Immanuel Kant, a late-Enlightenment German philosopher, is most famous for what is known as The Kantian Synthesis which extends through both metaphysics and epistemology. I have made reference to and explained it elsewhere, but in short, Kant’s contribution made it possible for both philosophy and science to proceed beyond the radical empiricism of David Hume. At the same time, however, Kant still upheld the rigorous commitment to reason championed by Hume and other empiricists of the period (Locke for example) who maintained that one’s knowledge was derived empirically through perception and no other way. For Kant, reality is divided into two realms: the phenomenal or sensible world conditioned by the categories of our understanding (i.e. time and space) and the noumenal or things-in-themselves world. There are two important claims here. First is that there really are “things-in-themselves”–things as they really are “behind” what we perceive them to be. This is also called “transcendental idealism” because it claims that Reality consists of ideas that transcend what we can actually have knowledge of. Second is that if we were able to take away the categories of our understanding, we’d be able to come into contact with the noumenal. The purpose of science, for Kant, is to limit the interference of the categories as much as possible in order to get us close to the noumenal. Science is right on edge of the phenomenal.
This worked quite well for everything in Kant’s system that had to do with immanent matters; however, it created a significant complication for the place of religion. Under Kant’s system, any attempt to make a reasonable statement about God must be by definition not reasonable since such statements can only come from phenomenal experience, and God must be, by definition, wholly noumenal. What then constitutes reasonable religious discourse?
Before we can understand Kant’s answer, we must also understand his ethical system as that dovetails with epistemological concerns in his understanding of religion. In Kant’s discourse on practical reason (his ethics), he argues that in order for one to act morally, one must only ever act according to one’s duty in any given situation; thus, the consequences of actions are not what are important in Kant’s system, only the motives behind action. An act driven by pure duty is the highest good–a purely good will. This differs from previous ethical theories, particular Aristotle’s virtue ethics, in that, for Kant, the highest good is something that we already have the capacity for, not a place we are striving to get to. This will be immensely important for Kant’s understanding of religion. The highest good cannot concern things like pleasure, intelligence, happiness, or freedom because these terms are far too relative and cannot be universalized in relation to duty. Someone may find freedom, happiness, or pleasure in the harm of others, which is unacceptable in Kant’s system. Thus, the will itself is the only thing that can be truly good, and its goodness is determined through two conditions known as the categorical imperative:
1. Motives must be able to be generalized into universal law.
2. An action can never use another human being as a means to achieve an end whatever that end may be.
Something like lying can never be ethical because it cannot be universalized–even if it actually results in good. One’s duty is to, through one’s own good will, act according to the categorical imperative at all times. For our purposes here, it’s important to note that this results in a disinterested morality–a morality that does not evaluate the conditions of particular cases.
The question for Kant in relation to religion then becomes what will arise from doing what we ought to? What is the result of the aggregate of dutiful action? The answer is religious life. In other words, morality in itself does not require religion, but acting morally will inevitably lead to religion. In order to trace this out, we have to start at the nature of humanity–Kant’s theological anthropology. As stated above, Kant believes that human beings have the capacity already for the highest good because that good can only be our own good will. Humans are naturally good. This capacity is in the form of our ability to reason. Reason, remember, is central to Kant’s entire philosophical system. For Kant, our reason has not been tainted by sin as earlier theologians had argued. At the same time, however, humans are free to use their reason to follow their duty and the moral law or to not do that. Sin is not depravity, some universal condition we are all under, nor is it our inability to obey our duty and the highest good; rather, it is our tendency to follow a different law, that of our own self-interest. Each human being incurs what Kant calls radical evil upon him or herself through choosing self-interest. It is a choice, our own responsibility, and we have the responsibility or freeing ourselves from it. In short, if we ought to do something, it means we have the absolute ability to do it.
It is here that we can insert Kant’s flimsy argument for the necessity of God’s existence. Because duty-bound morality must be disinterested, which is plainly against our nature as human beings, there must be an external reason why someone would choose to act according to duty. Kant’s answer is that there must be a reward which could only be conferred by a being who had ordered the world in such a way from the beginning: God. From this, we can see that the role of God is little more than a footnote in Kant’s account, and once we begin to look at how traditional doctrines become articulated, we can see that even more.
Given his “ought” equals “can” position, Kant must reframe the doctrines of atonement and justification in order for his system to work. Christ, for Kant, was a Second Adam but only in that his good example counteracts Adam’s bad one. Atonement is exemplary rather than substitutionary. Jesus shows us what it looks like for the will to act according to duty at all times. There isn’t much room, then, for justification as a work of God within us by grace. Our regeneration is as a new moral person constituted through our ability. We are not in need of divine grace. In fact, if we remember what we laid out in the beginning regarding God and the noumenal world, this precludes any interaction between God and the sensible world. This view contrasts greatly with the theologians of the 16th century Reformation for whom justification by grace alone was immensely important; thus, we can see that everything in Kant’s system must bow to the principle of reason.
Perhaps a better way of saying that, though, is that Kant still maintains religious commitments but they become reframed as the sacralization of the individual. This cuts two ways: The autonomous ability of the individual to realize the highest good is sacred and the highest good (the will for the categorical imperative) only exists in relation to other individuals, who therefore, must have a special status, though Kant is less interested in the latter because ultimately one’s own duty excludes the consideration of another’s well being except where that consideration satisfies the categorical imperative.
Situating this sacralization of the individual in relation to Kant’s notion of sin and evil will help us see how morality inevitably results in religion. Remember that there is no state of total depravity for Kant; the individual has the autonomous ability to overcome self-interest (sin) and choose duty. However, sin still exists beyond the conversion of the individual (Kant calls this persisting of sin “radical evil.”) We can see that this is plainly true, since individuals are constantly falling back to self-interest, have yet to convert themselves to duty, etc. Competition between individuals makes it extremely difficult to act according to duty even though we are naturally good. Thus, in Kant’s view, the only way to eliminate radical evil is for a corporate ethical existence to arise (the ethical commonwealth). This is more than just a group of individuals acting according to duty together, and it is also a different “kingdom” than that of the civil state, echoing Augustinian-Lutheran two kingdom discourse. The ethical commonwealth consists of everyone acting according to the freedom of everyone else, people in relationship with each other and the moral law at the same time.
If this all sounds dangerously like Pelagianism, then you know your early church heresies. However, identifying Kant’s view as heretical only to dismiss it doesn’t do any real work for us in terms of understanding our own position. Rather, what I want to re-emphasize are two points that I’ve already highlighted: The centrality of reason and the sacralization of the individual. The centrality of reason as Kant and the Enlightenment understand it has resulted in some undesirable side-effects, namely the scientism of New Atheism that claims a monopoly on all “real” knowledge as being found (literally) in the sensible world. Paradoxically, this has stuck somewhat in the contemporary religious consciousness even if we dismiss the conclusions about religion to which this led Kant. It isn’t necessarily something that a lay person, for instance, would rely on intentionally in practice; rather, it is a latent effect, a rarely understood or reflected upon claim in the back on one’s mind that may lead a person to holding tightly to particular “foundational” beliefs for fear that letting those go will cause the entire system to dissolve. Or it may lead to one claiming the ability to see all the physical work that God is doing (i.e. a heavy reliance on visions or miracles in order to keep one’s belief afloat.) Now, this isn’t to say that empirical evidence is superficial in religious experience. Indeed, Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, appeals to first hand accounts–empirical evidence–of the resurrection of Jesus in order to prove to the church at Corinth that there is indeed resurrection from the dead, and Jesus accomplished it. But this is still an experiential proof that already assumes the existence of God a priori as well as the fact that Jesus was the son of God. Paul and the Corinthians agree on that. The resurrection is incredibly important for the viability of Christianity, as Paul says many times elsewhere, but it would not disprove God’s existence for anyone in the ancient world if it turned out it had not happened, even for Paul.
Our core beliefs do not collapse easily. There is a certain amount epistemological resilience that keeps them more or less intact, even if the warrants and claims that support them shift slightly. I’ve written about this sort of epistemological holism here. If we take that to be the case, then there doesn’t seem to be any good reason to hold strongly to the account of reason that Kant gives especially since he’s probably correct in his religious account that follows it. What American Christianity tends to do is exchange Kant’s human reason for “God’s reason” which is still just human reason since even if we believe that God reveals Himself, we certainly can’t contend that such revelation is completely unmediated. This “reason” coupled with the availability of an abundance of “empirical evidence” for God’s existence is what ultimately results in a fundamentalism that necessarily ignores science, even vilifies it, in favor of its own brand of “scientism.”
Thus, it is not enough to simply say that Kant was wrong about religion. His account of religion is accurate, but only if we assume that reason and ethics should operate the way that he claims they do. It’s there that we must begin a new road.