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Whom to thank?

German philosopher Ernst Tugendhat on religion as a need and the difficulty of satisfying it

Faust avoided Gretchen's question "Do you believe in God?" But what should someone say who refuses to avoid the question and yet isn't naive? I believe that on the one hand the need to believe in God is not only a cultural, but also an anthropological phenomenon, founded in the structure of human being. Today, however, people can't give in to this need without fooling themselves. What we have here is a contradiction between need and feasibility. Seen logically, such contradictions are harmless, and relatively normal in human life.

Let me clarify this with an example. People – at least in general – wish to go on living. That too is anthropologically founded. Yet this wish stands in contradiction to reality: all individual life ceases to exist after a time. However the wish to go on living is so deeply rooted that people in all cultures have attempted in one way or another, with or without religion, to construct a life after death.

Even today many continue to do so. It's not a contradiction, they say. Perhaps, we answer, but if there's no independent evidence to support this assumption, and if all it rests on is our wish, don't you see that it amounts to wishful thinking? The wish to believe is not only an insufficient reason to believe something, but in and for itself a reason not to. If it is based on nothing more than a wish, the opinion that something is such and such usually leads in empirical cases (she wishes he hadn't left her, for instance) to a denial of reality. And that means, if you give in to it, a hallucination. The belief in God or in life after death only escapes the fate of hallucination because the object of belief lies in the transcendental realm, immune to empirical evidence and counter-evidence. For that reason, you can believe what you like about the transcendental realm with impunity. All it contradicts is your intellectual honesty.

Today there are essentially three positions concerning the belief in God. First there are those who say: God doesn't exist, and it's better for us that he doesn't. Think for example of Nietzsche or the Left-Hegelians. Here not only the existence of God is denied, but also the wish to believe. According to them, if people do have such a need it results from a false understanding of the self. Secondly there is the position of the theologians, those who believe they can move straight from the need to believe to belief itself, mediated by revelation or tradition, as the case may be. If someone that stands in such a tradition does not believe in God, it can only be because his need to believe is insufficient, they say. The third position is that of those who believe the whole problem is really a social one, and so inherently uncertain.

Characteristic for all three positions is that they are not challenged from within. Certainly it alleviates life if you can avoid an explicit contradiction. Yet I would like to show that today we are experiencing a contradiction between religious need on the one hand and its unrealisability on the other. Of course it was easy to project gods or a God as long as no sharp distinction was made between the natural and the supernatural and you could simply think of God as being "in Heaven," for example. The supernatural is defined by there being no empirical evidence for it one way or the other. For that reason, belief in God today seems either naïve or dishonest. Hence I find it unnecessary to spend more time on this horn of the dilemma. More interesting is the other horn, the opinion that we no longer need a God today.

As what we are dealing with is an anthropological need, I must start from a correspondingly fundamental fact. Such a fact seems to me to be the experience of contingency: people inevitably find that it does not depend on them whether they attain their goals or avoid their "ungoals". The extreme example of contingency is death. While other species live in their situation, humans live independently of their situation, related to the future. People strive for an "ever onward," an "ever more."

But this tendency is frustrated by death and contingency. The "more" seems empty, and what at first seems like sense can also be seen as senseless. People have therefore also sought another relationship to volition and time, one contrary to the first: pausing instead of striving for "ever more," abdicating the will instead of insisting. In my book "Egozentrizität und Mystik" (egocentricity and mysticism) I call this second, reflected relationship to time and volition mysticism. This word may certainly be understood in other ways. But what's important here is that this reflection, which is no longer directed at objectives but at things "in their entirety," represents a shift in natural human life, which nonetheless is not necessarily focussed on the supernatural.

Mysticism so understood can be religious, but it does not have to be. In part this is simply a question of terminology. One can, if one wants, describe movements such as Buddhism, Daoism or Stoicism as religions. I don't, because here it's important to differentiate between attitudes in which belief in a supernatural personal being is implied, and those where it is not. For that reason I use the word "religion" only for views or attitudes where such a belief is implied.

It is only natural that people tend to interpret contingencies as the product of a supernatural personal being. Only when the contingent is interpreted in this way is prayer understandable. If we no longer believe, I think prayer and the act of giving thanks will be the first phenomena we will have to do away with. But I believe people will miss out on an essential aspect of their lives if they cannot give thanks for their lives and for what is important to them.

Here two opinions seem unsatisfactory. According to the first, all thanksgiving can be reduced to the awareness that other natural persons are responsible for events that benefit one. In this case other forms of thanksgiving do not exist. The second unsatisfactory view is that the thanksgiving that transcends thankfulness to natural persons does not have to be to a person: one could thank a non-personal being.

By contrast, it seems evident to me that you can only thank a being whom it makes sense to ask something of. And it makes no sense to ask something of a non-personal being. So it seems absurd to pray to a non-personal instance, or to thank that instance. Consequently it is senseless to thank for things for which you cannot thank a natural person.

In terms of cultural history, one may say that there are certain things, for example one's own existence or that of a loved one, for which people have always, or at least overwhelmingly, felt the need to thank a supernatural personal being. What happens to this need, and to one's attitude to these things, when you can no longer thank for them? A specific form of transcendence seems to be lost, flattened.

Can this be compensated for by what I have termed the mystical? As I described mysticism, it is, like religion, a retreat from oneself in view of a higher order, but without personalisation. It seems to me significant that in such a clearly non-personalised conception of mysticism as Zen Buddhism, it is common to bow down before the mystical. That seems to indicate that people can hardly avoid projecting their animistic representations, even while considering the object of their veneration as impersonal.

Leaving aside historical reminiscences and simply asking what, from a religious point of view, must seem unsatisfactory in non-personal mysticism, I believe it is the fact that in mysticism, the withdrawal of the personal element is so radical that it amounts not only to its relativisation, but to obliterating it altogether. But is what we aspire to in withdrawing from ourselves a mode of being ourselves, a relationship of oneself to oneself? The mystic no longer kneels, and if he were consistent he wouldn't even bow. Yet doesn't this mean losing touch with an essential element of withdrawing from oneself? Perhaps here we can no longer even speak of anything "higher" at all. The religious tension between me – or us – and it dissolves.

One question which can help clarify the difference between animist and non-animist views, between the religious and the merely mystical, is how they behave toward the higher instance in view of frustration. Jesus said: "Thy will be done!" With Zhuangzi (the 4th - 3rd century B.C. founder of Daoism) the corresponding attitude is expressed thus: Humans should do what belongs to the realm of humans, but they should acquiesce to that which belongs to the realm of heaven. For a meaningful comparison, we must not understand the attitude taught by Jesus in the sense of passive acquiescence to anything and everything, but along the lines of the so-called Oetinger prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference." The attitude of Zhuangzi exactly conforms to this prayer, except of course in that the Daoist should simply accept what is unavoidable, while the Christian interprets this unavoidable as God's will. For him, events seem to gain meaning through this interpretation, while the Daoist discourse of heaven seems close to the Stoical demand that we should grit our teeth and bear it.

For me personally, the contradiction I spoke of at the start is particularly pressing precisely in this context. For me it would be much easier, instead of cultivating a neutral Daoist or Stoic attitude, to turn to God and say: "Thy will be done!" Yet I must expressly forbid myself from saying this because of course I know that God is only a construct of my need, and that if I let myself be determined by this need, I would end up lying to myself. No other option remains open to me than to withdraw to the impersonal, purely mystical standpoint. But this standpoint turns out to be inadequate in terms of my need for a positive attitude to my frustrations. I'm talking here intentionally in the first person singular, because I'm not clear on how far a basic anthropological given is expressed in my need to say "Thy will be done!" – or whether it solely has to do with the chance fact that I grew up in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

I feel similarly about the phenomenon of responsibility. There are many kinds of accountability, but critical here is the accountability for my life. Put in a nutshell: without the projection of a supernatural person to whom I am respoinsible for how I lead my life, perhaps the idea of being responsible for how I live would have to be dispensed with.

But so what? one could ask. At the end of his book "The Concept of Dread," Kierkegard answered: then the seriousness of life is also dispensed with. I could still behave seriously with regard to all possible things, yet not with regard to myself. To underscore his point, Kierkegaard quotes Macbeth, who declares after murdering King Duncan: "From this instant there's nothing serious in mortality. All is but toys; renown and grace is dead, The wine of life is drawn."

Just as Macbeth murdered the king, so one could say that we, to quote Nietzsche, have murdered God, and with him the seriousness of life. But who is "we"? one may ask. Nietzsche said: our "honesty". Perhaps that is too weighty a word, however. Suffice it to say: it is the evidence. Bertrand Russell, asked in his old age how he would react if contrary to all evidence he were put before God's throne after his death, is said to have answered: "I would say: You didn't give us the evidence."

If what I said at the beginning is right, that is an understatement. Not only is there no reason to believe in such a being, but precisely the fact that we manifestly need it so urgently is a very cogent counter-argument: believing in God amounts to something that would be a hallucination were we dealing with empirical phenomena. Nevertheless it is perfectly understandable that despite all appearances to the contrary, hundreds of millions believe in God, as it is a natural tendency to view the need as a reason for God's existence, and not an argument against it.


The article originally appeared in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on December 9, 2006.

Ernst Tugendhat is professor emeritus for philosophy at the Free University of Berlin. He lives in Tübingen and Latin America. His most recent work, "Egozentrizität und Mystik. Eine anthropologische Studie," was published by C. H. Beck in 2003.

Translation: jab. - let's talk european