Original Research - Special Collection: Contemporary study of Religion

Schopenhauer and religion: Translating myth into metaphysics

Richard A. Northover
HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies | Vol 78, No 2 | a7788 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/hts.v78i2.7788 | © 2022 Richard A. Northover | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 29 May 2022 | Published: 31 August 2022

About the author(s)

Richard A. Northover, Department of Afrikaans and Theory of Literature, College of Human Sciences, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa


The article assesses Arthur Schopenhauer’s reinterpretation of religious myths, particularly those of Christianity, in terms of his philosophical system, and applies his ideas to the mythical cosmology of shamanistic and animistic religions. Schopenhauer, a 19th-century Romantic philosopher, although an atheist himself, took religious myths very seriously, translating them into the terms of his metaphysical system. His view was that Roman Catholicism, for him the true form of Christianity, shared the pessimism and the focus on suffering of Hinduism and Buddhism, rather than the alleged optimism of Protestantism, Judaism and Islam, excepting the myth of the Fall. For Schopenhauer, this pessimism was evident in the central symbol of Christianity, the figure of the crucified Christ. Schopenhauer put forward his ethic of compassion (and asceticism), aligning him, despite his atheism, with the altruistic ethics of the major world religions. The article also explores the extent to which Schopenhauer’s philosophy as, arguably, a form of panpsychism can be applied to shamanistic and animistic religions. While Schopenhauer translated religious myths into his metaphysical terms – based ultimately on Kant’s distinction between phenomena (things as they appear) and noumena (things as they are) – his understanding of the noumenon as the universal will to life was itself an explanatory myth for an essentially unknowable reality. Therefore, the attempt of Schopenhauer’s philosophy to translate myth into metaphysics in turn contained a myth at its very core. Nonetheless, the article argues that Schopenhauer’s argument may satisfy those dissatisfied with materialism’s shortcomings yet not willing to subscribe to a supernatural order.

Contribution: The article applies to shamanism and animism the neglected philosopher Schopenhauer’s method of interpreting religious myths in terms of his metaphysical system, relating this very briefly to current philosophical debates on panpsychism.


Schopenhauer; religion; metaphysics; myth; Christianity; shamanism; animism; panpsychism


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