CHALLENGES TO BELIEF IN GOD, FROM SOCIOLOGICAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL POINTS OF VIEW
Introduction - 1 In the literature it is usually the case that articles about psychological and sociological perspectives on religion offer Naturalistic explanations of religious belief. In other words, these are presented as critical of the claim that religious belief is grounded in objective spiritual or supernatural reality.
Introduction - 2 For a naturalist, the claims of some psychologists and sociologists offer explanations of religious belief. A key question is whether, once these insights have been taken on board, whether they offer a complete explanation or not? If not, then theists can learn from the psychology and sociology of religion without feeling threatened by them. It is one thing to explain aspects of belief from a particular viewpoint. It is quite another thing to say that thereby religion is explained away.
The core of theistic belief Theism entails the metaphysical belief in a reality that transcends the empirical world. This is the eternal, ever-present, creative source and sustainer of the universe. In major theistic religions this God of the philosophers is identified variously as YHWH (Judaism), the Trinity (Christianity) and Allah (Islam).
Naturalism Naturalism opposes the claims of those who believe in spiritual realities. Thus theism is rejected (a form of supernaturalism), as is even Theravada Buddhism (no God nor worship, but spiritual realities). Naturalism is therefore atheistic. If successful in its understanding of everything being ultimately physical reality, naturalism must offer an account of religion. WATCH THE SPELLING! Not NATURISM Get this right in exams!!
A rogues gallery of naturalism Hobbes Hume Marx Freud Russell
The naturalist critique It is assumed by leading naturalistic philosophers, such as Kai Nielsen, that the Enlightenment critiques of religion by the likes of Hume and Kant have refuted the classical arguments for the existence of God. Add to this the accounts of religion in such as Freud and Marx and it can be assumed that traditional realist versions of theism are redundant.
Naturalistic explanations for religious belief: main players 19 th cc Ludwig Feuerbach Friedrich Engels Karl Marx Max Stirner Friedrich Nietzsche 20 th cc Emile Durkheim Max Weber Axel Hägerström Sigmund Freud Bronislaw Malinowski Antonio Gramsci
Typical naturalistic program Given the persistence and psychological appeal of religion we should look for reasons for this and causes of religious beliefs and behaviour. Here questions of the origin and function of religious beliefs become central. Also need to examine the logical and conceptual status of religious beliefs.
Feuerbach True explanation of religious belief is found in anthropology not theology. Religion is a projected image of humanities essential nature. ‘God’ is the projected idealised essence of human beings rather than a mysterious supernatural power. ‘God’ really exists only in the imagination of the believer, who treats ‘God’ as an objectively existing entity.
Freud - 1 Religion again discussed in psychological and anthropological terms. Religion is the mass obsessional delusion of mankind, not recognised as such by believers for understandable emotionally compelling reasons. Freud says religious beliefs depress the value of life and distort “the picture of the real world in a delusional manner”. Religion may spare many an individual neurosis “but hardly anything more”.
Freud - 2 Thus religion is the “universal obsessional neurosis of humanity” It emerges from the Oedipus Complex. “God is the exalted father and the longing for the father is the root of the need of religion” Religious beliefs are “illusions, fulfilment of the oldest, strongest and most insistent wishes of mankind.”
Freud - 3 Unconsciously reverting to our infantile attitudes, we create the gods. Religion functions to exorcise the terrors of nature, reconciles us to the “cruelty of fate, particularly as shown in death” and “make amends for the sufferings and privations that the communal life of culture has imposed on man”. God is an imagined idealised father with the characteristics attributed to the God of Judaic-Christian theism.
Engels and Marx - 1 Whereas for Feuerbach and Freud religion was to be understood in anthropological or psychological terms, for Engels and Marx religion is about society. Religions function principally to aid the dominant classes in controlling the dominated classes, whether either group is aware of it or not!
Engels and Marx - 2 Religion, as ideology,serves to reconcile the dominated to their condition and give them an illusory hope of a better spiritual world to come. Thus wealth is legitimated and the potentially rebellious classes are pacified. Society is ‘unified’ and sanctioned.
Durkheim - 1 Durkheim saw religion as genuinely unifying society. Talk about ‘God’ is really talk about society. Religion is social in three broad ways: – as socially determined; – as embodying representations of social realities; – having functional social consequences
Durkheim - 2 This is an utterly naturalistic account. God and gods “are nothing other than the collective states objectified; they are society itself seen under one of its aspects.” Religion is a mode of comprehending social realities for Durkheim.
Crudely summarised …. All of these naturalistic accounts are reductionistic. Religion is “nothing but”… For Freud religion is psychological For Feuerbach religion is anthropological For Marx religion is socio-economic For Durkheim religion is social In truth, it is a mixture of all of these factors in these thinkers, with differing emphases in each one.
Cleverly summarised …. Steven Lukes, for example, would say that all naturalistic theoreticians of religion refuse to take religious symbols at what orthodox believers take to be face-value. They seek to go ‘underneath’ the symbol to the reality it represents and which gives it its true meaning. They seek to show that all religions answer in their different ways to the given conditions of human existence.
The role of religion in the lives of human beings This is not the same question as we have been examining above. Hitherto, the issue has been one of the truth or coherence of religious beliefs. Here these matters are put in brackets.The question is one of the role that religion plays in people’s lives, regardless of whether what they believe is true or not.
Role - 2 Durkheim himself seemed hesitant to push the naturalistic critique too far: ”whoever does not bring to the study of religion a sort of religious sentiment has no right to speak about it”. It is fair to suggest that if a believer realised that what he believed was false, there would be no point in carrying on with it. Who “would continue to pray if he knew he was praying to no-one?” – Gustave Belot
Role - 3 BUT, many naturalistic thinkers want to say that in fact there is something real underlying religious beliefs, namely facts about human beings and society. It just that this reality is not what the religious believer takes it to be! This may seem empathetic and a sensitive viewpoint, but it still boils down to “you religious guys are wrong in what you believe in”!
Final word from Kai Nielsen “Naturalistic explanations are of course incompatible with religious belief…the account explains the religions’ origins, explains its claim to truth, explains how that very claim is in error, the depth of that error, its persistence in spite of that in various institutional contexts and in the personal lives of human beings, its various cultural and historical forms, how and why it changes and develops as it does, and its continuing persistence and appeal in one or other form.”