The Enlightenment Vision of Science and Religion #23: Kant and Religion

The Enlightenment Vision of Science and Religion #23: Kant and Religion

God has conferred upon and added to man a distinctive power — the faculty of intellectual investigation into the secrets of creation, the acquisition of higher knowledge — the greatest virtue of which is scientific enlightenment.


Apr 15, 2013. Immanuel Kant (for the Wikipedia entry, see Kant) is frequently acclaimed the greatest philosopher of modern times, an equal – or near equal – to Plato and Aristotle.

One reason for this acclaim was Kant’s powerful and compelling solution to the undermining of religion and faith that was the central crises of the Enlightenment. Rather than putting religion and faith on a sound philosophical or scientific footing, as Descartes, Newton, and Leibniz had intended, the Enlightenment had led to the widespread conviction that science – especially the enormously successful Newtonian mechanistic science – denied both the existence of the soul and the fundamental moral and religious beliefs of the time.

Kant argued that this was not so. His system, he claimed, avoided that problem while maintaining the integrity of reason. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes his perspective as follows:

… a critique of reason by reason itself, unaided and unrestrained by traditional authorities, establishes a secure and consistent basis for both Newtonian science and traditional morality and religion.

Although convoluted in detail, the basis of his conclusion is simple: both science and religion are products of the mind and must be in accord with the mind’s innate structures. So far, so good.


But Kant held that religion was not based on reason and knowledge – these were the engines of science and philosophy. Rather, religion was based on our moral sensibilities – which Kant argued were of equal importance with our logical sensibilities. By showing that there were limitations to empirical and rational knowledge – the domains of science and philosophy – Kant claimed to show that belief in God was immune to the skepticism of the enlightenment.

Famously, he summarized his view thus:

I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.

What he meant by this was that there is a higher unknowable moral reality beyond the reach of our rationality or empirical study.

But consider, by way of contrast, how the Baha’i Faith views the relationship between the two:

If we say religion is opposed to science, we lack knowledge of either true science or true religion, for both are founded upon the premises and conclusions of reason, and both must bear its test. (‘Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 107)

If valid, the Baha’i view is a far more powerful and effective resolution to the problem than that of Kant.

Kant’s Philosophy of Religion

Kant holds that two kinds of metaphysical systems are possible, the metaphysics of experience (or nature) and the metaphysics of morals. This view – combined with his view of the limitations of reason – underlies his approach to the philosophy of religion (see here and here).

One of the most important consequences of his perspective is his view that there can be no strictly rational proof of the existence of God. Reason does not – indeed, cannot – reach out to the extent needed to make definite proof. So he denies the validity of all the traditional rational proofs of the existence of God.

But, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t believe in God. There are, he argues, powerful moral arguments for such belief. Because of the need to consider practical moral truths as of the greatest importance, we must “postulate” the immortality of the soul, the existence of purpose in the world, and the existence of God. But at the same time, we must keep in mind the fallacious tendency of the human mind to overstep the limits to reason to create rationalistic systems of thought beyond the realm of evidence.

Radical Evil and the Ethical Commonwealth

On the basis of this style of argument about the importance of moral reasoning, Kant created a rich, deep, full and influential system of moral theology, often reinterpreting traditional Christianity in ways that remain influential in modern liberal Protestant thought to this day. For example, he modifies the Christian concept of “original sin” to that of “radical evil” where we make satisfaction of our own ends more important than doing the morally right thing. To overcome this evil, we need to change our heart – and Christ is the model exemplar for virtuous and moral action that shows us how to do so.

When the overcoming of radical evil is successfully done on a society-wide – or world-wide – basis, it can be expected to lead to perpetual peace among nations as “the highest good” and a political order capable of maintaining that good. But, he holds that organized religion can help perpetuate “radical evil” through ritual, superstition and a hierarchical church order.

Some Consequences of Kant’s Philosophy of Religion

Kant’ philosophy of religion has been extraordinarily influential (as outlined here and here). One thing it helped launch, of course, was the modern academic field of the philosophy of religion.

Modern Protestant theology – especially liberal theology with its emphasis on moral progress and social reform – has been strongly influenced by Kant.

Modern debates on science and religion also owe a substantial debt to Kant, partly because he was one of the founding fathers of the philosophy of science and wrote extensively on the relationship of science to religion, but also because of his view that religion is a moral phenomena rather than rational phenomena. The eNotes website entry on Kant describes the impact of the distinctions he drew:

Kant’s position, then, radically separated science from religion, as if the two subjects contained no common ground. … Religion becomes morality while science becomes Naturbeherrschung, mastery of the world. …

Most recently something of a Kantian position on the relationship between science and religion has been advocated by the noted American paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941000) who, without ever naming Kant, introduced the notion of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) as a means of dealing with the realities of science, which is concerned with the factual construction of nature, and religion, which concerns itself with moral issues about the value and meaning of life.

Despite Kant’s enormous influence – and the pronouncedly moral character of his work – its hard not to ask some critical questions. Is it true that religion has only moral content? Is it to be fenced off from the rigor and analytic qualities of reason and science? Does it need that protection? And hasn’t Kant diluted – rather than strengthened – religion by making it so vague and unanchored so as to be a plaything of philosopher-theologians (some well-intentioned, to be sure, some not). Given the loss of influence – and the over-philosophical character – of much of liberal theology – and its antagonistic feuds with other branches of Christianity – would it be amiss to think that Kant inherited much of the Enlightenment’s antagonism to revealed religion?

Next Time

There are still some influential Enlightenment thinkers we haven’t looked at – most notably Hume and Rousseau. We will remedy that next time by starting with the skeptical Hume.


This is the 23rd in a series of blogs on the Enlightenment Vision of Science and Religion. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked at NTT in Japan before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

PDF24    Send article as PDF   
Comments are closed.