Kant – Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone


It would be a task nigh impossible to avoid Immanuel Kant. Very few are the figures who cast intellectual shadows as long as this Prussian does. He is, quite possibly, the most important figure in modern philosophy. Though, to be sure, Kant did not bequeath a philosophical system that produced a “school” in the proper sense of epigonic followers, one cannot imagine a philosopher who has or even could ignore Kant’s works, so significant were his contributions. Kant is not merely a representative of the Enlightenment, he is the enlightenment, or at least its supreme eventuation – as his religious philosophy well demonstrates. Kant is little concerned with preserving an ossified and inadequate orthodoxy, though the Lutheran-pietistic influences of his youth are like dark clouds in his philosophy, though unseen and over the horizon, one can still hear their thunder, if one dimly.

Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone is one of Kant’s later works, dating from 1793, and thus comes after his important philosophical treatises. In one of his prefaces to this work, Kant assures the reader of his Religion need no prior understanding of any of his previous philosophical work to comprehend this one, although such an understanding is of great practical service or even necessity to truly understand the whole of Kant’s theological project.

“Religion,” Immanuel Kant provocatively defines, “is (subjectively regarded) the recognition of all [ethical] duties as divine commands” (142). Immanuel Kant is not concerned with the truth of Christianity (or its attendant doctrines) as such. Christianity, indeed, is not the true religion; though, in spite of certain erroneous tendencies, it does most appropriate the true, universal religion in that its ethical proscriptions are the most easily aligned with the religion of reason. For Kant, the religion of reason is one that is not bound to historical contingencies, as Christianity is, but one that abounds from a purely ethical standpoint. Consequently, we may note that Kant has a rather tepid view of historicity. Kant is ambivalent towards the quest for the historical Jesus or any attempt to ground the Christ of faith within the Christ of history. This does not mean that that he associates Christ with solely the Kerygma of the church, but rather that the Christ as a historical person can not help us achieve moral perfection any more than the ideal Son of God whom the church proclaims can. This issue is of course portended in his philosophy, and the largest problem I have with Kant’s theology. Because of it, Jesus Christ is stripped of any objective actuality as the self-revelation of God.

Given Kant’s epistemological prolegomena that he established in his previous (and epochal) trilogy of Critiques, the philosopher of course denies that religion is any sense a knowledge in abstracto of certain concepts; even, he says, of the existence of God. Such facts (e.g. the existence of God) are supersensible in nature and merely intellectual hypotheses of the speculative variety.

Kant, in the end, yokes basically  all facets of religious consideration to its ability to increase or impinge ones ethical effectives; for Kant the end is morality, as is the beginning.

Personal Reflections:

Immanuel Kant has a reputation for being difficult to read. The preface the Penguin Classic edition of the Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason relays the anecdote of one philosopher who, so dismayed at Kant ostentatious and demanding style of writing, collapsed after the second page, having understood nothing. I found this work of Immanuel Kant hardly so difficult, although I owe this more to the audience Kant was writing for and the concepts he was writing about. These religious matters as set out in this book are hardly as intricate as hard-core epistemology. Wrestling with Kant is something I must say that I found surprisingly agreeable, even if I did not find his theology to be such. Regardless, Kant’s reputation of immense brilliance is certainly well deserved.


9 Responses to “Kant – Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone”

  1. John Anngeister Says:

    Thanks, A.J., for starting the discussion.

    I too have always had problems with Kant’s treatment of religion (or rather his failure to discuss the transcendental aspect of it under any category other than moral freedom). But I think I can argue that he does certainly leave things open for a real faith – provided it not presume the kind of authority due only to reason (i.e. not assume the right to lord it over others with invincible interpretations of the historical).

    Before getting into the religious aspects, I fleshed out some of my margin notes, one of which is re: the assertion by Kant (in the Preface to Ed-1) that “for its own sake, morality doesn’t need religion.”

    This a ‘concession’ I can easily make to atheists in today’s debate (unfortunately I still find believers who seem to deny that an atheist can be moral). I like Kant’s argument overall and find it easily adaptable to my position – that the sin-qua-non of moral freedom implies that a relation to transcendent reality is somehow grounded in human personality. But that this relation is functional in re the everyday world without requiring its user to recognize or appreciate its transcendence in a religious way.

    This ‘concession’ then only means that the moral atheist is someone benefitting from an unrecognized situation of entitlement (his moral freedom) which he views as not grounded in any transcendent reality but simply a factor of his environment and DNA or something.

    I think todays ‘new atheists’ who tout their ‘scientific’ morality are ridiculously far from Kant’s standpoint, and would have difficulty owning or living up to the standards of his kind of freedom, truly appreciated.

    I have more…

  2. Jeremy Says:

    Given my conservative evangelical background, what I found strange about this work was the way I suspect many conservatives would have been behind many of Kant’s critiques of the church. Although they would disagree with his demythologization of atonement theory and incarnation, many of critiques about religion they would likewise agree with.

    For instance, Kant critiques the stark difference between the laity and pastors, the worthlessness of ritual, liturgy, and church attendance. Essentially, Kant critiques religion, especially any religion that does not preach the utmost importance of ethical conduct. He also encourages churches to promote intelligent scriptural interpretation, ultimately with the hope that true interpretation would clarify the true moral underpinnings of religion. Kant’s moral religion seems to fit quite nicely in a low church context. Evangelicals likewise tend to dismiss liturgy, tradition, and religiosity. If you replace moral conduct with “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ”, I don’t think you have much of a problem.

    • John Anngeister Says:

      I think you are so right, Jeremy, that too many in religious life have missed the importance of Kant because of offense taken to his lack of appreciation for doctrine.

      And his ‘importance’ is I think so ripe for development after Barth and Bonhoeffer have increased the respectability of critiques of human ‘religion’

      Folks who are offended should be content at least to join in a kind of prophetic criticism of false religion – no more than what OT prophets like Amos, Isaiah, etc. engaged in.

      And yes, Kant’s view of freedom does leave room (after it has been duly honored as the disposition most vital to pure conduct-of-life) for a love-based disposition in regard to higher personal realities (since the maxims adopted in original freedom better insure against what he calls fetishism and fanaticism).

    • A.J. Smith Says:

      Kant seem to me to have deeply imbibed his pietistic background, even if he ostensibly rejected it and refused to acknowledge the influence.

      • John Anngeister Says:

        On that point, I recall in my Greene translation (Introduction, xxx.) evidence of Kant’s “scant interest in contemporary theological writings” in the fact that, in his late 60s, he was obliged to retrieve an old catechism from his youth to refresh his memory when contemplating his own book on Religion. I’m guessing that was a ‘Reformed’ (Calvinistic) catechism rather than a Lutheran one, but not sure.

        We can at least be confident that orthodoxy had not changed in 60 years!

        So yes, as you say, he ‘imbibed’ as much as anyone in his youth, but reacted early as any great mind might react to so much merely man-made systematics.

  3. Jeremy Says:

    I still think the problems with these critiques of “religion”, is that Christianity always wins in the end. It seems like a really backhanded way to argue for Christianity’s superiority.

    What would Kant think of liberation theology’s methodology? I think liberation theology would probably pass his test since these theologians seem to understand that we are always already engaged in praxis. We have to reflect theologically on the works of justice in which we are already engaged. Of course our theological commitments will certianly impact the work in which we engage, yet theology must critically reflect on justice-making praxis.

    • John Anngeister Says:

      I hope my comment about Amos and Isaiah was understood to refer to their criticism of religion in Israel and not among ‘the heathen’ (although they indulged in that too). I was implying that there should be an active ‘prophecy’ by Christians against ‘Christianity’ as well, a-la Kierkegaard.

      But if you’re referring to Barth’s criticism of ‘religion’ being backhanded rather than ‘prophetically’ carrying a scathing criticism against his own Reformed Christianity, I agree. Or have I already forgotten what I read in CDI/II?

      • Jeremy Says:

        No, I understood what you were saying. And yes, I was referring to CD I/2. Revelation judges religion, but Barth then dedicates 9000 pages writing the CHURCH Dogmatics. Not that I don’t respect Barth, I just find these moves to be generally suspect. It’s not like Barth is some fun-loving liberal pluralist.

  4. John Anngeister Says:

    A second thing I liked (also in the 1st Preface) is Kant’s description of the way both conditioned and unconditioned ends apply in moral decision. This allows that the prohibition against views of future personal rewards and punishments does not make the moral decision ‘blind’ to the most practical conditioned ends (the consequences of our acts for the world and for others). Jeremy this might fit the ‘methodology’ of liberation theology (I have no idea).

    I think it’s important for most theology because it is difficult for some believers at first to imagine a ‘gospel of salvation’ that is not tied to hope of reward and fear of punishment, and they need to understand that this model of Kant’s doesn’t take away all motive for a decision or make it simply a blind one.

    Because I think Kant’s claim is correct – that considerations of personal pain and gain make the religious ‘call to decision’ less worthy than the purely ethical.

    That challenge could be answered in this idea of a ‘combined’ realm of ultimately practical ends. The gospel of Jesus could be presented in a manner which both discounts personal motives (pain and gain) in the moment of conversion and does not nullify the requirement that human decision-making must after all have a view of its ultimate goal. This goal is discriminated in consideration of all possible consequences of one’s conduct (including their increasing proximity to what Kant calls the summum bonum – which might easily fit the language applied to a spiritual reign of God).

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