Philosophy and Ethics

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Friday, 18 October 2019

Natural morality thanks to oxytocin?



Some years ago I attended a lecture in London entitled ‘How the Mind makes Morals’, given by Patricia Churchland as part of the series Mind, Self and Person organised by The Royal Institute of Philosophy. She had been working for many years in the interface between philosophy and neuroscience, and was particularly known for her contributions to the Philosophy of Mind.  The issues she raised then remain of concern to all those who are looking at the way in which our morality is related to neuroscience, or indeed the whole relationship between brain activity and the experience of freedom and choice.

Here’s what she said in the publicity material for the lecture:

‘One tradition in moral philosophy depicts human moral behavior as unrelated to social behavior in nonhuman animals. Morality, on this view, emerges from a uniquely human capacity to reason. By contrast, recent developments in the neuroscience of social bonding suggests instead an approach to morality that meshes with ethology and evolutionary biology. According to the hypothesis on offer, the basic platform for morality is attachment and bonding, and the caring behaviour motivated by such attachment. Oxytocin, a neurohormone, is at the nub of attachment behavior in social mammals and probably birds. Not acting alone, oxytocin works with other hormones and neurotransmitters and circuitry adaptations.  Among its many roles, oxytocin decreases the stress response, making possible the trusting and cooperative interactions typical of life in social mammals. Although all social animals learn local conventions, humans are particularly adept social learners and imitators. Learning local social practices depends on the reward system because in social animals approval brings pleasure and disapproval brings pain. Acquiring social skills also involves generalizing from samples, so that learned exemplars can be applied to new circumstances. Problem-solving in the social domain gives rise to ecologically relevant practices for resolving conflicts and restricting within-group competition. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that explicit rules are essential to moral behavior, norms are often implicit and picked up by intuition. This hypothesis connects to a different, but currently unfashionable tradition, beginning with Aristotle’s ideas about social virtue and David Hume’s 18th century ideas concerning ‘the moral sentiment.’

Her argument was persuasively presented with many examples of apparent altruism in animals, stemming from the social bonding necessary for bringing up young, hunting for food and so on.

Notice how utterly different this approach to morality is from that which stems from the application of ethical theories. When we engage in Natural Law, Utilitarianism or Kantian ethics, we are applying reason to data – assessing a rational interpretation of the purpose of an activity, or balancing probably outcomes, or looking at the implications of universalising the maxim that lies behind our action. More often than not, this is a subsequent rationalisation of an action that we choose for personal, intuitive reasons.  We do not stop in the midst of a crisis and decide whether, on balance, it is right to intervene. We just go ahead and do something, recognising afterwards the way in which our action fits in with our habitual way of understanding the world – an important point made by Iris Murdoch at the end of her book The Sovereignty of Good.  More often than not, we instinctively know what we should do, feel guilty if we go against that intuition, and subsequently rationalise our decision, either to justify it or to admit fault.

With Virtue Ethics, of course, the situation is rather different. Here we are examining those qualities that make for the ‘good life’ or ‘human flourishing’ – both of which then need to be defined in terms of the overall nature and purpose of life. But here the key thing, in my view, is less that we justify what we do because it leads to human flourishing, but that we naturally seek human flourishing and we wish to cultivate certain qualities because we recognise that they will help us to do so.

So morality is a reflection upon human behaviour; the application of reason to an evaluation of what we do. And that evaluation itself depends on more general ideas about the nature of life. But the way we behave is shaped long before we start to study ethics. We are born with dispositions, develop a character early on, and very soon learn how to deal with our environment – from yelling until we get what we want (seen in all stages of life, with varying degrees of subtlety, from babyhood to old age), to learning to manipulate those around us. We are social animals and learn the rules very early on in life.  Our strategies and attitudes are in place by the time with hit school for the first time, as any infant teacher will tell you, we do not wait to study ethics in order to recognise the significance of behaviour.

It seems to me, therefore, that it is entirely right to examine the origins of our moral behaviour in the context of the behaviour of other animals. Okay, we know that we have a bigger brain, but why should we assume that animals do not have feelings and thoughts? Watch hunters stalk their prey, or parents grieve for lost offspring, or pet animals negotiate for attention, and you know well enough that species share a great deal in terms of patterns of behaviour and associated emotions. It can be argued that the behaviour of animals in instinctive rather than rational – but most of our behaviour is instinctive rather than rational. The idea that, of all the species on Earth, homo sapiens (arrogantly so named) is rational and the rest are simply automata is clearly a bias originating in our limited ability to communicate with other species.  Why should we not share the basis of cooperative behaviour with other species, simply because we have the additional benefit of enhanced brain capacity? 

What is more, the functional capacity of the brain develops over the first years of life, as new neural pathways are etched upon the cortex. The relationship between brain and social situation is an iterative process, our mental capacity develops in relation to our situation, and then it reflects upon it and shapes it.  The development of our mental abilities, along with our morality, is a continuously evolving, interrelated process.

By the time we sit down and discuss ethical issues, we have reached a degree of sophistication that is not available to species will less developed brains – but the type of behaviour to which we give our attention is not utterly different from what is happening lower down the intellectual scale. We discuss morality and (perhaps) allow our newly shaped thoughts to influence subsequent behaviour, but is that so different from the reflection at a lower level when an animal realises that, if its behaviour leads it to be separated from the group, it is not going to survive, and it must therefore moderate what it does?

In any developing process there will be levels of complexity at which more sophisticated patterns supervene over the more basic ones. Human behaviour is more sophisticated than that of other species (as far as we know, of course, and judged on our own criteria) but to think that the origins of our social patterning are thereby changed would be naïve.

However, in discussing this issue, it would be all too easy to fall into the trap of identifying certain types of behaviour as ‘moral’ – as though morality were a pattern of behaviour in which only humans could engage. Morality (or ethics) is simply the term we use for discussing and evaluating elements of human behaviour, it is not the same thing as the behaviour it describes.  We should only say that someone is acting morally if we have evidence that their action is informed by moral considerations – in other words, that their reason brings articulated values to bear upon their behaviour. In this sense, morality is unique to humans, in that it is only in the case of other human beings that we can appreciate the intellectualising of actions and outcomes that thinking morally involves.  

That does not mean that other species cannot, in theory, act morally; simply that, if they did so, we would have no means of knowing it. We can observe an animal in a quandary. I remember seeing an absolutely harrowing film in which a female elephant chose to remain with her dying calf, rather than follow the herd and leave it to die alone. By doing so, her own chances of survival were lessened.  Clearly, we cannot say that the elephant weighed all this up and then made her choice, but it is clear that the deeply ingrained need for survival was battling with, and lost to, the need to nurture and remain with her young.  We see that as morality, simply because – if intellectualised in human terms – it would indeed be a deeply moral altruistic decision. The elephant doesn’t think in those terms, because it is an elephant and has not taken an examination in ethical theory – but the impulses that lead an individual to act in one way or the other are hardly different. We cannot know what the elephant thinks, but equally we cannot know (and are presumptuous to assume) that the elephant does not think.

So how does this relate to oxytocin and neural pathways?

I think it is important not to fall into materialist traps here.  Oxytocin may indeed be the hormone that allows levels of trust and intimacy in social interaction – true for both humans and other species – but which came first, the interaction of the oxytocin? Neural pathways may develop with ever-increasing complexity within the cortex during the first years of life, but is that the result of experience, or the means by which one can have experience?  The answer, of course, is that it’s not an either/or. More likely some form of feedback loop is in operation. At the risk of an attack of Darwinitis (that wonderful condition, described by Ray Tallis, whereby natural selection is offered as an explanation for absolutely everything), increasing oxytocin might well be a sign that altruism, or care for the young, is generating better results in terms of survival. But that does not, in itself, suggest that we can abrogate all responsibility for our actions on the basis of a diminished quantity of a hormone; a lack of oxytocin is not a valid excuse for acting selfishly! More likely, oxytocin levels increase as a result of our being in situations where care is given and received.

David Hume argued that we have a natural ‘moral sentiment’, displayed by our natural revulsion at the sight of suffering and our natural altruism.  Reason, slave to the passions, builds moral systems upon that natural intuition.  Why has that approach – so obvious when you reflect upon it – not been more popular?  I sense that it has been set aside because it does not allow the intellectual satisfaction of closure on moral matters. Most other theories give the possibility of arguing in favour of a particular course of action and thereby justifying it intellectually.  Natural Law can battle things out against utilitarianism, but both sides are using reason and principles in order to establish an intellectual structure to evaluate (but not explain) behaviour. The reason it does not explain it is that it leaves out of account the deepest impulses that are the actual originators of what we do – modified by our social conditioning and (later) by our intellectual appreciation of what we hold to be of value in life. 

But such intellectual considerations are not the same as the natural desire to do what others might describe as ‘good.’ Would you want to fall in love with someone who was 100% utilitarian?  Or 100% rational, come to that?  Of course not!  Human nature is richly diverse and only partly tamed by intellect.

Our oxytocin level may indeed play a part in our behaviour, originating our impulse to care. If so, we can be happy that the origins of what we think of as moral behaviour pre-date the appearance of humankind.  We may be the only species to rationalise it, but we are certainly not the only species to discover that altruism can get positive results.

What is more problematic, however, is the fact that nature can sometimes also benefit from the opposite behaviour. Ant colonies, so well organised in themselves, are in a state of perpetual war with one another. Groups of animals help one another, but do so by defining their circles of care and excluding others. Hormones play an ambiguous role in life – altruism at one moment, aggression at the next.  In deciding how we should behave, and in controlling the behaviour of others, reason trumps hormones. Or so we hope – as we see in every sitcom depicting the relation between adults and their adolescent offspring. Hormones may ‘run riot’, generating unacceptable behaviour that reason attempts to restrain.

However, when it comes to ethical theory, it is worth keeping in mind the superficiality of any exclusively intellectual approach to human behaviour. If reason alone could determine behaviour, the world’s problems would long since have been solved. Sadly, or gloriously, human behaviour is more deeply and richly embodied.  

Pass the oxytocin capsules someone!

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Through Mud and Barbed Wire

Through Mud and Barbed Wire, my book on the response of two great thinkers - Paul Tillich and Teilhard de Chardin - to their experience of the horrors of Verdun, has been reviewed in the on-line edition of The Philosopher.

How do we cope with suffering? How do we make sense of life when everything around us seems to be changing and coming apart? How is it possible to stay positive when the future seems hopeless and every way forward blocked? The horrors of trench warfare provide the most stark of contexts for asking these questions.

From the review:

'... the tale draws the reader in as it progresses. Within a few chapters, we are captivated.' 

'... Thompson takes a fairly uncommon approach to his subject. This is not just about issues. It is just as much about context: people, geography, history, society, religion—and his own, personal passion. In short, he takes an holistic approach. It is reflected in the title: Through Mud and Barbed Wire. This book will be about tangibles, not mere ideas. The strategy greatly enriches the book.' 

To take a look at the review, visit:
http://www.the-philosopher.co.uk/2019/09/review-through-mud-and-barbed-wire.html?spref=tw

And to see the book's page on my website, along with sample material, visit:
bit.ly/Mudand


Copies are available from £7.99 / $11.50 for the paperback
and from £1.99 / $2.99 for the e-book edition.


Wednesday, 25 September 2019

A Chateau for the Night

My wife and I have recently spent a couple of days at a most amazing place in the Tarn department of southwestern France. Chateau de la Vère sits, as its name implies, alongside the River Vère in the village of Larroque. (But don’t forget to include the accent, if you Google it, for the River Vere is located far away in eastern Georgia!)

At first we couldn’t quite believe we had arrived at the right place. Arranged through Booking.com we had assumed that our bed-and-breakfast destination would be something of a chateau morphed into a conventional hotel. This is anything but!

The place looked deserted, but found the main door unlocked. We knocked and called and pushed at the door. The clank as it opened echoed through the downstairs rooms. Was this the start of some weird movie? We expected a stooped servant to shuffle across the flagstones, keys in hand. Had we made some disastrous mistake? 

Eventually, the lady of the chateau appeared and seemed almost surprised to see us, accepting and examining our booking sheet with bemused curiosity, a hand-rolled cigarette trembling elegantly in her other hand. But no, she welcomed us, and took us us up, through empty and echoing rooms, to an upper corridor and so to our palatial bedroom.  And, yes, she confirmed that we were the only guests.



Nothing quite prepares you for life as the sole occupants of the main part of a chateau.  Is this really where we are meant to have our breakfast?


 You look out onto the village and the cliffs beyond. The village itself is charming and quiet in September, with lime trees shedding leaves that blow in waves across the road and the whole landscape about to turn the cusp towards autumn. Its warm-coloured stone still radiated the cumulative heat of summer’s sun.



Looking back down from the hill, the village is laid out between cliffs and river, with the chateau at its southern tip, with its swimming pool clearly visible at the far end of its garden.

Nearby, the closest places to eat, proved to be two equally charming villages – Puycelsi to the south, a perfect mediaeval town perched on a hilltop, and Bruniquel to the north, similarly placed on a peak dominated by its castle.  For me, this area of the Tarn, which I had not visited before, is exactly what vacations in France should be about. It is local, authentic and beautiful. True, in peak season it will receive an influx of tourists, which may well detract from its mediaeval (in Puycelsi and Bruniquel) or 18thcentury splendour (Larroque), but as it quietens into September, with places preparing to shut for the winter, it takes on a new charm.

As we were sitting by the river in Larroque, we encountered that most public of celebrations in France – the departure of a newly married couple, heading from the Marie towards the reception venue, their car extravagantly decorated with balloons and trailing noisy tins, and a few dozen other cars all hooting their horns in a cacophony of celebration. “Where’s the bride?” Marianne asked me, not having noticed that both men in the wedding car were wearing suits. We waved, and returned the smiles of the noisy entourage. The cars crossed a narrow bridge and sped away into the countryside, shattering the peace of the hills with their horns. 

Welcome to rural France; there’s nowhere else quite like it.


Thursday, 5 September 2019

Political chaos!





Despairing of politics in the UK?  Leave? Remain? Deal? No-deal? Crash out? Orderly exit? Parliament and the executive? Role of the Speaker? Political parties tearing themselves apart?
To turn on the news these days is to become re-immersed in what increasingly resembles a rather loosely-plotted soap opera, with constant flash-backs to previous episodes... Hasn't this all been argued to death months ago? ... and no satisfactory ending in sight.

The danger is that complex issues are presented as though they may be resolved by a straightforward binary choice. To resolve a problem like Brexit (if it can ever be properly resolved) we need absolute clarity of thinking, but also the ability to listen to opposing views (rather than shout them down, caricature them, or simply ignore them) and to handle the issue with the sensitivity it deserves. Sometimes, in the midst of the fray, we simply need to stand back, take a deep breath, and think.  Hopefully, the storm will pass and we can get back to taking a more measured view of how we want to live and the role of our country in the wider world.

Perhaps one way of getting that space might be to pick up an introduction to Political Philosophy and reflect on the principles that should underpin our democracy. Political ideas are potent and immediate, but they have a long history, an appreciation of which might help to get present problems into perspective. Here's an extract from my book introducing the basics of Political Philosophy...

Some see philosophy’s main task as clarifying concepts. That would imply that the task of philosophy is to look at the key ideas in political debate – freedom, rights, justice, democracy, and so on – and to examine what people really mean by them, and how they are related to one another. That is the sort of philosophy that clears the mind but does not necessarily change the world.
But there is another tradition of political philosophy. Marx famously declared that he wanted to change the world, rather than just interpret it, and many other political thinkers have impacted on the course of history. Rousseau’s writings were to influence the French Revolution and Locke’s the American Declaration of Independence. Nietzsche’s work was read by Mussolini and Hitler (and sadly misused by them), and socialist ideas lay behind the setting up of the welfare state and health service in Britain. Today, neo-conservative views in the United States have influenced, among other things, American foreign policy with respect to the Middle East and the Iraq War. Discussions about terrorism and how to resist it are not just about words, but are desperately important in terms of security and human rights. So political concepts are not just there to be clarified, they need to be examined.
Political ideas are potent; but are they valid?  The only way to establish that is by taking a two-stage look at them. First of all they need to be clarified: What exactly do we mean by fairness, or equality, or democracy? But secondly, they need to be justified: On what basis can you argue for the fairness of this or that political system? On what basis can you justify taking military action? 
Like ethics, political philosophy is therefore concerned with the practical. It addresses issues of immediate concern to everyone, and examines ideas that have – for good or evil – shaped the lives of whole generations.  When some crucial event takes place – a war, an economic crisis, a global threat, a spate of terrorist attacks – people will naturally ask fundamental questions about how we should deal with such things. Politicians are required to find answers and implement them, but they need to be guided by principles about how we should live and how society should be governed. So circumstances are always throwing up new issues for political philosophy.


There are plenty of books around on Political Philosophy, but if you would like to take a look at what mine covers, along with some other older comments - go to...
www.philosophyandethics.com/Political Philosophy.htm

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Colours of Yellowstone!


We've just returned from a visit to the USA. The National Parks are always spectacular, even with the crows of visitors in August, and most stunning of all, for me, was the range of colour in the geothermal areas of Yellowstone.  Everyone photographs the dramatic Grand Prismatic Spring on Midway Geyser Basin, but turn away from it westwards, and you face this modest gem - Emerald Lake.  I'll be posting more photographs of the trip on my website in the near future. Plenty more travel and landscape photography on my website at  bit.ly/MelPhil 

Monday, 26 August 2019

Starting A Level Philosophy and Ethics?

I hope you enjoy your course.

Free notes on a number of topics in Philosophy of Religion and Ethics are available at bit.ly/MelTNotes, and my basic introductory textbook, previously published by Hodder Education and used successfully by thousands of students, is now available from only £1.99 in the e-book version. See details of what it has to offer at  bit.ly/PhilandEthics .

And good luck!

Mel Thompson
www.philosophyandethics.com


Friday, 10 May 2013

God as projection - a look at Feuerbach


Thoughts on re-reading Ludwig Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity (1841)

Along with Marx and Freud, Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72) is generally held to be a detractor of religion, seeing it as a dangerous illusion and merely a projection of aspects of humankind, reducing it to the human and thereby depriving it of its power, mystery and supernatural beliefs. For Feuerbach, God is no more than a projection of the highest aspirations of Man.

But re-reading his The Essence of Christianity (in the translation made by George Eliot in 1853, from which all the quotes here are taken), I have been struck by just how positive and useful his analysis is, and how he can be something of a bridge between the older tradition of natural religion (deism) – which has its focus primarily on concepts to be believed – and what actually happens in the practice of religion.

First of all, as the basis of all that he has to say, is the conviction that religion is distinctive and positive human quality. His opening sentence:
‘Religion has its basis in the essential difference between man and the brutes – the brutes have no religion.’
And that difference is consciousness, the ‘feeling of self as an individual’ so that ‘man has both an inner and outer life.’ He therefore sees ‘feeling’ as the key to religion. ‘Whatever is God to a man, that is his heart and soul’ so that ‘Consciousness of God is self-consciousness, knowledge of God is self-knowledge.’

The problem is that we generally see the self as something separate from the world and separate from the ‘feelings’ that it experiences (blame Descartes for that). Once feeling is separated from self, Feuerbach suggests that, in bondage to what he calls ‘vulgar empiricism’ and incapable of appreciating the grandeur of feeling, we slip back and ask if God exists or not. [And, I would suggest, we equally start to ask whether we exist or not, with vulgar empiricism leading to the nonsense of identifying the self with the physical brain.] I sense that Feuerbach’s religious feeling is to be captured in the present moment – rather like the Buddhist exercise of mindfulness – and is lost when subjected to subsequent analysis.

Feuerbach is wonderful at one-liners; born a century later, he would have been a natural for the advertising industry!  On p40 he says:
‘Existence out of self is the world; existence in self is God. To think is to be God.’
But in case you assume that this suggests a universal, non-anthropomorphic concept of deity, he adds that such a God can have no more significance for religion than a fundamental general principle has for special sciences. It is ‘merely the ultimate point of support.’ What he is after is much more immediate and religiously significant.

He suggests that religion is essentially a matter cultivating a sense of self within the world in a way that is distinctively human; that finding peace with God is a matter of becoming at one with one’s true nature.

I was surprised at just how much of the book Feuerbach devotes to specific Christian beliefs and teachings, and of the human and felt dimension of the sacraments. But towards the end, he delivers what really is a crushing argument against those who attempt to prove the existence of God:
‘The contradiction to the religious spirit in the proof of the existence of God lies only in this, that the existence is thought of separately, and thence arises the appearance that God is a mere conception, a being existing in idea only…
but he wants to emphasise that, for religion, God cannot just be a concept, a thought…
‘for to religion God is not a matter of abstract thought, - he is a present truth and reality.’

In other words, he is affirming God as a living experience – but doing so NOT in the sense that there is an ‘external’ God of whose existence one is convinced, but that God is essentially a feature of one’s own feeling life. So he is able to say:
‘The proofs of the existence of God have for their aim to make the internal external, to separate it from man.’
 ‘God is not seen, not heard, not perceived by the senses. He does not exist for me, if I do not exist for him; if I do not believe in a God, there is no God for me.’

He recognises that a consequence of there being no ‘sensational existence’ for God is atheism. Everything else that exists does so because we can sense it (or – I would add – consider it something capable of being sensed), and the ‘vulgar empiricism’ that dominates our lives takes this as the only genuine meaning of existence. So Feuerbach is able to say that, if I do not raise myself above the life of the senses, God has no place in my consciousness. He exists only in so far as he is felt, thought and believed in – shades of a 19th century version of Don Cupitt here, I sense!.  At one and the same time, God therefore exists and does not exist. He is real, but not empirical.

The problem is that, once religious people try to articulate God, they start to project him as having a separate existence.
‘But when this projected image of human nature is made an object of reflection, of theology, it becomes an inexhaustible mire of falsehoods, illusions, contradictions and sophisms.’ (p123)

You can’t get much more critical than that, but in the end Feuerbach wants to reclaim something of value from all the sophistry. He sees the essence of religion as the identity of the human and the divine, but the forms that religion takes have exactly the opposite effect, namely to separate man and God.  Rather, he wants to point (in a most conventional religious way) to the role of love: ‘Love identifies man with God…’ (p247) and then contrasts love with faith:
‘Love has God in itself: faith has God out of itself; it estranges God from man, it makes him an external object.’
And another of those wonderful one-liners:
‘The secret of theology is anthropology.’

It seems to me that the implication of all this – which is surely good theology – is that God is encountered in and through loving relationships, not because he endorses them, but because he is them.

Far from offering a negative critique of religion, Feuerbach makes a positive contribution to ‘natural religion’ here, and one that makes explicit what is implicit in much religious language, namely that the term ‘God’ should be used for an experienced reality, not for a possible external entity.  The very idea of asking whether God exists implies a failure to understand what ‘God’ means.

A deist might say that belief in God is a matter of seeing structure, meaning and purpose in the universe. But surely that does not add anything to the statement that there appears to be structure, meaning and purpose in the universe – there is no added extra corresponding to God.  What a glib atheist assumption misses, however, is the further point that reality is essentially something in which we live and with which we engage, not just something about which we speculate.

Clearly, if all Feuerbach meant was that theology could be replaced by anthropology – an attempt to speak of an objectively existing God replaced by objective statements about humankind, then his analysis does not do justice to what religion seeks to achieve – namely a deeper engagement with life, rather than an additional layer of speculation about life.

Marx and Freud both saw religious belief as a matter of projection, whether it is of a future compensation for present troubles, or a replacement for a lost father figure. Superficially, Feuerbach offers – and indeed lies behind – the same line of thinking, with God as a projection of the highest human ideals.  But that would be to miss some of the key ideas in The Essence of Christianity, which is – as the title implies – an attempt to get to what religion is fundamentally about.

The key problem is that he sees religion as subverting moral sentiments. In other words, ascribing to God what should be ascribed to man.  So, for example, a person who is helped to recover from an illness may ascribe that recovery to God rather than to the medical team who helped to bring it about. In other words, it has an essentially alienating effect of human awareness. This, of course, is why Feuerbach is seen as an important influence on Marx.

The other danger, which he outlines on p270, is that, if morality is made to depend upon divine authority, then ‘infamous things can be justified and established’. The problem is that human nature mixes the best with that which is sometimes the very worst, and both can be projected onto God, once that supposed object of projection is established and believed in.

Of course, like many of the most severe critics of religion, Feuerbach started off not as a philosopher but as a theologian. He experienced the discussion of religion from the inside, and was therefore able to get a broader perspective on his work, seeing his idea of God as existing only as a object of faith as something implicit in Protestantism.

So where do we place Feuerbach in the development of religious ideas? His rejection of both transcendence and immortality established him as a critic as well as an interpreter of Hegel, to whom he had turned after his study of Theology, and as a key ‘left’ or ‘young’ Hegelian. For him, Hegel is too abstract; too concerned with pure thought rather than reality itself. He wants to root both religion and philosophy in human life and experience. And this, of course, is why he can be seen as a stepping stone between Hegel and Marx. Reality is human reality, and any projection, whether into religion or philosophical speculation, is a wilful avoidance of the concrete reality with which we have to deal.

Feuerbach sees religion as essentially unhealthy as it deflects human interest away from the reality of life and to an abstract and ‘objective’ concept of God or immortality, and this, of course, is part of his legacy via Marx. Historically, religion may have had an important role in pointing to those qualities that are fundamental to human wellbeing, but it now impedes human progress, by continually projecting those qualities outwards on to the deity, rather than working with them in the human sphere. Rather than expecting supernatural forces to sort out our problems, we need to engage directly to the issues of human life and welfare.

As I read Feuerbach, I get continual hints at strands of philosophy and theology that he anticipated.  Death of God theology is in there, as is politically engaged religious thinking; I get hints of Bonheoffer, Van Buren and Tillich, but also Heidegger and the existentialist movement.

Yes, religion can be unhealthy and projection can be an avoidance mechanism, but Feuerbach also pointed out that the religious impulse works at a level deeper than the subject-object split, an engaged level of reality which is killed off by subsequent rational analysis. Yes we do project – but we do it all the time; you don’t have to be in analysis to recognise just how often we project aspects of ourselves onto the external environment, or onto other people, or how often we use abstract concepts – like fairness or democracy - to avoid focusing on our inner uncertainties.

My personal view is that Feuerbach’s work has a great deal to contribute to the humanist and atheist appreciation of religion. It is suitably critical to appeal to those who are inherently suspicious of all religious ideas, but it also unpacks the mechanism by which religious awareness has resulted in the unfortunate projection of reality into a supernatural realm that it does not need, and which now impedes its intellectual acceptance.