A religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence. Many religions have narratives, symbols, and sacred histories that aim to explain the meaning of life, the origin of life, or the Universe. From their beliefs about the cosmos and human nature, people may derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle.
The word religion is sometimes used interchangeably with faith or set of duties; however, in the words of Émile Durkheim, religion differs from private belief in that it is “something eminently social”. A global 2012 poll reports 59% of the world’s population as “religious” and 36% as not religious, including 13% who are atheists, with a 9% decrease in religious belief from 2005. On average, women are “more religious” than men. Some people follow multiple religions or multiple religious principles at the same time, regardless of whether or not the religious principles they follow traditionally allow for syncretism.
Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher November 21, 1768 – February 12, 1834) was a German theologian, philosopher, and biblical scholar known for his attempt to reconcile the criticisms of the Enlightenment with traditional Protestant Christianity. He also became influential in the evolution of Higher Criticism, and his work forms part of the foundation of the modern field of hermeneutics. Because of his profound effect on subsequent Christian thought, he is often called the “Father of Modern Liberal Theology” and is considered an early leader in liberal Christianity. The Neo-Orthodoxy movement of the twentieth century, typically (though not without challenge) seen to be spearheaded by Karl Barth, was in many ways an attempt to challenge his influence.
Schleiermacher’s most important and radical work in the philosophy of religion is his On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers of 1799. (Later editions of this work and his later theological treatise The Christian Faith strive for greater Christian orthodoxy, and are consequently as a rule less interesting from a philosophical point of view.)
As its title implies, the project of On Religion is to save religion from the contempt of enlightenment and especially romantic skeptics about religion, “its cultured despisers.” At least where the romantics were concerned, the work was strikingly successful in this regard, in the sense that several of them, including Friedrich Schlegel, did in fact turn to religion in the years following the book’s publication (though admittedly not to quite the sort of religion that Schleiermacher had envisaged). Schleiermacher’s later philosophy of religion is similarly motivated. In his 1829 open letters to Lücke he especially stresses the pressing need to defend religion against the twin threats posed to it by modern natural science and modern historical-philological scholarship.
This project of defending religion against educated skeptics is reminiscent of Kant’s similarly motivated critical philosophy. Schleiermacher is also sympathetic to Kant’s general strategy of “deny[ing] knowledge in order to make room for faith” in connection with religious matters (Critique of Pure Reason, Bxxx), and in particular to Kant’s attack on traditional proofs of the existence of God; Schleiermacher himself denies that religion is a form of knowledge or can be based on metaphysics or science. However, as can already be seen from his early unpublished essays On the Highest Good (1789) and On What Gives Value to Life (1792-3), Schleiermacher’s strategy is in other respects defined more by opposition to than by agreement with Kant’s. In particular, Schleiermacher sharply rejects Kant’s alternative moral proof of an otherworldly God and human immortality (Kant’s proof of them by showing them to be necessary presuppositions of morality); for Schleiermacher religion can no more be based on morality than on metaphysics or science.
As this stance already suggests, Schleiermacher has a large measure of sympathy with the skeptics about religion whom he means to answer. But the early Schleiermacher’s sympathy with them also goes far deeper than this. In On Religion he is skeptical about the ideas of God and human immortality altogether, arguing that the former is merely optional (to be included in one’s religion or not depending on the nature of one’s imagination), and that the latter is positively unacceptable. Moreover, he diagnoses the modern prevalence of such religious ideas in terms of the deadening influence exerted by modern bourgeois society and state-interference in religion. He reconciles this rather startling concession to the skeptics with his ultimate goal of defending religion by claiming that such ideas are inessential to religion. This stance strikingly anticipates such more recent radical religious positions as Mauthner’s “godless mysticism.” (Schleiermacher’s later religious thought tended to backtrack on this radicalism, however, restoring God and even human immortality to a central place in religion.)
This naturally leaves one wondering what the content and the epistemological basis of religion are for Schleiermacher. As can already be seen from the 1793-4 essays Spinozism and Brief Presentation of the Spinozistic System, and then again from On Religion, the early Schleiermacher follows Spinoza in believing in a monistic principle that encompasses everything, a “one and all.” However, he also modifies Spinoza’s conception in certain ways, partly under the influence of Herder (who is mentioned by name in the essays on Spinoza). In particular, whereas Spinoza had conceived his monistic principle as a substance, Schleiermacher follows Herder in thinking of it rather as an original force and the unifying source of a multiplicity of more mundane forces. (Later on Schleiermacher distanced himself from this neo-Spinozistic position. He explicitly denied that he was a follower of Spinoza. And accordingly, in the dialectics lectures he argued that there was an even higher “transcendental ground” beyond the Spinozist natura naturans or the Herderian highest force. His main motive behind this change of position seems to have been a desire to avoid the heavily charged accusations of Spinozism and pantheism — which is hardly an impressive motive philosophically speaking.)
So much for the content of religion, as Schleiermacher envisages it. What about its epistemological basis? As was mentioned, for Schleiermacher religion is based neither on theoretical knowledge nor on morality. According to On Religion, it is instead based on an intuition or feeling of the universe: “Religion’s essence is neither thinking nor acting, but intuition and feeling. It wishes to intuit the universe.”
This epistemological position looks suspiciously like philosophical sleight-of-hand, however. “Feelings” can be of two very different sorts: on the one hand, non-cognitive “feelings,” such as physical pains and pleasures; on the other hand, “feelings” which incorporate cognitions or beliefs, for example a feeling that such and such is the case. Whereas the possession and awareness of non-cognitive feelings such as pains and pleasures may indeed be conceptually unmediated, beyond mediation by reasons for or against, and in a sense infallible, the possession and awareness of feelings which incorporate cognitions or beliefs, for instance the feeling that such and such is the case, does require conceptual mediation, is subject to reasoning for or against, and is fallible. As can be seen from the neo-Spinozistic content that Schleiermacher’s religious intuition or feeling was originally supposed to have, from his original characterization of it as an intuition in the Kantian sense of an immediate cognitive relation to an object, from his later characterization of it as representing “an immediate existence-relationship,” and so forth, he does not mean religious feeling to be merely non-cognitive, but to incorporate some sort of cognition or belief. However, he also helps himself to the apparent epistemological advantages which belong only to non-cognitive feelings: non-mediation by concepts, transcendence of reasons for or against, and infallibility. In short, it looks as though his epistemological grounding of religion in “feeling” depends on a systematic confusion of these two crucially different sorts of cases.
One further, and less problematic, aspect of the “feeling” on which Schleiermacher bases religion should also be mentioned: its inclusion of motivating force, its self-manifestation in actions. Turning to some further features of Schleiermacher’s philosophy of religion in On Religion: He recognizes a potentially endless multiplicity of valid religions, and strongly advocates religious toleration. However, he also arranges the various types of religion in a hierarchy, with animism at the bottom, polytheism in the middle, and monotheistic or otherwise monistic religions at the top. This hierarchy makes reasonably good sense given his fundamental neo-Spinozism.

Moreover, Schleiermacher remarks on the distinctively polemical nature of Christianity, the extraordinary extent to which Christianity’s religious and moral standpoint is defined by a hostile opposition to other standpoints, and even to dissenting positions within Christianity itself. This is an extremely insightful observation. (For example, one thinks in this connection of Nietzsche’s brilliant explanation of Christian values as a deliberate inversion of Greco-Roman values, and of the revealing fact that the Christian word “demon” had earlier been the Greeks’ most generic word for a deity; also of the bloody early internal history of Christianity, the Crusades, the Inquisition’s treatment of Jews and witches, and similar horrors — all of which only stopped (or receded) when Christianity became politically impotent in the modern period.)
More problematic, however, is a further elaboration of this hierarchy which he introduces: he identifies Christianity as the highest among the monotheistic or monistic religions, and in particular as higher than Judaism. His rationale for this is that Christianity introduces “the idea that everything finite requires higher mediation in order to be connected with the divine” (i.e. the higher mediation of Christ). But this looks contrived.

• Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). “Schleiermacher, Friedrich Daniel Ernst”. Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
• Heinrich Fink: Begründung der Funktion der Praktischen Theologie bei Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher: Eine Untersuchung anhand seiner praktisch-theologischen Vorlesungen. Berlin 1966 (Berlin, Humboldt-U., Theol. F., Diss. v. 25. Jan. 1966) [Master dissertation.]
• Wilhelm Dilthey: Leben Schleiermachers, ed. M. Redeker, Berlin 1966
• Falk Wagner: Schleiermachers Dialektik. Eine kritische Interpretation, Gütersloh 1974
• Brian A. Gerrish: A Prince of the Church. Schleiermacher and the Beginnings of Modern Theology, London / Philadelphia 1984
• Kurt-Victor Selge (ed.): Internationaler Schleiermacher-Kongreß Berlin 1984 (Zwei Teilbände), Berlin / New York 1985
• Günter Meckenstock: Deterministische Ethik und kritische Theologie. Die Auseinandersetzung des frühen Schleiermacher mit Kant und Spinoza 1789–1794, Berlin / New York 1988
• Hans-Joachim Birkner: Schleiermacher-Studien. (Schleiermacher-Archiv. Band 16), Berlin / New York 1996
• Julia A. Lamm: The Living God: Schleiermacher’s Theological Appropriation of Spinoza, University Park, Pennsylvania 1996


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