Nutshell of Kant’s Religion Within The Bounds Of Sheer Reason

September 20, 2013

I. Radical Evil In Human Nature

Kant is looking for how the moral perfection of the world might be achieved. Despite a natural respect for the moral law, the human, as a species, has a natural proclivity for choosing self love as supreme over the moral law (a proclivity for evil). The good news is that although this proclivity belongs to our species naturally, it is a free choice that we naturally make, a matter of our own discretion, and this means that we can now make a different choice, namely to convert from self-love first to moral law first in a determined and resolute intention of suppressing the proclivity and not yielding to temptations.

II. Struggle Of Good Principle For Control Of The Human

What is involved in the conversion? When we convert we subscribe to the idea of the Son of God, a person worthy of the creation of a world, one who is always moral, even against enormous temptations. This idea is an incentive for us which we choose by our free discretion to represent in our own lives. We need no external experience of such a person (but also no reason not to acknowledge it in reputable reports of such a person in history). It is what our own moral law is pointing us to, i.e., moral perfection. And what is morally command must be possible for us to accomplish.

The Christians picture the life of the convert in terms of an on-going external struggle between the Son of God and the Prince of the World (self love), the first where the leader for goodness (Jesus) was physically destroyed, but not before he set loose in the world a new spirit with many conversions, enough to threaten the rule of the Prince. And so the Son of God would be representing an internal moral dedication and allegiance while the Prince of the World would represent symbolically the claims of self love and the proclivity for evil, looking for a way around the moral law for the sake of self love. These are the two enemies within us which the Christians picture as external spirits in a conflict, good and evil.

III. Victory Of The Good Principle

Then what are the rational hopes and expectation of such a conversion? Given the natural (and originally well purposed) competition among humans for status relative to each other, there is little or no hope that a convert would be expected to make any serious progress toward personal moral perfection on his own. The only hope is if several converts team up together for the express purpose of the promotion of individual moral perfection and of cooperating together toward the perfection of the world. Thus it is a “curious” duty of the species to itself, and so (as a duty) binding on each person.* Given the make up of the human, this unification and cooperation can only be expected by means of some church, one which is based upon some revelation and which is ensconced in scripture and aimed at moral perfection.

* Normally a duty is something that can be performed by any person, but this duty requires a person to join up with others, and since it is possible that no others would want to join up with this person, Kant calls this duty “curious”.

What we then need to do is to establish (perhaps through the enlightened teachers of doctrine and theology at the universities) that the function of some historical belief was to start the movement in its time and was dependent upon conditions at that time, and then to search out and find the moral teaching and establish this to be the supreme measure of conduct and aim in the church, such that God cannot be pleased except in a sincere striving for moral perfection. For example, miracles were perhaps needed in order to impress the people of that time, given a certain slavishness in their thinking due to their social structure and culture, and which then was effective in the establishment of that belief. But once established and publicly announced there is no further need for the miracle stories (except as embellishment) and where the focus is on the representation of the Son of God in one’s course of living.

And so the trick is to commandeer an historical faith, to mine the moral teaching and to present it for emulation, and use all else (non-moral aspects) to the extent it is expedient, e.g., instilling fervor.

IV. Religion And Clericalism

Now finally Kant wants to consider the things to look out for when selecting a suitable vehicle (an existing church) for  representing the invisible Church of God.

Here we want to contrast moral service to God with pseudo-service to God. In the latter we take what can at most be a means toward pleasing God to be pleasing to God in and of itself. We must be on alert for this serious error.

Kant then takes the Christian scriptures as an example of how he would go about mentioning ideas to the biblical theologian at the university. He presents these scriptures first as a pure moral teaching and belief, and then he presents them as a sacred history, as an erudite teaching and belief.

Kant then enunciates a proclivity on the part of the human to fashion gods for himself which are most amenable to his wants, like dealing with human kings, and this leads to superstition where we come to think that the passion in our prayers are serviceable in swaying God to our favor, and where we pray for God to make us do good or, if this does not happen, to make good our dereliction, thus relieving us of responsibility. And then there is also fanaticism, where we presume to have a direct connection with God and thus no need for reason or scripture.

Now if the profession of the sacred history as true is declared necessary to avoid damnation, we are faced with clericalism, where the individual yields to the determination of an established and authorized authority with the capacity for issuing edicts which are binding on God’s judgment (expressing his will), and to which even scholarship is subordinate. This will lead to sorcery or fetishism where we make deals with God for him to grant our personal wishes (and which may be well meant) and for which we will give up something in return, and then proceed to make that sacrifice in anticipation of the granting of our wish.

The visible representative of the universal invisible Church of God will have a clear principle that the moral law is the sole dependable guide to the motives and actions of the members for pleasing God and that all else (the sacred history, creeds, statutes, etc.) can be considered as incidental, and that the goal of life is personal moral perfection, regardless of one’s beliefs in a sacred history.

In this way Kant hopes that the biblical theologians at the universities will put their respective faiths on a trajectory towards becoming a representation of the invisible and universal Church of God. In this way Kant proposes a means toward the moral perfection of the world, i.e., basically highjacking a suitable faith candidate (morally) and using it as a vehicle for the promotion of the invisible Church of God and universal moral perfection. Kant’s intention is the same as that of the biblical theologian, the moral perfection of the world, described by the theologian as the New Jerusalem which is promised by the Christian belief. Thus they both, Kant and the biblical theologian, have the same practical goal.


In a nutshell: we begin with the natural and freely chosen evil of the species, and we convert and struggle with the temptations, and we unite with others to make a joint effort in a church under God, and we stay focused on the goal of moral perfection per se and avoid being waylaid by the our natural proclivity to fashion easier gods to deal with, easier in terms of avoiding the pain of the moral striving by means superstitions and sorcery. And Kant closes this work with a fundamental principle, namely: the correct way for the human with respect to God is not to proceed from favor to virtue, but far rather from virtue to favor.*

* Kant thinks that religion is necessary for making any progress toward the Highest Good (of moral perfection and commensurate happiness) and that no progress could be expected from a world of atheists. See Sagan and Kant.

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