atheism for lent, day 25: covid edition, pt. 10: and how does that make you feel?
Welp, love him or loathe him, today we’re talking about Sigmund Freud, who was a chain-smoker and underwent more than 30 cancer surgeries. Guess he had quite the oral fixation. He was also a Jewish atheist, and his four sisters died in Nazi concentration camps. The Nazis had burned his books in 1933, and he only escaped with his life in 1938 through the help of his patient Princess Marie Bonaparte of France. She’s the one to whom Freud first posed the famous question “what does a woman want?”
Autonomy over her own body. That’s what a woman really wants, Siggi. Autonomy over her own body.
In his book The Future of an Illusion, Freud explores religion as a kind of wish fulfillment. He puts religious belief under the lens of “psychological significance” and pinpoints religious beliefs as a set of claims about Reality that can’t be proven. Knowledge we acquire at school, he notes, is knowledge of things we don’t have experience with ourselves; we trust that this academic information is accurate; BUT we know we can also go prove it ourselves.
Religion, on the other hands, asks us to take “spiritual knowledge” on faith, while telling us that there’s no way to prove it ourselves. Furthermore, religion forbids us to question this knowledge, calling us “presumptuous” for even hinting at doubt in the first place. Besides, Freud avers, religion also claims legitimacy due to its having been handed down from our ancestors; if it was good enough for them, religion says it should be good enough for us.
Freud insists that if religion is this “fragile” — unable to stand up to questioning and relying heavily on affirmation from dead people — then religion must be aware of its own illegitimacy. Besides, the people of our past had less access to information and knowledge than we do “today” (1927), so how can we give any weight to their “peer pressure” (my words)? The writings of our ancestors are full of “contradictions, revisions…falsifications…” and unconfirmed “facts.”
So, Freud concludes, the thing (religion) that tells us it contains The Answers to Life the Universe and Everything is exactly the thing that is “the least well authenticated of any.” He also points out that “the ancestors” probably had the same questions and doubts that “we” have, but they were just as scared to voice those doubts and just as externally pressured to keep quiet about them. If we adhere to religion today, it only shows how adaptable we are to our familial and social circles.
Freud goes into specifics in picking apart Tertullian, who said, “Credo quia absurdum” — “I believe because it is absurd.” In Siggi’s view, this statement is only of interest as a “self-confession” and can’t ever be morally binding. Tertullian’s credo advocates belief based on inward feeling of conviction — so what, Freud asks, do you do about all the people who don’t happen to have this feeling? And why should one person’s inner feeling be more authoritative than another’s?
Freud also takes aim at the philosophical argument “as if,” which states that there are things we have to behave “as if” we believe in certain fictions in order to function. Freud says that only a philosopher would accept that explanation, and a non-philosopher will say it makes no sense and will turn away from it like a child who no longer believes in fairy tales.
In Freud’s view, religion offers adult humans the same love, comfort, security, and peace they received from their earliest relationships with their parents/caregivers. That’s where wish-fulfillment comes in. Once we lose/grow out of that early connection with our parents, we spend the rest of our lives wishing and searching for something to give that back to us. Freud’s solutions is to “remove the conflicts of childhood.” His emphasis lies in science:
“The riddles of the universe reveal themselves only slowly to our investigation; there are many questions to which science today can give no answer. But scientific work is the only road which can lead us to a knowledge of reality outside ourselves.”–Sigmund Freud,
The Future of an Illusion,
And so…how do I feel about all of this?
I don’t know.
I think that if I were still in the God-as-a-person belief system, Freud’s arguments wouldn’t be what convinced me to abandon that system. I do appreciate his emphasis on science; even at my most devout and pious, I still considered science to be a valid method for uncovering truths about our reality. For instance, I grew up with a father who said to me more than once: “I believe the second coming of Christ won’t occur until humanity has discovered everything there is to know about the universe.” My parents never taught me that evolution was evil or even factually incorrect. I’ve never questioned the existence of dinosaurs or the billions-of-years age of the planet. In everything my parents taught me, and as my belief system matured and changed through adulthood, I believed that science was a valid, beneficial universe-exploring method humans learned by using the brains God gave them. The crux was the belief that in everything through the eons, God and not coincidence was the catalyst.
So. Me and science, always and forever buds. Not an issue.
But Freud’s whole “you want religion because you have Daddy issues” hypothesis wouldn’t have convinced me back then. And now? I don’t know. Maybe. I can certainly think of plenty of examples from my own life and from the lives of Christians I know — examples of childhood psychological difficulties — that indicate unresolved desires for love and security. Those desires can definitely find sating in an allpowerful, loving God who comes complete with a ready-made community. I’ll give Freud that much. But does that automatically apply to all believers? Across all religions, all cultures, for ten thousand years? I’m not so sure. I tend toward making generalizations myself, and I try to fight against that tendency. So I’m a little allergic(?) to what seems to me is a rather sweeping generalization Freud is making.
In the AfL’23 group, participant “John” points out that Freud’s “God the Father/God of wish fulfillment” is also the God who condemns to hell. “That is not exactly a wish” — excellent point.
I can adapt some of all of this into a definite statement, though: I do believe that most religious tradition and much religious belief is “peer pressure” from dead people. And I do know that I refuse to cave to that anymore.