Freud on Religion as “Illusion”

Sigmund Freud.  He had mommy issues (and he thinks you do, too).
Sigmund Freud. He had mommy issues (and he thinks you do, too).

The father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, built upon the naturalist view of religion’s origins popularized by earlier thinkers like Feuerbach and Hume.  In his “The Future of An Illusion,” he posited psychological reasons for the origin of religious belief, namely, in the father-complex; that is, he proposed religion’s origin in the need for a divine father figure who was all powerful, to make up for our mortal and frail biological fathers.  He describes this phenomenon like so:

“These [religious ideas] which are given out as teachings are not precipitates or experience or end-results of thinking: they are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind. The secret of their strength lies in the strength of those wishes. As we already know, the terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood aroused the need for protection – for protection through love – which was provided by the father; and the recognition that this helplessness lasts throughout life made it necessary to cling to the existence of a father, but this time a more powerful one. Thus the benevolent role of a divine Providence allays our fear of the dangers of life; the establishment of a moral world-order ensures the fulfillment of the demands of justice, which have so often remained unfulfilled in human civilization; and the prolongation of earthly existence in a future life provides the local and temporal framework in which these wish-fulfillments shall take place. Answers to the riddles that tempt the curiosity of man, such as how the universe began or what the relation is between body and mind, are developed in conformity with the underlying assumptions of this system.  It is an enormous relief to the individual psyche if the conflicts of its childhood arising from the father-complex – conflicts which it has never wholly overcome – are removed from it and brought to a solution which is universally accepted.”

One bone to pick, if I may.  Don’t all “answers to the riddles that tempt the curiosity of man” develop “in conformity with the underlying assumptions” of whatever system to which they belong? In other words, naturalist assumptions lead to naturalist conclusions, just as supernatural assumptions lead to supernatural conclusions.  Even, we might say, the desire for non-foundationalism leads to non-foundationalist answers. There is no escaping first principles.  But that could probably be a whole separate post.

What do you think of Freud’s thesis? Is religion an illusion – or is Freud’s theory?

[Source: Freud, “The Future of An Illusion,” quoted in Hitchens, The Portable Atheist (Philadelphia: De Capo Press 2007), 146-147.]

Nietzsche as the Quintessential “Truly Profound Atheist”

nietzscheFriedrich Nietzsche is unparalleled among critiques of religion, and of Christianity most especially.  The son of a pastor, his was the kind of incisive attack upon the faith that can only come from someone profoundly familiar with the object of their derision.  He famously loathed what he called the “slave morality” of Christians, as opposed to the powerful (and in many ways classical) freedom exercised by the Ubermensch:

“Weakness is being lied into something meritorious, no doubt of it…and impotence, which does not requite into ‘goodness of heart’; anxious lowliness into ‘humility’; subjection to those one hates into ‘obedience’ (that is, to one of whom they say he commands this subjection – they call him God.) The inoffensiveness of the weak man, even the cowardice of which he has so much, his lingering at the door, his being ineluctably compelled to wait, here acquire flattering names, such as ‘patience,’ and are even called virtue itself; his inability for revenge is called unwillingness to revenge, perhaps even forgiveness […] They also speak of ‘loving one’s enemies’ – and sweat as they do so.”

A great deal of atheist critique of Christianity is fairly simplistic.  It is not difficult, even for thoughtful Christians, to come up with a laundry list crimes, hucksters, and injustices carried out under the banner of Christ.  Much of the New Atheist critique turns on just this kind of amateurish argument: collecting anecdotes and then allowing the extreme fringe to represent the whole.

But Nietzsche goes right to the heart of the gospel, expressing the message of Jesus (as found in the Sermon on the Mount, for instance) better than many Christians no doubt could.  Rather than the straw men favored by contemporary atheists, Nietzsche went after the messenger himself.  That is why, on theologian David Bentley Hart’s account, the philosopher of the will to power was “a truly profound atheist.”

“A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.”

One of my professors in seminary put it bluntly: “If we’re wrong, Nietzsche is right.”  Christians would do well to contend with him, our most profound critic. Atheists would do well to model not just his intellectual boldness, but his grasp of that which he critiqued.


Source:  Friedrich Nietzsche, ed. & translated by Kaufman, On the Genealogy of Morals & Ecce Homo (New York: Vintage Books 1967), 47.

Hitchens & the ‘Warfare’ Thesis of Science & Religion

One of the most important books in the New Atheist canon.
One of the most important books in the New Atheist canon.

In his most infamous work, the talented (if acerbic) Christopher Hitchens opines,

“All attempts to reconcile faith with science and reason are consigned to failure and ridicule…I read, for example, of some ecumenical conference of Christians who desire to show their broad-mindedness and invite some physicists along. But I am compelled to remember what I know – which is that there would be no such churches in the first place if humanity had not been afraid of the weather, the dark, the plague, the eclipse, and all manner of other things now easily explicable. And also if humanity had not been compelled, on pain of extremely agonizing consequences, to pay the exorbitant tithes and taxes that raised the imposing edifices of religion.”

Such reflections clearly place Hitchens (may he RIP), along with most of the other “New Atheists,” solidly in the “warfare” camp among competing models of the relationship between religion and science.  Like Dawkins, Hitchens seems to assume that robust science and faith cannot coexist.  In the section from which the above quote is culled, Hitchens goes on the cite a number of famous scientists (Newton, Hoyle, and others) who had more deist than classicly monotheist religious views – folks who, I think he reasonably argued, are not religious in any functional sense.

But who do advocates of the warfare thesis do with, say, evolutionary theists? Take someone like Francis Collins, previously in charge of the Human Genome Project, now head of the NIH.  Collins writes eloquently of how his experience with the genome was an experience of worship, and his “BioLogos” perspective rejects both Creationism and Intelligent Design and instead defends evolution as the explanation for human origins that Christians can not only accept but celebrate.

Does the presence of Collins and others like him (say, Alister McGrath or John Polkinghorne), devoutly religious persons who fully accept modern scientific methods and conclusions, negate the “warfare” thesis defended by Hitchens, Dawkins, and others? Why or why not?

[Source: Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve Books 2007), 64-65.]

Michael Shermer’s Irreverent “Scientific Creation Story”

Photo courtesy Loxton, on behalf of the Skeptic Society, via Wikipedia.
Michael Shermer, courtesy Loxton, on behalf of the Skeptics Society via Wikipedia.

While a bit insulting, I appreciate the wit behind infamous skeptic Michael Shermer’s science-y version of the Genesis creation story.  Here are the last few paragraphs, which I first encountered here, but can also be found in full here.

And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creatures that hath life, the fishes. And God created great whales whose skeletal structure and physiology were homologous with the land mammals he would create later that day. Since this caused confusion in the valley of the shadow of doubt God brought forth abundantly all creatures, great and small, declaring that microevolution was permitted, but not macroevolution. And God said, “Natura non facit saltum” — Nature shall not make leaps. And the evening and morning were the fifth day.

And God created the pongidids and hominids with 98 percent genetic similarity, naming two of them Adam and Eve, who were anatomically fully modern humans. In the book in which God explained how He did all this, in chapter one He said he created Adam and Eve together out of the dust at the same time, but in chapter two He said He created Adam first, then later created Eve out of one of Adam’s ribs. This caused further confusion in the valley of the shadow of doubt, so God created Bible scholars and theologians to argue the point.

And in the ground placed He in abundance teeth, jaws, skulls, and pelvises of transitional fossils from pre-Adamite creatures. One he chose as his special creation He named Lucy. And God realized this was confusing, so he created paleoanthropologists to sort it out. And just as He was finishing up the loose ends of the creation God realized that Adam’s immediate descendants who lived as farmers and herders would not understand inflationary cosmology, global general relativity, quantum mechanics, astrophysics, biochemistry, paleontology, population genetics, and evolutionary theory, so He created creation myths. But there were so many creation stories throughout the land that God realized this too was confusing, so he created anthropologists, folklorists, and mythologists to settle the issue.

By now the valley of the shadow of doubt was overrunneth with skepticism, so God became angry, so angry that God lost His temper and cursed the first humans, telling them to go forth and multiply (but not in those words). They took God literally and 6,000 years later there are six billion humans. And the evening and morning were the sixth day.

By now God was tired, so God said, “Thank me its Friday,” and He made the weekend. It was a good idea.

Is it irreverent? Yes.  Blasphemous? Possibly.  But as someone who spent a lot of time, in my younger days, arguing about microevolution vs. macroevolution, the fossil record, and more – I find it pretty funny.

As a Christian, I would affirm there is much more going on in Genesis than the creationists have made of it, much truth that we can and should affirm. But that is a different post.

What do you think of Shermer’s take on Genesis?

Richard Dawkins Teaches Evolution to Religious Students

As someone without much of a science background, I found the video below helpful.  Dawkins, fielding question from high school students, answers many of the common objections that religious people raise about evolution.  Many of these are questions I was taught to ask as a fundamentalist youth.  What do you think about Dawkins’ lesson? What question would you have asked the (in)famous biologist?

Chris Stedman on the New Atheists

faitheist book

“And the problem of loud, intolerant voices eclipsing voices of moderation and inclusion isn’t one exclusive to the atheist movement.” (150)

We live in a world, thanks to social media, the internet, and the infotainment culture, where the shrillest and most extreme representatives speak for every group or movement.  As a Christian pastor, I resonate with the words above from evangelical Christian turned humanist chaplain Christ Stedman in his memoir, Faitheist.  I am regularly enraged by the extent to which the John Haggees and Joel Osteens, or worse – the Westboro Baptists – come to define ‘Christian’ for so many.

Atheism may have a similar problem.  Stedman reflects early on in his book about the loudest voices in his own community:

“With divisive religious fundamentalism on the rise, reactionary atheism that fixates on making antireligious proclamations is creating even more division.  I believe that this so-called new Atheism – the kind that singles out the religious lives of others as its number one target – is toxic, misdirected, and wasteful. Disengaged or antagonistic atheism weakens our community’s claim than an ethical life is possible without a belief in God, supplanting this with an alienating narrative that both distracts us from investing in community-building efforts of our own and prevents us from accomplishing anything outside of our small community. In addition, this militant, uncompromising antitheism inhibits people who do not believe in God from ever moving beyond articulating how they differ from the religious into the kinds of efforts that engender community building within and cooperation without. I do not believe it represents most atheists, but this perspective is currently the loudest and most visible one, speaking on behalf of atheists to the wider world and dictating the direction of the atheist community.” (14)

Indeed, just as fundamentalist Christians often dismiss and demonize other Christians and non-Christians, Stedman argues that atheists who dismiss all religious persons out of hand make a crucial ethical and tactical error:

“Criticizing intolerant beliefs and practices is vitally important, but unsophisticated criticisms of religion en masse estrange reasonable people – both fellow atheists and potential religious allies.” (154)

I confess much of my own interest in studying atheism is the popularity of the so-called New Atheists, who, claiming an exclusive access to rational faculties, often proceed to commit every logical fallacy in the book – in addition to a basic lack of interpretive charity to the other and the other’s beliefs – en route to what are usually simplistic dismissals of all religions and religious persons.  Stedman’s reflection reminds me that the atheist/agnostic/humanist community is as diverse as my own, and that I should be wary of doing what I loathe others doing to me: defining a whole community by the extremists who take up most of the air time.  It’s no less fair to atheists than it is to Christians, Muslims, Jews, and persons of other faiths.

Atheists Have a Moral Impulse, Too

Is morality innate in all of us? If so, from where does it originate?
Is morality innate in all of us? If so, from where does it originate?

A respondent to my survey, which I encourage atheist and agnostic readers to take here, elaborated on some of her answers in an email. This person was kind enough to let me reprint a portion of that correspondence:

“I just wanted to express that the desire or belief in doing good exists in me, as an atheist. And though I do not believe in any religion in particular, it is still a fundamental part of who I am and my life. I tend to see the worst of people who claim to be religious, those who say they only follow those tenets of doing good to and by others as a product of fear of their higher power punishing them if they do not. And many view atheists as not having that impulse to be good. I believe doing good because you care about others, as stronger than only trying to do it for fear of punishment.

Anyway, I know that does not apply to the majority of religious people and I have great respect for people who do good who have belief in the main.

I just happen to be a non believer and feel I can do good and be good, without having those beliefs and hate the combativeness that arises between atheists and religious persons.”

I share the concern for the combativeness that too often dominates the relationship between religious and non-religious persons. My hope is that this blog can contribute to bettering the tone and closing the relational gap between us.

A question: by an atheists’ accounting, how would an “impulse” to do good come to be? Especially for the evolutionary biologists who (sometimes) wish to explain everything by survival of the fittest, this seems like an interesting question.  Just curious. Thanks for reading and sharing.