A Reason for Doubt: Because Freud Was Right

Jason Micheli —  October 2, 2013 — 5 Comments

Skeptical BelieverLast week I solicited responses from you, asking you to give me your best case for NOT believing in God.

One of the responses I received was brief but cutting:

“Rather than insisting (with no evidence to support it) that God exists, doesn’t it seem much more reasonable that humans simply needed a ‘god’ to give their lives meaning and morality?

And doesn’t it make sense that as society increasingly needs ‘god’ less for meaning and morality that people would believe in him less?

And isn’t that exactly what we see happening in modern, scientific cultures?”

Whether the writer here did so purposefully I don’t know, but he’s channeling Sigmund Freud’s primary critique of religion.

Say what you will about Freud’s bona fides as a psychoanalyst, his analysis of both religion and literature remains incisive and compelling.

I remember the first time I read Freud’s The Future of an Illusion and Moses and Monotheism, both as a second year at UVA. I’d only been a Christian for a few years, and after read those two books I was pissed off for weeks.

On the one hand, Freud’s critiques of religion were wild, sweeping speculations, made with very little ‘hard’ evidence to support them and demanding of readers precisely the very thing he’d set out to dismiss: faith.

On the other hand, I’d been a Christian long enough- and I’d been an atheist long enough before that- to know that Freud’s arguments were not without merit.

Indeed they were true when considered against a great many strains of Christianity and religion in general.

Religion, Freud argued, is, at root, an expression of our underlying psychological neuroses. In the two books I mentioned and in others, Freud asserts that religion is an attempt to control the Oedipal complex, it’s a means of giving structure (meaning moral and ethical boundaries) to social groups, it’s a form of wish fulfillment, it’s an infantile delusion born out of our need for a Father figure, and it’s an attempt to control the outside world.

Dismiss Freud at your peril.

Just think, many fundamentalists, Christian and Muslim, make Freud’s very argument but in reverse: Without God, there’s no moral foundation to the world; there’s no rubric for what constitutes the ‘good.’ Religion is just an artifice then for a certain vision of traditional society.

It’s also true for many Christians ‘Christianity’ is but another label, a way to distinguish us from other tribes. It’s but a baptized form of nationalism.

And we all know that for many religion IS an escape or cover to which people turn to cope with psychological wounds- or, even worse, religion becomes the way people refuse to cope, or even confront, the wounds and painful realities in their life.

And then there’s Freud’s ‘wish fulfillment’ critique. While critiques of certain manifestations of religion are not indictments of religion in sum nor does such a critique even logically approach the existence of a transcendent God, still…there’s enough substance to the argument to give believers pause.

Fact is, Freud is right. A good deal of religion, at least the Christian sphere I know, is actually just human projection and wish fulfillment, reducing the great ‘I AM’ to a god ‘up there’ who answers my prayers, blesses me, and grants my wishes.

Or doesn’t…at which point I get angry and no longer ‘believe’ in him.

The great ‘I Am’ reduced to a magic genie in a celestial lamp.

People often ask me why I have such a problem Joel Osteen.

Honestly, my problems are too many to number, but really they all boil down to this:

Joel Osteen reminds me that Freud was, if not right, not entirely wrong. images

Jason Micheli


5 responses to A Reason for Doubt: Because Freud Was Right

  1. I’m sorry, Jason, you’re a smart guy and good writer, but I’m not buying this. You’re exaggerating again. You’re overstating your case again. For whom, exactly, is religion “actually just human projection and wish fulfillment, reducing the great ‘I AM’ to a god ‘up there’ who answers my prayers, blesses me, and grants my wishes”? You say that a “good deal” of the religion that people practice in our culture is this kind of religion.

    If so, who are its practitioners? And what kind of half-wit could read or watch Joel Osteen and not realize immediately that he’s full of it?

    Oh, yeah… Many of the people sitting in your pews on Sunday morning. Your mom or dad, or sister or brother, or cousin. Your friends. Your in-laws. Your neighbors.

    Why don’t you like these people more?

    Also, many of these people probably pray a lot more than you or I do, yet it’s somehow escaped their notice that God often fails to answer their prayers or grant their wishes. It must have escaped their notice because otherwise they wouldn’t bother with religion anymore… if Freud is right, or nearly so?

    My point is, who doesn’t cut God down to human size? Who doesn’t make God into their own image? Yet God still graciously condescends to put up with them—and us. Thank God! We’re not either/or; we’re both/and. Every single one of us.

    And those fundamentalists with their moral arguments for God! “Without God, there’s no moral foundation to the world; there’s no rubric for what constitutes the ‘good.’” Well, yes. And it’s the same argument that your best-bud David Hart has made on at least a couple of occasions in his column in “First Things,” or when he talks about Peter Singer and others in Atheist Delusions. Here’s one example: http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2010/10/the-desiristrsquos-unsatisfiable-desires.

    • Funny, I actually didn’t think this was a very cynical post. Instead I just wanted to acknowledge that the critique made by Freud has validity to it, and, more than that, is one held by a whole lot of atheists. I wasn’t actually thinking of people in my congregation at all but had in mind the Moral Therapeutic Deism that Christian Smith identified in his survey of religion and youth. MTD is exactly what Freud said is behind religion. I also think penal substitution in its most vulgar forms is indicative of the kind of projection Freud had in mind. I do agree, actually, that ‘God’ is necessary for the ‘Good’ but that still begs the question of whether God is a necessary invention for what we take to be something that’s logically necessary.

      • So “for many” Christianity is “just” this or “just” that, as “we all know,” yet conveniently it doesn’t apply to anyone in your church? But of course it’s still true.

        That doesn’t seem a little smug to you?

        You didn’t respond to my main point: there is no one for whom religion is just one thing—whether that one thing is projection, or wish fulfillment, or the baptism of one’s nationalism, or anything else. People are far more complicated than that.

        • Well, of course people are more complicated on any number of levels, that was the charge leveled against Freud by Harold Bloom and others before him. I’m not trying to say Freud was ‘right’ or even ‘fair.’ I’m only suggesting his critique of religion is a good one that believers should chew on rather than dismissing out of hand. I’m sure there are folks in my church who fit the Freudian bill but generally it was the larger Osteen and Moral Therpeutic Deism dynamics that I thought resonated with Freud’s critique. Don’t even get me started about Feurbach. I was so relieved when I discovered that Barth essentially thought Feurbach was right too.

  2. And one more thing while I’m complaining… If you’re a “tamed” cynic now, what were you like when you let your cynicism run free?

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