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C. Others

We must take a deeper look at these claims. First, however, we should note that although Freud and Marx often get the credit for this alleged unmasking (perhaps with a crumb thrown in the direction of Nietzsche), its essence is to be found much earlier. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78) thought Christian belief was a product of corrupt society, and that the natural spirituality of our souls has been damaged by a Christianized civilization; he thus anticipates Marx in seeing Christian belief as a result of cognitive malfunction resulting from social malfunction. David Hume, a British contemporary of Rousseau, anticipates Freud:

It must necessarily, indeed, be allowed, that, in order to carry men’s intention beyond the present course of things, or lead them into any inference concerning invisible intelligent power, they must be actuated by some passion, which prompts their thought and reflection; some motive, which urges their first enquiry. But what passion shall we here have recourse to, for explaining an effect of such 143mighty consequences? Not speculative curiosity, surely, or the pure love of truth. That motive is too refined for such gross apprehensions; and would lead men into enquiries concerning the frame of nature, a subject too large and comprehensive for their narrow capacities. No passions, therefore, can be supposed to work upon such barbarians, but the ordinary affections of human life; the anxious concern for happiness, the dread of future misery, the terror of death, the thirst of revenge, the appetite for food and other necessaries. Agitated by hopes and fears of this nature, especially the latter, men scrutinize with a trembling curiosity, the course of future causes, and examine the various and contrary events of human life. And in this disordered scene, with eyes still more disordered and astonished, they see the first obscure traces of divinity.164164   David Hume: The Natural History of Religion, ed. H. E. Root (Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University Press, 1957), p. 166.

What is crucial here is the claim that religious belief does not arise from ‘the pure love of truth’, but from other sources: desire for happiness, fear of death, and the like. In fact Hume ironically suggests that Christian belief is so contrary to experience and to the “principles of understanding” (i.e., the deliverances of reason) that a reasonable person can accept it only by virtue of a miracle:

upon the whole, we may conclude that the Christian Religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. . . . Whoever is moved by Faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.165165   An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1956), p. 145.

So the fundamental thrust of Hume’s suggestion, as of Freud’s, is that religious belief doesn’t emerge from the segment of our whole cognitive economy that is, as we might put it, aimed at the production of true belief; it comes, instead, from a desire for security or a fear of death or whatever. And of course what underlies Hume’s ironic jape is the idea that Christian belief goes directly contrary to the deliverances of reason and experience.

Many of our contemporaries also see religious beliefs in these terms. Thus Northrop Frye weighs in on Marx’s side, but employs Freudian or semi-Freudian categories: speaking of “the curious aberration of ‘believing the Bible’,” he says:


such belief is really a voluntarily induced schizophrenia, and probably a fruitful source of the infantilism and hysterical anxieties about belief which are so frequently found in the neighborhood of religion, at least in its more uncritical areas.166166   Speaking of infantilism, Frye’s intemperate comments call to mind schoolyard debating styles (perhaps about fifth grade): “Oh Yeah? Well, the trouble with you is you’re crazy, and so’s your whole dumb family!”

In the same vein, we have Don Cupitt: “Theological realism can only be actually true for [i. e. thought to be true by] a heteronomous consciousness such as no normal person ought now to have.”167167   Taking Leave of God (New York: Crossroad, 1980), p. 12. One gathers that Cupitt thinks it is “our modern form of consciousness” that makes this obligatory. Those who claim that they really are ‘theological realists’ (i.e., claim that they really do believe in God), he says, are hypocrites168168   Ibid., p. 21. or have succumbed to “a kind of madness.”169169   The World to Come (London: SCM Press, 1982), p. 83. Cupitt seems to think that (perhaps, as they say, ‘given what we now know’) you would have to be psychotic to actually be a theological realist (one who believes that there really is such a person as God); if you are not psychotic but nonetheless profess theistic belief, then you must be one of those hypocrites Christian churches are supposed to be full of.

A final witness. Charles Daniels agrees with Freud in finding the origin of religious belief in wishful thinking:

we must begin to entertain suspicions that the explanation for these [religious] experiences does not lie in any perceived religious reality, but is rather the effect of some other cause—perhaps excessive emotion and fervor. . . .

It is not at all difficult, however, to construct a plausible explanation not consisting of mere possibilities like the machinations of demons, why people should come very strongly to believe there to be a divinely populated religious reality which is perceived in religious experience even when there is none . . . we very much want there to be an understandable order to the universe, we very much want our lives to be of consequence, and we very much want to know in practical detail what’s right and wrong. Religion addresses what we very much want. The universe has an intelligible order because there is an intelligent powerful God who made it. We are important because God made us (as Christians say, “in his image”) and gave us the faculties of understanding and free, intelligent action.170170   “Experiencing God,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (1989), pp. 497, 499.

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