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The Imitation of God

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    The Imitation of God: Anthropomorphism, Theology and the Moral Idea in Kant's Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone

    Immanuel Kant, in his Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, observes that "we create a God for ourselves" (Kant, 157). When read out of context, such a sentence may be interpreted as the basis for the charges of irreligious propaganda that were levelled at Kant upon the publication of this work (Greene, Introd., xxxii- xxxiv). However, a closer reading of the passage, situated within the broader argument of the text, suggests that Kant is here not so much being irreligious as realistic. This essay will argue that, in this passage as in Religion as a whole, Kant is attempting to find a justification for religious thought and moral behaviour, not in revelation, but in reason. Reinforced by reason, a universal human morality may therefore be agreed upon which is not bound by the limits of culture or individual religious theology.

    It would be useful, at this point, to quote the entire sentence under discussion here. Kant writes:

    Anthropomorphism, scarcely to be avoided by men in the theoretical representation of God and His Being, but yet harmless enough . . . is highly dangerous in connection with our practical relation to His will, and even for our morality; for here we create a God for ourselves, and we create him in a form in which we believe we shall be able most easily to win Him over to our advantage and ourselves escape from the wearisome uninterrupted effort of working upon the innermost part of our moral disposition. (Kant, 156-57)

    This passage requires careful reflection for it is easy to see how Kant may be misread here. Is anthropomorphism "harmless" or "highly dangerous"? Is his declaration that "we create a God for ourselves" a statement of atheism? If we create God, do we not also create our moral ideas, and if so how can a universal morality be said to exist?

    The resolutions of some of these questions lie in Kant discussion of the relationship of reason to revelation elsewhere in his text. Kant, it may be argued, is only too aware of how closely he is coming to challenging the authority of Christian scripture, which holds that God made man in His own image and, in the incarnation of Christ assumed mortal form. Indeed, this issue is central to his whole argument, for part of his intention in Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone is to liberate moral thought from the idolatry, and subservience to authority, that institutionalized religion demands.

    Kant confronts the issue of situating his argument with respect to the figure of Christ by arguing that there is no need to resort to the authority of a Deity, or any form of divine revelation, to support moral thought. He observes:

    We need, therefore, no empirical example to make the idea of a person morally well-pleasing to God our archetype; this idea as an archetype is already present in our reason . . . only a faith in the practical validity of that idea which lies in our reason has moral worth. (Kant, 56)

    It is clear to see how Kant's words here may be troubling to a religious Christian. This unease would only be aggravated by Kant's further argument that even if a "truly godly-minded man" descended from heaven to earth, and had in the course of his career on earth produced "immeasurably great moral good" this would not be enough to prove him anything other than a man (Kant, 57).

    It is important to note that Kant is not here advocating atheism. Rather, he is only noting the prosaic fact that humans use the template of human nature – "man is the measure of all things" – by which to interrogate the world around them. Indeed, we see this debate over anthropomorphism being conducted today in the controversy over the question of animal rights and medical testing. On the one extreme there are some medical experimentalists who argue that animals have no consciousness, and so it is ethical to inflict pain upon them in the interests of science. On the other extreme there are anthropomorphists who read into animal behaviour characteristics of emotion and consciousness which perhaps more reasonably may be seen to be human qualities.

    Kant perceives the issue of the moral idea in human affairs in much the same way. He notes that:

    It is indeed a limitation of human reason, and one which is ever inseparable from it, that we can conceive of no considerable moral worth in the actions of a personal being without representing that person, or his manifestation, in human guise. (Kant, note, 58)

    Recognizing the potential for a misreading of these words as encouraging atheism, Kant goes on to observe that "Scriptures too accommodate themselves to this mode of representation" (Kant, note, 58). Kant defines this as a "schematism of analogy" which is a facet of human nature, for we cannot explain anything except in terms of what we already know. For example, literary or media representations alien worlds in science fiction and fantasy are invariably extensions or projections of contemporary human knowledge, as we cannot conceive of something fundamentally alien to ourselves.

    Kant relates this to, yet distinguishes it from, anthropomorphism which – although like schematism of analogy is "scarcely to be avoided" – has "from the moral point of view (in religion) most injurious consequences" (Kant, note, 58). It is important to note Kant's careful choice of words with regard to this issue. He observes later that "it is in no way reprehensible [immoral] to say that every man creates a God for himself" although this "does indeed sound dangerous" (Kant, note, 157). The danger, for Kant, lies in the tendency of humans to find the basis for their moral ideas in an external authority

    As noted above, Kant considers that a universal "archetype" of moral action exists within human reason (Kant, 57-58). The source of this archetype or ideal being from God, then men must assess the words or revelation of a supposed divinity in terms of this archetype:

    Hence there can be no religion springing from revelation alone, i.e., without first positing that concept, in its purity, as a touchstone. Without this all reverence for God would be idolatry. (Kant, note, 157)

    Kant argues that there exists only one true "religion" but many faiths (e.g. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism etc). In the context of history, revelation has been used by religious authorities to reinforce their own political power and, in the process, justify appalling immoral behaviour (Kant, 98-99). Indeed, Kant may be seen to foreshadow Karl Marx's famous declaration that religion is an "opium for the masses" when he notes how institutionalized faith is often "a sort of opium to the conscience" (Kant, note, 72). It is for this reason that he attempts to discover a basis for moral action that does not lie in 6 revealed authorities such as the Ten Commandments.

    Kant, as noted above, considers that the basis for a universal moral idea – transcending faith or cultural barriers – may be found through reason. Through the application of reason to revelation, we can avoid the dangers of idolatry, or the blind obedience to an idol or authority, that has led to immeasurable suffering throughout history.

    A critic of Kant may suggest that his text is itself an idol. There is some degree of truth in this accusation, for academic citation shares many of the same characteristics – reference to external authority to justify positions – as the study of revealed scripture. However, Kant's defense of Religion Within Limits to those that would censor it – namely that he intended it solely for philosophical and theological scholars (Greene, Introd., xxxiv) – is worth citing here for, although the text may be something of an idol, its limited readership would limit its capacity for moral damage. Unlike the Koran, or the Bible, or the Communist Manifesto, is it very difficult to simplify Kant's complex arguments to make them acceptable to a popular readership.

    In contrast to this limited damage, the potential of Religion Within Limits to serve as an antidote to idolatry – especially to those scholars and theologians who interpret scriptural texts for a mass audience – is vast. Kant's argument is essentially an attempt to convince these individuals to give priority to morality over theology, and to interrogate their own easy assumptions about moral ideals and behaviours more closely. Revealed religion, from Kant's perspective, requires reason to function as a critical touchstone, to distinguish the truly moral and divine from the idols fashioned by human cultures. In this fashion, reason may serve an important role as a supporter of faith.


    • Kant, Immanuel. Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone. Trans. with Introduction by Theodore Greene and Hoyt Hudson. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1960.

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