Saturday, June 9, 2007

My Wife the Theologian III

As before here, and here, my wife has done it again. She was asked to sketch a brief paper on this question: "William Rowe critiques Freud's arguments that religious ideas are merely illusions. Discuss Rowe's critique; in light of his ideas, is Freud wrong about the nature of religious beliefs? Does Rowe manage to disprove Freud? Why or why not?"

Typically, people would think that as a faithful Christian, my wife would be on the attack with Freud. They would, however, be wrong. Take a look at this nuanced short:
Freud’s thesis about the nature of religious belief can be situated in the wider context of the conflict between our understanding of the natural and the supernatural, between nature and grace, between the immanent and transcendent, between psychology and religion. One might ask, was Moses right, or Xenophanes? Did God make man in his image, or is it not rather man who has made God in his?

Freud’s influential attack on religion came in his work The Future of an Illusion. The illusion was, of course, religion, and Freud’s conclusion was that it did not have much of a future. His concern was not one in which theology was debated and rationally evaluated: he claimed that to assess the truth value of particular religious doctrines did not lie within the scope of his inquiry (though as we shall see, Freud did indeed – even if unwittingly – relate his critique to particular religious doctrines vis-√†-vis others). Instead, Freud’s concern was with a general psychological interpretation of the motives or wishes that lie behind religious beliefs.


Granting the proper situating of Freud’s thesis, it must clearly be kept in mind that Freud’s critique was a psychological one. He argued that religion is untrustworthy because it is based on a person’s childish needs and wishes: desires, mostly of an unconscious kind, heavily influenced by early neurotic experience. The particulars of his attack were aimed not so much at the reasonableness of the beliefs themselves, but at the unreasonableness of the presumed motives behind them. Underlying Freud’s thesis is the concept of “unconscious” motivation, a force or an agency by which behavior might be controlled independently of one’s will. It is through employing this concept Freud established in a comprehensive, scientific manner the central relevance of a person’s early life for an understanding of her later religious beliefs.


Freud claimed that religious ideas protect us from our greatest anxieties: from the fear of natural forces, from the threat of injury inflicted by other men, from the terror of death. Religion provides a higher purpose in life and makes us feel all is well, that justice triumphs, that in life after death all evil is punished and good rewarded. Freud claimed that these ideas are convenient illusions, that religious “truths” just happen to be exactly what we would want there to be. Freud was careful to note, however, that an illusion is not necessarily an error. It is conceivable that an illusion might be true. As an interesting historical and sociological aside, it is probably not widely appreciated enough, the idea that “religion is a projection of human needs, and thus an illusion” was also expressed by Ludwig Feuerbach, in his historic attack on Christianity, The Essence of Christianity.

William Rowe (Shatz 327) does not so much critique Freud’s argument that religious ideas are merely illusions, as he critiques two intellectual stances one may take from a Freudian point-of-view. In short, Rowe argues more against latter day Freudian-inspired atheists (here-on-out, “Freudians”), than he does against Freud himself.

Rowe first addresses a possible confusion into which Freudian’s may fall: a fallacy of diversion; that is, someone may inadvertently (or otherwise) attempt to turn attention away from the truth claim at hand and toward something else. Specifically, Rowe identifies the fallacy of diversion as the genetic fallacy: that fallacy which consists in “refuting” an idea by showing some suspicious psychological origin of it. This fallacy is a fallacy not because it is psychological, but because it is a confusion between logic and psychology: between two different meanings of the word “because.” “Because” can refer to either a cause, or a reason, for a conclusion. “The genetic fallacy” consists – loosely put – in substituting a personal motive for a logical reason. In Rowe’s tighter formulation: “To suppose that from whatever is the cause of someone’s holding a belief we can determine whether the belief is true or false, is to commit the genetic fallacy” (Shatz 328). No matter how egregious the psychological origins of a belief may be, the logic of the argument for it is independent of the psychology. If one were to be brainwashed by murderous thugs in a Gulag since birth that 7 + 5 = 12, that would not prove that 7 + 5 = 12 is not true. It is important to note at this point, again, that Rowe does not critique Freud for committing the genetic fallacy. Rather, one could infer that even if Freud’s explanation of religious beliefs is true, this does nothing to disprove the existence of God or show that God is a myth.

Rowe next attempts to formulate a Freudian argument against the truth of certain religious claims – not something Freud himself appeared to do – by articulating what he supposes to be “an unexpressed argument for the view that religious beliefs are false” (Shatz 328), the conclusion of which is at most probabilistic, and at best simply false.

While Rowe concludes from his argument that many do not have good reasons for their religious beliefs (Shatz 329), this is too strong. The truth-value of his syllogism’s two premises can be challenged: why, for instance, must we acknowledge that the majority of beliefs we hold because they satisfy certain profound wishes be false? What evidence is there for this? What are the mechanisms that might cause such acts of self-deception? Furthermore, what non-question-begging evidence is there that religious beliefs are beliefs we accept – solely or otherwise – because they satisfy certain profound wishes? Evidence is needed that the Freudian explanatory theory really works. To assume that it works is to assume that religious beliefs are not true, which simply begs the question. Usually, we only seek explanations of why someone believes something in cases where we are convinced that what the person believes is false.

In light of the above, Rowe does not so much disprove Freud (Rowe does not challenge Freud’s claim that religious ideas are “illusions”); rather, he attacks arguments which Freudians may employ. In one case, he successfully undermines those who may commit the “genetic fallacy,” but in the other he gives too much away.

What Rowe does not do is offer other – perhaps more challenging – arguments against Freudians. I draw attention to five:

(1) Even if religious beliefs were caused in some as yet unknown way by human needs, it would seem to follow that they would be uniformly pleasant and comforting. But the fact is that they are sometimes profoundly unpleasant and troubling. History is replete with stories of saints who suffered greatly precisely through their religious beliefs (and experiences: e.g., the phenomenon of the “dark night of the soul”).

(2) Even if Freud calls attention to a true feature of human beings a believer might well accept this. Augustine was happy to suggest that the human heart remains restless until it rests in God. The question is the explanation given for such psychological facts. It is one thing to say that religious beliefs correspond to deep, psychological needs in ourselves, and quite another to say that God is simply an idealized projection of these needs.

(3) The Freudian explanation of religious beliefs seems to presuppose a form of behavioral (or psychological) determinism. But if human beings have free will, their behavior is not to be entirely explained in Freudian categories.

(4) Is not Freud’s illusion theory too dependent on problematic notions of proof and verifiability (Shatz 325)? Is Freud relying too heavily on the long-discredited verification principle - a principle which itself cannot be (empirically) verified? Freud seems to have tacitly assumed an understanding of proof as always and only empirical proof. But why should we accept this? What evidence could be marshaled to warrant the belief that evidence can only be empirical? What proof could prove that a proof must be empirically proven?

(5) Finally, we could offer a fun bit of you-too-ism; of turn-about as fair play: could it be that perhaps religious beliefs are not so much wish-fulfilling projections, as Freudian antireligious beliefs (or beliefs about religious beliefs) are themselves expressions of unconscious needs and traumatic childhood experiences: themselves wish-fulfilling projections?

In conclusion, I suggest that the religious believer is warranted in remaining agnostic about, being ambivalent towards, accepting, or rejecting whether Freud was right or wrong about the nature of religious beliefs: a believer remains free to accept that religious beliefs are the result of deep psychological needs within the human heart, or to reject the thesis that our religious beliefs are so formed.

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