DURANT 1926: On Religion and Reason

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter VI, Immanuel Kant and German Idealism, Section 5 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.

.

On Religion and Reason

Does this appear trite, and timid, and conservative? But it was not so; on the contrary, this bold denial of “rational” theology, this frank reduction of religion to moral faith and hope, aroused all the orthodox of Germany to protests. To face this “forty-parson-power” (as Byron would have called it) required more courage than one usually associates with the name of Kant.

Kant was very courageous in expressing his opinion on religion in his time.

That he was brave enough appeared in all clarity when he published, at sixty-six, his Critique of Judgment, and, at sixty-nine, his Religion within the Limits of Pure Reason. In the earlier of these books Kant returns to the discussion of that argument from design which, in the first Critique, he had rejected as an insufficient proof of the existence of God. He begins by correlating design and beauty; the beautiful he thinks, is anything which reveals symmetry and unity of structure, as if it had been designed by intelligence. He observes in passing (and Schopenhauer here helped himself to a good deal of his theory of art) that the contemplation of symmetrical design always gives us a disinterested pleasure; and that “an interest in the beauty of nature for its own sake is always a sign of goodness.” [Critique of Judgment, sect 29.] Many objects in nature show such beauty, such symmetry and unity, as almost to drive us to the notion of supernatural design. But on the other hand, says Kant, there are also in nature many instances of waste and chaos, of useless repetition and multiplication; nature preserves life, but at the cost of how much suffering and death! The appearance of external design, then, is not a conclusive proof of Providence. The theologians who use the idea so much should abandon it, and the scientists who have abandoned it should use it; it is a magnificent clue, and leads to hundreds of revelations. For there is design, undoubtedly; but it is internal design, the design of the parts by the whole; and if science will interpret the parts of an organism in terms of their meaning for the whole, it will have an admirable balance for that other heuristic principle—the mechanical conception of life—which also is fruitful for discovery, but which, alone, can never explain the growth of even a blade of grass.

He noted that nature is made up of the whole spectrum from beautiful design to ugly chaos.  The appearance of external design, then, is not a conclusive proof of Providence. But it is a magnificent clue, and leads to hundreds of revelations.

The essay on religion is a remarkable production for a man of sixty-nine; it is perhaps the boldest of all the books of Kant. Since religion must be based not on the logic of theoretical reason but on the practical reason of the moral sense, it follows that any Bible or revelation must be judged by its value for morality, and cannot itself be the judge of a moral code. Churches and dogmas have value only in so far as they assist the moral development of the race. When mere creeds or ceremonies usurp priority over moral excellence as a test of religion, religion has disappeared. The real church is a community of people, however scattered and divided, who are united by devotion to the common moral law. It was to establish such a community that Christ lived and died; it was this real church which he held up in contrast to the ecclesiasticism of the Pharisees. But another ecclesiasticism has almost overwhelmed this noble conception. “Christ has brought the kingdom of God nearer to earth; but he has been misunderstood; and in place of God’s kingdom the kingdom of the priest has been established among us.” [Quoted in Chamberlain, Immanuel Kant; vol. i, p. 510.] Creed and ritual have again replaced the good life; and instead of men being bound together by religion, they are divided into a thousand sects; and all manner of “pious nonsense” is inculcated as “a sort of heavenly court service by means of which one may win through flattery the favor of the ruler of heaven.” [In Paulsen,366.]—Again, miracles cannot prove a religion, for we can never quite rely on the testimony which supports them; and prayer is useless if it aims at a suspension of the natural laws that hold for all experience. Finally, the nadir of perversion is reached when the church becomes an instrument in the hands of a reactionary government; when the clergy, whose function it is to console and guide a harassed humanity with religious faith and hope and charity, are made the tools of theological obscurantism and political oppression.

According to Kant, religion must be based not on the logic of theoretical reason but on the practical reason of the moral sense. It follows that any Bible or revelation must be judged by its value for morality, and cannot itself be the judge of a moral code. Again, miracles cannot prove a religion, for we can never quite rely on the testimony which supports them; and prayer is useless if it aims at a suspension of the natural laws that hold for all experience.

The audacity of these conclusions lay in the fact that precisely this had happened in Prussia. Frederick the Great had died in 1786, and had been succeeded by Frederick William II, to whom the liberal policies of his predecessor seemed to smack unpatriotically of the French Enlightenment. Zedlitz, who had been Minister of Education under Frederick, was dismissed; and his place was given to a Pietist, Wollner. Wollner had been described by Frederick as “a treacherous and intriguing priest,” who divided his time between alchemy and Rosicrucian mysteries, and climbed to power by offering himself as “an unworthy instrument” to the new monarch’s policy of restoring the orthodox faith by compulsion. [Encyclopaedia Britannica, article “Frederick William II”] In 1788 Wollner issued a decree which forbade any teaching, in school or university, that deviated from the orthodox form of Lutheran Protestantism; he established a strict censorship over all forms of publication, and ordered the discharge of every teacher suspected of any heresy. Kant was at first left unmolested, because he was an old man, and as one royal adviser said only a few people read him, and these did not understand him. But the essay on religion was intelligible; and though it rang true with religious fervor, it revealed too strong a strain of Voltaire to pass the new censorship. The Berliner Monatsschrift, which had planned to publish the essay, was ordered to suppress it.

Kant was going against the tide of theological obscurantism and political oppression in Germany.

Kant acted now with a vigor and courage hardly credible in a man who had almost completed three score years and ten. He sent the essay to some friends at Jena, and through them had it published by the press of the university there. Jena was outside of Prussia, under the jurisdiction of that same liberal Duke of Weimar who was then caring for Goethe. The result was that in 1794 Kant received an eloquent cabinet order from the Prussian King, which read as follows: “Our highest person has been greatly displeased to observe how you misuse your philosophy to undermine and destroy many of the most important and fundamental doctrines of the Holy Scriptures and of Christianity. We demand of you immediately an exact account, and expect that in future you will give no such cause of offense, but rather that, in accordance with your duty, you will employ your talents and authority so that our paternal purpose may be more and more attained. If you continue to oppose this order you may expect unpleasant consequences.” [In Paulsen, p. 49.] Kant replied that every scholar should have the right to form independent judgments on religious matters, and to make his opinions known; but that during the reign of the present king he would preserve silence. Some biographers who can be very brave by proxy, have condemned him for this concession; but let us remember that Kant was seventy, that he was frail in health, and not fit for a fight; and that he had already spoken his message to the world.

But he gave his message to the world.

.

FINAL COMMENTS

In his essay on Religion Kant was going against the tide of theological obscurantism and political oppression in Germany. He bravely published it outside Prussia.

Kant noted that nature consists of the spectrum from beautiful design to ugly chaos.  The appearance of external design, then, is not a conclusive proof of Providence. But it is a magnificent clue, and leads to hundreds of revelations.

According to Kant, religion must be based not on the logic of theoretical reason but on the practical reason of the moral sense. It follows that any Bible or revelation must be judged by its value for morality, and cannot itself be the judge of a moral code. Again, miracles cannot prove a religion, for we can never quite rely on the testimony which supports them; and prayer is useless if it aims at a suspension of the natural laws that hold for all experience.

Finally, the nadir of perversion is reached when the church becomes an instrument in the hands of a reactionary government; when the clergy, whose function it is to console and guide a harassed humanity with religious faith and hope and charity, are made the tools of theological obscurantism and political oppression.

.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: