The Faith of a Heretic
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The Faith of a Heretic

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Walter A. Kaufmann

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eBook - ePub

The Faith of a Heretic

Updated Edition

Walter A. Kaufmann

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Originally published in 1959, The Faith of a Heretic is the most personal statement of the beliefs of Nietzsche biographer and translator Walter Kaufmann. A first-rate philosopher in his own right, Kaufmann here provides the fullest account of his views on religion. Although he considered himself a heretic, he was not immune to the wellsprings and impulses from which religion originates, declaring it among the most vital and radical expressions of the human mind. Beginning with an autobiographical prologue that traces his evolution from religious believer to "heretic, " the book touches on theology, organized religion, morality, suffering, and death—all examined from the perspective of a "quest for honesty." Kaufmann also subjects philosophy's faith in truth, reason, and absolute morality to the same heretical treatment. The resulting exploration of the faiths of a nonbeliever in a secular age is as fresh and challenging as when it was first published.In a new foreword, Stanley Corngold vividly describes the intellectual and biographical milieu of Kaufmann's provocative book.

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How are we to live? By what standards should we judge ourselves? For what virtues should we strive? Speaking of nobility, a quest for honesty, and the originality of the Old Testament, while criticizing organized religion and theology and fallacies about commitment, does not settle these most urgent questions. A way of life may be implied, but morality is so important that it ought to be examined with some care.
Let us ask first whether morality can be based on religion; then, whether an absolute morality is possible. It is widely taken for granted that both questions must be answered in the affirmative. Indeed, this is presumed to be so obvious that these questions are hardly ever asked. After giving reasons for answering both in the negative, I shall proceed to submit my own ethic for the reader’s consideration.
Can morality be based on religion? Kant, who is regarded as the greatest modern philosopher by more men than any other thinker, thought it could not. He made a point of his belief in God, but insisted that faith in God must be based on morality, not vice versa. His attempt to show that our moral sense demands belief in a judge who effects a posthumous proportion of happiness and virtue has convinced few philosophers. It is ingenious: God must be omniscient to know all men’s deeds and intentions and thoughts; he must be omnipotent to be able to give each the happiness he deserves, if only after death. It is more than ingenious: not only Kant’s own moral sense but that of millions of other men does indeed demand this. But the argument suffers from two fatal flaws.
First, it is inconsistent with Kant’s own philosophy. One of the central claims of his greatest work, the Critique of Pure Reason, was that such categories as causality, unity, and substance have no valid application beyond our experience, and that any attempt to employ them in speculations about what transcends experience is completely illegitimate. Yet Kant postulates God as a single, substantial cause of that conjunction of happiness and virtue which his moral sense demands. It is noteworthy in this connection that some of the religions of the East teach a posthumous proportion of happiness and virtue in the form of transmigration, without postulating any overseer or cause of this proportion.
Secondly, what the moral sense of millions demands need not be particularly rational. In some ages, for example, the moral sense of a whole religious civilization demanded that widows be burned on their husbands’ funeral pyres, or that heretics be burned on pyres of their own, or that slaves be treated as animals and not as fellow human beings. Kant’s case depends on the assumption that his moral sense, when it demands the posthumous conjunction of virtue and happiness, is not merely conditioned by his education but completely rational. Kant thought it was, and spoke of a postulate of practical reason. Yet it is surely not irrational to doubt, in the absence of better evidence, that Job is happy now.
Kant himself refused to base his moral views on his religion, and he argued that morality cannot be founded on religion. Indeed, he took great pride in having shown that we can not know that God exists but only postulate God’s existence. If we knew that God exists, such knowledge would make true morality impossible. For if we acted morally from fear or fright, or confident of a reward, then this would not be moral. It would be enlightened selfishness.
One of Kant’s contemporaries, William Paley, tried in effect to answer this objection. In the same year in which Kant first submitted his ethics to the public, 1785, Paley published his Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, which went through fifteen editions before Paley died in 1805. Paley frankly founded moral obligation on the expectation of rewards and punishments beyond the grave. But he claimed that this did not involve appeals to prudence. Prudence concerns itself with the things of this world only.
This attempt to redefine terms is much too transparent to be plausible. Of course, there is a difference between thinking about rewards in this life and expecting retribution after death. But this difference is best expressed by distinguishing short-range, unenlightened selfishness from enlightened, long-range selfishness.
What both Kant and Paley realized, and what twentieth-century Protestant theologians and those who have been taken in by them hate to admit, is that enlightened, long-range selfishness has played a central role in Christianity, beginning with the Sermon on the Mount.
Still, those who have no doubt that God exists do not have to be motivated by enlightened selfishness, whether by fear or by hope for rewards: their motive can be love of God. The claim that Jesus did not appeal to prudence is untenable, as I have tried to show. But for all that a believer could disregard his own advantage altogether and do God’s bidding simply because he loves God.
Kant, then, is not right that complete assurance that God exists is incompatible with genuine morality. It is possible to believe without a doubt what the Christian religion teaches and still to be utterly unselfish. Kant overstated his insight. But, as the young Nietzsche remarked, “The errors of great men … are more fruitful than the truths of little men” (30). And what Kant calls to our attention is that acceptance of the Christian religion, and of most religions, makes genuine unselfishness difficult and improbable. Once one knows that one will be rewarded or punished in eternity, it is barely possible to disregard this altogether. And few great religious teachers even tried.
There is another difficulty about doing what God wants simply because we love him: how do we know what God wants us to do? Paley and other theologians have said that nature and Scripture tell us. When Paley argued that nature shows us that “God Almighty wills and wishes the happiness of His creatures,” Voltaire had already published his famous poem on the Lisbon earthquake (1756) and Candide (1759); and Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion had appeared posthumously (1779). In the nineteenth century, Schopenhauer and Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov dealt with this popular fancy; and in the twentieth century it ceased to be so popular. There is no need to deal with it here, especially since the problem of suffering has been considered at length in a previous chapter.
The appeal to Scripture is still popular. Scripture, however, certainly does not make it clear that “God Almighty wills and wishes the happiness of His creatures.” Nor does Scripture remove doubts about what God would have us do. A quotation from Luther may illustrate both points. The passage is taken from his celebrated Treatise on Good Works, which is generally acknowledged to be one of the classics of the Reformation. It appeared in 1520, the same year in which Luther publicly burned the papal bull that had been issued against him. The American editor of the Treatise, in the Philadelphia edition of The Works of Martin Luther (Vol. I, 1943), agrees with Luther’s own estimate that it is “better than anything he had heretofore written.” The quotation comes from Luther’s discussion of the fourth commandment, sections XII-XIII:
“Even if the government does injustice, as the King of Babylon did to the people of Israel, yet God would have it obeyed, without treachery…. We are to regard that which St. Peter bids us regard, namely, that its power, whether it do right or wrong, cannot harm the soul, but only the body and property…. To suffer wrong destroys no one’s soul, nay, it improves the soul; but to do wrong, that destroys the soul, although it should gain all the world’s wealth. This is also the reason why there is not such great danger in the temporal power as in the spiritual, when it does wrong. For the temporal power can do no harm, since it has nothing to do with preaching and faith and the first three Commandments. But the spiritual power does harm not only when it does wrong, but also when it neglects its duty and busies itself with other things, even if they were better than the very best works of the temporal power. Therefore, we must resist it when it does not do right, and not resist the temporal power although it does wrong” (263; Weimar ed., VI, 259).
Some similar passages from Calvin, who did not think either that God “wills and wishes the happiness of His creatures,” have been cited in Section 70. Most of those who are appalled by Luther and Calvin, but have, in Eisenhower’s words, “a deeply felt religious faith,” do not approximate Luther’s and Calvin’s intimate knowledge of Scripture. Still, Scripture does not teach unequivocally what they thought it taught; and on some points that they themselves considered of utmost importance, relevant to man’s salvation, they strongly disagreed. Yet Luther and Calvin were both Protestants of the same era. When we contemplate the disagreements of students of Scripture in different denominations, times, and parts of the world, it becomes inexorably clear that any attempt to base morality on religion suffers shipwreck when confronted with the question: what is moral, what immoral? (See also the “Theology” chapter.)
Even Christians cannot agree on what is moral and immoral. Their disagreements include matters they deem sufficiently significant to feel sure that eternal destinies depend on them. Their disagreements also include the most burning issues of our lives, from pacifism to divorce and sexual morality in general, from the right conduct toward a government like Hitler’s to capital punishment. One of the few things they agree about has no basis in Scripture: almost all of them are sure polygamy is wrong.
While all this is common knowledge, it is fashionable to say that all the great religious teachers of mankind have taught the same morality. Probably this notion is in the back of the minds of those who “have a great respect for organized religion, no matter what shape it takes,” or who believe that there is some kind of a white-and-black distinction between those who have and those who do not have “a deeply felt religious faith—and I don’t care what it is.”
It is so obvious that the religious teachers of mankind have not taught the same morality that those who care to defend this fancy, instead of merely entertaining it and having a good time with it, are forced to distinguish somehow between good and bad religious teachers. This clearly begs the question: instead of basing morality on religion and learning from religion what is moral and immoral, one requires prior moral standards to discriminate religious teachers who were right from those who were mistaken.
This is the major point about this stratagem. There is also a minor one: there is little accord to be found. If one is content to think in labels and to refrain from examining their meaning, one may find a common opposition to “sin.” But as soon as we consider more specific questions about what is sinful, the accord evaporates.
Many of the Hebrew prophets were centrally concerned with social justice. Jesus, Paul, Luther, and Calvin, Lao-tze and the Buddha and the men of the Upanishads were not. According to the Hindu Law of Manu, a Sudra slave who insults a man of higher caste “with gross invective, shall have his tongue cut out; for he is of low origin. If he mentions their names and caste with contumely, an iron nail, ten fingers long, shall be thrust red-hot into his mouth…. A low-caste man who tries to place himself on the same seat with a man of high caste, shall be branded on his hip and be banished…. If out of arrogance he spits, the king shall cause both his lips to be cut off; if he urinates, the penis; if he breaks wind, the anus” (VIII. 270 f. and 281 f.). Christians in some parts of the world would not see much, if anything, wrong in that; but most modern Christians would be quick to say that Manu, of course, was not one of the “great” moral teachers. Manu’s provisions for the outcastes were, on the whole, worse than his laws about the Sudras; but Nehru’s successful fight to abolish the traditional discrimination against outcastes was not based on any “deeply felt religious faith.” On the contrary, the men of “deeply felt religious faith” were for the most part on the other side.
If we do not hesitate to tear some sayings from their context, we can find some similarities. Isolated dicta of Jesus resemble some remarks of Lao-tze, the Buddha, Confucius, or Manu. But when we consider such sayings out of context, we misread their overall intention, miss their tenor, falsify their meaning. What we have to ask ourselves is not whether sufficient lack of scruple could produce some parallels that will impress the gullible. The serious questions we must face are these: How are we to live? Should we have children? If so, how should we bring them up? And how should we conduct ourselves toward our wives, or husbands? And is it all right to engage in business or in politics? And if so, how should we conduct ourselves toward our competitors? Not one of these questions is contrived: these are the moral questions that we have to face, though most men with “a deeply felt religious faith” are not perplexed by these questions and, without a scruple, take their clue from their environment. If we do confront such questions honestly, we find practically no agreement among mankind’s great religious teachers. Tolstoy disagrees as much with Dostoevsky as Lao-tze did with Confucius and Calvin with Luther.
While morality cannot be based on religion, religion can be used to help prop it up. It may supply additional motives for being moral and for not being immoral. But to determine in the first place what is moral and immoral, we cannot settle the matter by relying on “a deeply felt religious faith.” And if we turn to organized religion, it makes all the difference “what shape it takes.”
Protestant, atheist, and agnostic are all in the same boat: from childhood one is endowed with a more or less consistent moral code, and as one grows up one makes a few small changes here and there, most of them gradually, many altogether without knowing it, a few more dramatically. But many a Protestant, having constructed his morality haphazardly, mostly without studying the Scriptures and agonizing over verses that seem to conflict, claims that the finished product is based on religion and deserving of such titles as “Biblical morality” or “the ethic of Jesus.”
There is a close parallel between religion and the state. The state, too, can be used to prop up morality, though morality cannot be based on it. In the first place, there are many different states that do not enjoin the same moralities, just as there are many different religions. Even within the same state, morality changes over a period of time: sexual morality in England, for example, was not the same in Elizabethan and Victorian times, and is still different today. Again, the same consideration applies to religion. But the first objection most people would offer if told that, to determine what is right and wrong, one needs only to accept the morality of one’s own state, “and I don’t care what it is,” would be: But the moralities of some states are simply hideous! Again, the same consideration applies to religion.
That morality cannot be based on religion may be just as well; and relying heavily on religion to prop up morality is incompatible with the civil liberties to which Western democracies are dedicated. This was clearly understood by Jefferson, Madison, and the other great statesmen of their generation. Where morality is based on religion, even if only psychologically, criticisms of religion, no less than public avowals of disbelief, undermine morality and threaten public order; and in such countries, therefore, opposition to free speech is powerful, and the pressure for censorship overwhelming. And where it is sincerely believed that heretics will be damned in all eternity, the argument for persecuting heretics to avoid contagion is scarcely answerable.
It is so far from true that our form of government “makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith—and I don’t care what it is” that one might say, on the contrary, that our form of government depends utterly on the widespread abandonment of any deeply felt faith in traditional Christianity.
Jefferson realized this; and in a letter of June 26, 1822, to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, he used language that would spell any man’s political death in the United States after the Second World War. After speaking of “the demoralizing dogmas of Calvin” and such “impious dogmatists, as [St.] Athanasius and Calvin,” he charged them...


Zitierstile für The Faith of a Heretic

APA 6 Citation

Kaufmann, W. (2015). The Faith of a Heretic ([edition unavailable]). Princeton University Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2015)

Chicago Citation

Kaufmann, Walter. (2015) 2015. The Faith of a Heretic. [Edition unavailable]. Princeton University Press.

Harvard Citation

Kaufmann, W. (2015) The Faith of a Heretic. [edition unavailable]. Princeton University Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Kaufmann, Walter. The Faith of a Heretic. [edition unavailable]. Princeton University Press, 2015. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.