Religion within the Bounds of Bare / Mere Reason

This essay was written by Immanuel Kant, the orginal title in German was "Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der blossen Vernunft". The translation of the term "blossen" is somewhat problematic, since in English, it could mean "bare" or "mere".

Will Durant, summarized the essay in his book "The Story of Philosophy" as follows:

The essay on religion is a remarkable production for a man of sixty-nine; it is perhaps the boldest of all the books of Kant. Since religion must be based not on the logic of theoretical reason but on the practical reason of the moral sense, it follows that any Bible or revelation must be judged by its value for morality, and cannot itself be the judge of a moral code Churches and dogmas have value only in so far as they assist the moral development of the race. When mere creeds or ceremonies usurp priority over moral excellence as a test of religion, religion has disappeared.

The real church is a community of people, however scattered and divided, who are united by devotion to the common moral law. It was to establish such a community that Christ lived and died; it was this real church which he held up in contrast to the ecclesiasticism of the Pharisees. But another ecclesiasticism has almost overwhelmed this noble conception.

"Christ has brought the kingdom of God nearer to earth; but he has been misunderstood; and in place of God's kingdom the kingdom of the priest has been established among us."

Creed and ritual have again replaced the good life; and instead of men being bound together by religion, they are divided into a thousand sects; and all manner of "pious nonsense" is inculcated as "a sort of heavenly court service by means of which one may win through flattery the favor of the ruler of heaven."

Again, miracles cannot prove a religion, for we can never quite rely on the testimony which supports them; and prayer is useless if it aims at suspension of the natural laws that hold for all experience. Finally, the nadir of perversion is reached when the church becomes an instrument in the hands of a reactionary government; when the clergy, whose function it is to console and guide a harassed humanity with religious faith and hope and charity, are made the tools of theological obscurantism and political oppression.

The publication of Kants essay has his own history:

Kant wrote all this in 1792, living in Prussia. Frederick the Great had died 1786, and his nephew, Frederick William II, was his successor. Frederick William II, replaced Karl Abraham von Zedlitz, who was in charge of the education and justice departments, with Johann Christoph von Wöllner, a former Priest. Wöllner, as well a the king, both inclined to mysticism, were member of the Rosicrucians, a Masonic Lodge.

In July 1788 a new religious edict was issued (it remained valid until 1793), which forbade Evangelical ministers to teach anything not contained in the letter of their official books, and thus was to the Christian religion against the enlightening. Several laws followed this edict, establishing in effect a rigid censorship for all publications.

The Berliner Monatsschrift, had planned to publish all 4 parts, and in 1791 the first part was sent by the editor to the official censor, was approved and published in 1792. The fate of the remaining parts was different, and is described in one of Kant’s letters to Carl Friedrich Stäudlin:

“The first part, “On the Radical Evil in Human Nature”, went all right: the censor of philosophy, Privy Counsil Hillmer, took it as falling under his department’s jurisdiction. The second part was not so fortunate, since Mr. Hillmer thought it ventured into the area of biblical theology (for some unknown reason he thought the first part did not), and therefore thought it advisable to confer with the biblical censor, Mr. Hermes, who of course took it as falling under his own jurisdiction (when did a mere priest ever decline any power?), and refused to approve it.”

Kant asked the editor to sent him back the manuscript, and also asked a local university for a verdict, whether the manuscript has to belongs to the department of Theology or department of Philosophy - The university decided for the later faculty. Both faculties in Germany (not only Prussia) had the rights to authorize publications, and thus Kant sent the manuscript to the university of Jena (outside Prussia), and all 4 parts were published as a book.

The result was, that in 1794 Kant received an eloquent cabinet order from the Prussian King, which reads as follows:

“"Our highest person has been greatly displeased to observe how you misuse your philosophy to undermine and destroy many of the most important and fundamental doctrines of the Holy Scriptures and of Christianity. We demand of you immediately an exact account, and expect that in future you will give no such cause of offense, but rather that, in accordance with your duty, you will employ your talents and authority so that our paternal purpose may be more and more attained. If you continue to oppose this order you may expect unpleasant consequences."

Kant replied that every scholar should have the right to form independent judgments on religious matters, and to make his opinions known; but that during the reign (who died in 1797) of the present king he would preserve silence. Which is exactly what he did.