The Problems of Projection Go Deeper Than Its Many Varieties (That Blue Dress Colour Debate)
Challenging Feuerbach, “The Essence of Christianity” and Critics of Both
In chapter 16 of Guide to the Study of Religion entitled “Projection”, Stewart Elliott Guthrie rightfully criticizes the deep entrenchment of the varying concepts of projection in much psychological, philosophical and religious studies literature, particularly because projection itself is lacking a clear definition. Tracing its historical origins as far back as he can go, he determines that though it appeared as a concept prior to the 19th century, it is in the work of Ludwig Feuerbach, particularly The Essence of Christianity, that the legacy of projection as a concept was firmly established. This legacy does not necessarily follow from the work of Feuerbach directly, as Guthrie points out, but has more to do with the work of others inspired by his writing, including Freud, Marx, Nietzsche and, to a certain degree, Jung. In the end, after dissecting its many variations, Guthrie concludes that “projection as a psychological term appears then, to come in so many varieties as to be theoretically empty.” (236) By extension, this is true for its use in philosophy and religious studies as well. The purpose of this paper is not to refute the relative deadness of projection as a theoretical term but to push Guthrie’s argument a bit further. By outlining several key problems with the concept of projection in its entirety (all varieties), I seek to show that the problems of projection go much deeper than its many varieties or, by extension, its indefinability. While there are a number of crucial concepts that lack a unified definition in the scholarship, this does not prevent their use if someone arrives at a specific definition and is consistent in its use throughout their work. Defining terms is a key in any area of scholarship whether in the sciences or the humanities. What is indefinable can be made definable, if not universally and forever, at least for a specific purpose or goal.  In this sense, I am not entirely swayed by Guthrie’s argument that the issue with “projection” as a term is in its multifaceted definitions (as something like religion is equal to this in its variety) nor that this accounts for its emptiness as the point of analysis or understanding for religion, or religious behavior. The problem of projection is, simply, projection itself.
As Guthrie notes towards the end of his article, the first issue with projection as an alleged human practice is that it does not account for phenomenal diversity and our interpretive capacities. Guthrie aptly notes that, contrary to the supposed predictability of what we project into the world, our perceptual world is “chronically ambiguous” and subject to our multiple interpretations which, rather than being projections of our inner world, are what we throw out onto the world – our “bias”, so to speak, which chooses explanations of phenomena based on “Pascal’s Wager: the most important possibility” as part of natural selection or a tool of survival. (237) This configuration rejects the basic “eccentric” projection where we locate qualities of objects externally but it also rejects the opposite extreme where the qualities of objects are entirely internal.
A great example of this is the colour of a flower. Colour wavelengths, while existing phenomenally, are interpreted by our eyes (and brains) to be a specific colour, say red, without altering the wavelengths themselves. They may appear as something other than red to an animal or even another person, but the phenomena is not changed: only the sensory interpretation of it. In this sense, what is “projected” is neither the flower itself nor the colour red onto the flower. The flower simply is and we see it as we are able to. In the night, this red will appear different to us, but our interpretation of it is still red, particularly if we remember it as being red during the day – even if the night-red appears brown when juxtaposed against the day-red.
As such, we are not full creators to the world around us, but that is not to say that we are mere passive receptors of it either. We engage in continuous interpretation of the world through our faculties of sensibility but it still exists, even if we can never perceive it outside of those faculties. Interestingly, this is an assertion of Kant, to whom Feuerbach was allegedly responding when he wrote The Essence of Christianity. Though many attempt to conflate the two philosophers in their meditations about religion – particularly because both of them attempted to strip Christianity and, by extension, religion to its human core, and because both are fixated on the perfection of human nature- the fundamental difference between them is this understanding of perception. For Kant, experience offers us nothing beyond individual sensations without any general truths and represents the most basic awareness of a stimulus. Our minds then take stimulus and order the information received by the sensory faculties of the brain and construct an object according to our perception. For Kant, unlike Feuerbach, the flower exists and is also unchanged by our perception or perceived knowledge of it. Only our mind interprets the object in such a way that we cannot imagine that object outside of this interpretation.
Why is this important? In terms of projection, if we carry its most basic definition (that we throw our internal world onto the external world by whatever mechanism or for whatever reason there is) to its endpoint, we are stuck in the continuous feed-forward loop of the “Brain in a Vat” argument, or solipsism. The object is not interpreted by our sensory capabilities; it is created by them. It does not exist. This is obviously problematic for a number of reasons that cannot be delved into here but suffice it to say that few philosophers accept soliptical worldviews willingly.
The second problem with projection has more to do with religion and religious behavior directly. Projection as a process is not equal to social construction and does not translate well from individual constructions of the world to those of the group in which an individual gives the appearance of being situated. We can construct our symbols, our buildings and our relationships around what we perceive to be the sacred but this does not mean that they exist only in our minds or, conversely, that they outwardly have legitimate effects on objects or places in the external world. While the sacred might be intertextual or intersocial, and it may not be recognized as sacred for another group, that other group can recognize it as sacred for the group that makes it so. It is not that there is something imparted onto the object or place that makes it sacred as a constitutive quality but rather the perception of mutual recognition by members of the sacralizing group that makes it sacred for them. The object has not changed, the interpretation has and these interpretations can be recognized (even if not accepted) by others. To come back to our naturalistic examples, there can be a pink rock and a purple rock that a person or group interprets to hold differing metaphysical powers from one another. To an outsider, these rocks are just rocks, regardless of colour, but that does not stop them from recognizing that these rocks are sacred to the one who sacralizes them. In this way, for the sacralizer and the observer, the physical rocks have not changed, it is only, again, the interpretation that changes. While it might seem silly to some to use examples like flowers and rocks, both of these objects have been interpreted as sacred or holding religious value by different groups of people at different times, so the examples are not totally farfetched here.
The third problem with projection in religion is the notion of anthropomorphism that normally accompanies it and is the central point in Feuerbach’s magnum opus: that humanity is conscious of itself as a species and by determining what makes its species unique – reason, will and feeling for Feuerbach – establishes “perfections” against which the individual finds himself imperfect. As a result, man projects God into existence and into the place of the species-perfection as the perfect exemplar for inherently imperfect man. As such, God exists only in man’s consciousness of himself as a species, rather than as an actual externality. There are two challenges to this argument: one is, of course, theological and the other is anthropological. For the purposes of argument, I will focus on the second challenge as the first one holds little relevance for the religious studies student. Simply put, there are a number of so-called religious practices that envision a God that is neither anthropomorphic in physicality (ie. has no bodily characteristics similar to man) nor anthropomorphic in attributes, or not necessarily, completely human in attributes. The most obvious example is the orthodox Sunni Islamic conception of Allah, which, while accepting anthropomorphic verses in the Holy Qur’an, declares their meaning mutashabihat, or ‘unclear’. Most scholars in Islamic jurisprudence in the four schools (with some divergence in some followers of the Hanbali school), argue that this ambiguity is overwritten by the Qur’an’s categorical denial of Allah’s anthropomorphism in physical or personal attributes, stating There is nothing whatsoever like unto Him. (Qur’an 42:11). As such, any literalist interpretation of anthropomorphism in any of Allah’s Verses or 99 Names is purely didactic and meant to invoke understanding for human interpretation and understanding without actually affecting Allah Himself. An example of how this works in the opposite manner is found in Quran 45:34 which notes that Allah forgets, which, if taken literally, is considered kufr or disbelief by the four major schools of Islamic jurisprudence. This is not the place to go into an exhaustive analysis of how various Muslim scholars have dealt with anthropomorphism over time (and there are some who accepted it – including, notably, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the foundational scholar for virtually all known terrorist groups and Saudi Arabia as a country). Rather, the point is to say that the vast majority of believing Muslims, the world over, and according to doctrine, likely conceive of a God that is nothing like anything – human or otherwise, as something beyond anything our faculties of sensibility can dream up. As such, it would appear that this could be a reason that Feuerbach called his work The Essence of Christianity as it betrays a particularly Christian viewpoint and understanding of God that relates little to either of its scriptural counterparts of Islam or even Judaism.
This list of issues with projection as a formative concept or practice in religion is, by no means, exhaustive. However, hopefully it offers a few ways of conceptualizing projection as a dead concept. Beyond the fact that it has multiple definitions, projection fails to account for how humans actually perceive reality – and though this is not yet fully determined, it has at least been determined that projection is not provable as a process of the mind and instead functions more like a metaphor in our colloquial descriptions of reality. Further, projection as the equivalent of social construction or constructivism in general is problematic as to equate the two renders the social realm soliptical and devoid of meaning or the capacity to have knowledge. No scholar or student of religion could argue this and keep their job. Finally, when projection in religion involves anthropomorophism – as it does in Feuerbach’s construction – any claim to universality of this process is a moot point, not only because contrary examples are readily available, but because projection itself is largely dead as a verifiable facet of human cognition. Further issues will have to be discussed elsewhere.
Sources Referenced or Cited
Feuerbach, Ludwig. “Preface to the Second Edition” and “The Essential Nature of Man,” in The Essence of Christianity (New York: Harper, 1957 [German original in 1841]),
Guthrie, Stewart E. “Projection,” in Guide to the Study of Religion. Willi Braun and Russell . McCutcheon, eds. Cassell: London. 2000.
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. 1781; 2nd edition 1787. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (trans.) 1998. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
 This is not true for all terms, such as “religion” which lacks a definition, even working ones, because it is a poor starting point of analysis and is secondary to other, more definable systems which can be analyzed.
 For a very recent example of this (February 26, 2015), we have the internet to thank: