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Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason

Immanuel Kant

Part Three (Section 1, continued)

Part Three (Section 1)

Part Three (Section 2)

Summary

In this section Kant clarifies the relationship between moral religion and existing religion, or ecclesiastical faith. Ecclesiastical faith plays an important role in the development of a truly moral religion. It provides raw material for genuine religious experience, which encourages people to wonder whether they are really behaving morally in daily life. Existing religious traditions are important and necessary if they provide the opportunity for moral reflection. However, Kant does have reservations about existing religions. He holds that a interpretation is necessary to make sense of religious scriptures, and that existing religious practices do not always interpret correctly. thwarted by interpreting religious scriptures.

Kant says that clever people of considerable moral fortitude should be responsible for interpreting a given religious tradition. Individuals whose primary loyalty is to reason are in the best position to ensure that religious practices improve people's morals. Kant thinks that such interpreters are needed because some aspects of religious doctrine actually run contrary to moral principles. His favorite example of this sort of amoral doctrine is Psalm fifty- nine, which includes "a prayer for revenge that borders on the horrific" (6:110). Secondly, there is a need for scriptural interpreters, people who will do the historical scholarship necessary to properly interpret the meaning of religious texts. Kant believes that scriptural specialists enhance the authority of churches.

After he makes these observations, Kant begins to explain what he finds implausible about Christian theology. His main complaint is that faith, especially faith in Jesus, is not enough to absolve human beings of their sins. According to Kant, "it is totally inconceivable [that] a rational human being who knows himself to deserve punishment could seriously believe that he only has to believe the news of a satisfaction having been rendered for him" (6:116). For Kant, faith is useless unless individuals devote themselves to their own moral improvement. Kant does not suggest discarding Christianity, however, partly because he thinks that whether they know it or not, traditional Christians who believe in Jesus already subscribe to his theories of moral religion. For Kant, all Christian belief in the historical Jesus is actually a belief in the idea of a perfect moral being. Therefore, this particular facet of Christianity does not conflict with true moral religion.

Analysis

Kant regards Christianity as the preliminary step in developing a truly moral religion. If Christianity will change, or even vanish, to be replaced by moral religion, what will become of the faith Christians have in Jesus? Kant does not clarify whether people will always need to believe that Jesus truly existed on this earth as a perfect man, as God's human representative, or whether eventually people will be satisfied with striving to emulate an abstract, nonexistent perfect person. Kant does think that role models are important for human beings, which might suggest a belief that people will continue to believe in Jesus. However, he also seems hopeful that people will realize that their faith in Jesus is truly a faith in the ideal of moral perfection.

Kant believes the innate good in people will cause them to turn away from ecclesiastical faith and religious practices, and toward moral religion. He does not claim that people will convert to moral religion because it is simpler than traditional religions. In fact, moral religion is more demanding than ecclesiastical faith, for it requires every individual to take full responsibility for becoming a better person. Neither does Kant claim that people will turn to moral religion from a desire to unite all religious traditions. Kant does claim that Human nature naturally tends toward reforming itself, especially when moral insights are a matter of public discussion: "Truth and goodness (and in the natural predisposition of every human being there lies the basis both for insight into these and heartfelt sympathy for them) do not fail, once made public, to propagate everywhere, in virtue of their natural affinity with the moral predisposition of rational beings" (6:123). Here Kant says that once the advantages of moral religion are made public, the good in human beings will help them feel an affinity for moral religion. Moral religion is true to human nature itself. In Kant's narrative, good ultimately triumphs over evil, not because God's grace grants it (as Christian theology explains it), but because of human agency.

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