Book Review: The Psychology of Atheism – By R.C. Sproul


Letter MMuch has been written trying to explain the psychology of theism. The foundational text in that field is probably Sigmund Freud‘s The Future of An Illusion, where Freud theorizes that religion came about as a sort of coping mechanism; it was comforting for early man to personalize the forces of nature and to turn their chiefs into legends, and eventually this evolved into the more institutional forms of religion.

Freud may have been the first, but he was far from the last. Feuerbach theorized that the gods were just man’s projections of himself onto the universal scale. Marx theorized that religion was just a way to keep the working class placated. Nietzche theorized that religion was rooted in fear of the nihil; Bertrand Russell followed a similar line of thinking. More recently, Richard Dawkins dismissed religion as a meme, a sort of ‘mind-parasite’.

In each case these writers are not asking “Is there a God?” Rather, they presuppose there is not a God, and then ask why there is religion. At the same time, they suppose – at the very least through implication – that they are explaining away or debunking religion. In each case these writers fail to realize that explaining what a man can or might do is not in the least determinate for what he actually did do. Or, as Sproul puts it:

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Book Review: The Future of An Illusion – By Sigmund Freud

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Letter WWell known for his work in the fields of psychology and particularly his founding of the field of psychoanalysis, The Future of An Illusion is Freud‘s tackling of the foundations and future of religion, especially as it relates to civilization.

Religion, as Freud see is, arose out of the “necessity of defending oneself against the crushing superior force of nature” where “the primal father was the original image of God,” or rather a model on which he was shaped. Freud sees religion as a sort of neurosis which, with the advancements of science and proper education, the human race will eventually overcome.

Within the past fifty years or so we have seen the development of a certain critique of the sciences (and of rationalism in general) in the form of postmodernism and its “incredulity towards metanarratives” as defined by Jean-Francois Lyotard. Many mistakenly think this is an aversion to stories which try and fit all of human experience into some over-arching schema (meganarratives), but this isn’t the case.

What it is opposed to is the sort of stories told by science while claiming not to be telling stories; stories that, in another way of putting it, don’t account for their own presuppositions.

The key problem with Freud’s presentation of religion is that he’s simply telling stories while claiming not to be telling stories.

Thus he concocts explanations of the origins of religion based upon narratives that he has dreamed up of the way that primitive man thought and related to each other and nature at large. He offers an explanation, but there is nothing to say that his explanation is the correct one, or even a likely one.

Freud simply presupposes that his view is correct, that religion is wrong, and that science is the only way to truth.

This is the essence of circular reasoning. Religion is wrong because it is untrue, and science is right because it is true.

Thus he simply suffices to say “scientific work is the only road which can lead us to a knowledge of reality outside ourselves” or “an illusion it would be to suppose that what science cannot give we can get elsewhere.” As Etienne Gilson rightly observes, those with this mindset simply “prefer a complete absence of intelligibility to the presence of a nonscientific intelligibility” to the point that they would just assume cripple the human intelligence by dismissing metaphysical rationale than admit that there can be nonscientific truth (even though science itself never makes any such claim upon the intellect).

Science does not claim to be all-encompassing, it only claims to seek the answer to the question “what?”

Freud offers a view, but he does not even begin an attempt at justifying it, and even within the view presented he finds himself littered with internal contradictions. The book is a decent study on what Freud thought in relation to religion, though, as I note below, even if we give Freud the benefit of the doubt his own narrative is littered with internal contradictions.

Memorable Quote:

-“Most people have obliged to restrict themselves to a single, or a few, fields of [human activity]. But the less a man knows about the past and the present the more insecure must prove to be his judgement of the future.”(p1)

-“Human creations are easily destroyed, and science and technology, which have built them up, can also be used for their annihilation.”(p4)

-“… art offers substitutive satisfactions for the oldest and still most deeply felt cultural renunciations, and for that reason it serves as nothing else does to reconcile a man to the sacrifices he has made on behalf of civilization.”(p18)

Specific Criticisms

I’ve long been of the belief that any sort of objection to religion can be met with Christian orthodoxy; that I have never actually seen an argument against Christianity, only against its heresies. Here Freud can be seen falling into that same line, stating that the justifications used for religious beliefs are that “they were already believed by our primal ancestors” that “we possess proofs which have been handed down to us from those same primaeval times” and “it is forbidden to raise the question of their authentication at all.”(p39)

In viewing these as the supposed justifications for religion it is no wonder that Freud had a dismal view of it – the problem is that very few religions would actually use this sort of rationale (as with most things, Freud doesn’t cite any sources but creates straw men or simply says whatever suits his position), nor does the religion that Freud would have been most exposed to and most directly addressing, that of Christianity. Freud asserts that religions “are not precipitates of experience or end-results of thinking: they are illusions, fulfillment of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind.”(p47)

Freud seems to have had virtually no exposure to any sort of real religious philosophy, whether existential or that of natural theology.

Furthermore, as stated above, Freud’s account of religion seems to be littered with internal contradictions.

On the one hand he argues that religion is something that spawned from attributing deity to nature and the father-figure. Yet then he goes on to state that “civilization gives the individual these [religious] ideas, for he finds them there already; they are presented to him ready-made, and he would not be able to discover them for himself. What he is entering into is the heritage of many generations, and he takes it over as he does the multiplication table, geometry, and similar things.” Yet the maths are objectively true, rationally constructed forms, so how is religion related to them without being of this type as well, and if religion is already in civilization ready-made, then how can it also be derivative only from tribal superstition?

We can see this same trend in his statements that “I think it would be a very long time before a child who was not influenced began to trouble himself about God and things in another world.”(p78) And yet he posits that the earliest tribal peoples, on their own, came to the idea of God and of another world.

This alone seems enough of an inconsistency, yet the greater problem with this statement is that it ignores the manifold experience of anybody who has had the slightest exposure to children, and that is that one of their fundamental inquires about the world is “why?”, which is the primary question which science is utterly unqualified to answer, nor does it suggest that it can. Yet as soon as one asks ‘why?’, one begins to tread the path towards contemplation of God.

In retrospect on the events of the 20th Century, this statement is particularly falsified: “Civilization has little to fear from educated people and brain-workers. In them the replacement of religious motives for civilized behavior by other, secular motives would proceed unobtrusively; moreover, such people are to a large extent themselves vehicles of civilization.”(p63) This is not only because it was educated people and brain-workers who gave us two World Wars, but it also ignores the even more important fact that if we look at the progression of history it has been the religion in every case which has preserved the culture of prior civilizations.

Were it not for the Christian scholars, scribes, and monks, the Renaissance would have had no text to look back to Rome from. Were it not for the Muslims (and the Christians before them), Aristotle would have been lost to time.

Religion preserves because it has a set ideal and a set goal. Secular society destroys because it can never decide what it wants, and therefore consistently tears all of its ideas down to rebuild again.