Kant’s Religion vs. Our Religion

By Daniel Arango

In Religion Within the Limits of Pure Reason Alone, Immanuel Kant considers the claim that God “arises out of mortality” without being the basis for moral obligation. “Morality thus leads ineluctably to religion, through which extends itself to the idea of a powerful moral Lawgiver, outside of mankind, for Whose will that is the final end (of creation) which at the same time can and ought to be man’s final end.” Kant develops what he calls the “pure religion of reason” and explains this true moral religion in relation to other established, historical religions. He was particularly interested in the question of how the moral recovery of individuals, and all of mankind, is possible. For Kant, religion as we know it is a synthesis of theological ideas and morality. There is really but one moral “religion”, divided into various ecclesiastical faiths that are influenced by their historical periods. Essentially, the creation of these faiths clarified his belief that “moral perfection” in individuals could only be brought about by the recovery of mankind as a whole; these faiths were created as an expression of this capacity to attempt to live a better moral life. Each faith is a historical religion, based upon a certain set of statutes that dictate to its followers what to do/not to do, while a true rational religion is based on morality. How do we know we are moral agents? What are the conditions of this “true religion” Kant speaks of and how do some faiths, most especially Judaism and Christianity, adhere or not adhere to these conditions? Overall, the biggest indicator of morality in Kant’s moral religion is our intentions to become better people and live better lives; whether we create faiths to structure these desires is irrelevant. Evidently, where these ecclesiastical faiths fail, is by providing limitations on our good deeds, rather than true exits. The only true answer we have to discovering our morality is by listening to or hearts and desiring to become good, in itself, while at the same time, realizing where we lack the knowledge to overcome evil and getting help.

Religion, as defined by Kant, is the recognition of a moral disposition (and the moral duties that this distinction encompasses) as divine commands (142). Man, as a rational being, is free and capable of changing and overcoming his propensity to evil (24). This ideal of moral recovery correlates to the ideal “of a humanity pleasing to God” in that a radical change in a mode of evil thought could imply man’s justification as a moral agent before God (21). However, this justification is dependent on man deemed free from evil, a claim that is uncertain in itself. As a natural propensity, evil can’t be overcome by a specific set of morally good actions. If that were the case, there would be a Guidebook to the Afterlife sold in stores everywhere. Rather, man on his own is unable to succeed and find moral security in his sensual world, so we must look to another power that we create and acknowledge as morally superior and omnipotent, in this case God.

The more crucial question here seems to be, if we are free and our own moral agents, how can God appear to be our moral legislators? In Book III of the Religion, Kant argues that the rule of the “moral principle will only be possible in an ethical state, i.e. kingdom of virtue.” This ethical state can’t be determined by man in a political sense, though human laws dictate certain kinds of behavior as any state normally would. Since an ethical state is formed free from forceful influence on ethical behavior, it can’t be governed solely by human laws. This must mean there must be something else-non human- governing, a divine figure (91). Moral legislation concerns the inner hearts and dispositions of human beings, which are not subject to external laws. God alone is able to recognize the good and see through our hearts and motives to know our moral beliefs (95).

However, though God is an important idea in morality, He is not so valuable as to merit direct obedience of His laws, per say. For Kant, God is an allegorical reference to our own morality that does not imply the stories and characteristics that biblical construction in Scripture acribes to Him. He is an abstract concept of reason; we create the philosophical notion of a God as an expression of our morality and rationality. This is the basis that Kant uses to strike a balance between God’s moral rule over us and our own human freedom. God is a supreme ruler who is not coercive; He would never force us to follow his laws and moral laws do not originate in him, though he is thought of as the “highest lawgiver in an ethical commonwealth” (90). In essence, God’s rule does not interfere with human autonomy, i.e. human legislation and He could not conceivably enact laws that are unknown to us but, He is not independent from moral law as it is designed by our human reason. Therefore, God only figures in our sensuality as a result of our human freedom and free will.

It is precisely the need to have this balance in our lives, and our desires to become morally better as we forever strive towards the God ideal, that mankind has created faiths and churches to bind us together in that struggle. Whether these connections of cooperation to be better people are completely pure is another story. As for his discussion of the faiths, Kant poses several limits on certain types, most especially Judaism. However, he does not criticize all aspects of organized religion; he only finds that there is a natural tension between moral principles and religious traditions. As was stated previously, there are many “religions”, all influenced by the time periods in which they were created, but there is only one universal moral law. Humans determine this moral law by relying on their own instincts and intentions as to whether they overcame the natural propensity to evil. We don’t need organized religion to explain our moral capacity; we already know it. Moreover, religious practices can undermine moral principles. A community life, even one in the form of a religious commonwealth, can foster impulses towards revenge and competition. Man’s propensity to evil can influence other men in society. Religious institutions often identify religious experience with the performance of certain rituals or the acceptance of certain beliefs. This is in itself dangerous because individuals can simultaneously adhere to strict requirements of a particular faith’s church and harbor hatred, jealousy or immoral desires. Secondly, some religious traditions promote the idea that incantations or professions of faith endear people to God (an example of this kind would be Calvinism). The danger here is that people would behave morally not because it’s the right (and thus rational) thing to do, but because it’s a daily chore designed to appease God’s wishes. This is of course, in itself, not moral because to behave morally is to do good deeds with good intentions, and not to be forcefully told to do anything we wouldn’t want to. Finally, and related to the previous comment, Kant objects to those religious traditions that say God’s grace will save you, regardless of your own behavior. Our actions have true moral worth only if we performed them independently, without God’s assistance.

In its original form, he argues, Judaism is not a religion at all, but merely a political entity masked in the form of an institutionalized religion. Firstly, Judaism is not essentially religious because its commands relate to external acts and lay no requirements “upon a moral disposition” (116). These commands are only to be observed in an outward fashion, not necessarily inward. However, Kant makes a point to say that the “Ten Commandments, are, to the eye of reason, as valid as ethical commands even had they not been given publicly” (116). Secondly, Judaism limits reward and punishment to this world, with no recognition of the possibility that these incentives/non-incentives affect the morality of the human soul as such. Thirdly, Judaism is adamant of the Jews as a conception of chosen persons (117). This shows enmity towards all other people, and therefore, evokes the enmity of all. Lastly, in several places in this book, Kant criticizes Abraham’s decision to slaughter his son at the command of God as immoral. These criticisms deserve to be discussed further.

Is Judaism really essentially political, rather than religious? Kant does not doubt that Jews, “each for himself, have framed some sort of religious faith which was mingled with the articles of their statutory belief.” This kind of religious faith he takes to be outside the “legislation of Judaism.” At this point, we can wonder what his relationship is to Judaism and what he considers to be its pro points. Presumably, he takes the Old Testament to be the defining text for Judaism and it can be said that, even with this historical scripture, Kant was right to a certain degree about the political tenets of this faith. Moses performed a political act when he freed slaves from bondage of an Egyptian pharaoh and the Israelites had political problems, among others. Kant’s position with respect to this faith (and subsequent faiths he discusses) calls into question the nature of heaven that we as moral agents hope for, not the nature of God by whose grace we gain passage to that kingdom. When he comes to question what is heaven, Kant gives us a kingdom of ends called an ethical commonwealth. It is here where we can find, for Kant’s criticism of Jews as chosen people, he seems at ease with the notion that a commonwealth of sorts made up of morally upright people (who can be called chosen) at its center is ok (90). From Kant’s perspective, Judaism seems to be centered around God, while his own position is centered around the prospects of a good life in heaven. However, he is completely opposed to the idea that one can have true knowledge of any world outside the empirical, sensual world he lives in. There is the possibility of knowing something, but this “knowledge” of other worlds is not certain or actual.

Kant is very critical of other religions that claim the ability to guarantee a follower’s acceptance into heaven. There is no guarantee, ever, that the morally good acts we do in this lifetime will translate to a place in the kingdom of heaven. The only activity that can be called pleasing to God is activity that is, in itself, morally good and useful in this world. While he argues that only through intentions can one be called moral or not, he also contends that none of us can look into the hearts (disposition) of another person. Thus, any legislation created on in this world can only be directed at allowing (or restricting) behavior, not intentions of individuals. Kant understands this better than most; his criticism of the Ten Commandments is that they lay no requirements on having a good moral disposition, simply that these laws be followed. To have the status of ethical commands, as he states earlier, they must be directed towards the moral disposition; in essence, we must do away with the conception of Ten Commandments as divine law and allow these “recommendations” to pervade our moral consciousness.

Kant’s claim that proper moral commands must “lay requirements upon the moral disposition” seems somewhat at odds in respect to his analysis of the nature and status of ethical principles. Kant points out that no command from outside an individual can stand strictly as an ethical command, unless it is simultaneously self imposed. We can’t be commanded to freely do the right thing, therefore, no purely external commands can be directed towards our inner disposition and be ethical. Either the command is directed at the behavior alone (which means its outside of ethical implications) or the command is one that an individual should later take on as self imposed.

Self imposition of these moral maxims is what defines who is morally good or evil; the notion of a chosen people that are graced by God as worthy of entering the gates of Heaven is both wrong and useless to Kant. Whereas Judaism has an idea of a chosen people, Christianity has a chosen individual, namely Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is an example of what makes Christianity the closest of the faiths to a moral religion. Kant may say we should not think of this faith as so high to merit its establishment as superior because “we find that the religious doctrines of most other people peoples tended in the same direction,” but, he also offers no other examples than Christianity. For Kant, Christianity is the closest to coming towards a moral religion because it teaches us to want to be good. Judaism doesn’t go to this extent, and it is in this case that it lacks what Christianity has, however flawed it is.

Turning to Kant’s charge that Abraham’s decision to sacrifice Isaac was immoral. Looked at in the literal sense, it was immoral because the decision to take a life is in itself an evil action, with evil intentions. Kant himself presents a view (one that religious people in today’s age can be familiar with) that the Bible has to be interpreted by people of scholarship before it can be understood. It would have to be interpreted by standards of morality, naturally, because these faiths are created by church men with some set of laws that serve the divine. However, where these faiths go wrong is requiring that these laws need to be obeyed absolutely in order to serve and worship. For Kant, the only way to serve God and thus be religious is to serve man. One would try to speak hypothetically of this event as one that happened prior to the enactment of Ten Commandments and at a time where no moral laws were available to follow. Kant would immediately mark this defense as weak because for rational beings there is always a moral law that governs us, the categorical imperative. It exists in all humans, like Abraham. This is an example of how Scripture can make allegorical references -that for Kant is essential to understanding in our sensual world of any concept of the divine- in such a way that they can make claims that ordinarily would not match with a true moral religion.

However, Kant’s specific criticisms of Judaism seem thin in comparison to his laudation of Christianity as closer to his true moral religion. In one example: “Christianity possesses the great advantage over Judaism of being represented as coming from the mouth of the first teacher not as a statutory but as a moral religion, and thus entering into the closest relation with reason so that, through reason, it was able of itself, without historical learning, to be spread at all times and among all peoples with the greatest trustworthiness.” This seems to be at odds, somewhat, with his remark that the Ten Commandments, which are in of themselves statutory laws made by God, are valid as ethical commands in the view of reason. Apparently, there are exceptions in terms of statutory commands that can be a part of a moral religion.

In addition, in the Religion, we see Kant combine a compliment of a particular faith with a criticism. It is as if he merits their creation, but simultaneously denounces their ability to be the profound and primary religion for all people. For example, a fragment in Part II where he credits Jewish “theocracy” with establishing a form of government “instituted solely for the public and exclusive veneration of a principle of morality.” It seems that he’s impressed, except of course he immediately follows it with a lengthy criticism on their lack of attaining “spiritual natures” with respect to the overall moral good and not material goods of this world. “A people which has a written religion (sacred books) never fuses together in one faith with a people… possessing no such books but only rites…” The long history of Jews was “worthy of notice” but not proof of a divine special purpose; their long-lasting existence attributed to a written language of religion.

Even then, with a written religion, Kant wonders if Jews (and to this extent, Christians and Muslims whose religions were based off Judaism) had help in preserving these sacred tests because they were helped by the other ecclesiastical faiths. “For Jews could ever and again seek out their old documents among the Christians…whenever in their wandering their skill in reading these books and so the desire to posses them was lost…” Plainly, Kant sees the preservation of the Jewish people either “the proof of a special beneficent providence saving this people,” or “an example of punitive justice visited upon because it stiff-neckedly sought to create a political and not moral concept of the Messiah.”

It is precisely because of this skepticism with any institutional church calling itself a religion that we see Kant ascribe the merits of their teachings as explained through revelation and mystery. Kant takes mystery to be something that we know of, but can’t know in certainty enough to communicate it correctly and publicly. Mystery is distinguished from the inscrutable in that the inscrutable is defined as something we can communicate but can’t understand how it was created and for what cause. A man’s duty can’t be a mystery to him, however “inscrutable” it is, because it was essentially born out of his freedom and will. Kant then contrasts this idea of what we can do for our morality compared to what God alone can do. It is a genuine mystery of religion when we know why something occurs but not what it is that happens. An example of this is how we know God can help us to become moral, we don’t know how He does it but it is done somehow. In other words, we can answer the “why” question (because we want to be more moral individuals) but we need assistance and guidance to answer the “what” (what does God do to assist us? Revelation remains a mystery of comprehension to us but the basis for which to communicate our morality must, and will always, remain purely rational.

Revelation is in the group of concepts that Kant describes as unnecessary, but possible in relation to the expectations we have to try and live our lives morally. Also, in this group is religious enthusiasm. The simple religious observation of “God’s laws” ensures holy success for some in ecclesiastical faiths (including Judaism and Christianity). However, Kant rejects this idea of religious enthusiasm because it implies that a simple profession of faith (or sorrow for one’s previous sins) will please God, and that an absolute devotion to moral conduct isn’t required. Essentially, Kant sees religious enthusiasm as something that would help us avoid our moral responsibilities. As was discussed before, there is a lack of evidence suggesting our efforts will cause God to forgive our sins. Because we have no evidence we shouldn’t assume that public religious rituals have any affect on our moral standing in God’s eyes.

Kant’s true moral religion does not rely on institutionalized faiths and historical religious traditions to strive for a truer and more complete morality. Any rational person can adopt a pure moral faith if they intend to become better. Under moral faith, which can be said is part of the foundation of Kant’s religion, good moral conduct is far more important than ritual and/or public professions of faith. Good moral conduct is the standard by which we can postulate how we are as free beings and whether our ends and means are good in of themselves. Pure moral faith is demanding for its practitioners, not only because it is based upon a hypothetical and individualistic notion of “how far along are we on our journey to Good” but, because it requires these people to constantly evaluate their actions and make sure the duty motivates them.

Despite these apparent differences between Kant’s religion and Christianity (or Judaism), it is clear that they contain similarities. Both emphasize a fundamental change of heart, beyond a mere change of actions. As in Christianity, Kant believes the most important thing is the individual person and that human duties should be treated as divine commands. It is here, explicitly, that he shows his deep respect for Christian tenets in relation to his own moral religion. In Christianity, moral conduct is not a result of accident; it is a result of acting on our morally sound principles and by distinguishing between our desires and our duty to choose which desires to act on. These aspects of Christianity, and of any other similar religion, gel well with Kant’s beliefs in the importance of maxims. We must live in accordance to these moral rules to, in fact, be defined as moral. People who have chosen a set of maxims are morally free and thus, true agents of their morality. Faiths only provide hope, hope that we can eventually be completely moral in the eyes of the Supreme Lawgiver and thus, be good beings. It is plain to see how Immanuel Kant was influenced by organized religions. However, he sought to create a moral religion more in tune with our sensibilities as human beings living in society and interacting with one another.

Works Cited

Kant, Immanuel. Religion Within the Limits of Pure Reason Alone, edited by Theodore M. Greene.

(New York: Open Court Publishing Company, 1960)


Daniel Arango (’09) is a Political Science and Philosophy double major at Boston University.

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