D’Souza’s Freudian Snit

Freud is “no longer the revered figure he once was,” writes Dinesh D’Souza, comparing the eminent psychoanalyst to Karl Marx as figure whose ideology has come and gone. And he’s partly right: Freud is famous for what he started, not for being some kind of psychological Moses who brought us the Infallible Laws of psychiatry. Apparently, though, he’s still a force to be reckoned with, and D’Souza decides to take him on.

I’ve been reading Freud’s The Future of an Illusion, where Freud makes the case that religion is a form of “wish fulfillment.” Freud writes that for the individual “life is hard to bear,” and beyond this there is “the painful riddle of death, against which no medicine has yet been found.” And so to “make helplessness tolerable” man invents God and religion not because they are true but because we wish them to be true. “

Apparently, D’Souza sees that as an argument that’s still looking for a good refutation. He sets out to provide one, but unfortunately it’s flawed in at least a couple of ways.

Well, let’s examine this Freudian explanation in an entirely secular and rational way. Imagine a bunch of people who have gathered in a room because they want to avoid life’s difficulties–sickness, suffering, death–by making up a religion that will make them feel better. I can entirely see how such a group would come up with the concept of heaven. Heaven is a place where there is no suffering and no death. Eternal bliss would surely fit into my wish-fulfillment scheme.

But I don’t see why this group would come up with the concept of hell. (We are not talking about why priests might later use the concept to enforce doctrinal obedience or institutional loyalty. We are talking about why wish-fulfilling humans would invent the concept in the first place.) Hell is not only worse than sickness but also worse than death, because death is merely the end, while hell implies eternal separation from God.

Problem number one: just because Freud’s explanation fails to explain one thing does not mean it fails to explain something else. D’Souza’s argument is like saying, “Oh, you think lightning is just a form of electricity? Where does hail come from then? It’s all very well to say electricity explains lightning, but I don’t see how electricity has anything to do with hail.” Ok, suppose it doesn’t. Suppose some other factor leads people to believe in hell. So what? This isn’t an argument against Freud’s analysis, it’s just a quick change of subject.

Second problem: just because D’Souza fails to see the connection doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Let’s take his version of “an entirely secular and rational” approach, and apply it to his hypothetical group inventing a religion to make themselves feel better. Why would they come up with the notion of hell? Let’s think about it. People have a range of ideas about hell, from the classic doctrine of eternal torment to more humanized versions that temporarily test you in order to purge you of your sins. One thing all these ideas have in common, though, is that hell is always for someone else. The believer who believes in hell universally believes that his faith is going to keep the believer himself from going there. Hell is for the bad guys.

Is it really so hard to see why, say, a German Jew in the 1940’s might have a view of heaven that did not include the concept of rubbing elbows with Adolph Hitler for all eternity? If heaven is indeed a case of wish-fulfillment thinking, it’s no surprise that it would reflect the ancient and deeply-rooted wish for self-vindication, not to mention making all your enemies go away. It may be a bit selfish, but I think for most of us, seeing our enemies punished while we are rewarded would be a dream come true. If religion is primarily an escape from reality, and from the pressures and unpleasantness of life, there’s nothing remarkable about that religion preaching a certain payback against all those who are responsible for the pressures and unpleasantness that we’re trying to escape from.

Mind you, as I’ve said before, I don’t think that Freud’s explanation really captures the essence of why we have religion. Religion doesn’t just help us escape from reality, it actively helps a lot of us cope with the information overload that reality constantly dishes out. Not that this really helps D’Souza’s point at all, of course. And it only gets worse when he tries to drive home his point.

Bottom line: Judaism and Christianity, not to mention the other great religions, hardly look like they are the product of mere wishful thinking. In fact, they posit a God and a moral universe that makes some fairly stern demands on humans. It’s almost wishful to think that God does not exist, so that we can escape those demands. This is a point that does not seem to have occurred to poor Sigmund Freud.

Ah, so it’s only wishful thinking to suppose that Thor and Ares and Jupiter and Cthulhu don’t really exist? I suspect D’Souza hasn’t really thought this point through, or at least doesn’t want us to. We live in a complex world that doesn’t so much “make stern demands” of us as it simply imposes consequences, some of which we like and some of which we don’t like. We want to maximize the “good” consequences” and minimize the “bad” ones, but everything is so complicated and unpredictable! If only there were some simpler way, like if some super-powerful being came along and gave us just ten simple rules for what’s good and what’s bad. Wouldn’t that be great?

That’s wish fulfillment. D’Souza is framing his morality argument for God as though morality was unnatural in some way, and had to be imposed on us from outside (thus requiring an external Lawgiver). It’s a curiously self-contradicting argument, because if God created us to be moral, why would He need to impose morality on us, and if He created us to be immoral, then why would He want to impose something contrary to what He designed us for? And yes, you could argue that man is somehow “fallen,” but then you’ve changed arguments from “how does the real world lead us to God” to “how can we rationalize the fact that the real world fails to lead us to God?” If you have to invoke the Bible to reconcile the facts with the faith, then you’re as much as admitting that the facts, on their own, don’t do what you need to make your point.

So the real bottom line is that, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, D’Souza’s “secular and rational” analysis doesn’t really lead to faith in God. The arguments of apologetics are rationalizations, not rationalism—a defense of your conclusions, not the source of them. They are arguments you make, not because your conclusions are demonstrably true, but because you wish they were true. And in that respect, Freud was a lot closer to the mark than D’Souza is willing to admit.

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Posted in Unapologetics. 3 Comments »

3 Responses to “D’Souza’s Freudian Snit”

  1. Susannah Says:

    “If religion is primarily an escape from reality, and from the pressures and unpleasantness of life, there’s nothing remarkable about that religion preaching a certain payback against all those who are responsible for the pressures and unpleasantness that we’re trying to escape from.”

    Leaving aside religions with a heaven and hell, that is possibly the strength behind the doctrine of karma, too. “Never mind if he’s rich and happy now; he’ll get what’s coming to him some day!”

  2. B8ovin Says:

    Concerning hell and it’s use in wish fulfillment. Back in the day, when Christianity was a small business, there was a lot of smiting going on, and a lot of attendant oppression. Someone shopping at the Christianity stall might ask, “Whoa, love my enemy as myself? Turn the other cheek? That’s so gay, bro!” Hell was necessary. It allowed the Christian to abide by the teachings of Jesus because, not only would he or she be rewarded, but their enemies would be punished in ways far beyond their trespass. This idea rewarded the oppressed, punished the oppressor and made the moral teachings more palatable.

  3. Ric Says:

    Great post, Duncan. It demolished D’Souza.