THE GREAT ATHEISM CONTROVERSY IN GERMANY
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
German philosopher, religious thinker, and political radical, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, was accused of atheism. After being appointed professor of philosophy at Jena in 1794, he had begun a series of public lectures on Sundays, from ten to eleven o’clock, much to the consternation of the clerics. A local journal declaimed on Fichte’s revolutionary politics, accusing him of subversively substituting the worship of Reason for the worship of God.
That was a very serious charge in view of the situation over in Paris, where images of the savior and saints had been pulled down in churches renamed “Temples of Truth” and replaced with effigies of Reason and Liberty and paintings of natural objects such as flowers. Atheism was in vogue there to the extent that, if a priest bothered to even mention god in church, people openly guffawed.
Fichte, however, had no such mummery or cynicism in mind, although he was enthusiastic about some of the French Revolution’s basic principles, and he had written such tracts as “Reclamation of the Freedom of Thought from the Princes of Europe and Contributions Designed to Correct the Judgement of the Public on the French Revolution.”
The formal charge brought against Fichte, for worshiping Reason on Sunday, was resolved in his favor by the university senate of the Weimar government, with the proviso that any future lectures be given at three o’clock on Sunday afternoons instead of in the mornings. No such compromise was available however, in the matter of Atheismusstreit, the great Atheism Controversy which arose out of the publication of his 1798 essay on divine governance, “On the Basis of Our Belief in the Divine Governance of the World.”
The grand duke of Weimar had a liberal respect for scholarship, yet he wanted the whole thing hushed up; nevertheless, Fichte insisted on raising a vigorous public response to the anonymous charges against him, because, he said, the matter at hand was a vital public issue concerning the most fundamental of all freedoms. After all, a public airing of both sides of the atheism controversy would expose the stupidity of the authoritarian morons. Fichte had promised that he would resign if censured by the governing authority. As it were, he was mildly rebuked, but his offer to resign was accepted and he was dismissed from his university post. His dismissal was followed by anonymous public attacks on his character. The political authorities of various regions in Germany were embarrassed by the scandal, and they, in turn, ordered the journal publishing Fichte’s purportedly atheistic views confiscated, and they forbade students from their precincts to enroll at the university in Weimar.
What did Fichte say that outraged the anonymous religious authorities? In fine, he averred that god is the “World Moral Order.” That sufficed to outrage the theists.
Fichte thought that a person truly believes in god if he does his duty “gaily and without concern,” without fear or doubts about the consequences. A true believer is not afraid of the hateful hypocrites who go about casting anonymous aspersions on someone else’s version of faith.
As for the atheist, Fichte claimed that “the true atheist… raises his own counsel above god and thus raises himself to god’s position” by concerning himself with the consequences of doing his duty. The real atheist is a religious hypocrite who is concerned with what he can get out of his religion, the selfish person who does his duty concerned only with what is in it for him. As far as Fichte was concerned, doing one’s duty is imperative and not categorical, for duties by definition must be done regardless of the consequences. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about moral imperatives; for instance, the imperative not to lie: “You must not lie,” Fichte said, “even if the world were to go to pieces as a consequence.” So one should be willing to sign his own name to his beliefs and suffer the consequences therefor.
It may appear to the reader that, if the same good works are done, then the practical effects of selfish atheism and dutiful theism are the same, leaving the question of a person’s faith in god, which is really nobody else’s business. As long as the outward observances are dutifully observed, whether or not someone believes in god or not is between her and god. As for lying, the biggest lie of all is told by those who profess the existence of god but do not really believe god exists. If only people would start telling the truth about god, nation, party, family, and person, we would embrace our common humanity, in which pessimists believe a world war might break out.
Do not worry, advised Fichte, the truth will not cause the world go to pieces. If the truth is good for anything at all, surely it will keep the world intact. “The plan of its preservation could not possibly be based on a lie,” quoth he. Obviously, if god does exist, god is not a liar. Wherefore for Fichte, the moral world order that is god does not have to be proved; rather, it is the objective ground or presumed hypostasis necessary for certitude.
Fichte was not an atheist at all in the learned opinion of many great theologians who happened to be influenced by him. He was, one might say, an ethical pantheist who believed that god’s moral order or logos was present in every individual and available to each conscientious individual. That perspective naturally led bigoted dogmatists to charge Fichte with the mortal sin of deism, for intolerant bigots insist that deists are atheists. Deism affirms the existence of god and of rewards and punishments after death, and posits that each person aided by reason can discover the few simple truths of religion. Since god gives all normal humans reason, god’s doctrines are no secret; there are no specially anointed authorities who alone are able to understand and interpret god’s word. Conscience is a private matter. The deity winds up the universe like a clock and leaves us to do our duty or not. Finally, as to the form of worship, the deist worships god with good works. Deism, incidentally, was not unique to Europe; several founding fathers of the United States of America were democratically oriented deists.
The professors of stupidity charged Fichte with “making himself God” because of his reliance on reasoning rather than their irrational objective dogma. Fichte’s moral world order, however, was not the mundane mores of the mob or crowd, but was the real moral order of a supersensible realm where duty is not done for pleasure’s sake but for its own sake. His concept of Absolute Transcendental Idealism and the Absolute Ego or “I” smacked of heresy to bigots who wanted some godly object to idolize, a god of self-hate projected somewhere out there opposed to man and nature.
An object-god, say an imagined father-god who is out there somewhere, say in an imagined heaven, and who is opposed to man and to nature, is more of devil than a god. And it is for that reason that we should also be wary of Fichte’s absolute idealism, his apparent divorce of the subject (god and man) from the object (world and society). Furthermore, his idealistic con-fusion of god and man on the subjective side is dangerous, for an idealist who thinks his personal ideals are the one and only reality may dutifully be as intolerant as the religious bigot.
Indeed, an examination elsewhere of Fichte’s patriotic German utopia reveals a totalitarian dystopia. If he had known what we now know about the consequences of that line of thinking in World War instead of World Moral Order, he would not have been so enthusiastic about his German nationalism.
On the other hand, the wild, anarchistic hand as opposed to the totalitarian, heavy hand, we might admire Fichte for his assertion of the freedom of the will, the absolute freedom of thought and expression associated with the subjective nature of individualism.
In any event, Fichte was viciously and anonymously slandered by the professors of faith for expressing his conscience. The cowardice of the professors in remaining anonymous indicts their religion of ignorance, fear and hate. A profoundly faithful person rests secure in her faith; she is not pressed to prove the existence of her god; she certainly feels no need to make anonymous personal attacks on others. Naturally those who are insecure in forced faith fear that someone else’s reasoning might pull the rug called faith from beneath them, a rug laid on the shaky ground or shifting sands of their irrational fear, hence they respond anonymously unless they have a supporting mob; they answer with hate instead of love and would disallow any song except their own, desperately strident one.
College students conducting a recent study of hate-mongering cults were surprised by the loving friendliness the hate-cult members showed towards each other and towards new recruits. They love not the god of neighborly love piety raves about, for they condemn all to hell who do not agree with them. Surely this is not the worship of the god of love so many man-hating magpies chatter about in their assemblies, in churches, in neo-fascist meeting-places, but is rather the worship of hate itself. It is in effect hate-others-based group-love, a love based on fear.
Whether or not we like Fichte’s philosophy, the Great Atheism Controversy he was involved in, even though the atheism issue has grown increasingly moot since then, raises questions pertinent to our own time.
For instance, why would someone hide their name when expressing an opinion on an abstract subject unless they are terribly ashamed of their own existence expressed in words? Why are they so ashamed of themselves? Why do so many people hide behind false identities simply to insult people? And why do so many “religious people,” anonymously or not, resort to slander and libel, just as their forbears did about Fichte’s private life and sexual philosophy? Why, indeed, does their real god seem to be Satan, slander personified?