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Religious Experience, Fanaticism,

and Kant


Immanuel Kant, in the tradition of philosophic rationalism from Plato onward, recognized in the human being nothing higher than reason.  He was, therefore, unable to acknowledge what Hinduism calls the atman, the eternal spirit self, what Buddhism calls the Buddha-nature in us all, what the Hebrew Book of Proverbs called “the spirit in man, the candle of the Lord, searching all the inward parts,” what Jesus called “the kingdom of God within you,” or what the Qur’an calls God’s being “closer to [us] than our jugular vein.”  It is not surprising, therefore, that Kant’s treatment of religious experience is severely limited.  If our highest feelings and thoughts derive from reason, then all religious experiences are implicitly lumped together, genuine and spurious, sane and insane, revelatory and delusional.  The Psalmist’s exclamation, ”O Taste and see that the Lord is good!” is on a par with the notorious claims of Jan of Leiden, the Reformation leader in the Anabaptist rebellion in the city of Munster.  Bruce Shelley tells the story:


In the summer of 1534 a former innkeeper, Jan of Leiden, seized the powers of government and ruled as an absolute despot.  Claiming new revelations from God, Jan introduce the Old Testament practice of polygamy and by September took the title “King David.”1


I define fanaticism as the highly energized pursuit of ideals through religious or non-religious thinking, feeling, and doing that are distorted by being cut off from balancing wisdom.  Fanaticism, in other words, is a brand of folly.  Since my purpose is not to point a finger but to point to a way out, I will content myself simply saying that the balancing wisdom comes from integrating spiritual experience with science (including an understanding of history), a critical philosophy, sensitivity to beauty, and ethics.  This definition is consistent with the tenor of Kant’s thought, except for my claim that genuine religious experience helps heal, not encourage, fanaticism.  My definition also makes room for the observation that the most destructive fanaticism of the twentieth century came from secular totalitarianism, not from religion.


I.  Kant’s critique of religious experience

In his 1794 book, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, Kant rejects religious experience as fanatical.  He casts aside the notion of prayer as a way of communing with a God, whose will we may discern and from whom we may receive revelation.  Such an interpretation of personal experience, according to Kant, would amount to fanaticism.  He writes of “the fanatical illusion of imagined supersensible (heavenly) feelings” (172n).  To claim to feel intuitively the divine truth in a passage of scripture, for example, strikes him as a fanatical betrayal of the need for reason and scholarship (105).  At one point he defines religious fanaticism as “the illusion of being able to accomplish anything in the way of justifying ourselves before God . . . by striving for what is supposed to be communion with God(162).  He speaks of the fanatical superstition of seeking assurance against radical evil through anything less than perfect goodness, and he criticizes “merely passive . . . inner illumination” (78).  These passages raise interesting theological questions, but I shall focus on Kant’s general distrust of religious experience.

It is understandable that Kant should judge religious experience harshly.  His first Critique seemed to demolish any hope of knowing God, since it portrayed our understanding as limited to phenomena of space and time.  His ethical writings made of God at most a postulate of moral reason.  Moreover, Kant was part of the eighteenth century European Enlightenment, sobered by the memory of religious wars between Christians and Muslims and between Protestants and Roman Catholics.  In his essay, “On Enlightenment,” Kant argued for tolerance, against dogmatism, and for freedom to dissent publicly from generally accepted religious views.

Some voices of the Enlightenment responded to the spectacle of religious violence by trying to distill a rational core of what was worthwhile in religion.  Hear Voltaire, for example:


When reason, freed from its chains, will teach the people that there is only one God, that this God is the universal father of all men, who are brothers; that these brothers must be good and just to one another, and that they must practise all the virtues; that God, being good and just, must reward virtue and punish crimes; surely, my brethren, men will be better for it, and less superstitious.2


Kant himself proposed, in the Metaphysics of Morals (#47), to regard humankind under the idea of brothers of a common Father.  Later, in Religion within the Limits, Kant used the concept of the brotherhood of man in a second sense, the brotherhood of the faithful, in order to portray his conception of a religious community (93).  The concept of humankind as members of the family of God flourished in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century religion and theology, giving a fresh vision of the religion of Jesus and a core message that many religions could affirm.  These conceptions of brotherhood undermine fanaticism since they emphasize what human beings have in common and what many religionists share.

I hold that Kant’s strictures against religious experience hinder the realization of his own goals of moral and planetary progress; and if people would undertake the religious venture to commune with God with a few qualifications that Kant would approve, it would promote, not hinder, progress toward our living as brothers and sisters in a universal family.

            In talking about religious experience, I will use a theistic paradigm, though I believe that awareness of other types of experience and interpretation is very valuable and helps reduce the risk of fanaticism.  Since every attempted proof or disproof of the existence of God either assumes too much or proves too little, the field remains open for the individual with a receptive heart and a spirit of adventure to receive the gift of faith and then to make a bold stretch and set sail.  For the person who enjoys the faith-experience of a personal, daily communion with God in prayer and worship, the first truth of religious experience is that YOU CAN!  You can know God, not just know about God.  You can relate with the God whose spirit dwells within, in experiences too deep for words, and gain illumination and strength for everyday living. 

The very enthusiasm of such an account of religious experience would worry a rationalist like Kant.  The next thing you know, the religionist may fall into serious moral error.  How easy it is to accept the impulses of one’s subconscious—which seem to enter from outside the mind—as inspiration from the superconscious.  And how easy it is to mistake one’s ordinary thoughts, carried on in the dialogue form of one’s own inner life as second-person discourse straight from the spirit of God.  The wise religionist shares these concerns and learns to deal with them constructively as part of a mature religious life.  We should note that religious traditions have developed many bulwarks—sometimes overly conservative—designed to detect harmful, pseudo-revelatory experiences.

The following proposals enable a person to enjoy religious communion with a greatly diminished risk of fanaticism.  I first set forth a prayer process for seeking the will of God, and then develop a Kantian proposal for interreligious peace.


II.  Kantian disciplines in the prayer process

In seeking the way of right action, it might seem that moral reason should suffice.  Rationalists claim that religious ethics either conforms to reason or not.  If it does conform, then religious ethics is superfluous.  If it does not conform, then religious ethics is not wanted.  Nevertheless, Kant’s supreme moral principle, the categorical imperative, despite its valuable resources, falls short.  Kant’s affirmation of human dignity is based upon our capacity for rational self-governance.  We can never be certain of anyone’s motivation—even our own—because of the murky depths of the inner life.  Kant can therefore certify nothing actual—only potentials—to ground human dignity.  There are further reasons to go beyond philosophic rationalism in openness to religious ethics, reasons that I set forth in The Golden Rule:

Sometimes even the most exhaustive exercise of reason does not suffice to indicate what is to be done, and the mind naturally seeks for higher wisdom.  Moreover, even when it is clear what is to be done, the graciously spontaneous way to act may remain beyond one’s powers.  If moral decision and action is to be wholehearted, it must draw on the full range of the personality, not only the mind, and it must respond to the fullness of the other person, including the spiritual dimension. . . .  A reasonable, do-your-best ethic is misleading if grace is needed to do your best.  Finally, without a religiously based sense of human kinship, the drive to assert and actualize equality on other grounds may fail.  In a world where nationalism and racism and domestic violence are so widespread, given the logical and practical fragility of the affirmation of human dignity, there are reasons to [turn to religious ethics]. 3

            Here are three principles for prayer that I believe a mature Kantian could accept.

1.  In seeking to know the will of God, one should not expect prayer to replace an intelligent study of the situation and an exhaustive effort to make the necessary adjustments.  One does not expect the Deity to do one’s homework, and one needs to be prepared carefully to work out the details of what is to be done.  Scientific and philosophic thinking have a role to play in the prayer process.  They are taken to the limit, not marginalized, by the responsible person seeking the will of the Creator of a universe where, despite mystery and uncertainty, one may observe dependable laws of matter and mind.  Such constraints would surely be welcome to a Kantian.

2.  One prays for the growth that the problem situation requires.  One prays for assistance in the quest for perfection.  Such religious hope is already part of the Kantian program (Metaphysics of Morals, #21; Religion within the Limits, p. 47).

3.  At the summit of the prayer process, having done one’s utmost to think through the problem, one opens the mind to receive a higher wisdom.  As one’s prayer life matures, there increasingly comes an influx of truth, beauty, and goodness, a new perspective on the situation.  However, one does not relinquish the responsibility to assess the meanings and values of what comes to mind during this time.  If energies from the subconscious stream in, fine—we can use these energies.  If new ideas and impulses arise, they will be reflectively reviewed before the decision is made.  Better to reject a revelatory input than to mistake a personal impulse for the divine lure.  Thus Kant’s requirement of autonomy is not compromised.  (It would be better to distinguish theonomy as distinct from heteronomy.)  Responsible freedom and the dignity of human personality are preserved in this relation between the Creator Father and the creature son or daughter.  Reason—our best thinking—is enhanced, not overturned, in the process.

            Let me note, before going on, that the concept of reason is normative and historical.  For many Christians the mysteries of the Trinity and the incarnation are above reason, but do not contradict reason; most others disagree.

To be sure, there are many kinds of religious experience in addition to the prayer process just mentioned, and many issues in the philosophy of religious experience that cannot be addressed in this paper.


III.  A Kantian proposal for peace between religions

World peace requires peace between religions; and some of Kant’s internationalist ideas about working toward world peace can be adapted to the problem of interreligious peace. Kant sketched essentials of a workable vision of planetary progress in two essays, “Idea for a History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View,” and “Perpetual Peace.”  Kant’s story of the gradual nature of historical progress includes a critique of the moral fanatic whose impatience frustrates the achievement of his own goals.  Parallel to Kant’s guiding idea about the evolution of political sovereignty leading to world peace is a guiding idea for religious peace.  The proposal is that peace in the religious world requires that religions accord sovereignty to God alone, and not attempt to exercise sovereignty over one another.

            I focus here on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  They characteristically proclaim God as the Creator, the sovereign of the universe and of this world—its past, present, and future.  God not only transcends human understanding, but God also uses human language to reveal his will and his way to us.  God speaks through the prophets, and the scriptures are a treasure-chest of these revelations.  Belief in something as revelation has a marvelous capacity to focalize human religious loyalties and also a tendency to promote intolerance, which can turn to persecution and religious war.

            It is plausible that Jews and Christians and Muslims could readily agree that God alone is sovereign.  It is not so easy to see, however, what is involved in relinquishing the idea of sovereignty over other religions.

            The word sovereign means: not subject to any other; supreme; dominant.

            If a religion assumes it is superior to all others and if it claims exclusive authority over other religions, then the stage is set for trouble.

If religions exist in freedom and equality and acknowledge no higher sovereignty over themselves, then they will sooner or later fall into the temptation to try out their power to prevail over others. 

            Is this requirement for peace logically possible?  Does it mean that a believer must not regard his or her doctrine as superior to any other doctrine that directly contradicts it?  This would be an intellectual impossibility.  But the proposal does not require intellectual or theological uniformity.  Religion is deeper than theology.  The riverbed is not the river.  The institutions and doctrines of religion are not the flowing stream of spiritual life itself.  Religion activates living relationships with God and with all creation in the light of the primary relationship with God.  The water that flows in one riverbed is not superior to the water that flows elsewhere.

            Is it psychologically possible for people to experience religious peace?  The proposal is based on an appeal to which all monotheistic traditions would easily agree; but it involves a requirement which is subtle and at times elusive in its psychological demands.  We are all too ready to play the “Mine is better than yours” game.  For example, we, who understand the need for tolerance, are better than those others.  Having organized many conferences of world religions, again and again I saw the same result: without pressure to agree with one another, after a few minutes of slight awkwardness, the majority of panelists were caught up in a spiritual unity that was so evident that the audience could see the light in their eyes, could feel the dance of their sharing.  People did not maintain themselves in ironclad religious identities; they enjoyed a smorgasbord of the spirit.  They focused on goals, not creeds.  And there was one rule: that there be no attack on other religions.

One helpful thing would be to use a more differentiated vocabulary when characterizing religious believers.  The term fundamentalist should be used to indicate a conservative theological position, which does not necessarily involve fanaticism or intolerance.  The term enthusiastic could be used to characterize supreme personal devotion.  Let the term fanatic, as I have suggested, connote a mindset where religious ideals are exalted in isolation from the scientific mental attitude, from a critical philosophy, from beauty in nature and the arts, and from diverse types of spiritual experience.  We might use the term evangelistic to describe those who proclaim, even aggressively, the message of salvation of their particular religious group.  And we need a different term from each of these to name an imperialist disposition that is intolerant of other religions and seeks domination.  Moreover, someone could be an active defender of his or her tradition without being aggressive.  And hostility is a psychological disposition, a propensity toward violence, independent of each of these other characteristics.  There are no necessary connections between these concepts, but it is common to lump them together.

            Is the hope for religious peace historically possible?  Every tradition has its adventures with the evolutionary factors of superstition and fear and ignorance and hostility and vanity and struggle for domination.  But the right kind of religious leadership can indeed help us move in the right way.  For example, in the midst of the Iranian revolution of the late 1970s, one of the most influential leaders was sociology professor and religious teacher Ali Shari’ati.  He emphasized, among other things, the brotherhood of all humankind and the equality of man and woman.4


IV.  Conclusion

Religionists have a role to play in the struggle toward world peace within an effective framework of law.  Mature religionists will generally be good citizens, but they have an even greater responsibility and opportunity to be ambassadors of the future, living the golden rule, loving the neighbor as themselves, and helping members of all religions to live the best of their traditions.  While we seek justice in an impersonal and collective attitude, the personal attitude of love and mercy is the divine and human attitude that will one day lead our planet beyond war.

Genuine religious experience of supreme value, then, as Kant should have seen, offers a bulwark against fanaticism if religious experience is integrated with scientific inquiry into fact, philosophic consideration of meaning, sensitivity to beauty, and devotion to universal goodness.  Genuine religious experience refreshes the hope of humankind to flourish as brothers and sisters in a universal family.


1 Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 2nd edition (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1995), 252.

2  Quoted in John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 163.

3  Jeffrey Wattles, The Golden Rule, New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, 182.

4 Ali Shari’ati, On the Sociology of Islam (Berkeley: Mizan Press, 1979), 77.