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1 - Religion and Reason

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 May 2020

Allen W. Wood
Stanford University, California


Kant’s concept of religion is recognizing all duties as divine commands. The concept of God employed in religion is an analogical or symbolic concept. Kant’s relation to Christianity was characterized by a tension between Pietism and Enlightenment rationalism. Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason aims to test a hypothesis: that there is such a thing as a religion of pure reason and that its relation to revealed (Christian) religion need not be one of conflict but can and should be harmonious. The publication of Kant’s book involved conflict with the Prussian authorities, in which Kant adopted a position of principled obedience while resisting unjust repression and conforming to the rule of law.

Kant and Religion , pp. 1 - 26
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2020

Kant’s philosophy is usually seen historically as a retreat from religion and part of the secularization of modern culture under the sway of Enlightenment reason. Many features of Kant’s philosophy support this picture. His critique was influential in discrediting the traditional metaphysical arguments for God’s existence and the immortality of the soul. His moral philosophy replaces God’s will with our own rational will as legislator of moral laws. Kantian aesthetics breaks decisively with the tradition that connects the experience of beauty directly with a divine order, tracing the experience of the beautiful instead to the harmony of our faculties of imagination and understanding. Kant treats experience of the sublime not as awe at the divine majesty but as our awareness of the way our own moral vocation transcends nature’s power.Footnote 1

Kant also offered a moral argument for God’s existence, but it is usually seen as an afterthought – a pitifully weak or even half-hearted attempt to repair what his critique had successfully destroyed. Kant’s Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason is viewed by the religious as an attempt to reduce religion to morality, while secularists are unable to take seriously Kant’s attempts to interpret Christian doctrines sympathetically. Both camps see Kant’s treatment of Christianity in the Religion as a kind of Trojan horse within Christianity. Kant’s “rational” religion is seen as secular morality appropriating religious concepts for its own purposes, while showing incomprehension of, and even contempt for, authentic religion.

As regards Kant’s influence, it would be pointless to dispute this picture, since (like much that passes for “intellectual history”) it is self-perpetuating and thereby self-verifying. We assert (tautologically) that Kant has had such-and-such influence because we understand him to have had that influence. The story is then only about those who tell it; “Kant” becomes merely a placeholder for our prejudices about him. We omit the inconvenient fact that our narrative grossly falsifies Kant’s own self-understanding and the intended historical effect of his philosophy. It treats the common misrepresentations as true and interprets Kant’s real aims as if they were a false mask concealing his intent.

This book tries to present critically but sympathetically Kant’s project in the Religion. What Kant can teach us about religion and secularism in the modern world must emerge indirectly, as we think about what might be said for and against his project. I think it could teach us a lot, if we would let it, about the potentialities of religion in the modern world and the ways they have fallen short of being actualized.

1.1 What Is “Religion”?

In Kant’s philosophy, the word “religion” (like many other words in his philosophical vocabulary) has a precise technical meaning: “Religion (subjectively considered) is the recognition of all duties as divine commands” (R 6: 84, 153, cf. KpV 5:129, KU 5:460, MS 6:487–488, SF 7:36, VpR 28:997–999). It is typical of Kant, however, that this statement needs clarification. The qualification “subjectively considered” means that “religion” refers to the attitudes of individual human beings. A religious person is one who thinks of moral duties as having been commanded by God. Religion “objectively considered” might refer to further divine commands belonging to revealed religion, whose relation to rational religion we will explore in this book. Kant insists that there is only one religion because the subjective attitude to which the term refers is the fundamentally same in all who regard their duties as divine commands. Kant distinguishes religion from a faith (Glaube) – more precisely, an ecclesiastical faith (Kirchenglaube). There are many ecclesiastical faiths, corresponding to different communities of faith, with differing beliefs in alleged divine revelations, on which these various communities have been founded (R 6:107–108).

In the literature on Kant, it is sometimes said that he means to “reduce religion to morality.”Footnote 2 This is false, and importantly false. For Kant there is no ethical duty for us to be religious – to think of our duties as commanded by God. But as we will see in Chapter 2, Kant holds that assent to God’s existence on practical grounds is something morality gives us reasons to do. In the preface to the Religion, Kant puts it this way: “On its own behalf morality in no way needs religion (whether objectively … or subjectively)” (R 6:3), but, on the other hand, “morality inevitably leads to religion” (R 6:6). Kant would deny that a morally good person has to be a religious person, though he argues that morality provides reasons for being religious. The right way to describe the relation between morality and religion for Kant is to say that religion goes beyond morality, adding something to it that enriches the moral life.

One thing that clearly follows from Kant’s technical sense of the word is that “religion” for Kant is theistic, perhaps even monotheistic. This may look like a serious limitation if we think of “religion” as including polytheism, whether in the ancient world or in non-Western religious culture or in nontheistic traditions such as Buddhism. But it doesn’t mean that Kantian philosophy could not be related in interesting ways to these other religious traditions.Footnote 3 It means only that they do not fall under the technical concept of “religion,” which it suits Kant’s purposes to use.

Kant normally assumes that a religious person believes there is a God. But he explicitly denies that this belief is strictly required for a person to be religious. A person can be religious as long as that person recognizes that if there is a God, then all ethical duties would be commanded by God (MS 6:487). Kant says that the “minimum of theology” necessary for religion is that the concept of God is the concept of a possible being (R 6:153–154 n). In his treatment of rational theology, Kant thinks we are capable of establishing that much, as well as offering ourselves a fairly detailed account of the attributes of such a possible being (VpR 28:998).

For Kant there is much more to being religious than thinking of God as commanding your duties. As we will see in later chapters, Kant thinks of religion as involving attitudes of awe and gratitude toward God. We will see that you must strive to be well-pleasing to God – seeking his forgiveness. Traditionally, God is the father of a religious community, regarded as a family.

1.2 Religion as Essentially Symbolic

What does it mean to say that God is a possible being in the sense required for religion? For Kant there is an important distinction between merely logical possibility: the noncontradictoriness of a concept, and the real possibility of an object, which requires that our concept of the object have thinkable content – or, as Kant sometimes says, “sense and significance” (Sinn und Bedeutung). To think of God as commanding our duties, we must think of God as having an understanding and a will. For even the “minimum of theology,” therefore, we need a concept of God as a being with something analogous to human cognition and conation, hence analogous to the sensory content found in the concepts of objects we can cognize empirically. Since God is an idea of reason, not a possible object of empirical cognition, no sensory content is available from a theoretical standpoint. Kant thinks it can be supplied from a practical standpoint – through symbols (Ak 20:279–280, KpV 5:119–121, 134–141, KU 5:353).Footnote 4

Religion provides us with a vocabulary – not merely of words but also of thoughts, feelings, images, narratives, and emotions – through which to experience our lives. For Kant this vocabulary consists of what he calls symbols. Religion is a way of thinking about our human existence in terms of symbols of the divine and also symbols relating our lives to the divine.Footnote 5

That religion essentially involves symbolic thinking is a fact often neglected by both religious people and secular critics of religion. For both, the symbolic character of religion makes the content of religious belief harder to understand, and its neglect therefore makes life easier for them – but easy not in a good way. It makes religious beliefs easier for critics of religion to reject because when claims that are symbolic in meaning are treated as if they were not, then they often appear simply false, as when they come into direct conflict with scientific or historical truths, or seem to offer a view of the world that competes with science but is far less plausible when judged by rational standards. The same neglect, however, can make religious claims easier for religious people to accept because it facilitates their doing so dogmatically and uncritically, based on tradition, authority, and bigotry. It also seems to relieve them of the responsibility of interpreting the symbols of their faith. The failure to meet this responsibility inevitably impoverishes their religion. It often subverts or corrupts the human meaning of what they profess to believe. Literalism in religion risks turning truths into lies and good into evil.

For Kant the role of symbolism in religious thinking is a consequence of his most fundamental doctrines about thought and cognition.Footnote 6 Kant’s critique of reason famously denies that it is possible for us to have any theoretical or demonstrative knowledge of God’s existence or any cognition of God’s attributes. Cognition requires not only concepts but also intuitions – immediate cognitive contact with an object cognized through these concepts. Human intuition is sensible, but God is not a possible object of our senses, and we have no supersensible cognitive capacities that would permit us to achieve any cognition of God or his attributes. Our theoretical cognition can never represent God as anything but a logically possible concept of reason.

These limitations, however, do not preclude what might be called – and even what Kant himself might call – an “experience” of God. This is not in a sense of “experience” that refers to theoretical cognition but in one that refers to what we accept on practical grounds or as part of aesthetic experience. Such experiences are symbolic in character. Symbolic presentations of a concept correspond to sensible or intuitive ones but are importantly distinct from them. Theoretical cognition might arise from schematic presentations of a pure or a priori concept that enable the concept to be applied directly to empirical instances (KU 5:351, 352, cf. Anth 7:191). Ideas of reason (such as God or the ideal of human moral perfection), however, are pure concepts for which no direct or schematic presentation can be given. Symbols are essential to giving concrete or intuitive application to ideas of reason. All thinking about God as a really possible being, therefore, must be symbolic. “All our cognition of God is merely symbolic” (KU 5:353). (“Merely” here contrasts symbolic with empirical cognition.) When we represent our duties as divine commands, we are thinking symbolically about morality, simply because we are thinking about its relation to God.

Symbols are indirect sensible presentations, by way of analogy. Analogy for Kant is not a similarity between objects but a sameness (in the relevant respects) between the way we think about different objects (P 4:357, cf. KU 5:464, VpR 28:1023). Thoughts about our relation to God present the realities of our moral life to us indirectly, symbolically, in an aesthetically or emotionally significant way. But to think of an object by way of analogy calls our attention to our own thinking. It invites us to interpret our symbolic thoughts and the emotions they evoke. This means: to reflect critically on the thoughts we are having and assume responsibility for our interpretation of the symbols, rather than merely losing ourselves in our emotions. As beings who exercise rational agency, we must be both feeling beings and thinking beings.

Kant holds that it is one of the functions of “aesthetic ideas” to represent the supersensible. Aesthetic ideas are intuitive representations that suggest an inexhaustible association of thoughts that can never be adequately grasped in any determinate concept (KU 5:313–317). Kant illustrates aesthetic ideas by (pagan) examples of the sublimity and majesty of the divine: the eagle of Jupiter and the peacock of Juno (KU 5:314–316). Kant also associates the emotions occasioned by the feeling of the sublime with the deity venerated by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; he argues that the strength of the religious emotions in these ancient monotheistic faiths depended precisely on the fact that this deity could not be an object of the senses in the form of a “graven image” (KU 5:274). The religious power of scripture, in Kant’s view, depends on understanding the words of scripture symbolically (R 6:110 n, 111, 136, 171, 176). Scripture often elicits emotional understanding of human situations by way of narratives and parables that move us but also cry out for interpretation if they are to apply thoughtfully to our lives.

Kant warns us that if we think about God in a way that is not symbolic, then we cannot think in a way that is genuinely religious. Either we lapse into “deism” (in Kant’s technical sense of the term) or fall into “anthropomorphism.” A deistic concept of God is a purely metaphysical concept of an ens realissimum. It is an idea of reason, a mere logical possibility, having no real content, no meaning for our lives and no religious significance for us. Religion must replace deism with “theism,” through symbolic representations of God. Far worse than deism from a religious standpoint is anthropomorphism. It thinks of God (superstitiously) as if he were a powerful yet personified natural force with power and will like a human tyrant (KpV 5:131, 136, KU 5:353, R 6:141, 168, VpR 28:1046). True religion is then replaced with slavish groveling and idolatry. Kant regards much of popular religion as susceptible to this abuse (VpR 28:1118).

As a natural and historical phenomenon, religion is as complex and ambiguous as human nature itself. The idea is still popular that there is such a thing as an irrationality that is above reason and that religion is it, or a part of it. This treacherous idea can be presented in entirely innocuous and even appealing forms, but Kant was well aware of its dangers. David Hume explored that dark side of religion in Natural History of Religion. For him, religion’s predilection for obscurity and unintelligibility is essential to it and closely allied to the ways it supports slavery, bigotry, and intolerance and even undermines morality (Hume, Reference Hume and Fieser1992). The history of every religion offers us powerful grounds to agree with Hume. Kant thinks, however, that Hume’s somber diagnosis captures only part of the truth. It can even be argued that Hume’s view of religion itself supports forms of religious irrationalism, by viewing them not as aberrations but instead treating the subversion of reason as the very essence of religion.Footnote 7

Kant’s conception of religion is closer to that of Lessing, who views religion’s vocation more hopefully as that of educating the human race (Lessing, Reference Lessing and Nisbet2005, pp. 217–240). Such a view enables us to see some varieties of religion as examples of true education and others as examples of miseducation. It can take account of the aspects of religion to which Hume calls attention, while at the same time offering a more hopeful picture of what religion has done for the human race and what it can still do for it. Lessing’s idea that divine revelation can be seen as a source of human reason itself has affinity with the way Kant tries to understand the relation between revealed and rational religion that we will be exploring in Chapters 7 and 8.

For Kant it is only through symbolism that the pure concept of God can be presented in a way that is meaningful to human beings and therefore truly religious. It therefore gets things exactly backwards to speak of a religious concept or doctrine as “only” symbolic, if we intend by that to contrast a symbolic interpretation with some more “genuine” presentation of the divine, described as a “literal” one. On the contrary, it is the merely literal (i.e., the anthropomorphic) interpretation of a doctrine or scriptural text that is not genuinely religious because it is impoverished, inauthentic, corrupt, and superstitious. It substitutes the dead letter for the living spirit that the letter truly signifies. “The ideal,” Kant says, is then “mistaken for an idol” (Anth 7:192). Another Kantian term here is “delusion” (Wahn): the mistaking of a representation for what it represents (R 6:170–171). Like the Bible and the Koran, Kant recognizes idolatry (avodah zera, shirk) as both a permanent temptation to true religion and also a mortal danger to it. But it would be pointless to want to destroy the symbols, as if that could free us from idolatry in our religious attitudes. The harder path, but the necessary one, is to understand the symbols and assume responsibility for their morally and religiously enriching interpretation.Footnote 8

When atheists reject religious doctrines, they usually do so on a literal interpretation. They then take them to be competing with natural science about the origin of the universe or of life, or with historical evidence about past events. So understood, religious doctrines are often fitting objects of intellectual contempt and even moral condemnation. What atheists reject in this way may be at least part of what many literalist (superstitious, anthropomorphic) believers actually believe. Literalism in religion is how many people perpetuate false archaic theories of the world and unreliable or merely legendary historical reports. It is how some subcultures use the authority of ancient scriptures to rationalize slavery, tyranny, racism, misogyny, and homophobia.

From a Kantian standpoint, these arguments (both pro and con) are not about religion but about anthropomorphic delusion or idolatry. To think authentically about true religion requires that we consider claims about God symbolically. No doubt it has been mainly philosophers and theologians who have raised the difficult questions about what religious symbols truly mean and how they are to be interpreted. Kant should be seen as this kind of philosopher. But it is a fundamental mistake to think that it is only philosophers or theologians for whom the meaning of words, concepts, and propositions used in a religious context is chiefly symbolic. In ancient times, people did not distinguish the literal meaning of religious thoughts from their symbolic significance. They seldom separated rudimentary scientific thoughts from symbolic religious thoughts. Ancient peoples also usually deferred to scriptures, traditions, and religious authorities without assuming responsibility for understanding the human (i.e., the symbolic) meaning of the thoughts they were accepting. This failure to think for themselves was an important part of the state of degrading intellectual minority from which human beings liberate themselves through the slow, never completed process Kant calls enlightenment (WA 8:35).

Kant thinks about the natural world in the ways we would regard as scientific. But he denies that science has the solution to all the problems of human existence. No doubt the motley collection of successful research programs we now call science can help us to understand ourselves better; many of them have already done so. But it is a far more doubtful wish that they, or perhaps some ideal combination of them, could ever suffice for us in dealing with all the absurdities and perplexities of the human condition. “Scientism” might be a pejorative term describing that ignorant, shallow, and humanly impoverished wish. One need not be hostile to science to think that human beings need other cultural resources besides science in dealing with the hard philosophical problems of consciousness, value, and freedom – as well as the existential perplexities of mortality, death, and grief; feelings of guilt and inadequacy; and hopes and fears – and in confronting the uncertain destiny of the things we care most about, including even the historical fate of the human institution of science itself. Kant regards religion as an important one of these resources. Both scientific and religious thinking might offer human beings the hope of deeper self-understanding. There is no reason why the two hopes would have to be competitors, still less, seen as mutually exclusive. It is a self-inflicted spiritual wound of modern culture – both on the side of science and of religion – when they are seen that way.Footnote 9

1.3 Religion in Kant’s Life

Kant was a polymath. His interest in philosophy grew out of his study of natural science: physics, astronomy, and chemistry. He helped to invent the emerging sciences of physical geography and anthropology. His pragmatic anthropology was enriched by his wide reading of travel narratives and also imaginative fictional literature. Kant’s theory of right exhibits detailed and subtle knowledge of Roman-based legal traditions and codes of his time. His writings on religion likewise display an acquaintance with scholastic and Lutheran theology. Kant understood his own philosophical outlook as religious.

Kant’s relation to the religion around him was, however, troubled and ambivalent. His father was a poor saddler (or leatherworker). His parents, especially his mother, were devout Pietists. Pietism was a revivalist movement among German Lutherans that resembles other eighteenth-century revivalist religious movements, such as Quakerism and Methodism in England, and Hasidism among eastern-European Jews. If the eighteenth century was an age of reason and enlightenment, it was also an age of religious revival and emotionalism. The two were essentially connected. Fear of rationalist science and liberal society led many to retreat into traditional and emotional religious faith to protect themselves from the disorienting and alienating experience of modernity. Enlightenment rationalism itself was an encounter of modern thought with contemporary religious revival. In this respect, Pietism was typical of the age. It stressed literal adherence to biblical teachings and the experiential side of the religious life. A conversion or “born again” experience was regarded by most Pietists as essential to salvation. Pietism was also a proselytizing movement that emphasized the priesthood of all believers, the equality of all human beings as children of God, and the eventual hope for a church universal.

When Kant’s Pietist pastor Franz Albert Schulz noticed exceptional intellectual gifts in the second son of the humble saddler, he arranged for Kant to be admitted to the newly founded Collegium Fredericianum. There Kant was not only exposed to Pietist zealotry but also prepared for a university education. In 1723, a year before Kant was born, Pietists in the court of Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia had persuaded the king to exile Christian Wolff, professor at Halle, who was then the leading German philosopher of the day and the leading figure in the German Enlightenment (Aufklärung). Kant grew up in an atmosphere determined by this conflict. Many academic philosophers, such as Martin Knutzen, with whom Kant studied, attempted to reconcile Pietist religion with Wolffian philosophy. Kant began his university studies with Latin literature but soon came to focus instead on the natural sciences. He then turned to metaphysical issues concerning their foundation. Kant’s concentration on ethics, politics, and religion came only later.

From quite early in his career, Kant was interested in the metaphysical concept of God and in defining the proper role that divine purposive design might play in the empirical investigation of nature. But it was only much later that religion, properly speaking – the moral and emotional significance of belief in God – came to be one of Kant’s important philosophical interests. In the Religion, as we will see, Kant argues that an “ethical community” or church, founded on a revealed scripture, is necessary for the moral progress of humanity. But he also mounts strong philosophical and moral criticisms of existing religious beliefs and practices. In consequence of these criticisms, Kant refused on principle to attend services at the cathedral in Königsberg, even when his position as rector of the university included the expectation that he should.

During the reign of King Friedrich II of Prussia (Frederick the Great) (1740–1786), there flourished a relatively wide range of theological views both among the clergy of the established Lutheran church and among scholars and university academics. Some of them applied standards of modern scholarship to scripture and tried to harmonize faith with modern life. Prominent among the latter were Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694–1768) and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781).Footnote 10 Reimarus was a leader in the field of historical biblical scholarship called neology: the application to scripture of the same critical methods that historians had applied to other ancient historical documents. Reimarus concluded that the historical claims of scripture were largely lacking in evidential support. Lessing, who was responsible for the posthumous publication of Reimarus’s Wolfenbüttel Fragments (1774–1778) held a more complex theological position, but one of its most prominent features was an insistence on religious toleration (conspicuously, of both Jews and Muslims, as well as different Christian sects).Footnote 11

The era of relatively free religious thought in Prussia came to an abrupt end in 1786 with the death of Frederick the Great and the accession of his nephew Friedrich Wilhelm II. The new monarch instituted a program of academic and clerical censorship under the administration of Johann Christoph Wöllner, whom Frederick the Great had described as a “scheming, swindling parson.” In 1788 Wöllner issued a new censorship edict, strengthening those that had been on the books (but seldom strictly enforced) during the reign of Frederick the Great. This met with resistance from the Superior Consistory of the Lutheran Church in Berlin, which had become relatively tolerant under Frederick’s reign. But Wöllner’s resolve was only stiffened by clerical opposition. Pastors suspected of unorthodox opinions were sometimes instructed to preach on certain texts (e.g., those involving miracle reports), and they lost their posts if they did not say the right things. Academic philosophers and theologians were subjected to a newly instituted Immediate Commission of Investigation. Those who had taught or written things disapproved of by the censorship were forced either to recant or to lose their professorships. Kant’s friend and colleague J. G. Hasse, a prominent neologist, retained his position only by recanting his earlier teachings, thereby destroying his scholarly reputation. Kant by 1790 was unlikely to be subject to such an extreme inquisition but might be faced with a similar dilemma if he were not cautious. For a proper understanding of the controversy in relation to Kant’s Religion and its publication, we must first introduce Kant’s project in that work.

1.4 The Experimental Testing of a Hypothesis

At the end of the preface to the first edition of the Religion, Kant described his project in the book as an “attempt” or “experiment” (Versuch) – or rather two of them. The first is “considering [biblical theology and pure rational religion] as a unity” (R 6:10). Thus the object of the Religion’s first experiment is to confirm the hypothesis that, as he puts it in the preface to the second edition, biblical religion and rational religion are related as concentric circles, and to refute the thought that the circles are merely overlapping, or even external to each other. Kant then proposes a second attempt (or experiment). He will start from some alleged revelation – specifically, the Christian – and to “hold fragments of this revelation, as a historical system, up to moral concepts, and see whether it does not lead back to the same pure rational system of religion” (R 6:12).Footnote 12

Before we look at Kant’s experiments themselves, we should first consider carefully the hypothesis they are supposed to test. Many people nowadays, whether religious or not, may find Kant’s hypothesis difficult to entertain it at all. The revealed religion Kant is proposing to use for his experiments is the Christian religion. People from other religious traditions could presumably consider an analogous hypothesis for their revealed faith. Kant’s hypothesis rests on a single basic background assumption, which sometimes steps into the foreground. It is that both rational and revealed religion have it as their fundamental aim to make better human beings of us. As religious people, subject to the commands of a perfect God, our basic end is our own moral improvement. It is on this that our eternal welfare must ultimately depend. If religion is essentially the recognition of our duties as divine commands, then whatever might be valuable about any religion must be valuable because it somehow contributes to our being the kind of people who would try to obey these commands or adopt other attitudes that belong to moral virtue, making us better human beings or (as Kant puts it) human beings “well-pleasing to God” (R 6:62). Religion should encourage feelings and attitudes of joy, gratitude, and hope because these attitudes are often part of our becoming good people or better people. Kantian religion, like Kantian ethics, does not identify moral goodness with happiness. Religion is not there only to offer us consolation or make us feel good irrespective of our efforts to become better human beings.

According to Kant’s hypothesis, then, pure rational religion and revealed religion constitute two concentric circles, both having the religious vocation of making us into better human beings. The hypothesis then contains three main elements or claims:

First, there is such a thing as pure rational religion. In other words, it is possible, on merely rational grounds, to regard our moral duties as commanded by God. This requires us to believe both that we have moral duties resting on rational grounds independent of divine revelation, but also that we can think of these same duties as commanded by God.

Second, the inner circle of pure rational religion lies entirely within that of empirical divine revelation. No rational duties directly conflict with duties recognized by revelation, and all rational duties can also be regarded as belonging to those recognized by revealed religion. If you are a Christian, you cannot think that parts of rational morality might not also be binding on you as a Christian. That requires that you interpret Christianity so that Christian revelation is compatible with rational morality. There can be no “teleological suspension of the ethical” – at least if that dubious Kierkegaardian phrase refers to valid divine commands directly to violate duties valid in rational ethics. If, for instance, revelation seems to say that God commands a father to murder his innocent son just as he might slaughter a sheep, then that portion of scripture must somehow be interpreted in a way compatible with the rational judgment that so monstrous an act is of course morally forbidden (R 6:87, 187). But use of rational argument to support an interpretation of revelation is in no way a rejection of the revelation.Footnote 13

Third, those who accept a rational religion in this sense can see Christian revelation as in some sense adding something more to what reason can strictly justify. There might be revealed doctrines that reason cannot know or even accept on rational grounds, and there might also be duties recognized by revealed religion that fall outside the duties of rational morality. But the revealed doctrines must be interpreted so that they do not contradict what we know or rationally believe, and the revealed duties must not include actions reason rightly judges to be immoral.

Some doctrines of revealed religion, therefore, belong also to rational religion, while others do not; but rational religion does not deny those doctrines of revealed religion that it does not include. We might describe these same relations between the outer circle of revealed religion and the inner circle of rational religion using a terminology Kant offers us in the introduction to the Critique of the Power of Judgment.Footnote 14 In the third Critique, Kant thinks of any set of concepts or principles as constituting a field (Feld). The part of this field within which cognition is possible for a given faculty is called that faculty’s territory (Boden, territorium); and the part within which the faculty is legislative is called its domain (Gebiet, ditio) (KU 5:174). In these terms, the doctrines and duties belonging to pure rational religion constitute both its territory and its domain. Some doctrines and duties belonging to revealed religion also fall within both the territory and the domain of rational religion. But some further doctrines and duties belong only to revealed religion; they must fall within the territory of rational religion, since their content must be rationally cognizable; but they fall outside its domain because they are legislated not by rational religion but only by revelation. Conversely, the doctrines and duties belonging to revealed religion must at least encompass those of rational religion, since they constitute the outer or wider concentric circle of religious faith. They must be part of the territory of revealed religion and also belong to its domain to the extent that revealed religion specifically includes them within its revealed legislation. But there will also be doctrines and duties falling outside the domain of rational religion that do belong to the domain of revealed religion.

Of course both rational and revealed religion must reject certain doctrines, or the apparent teachings of certain scriptures, when these are given certain (anthropomorphic or merely literal) interpretations: for instance, the claim that a good God could literally command a man to slaughter his own innocent son like a sheep. About the story of Abraham and Isaac, Kant says that an acceptable interpretation may “often appear to us as forced, in view of the text (of the revelation), and may be forced in fact; yet if the text can at all bear it, it must be preferred to the literal interpretation that either contains nothing for morality, or even works contrary to its incentives” (R 6:110). However, Kant does not presume to usurp the function of the biblical theologian in interpreting revealed doctrine. He argues on rational grounds for some interpretations of Christian doctrine over others but never sets himself up as a rival to ecclesiastical authorities for the purpose of declaring what is orthodox Christianity.

Kant advocates toleration of all religious convictions; thus there is no place in Kant’s religious thought for concepts such as “heresy” or “anathema” (cf. R 6:108–109).Footnote 15 Some religious sects, of course, do engage in plainly wrongful practices – human sacrifice, child molestation, deprivation of women’s rights over their own lives and bodies, burning people at the stake for following their consciences. These terrible practices are violations of right and should be coercively prohibited by any just state. But they are not “anathema.” Consider this analogy: Some uses of property are criminal, but the theory of property right does not need a category of “criminal property right”; likewise, revealed religion does not need a category of “anathema” to treat of wrongful practices. That they are wrongful practices is all that matters. But doctrines, however mistaken, and even when they are held in ways contrary to morality, are never wrongful. They never deserve malediction, execration, and coercive suppression.

1.5 The First Experiment

Kant’s first attempt or experiment (Versuch) is to see whether a “religion,” a recognition of all duties as divine commands, is possible within the boundaries of mere reason. “Mere” (bloß) (sometimes translated, or mistranslated, as “bare” or “naked”) here carries the sense of unaided (sc. by divine revelation), whether through scripture, tradition, or other empirical sources. The hypothesis to be confirmed is that when the teachings of revealed faith are properly interpreted, there is no conflict between them and the religion of pure reason (MS 6:488). The experiment is harder to carry out for Kant than it might be for those who think God can be cognized theoretically, either through pure reason or in some other way. Kant does, however, offer an argument, based on moral considerations, that we have rational practical grounds for acceptance of God’s existence. The argument is briefly summarized right at the beginning of the preface to the first edition of the Religion (R 6:3–6). We will be examining it in Chapter 2.

Hume’s Philo thinks how great God is must be an object of merely verbal dispute, like arguing over which effusive compliments to pay the beauty of Cleopatra (Hume, Reference Hume and Popkin1980, p. 80). For Kant it is nothing of the kind. For Kant, if there is a God, he must be a supremely perfect being, not merely a very great or very powerful being. Unless God is supremely perfect, there is no ground for symbolizing his will as perfectly good, and therefore no reason for thinking that his commands, if there are any, would coincide with our moral duties (VpR 28:1118). This also means that the idea of God is not an empirical concept but a concept of reason or an idea, to which no experience could ever be adequate. In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant considers how we acquire the concept of God – of a supremely perfect being or ens realissimum (KrV A571-583/B599-661). He argues that this concept is an idea in a technical Kantian sense of the term: it is a concept to which no possible experience could ever correspond (KrV A310-338/B366-396). We have this idea not because we do, or even could, have experience of its object but because our rational faculty infers it from concepts of finite things according to rational procedures. In his Lectures on the Philosophical Doctrine of Religion, Kant gives a fairly extensive account of the contents of a concept of God, that correspond to the concept found in scholastic and early modern philosophers (VpR 28:1012–1116, cf. KrV A567-583/B595-661, KU 5:438–453). But of course Kant thinks there can be no theoretical grounds, rational or empirical, for claiming cognition of the existence of such a being.

It is basic to Kant’s entire ethical theory that moral duties themselves are not grounded on belief in God (R 6:3–4). The foundation of ethics – the material end on which its categorical imperatives are based – is the dignity of humanity or rational nature as an end in itself (G 4:427–429). This is objective, holding independently of our contingent and fallible wills and equally independently of the necessarily good will of God. Kant could not be more explicit about this: “The essence of things does not alter through their external relations, and it is in accordance with that which alone constitutes the absolute worth of the human being, without thinking about such relations, that he must be judged by whomever it may be, even by the highest being” (G 4:439). Nevertheless, once we conceive of God as a supremely perfect being (an ens realissimum) and then symbolize God as a perfect will, consistency requires that we think of God as willing the performance of all genuine duties.

Clearly more is required to recognize duties as God’s commands than merely acknowledging duties and believing, assenting, or hoping that God exists. We must somehow think of God (again symbolically) as an authority commanding us to fulfill our duties. Kant’s moral argument for God’s existence contains some reasons for us to have this further thought. For when we think of God as proportioning happiness to worthiness or otherwise doing justice in the world, we think of God in the way we think of an ideally just ruler of a human community doing justice among its subjects. The formula of the “realm of ends” treats humanity as an ideal community in which all rational beings are members, but a supremely perfect rational being is thought of as its supreme head: “But a rational being belongs as a member to the realm of ends if in this realm it gives universal law but is also itself subject to these laws. It belongs to it as supreme head, if as giving law it is subject to no will of another” (G 4:433).

These would be reasons for having the highest respect for God, even the highest love. We have a duty to display attitudes of respect and love toward all rational beings (MS 6:448–452, 462–465, ED 8:337–338; see Chapter 4 §2); in relation to God we should be moved in addition to do our duties in part by an attitude of veneration toward the supreme head of the ideal moral community or realm of ends (R 6:7–8, cf. G 4:433–434). It is also crucial, however, that we not obey God’s commands only in order to gain heavenly rewards or avoid divine punishments. That would turn obedience to duty into mere hired or compulsory service (Frondienst) (R 6:158, 165, 171, 180, ED 8:339, MS 6: 484, VpR 28:1084). Kant distinguishes between “fear of God” – a disposition to obey God’s commands from respect for law and from love of God as a holy will (R 6:182, cf. 6:145, KU 5:448-9 n) – and “being afraid of God.” The latter is a slavish and even an immoral attitude (KU 5:260, cf. VE Collins 27:1425–1426, VE Vigilantius 27: 556–557, 725–726).

1.6 The Second Experiment

The referent of the title of Kant’s book Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason is the specific way of recognizing our duties as divine commands, which falls within the domain of reason unaided by empirical revelation. In parts one and two of the Religion, and also in Chapters 3 through 6 of this book, religion is being considered from the standpoint of the individual moral agent, even the individual sinner who is seeking salvation. Its basic concepts are moral ones, though they are also symbolized religiously through the individual’s relationship to God. In parts three and four of the Religion, however, Kant turns to that side of religion that involves a religious community and, more specifically, the way religion is actually present in the real world, in churches or ecclesiastical faiths that base their service of God on claims to empirical revelation, as preserved in an ecclesiastical tradition and in scriptures or holy books. In Chapter 7 we will see that for Kant, once this social aspect of religion is taken into account, the religion of reason cannot exist independently of ecclesiastical faith – nor, conversely, can true religion in ecclesiastical form exist entirely separate from the religion of pure reason. The two forms of religion must then be seen as standing in a historically dynamic relationship, in which rational religion exists through the symbols of an ecclesiastical faith, and ecclesiastical faith, too, is to be interpreted, and also reformed, through reason. This ongoing historical dynamic is anticipated in Kant’s “second experiment.”

In part two of the Religion, we are to consider the grounds for hope that we may become “well-pleasing to God” through a “moral revolution” or “change of heart,” struggling against the propensity to evil we find in ourselves. In part three, Kant argues that this struggle cannot be carried on successfully by each of us alone, but requires that we unite in a free ethical community or “people of God.” Both aspects of pure rational religion are clearly modeled on the fragments of Christian revelation Kant is considering in his second experiment. The striving to be well-pleasing to God is related to the Christian doctrines of salvation and grace, and the ethical community is modeled on the Christian church. The second experiment involves “starting with some alleged revelation” and “abstracting from the pure religion of reason (insofar as it constitutes a system on its own), to hold fragments of this revelation, as a historical system, up to moral concepts and see whether it does not lead back to the same rational system of religion” (R 6:12).

The starting point for the second experiment is some “alleged” divine revelation.Footnote 16 We might wonder whether, consistent with Kant’s philosophy, divine revelation is even possible. For Kant’s theory of knowledge denies that we could ever have empirical cognition of a divine being – the object of a mere idea of reason. We could never be empirically acquainted with anything reason could confirm as coming from God. The limitation here, of course, is ours and not God’s. Kant does not think we could ever be in a position to deny that a divine (an omnipotent) being could produce effects on us of whatever sort it chose. But our limited faculties of knowledge would be incapable of cognizing those effects as divine in origin. As he puts it: “If God should really speak to a human being, the latter could still never know that it was God speaking” (SF 7:63). Based on Kantian epistemology, to assert dogmatically that a certain experience you have was an experience caused by God is to assert something directly contrary to the laws of your own human understanding. Thus to claim with confidence that you have received an empirical divine revelation is necessarily superstition in Kant’s technical sense of the term: using your understanding in a way that is contrary to its own essential laws (KU 5:294). It is equally superstition to assert that you have experienced some special event (a miracle) that was caused by God (R 6:53).

It follows that no empirical or historical credential could ever establish that a holy scripture is divinely inspired (R 6:187, SF 7:64). The most reason could confirm is that the content of the alleged divine speech is such that, as far as we can judge, it might have come from a supremely wise and morally perfect being. Kant does think, however, that we can reasonably judge that something claimed to be divinely revealed is not genuine, if what is supposedly revealed is contrary to reason or the moral law (SF 7:63, cf. R 6:87, cf. Fichte, Reference Fichte, Green and Wood2010, §§7–14, pp. 64–131). Kant even argues that we may regard the moral law as a kind of “inner revelation,” which is the touchstone of any alleged “outer” revelation through experience (VpR 28:1117).

The closest we can come to knowing that something taught or reported in an alleged holy scripture was actually revealed by God is that as regards its content, we can rationally judge that this content might have been revealed to us by God. This turns out to be a thesis of more positive significance than we might have supposed because in part three of the Religion, Kant also argues that it is a tenet of pure rational religion that our moral improvement can be achieved only through membership in a moral community or voluntary commonwealth, seen as a “people of God” under moral laws (R 6:95–100). He argues further that in human history the only way that moral communities of this kind have ever been founded is that they have come about as churches, based on some alleged revelation preserved in scriptures (R 6:100–107). So it turns out that pure rational faith is driven by its own principles to take seriously various claims to empirical divine revelation that churches have made. It is not an option, therefore, to reject revealed religion wholesale or simply to throw away parts of scripture if you don’t happen to like them. For Kant accepts the necessity of revealed religion as part of his project.

Kant has a set of technical terms to describe the various positions one might take regarding the relation of rational to revealed religion. A naturalist is someone who accepts a pure rational religion and denies that there is any revealed religion. A supernaturalist, by contrast, is someone who thinks revealed religion is universally necessary for any genuine religion. In between these two positions is one Kant calls that of the pure rationalist: it allows for the possibility of divine revelation but claims it is not necessarily required for religion (R 6:154–155).Footnote 17 Kant clearly wants to identify his own position with pure rationalism. Pure rationalism does not deny the possibility of divine revelation, even if it does deny that we can ever know for certain that some alleged revelation is genuine. By allowing for the possibility of revelation, pure rationalism departs from the strict naturalist position. And because for Kant even pure rational religion is committed, for its own purposes, to consider the alleged revelations in the scriptures of historical churches, it makes sense to ask how far the alleged revelation of some particular church might, if rationally interpreted, lead back to the religion of reason. In other words, it makes sense for Kant to conduct his second experiment using some specific alleged divine revelation. Living where and when he does, Kant naturally chooses Christianity, even recognizably Lutheran Christianity, as the revealed religion in terms of which the experiment is to be conducted. It would be unreasonable and anachronistic to expect him to have proceeded in any other way.

In its second experiment, then, Kant’s Religion considers “fragments” of an alleged revelation – namely, the Christian. Specifically, it takes up these: Original Sin, the Son of God as savior, divine grace, and the church. The hypothesis Kant is assessing in his second “experiment” is that revealed religion is a wider concentric circle surrounding the inner circle of rational religion. To confirm his hypothesis, Kant must offer an interpretation of Christian doctrine that is at least consistent with pure rational religion. The Christian doctrines found in the outer circle cannot be rejected by rational religion, though they are also not embraced or included within it. Kant’s position on these doctrines is that rational religion should regard them as religiously optional. They are religiously acceptable, but they do not belong to a “saving faith” – a faith making the individual worthy of eternal happiness, which, Kant says, can be only one faith, despite the diversity of ecclesiastical faiths (R 6:115). They might be helpful to religion, however, if the symbols are given an appropriate interpretation.

We will see in Chapters 7 and 8 that what belongs to the inner circle of rational religion is not to be viewed as a set of beliefs and practices that are now fully determinate and static. Instead, it refers to the telos of an ongoing historical process of religious reinterpretation and religious reform. For it is through this process that revealed religion – the outer circle – shows itself to be the vehicle of a pure religious faith whose very historical possibility consists in the existence of this vehicle and in its historical self-reform through rational enlightenment. It can therefore be only provisionally that Kant can characterize the referent of the title of his book. Perhaps he can refer to it in the form of a provisional criterion for distinguishing those interpretations of symbolism in revealed religion that exhibit it as a vehicle of pure religious faith. But this criterion itself can be only provisional. As we will see in Chapters 7 and 8, the line separating the two concentric circles – of pure religion and revealed religion – is meant to be shifting and even to blur over time as the dynamic process of religious enlightenment and development continues. If Kant sees the two concentric circles as still distinct, this is because the religious reforms for which he hopes are only now beginning. If we still see the circles as sharply distinct, then we should recognize this as a sad reminder that Kant’s hopes for enlightened religion and human moral progress have been disappointed. That failure belongs not to Kant but to modernity and to institutional religious faith (specifically, to Christianity).

1.7 The Publication of Kant’s Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason

The hypothesis Kant’s second experiment is attempting to confirm would, if wholly true, show that everything in revealed (Christian) faith is compatible with rational faith. It would disprove the hypothesis if there are parts of revealed Christianity that are demonstrably and permanently incompatible with rational religion. But the second experiment attempts to confirm the hypothesis only for selected fragments of Christian revelation. The aim of Kant’s experiment is also to interpret revealed Christianity in such a way that the hypothesis can be confirmed and show that reason and Christianity are allies, not enemies. If this cannot be done, then all Christians who are also rational moral agents would find a hopeless conflict at the very center of their spiritual lives. Kant’s project in the Religion is to show them how this can be avoided.

It was widely known that as soon as he completed the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790), Kant turned his attention to religion. Thus, when in the spring of 1792 there appeared, under anonymous authorship, a short book titled Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation, it was hailed by its earliest reviewers as the awaited contribution by Kant. In fact, however, as Kant soon hastened to acknowledge, the book was the very first publication by the hitherto unknown J. G. Fichte (1762–1814). Kant’s plan at this point was to publish his work on religion in the form of a series of essays in J. E. Biester’s journal Berlin Monthly.Footnote 18 Biester had, however, already moved this journal to Jena, outside Prussian jurisdiction, obviously in order to avoid the newly instituted censorship, and because there was no prohibition on the importation of books to Prussia from the Grand Duchy of Saxe-Weimar where Jena was located.

Since Kant was a Prussian academic, teaching in Königsberg, his essay on religion needed approval from the appointed censor. This was G. F. Hillmer, a secondary school teacher and notorious religious bigot, assisted by J. T. Hermes, an equally extreme local pastor. (It is indicative of the difficult political position Wöllner’s censorship efforts faced in the context of the resistant Lutheran ecclesiastical hierarchy that in order to carry them out, he needed to enlist such incompetent subordinates.) Kant’s first essay for Biester’s journal, on the radical propensity to evil in human nature, was approved by Hillmer, probably because (as we will see in Chapter 3) it proposed a version of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin. It was published in the Berlin Monthly in April 1792 (about the same time, in fact, as Fichte’s book). Kant’s second essay, however, dealing with more directly biblical issues relating to divine grace was not so fortunate. In the spring of 1792, it was refused Hillmer’s imprimatur. Biester attempted to appeal this decision to higher authorities in Berlin, but to no avail.

Kant anticipated even greater problems from the censors with the third and fourth essays he was planning, which were even more directly critical of existing churches, including the Lutheran. He therefore devised an alternative plan. His writings on religion were no longer to appear as a series of essays in Biester’s journal, but were to be published together, as four parts of a single book; and this book was to be published in such a way as to avoid having to be approved by the likes of Hillmer and Hermes. For an academic work, one legally acceptable route to its publication was approval by a relevant university faculty. In the case of Kant’s Religion, it was unclear whether this would be a theological faculty or a philosophical faculty. Kant therefore asked the theological faculty at the University of Königsberg for its opinion whether his work fell within the province of the theological or the philosophical faculty. Essentially, he was asking the Königsberg theologians to waive jurisdiction over the work on behalf of theological faculties generally. In the event, Kant got the waiver he sought. He then submitted the entire work to the philosophical faculty at the University of Jena, located in the Duchy of Saxe-Weimar and therefore beyond the authority of Prussian censorship. The Jena philosophical faculty approved it, and Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason was published by Nicolovius of Königsberg in spring 1793. A second edition, with a new preface and many additions indicated by a dagger (†) was subsequently published in January 1794.

The Berlin censors were outraged by what they saw as Kant’s devious way of circumventing their authority. As early as June 1791, Kant had already been apprised by his student Kiesewetter (a royal tutor in Berlin) that some sort of punitive action against him was coming (Ak 11:264–266). Two of Kant’s writings indicate what his response would be. The second part of On the Common Saying, published in Biester’s Berlin Monthly in September 1793, defends the position that a subject is obligated to obey even the unjust commands of a legitimate ruler. The End of All Things, appearing in June 1794, was (in Kant’s own description) “partly plaintive and partly funny to read” (Ak 11:496–497). It argues that Christianity’s highest claim is to be a religion of love and then argues that the spirit of Christian love is a liberal spirit, incompatible with coercion in religious matters (ED 8:336–339). This is clearly Kant’s anticipatory protest against the impending royal actions against him.

In October 1794 Wöllner wrote to Kant in the name of King Friedrich Wilhelm II. “Our most high person,” his letter said, “has long observed with great displeasure how you have misused your philosophy to distort and disparage many of the cardinal and basic teachings of the Holy Scriptures and Christianity … particularly in your book Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, as well as in your shorter treatises” (SF 7:6). The letter in effect forbade Kant henceforth either to lecture or to write on religious topics. In reply, Kant presented an unyielding and rigorously argued defense of his conduct. He denied that the philosophical project undertaken in his writings offered any appraisal whatever of Christianity; it therefore could not possibly have been guilty of disparaging the Christian faith. Kant further pointed to the many ways in which his book both directly and indirectly evidenced respect for Christianity and its holy scriptures (SF 7:8–9). Kant then concluded by offering the king this solemn promise: “as Your Majesty’s most loyal subject, I will hereafter refrain altogether from discoursing publicly, in lectures or writings, on religion, whether natural or revealed” (SF 7:10).

The italicized portion of the promise (Kant’s emphasis) turned out to be especially significant. For as he made explicit in a footnote when he later published this letter, Kant took his promise to be one directed specifically to King Friedrich Wilhelm II. Therefore, when that king died in November 1797, Kant took himself to be released from its obligation. Less than a year later, he published Conflict of the Faculties, which included not only a further discussion of religion and biblical theology but also a defense of both the legality and the propriety not only of his earlier writings on religion but also of the route through which the Religion was published.

1.8 Wöllner’s Charges and Kant’s Defense

We may have a hard time understanding the context of Kant’s actions surrounding the publication of the Religion. We all believe (or suppose ourselves to believe) in freedom of speech, freedom of publication, academic freedom, religious freedom. Americans especially may even reject the very concept of an established church. We are therefore likely to see the censorship laws and practices within which Kant was forced to operate as an outrageous violation of basic human rights that we take for granted. On the other hand, if we imagine the position of an academic subject of the eighteenth-century Prussian monarchy, we may then also suppose that there is no point in a subject claiming, on some subtle legal pretext, the right to evade this (blatantly unjust) power. Kant’s arguments in favor of his actions may therefore strike us as “legalistic” in a bad sense of the word. In the language I quoted from Lawrence Pasternack in the Preface, Kant’s reasoning in support of his actions are apt to smack of “guile” and “prevarication” (Pasternack, Reference Pasternack2014, p. 12).

In order to understand the issue between Kant and the Prussian censors, however, we need to appreciate that although he believes in the legitimacy of the authority of Friedrich Wilhelm II, and thus even accepts an obligation to obey even his unjust commands, he understands all of this in the context of his own well worked-out theory of political right. This theory grants to a ruler the right to limit freedom of expression in many ways of which we would probably not approve; but it does not treat this right as unconditional or unbounded. It places particular stress on the right of free expression of academic writers, and most especially of members of the philosophical faculty of a university. We need therefore to look briefly at Kant’s conception of a university, and its basis in political right, a topic which is also of some interest for its own sake.Footnote 19

According to Kant’s theory of right, any executive authority administering a legitimate condition of right is charged with the coercive protection of the rights of all citizens (MS 6:311–338). In order to have the capacity to do this, a ruler must do certain things to look after the welfare of the populace that it can reasonably demand. These include care for people’s physical, civil, and eternal welfare. The state must supervise the training of three professions – physicians, lawyers, and clergy – and consequently certify their competence. This training and certification is the job of universities, which the state must therefore establish and support. The three faculties charged with these tasks are the three so-called higher faculties of medicine, law, and theology. They are “higher” in respect of their nearness to state authority. Each must establish legally binding standards for members of the corresponding profession (SF 7:17–23).

In order to do so competently, however, the state must depend on a fourth “lower” faculty, the faculty of philosophy, whose task is to investigate the objective truths on which the state authority bases the statutory standards set by the three “higher” faculties (SF 7:23–27). The faculty of philosophy, however, can have no similar statutory constraints, since its function is not to follow the legal authority of the state but simply to determine objective truth (which of course is not determined by state authority). The members of this faculty must of course meet standards of scientific competence within their fields, but it would be counterpurposive to try to lay these down in advance by legal statute (SF 7:27–29). Moreover, Kant sees the philosophical faculty as the center of that “learned public” whose free give-and-take is the condition of the enlightenment of human beings generally (WA 8:35–42).

On Kant’s theory, these are the considerations that should determine whether a given piece of writing that touches on both philosophy and some “higher” faculty properly belongs to the jurisdiction of the one faculty or the other. When Kant asked the theology faculty of the University of Königsberg whether it was the proper authority to which to submit his book for censorship, he was in effect asking whether the contents of Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason were to be judged by the authoritative standards governing the training and certification of clergy or instead only by the standards of objective truth pertaining to a philosophical faculty. The Königsberg theological faculty quite reasonably ruled that philosophical and not theological standards applied to this particular book. Consequently, Kant was officially permitted to submit his book to a philosophical faculty, which he then did: at the University of Jena, which approved it. Again, Jena was not in Prussia but in the Duchy of Saxe-Weimar. However, books approved there could be legally sold in Prussia.

By the standards recognized in Prussian law and the Prussian university system, therefore, Kant was not engaging in “guile or prevarication” in asking for and accepting the rulings and permissions through which the Religion was approved for publication. There is no “legalism” in Kant’s defense, except in the sense that the publication of the Religion followed the laws valid for that time and place. In short, in his defense Kant was appealing simply to the rule of law. If the king, or his minions, thought that he was violating the proper jurisdiction of their censorship, then they were wrong on the law.

Further, when Wöllner’s letter of reproof declares that Kant’s Religion had appraised, and also disparaged, Christianity, that was wrong on the facts. In his reply, later published in Conflict of the Faculties, Kant correctly denies he had done either. Kant proposes to defend a religion within the boundaries of mere reason – that is, a way of recognizing our duties as divine commands that is not dependent on any alleged revelation, including the Christian (R 6:3–6). Such a project surely does not in itself appraise Christianity, still less disparage Christianity. Kant’s image of the concentric circles implies that revealed (Christian) religion goes beyond the religion of mere reason, but also that it does not contradict it. Further, the hypothesis Kant means to confirm is that certain prominent fragments of Christian revelation do lead back to pure rational religion. This argument proposes to confirm, as by experiment, the hypothesis that at least regarding those fragments, the two circles are concentric. If successful, therefore, Kant’s experiment could not disparage Christianity, but would in fact do the direct opposite. In his reply, Kant insists that the only object up for appraisal in his book is natural religion, the religion of mere reason, considered apart from any revealed faith. The aim is to judge how far religion within the boundaries of mere reason can defend the tenets of its faith (SF 7:8–9). Kant also insists that the Religion evidences “great respect” for Christianity through its claim that the Bible is the best available means for popular instruction in morality and religion (SF 7:9–10).

The Religion might be seen as containing, at least by implication, a “disparagement” of Christianity, but only if we make two assumptions: first, that the interpretations of Christian doctrines Kant offers involve the direct denial of important Christian truths; and, second, that agreement with the religion of reason, as Kant presents it, is a standard that any purported revelation must meet. The first assumption would be highly dogmatic. Even state- or church-authorized biblical theologians, not to mention free rational inquirers (such as members of the philosophical faculty of a university that is not bound by church authority), might justifiably disagree with it. Kant is not proposing to tell either the established Lutheran church or the theologians of the “higher” theological faculty how they are to interpret Christian doctrines. He is merely offering his own interpretation of these doctrines: an interpretation that enables them to be reconciled with a religion of reason.

Nor is the second assumption – that agreement with rational religion, as Kant presents it, is a standard revealed religion ought to meet – anything Kant would presume to impose on theologians or the established church. Kant might accept this standard himself, and he might try to present it in such a way that it would appeal both to philosophers and to Christians. But it would be up to each individual reader of Kant’s Religion to decide whether Kant has correctly presented the truth about morality or a religion of reason, and also what role rational religion should play in that individual’s own thinking about religion or about life.Footnote 20

Of course if I am a Christian reader of the Religion who finds himself making both of these assumptions, then that would create a problem for me. It would suggest that I cannot bring the beliefs of my own Christian faith into harmony with the deliverances of my own reason. But it would still be a mere distraction for me to ask, as many writers still do, whether Kant “accepts” or “rejects” this or that part of “Christianity.” If I disagree with Kant’s philosophical arguments about rational religion, or with his interpretations of Christian doctrine, then I should present my case to myself on rational grounds and decide whether Kant’s philosophical claims and interpretive suggestions are right or wrong. Kant is presenting for his readers’ consideration what his reason tells him; he is not claiming to dictate what yours must tell you.

The tacit assumption, however – sadly made by many in all ages – is that we are not answerable to our own reason in matters of religious faith. We are entitled – perhaps even required – to impose on ourselves, perhaps even on others, certain irrational dogmas, or even to defer to some dogmatic authority in preference to – even contrary to – our own reason, concerning what we ourselves should think and accept. That assumption was presupposed by the Prussian authorities who condemned Kant’s teachings. It is directly opposed to what Kant calls “enlightenment” – the struggle to think for oneself (WA 8:35).

Too many present-day scholars in effect make the same assumption when they focus on the question whether Kant “accepts” or “rejects” this or that Christian doctrine. That focus must also always rest on some dogmatic assumption about what Christian doctrine is – that is, about how it should be interpreted; and it must dismiss all rational argument as irrelevant to how Christian doctrine ought to be interpreted. These scholars look upon Kant’s philosophical arguments as dogmatic pronouncements and therefore treat his interpretation of Christianity as if it pronounced “anathema” on any alternative interpretation. This approach thereby dishonestly evades the only real question raised by Kant’s thought about the Christian religion: How should Christianity be understood if we are to reconcile its doctrines with our own reason?


1 Lewis White Beck speaks of Kant’s “Copernican Revolution” as also a “Promethean Revolution,” in which humanity usurps the place of God (Wood, Reference Wood and Wood1984, pp. 28–30).

2 Hare (Reference Hare1996), p. 45: “Kant and the Reduction of Religion to Morality.” Hare resists the common view that Kant does this; but as we will see later (Chapter 5, §3), Hare thinks Kant provides “unhelpful translations” of religious claims into moral ones. Cf. Palmquist (Reference Palmquist1992).

3 Some argue that although Kantian philosophy and Buddhism share an emphasis on the awakening of our intellectual powers, Buddhist ethics has greater affinities to the Scottish Enlightenment’s emphasis on sentiment (see Cummiskey, Reference Cummiskey and Emmanuel2017). This assessment, however, depends on a sadly common prejudice that stereotypes Kantian ethics as hostile to the emotional interconnectedness of human beings. This error assumes that reason excludes emotion, and it completely ignores such central themes in Kant’s ethics as the moral incentive: goodness of heart, love combined with respect, the realm of ends, and (in religion) the ethical community (see Chapters 4 and 7). Older scholars see affinities between Madhyamika Buddhism and transcendental idealism (see Murti, Reference Murti2008), but these, too, strike me as spurious. A more pertinent comparison seems to me that between the Buddhist concept of “unanswerable questions” and Kant’s theoretical dialectic, especially the Antinomies (see Conze, Reference Conze1963). But this book, the focus of which is on Kant’s thought about religion in his sense of the term, is not the place to explore these possible connections. As for polytheism, Kant does briefly discuss it (VpR 28: 1008, 1040). His account suggests that he would classify it as a form of what he calls “anthropomorphism,” one that assigns different departments of nature to different supernatural beings, represented according to human limitations. But Kant praises polytheistic cultures, both Asian and Western, for often seeing their many gods as expressions of a higher One Divinity from which they proceed.

4 We give the necessary experiential content to our thought of God by representing God as really possible through symbols. Chignell (Reference Chignell, Krueger and Lipscomb2010b) appeals to symbolism as a way of addressing the problem that there might be a Realrepugnanz among the divine perfections that would render an ens realissimum really impossible. If Chignell is right, symbols are also a way of dismissing the thought that God might not be really possible. This cannot be done on theoretical grounds; it would have to be done on the practical grounds we will discuss in Chapter 2.

5 The Christian theologian who has made most profound use of the concept of religious symbolism is Paul Tillich. See Tillich (Reference Tillich1951, Reference Tillich1952, Reference Tillich1957, Reference Tillich1963); cf. also Rowe (Reference Rowe1968). This book is not the place for a detailed comparison of Kant and Tillich regarding the symbolic in religious thought. But we must not neglect to mention that Kant’s philosophy of religion is an important source of Tillich’s conceptions of religious faith and symbolism.

6 The theme of symbolism in Kant is crucial for his philosophy of religion. This theme has been generally neglected in the literature. Some exceptions are Kang (Reference Kang1985), Bielefeldt (Reference Bielefeldt2001), Chignell (Reference Chignell2006), and Pasternack and Rossi (Reference Pasternack, Rossi and Zalta2014). I discuss religious symbolism further in this book, both in this chapter and in Chapter 5 §§ 24.

7 For an account that raises this problem, see Kail, Reference Kail2007. Kant’s friend Hamann, a religious antirationalist, seems to have read Hume’s view of religion in just this way. See Berlin (Reference Berlin and Morice1977).

8 Symbolic thinking is not limited to religion, and although religion would like to think of its symbols as ways of experiencing good emotions, there is no question that evil emotions can also be powerfully symbolized through beliefs, sometimes even through literally true ones. Both Kristallnacht (which actually happened) and Protocols of the Elders of Zion (which was a forgery) symbolized hatred of Jews in Germany. The lie that Barack Obama was born in Kenya gave symbolic expression to the emotional resistance many Americans felt to an African American president. For many Americans, a border wall with Mexico is a symbolic wall separating them from a future they cannot accept. People often choose their heroes, whether Martin Luther King Jr. or General Robert E. Lee, as symbols of causes in which they still believe. Fixating on the literal object, or literal truth, of a symbolic belief is often a way of evading the question whether the emotions expressed symbolically are rational or irrational, good or bad.

9 Kant no doubt belongs among the intended targets of Freud’s impatient remark that “where questions of religion are concerned … philosophers stretch the meaning of words until they retain scarcely anything of their original sense” (Freud, Reference Freud1964, p. 51). Freud, of course, has his own interpretation (grounded in his psychoanalytic theory) of the symbolism involved in many religious thoughts. When Freud sees religious thoughts as having symbolic psychological significance, he is engaging in the very same enterprise as the targets of the remark just quoted.

10 For two classic studies of these two thinkers, see Schweitzer (Reference Schweitzer2005), chap. 2; and Allison (Reference Allison2018). Reimarus was also a representative of what was then commonly called deism – not in Kant’s technical sense, explained above, but in the more frequently used sense of a belief in “natural religion” – that is, a theistic religion that dispenses with revelation or even rejects it. The title Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason might be taken to be “deism” in this sense. The title of my paper “Kant’s Deism” (see Wood, Reference Wood2002), if it is understood to claim that Kant is a deist in that sense, would then be asserting a falsehood, as I hope this book will show. But my article was meant to raise a question, not to assert a plain falsehood. (I’ve also written articles titled “Kant’s Compatibilism” and “Kant’s Historical Materialism.”)

11 Lessing’s alleged adherence to the views of Spinoza was to be the subject of a sensational controversy in 1785–1786 between F. H. Jacobi (1743–1819) and Lessing’s close friend, Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786). See Chapter 8 § 2. Kant entered the controversy on Mendelssohn’s behalf with his essay What Does It Mean to Orient Oneself in Thinking? (1786).

12 Pasternack (Reference Pasternack2017b) reaches the startling and paradoxical conclusion that there are not two experiments but no “experiment” at all. He fussily translates Versuch as “attempt.” The second Versuch, he thinks, refers only to the second edition of the Religion. But it is evident that Kant is testing a hypothesis, which makes the word “experiment” at least as appropriate a translation as “attempt.” And the second edition clearly identifies two such attempts (or experiments).

13 Taken literally, therefore, the title of Savage (Reference Savage, Rossi and Wreen1988) – “Kant’s Rejection of Divine Revelation” – can express only a falsehood. If Kant had rejected divine revelation, then his entire project in the Religion would have collapsed. What Savage actually claims (correctly) is only that Kant denies empirical divine revelation counts as theoretical cognition (Savage, Reference Savage, Rossi and Wreen1988, p. 61). But to deny revelation this philosophical status is not necessarily to reject it. Kant not only considers revealed religion a permissible form of religion but also regards some of its doctrines as symbolizing what can be accepted by rational religion. As we will see in Chapter 7, he even holds that revealed religion is a historically necessary vehicle for rational religion, so that rational religion is dependent historically upon revealed religion for its very existence and even its content.

14 This is done by Moors, Reference Moors2017, though not necessarily in just the way I am about to do.

15 Pasternack claims that Kant regards some things in Christian revelation (Original Sin as biologically inherited, the Incarnation, Vicarious Atonement, Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac) as “anathema” (Pasternack, Reference Pasternack2017a, p. 532). I have to wonder whether Pasternack understands the meaning of this ugly word; if he does, then this must be hyperbole, perhaps even a (misleading and tasteless) joke. The word “anathema” implies coercive prohibition of a doctrine, even an execration or curse upon it – something Kant would never pronounce on any doctrine, since doctrines are parts of free human communication. For Kant, even to reject any Christian doctrine would be inconsistent with treating revealed religion as an outer circle surrounding the inner circle of rational religion. It would be as self-contradictory as saying that Tompkins County is within New York State but that other New York State counties (say, Schuyler, Steuben, Allegany, and Cattaraugus Counties) are not within the same state as Tompkins County.

16 One quite thorough discussion of the question where in the Religion the “second experiment” is to be found is Firestone and Jacobs (Reference Firestone and Jacobs2008), pp. 114–119. As is by now evident, however, I reject their claim that the second experiment begins only in part four of the Religion.

17 In “Kant’s Deism” (Wood, Reference Wood2002, p. 98), it seemed to me not to make sense to admit the possibility of divine revelation but then to suggest we pay no attention to it. Lawrence Pasternack has correctly observed that pure rationalism does make sense because revealed doctrines can be thought of as religiously permissible and even religiously helpful for some people as long as the revealed doctrines are interpreted in a way that makes them serviceable to a pure moral religion (Pasternack, Reference Pasternack2014, pp. 13–14, 219–223). Of course he’s right: that is precisely Kant’s position.

18 The following account of the history of Kant’s publication of the Religion is based on Dilthey (Reference Dilthey1890), pp. 418–50. A briefer account in English is given by George di Giovanni in Ca Religion and Rational Theology, pp. 41–54. See also Di Censo (Reference Di Censo2012), chap. 1.

19 For a fuller account of what I am about to say, see Wood (Reference Wood and Honnefelder2012), which, however, is in German, since it was part of an inquiry into the historical background of present-day reflections on the place of the university in German culture and society.

20 In Conflict of the Faculties, Kant clearly explains the difference between legitimate and illegitimate conflicts between the theological faculty and the philosophical faculty (SF 7:32–67). Pasternack (Reference Pasternack2014, pp. 71–81) completely ignores this explanation when he claims falsely that Kant is violating his own rules for separating philosophical from theological consideration of Christian doctrines. He apparently thinks Kant violates these rules simply by using reason to suggest interpretations of Christian doctrine that would reconcile rational with revealed religion.

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  • Religion and Reason
  • Allen W. Wood, Stanford University, California
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  • Religion and Reason
  • Allen W. Wood, Stanford University, California
  • Book: Kant and Religion
  • Online publication: 08 May 2020
  • Chapter DOI:
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