Freud and the Illusion of Religious ExperienceThe Authenticity of Faith is devoted to examining renowned psychologist and atheist Sigmund Freud's view of religion as a form of wish-fulfillment. In his book The Future of an Illusion, Freud asserts that religious belief is not achieved by an honest desire to know the truth, but as a way to seek relief from subconscious conflicts and primal wishes, like the generalized need for a father figure. Later philosophers like Ernest Becker adopted this view and modified it to be less about psychological neuroses (Freud's tendency to see these everywhere being well-known) and more about, more plausibly, existential angst. In this view, we are confronted with the terror of death, the apparent meaninglessness of suffering, and the loneliness that so often characterize the human condition. Unable to face these things, people turn to the panacea of religion to assure themselves that they are not really alone in the universe, that their life does have meaning, and that death is not the end, among others.
Whatever the assigned basis for religious belief, these arguments are different from classic skeptical counterapologetics in that they don't seek to disprove the object of religious faith (the truth of God's existence) and instead seek to explain the faith itself. Faith is no longer seen as being based on objective realities, but on deep-seated wish fulfillment and self-deception that believers are not even aware of--an illusion that we want to believe because it is immensely comforting, so we do. This effectively undermines the rational, philosophical tradition of classical apologetics by questioning whether apologists' arguments, warrants, and justifications for religious belief come from an honest desire to know truth or (as Freud believed was the case) other psychological needs.
This attempt to undermine faith by "explaining it away" has been repeated and rehashed by atheists and skeptics countless times since Freud first stated, and it continues to show up frequently in the anti-faith writings of the "new atheists". It has been so effective in part because Christian apologetics has been so slow and ineffectual at answering it. Freud's question shifts the subject of the apologetical debate out of the realms of philosophy, logic, and theology in which it has been comfortably residing and into psychology, where "classical" apologists are largely unable to follow.1 Until now. Beck makes the observation that Freud's theory is not philosophical in nature but psychological--an empirical claim about how people think. So why debate it when you can simply test it?
Of course, people already have. An experiment in "terror management theory" sought to test the connection between the kind of existential dread thought to be the basis for faith and adherence to a religious worldview. Christian subjects were asked to either answer questions about the nature of their own deaths or more mundane subjects (the control group) and then asked to evaluate the personality profiles and responses to social-attitude questions of two fictional students. The essays were similar except that the author was identified as either a Christian or a Jew. The group that was primed with "death-salience" questions was statistically significantly more positive and accepting of the Christian author and more denigrating of the Jewish author. In other words, being confronted with the kinds of difficult, existential aches that faith is supposed to soothe was correlated with clinging to that faith more tightly and defending it from the existential "Other" whose beliefs serve as an implicit threat to its truthfulness. This proves Freud's theory--or does it?
William James and the Varieties of Religious ExperienceWith the empirical evidence for Freud's theory of religion in place, Beck turns to another author: William James, the author of The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. This is a landmark survey of the religious experiences of many "ordinary" believers. James sees two categories of believers: "healthy-minded souls" and "sick souls". The names are somewhat misleading; "healthy-minded souls" deploy their religious beliefs to minimize existential angst and evil as Freud predicted. They "actively ignore or repress experiences that are morbid, dark, or disturbing". In Christianity, this looks like applying faith as a Band-Aid to minimize or deny the difficulties of life, giving trite consolations that "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life", "it will all work out in the end", "death is not the end", and so on. While acknowledging that this attitude is engaged in "denial, obfuscation, and avoidance", James also believes that wanting to avoid evil and death is part of human nature and everyone engages in this denial to some degree.
But the "sick soul" variety of religious experience flies in the face of Freud's theory. These believers do not attempt to use their faith to minimize existential pain but face this pain head-on (as Freud called skeptics to do) but are highly existentially aware, keeping the death, pain, and evil of existence firmly in view. Their relationship with God is marked by doubts and complaints of the kind seen in Psalm 13, 35, 86, or 88: "Where are you, God? Why can't I feel you?" And yet this doubt-and-complaint-filled faith is not necessarily weak or dying faith, as demonstrated by none other than Mother Teresa, who privately expressed deep doubts in God's very existence even during her forty-year ministry in Calcutta.
Beck attacks an assumption of both Freud and many Christians that faith and complaint to God are at two ends of a sliding scale--that faith is equivalent to cheerily, unprotestingly following God wherever you go and asking God, "Where are You?" is tantamount to a loss of faith. Here is my awesome mockup of his chart of this view.
To further test his hypothesis, Beck created the Defensive Theology Scale (DTS), an assessment for Christians to determine where they fall on the healthy-sick soul spectrum. It asks assessees to state their level of agreement with questions like, "Nothing is too small, even finding my keys, to pray to God about", "God has a destiny for me to find and fulfill", and "God protects me from illness and misfortune". With this ability to distinguish between "summer" and "winter" Christians, Beck turns to some empirical studies.
First, he redoes the worldview defense study used earlier to "prove" Freud's theory with a few changes. Beforehand, he had all 207 Christian participants take the DTS. Some were then primed with questions about their own deaths while the control group got questions about TV programming. They were then asked to read two essays written by fake students, one Christian and one Buddhist (to get around possible anti-semitic convolution). He found using a two-way analysis of variance that there was a much stronger correlation between peoples' scores on the DTS and their defense of the Christian/denigration of the Buddhist than their exposure to mortality salience questions. In other words, Christians that would have fallen into James' category of "sick souls" displayed less worldview defense and were more fair toward the Buddhist offer, while "healthy-minded" Christians were more likely to engage in worldview defense--both relatively independently of whether they were primed with the mortality questions beforehand.
He describes the results of three more studies. In the first, he observes a strong correlation between low DTS score and comfortability with the thought of Jesus having uniquely human bodily functions we don't normally associate with Him, like diarrhea, tooth decay, and bad breath. In the second, he finds a correlation between high DTS score and preference of an explicitly Christian painting (Never Alone, by Ron DiCianni) over a more neutral one by a well-known and critically acclaimed artist (Stone City, Iowa, by Grant Wood, the painter of American Gothic).
Finally, in the last study, he found high scorers on the DTS were much more likely to attribute evil and pain in the world to Satan instead of to God. (Side note: there are abundant Biblical examples of both, so the low DTS scorers were not simply contradicting their faith by answering as they did)
Beck's final ruling sides with William James over Sigmund Freud. While admitting that Freud's theory of faith as subconscious, fear-motivated denial of death and meaningless can be true, Beck says that it it doesn't describe everyone's religious experience. In particular, the existence of believers who do not use faith for existential consolation is incompatible with Freud. More subjectively, he also makes the case that we have much to learn from these "sick souls" in our modern, pluralistic world. Faith as a comprehensive system for escaping the fear of death and meaninglessness is threatened by the implicit relativization of living alongside people who hold different beliefs. Clinging to one's own faith and denying relativism has well-known costs: worldview defense, the denigration of the Other, and, ultimately, holy wars. Keeping faith in the midst of doubts and challenges is a subject beyond the scope of this post, but James' "sick souls" already know a thing or two about what it takes.
Overall, I highly recommend Beck's book, which is quite worth its somewhat steep price tag. It is a wholly satisfying answer to the skeptics who constantly trumpet Freud's theory as the death knell of authentic faith, addressing Freud's claim as a psychological theory with further psychological research. For this reason I think both religious believers and skeptics can learn much from it. I would only add a few qualifications. Beck's constant tendency to summarize and review his previous points makes him very easy to follow, but also makes the book a bit longer of a read than I think it needs to be.
Also, I think from reading him one can get the impression that all Christians either do nothing but deny existential angst and use religion as a Band-Aid or complain to God and never really feel Him. I think Beck would say that both extremes can and should be part of the Christian experience (just look at the Psalms, which span nearly the whole range of human emotion). The point of Christianity is of course not to never be able to feel God or have joy in Him, but times will come when God's presence seems distant and our joy is snuffed out, and we need to be prepared to accept these times as part of the Christian experience rather than answer them with platitudes.
Truly authentic faith spans the whole spectrum of human experience; the valleys of life, not just the peaks and plateaus. God is not absent from us in our troubles or off in the heavens beckoning us to come back, He is there with us in the midst of our troubles. As David writes in Psalm 139:7-8:
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
1 Actually, contrary to what Beck says I think it is possible to answer Freud purely from a classical apologetical standpoint. Freud's argument says nothing about the actual truth of religion, it only offers an explanation for religious faith assuming it is false. If God (the Christian God, at least) does exist, it is entirely unsurprising that He would create people with a deep desire and need to know Him. Freud points to the too-perfect alignment of peoples' subconscious wishes and the tenets of religious faith that tidily answer them as evidence of design--but whose design: the human inventors of religion or the Divine creator of humans? Either way, the fact that religion speaks to our deepest needs is to be expected, so Freud's argument is really unconvincing to me. However, Beck's answering a psychological theory of religion on its own terms is much more satisfying than this answer and makes the book well worth reading.