Although Europeans had been receiving reports about Buddhism since the thirteenth century – from Marco Polo, papal envoys, Jesuits, and Asian specialists – it was not until the midcentury that European intellectuals generally began to be aware that there was at least one major form of religion, Theravada Buddhism, which was atheistic. Nevertheless, the general tendency throughout the century was to conceive of the “essence of religion” as belief in supernatural deities and to regard monotheism as the most highly developed form of it. Consequently, most of the challenges to religion in the nineteenth century, like those in the seventeenth and eighteenth, tended to be challenges to theism generally and to the culturally predominant forms of it, Christianity and Judaism, particularly. And it will be these challenges with which we shall be primarily concerned.
What distinguishes the nineteenth from previous centuries is the extraordinary variety of these challenges. The attacks of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were primarily philosophical and rationalistic, and the arguments swirled around such age-old issues as the cogency of the arguments for the existence of God, the possibility of miracles, and whether the existence of evil is compatible with the reality of an omnipotent and benevolent deity. But the challenges to religion in the nineteenth century were launched not only by philosophers but by political revolutionaries, liberal reformers, utilitarian moralists, positivistic social theorists, agnostics, and a variety of scholars working in the new specialized and increasingly professionalized forms of knowledge: anthropology, biology, geology, history, psychology, and sociology.
Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–72) was the fourth of eight children in one of the most distinguished German families of the time. Deeply religious as a youth, he entered Heidelberg in 1823 in order to study Christian theology. But there he came under the influence of a well-known Hegelian theologian. Impressed by the intellectual grandeur of Hegelianism he decided to transfer to Berlin where Hegel taught, although he gave his father the impression that he wanted to study theology with the famous Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher. Because of financial reasons, he transferred to Erlangen in 1826 where, after completing his dissertation, he was made a Privatdozent. There he lectured on the history of modern philosophy.
In 1830 and against the advice of his father, he published anonymously a book entitled Thoughts on Death and Immortality, which argued that the most authentic religious faith would not contain the traditional Christian beliefs in a personal God and in personal immortality. The text, unfortunately, was accompanied by a series of derogatory epigrams directed against pietism. The book was censored by the authorities and Feuerbach was fired from the university. He married in 1837 but, unable to find academic employment, retired to a remote village near Ansbach where his wife's father owned a porcelain factory. There, in relative isolation except for trips to visit friends, he devoted his life to writing. The youngest of his two daughters died a very painful death aged three and Feuerbach never recovered from what he regarded as the senseless death of this infant.
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