In his monumental treatise, The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach asserted that nature is the highest reality in that it exists regardless and independent of all beliefs and philosophies. The religious figures and ideas that cultures and nations hold about "god" are merely projections of the desired qualities these groups of people wish to obtain and live by. When men and women cannot find these qualities on earth, they throw them up into the heavens, pay homage to them, and call them god. More advanced and sophisticated cultures begin to consider god(s)in a more abstract sense, and possibly associate all god-like traits with a single entity (monotheism). Despite the fact that these gods (and later "god" singular) do not exist, they still act as an important tool in understanding the needs and desires of human beings. In other words, gods did not create men; men created men. The beliefs and, "assertions we make about God are in fact assertions about ourselves."
This particular Feuerbachian belief extended to Wagner's personal religious life. Wagner never considered any religion as truth, but considered each immensely valuable in the things it revealed about the people practicing them.
Feuerbach's Influence on Wagner's Ring Cycle
Wagner's philosophical belief, as influenced by Feuerbach, plays heavily into the Ring. In the opening of Das Rhinegold, we see the gods in power. Throughout the Ring, we see the mortal characters (humans) take control and begin to change the destiny and fate of the world, and eventually, of the gods themselves. Wagner considered plainly stating the moral throughout Brünnhilde at the end of Götterdämmerung in what is now called the "Feuerbach ending".
In addition, each of the gods and characters in the Ring represents a specific trait or element - Loge is fire; the most primordial and elemental state. Erda is earth. Fricka is marriage. Wotan is the keeper of covenants and contracts. Mime is a forger of things. Siegfried is the hero. It seems as if Wagner is directly basing his characters on this Feuerbachian idea of using specific entities as the embodiments of ideas, ideals, and human characteristics. Many of the Ring's characters are gods, and Wagner's presentation of them is consciously the Feuerbachian one of gods and godheads at an early stage in the world's development.
Bakunin's Beliefs and Background
Another tremendous influence, and antagonist of "accepted ideas", on Wagner was the Russian Prince Mikhail Bakunin. He was an anarchist that believed the established society served only to oppress and extort from the people it claimed to serve and that men could exist without the laws imposed by government. Bakunin sacrificed his considerable amount of wealth for this cause, which gave him credibility within the eyes of his followers.
Bakunin was integral in the Dresden insurrection, where he fought alongside Wagner. After his arrest, he was sentenced to death, extradited to Austria, and sentenced to death a second time. The Russian government demanded his return, thus preventing the carrying out of his sentences. Bakunin spent six years in jail (without a trial), in the Peter and Paul Fortress, after which he was exiled to Siberia.
Bakunin's Influence on Wagner's Ring Cycle
Bakunin frequently talked of his desire to watch Paris burn to the ground, wiping out an oppressive, exploitive government and purifying the world so that society could start again. This idea of fire as a purifying force became central to Wagner's works, specifically the Ring. He had a vision of building a theatre on the Rhine River, staging the productions, and burning it to the ground on the final night of performance. In the Ring, this idea manifests itself with Loge returning to his elemental form, destroying everything and hence purifying the earth.