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Atheismusstreit, a famous controversy in Germany during the closing years of the eighteenth century, concerned the allegedly subversive philosophical views of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (17621814) and of the much less well-known Friedrich C. Forberg (17701848).

Fichte, who died as a pillar of respectability, had advanced various radical views in his earlier years, and on the nature and reality of God he never became fully orthodox. In 1793, while living as a private tutor in Zürich, Fichte published two political pamphlets titled "Reclamation of the Freedom of Thought from the Princes of Europe" and "Contributions Designed to Correct the Judgment of the Public on the French Revolution" in which he enthusiastically supported the basic principles of the French Revolution, arguing for free expression of opinion as an inalienable human right and subjecting the privileges of the nobility and the church to trenchant criticism. Fichte was at that time already famous, largely as a result of his Kantian work, Versuch einer Kritik aller Offenbarung (Essay toward a Critique of All Revelation), which had been published anonymously in Königsberg in 1792. Some reviewers attributed the essay to Immanuel Kant, who thereupon revealed Fichte as the true author, at the same time bestowing high praise on his gifts. In spite of Fichte's reputation as a political radical, he was appointed professor of philosophy at Jena in 1794.

For some time things went fairly smoothly at Jena. Fichte, who was a dynamic lecturer, made numerous converts among both his colleagues and the students, although there were some acrimonious exchanges with the psychologist C. C. E. Schmid and others distrustful of Fichte's speculative bent. There were two violent controversies before the Atheismusstreit broke out. One of these concerned a series of public lectures that Fichte had scheduled on Sundays from ten to eleven in the morning. Local clergymen were outraged, and the Over-Consistory (of which no less a man than Johann Gottfried Herder was a member) appealed to the government at Weimar to intervene. One local journal called attention to Fichte's revolutionary politics and asserted that he and his democratic followers were engaging in a deliberate attempt to substitute the worship of reason for the worship of God. The senate of the university and the government of Weimar decided in Fichte's favor, but it was agreed to give the lectures at three in the afternoon. The other controversy involved the university fraternities, which Fichte regarded as unethical and corrupt and whose abolition he publicly recommended. On New Year's Eve of 1795 students belonging to the fraternities attacked Fichte's house, breaking windows and heaping insults upon him and his wife. In the early months of 1795 Fichte felt his life to be in danger and found it necessary to reside outside of Jena until the tempers of the fraternity members had calmed down.

The Offending Articles

The Atheismusstreit itself began in 1798 with the publication in the Philosophisches Journal, a periodical of which Fichte was coeditor, of an essay by Forberg titled "The Evolution of the Nature of Religion." Fichte's conservative English biographer, Robert Adamson, dismisses Forberg's position as an "exaggeration of the dismal rationalism into which the weaker Kantians had drifted." In fact, however, Forberg's paper shows a powerful and independent thinker at work and does not seem dated even now. (Interestingly enough, Hans Vaihinger called attention to the philosophical merits of Forberg's work after almost total neglect for a century, citing him as an early positivistic fictionalist and praising his unusually fine appreciation of the more radical aspects of Kant's philosophy of religion.)

What, Forberg asks, is the foundation of the belief in a moral world order? There are three possible sourcesexperience, speculation, and conscience. Experience certainly lends no support to such a belief; if anything, it shows an evil deity in conflict with, and more often than not triumphing over, a good one. As for speculation, Forberg briefly and very clearly repeats Kant's objections to the ontological, cosmological, and teleological arguments, adding some critical observations of his own. Accordingly, the foundation of religion must be sought in our conscience. Religion is "purely and solely the fruit of a morally good heart ; it originates entirely from the wish of the good heart that the good in the world should triumph over the evil." To have "genuine religion" is not to have a belief in God; it is to be a partisan of the good, to act as if the kingdom of God, which for Forberg simply means a just and moral world, were attainable. Forberg himself evidently did not believe that such a world was attainable. This belief, however, is no more essential to true religion than is the belief in God. What is essential is the striving in the direction of a moral world whether or not one believes in its attainability. Forberg most emphatically insists that an atheist can be a religious person in his sense of religion. "Practical belief and theoretical unbelief on the one hand and theoretical belief and practical unbelief on the other may very well coexist."

At first sight this position may appear to be a kind of voluntaristic defense of traditional religion and an endorsement of Kant's moral argument, as this has frequently been interpreted. In fact, Forberg is very far removed from any such point of view. He is not saying that since there is no evidence either way, it is as well to believe in a just God or the attainability of a moral world. We are not, according to him, required to believe any such thing, and it does not really matter whether we do. We are required to act as if we believed this. Forberg was highly critical of the common interpretation of Kant's moral argument as providing cognitive support for belief in God. In his later defense of himself, Friedrich Carl Forbergs Apologie seines angeblichen Atheismus (Gotha, 1799), he castigates the "usual, far too theoretical presentation of the notion of a practical belief," adding that it is "an unphilosophical conception which allows people to reintroduce through a back door every kind of nonsense of which theoretical philosophy has rid us with much effort."

In the same issue of the Philosophisches Journal, Fichte published an essay, "Concerning the Foundation of Our Belief in Divine Government of the World," which was intended to complement Forberg's paper. In a somewhat patronizing opening Fichte informs the reader that although he agrees with much in Forberg's piece, there are some important questions on which Forberg has not "quite reached" his, Fichte's, position and that since he had not previously had an opportunity to explain himself on these issues, he would do so now. Attempts to infer the existence of God from the world of sense objects, he proceeds, must inevitably fail. From the point of view of common sense and science, the world of sense objects is "absolute" and self-existing, and any attempt to go beyond it is "total nonsense." The assumption of a cosmic intelligence, moreover, would not explain anything, since it is quite unintelligible to talk about the creation of material things out of ideas. Considered from the transcendental viewpoint, the world of the senses is a "mere reflection of our own activity," and as a "nothing" it can hardly require an explanation outside itself.

Our belief in God can be grounded only in the supersensible world, which for Fichte is the only ultimately real world. This is the world of free moral agents, and unlike Forberg, Fichte teaches that the universe is, in fact, moral and just, that "every truly good act must succeed, that every evil one must surely fail, that for those who really love the good all things must turn out for the best." This does not mean that the good necessarily receive rewards in terms of pleasure but the world in which we experience pleasure is not the real world. The world of sense objects exists only as a "stage" on which free agents perform or fail to perform their duty. It has not "the slightest influence on morality or immorality, not the slightest power over our free nature." It is, in fact, nothing more than the "material objectification of our duty; our duty is what is ultimately real, what is the fundamental stuff of all phenomena."

God is identical with the moral world order. A person believes in God insofar as he does his duty "gaily and without concern," without doubts or fears about consequences. The "true atheist" is he who calculates the consequences instead of following the voice of his conscience; he "raises his own counsel above the counsel of God and thus raises himself to God's position." He who does evil in order to produce good is godless. "You must not lie," Fichte adds by way of illustration, "even if the world were to go to pieces as a consequence"; a moral agent knows, however, that the world could not go to pieces, since "the plan of its preservation could not possibly be based on a lie." Both here and elsewhere Fichte argued that all cognition is based on the existence of the moral world order. The existence of God, which here, of course, simply means the moral world order, is therefore more certain than anything else. It is presupposed in any piece of valid reasoning, and hence it cannot be, nor does it need to be, proved. "It is the ground of all other certainty and the only absolutely valid objective reality."

The Anonymous Pamphlets

Attention was drawn to these essays and their alleged subversion in a pamphlet published late in 1798 under the title "Letters from a Father to His Student-Son concerning the Atheism of Fichte and Forberg." The pamphlet was signed G and was at first attributed to D. Gabler, a respectable theologian teaching at Altdorf. Gabler vehemently denied any connection with the pamphlet, however, and publicly expressed his high regard for Fichte. Fichte himself attributed it to one of his enemies at Jena, Gruner, but the authorship remains uncertain. The main argument of the pamphlet followed a simple, popular line: Belief in an ever present "witness and judge" is essential to the moral behavior of human beings; if people were not afraid of punishment in the next world, they would be certain to do evil whenever they expected to escape the secular penalties. As a high school teacher, Forberg in particular is regarded as a most dangerous man. How could such a rector give a "thorough religious education" to the students under his charge? "To sow the seeds of immorality among young people and make belief in God suspect is not a permissible game." When compared to the protector of morality who hunted Bertrand Russell in New York City 150 years later, the attack was conducted with decorum and refinement; however, several later anonymous pamphlets were somewhat less refined. As usually happens in such cases, they contained slanderous comments about Fichte's private life and "sexual philosophy."

Fichte's Dismissal

The rest of the story does little credit to any of the parties except Fichte and Forberg. Moved by the "Father's Letter," the Saxon government, on November 19, 1798, published a Rescript ordering the universities of Leipzig and Wittenberg to confiscate all copies of the Philosophisches Journal because of the atheistic articles contained in it. This was followed by a request to the neighboring German governments to take similar steps. The dukes of Saxe-Weimar were informed that Saxon students would not be allowed to enroll in Jena unless there was an immediate investigation into the conduct of the two offenders. The grand duke of Weimar, a ruler with a genuine respect for scholarship, was free from any trace of religious fanaticism; however, any attempt he might have made to hush up the case was prevented by Fichte's public defenses of himself. In January 1799, Fichte wrote his "Appeal to the Public concerning the Accusation of the Expression of Atheistic Opinions," a copy of which was promptly sent to the grand duke. In March 1799 he wrote the "Juridical Defense against the Accusation of Atheism," which was primarily addressed to the university authorities but a copy of which was also forwarded to the grand duke. In these "defenses" Fichte contended, first, that his philosophical position, although far removed from the anthropomorphic popular religion, could not fairly be regarded as a form of atheism and was, in fact, "true Christianity" and, second, that any punishment inflicted on Forberg or himself would be a gross violation of academic freedom. The case, Fichte insisted, was one of great importance; since the accusation had been public, the verdict should also be public. Fichte's friends regarded this as a most imprudent demand, and rumors were soon current that the Weimar government was about to impose a public censure on Fichte. In the hope of preventing this, Fichte wrote a letter to Privy Councilor Voigt in which he declared that he would under no circumstances submit to censure. In such an event, he said, he would instantly resign. He added that several distinguished members of the Jena faculty shared his opinion that censure would constitute infringement of their academic rights and that they would resign with him. Voigt was told that he was free to show the letter to others, including, presumably, the Weimar authorities, who were about to reach their verdict.

This letter turned out to be Fichte's undoing at Jena. The Weimar government quite improperly treated it as a formal document. It avoided any censure of Fichte (or of his coeditor Niethammer) on the charge of atheism. Instead, both were rebuked in the mildest possible language for their "indiscretion" and advised to exercise greater caution in their selection of articles for the Philosophisches Journal. The journal itself was not proscribed, nor was there any mention of what teachers should or should not say in their classrooms. In a postscript, however, reference was made to Fichte's letter to Voigt, and his threatened resignation in case of censure was noted and accepted. In effect, this amounted to Fichte's dismissal, and two petitions on his behalf by the Jena student body to the duke were of no avail. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who a few years earlier had been largely instrumental in securing the Jena chair for Fichte, was one of those in the Weimar council who demanded Fichte's ouster. Fichte's support of the French Revolution was apparently a minor thing, but the language used in the letter to Voigt was unforgivable. "For my own part," Goethe wrote in a letter a few months later, "I declare that I would have voted against my own son if he had permitted himself such language against a government." Forberg was mildly censured by his superiors and did not return to any writings on religion until shortly before his death, when he published his autobiography, in which there is a very full account of the entire episode and a reaffirmation of all his earlier convictions.

The Charge of Atheism

In his "Appeal to the Public," Fichte had vehemently denied the charge of atheism. Using language which is very similar to that employed in the twentieth century by Paul Tillich and Bishop J. A. T. Robinson, he inveighed against the popular "idol-worship" of God as a "substance," as another entity in the world, and against the vulgar "eudaemonistic" morality that makes God a giver of "sensuous" rewards for good deeds and "sensuous" punishments for evil deeds. Such a conceptionor, indeed, any attribution of personal characteristics to Godconstitutes a lowering and limiting of the deity and has to be opposed in the interests of true religion. There is no need to question Fichte's sincerity, and in more senses than one it may be granted that he was a religious man.

At the same time the charge of atheism does not appear to have been totally unjustified. People do not usually mean by God simply the moral world order, and the denial of God as an entity over and above the more familiar objects of experience (including moral human agents) is precisely what is ordinarily meant by atheism. On all these points Fichte had been very explicit in the original essay. "There can be no doubt," he had written, "that the notion of God as a separate substance is impossible and contradictory, and it is permitted to say this plainly." Again, "We need no other god [than the moral world order], and we cannot comprehend another one. There is no rational justification for going beyond the moral world order to a separate entity as its cause."

Granting that there was some basis for the charge of atheism against Fichte, this in no way excuses the behavior of the Weimar authorities or of Fichte's and Forberg's other detractors. Not one distinguished voice was raised anywhere in Germany in defense of the accused men. Kant himself, who was still alive, was moved to a statement in the Allgemeine Literaturzeitung (1799, No. 109) in which he emphatically dissociated his philosophy from Fichte's system. "When I compare the state of the German republic of letters of this period with the Enlightenment literature of France a generation earlier, I am overcome with the deepest shame," was the apt comment of the historian Fritz Mauthner.

See also Fichte, Johann Gottlieb.


The main documents of the Atheismusstreit have been collected in Fichte und Forberg. Die philosophischen Schriften zum Atheismusstreit, edited by F. Medicus (Leipzig, 1910), and Die Schriften zu J. G. Fichte's Atheismusstreit, edited by H. Lindau (Munich, 1912).

Critical appraisals of the actions and writings of the participants are found in Vol. IV of Fritz Mauthner's Der Atheismus und seine Geschichte im Abendlande (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlagsanstalt, 1923); F. Paulsen's "G. J. Fichte im Kampf um die Freiheit des philosophischen Denkens," in Deutsche Rundschau 99 (1899): 6676; and H. Rickert's "Fichte's Atheismusstreit und die kantische Philosophie," in Kant Studien 4 (1899): 137166.

There is a discussion of the originality of Forberg as well as of the evidence favoring a "left-wing" interpretation of Kant's moral argument for the existence of God in Appendix A and Appendix B of Hans Vaihinger, Die Philosophie des Als Ob (Berlin: Reuther and Reichard, 1911), translated by C. K. Ogden as The Philosophy of "As If" (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1924).

other recommended titles

Di Giovanni, George. "From Jacobi's Philosophical Novel to Fichte's Idealism: Some Comments on the 179899 Atheism Dispute." Journal of the History of Philosophy 27 (1989): 75100.

Fabro, Cornelio. "Eine Unbekannte Schrift Zum Atheismusstreit." Kant Studien 58 (1967): 521.

Paul Edwards (1967)

Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)