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How can we genuinely believe in God?

This notion of God is reasonable or rational, that is to say, we logically understand the necessity of his existence. If Kant really intends to ‘make room for faith’, he needs to tell us what kind of faith we may have in God. Kant offers an analysis of various kinds of faith, one unparalleled in the philosophy or theology of his time. Kant’s logical starting point is the contrast between ‘historical’ and ‘pure’ faith. Historical faith is based on historical facts of a certain age and a certain culture recorded in a certain language and it possesses a number of constraints which make it difficult to understand its real meaning. For instance, if we want to understand what ‘faith’ meant in the Old Testament, we need to know the Hebrew language and possess a great amount of additional knowledge of historical circumstances. Those with historical faith are unable to communicate their faith without explaining carefully the historical, cultural and linguistic conditions under which the concrete events, the objects of faith, took place. As opposed to this restricted kind of communication, pure faith is reasonable: it is universally understandable and communicable to every rational person. It is pure faith because it is not bound up with beliefs in accidental historical circumstances; it is pure faith because it is purified from such eventualities. And it is pure faith because, as Kant shows, there are universally understandable and logically well-formed arguments in favour of maintaining such faith.

The background to Kant’s argument about the notion of pure faith is his understanding of radical evil. ‘Radical evil’ refers to the fact that in every human being there is a tendency of intending and doing evil, even serious or ‘diabolical’ evil.[1] Human beings naturally form political communities, but these political communities are thus formed by the very same human beings who possess the tendency of radical evil. In such a community, co-existence is secured by the rule of law issued by some political authority. In the strict sense, such a community cannot be called ethical, because it exists in the natural juridical state of following positive law; it is a state of ‘everybody’s war against everybody’ in a latent fashion, controlled by the rule of law. This natural state of a community is ‘brutish’ and is characterized by inner immorality.[2] However, the state of genuine ethical community is reached when the community recognizes the existence of a transcendent ethical ruler, God, who knows everybody’s heart and rewards everybody in accordance with his or her merit. In other words, the beginning of a genuinely ethical community is given in a theocratic state in which the people are God’s moral people as opposed to the ‘band under the evil principle - a union of those who side with that principle for the propagation of evil’.[3]

Kant suggests that God’s moral people can become the bearer of pure religious faith only as a ‘church’. That is, for Kant, political existence and the existence of the church are intrinsically linked to one another. On the other hand, this church must be a universal church based on pure religious faith, that is, a church existing beyond the limits of historical faith. Historical faith can be properly understood only by pure religious faith. The criterion of historical faith is Scripture, which can be properly interpreted only by the bearers of the pure reasonable religion and its objective and scholarly developed exegesis.7

Kant describes the essence of historical faith with these words:

We must believe that there once was a human being (of whom reason tells us nothing) who has done enough through his holiness and merit, both for himself (with respect to his duty) and for all others (and their deficiency as regards their


duty), to hope that we ourselves can become blessed in the course of a good life, though only in virtue of this faith.[4]

On the other hand, the essence of pure faith is summarized as follows:

We must strive with all our might after the holy intention of leading a life wellpleasing to God, in order to believe that God’s love for humankind (already assured to us by reason) will somehow make up, in consideration of that honest intention, for humankind’s deficiency in action, provided that humankind strives to conform to his will with all its might.[4]

The contrast is formulated as that between ‘slavish’ or ‘mercenary faith’ as opposed to ‘free’ or ‘genuine faith’.[6] [7]

For Kant, then, it is possible to have faith in God, yet this faith is only secondarily historical, empirical or ecclesiastical faith; primarily it is pure religious faith. Those of pure faith form a genuine ethical community, a church, the establishment of which, as Kant suggests, is ‘a work whose execution cannot be hoped for from human beings but from God himself’.11 This ‘moral people of God’ is, nevertheless, continuously attacked by the ‘band (or gang) of the evil principle’, so that this band apparently overcomes God’s moral people in certain situations. The reason for such a defeat is the creation of the possibility of a higher renewal of God’s people, a stronger realization of pure religious faith as a faith in God’s eternally compensating love. This realization of pure religious faith is a faith which has a sacred and mysterious character. Although the very fact of a mystery seems to exclude the reasonableness of pure religious faith, Kant points out that mysteries may still belong to pure religious faith.[4]

It is in this context that Kant clearly addresses the difference between the notion of faith as based on divine grace (‘divinely dispensed’ faith) and the ‘pure faith of reason’. Kant intends to limit his investigation to rational faith but acknowledges that even the foundation and ultimate end of rational faith are mysterious. As an analogy he offers the fact of human free will, a faculty every human being is aware of. We are able to talk about and consider human free will in a rational way because it is publicly observable in each of us. However, the ultimate ground and end of free will cannot be rationally talked about and considered and are in this way mysterious. Similarly, the mystery of faith belongs to the grounds and ends of pure faith, a faith designed to support the intention of moral action.13

Kant’s idea of a pure religious faith is a philosophical idea. His new kind of philosophy, which focuses on the structures of the mind as underlying objective reality, revolutionized modern philosophical thought. In Kant’s work, this ‘Copernican’ revolution leads to the reformulation not only of arguments for the existence of God but more importantly to the new notion of pure religious, or reasonable, faith. Kant’s deep faith in God, moral goodness and the holy calling of the faithful in the world cannot be questioned. As a philosopher, Kant attempted to interpret the mainly Protestant traditions of faith and developed an understanding which has become fruitful during the subsequent centuries. His main merit consists in that, based on his analysis of the historical and ecclesiastical notions of faith, he recognized the need for a new form of faith which responds to the challenges of the Age of Enlightenment. This new faith is pure religious faith, a faith having as its guide the universal rule of the categorical imperative.

Study questions

  • 1. What is the importance of Kant’s use of the phrase of the ‘Copernican Turn’ with respect to his own thought?
  • 2. What are the main points of Kant’s criticism of the traditional arguments for the existence of God?
  • 3. Was Kant an atheist? If yes, in which sense? If no, what kind of argument does he offer for the existence of God?
  • 4. What is ‘pure religious faith’ according to Kant?

Further reading

Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Pure Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,

  • 1998), Introduction (as in the second edition), trans. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood, pp. 136-152.
  • -, Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, ed. and trans. Allen Wood and

George Di Giovanni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 31-191. Guyer, Paul, The Cambridge Companion to Kant and Modern Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Scruton, Roger, Kant: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).


  • [1] Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, ed. and trans. Allen Wood and Georgedi Giovanni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 55-61.
  • [2] Kant, Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, p. 108.
  • [3] Kant, Religion, p. 110.
  • [4] Kant, Religion, p. 126.
  • [5] Kant, Religion, p. 126.
  • [6] Kant, Religion, p. 122.
  • [7] Kant, Religion, p. 111.
  • [8] Kant, Religion, p. 126.
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