On Idols and Idolatry: Feuerbach, Trump, and Female Self-Identity


women-statue-cross-monumentWritten by: Christy Flanagan-Feddon

Christy Flanagan-Feddon (Ph.D. in Religion from Florida State University) is a Lecturer at the University of Central Florida.  Her teaching and research interests relate to the points of intersection between the areas of religion and identity, culture, ethics, and philosophy.


For the last six weeks, the world has been ablaze with the news that Donald J. Trump has been elected the 45th President of the United States.  Feature news stories and social media are fixated on pondering the future implications of a Trump presidency.  One common criticism from women that frequently cuts across political lines and religious affiliations, and is offered particularly by mothers of young daughters, is a concern about the role model that a President Trump will be for young women.  We’ve all heard the sound bites from his Playboy interview, the conversation with Billy Bush, statements in the media about women, and so on.  I am also the mother of two young children, a boy and a girl, and it is of the utmost priority to me that we teach them both how to treat women with respect and expect to be treated, respectively.

So I get the worry.

I also have many concerns about a Trump presidency, namely the impact on the environment, healthcare and issues of tolerance and diversity, among others – but the impact on my daughter and her self-identity is not one of them. 

Let me tell you why.

The issue relates to the extent to which idealized external figures or influences are constitutive of human self-identity.  This relates not only to how we view ourselves as individuals, but also to how we view other human beings as well.  I think that 19th-century philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach, has much to contribute to this conversation with his thoughts on religion, self-consciousness, and idolatry.

Feuerbach is probably most known for his projection theory discussed in the Essence of Christianity.  He explained that in Christian practice believers conceive of God by projecting an idealized version of human traits.  Where human beings display wisdom, love, temperance in limited and imperfect forms, God represents these traits absolutely.  In this regard, he presented an ambivalent view of religion: insofar as religious consciousness relates to a reflection on the potential of human self-identity it was positive, but it was also negative in that the emphasis on the idealized God human beings alienated themselves from their own inherent source of goodness, believing that good comes only from the ideal God and not as the own traits of our human nature.  In Feuerbach’s view, this has the consequence of human beings denying the value of our own essence, rendering us passive to the idealized God and believing that goodness comes only from this being.  He relates this to problems of not only human self-identity but also religious violence.  More on this in a moment.

In the 20th century, some authors appropriated versions of Feuerbach’s projection theory in relationship to issues of religious identity and gender.  In Sexes and Genealogies, Luce Irigaray argued that we need to posit a vision of a God with female predicates in order to help women establish a robust female self-identity in religious consciousness. This line of thinking also relates to the aforementioned concerns about the impact of the Trump presidency on women: that the positive self-identity of our young girls is dependent upon a President who affirms such views in his words and actions.

Irigaray’s model is helpful in the sense that it forces us to expand paradigms of the divine and acknowledge the importance of language and symbolism in both religious consciousness and society in general.  However, I’ve argued in other forums that this model misappropriates the most important aspects of Feuerbach’s understanding of human self-consciousness. He explains how we come to understand that our identity is not only comprised of what exists in the present state but also what is abstract or possible (for example, we might say, “I’m really mad right now, but I really should think about this situation from her point of view”).  In his view, when we think about the ideal God in religious consciousness, we are also thinking about the best version of human nature.  We need to do this in order to grow and become the best possible versions of ourselves. It’s also an activity that binds us to other human beings both morally and socially as we collectively think about the potential of the human species.

However, Feuerbach is worried that we have lost the idea that these assertions about God really begin as self-assertions about the potential of our nature.  It is on this point that Feuerbach is the most ambiguous: is he saying that “God” is nothing more than a psychological projection, or that this is what we do when we make assertions about God?  This is a complex question that I do not have the space to tackle here, but at the very least Feuerbach is speaking within the inherent limits placed on knowledge and language after Kant. Namely, I do not have knowledge of the speculative realm outside of my observation, so I can only make reference to what I see in this horizon.  In spite of his many criticisms of religion, Feuerbach believed that it was in religious consciousness that we most essentially engaged in fundamental deliberations about the nature of selfhood and the human species.

The question therefore is how do I perceive this God to which I relate in order to contemplate my potential and the potential of the human species?  In Feuerbach’s view, too often we forget the fact that the contemplation of self and God is inherently relational and an extension of the complexity of our own self-consciousness.  We become passive in the process, believing that our worth can only be given to us by an external source.  We become alienated from our own inherent goodness and this causes a number of dangerous psychological and social effects.  Not only does this alienate ourselves from our own sense of goodness, damaging our sense of self-worth, but also from the goodness we perceive in other human beings, establishing an inherent sense of competition and divisiveness.

If I am fixated on the external God and goodness only comes from this being, what happens when our definitions of God differ?  According to Feuerbach, this creates a “partisanship” that cultivates a culture of religious intolerance and even violence.  It’s also the inevitable and ironic fate of many understandings of religion: in their emphasis on the speculative and non-natural, they become fixated on their own sense of truth at the cost of all others.  In his own words, “faith gives man a peculiar sense of their own dignity and importance.  The believer finds himself distinguished above other men, exalted above the natural man.” In this hyper-exaltation, believers worship their own worshiping, they have no sense of intrinsic worth so they become fixated on a sense of worth gained through the ideal object. Sadly, they collapse into a type of idolatry themselves.

And it is on the issue of idolatry that brings us full circle.  I began this discussion with a consideration of the concern about the external influence of our future President on our children’s identities, which led us to Feuerbach, the consideration of human self-consciousness and how its misunderstandings relate to concerns of idolatry.  Yet I would argue that it is, in fact, a kind of idolatry itself that gave rise to this specific issue in the first place.  Merriam-Webster gives us two definitions of idolatry: 1) the worship of a physical object as a God; and 2) the immoderate attachment or devotion to something.

Much has been written about the underlying reasons for the Trump victory and there is no need to rehash those claims here.  However, it does seem to be well established that in spite of a general view that many believed Hillary Clinton demonstrated the competence to be President, she failed to carry the needed votes of Americans living in rural areas. Generally speaking, this constituency was disenchanted by Washington, felt that their needs were underrepresented in politics and their plight ignored.  Simply put, they felt alienated by the standard political process and were undeterred by Trump’s seeming shortcomings – in fact, some of these traits even further cemented his “outsider” reputation and gave him more validity.

If such political assessments are in fact accurate, then Merriam-Webster’s second definition above rings true here.  In a situation where a group of people feel not only unheard but powerless, Trump speaks their language and embodies their hopes. He will build the wall, apparently without cost to us.  He will personally control who is entering our country.  He will make the necessary deals and in fact “Make America Great Again.” It does not matter if these proposals end up being implausible or even potentially unreasonable.  For these voters, these are needs that must be fulfilled even if it is at the cost of creating a more divisive and fractured union. The system is broken and he will make it right.  This is a partisanship that suits not only the political definition of idolatry, but also Feuerbach’s.

So what do we tell our children regarding how to view themselves in light of our President-elect?  The same things we would tell them anyway: that they are loved and their opinions are valuable, that identity and self-worth comes from within (as people made in the image of God) and is never ultimately defined by another (lest we project our own images as idols).  We will tell them to respect and care for others, even in disagreement.  We will encourage critical thinking and seek to cultivate the confidence they need to think for themselves. If we wish for something to change, then we must consider how we can ourselves effect that change rather than believe someone or something will do it for us.

Both history and religion have surely taught us one thing—and that is to beware of false idols.


Trauma and Deconversion: Questions for Pastors and Philosophers


tear in eye

Written by Michelle Panchuk.

Michelle received her PhD in Philosophy from the University of South Carolina and will be a research fellow at Notre Dame’s Center for Philosophy of Religion for the 2016-2017 academic year. In her free time she enjoys reading children’s fantasy, hiking with her husband, Yuriy, and collecting dog-sightings with her toddler, Miroslava

Content note: descriptions of religious trauma, physical abuse and mention of rape.


“Better to refuse even the truth for a time, than, by accepting into our intellectual creed that which our heart cannot receive, not seeing its real from, to introduce hesitation into our prayers, a jar into our praises, and a misery into our love. If it be the truth, we shall one day see it another thing than it appears now, and love it because we see it lovely; for all truth is lovely.” — George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons

Recently Seth Cain wrote about what pastors want from their philosopher friends. In part, it was a call for us to consider those weighty, soul-wrenching situations in which parishioners turn to God, and to their pastors, for support. It was a reminder that what people need is not always more theological or philosophical reflection, but a loving presence in time of need. I think Cain is exactly right. But while many find comfort in their faith in the midst of suffering, for others, faith itself is the source of deep pain. There are those who, as the result of religious trauma, have left their faith, doubt their faith, or try desperately to maintain a grasp on what used to be their faith. The church and the academy tend to have little to say to such people, and when we do speak, it has often with scorn or suspicion. I believe we can, indeed, we must, do better. Here I offer a first attempt at describing the problem and then suggest a few directions of inquiry that may provide us, as theologians, as pastors, as philosophers, and as Christians, better resources with which to respond to religious trauma.

By religious trauma I mean an array of negative experiences of the divine, of religious practice, of religious community, or of religious dogma that are personally transformative in ways that significantly diminish the individual’s capacity to engage in or experience these very things in the future. Religious trauma is related to the more general problem of evil, but raises a distinct set of questions that are not answered by more general responses to evil, just as such. Suffering in general can pose an obstacle to faith, but there is something unique, and uniquely problematic, about being harmed (or perceiving oneself to be harmed) by God, in the name of God, with the approval of God, or by those who claim to represent God.

Consider the following examples:

A young child is repeatedly and brutally beaten by her religious parents. She is told that since God commanded the Israelites to stone their rebellious children, anything they do to her short of that is divinely approved, and morally deserved for her childish misbehavior. They say that they must beat her because God wants them to. One night, they lock her out of the house as punishment for some misdeed. Sitting alone, bruised and bleeding, gazing at the stars, the girl has an overwhelming sense of the presence of God—a presence utterly terrifying because she perceives it to be of a being who delights in her suffering. This experience fundamentally shapes her feelings about the divine. Whatever she may come to believe about God, she cannot shake the deep revulsion she has at any attempt to address herself to God.

A young boy is raped by his priest in his church and sworn to secrecy in the name of God. Telling anyone will hurt the reputation of the church and displease God. Whatever he may come to believe about the church, the sight of a priest or even a church building continues to make him physically ill.

These are two cases of religious trauma. In both there is a sense in which it is almost irrelevant what the individuals come to believe about the experience or its evidential force with respect to the truth of their religious beliefs. The experience itself both transforms them and subjects them to affective (e.g., fear, revulsion), physical (e.g., nausea, racing heart), and other psychological (e.g., intrusive thoughts, doubts) states that partially or completely preclude them from full participation in religious life. In the former case, the woman’s attempts to worship are hindered because, though she may believe God to be worthy of her worship, her revulsion at every attempt to relate herself to God impedes the love and adoration she believes she must have. In the latter, the man’s ability to participate in religious practices, such as receiving the Eucharist from a priest, within his faith tradition is significantly hindered. If he is persuaded of the importance of these practices for his religious faith, then his experience has diminished his capacity to engage in his faith. Both individuals have been traumatized by religion, and that trauma negatively affects the further practice of their faith. Certainly, this is not the only way that harm done in the name of God may impact an individual, but this is one significant, and not at all rare, way that it does.

A common response from philosophers to descriptions of religious trauma is to dismiss them as pastoral, rather than philosophical, concerns. Since they are not problems about rationality of religious belief (at least not from the standpoint of theoretical reason) or the evidence for the truth of some religion, they fall outside of the purview of philosophy. But pastors are often equally unable to address the topic in a helpful way. They say things like, “But you KNOW that isn’t true! Why don’t you just move on/get over it/forgive/forget.”

In both cases, there appears to be a deep-seated assumption that religious faith is primarily an intellectual exercise. If you just adopt the right set of propositional attitudes, everything else (including those aspects of faith that are not merely intellectual—obedience to God, for example) falls into place. This, it seems to me, fundamentally ignores the kind of beings humans are, and the kind of thing worship is. While I do not yet have a fully developed theory of worship, worship cannot be simply the holding of the right set of propositional attitudes. Within Christianity, paradigmatic cases of worship seem to assume some level of belief, but also involve things like a committing of oneself to God, loving God, obeying God, adoring God, trusting God, and even enjoying God. If this is correct, and certain kinds of religious trauma preclude the individual’s ability to adopt the requisite states, might that inability count as a practical reason to deconvert? If so, what do we say of those who stay? Is it rational to continue considering oneself a follower of a God by whom one is repulsed?

My sense is that most philosophers and clergy want the answer to be, no, to the first question, and, yes, to the second. Some philosophers of religion suggest that any rejection of theism is the result of cognitive or moral deficiency (See for example, Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief, Chapters 7 and 14 are particularly relevant). But even those who acknowledge the rationality of atheism often speak as if only intellectual doubts could possibly count as reasons against religious faith. This is not to say that survivors of religious trauma never deconvert as the result of intellectual doubts. Many do. But there are others who simply cannot find a plausible way to keep on doing those things they believe to be essential to calling themselves a religious believer. These, who deconvert as the result of trauma, are then labeled “angry,” “emotional,” “irrational,” or “hurt.” In the end, isn’t this just another insidious form of victim blaming? Isn’t this just a lazy way to reinforce the privilege of those of us lucky enough not have been deeply wounded by our faith?

There are a number of lines of theological and philosophical inquiry that I believe could offer helpful resources in unraveling these difficult questions and in extending greater empathy to survivors of religious trauma:

1.) Development of a robust theory of worship. The recent debacle over Larycia Hawkins statements have prompted some interesting work in this direction that I hope will develop beyond a desire to merely draw lines in the sand. As I mentioned above, taking seriously the affective aspects of worship might explain why someone who cannot manage to find herself in the requisite affective states might have a reason to deconvert. Conversely, attention to the ways in which loving the things that God loves (love of neighbor, kindness, mercy, etc.) is also an act of worship might explain how a survivor might have a reason to continue identifying as a religious believer, despite her inability to love God, or even address herself to God through prayer, as she currently perceives the divine being.

2.) Attention to the fact that Christians worship a God who is a survivor of religiously-motivated abuse. Jesus was put to death by religious leaders in the name of God.

3.) Consideration of the implications of communal faith. Can we say on one hand that religious community is essential for faith, and simultaneously believe that the fault rests solely on the “hurt” deserter when they leave their faith because of religious trauma?

4.) Consideration of the parallels between canonical cases of religious experience and cases of religious trauma like the one described above.

5.) Work on embodied religious experience (See, for example, the work being done by Christina Van Dyke and Robyn Dembroff. Religious folks are not brains believing in God and engaging in religious life from the comfort of their vats. They are embodied individuals, experiencing their faith as embodied beings.

6.) Exploration of the interplay between theoretical and practical reason in religious belief and religious practice.