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Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason

Immanuel Kant

Part Four (Section 1)

Part Three (Section 2)

Part Four (Section 2)

Summary

According to Kant, all rational humans have a duty to unite in an ethical, religious community, because it is difficult for us to become better individuals without the support of like-minded people. Efforts to establish "one community under moral laws" might help curb the immoral conduct encouraged by life in general society (6:152). According to Kant, an acceptable Christian community must dispense with its own historical practices and beliefs. Only false churches teach their members to believe in the unqualified good of rituals, incantations, and tithe giving. Kant does note exceptions, however. For example, if the upkeep of a church's facilities requires contributions from church members, then this church is justified in asking for weekly contributions.

Kant wants to clarify that good religious groups are those that value the moral improvement of their members over the observance of ritual and dogma. Church officials betray the church when they encourage members of their congregations to take ritual more seriously than they take moral conduct. Kant finds support for this theory in the Christian scriptures, which value moral conduct over dogma, superstition, and ritual. The passages found in Matthew 5:20–48, for example, reflect a deep concern for the individual's responsibility to commit him or herself to moral conduct. These passages also minimize the importance of ritual service to the divine. Kant goes on to criticize Christianity, however, because he thinks that like all formally organized religions, it encourages "religious delusion." Those suffering from religious delusions think that simply believing in a religious doctrine makes them better in God's eyes. Kant thinks it deluded to believe that God is pleased when we profess faith in Jesus, for example. Kant recognizes that people naturally gravitate to religious traditions that offer a guarantee of salvation. They want a confirmation that their efforts are pleasing God, and it is comforting to believe that God will forgive their sins once they profess a certain belief. Still, he thinks this kind of comfort is false. All we can do, Kant says, is recognize that God will supplement whatever righteousness we lack: "whoever does, in a disposition of true devotion to duty, as much as lies within his power to satisfy his obligation can legitimately hope that what lies outside his power will be supplemented by the supreme wisdom in some way or another" (6:171). Here Kant claims that as long as we are earnest in trying to become morally upright, as long as we act in "true devotion to duty," God will take care of the rest.

Analysis

Kant values Christianity not only because he considers it friendly to his own brand of moral religion, but because he finds certain aspects of Christianity valuable in themselves. He especially values Christianity because its moral message is accessible to everyone. After describing the significance of some of his favorite scriptural passages, Kant concludes with the following remark: "Here we then have a complete religion, which can be proposed to all human beings comprehensibly and convincingly through their own reason" (6:162). Kant likes the fact that Christianity's message can be communicated to human beings. Furthermore, humans can evaluate Christianity's moral teachings without any special training. They do not need scholarly ability, special insight, or divine election to understand Christianity.

However, Kant dislikes the fact that in Christianity, merely professing faith in God can buy moral absolution. He holds that the sincerity of our hearts and the earnestness of our efforts matter more than our professions of faith, which may not accurately reflect our souls' content. Moral imperfections are irrelevant if we are trying earnestly to become better individuals in accordance with duty. Moral behavior is the best indicator of a true, virtuous heart.

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