I have been reading Freud, for the first time in decades: Civilisation and its Discontents, which I have in a nice Dover paperback. Some of it is thought-provoking, and some is self-parody: “Psychoanalysis unfortunately has hardly anything to say about the derivation of beauty … All that seems certain is its derivation from the field of sexual feeling.” You have to admire that use of “certain”.
But the thing that really caught my eye was his attack on religion, because it states very clearly two of the central New Atheist rhetorical moves. The first is to define religion as the belief system of ignorant fools, the people whom Freud, writing in a much less democratic age, did not hesitate to call “the common man”. He is concerned, he says, less with
“the deepest sources of the religious feeling than with what the common man understands by his religion–with the system ; doctrines and promises which on the one hand explains to him the riddles of this world with enviable completeness, and, on the other, assures him that a careful Providence will watch over his life and will compensate him in a future existence for any frustrations he suffers here. The common man cannot imagine this Providence otherwise than in the figure of an enormously exalted father. Only such a being can understand the needs of the children of men and be softened by their prayers and placated by the signs of their remorse. The whole thing is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able rise above this view of life.”
Yet this, he says, is “the only religion which ought to bear that name.”
Why? I really don’t see this. Intelligent, cultured and brave believers do pose a real problem for atheists, but it’s not one we can honourably solve by simply denying their existence. Freud goes on to dismiss anyone with the brains to see that a God who is merely an enormously exalted father can’t be worth worshipping — yet who still isn’t an atheist — on the grounds that they are not getting real religion at all:
“It is still more humiliating to discover how large a number of people living to-day, who cannot but see that this religion is not tenable, nevertheless try to defend it piece by piece in a series of pitiful rearguard actions. One would like to mix among the ranks of the believers in order to meet these philosophers, who think they can rescue the God of religion by replacing him by an impersonal, shadowy and abstract principle, and to address them with the warning words: ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain!’ And if some of the great men of the past acted in the same way, no appeal can be made to their example: we know why they were obliged to.”
Well actually, we don’t. If he means to imply that they were liberal theologians out of fear, he knows nothing of the history of religious persecution during the sixteenth and seventeenth century, in which the liberal or latitudinarian was as dangerous to strict orthodoxy as the atheist, and a damn sight easier to catch and persecute. If they were orthodox out of fear, they were not liberals. It is the utter refusal to grant that his opponents may be sincerely mistaken which strikes me here. It’s very different from the subtle condescension of Gibbon. It seems to me that something changed in atheism in the nineteenth or early twentieth century in response to a change in Christianity (and Judaism). It became necessary to ignore and disparage liberal religion in a different way to the treatment handed out to the conservative stuff. And this won’t do. If we start from the premise that religion is a purely human activity, then it can only sensibly be defined as what believers do and think. The overwhelming majority of believers have never been fundamentalists. They couldn’t be.
Freud is clearly the ancestor of Dawkins and Sam Harris in his arguments here. But does any reader know an earlier instance of this definition of religion as something that only idiots can believe, with its corollary that if you’re not an ignorant idiot than you can’t be a real believer?
I said there were two important rhetorical moves in his argument, and the reader who is still awake will have noticed only one. That’s true. The second will go into a later post.