The 19th century was a century of revolutionary changes in human thinking. People started questioning religion openly without fear. The Romantic Movement questioned the absolutisms of classicism. Karl Marx laid the axe at the root of the traditional social hierarchies. In spite and because of Marx, capitalism broke a million more traditions. Industrialisation pulled people out of family-based work, colonialism led to miscegenation of different races and cultures, the Enlightenment of the previous centuries conquered new heights in human consciousness, women began to assert themselves against the strictures of patriarchy and religion was forced to take a backseat.
Ludwig Feuerbach is one of the many philosophers who redefined divinity for the thinking man (and woman, of course) in the century of various upheavals. The leading religions of the time had externalised God and put Him (not Her, significantly) somewhere out there – Heaven or some such place. In his path-breaking work, The Essence of Christianity (1841), Feuerbach argued that a God sitting somewhere out there would be quite useless.
God is within us. God is a projection of ourselves onto the heavens. God corresponds to some feature or need of the human being. It is the human being who craves for infinite love, endless compassion, benevolence and wisdom. These qualities are divine but they are part of the human nature. Our mistake is to externalise them and put them onto an idol in the religious place. By doing this we are denying these qualities within us and transferring the responsibility to God for loving us and looking after us. And also for giving us truths.
Some clever people go one step beyond and make scriptures and claim that they come from God. These clever people become the manufacturers of our truths. They make use of God and religion to enslave other people. Feuerbach argues that this process of externalising the divine qualities and truths “poisons, nay destroys, the divinest feeling in man, the sense of truth.” Worse, it replaces the qualities and truths with rituals and superstitions.
Feuerbach did not wish to eliminate God or religion. Rather he wanted us to discover our God within ourselves. The qualities we ascribe to God lie dormant within us, wake them up, allow them to grow and spread so that the world becomes a divine place. Jesus would probably have agreed for he had said (among many contradictory things) that “the Kingdom of God is within us.” Religion can be an excellent tool for self-examination, argued Feuerbach. It can enhance our self-understanding significantly.
If we understand Feuerbach and apply his theory to our lives, the world would be a paradise of divine creatures. We would be the real gods. The imaginary gods we create could still be there as our aids and guides in self-analysis and self-understanding.