Books on Science and Religion #12: The Foundations of German Materialism

Books on Science and Religion #12: The Foundations of German Materialism

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.


August 18, 2014

Materialism – the word – means several things.

It can mean, for example, the pursuit of material wealth – fancy cars, expensive clothes, a beautiful house, a big TV, those kinds of things. People get caught up in it, pursuing wealth to the disadvantage of everything else. It is a hugely disturbing world trend today, growing in the United States, China, and throughout the third world. It is highly disruptive – and is probably one the greatest contributors to the impoverishment of a large cross-section of the world’s peoples.

2010-10-12 016Materialism can also mean the doctrine that material things are all that there is. There is – this kind of materialism holds – no God. Thought, perception, consciousness, and our minds are simply the consequences of material configurations of atoms, molecules, biological entities, fields, forces, those kinds of things. It is sometimes called physicalism, metaphysical naturalism, or scientific materialism. Closely related, but different, are the Marxist versions of materialism – historical materialism and dialectical materialism.

Materialism of all kinds are related. If you believe that material things are all there is, then it is easy to consider satisfaction of material desires and/or an exclusionary focus on material progress as all there is.

German science and scientism – along with social movements like Marxism that owe it substantial debts – are discussed in Chapters 4, 5, and 6 of Richard Olson’s excellent Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Before diving into those chapters, we briefly review the Baha’i teachings on the topic.

AbduBaha’i Teachings on Materialism

The Baha’i teachings emphasize the need for material progress, but condemn materialism. Material progress, Baha’is believe, does not bear fruit unless it is accompanied by spiritual progress. Here is how `Abdu’l-Bahá puts it in Selections from the Writings of `Abdu’l-Bahá, pp. 283-84:

Two calls to success and prosperity are being raised from the heights of the happiness of mankind ….

The one is the call of civilization, of the progress of the material world. This pertaineth to the world of phenomena, promoteth the principles of material achievement, and is the trainer for the physical accomplishments of mankind.

The other is the soul-stirring call of God, Whose spiritual teachings are safeguards of the everlasting glory, the eternal happiness and illumination of the world of humanity, and cause attributes of mercy to be revealed in the human world and the life beyond.

However, until material achievements, physical accomplishments and human virtues are reinforced by spiritual perfections, luminous qualities and characteristics of mercy, no fruit or result shall issue therefrom, nor will the happiness of the world of humanity, which is the ultimate aim, be attained.

`Abdu’l-Bahá told audiences across the United States 100 years ago that world was “submerged in the sea of materialism:”

Observe how darkness has overspread the world. In every corner of the earth there is strife, discord and warfare of some kind. Mankind is submerged in the sea of materialism and occupied with the affairs of this world. They have no thought beyond earthly possessions and manifest no desire save the passions of this fleeting, mortal existence. Their utmost purpose is the attainment of material livelihood, physical comforts and worldly enjoyments such as constitute the happiness of the animal world rather than the world of man. (The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 335)

Caspar FriedrichThis materialism was European in origin:

Fathered by nineteenth century European thought, acquiring enormous influence through the achievements of American capitalist culture, and endowed by Marxism with the counterfeit credibility peculiar to that system, materialism emerged full-blown in the second half of the twentieth century as a kind of universal religion claiming absolute authority in both the personal and social life of humankind.

Its creed was simplicity itself. Reality — including human reality and the process by which it evolves — is essentially material in nature. The goal of human life is, or ought to be, the satisfaction of material needs and wants. Society exists to facilitate this quest, and the collective concern of humankind should be an ongoing refinement of the system, aimed at rendering it ever more efficient in carrying out its assigned task. (Commissioned by The Universal House of Justice, Century of Light).

This view still dominates today, although its failure to achieve its goals are widely recognized.

The Rise of German Materialism in the Early 19th Century

immanuel-kantNineteenth century materialism was first a French and German phenomena, and then an English export. Earlier, we briefly outlined some of the features of French positivism, a creed and worldview that saw science as the source of any mature understanding in any field of endeavor (it was a view that also led to the rise of modern social science and socialism). The German view reached much the same conclusions, but by a different route.

A full understanding of the rise of German science, of the dynamic and flourishing university system that nourished and sustained it, and developments in German religion in the 19th century means knowing something about the philosophical accomplishments of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), hard to achieve in a blog of such short length. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s summary will have to do:

Immanuel Kant is the central figure in modern philosophy. … He argues that the human understanding is the source of the general laws of nature that structure all our experience; and that human reason gives itself the moral law, which is our basis for belief in God, freedom, and immortality. Therefore, scientific knowledge, morality, and religious belief are mutually consistent and secure because they all rest on the same foundation …

[Note: Unattributed quotes below are from Olson.]

hegelIf human understanding wields the power that Kant says it does, then according to G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831), Kant’s greatest successor, it follows that there is a historical dimension to any and all understandings – i.e., ideas grow, develop, and transform. Hegel labelled this a dialectic process where an idea – a thesis – and its opposite – an antithesis – dynamically interact to create a new understanding – a synthesis. One of the effects of Hegel’s philosophy was the creation of “a sense of national and racial identity that set Germans apart as mentally and spiritually superior to other persons”. And it bestowed tremendous power and authority on scholars and their ideas. That power came to the fore when political events created conflict between scholars and conservative religious thinkers.

Schleiermacher, Strauss, Feuerbach, and the Philosophical Foundations of German Materialism

Friedrich_Daniel_Ernst_SchleiermacherAnother outstanding scholar of the era was the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), known as the father of modern liberal theology (for trying to reconcile European Enlightenment principles with traditional Christian Protestantism). He argued that miracles were not a proof of the existence of God, a view that created enemies for him and strongly influenced the more radical David Strauss (1808-1874).

Strauss, mixing Hegel and Schleiermacher, came to the conclusion that not only were miracles not proof of the existence of God, but that the stories of the life of Jesus in the Bible were fictions and myths “created in a particular historical context to represent or symbolize” the “true aspects of the union of God with the universe.”TaylorIMMmbDavidStraussM His exposition of this doctrine, the book The LIfe of Jesus, Critically Examined, denied the divinity of Christ, claiming that it was necessary to do so to emphasize spiritual truths. The book, still in print nearly 180 years after first being published, scandalized German Protestants, indeed all of Europe, while simultaneously generating enthusiastic interest.

Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872) was the third of the trio of German philosophers and theologians who created the foundations for German philosophical and theological materialism. He made his mark initially by the anonymous publication of Thoughts on Death and Immortality in 1830. The University of California Press describes the consequences as follows:

The scandal created by portrayal of Christianity as an egoistic and inhumane religion cost the young Hegelian his job and, to some extent, his career. Joining philosophical argument to epigram, lyric, and satire, the work has three central arguments: first, a straightforward denial of the Christian belief in personal immortality; second, a plea for recognition of the inexhaustible quality of the only life we have; and third, a derisive assault on the posturings and hypocrisies of the professional theologians of nineteenth-century Germany.

However, it was The Essence of Christianity (1841) that cemented his reputation as a radical.  It strongly influenced Marx and Engels, became a staple of the humanist rejection of religion, and fed a number of different threads of German materialism and their outgrowths around the world. The Encyclopedia Britannica in its article on Feuerbach characterized his views in the book as follows:

feuerba2Feuerbach posited the notion that man is to himself his own object of thought and that religion is nothing more than a consciousness of the infinite. The result of this view is the notion that God is merely the outward projection of man’s inward nature. In the first part of his book, which strongly influenced Marx, Feuerbach analyzed the “true or anthropological essence of religion.” Discussing God’s aspects “as a being of the understanding,” “as a moral being or law,” “as love,” and others, he argued that they correspond to different needs in human nature. In the second section he analyzed the “false or theological essence of religion,” contending that the view that God has an existence independent of human existence leads to a belief in revelation and sacraments, which are items of an undesirable religious materialism. Although Feuerbach denied that he was an atheist, he nevertheless contended that the God of Christianity is an illusion.

Feuerbach soon proclaimed himself a materialist along the lines of the French thinker Helvetius (1715 – 1771), “insisting that any account of religious beliefs had to begin from an assessment of the concrete material and social conditions of social life.” This, Olson writes, was “a position that had tremendous appeal to liberal and radical young people during the 1840s, when social and economic distress and inequity was an increasing obvious fact of life and when religious institutions were often functioning as arms of the state to enforce intellectual conformity and economic injustice.” In 1848-1849, a failed revolution in Germany left Feuerbach and his materialism as an influential and increasingly popular foil to autocratic rule and religious conservatism that had prevailed after the revolution was suppressed.

It was to become even more influential.

Next Blog

Next week, we address the scientific materialisms of Buchner, Vogt, and Moleschott.  The following week, we look at Marxism and dialectical materialism.


This is the 12th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. 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 in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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