Religion within the limits of bare reason

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Religion within the Limits of Mere Reason is a work on the philosophy of religion by Immanuel Kant that appeared between 1793 and 1794. In it, Kant develops a philosophical doctrine of religion that outlines a religion based on reason, the so-called religion of reason . That the idea of freedom , the idea of ​​the immortality of the soul, and the idea of God are unprovable but necessary postulates of reason, as Kant asserts in the Critique of Practical Reason , is assumed here. The doctrine handed down in Christianity serves as a starting point to find further points of contact between morality and religion: The doctrine of original sins thematizes the problem that in humans a disposition to good is exposed to a tendency towards evil; the figure of Christ serves as a symbol of a morally perfect person; and the idea of ​​the church is understood as an "ethical community". The religious writing is considered one of the most famous works of Kant.


  • First preface (1st edition 1793)
  • Second preface (2nd edition 1794)

First piece

Of the indwelling of the evil principle alongside the good

  • I. From the original disposition to the good in human nature
  • II. From addiction to evil in human nature
  • III. Man is naturally evil
  • IV. On the origin of evil in human nature

Second piece

From the struggle of the good principle with the evil one to rule over people

  • Part I: Of the legal claim of the good principle to rule over people
  • Part II: Of the legal claim of the evil principle to rule over people, and the struggle between the two principles

Third piece

The victory of the good principle over evil, and the establishment of a kingdom of God on earth

  • Part I: Philosophical conception of the victory of the good principle by founding a kingdom of God on earth
  • Part II: Historical presentation of the gradual establishment of the rule of the good principle on earth

Fourth piece

Of service and after-service under the rule of the good principle, or of religion and clergy

Part I On the service of God in a religion in general

  • 1st section. The Christian religion as a natural religion
  • 2nd section. The Christian religion as a learned religion

Part II of God's after service in a statutory religion

  • § 1. On the general subjective reason for religious delusion
  • § 2. The moral principle of religion opposed to the delusion of religion
  • § 3. Of clergy as a regiment in the after service of the good principle
  • § 4. Of the guide of conscience in matters of faith

The principle of evil and good

In the first section of Religion within the Limits of Mere Reason (RGV), Kant examines the question of whether man is inherently good or bad. Kant understands the “ principle of evil” as an ultimately inexplicable phenomenon , which is inherent in every human being: every human being by nature has a tendency to evil, a radical evil . It is this principle that prevents people from acting morally :

"The sentence: man is evil, cannot [...] want to say anything else than: he is aware of the moral law and yet has included the (occasional) deviation from it in his maxim."

- RGV. First piece. Section III.

The principle of evil thus serves Kant as an explanation for why people often act immorally against their better judgment. The good principle, on the other hand, is humanity in its moral perfection . Kant illustrates this in the picture of the "Son of God". In practical belief in him or - which is the same in Kant's sense - in the idea of ​​humanity, man can hope to be pleasing to God. The term “Son of God”, which Kant calls the “archetype of humanity pleasing to God”, is used by Kant as a symbol that stands for the idea of ​​a morally perfect humanity. Accordingly, the "Son of God" is not an empirically experienced, historical being (Kant deliberately does not pronounce the name Jesus in the RGV), but the sensual expression of a rational idea:

“But in the appearance of the God-man there is not that which falls into the senses of him or can be recognized through experience, but the archetype lying in our reason, which we inferior to the latter (because so much can be perceived in his example , it is found according to that), actually the object of the saving faith, and such a faith is irrelevant to the principle of a God-pleasing way of life. "

- RGV. Third piece. First department. VI.

The other sections of the religious writing describe an ideal historical course towards the gradual establishment of the kingdom of God or the rule of good in the world. This - the rule of the good, that is, a completely moral state of the world - is what Kant regards as the worthwhile goal of history. This is achieved through the "gradual transition of church faith to the sole rule of pure religious faith " (RGV, third section, VII), that is, through a gradual replacement of a belief based on revelation to a belief based on reason .

Visible and invisible church

However, this goal of the rule of the good principle (the moral perfection of humanity) can only be achieved jointly, because as long as it must always be expected that others behave immorally, people mutually spoil their moral disposition. According to Kant, this justifies the need for an ethical community, i.e. an association of people who assure each other that they will always act morally. But because only God can recognize a really serious moral attitude of people, the ethical community is only conceivable in the form of a church . However, Kant differentiates here, following Augustine and Luther, between “visible” and “invisible” church: For Kant, the invisible church corresponds to the ideal of the ethical community. However, it is not feasible due to the weakness of human nature. However, the visible church can be realized, which must always start from a belief in revelation or a "statutory" belief and which is shaped by various religious practices and cults. Although all religious precepts that go beyond the demands of morality are in themselves superfluous, they are nevertheless necessary in order to be able to realize the ethical community at all; they serve as a 'vehicle' for an ever better approach to the ideal of reason. It remains to be seen whether the visible Church can still be completely dissolved in this world in favor of the invisible.

Relationship between religion and morals

As Kant had already shown in the Foundation for the Metaphysics of Morals , really moral action - in Kant's words: action out of duty - is only possible if a person can understand himself as free . In addition, acting out of duty presupposes that man's actions are not only in accordance with moral rules - this is what Kant calls dutiful action - but that man freely chooses the moral law (the moral law ) . This moral law is accessible to man only through reason, ultimately through the application of the categorical imperative . Therefore, according to Kant, religion itself cannot determine what is morally required or prohibited. In this respect, morality must remain completely independent of religious guidelines and is determined solely by reason:

“Morality, insofar as it is based on the concept of man as a free being, but for that very reason also binding himself to unconditional laws through his reason, neither needs the idea of ​​another being above him in order to recognize his duty another motive than the law itself to observe them. At least it is his own fault if such a need is found in him, but which cannot be remedied by anything else: because what does not arise from himself and his freedom does not make a substitute for the lack of his morality. - It therefore in no way needs religion for the sake of itself (objectively, as far as willing, as subjectively, as regards ability), but by virtue of pure practical reason it is sufficient for itself. "

- RGV. First preface.

Kant expressly opposes any “statutory” religion, that is, any religion whose commandments apply through sheer authority (e.g. through God , through the Bible , through an absolute ruler, etc.). For Kant, only those moral duties can be really moral which can be recognized by pure reason. Kant had already opposed a dogmatic religion in his famous work What is Enlightenment? turned. In this sense Kant calls a " religion of reason " that each blind faith - such as the belief in revelation wisdom , refers to Kant as "counterfeit service" - overcomes and rests solely on the basis of reason. Kant therefore says of the "true religion", the religion of reason:

“The true, sole religion contains nothing but laws; i. such practical principles, the absolute necessity of which we can become conscious of, which we therefore acknowledge as revealed by pure reason (not empirically). Statutes can only exist for the sake of a church, which can have various equally good forms. i. ordinances held to be divine, which to our purely moral judgment are arbitrary and accidental. To regard this statutory belief (which is limited to one people and cannot contain the general world religion) as essential to the service of God in general and to make it the supreme condition of divine pleasure in people is a religious delusion, observance of which is an after-service, d. i. such an alleged worship of God is, by means of which the true service that is demanded of himself is acted against. "

- RGV. Fourth piece. Second part: Of the after service of God in a statutory religion.

For Kant, therefore only the "true religion", which can be understood by every single person even from pure reason out. The revelation honors Kant in its importance for the spiritual progress of mankind, but regards it as a stage of human development to be overcome. Man only needed revelation belief as long as he was not yet mature enough for reasonable (“pure”) belief.

Criticism of revelation beliefs and religious cults

In the fourth section of the RGV, Kant sharply opposes any form of blind belief in revealed wisdom, i.e. belief that is not accompanied by reason:

“To want to perceive heavenly influences in oneself is a kind of madness, in which there can also be a method (because those supposed inner revelations must always follow moral, therefore rational ideas), but which is always a self-deception that is detrimental to religion remains."

- RGV. IV. Piece. Second part.

Kant rejects everything in religion that has to do with revelation, dogmas, belief in miracles or “heavenly influences”. This also includes prayers, church liturgies, pilgrimages or confessions. Kant summarizes this in the following principle:

"Everything that, apart from the good way of life, the human being thinks he can do in order to please God, is mere religious delusion and after-service of God."

- RGV. Fourth piece. Second part. §2.

The goal of Kant's religion of reason is thus not primarily redemption or other forms of reward for a good lifestyle, but only the moral (“good”) way of life itself.

Freedom, immortality and God as postulates of practical reason

Freedom, immortality of the soul and God are, according to Kant, ideas that cannot be proven. Kant had already shown the general impossibility of such proofs in the Critique of Pure Reason . Nevertheless, it is necessary to at least postulate these ideas , i. H. to be accepted as a hypothesis so that humans can understand themselves at all as being who can act morally. What exactly is meant by these ideas is what Kant deals with in other works and does not specifically address it in the RGV. Kant had already dealt with the possibility of human freedom in the Foundation for the Metaphysics of Morals , the immortality of the soul and the idea of ​​a God in the Critique of Practical Reason .

In order to understand the religious writing (RGV) it is important not to confuse these ideas with the usual religious ideas. This is shown using the example of the immortality of the soul: Just as Kant's concept of God is to be understood as a terminus technicus and must not be understood as a personal God, so the concept of the immortality of the soul is not in every respect comparable with other religious ideas such as that of a transmigration of souls or the salvation of the soul after physical death. Kant's philosophy of religion does not have a thought of salvation such as in Christianity, since according to Kant, the soul must continue to strive for morality even after physical death. So the soul is not redeemed, but has to strive ad infinitum to be moral. Kant says in the Critique of Practical Reason :

“What the creature can only have with regard to the hope of this share would be the consciousness of its tested disposition, in order to make a further uninterrupted continuation of the same from its previous progress from the worse to the morally better and the unchangeable purpose that has become known to it may be enough to hope beyond this life itself, and so, never here, or in any foreseeable future point in time of its existence, but only in the (God alone overlookable) infinity of its continuation to its will (without indulgence or remission, which does not fit in with justice) to be completely adequate. "

- KpV, second book. Second main piece. IV.

Kant therefore advocates the thesis that there is a “continuation” of progress “from the worse to the morally better [...] even beyond this life”. Otfried Höffe explains this difficult to understand passage as follows:

“What is remarkable about this argument is that it changes the traditional conception of future life. For Christianity, also for Plato, the struggle of duty against inclination only takes place in this world, while the blessed in the hereafter no longer know any temptation to evil. With Kant, on the other hand, the moral exertion of this world is extended to infinity. "

- Höffe, Otfried: Immanuel Kant. 7th edition Beck, Munich 2007. pp. 250f.

Publication censorship issues

Kant's writing met with considerable resistance from the Prussian authorities. After the religious edict of 1788, writings critical of the church and religion were subjected to special censorship measures . A part of Kant's religious writing was refused permission to print, so that it could not appear until 1794, despite considerable resistance. The king personally opposed publication. On October 1, 1794, Friedrich Wilhelm II issued a cabinet order : Kant had "misused his philosophy to distort and disparage some main and basic teachings of scripture and Christianity" and violated his "duty as a teacher of youth". "On his royal. Your Majesty Most Gracious Special Order ”was therefore demanded by Kant to refrain from any further publication of this kind,“ otherwise you will have to expect unfailingly unpleasant dispositions with continued restlessness. ”Kant then had to undertake to refrain from any further statements on questions of religion he held out until the king's death.

Kant's personal relationship to religion

What Kant as a private person thought about religion, especially Christianity, is only documented by a few documents, including private letters and statements by his friends. However, more recent publications show that Kant - as theoretically presented in his religious paper - also rejected large parts of church practice in private. In the Kant biography of Manfred Kühn it says:

“Organized religion filled him [Kant] with anger. It was clear to everyone who knew Kant personally that belief in a personal God was alien to him. Although he had postulated God and immortality, he himself did not believe in either. He was firmly convinced that such beliefs were merely a matter of "individual need". He himself felt no such need. "

- Kühn, Manfred: Kant. A biography. Beck, Munich 2004. pp. 16f.

Kant later judged his pietistic school education as “youth slavery” and “discipline of fanatics”. Karl Ludwig Pörschke , with whom Kant was friends in old age, reported: “He [Kant] often assured me that he had been a master's degree for a long time and had not yet doubted any of the principles of Christianity. Little by little, one piece at a time fell off. ”In a letter to Lavater from 1775, Kant declared the“ praise of the teacher of this religion ”(meaning Jesus) as well as prayer and“ devotional acts ”to be“ unimportant ”. An explicit rejection of Christianity is not handed down from Kant.


Literature about the work

  • Hannah Arendt : About evil . A lecture on questions of ethics. Piper, Munich et al. 2006, ISBN 3-492-04694-0 (" Responsibility and Judgment ").
  • Georg Essen, Magnus Striet (ed.): Kant and theology. Scientific Book Society, Darmstadt 2005, ISBN 3-534-16664-7 .
  • Chris L. Firestone, Stephen R. Palmquist (Eds.): Kant and the New Philosophy of Religion (= Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion ). Indiana University Press, Bloomington / Indianapolis 2006, ISBN 0-253-21800-4 .
  • Norbert Fischer (ed.): Kant's metaphysics and philosophy of religion (= Kant research. Vol. 15). Meiner, Hamburg 2004, ISBN 3-7873-1662-0 .
  • Horst Gronke, Thomas Meyer, Barbara Neißer (ed.): Anti-Semitism in Kant and other thinkers of the Enlightenment. Award-winning writings from the scientific competition "Anti-Semitic and anti-Judaistic motifs in Enlightenment thinkers". Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 2001, ISBN 3-8260-2144-4 .
  • Matthias Hoesch: Reason and Providence. Secularized eschatology in Kant's philosophy of religion and history. de Gruyter, Berlin / Boston 2014, ISBN 978-3110351255 .
  • Jacob Katz : Kant and Judaism, The Historical Context. In: Tarbiz . Vol. 42, 1991/92, ISSN  0334-3650 , pp. 219-237 (Heb.), Engl. Summary on p. VIII. (See Jacob Katz: Early Anti-Semitism in Germany )
  • Andreas Urs Sommer : New publications on Kant's philosophy of religion. In: Philosophical Review. Vol. 54, 2007, ISSN  0031-8159 , pp. 31-53.
  • Andreas Urs Sommer: Kant's hypothetical philosophy of history with rational theological intent. In: Udo Kern (ed.): What is and what should be. Nature and freedom in Immanuel Kant. De Gruyter, Berlin / New York 2007, ISBN 978-3-11-019226-1 , pp. 343–371.
  • Michael Städtler (Ed.): Kant's "Ethical Community". The religious essay between the critique of reason and practical philosophy. Akademie-Verlag, Berlin 2005, ISBN 3-05-004150-1 .
  • Bettina Stangneth (2001): Anti-Semitic and Anti-Judaistic Motives in Kant? Facts, opinions, causes. In: Horst Gronke, Thomas Meyer, Barbara Neißer (ed.): Anti-Semitism in Kant and other thinkers of the Enlightenment. Königshausen and Neumann, Würzburg 2001, ISBN 3-8260-2144-4 , pp. 11-124.
  • Werner Thiede (Ed.): Faith from your own reason? Kant's Philosophy of Religion and Theology. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2004, ISBN 3-525-56703-0 .
  • Aloysius Winter : The other Kant. On the philosophical theology of Immanuel Kant (= Europaea memoria. Series 1: Studies. Vol. 11). With a foreword by Norbert Hinske . Georg Olms Olms, Hildesheim et al. 2000, ISBN 3-487-11081-4 .
  • Moshe Zuckermann : Reason and religion on the short path to unsuccessful secularization. In: Margarete Jäger , Jürgen Link (Hrsg.): Power - Religion - Politics. On the renaissance of religious practices and mentalities (= Duisburg Institute for Linguistic and Social Research. Edition DISS. Vol. 11). Unrast, Münster 2006, ISBN 3-89771-740-9 .

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. RGV. Third piece. First department. VI.
  2. On this problem cf. in detail Hoesch, Matthias: Reason and Providence. Secularized eschatology in Kant's philosophy of religion and history, Berlin / Boston 2014, 139–154.
  3. See Kühn, Manfred: Kant. A biography. Beck, Munich 2004. p. 430.
  4. Compiled in: Stangneth, Bettina: "Kant's harmful writings". An introduction, in: Kant: The religion within the limits of mere reason, Hamburg 2003.
  5. Data and quotations from: Höffe, Otfried: Immanuel Kant. 7th edition Beck, Munich 2007. p. 40.
  6. ^ Kühn, Manfred: Kant. A biography. Beck, Munich 2004. p. 63.
  7. ^ Kühn, Manfred: Kant. A biography. Beck, Munich 2004. p. 168.
  8. ^ Kühn, Manfred: Kant. A biography. Beck, Munich 2004. p. 261.