction"—where one theory is recast in terms of another, more fundamental theory. In The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach's aim was to translate Right Hegelian Protestant theology, which he regarded as the most developed account of religious experience, into Young (Left) Hegelian philosophical anthropology, a theory he considered fundamental for reasons I will discuss. However, unlike an ordinary translation, criticism does not just identify equivalences. It eliminates the theory that is reduced away—in this case, the theology. Feuerbach seems to have thought that reducing a theory away dispatches what the theory represents; that it eliminates the theory's "object" along with its representation. It is not clear how this could be true generally or even what it would mean in most instances; but, as we will see, for Protestant theology as Feuerbach conceived it, his position does make sense.

Feuerbach had no need to rebut Christianity's foundational claim that "God exists"; that task was only preliminary to what he had in mind and it had been accomplished decades earlier. Indeed, there is a sense in which the critical program he devised establishes Christianity's truth—not literally, of course, but by showing that, in being false in the way it is, it expresses truths about humankind. Christianity misrepresents the truths it expresses, and its misrepresentations keep humanity in thrall. Feuerbach thought that reducing the theology of his Right Hegelian contemporaries to a true philosophical anthropology would emancipate humankind from Christianity's sway. Thus he took up earlier efforts to throw off Christianity's yoke not by showing, yet again, that theism (or deism) is indefensible, but by uncovering the human meanings that the God idea and all that rests upon it simultaneously express and conceal.

* * *

By their own lights, Feuerbach and the others were embarked on an emancipatory project that brings philosophy's history, as they conceived it, to an end—melding it into revolutionary politics.

The Young Hegelians developed their account of their role in German philosophy and politics by drawing on Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind [Geist], published in 1807, and from the material published posthumously in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History and in his Lectures on The History of Philosophy. A certain conception of philosophy emerges from their reflections on these texts—one that emphasizes, and arguably exaggerates, Hegel's importance, and therefore the importance of his followers, including themselves. But however questionable their account of philosophy's trajectory may be, their conception of what philosophers do, shorn of its Hegelian entanglements, is sound and widely shared. For Feuerbach and the other Young Hegelians, philosophy is not so much about doctrines as about resolving puzzlements of a broadly conceptual nature. To this end, philosophers construct theories, accounts guided by rational standards, of general and abstract notions—such as goodness and beauty and the nature of the real. Of course, these theories can be construed as doctrines. But not all collections of doctrines count as philosophies. Bodies of doctrine exist nearly everywhere and at all times. However, philosophy's way of making sense of the world, its distinctive project, has a determinate history; a beginning, a middle, and an end—or rather two epochal beginnings, middles, and ends.

Its first phase began in ancient Greece and developed, over two thousand years, in fits and starts until it was begun again, definitively and for the final time, in seventeenth-century Europe. This last new beginning is epitomized in the work of a several magisterial philosophers, of whom René Descartes (1596–1650) was the most influential. What Descartes and the others inaugurated culminated late in the eighteenth century in the work of Immanuel Kant. Hegel and his followers did not claim that Kant "solved" all the problems that philosophers had posed since Greek antiquity. Their idea, instead, was that, after the great seventeenth-century philosophers reconceived philosophy, the forms and limits of knowledge became its principal concern, and efforts to defend or combat skepticism became its central focus. In their view, Kant finally defeated skepticism by showing how knowledge of "the external world" is possible. In doing so, he also made clear what the entire philosophical project, from its beginnings to his own day, had been about. It was about Freedom, an idea that worked its way to full self-consciousness through the unfolding of philosophical representations of humanity's real history.

This discovery set the stage for philosophy's second and final epochal phase. Kant had distinguished the actual world human beings experience, a phenomenal order that exists in space and time and that is governed by the principle of causality, from the real or noumenal order of things-in-themselves, the abode of the idea of freedom. He held that while we can establish that things-in-themselves, noumenal things, are real, knowledge of them must remain forever beyond our grasp. This separation of the actual from the real, where the former is cognitively accessible and the latter is not, gave rise to a new set of problems, the resolution of which became the task of "classical German philosophy." In order to join the actual and the real in the way he ultimately did, it fell to Hegel to represent the structure of reality itself. He did so by identifying the real with the rational; in other words, with reason itself. This line of thinking led Hegel to maintain that reality is dialectical in the sense that its constituent subjects and objects interact with and thereby transform one another continuously. For as long as the dialectic unfolds, the real is in a process of becoming—in which, on Hegel's account, what is, an affirmation or thesis, develops its own negation or antithesis with which it is in internal opposition or contradiction, until its contradictory "moments" are incorporated into a higher unity, a synthesis or supersession (Aufhebung).

Hegel held that the idea of freedom—the core notion of Kant's practical (as distinct from his theoretical) philosophy and, for that reason, of his purchase on the noumenal order—is an essentially historical notion. Following his lead, all of Hegel's followers, Right and Left, agreed that, ultimately, freedom can and must be realized in actual history. Both sides also agreed that this "end" or culmination of classical German philosophy is attained when Freedom is embodied institutionally in a state organized around principles of universal Right (Recht), a Rechtstaat. Their quarrel was therefore not so much philosophical as political. For the Right Hegelians, Prussia, their homeland, was already a Rechtstaat. The Right Hegelians were therefore defenders of the status quo. For the Young (Left) Hegelians, the Prussian state was the penultimate, not the final, "moment" in freedom's story; and the only way forward was to transform it completely—to revolutionize it.

Thus the Young Hegelians had a fundamental political disagreement with their Right Hegelian rivals. But the arguments they advanced were philosophical, not political. As Hegelians, they maintained that as the idea of freedom unfolds towards its "end" (telos), the actual becomes the "inversion" of the real. This was how they conceived the Prussian state; so far from implementing freedom it was a realm in which unfreedom reached its maximum extent. Thus the urgency of setting inverted institutions on their feet—emancipating humankind by bringing the actual into line with the real. For Feuerbach and the others, what began in ancient Greece and ended with Hegel's completion of the work of classical German philosophy therefore culminates in revolutionary politics.

* * *

The Young Hegelians faulted the Right Hegelians because, like Hegel, they were idealists, not materialists. Correcting that mistake was another task the Young Hegelians took upon themselves.

As noted, when Descartes and the others relaunched the first epochal stage of the philosophical project, they put the question "What can I know?" in the foreground. From its beginnings, ontology, the theory of what is, had been a central philosophical concern. Descartes subordinated ontology to epistemology, the theory of knowledge; for him, what is, is just what we can know to be. Other leading philosophers concurred. With this conviction in place, Descartes went on to show, to his own satisfaction and to the satisfaction of many others, that there are two kinds of things we can know to be, two substances: ideal substance, Mind; and material substance, Matter. The former is mental—thinking is its essence—and nonspatial; the latter is spatial—extension is its essence—and mind-independent. When Descartes invoked the category of substance, he had in mind roughly what his predecessors in the "scholastic" tradition did. This is why he insisted that substances are radically independent of one another in the sense that the conditions in virtue of which they are what they are in no way depend on their relations with other substances. This raised a vexing question: How can Mind and Matter, the substances Descartes identified, causally interact? How can material events have mental consequences and vice versa? These interactions occur in each and every one of us all the time. But, if Mind and Matter are radically independent, how is this possible?

Descartes proposed a patently unsatisfactory solution to this problem—that mind and matter connect in the pineal gland through the medium of "animal spirits." Philosophers who agreed with him on the substantial nature of what is did no better. This was a major reason why it soon became the dominant view in ontology that there must ultimately be only one substance; why Cartesian dualism, the idea that there are two and only two substances, mind and matter, gave way to one or another version of monism, the idea that everything that is, is of the same substantial nature. Thanks to Descartes's continuing influence, the substances he identified were the contenders—even for those who rejected his epistemological positions along with his dualism. Thus the two monisms that emerged as "modern" (post-Cartesian) philosophy unfolded were descendants of Cartesian dualism. Monists who maintained that everything that is, including ostensibly material things like physical objects, are ultimately mental in nature were idealists; monists who maintained that everything, including ostensibly mental things like pains or sensations, are ultimately material were materialists.

Kant and Hegel were idealists, as were most of their more distinguished predecessors, but there were materialist philosophers too. Some of them took it upon themselves to refute deism (theism). Thus materialism came to be identified with atheism in philosophical circles. And because these materialists sought the overthrow of political and clerical elites who championed theism and used it to control the masses of people they dominated, materialism also came to be associated with revolutionary politics. Conversely, idealism was associated with theism and conservative politics. There were exceptions, of course, but the idea that metaphysical, theological, and political positions were connected in these ways—not just for contingent historical reasons, but for conceptual reasons too—was a tenet of the intellectual culture the Young Hegelians inherited. It had been so for decades and it would remain so throughout the nineteenth century and, thanks to Communism, into the twentieth century as well.

Feuerbach endorsed Hegel's dialectical method but, unlike Hegel, he was a materialist—and an atheist and revolutionary. Hegel would probably have deemed Feuerbach's configuration of methodological and ontological positions incoherent. The Right Hegelians certainly thought so, and they may have been right. But even if a genuinely dialectical materialism is possible, it is far from obvious that Feuerbach succeeded in confecting one. It is telling that, after he broke away from Feuerbach's ambit, Marx insisted that he had not.

Feuerbach differed from Hegel on another key issue. Hegel's philosophy was about abstract, historical processes, not the career of man or any other historically developing "subject." In contrast, Feuerbach's philosophy was a "philosophical anthropology," a theory of the human subject. However, Feuerbach was Hegelian enough not to be a naturalist. His philosophical anthropology took no account of universal psychological properties or anything else susceptible to empirical investigation; it was metaphysical and essentialist instead. Feuerbach thought that the way to account for what human beings are is to identify essential metaphysical (non-or extranatural) properties that define the human subject; and that doing so is indispensable for ending the project that began after Kant concluded the first epochal stage of philosophy's history. In his view, the questions posed within classical German philosophy, philosophy's final epochal phase, are rightly recast as questions about the human meaning of everything that is in all its apparently heterogeneous forms as human history, moving inexorably towards its end (telos), unfolds.


Excerpted from IN BAD FAITH by ANDREW LEVINE Copyright © 2011 by Andrew Levine. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Andrew Levine is the author of many books and articles—most recently Political Keywords, The American Ideology, and A Future for Marxism? He was, for many years, professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and, more recently, research professor in philosophy at the University of Maryland–College Park. He is currently a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, Washington, DC.

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