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Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason

Immanuel Kant

Part Two (Section 2)

Part Two (Section 1)

Part Three (Section 1)

Summary

In this section, Kant addresses the matter of how we should begin to reform ourselves and become morally upright individuals. He further develops his reinterpretation of Christianity in order to explain how we should reform.

First, Kant explains that genuine moral religion mirrors the Christian account of the struggle between good and evil. According to Christian theology, human beings were the original proprietors of the earth (Genesis 1:28). Adam and Eve lived with one another peacefully, free from immoral conduct and therefore free from guilt. A powerful angel, Satan, defected from God's holy court and became interested in meddling in human affairs.

Satan exploited the human weakness for physical pleasures and earthly goods, tempting Adam and Eve into disobeying God in order to eat the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. With Adam and Eve's sin, all of humankind falls from grace. Adam and Eve's disobedience is called the original sin. The idea of original sin is that because of Adam and Eve, all humans are born sinful. Kant unequivocally rejects this concept. He thinks the biblical story of Adam and Eve should be understood allegorically, not literally. That is, the story is not meant to be interpreted as literal truth, but as a fable, an instructive tale full of symbolism. Kant says we fall from grace not because of Adam and Eve, but because of our own bad behavior. We are not guilty for the sins of Adam and Eve, but guilty for using our free will to choose immoral desires and thoughts.

Kant interprets the role of Jesus differently than Christianity does. In Kant's view, Jesus is not the Son of God made flesh, who dies for the sins of all of humankind, but merely an example that can inspire us to engage in moral behavior. More specifically, Jesus represents a partial victory over our natural inclination to engage in immoral behavior, because while he is human, he completely resists immoral desires. He gives us only a partial victory because while he demonstrates the possibility of remaining morally upright, every human being must still contend with his or her immoral desires.

Kant concludes that belief in miracles and religious doctrines is unnecessary for the truly moral individual. He says that "there is absolutely no salvation for human beings except in the innermost adoption of genuine moral principles in their disposition" (6:83). This means that humans need only draw on their inner resources, rather than relying on miracles or doctrine, in order to lead a moral life.

Analysis

In this section, further contrasts between Christianity and Kant's moral religion become apparent. While Christianity says that Jesus died for our sins, literally saving us from death, Kant thinks that the passion of Jesus is best understood as a moral allegory. He says Jesus' triumph over evil inclinations and desires should inspire us to turn away from our immoral thoughts toward righteousness. Kant thinks that Christianity provides us with genuine hope that moral conduct is within our grasp. If understood correctly, Christianity can be a source of moral wisdom. Kant based his philosophy on Christianity for good reason. Christianity distinguishes between our desires and our duty to choose which desires to act on. The Christian scriptures also speak of the good and evil that rule human beings, which implies that morally sound conduct is a matter of actively turning away from the principles which motivate evil conduct. In Christianity, moral conduct cannot be the result of accident or happenstance; it is rather the result of acting on morally sound principles.

These aspects of Christianity gel with Kant's beliefs in the importance of maxims. Simply intending to do the right thing, in Kant's opinion, does not mean you are a moral person. To be moral, you must choose to live in accordance with moral rules, maxims, that guide all of your actions. In order to be morally responsible you must not only have an intention to do something, you must also have a maxim or principle that puts the final stamp of approval on your intentions. People ruled by their intentions are at moral loose ends, blown here and there. People who have chosen a set of maxims are morally free. They have a procedure for ordering their inner desires.

Both Kant and Christianity emphasize a fundamental change of heart, beyond a mere change of actions. Kant says that as in Christianity, in moral religion the most important thing is the individual person: "cast in dogmas and observances but in the heart's disposition to observe all human duties as divine commands" (6:84). Here Kant shows his deep respect for Christianity by saying that human duties should be treated as divine commands.

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