What after all is religion but a desire displacing itself into dogmas all the better to assure the flock that what they desire is writ into the nature of things?
-Walter A. Davis, The Psychology of Christian Fundamentalism
The Ad Hominem Fallacy… Not.
What is baffling to me is why should such explanatory theories behind religious beliefs lead to the lost of those beliefs? A basic course in logic and philosophical reasoning would have taught that this is one of the most basic of fallacies, to refute a belief based upon its psychological origins, the fallacy of the ad hominem.
Clearly there are many other premises which are missing from the premise that there are empirical causes or explanations for someone’s religious beliefs to the conclusion that that belief is invalidated. I will try to fill up these many missing premises and in so doing, cast some light as to some fundamental theological and philosophical assumptions at work in the cottage industry of psychoanalysis of religious beliefs.
Let us consider a paradox I have noted before as far as tracing religious beliefs to socio-economic conditions are concerned.
If a poor and economically disenfranchised man or someone who is a failure in life talks about how faith has helped him get through his material hardships and poverty and gives him strength to cope with the harshness of his life, we would invoke good ‘ole Marx and say that faith is a crutch, an opiate of the masses, which people will throw off once they are wealthy and have the material supports of life.
But if we have someone who is rich, successful and have been blessed visibly give thanks to God for his blessings, then we would invoke Satan’s accusation against Job and say that his religious beliefs is but a mere convenient ornament decorating his satisfied belly and that having met the hierarchy of needs, we can now indulge in the bourgeois pleasures of “religious pursuits”, like the rich indulging in art. But poor people are too busy trying to survive to bother with esoteric religious pursuits, and take away their wealth and their faith will perish as well.
If faith comforts the poor, that is the opiate of the masses, if the rich thanks God for his wealth, that is a bourgeois indulgence, thus either way, that person’s religious beliefs are invalidated whether he is rich or poor!
What exactly is going on here? What are the more fundamental premises and principles are work here which would lead to this curious damned if you do, damned if you don’t conclusion?
The “Purity” of Religious Faith and the Utter Transcendence of God
The hidden premise I believe which links a certain psychological state to its invalidity is the premise that religious faith must necessarily be empirically unmotivated. Religious faith, to be authentic, must be “empirically pure”; to be able to trace its origins in empirical conditions is to contaminate it. It must, as it were, descend upon us like a prophetic or poetic inspiration; it must come out of nowhere, from the Great Beyond.
With this hidden premise, it is not difficult see why psychoanalysis leads to faith’s refutation. To be able to trace the empirical origins of one’s faith is its invalidation, because religious belief, presumably, can have nothing to do with the empirical world at all. God cannot act through this world or through the things of this world but only by inspiring an immediate “Eureka!” Enlightenment in the souls of his faithful.
No doubt there are more esoteric religions and certain more “Gnostic” forms of Christianity which would hold to such a view of God and divine action. But such a premise would be odd in any monotheistic religion which holds even to the barest minimal view of God as Creator of this world and any form of divine providence.
Why should it be forbidden to God to use the ordinary means of this world, whether it is poverty or riches, failures or success, to bring people to the faith? Does not the great diversity of Christian believers, from the afflicted to the comforted, in fact be evidence as to the universality of the Christian faith and of its universal possibility of working faith and belief through any sort of empirical condition and circumstance? Should not the fact that it is a comfort and hope to the poor, and a chastisement and humbling of the rich, be a commendation of the faith?
To be sure, we would, and rightly so, despise someone who holds on to his faith only in so far as he is fat and comforted and curses God upon becoming poor (the recommendation of Job’s wife), or someone who forgets God the moment he has become rich and successful (the sin of Israel of old). Yet, what reason do we have for despising universal penetrating grace and blessings of God, who is able to use both the blessings of this world to give some a glimpse of the goodness of their Provider, and who is also able to speak a word of hope and lead to redemption those who languishes in darkness and suffering? Or despising the grace of poverty which God inflicts some of us to reveal the vanity of his world and lead us to the true riches in the life of the world to come? Yes, eventually we have go beyond our empirical conditions and place our faith upon more firmer grounds, i.e. Christ and the Word, yet we should not despise God’s goodness to us of old but on the contrary call it to mind constantly, never forgetting that first grace which God gave us which lead us to him.
A Psychoanalysis of the Psychoanalysers
What then motivates such a strange and unusual premise in the minds of the psychoanalysers? Why this banishment of the divine action purely to the giver of esoteric spiritual experiences and not in the actual provision or taking away of empirical goods and conditions?
The answer is that it is the consolation of despair. Despair that is, of God’s grace, willing and capacity to act in and through this world. It is quite simply, the loss of faith in God the Father, the Creator of Heaven and Earth in Luther’s sense in the First Article:
I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my limbs, my reason, and all my senses, and still preserves them; in addition thereto, clothing and shoes, meat and drink, house and homestead, wife and children, fields, cattle, and all my goods; that He provides me richly and daily with all that I need to support this body and life, protects me from all danger, and guards me and preserves me from all evil; and all this out of pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me; for all which I owe it to Him to thank, praise, serve, and obey Him. This is most certainly true.
When we find ourselves incapable of belief and faith in God the Creator, it is our first instinct to deny faith’s possibility in others. When we are able to trace religious beliefs to material wealth or poverty, we comfort ourselves with Satan’s counterfactual claim that if they had their success taken away or were they given success, they would abandon God at once, and thereby deny the root and source of their faith, in the goodness and sovereignty of God over all nature. We seek to terminate the source of their faith in those particular empirical conditions which would die the moment those empirical conditions are removed. If indeed in the words of Walter Davis, religion is the assurance that our desires have been written into the nature of things, then what is sceptical psychoanalysis, but the assurance that disbelief has been written into the very nature of mankind, and that we all must be at the heart atheists whose belief is wholly derivative of particular empirical conditions and finds not it root upon something much more fundamental, the goodness of God the Creator of heaven and earth who is able to work his goodness through a multitude of different empirical conditions. For is not the whole earth his and all of them able to serve his ends?
In Alastair Roberts discussion on Tebow’s Faith, he quotes from Daniel Foster who remarks about the revelation of hypocrisy:
The hypocrisy is actually sort of comforting, a confirmation that that old hokum in the Bible has no bearing on the world as it actually is. It’s the same sort of glee you see from some when Christian politicians and ministers are felled by all-too-human moral — especially sexual — foibles.
The revelation of hypocrisy comforts us because it assures us that God truly has no real bearing on the empirical world, it confirms our disbelief and denial that God can actually act in this world. Alastair goes on to observe:
In order to feel secure, justified, and self-assured in our unbelief, we view all others with a cynical and critical gaze, with the jaundiced eye that colours all it sees. The fundamentalist ‘true believers’ are merely ignorant, players of power games, or hypocrites. The transparent and genuine faith of someone like Tebow offends us precisely because it exposes the degree to which our own lives are characterized by a profound detachment and self-protective distance from anything that might demand our ultimate loyalty, service, and love. It cuts through our rationalizations and exposes the lie that grounds them. I am including myself throughout, because this is a sin that I recognize in myself: I have been powerfully shaped by a sort of theological training that often celebrates and cultivates exactly such a detachment and distance from faith.
A genuine faith threatens our own disbelief. When we see a person who has gone through much suffering retain belief in God, we are existentially condemned, we cannot invoke our own sufferings and evils as an excuse to deny God especially when we witness saints who have been through far worse glorify God. When we see persons who are successful and rich believing in God, our disbelief that God is able to bless and help us visibly, materially and empirical stands judged. Rather than confront the judgement and disbelief with sorrow and contrition and pleas for greater faith, we instead attempt to explain their faith away as wholly immanent empirical phenomenon, determined by wholly by their particular empirical conditions instead of by the goodness of God who shows his lovingkindness through this world under his Providential Care. Our disbelief is secured, our despair protected from the true living faith of the saints who have been sanctified by the Word and Holy Spirit.
Alastair makes a similar point later on:
It seems to me that a change has occurred in the attitudes of many. Whereas once the moral failure of a professed Christian may have been met with a greater degree of sorrow, a contemporary response is more likely to be one of schadenfreude, even to some extent from other Christians. The early response was occasioned by a desire to uphold belief in the possibility of wholehearted sincerity: the contemporary response is occasioned by a desire to uphold belief in the impossibility or inadvisability of believing anything too strongly, or of holding to a moral standard that makes clear and unambiguous demands of you and others.
Thus, psychoanalysis serves to “uphold belief in the impossibility or inadvisability of believing” in God the Father who does act through and in this world, by tracing and terminating the cause of religious beliefs to particular empirical phenomenon, we thereby comfort ourselves concerning their faith is not “real” but a “fake” product of merely empirical conditions.
Conclusion: I believe in God the Father Maker of Heaven and Earth
What then should be our proper response to psychoanalysis?
First, we must not be ashamed of how we were brought to faith. Whether through personal blessings or tragedies, or whatever the empirical background which has enabled our faith, we must affirm that it has pleased God the Father to provide us with these empirical conditions to lead us to faith, whether it is as blessings as signs of his goodness or to take away our idols and inordinate attachments to draw us to himself and to grant us a knowledge of the true grace and riches which are to be found in Jesus Christ. As clumsy and as embarrassing as might be our first movements towards the faith, we must not be ashamed of it but acknowledge it while moving on to the higher things. My first movements towards the faith started a charismatic megachurch and as much as I now am critical of it, I am never ashamed of the means by which God has used to bring me to faith.
Secondly, we must be conscious that our Christian faith may penetrate to the depths of our lives, yet is not only our individual possessing but is as universal and Almighty and Infinite as our God, we avoid the critiques of the psychoanalytics which attempts to tied the integrity of our faith to our particular conditions by pointing to the entire Body of Christ, the communion of saints who are called out of a diversity and wide range of backgrounds, histories and circumstances, and that our faith though it burrows deep into us, also flows forth from above and beyond us, being as wide as the whole earth as a faith granted from the Creator of it ought to be.
Lastly, let us be exhorted by the words of St Paul in Philippians 4:11-13
Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.