Why I Think Theistic Religion’s Psychological Grip Can Be Weakened Or Broken

In a recent comments section, Gregory Wahl argued to me that religion is so deeply rooted in psychological needs, specifically the longing for immortality, that there is an inherent limitation to the ability of all my philosophical arguments to dissuade the faithful.  As this line of reasoning goes, they do not believe for intellectual reasons but emotional ones and so intellectual reasons can make no decisive impact on whether they believe. I countered that while of course some people will forever be psychologically impervious to rational dissuasion, others are not and I write for those “with ears to hear” and do not worry about those I could never hope to affect.

In reply, Gregory offers a few quotes:

I admire your efforts and enjoy reading your essays. But here’s a good example of what you’re up against — three excerpts from theologian John Haught’s book Deeper Than Darwin:

“If, in the ultimate depths of nature, we were to unearth an aimless, impersonal materiality, we would then have to yield to cosmic pessimism. And we would have to acknowledge the ultimate futility of all scientific exploration as well, since our intelligence will then have met the impenetrable obstruction — the absolutely unintelligible. Such a finale would mock mercilessly all our efforts to understand the universe.”

“In every death, a center or cluster of experience dissolves. So unless somewhere there is permanence, and unless this permanence is able to redeem all perishing, evil ultimately wins out over goodness, and the world in the end is absurd. The stream of perishing must flow toward something that saves it all from final nothingness; there must be something that gathers up, and holds in eternal memory, the great cosmic epic.”

“Since, in humans, the universe has awakened to consciousness, and evolution has now become conscious of itself, it is inconceivable that any truly cosmic redemption would tolerate the suffocation of the very consciousness to which the universe has been straining so mightily to give birth. Unless our experiences are somehow preserved in their immediacy and fullness, our anxiety about death remains without redress; and then the cosmic pessimists will have had the last word.”

Sure, but I don’t think these kinds of responses to certain philosophical premises are an eternal problem of unshakable human psychology.  Haught’s take on meaning and intelligibility are all rooted in 19th-Century constructs.  The whole idea that without God we will plunge into nihilism is an invention of the 19th-Century, it was all a hysterical response to a sea change in Western understanding.  Nietzsche saw this very famously in his “death of God” story.  What he also realized though was that this problem of a nihilistic reaction to atheism was not an inevitable response to it rather was a threat to those inculcated in monotheism’s absolutism about values.  Monotheism denigrates the value of everything else one might “deify” or value, it opposes pluralism and forces there to be only one supreme valuable thing.

So that’s why many monotheists have this desperate fundamentalist reaction when modern knowledge and culture displaces their central belief, meaning orientation, and value-center.  But this is not an inevitable universal psychological condition.  Haught is psychologically the product of his religion, he is not describing the experience of a Chinese atheist or even a post-Christian/nearly-atheist Scandinavian who is far further along on the way in extricating himself from religious dependency.

What atheists need to do is to shake loose of Sartrean nihilism which swallows this Christian dialectic whole rather than genuinely represents an atheist rejection of the faith.  And atheists need to stop misreading Nietzsche as teaching them to embrace nihilism.  These Sartrean existentialist and pseudo-Nietzschean forms of atheism buy into the false dilemma Christians like Tolstoy sold 19th-20th Century atheists whereby the only two intellectual options were nihilism or monotheism.   This is why Nietzsche insisted that atheists needed to “create new gods” and new values and advance an affirmation of the real and of life.  He was worried that the only other paths available to the Western mind if we did not do this would be the dying Christianity which would not last long or the nihilism that comes in Christianity’s wake as the natural dialectical outcome of its collapse, given the way it structures meaning.

This is why self-conscious atheists need to get our act together and start building secular ways of meeting religious needs for meaning, ethics discussion for the common man (not just for university classrooms), metaphysical insight (of the real kind, not the bogus religious fantasies), ritual, community, meditation, purpose, etc.  All of this exists without religion.  None of these good things really depend on the gods that were not actually there anyway.  People are psychologically disposed and ready to have all of this.  It simply is human nature.  We have these parts of our experience before religion or else we would not have been able to invent religious institutions and beliefs in the first place.  By “before” I don’t mean chronologically, of course, but logically and psychologically.

Psychologically we are ritualistic, meditative, speculative, fearful, social, meaning-having, ethically networked creatures and these traits just come to be more or less bound up as necessarily religious to the extent that they have historically been realized in mutually influencing interactions with religious institutions, texts, traditions, and practices, etc.  Because there are centuries of cultural formation that have shaped us to associate certain forms of expressions of our natures with religion, people start to think of religious beliefs or explicitly religious institutions as inherently inextricable from human nature.  But those same traits that have been developed in institutional religious contexts can be separated from them and all of them developed quite differently and successfully apart from them.  They are existentially and psychologically more basic than religion and can and have been in innumerable different religious, non-religious, and irreligious ways across human history and human cultures.

So what we need are secular forms through which people can readily understand and satisfyingly actualize their needs for wonder, awe, gratitude, ethics, metaphysics, purpose, meaning, ritual, rites of passage, mediation, singing, dancing, community, practical identity, imagination, charitable activity, idealism, life affirmation, hope, connection to tradition, sense of control in life, safety, connection to larger mission, etc.  When people’s full natures have well-developed contexts for expression and development, then their minds will be quite happy and they will find the notion that they need a God for all this confusing and bizarre.

I am one of those people who feels this way naturally—in the sense that I have felt it throughout my life in a way that has not hinged on either my formerly devout theism or my presently convinced atheism.  When I was a Christian I had a clinically depressed, devout Christian friend whose naturally occurring, brain-based psychological difficulties manifested itself in the form of so great a despair over the fear that there was no God that she became suicidal.  I remember telling her that I just didn’t get it, because even though I devoutly believed at the time, I realized that even were there no God I would still be inherently connected to what I care about.  It would still inevitably matter to me.  I would still love the people I love, love the activities I love, and love the pursuit of ideals (even though some of their contents would change).

What was occurring there was that I had, quite naturally, what William James might call a “healthy” religious soul, the kind that is naturally disposed to life-affirmation, and my friend had a “sick” religious soul, the kind that is naturally wracked with spiritual conflict.  Or, in simpler terms, she was diagnosably, clinically depressed and, despite normal very rough emotional periods, I just wasn’t.  And, in fact, now that I am the atheist, I am still an optimist and instinctively life-affirming, and even though my friend has long since overcome her atheistic tendencies, she still has a dark sort of religiosity which is keenly tuned in to misery of the world.  The religious symbols to which she gravitates are ones of suffering.  For example, the primary meaning of Christ on the cross for her is that the divine participates in suffering with us.  Her most central religious virtue is compassion and identification with the suffering of all sentient beings.  Her religion is fascinating and deep and emotionally and ethically rich and largely explicable as the result of a relentless psychological dialectic and process of mutual influence according to which her brain’s natural inclinations and her cultural religious forms are constantly reshaping each other in her mind to create her way of thinking and living.  And a similar story could be told about me, I am sure.

And millions of people are like me and find that when they deconvert from religion and reorient their thinking, they feel much the same (or better) without the God beliefs.  Happy people will stay happy as long as they find the outward cultural forms in which to express themselves and have their needs met.  Since a great many of those needs are at present either partially or, in a few cases, wholly fulfilled through religious activities, people will just need more secular replacement outlets for them.   But with the right outlets, there will be no trauma over losing the unnecessary beliefs bound up with the particular character of their present outlets for fulfilling those needs.

And the depressed will remain.  Depression is just natural.  And some atheists will express their depression in a philosophical nihilism, just as my despairing Christian friend did at one point.

But the more that people’s lives are constructed in wholly secular ways that meet all their personal and social psychological needs presently met through religion, the more they express themselves holistically through secular means, and the more that they simply come to take the falsehood of fantastic religious belief as obvious, the less they will feel any threat of nihilism from the thought that there is no God.

It is for these reasons, as much as any other, that I am so passionate about atheist activism and incorporate this so prominently into my blog.  I think it is really important that we do everything we can to stave off both explicit nihilism and the desperate, violent, reactionary intellectual, moral, and political fundamentalism that so fears modernity as a form of nihilism that it itself starts negating everything modern and becomes the worst, most death-loving form of nihilism of all.  As Nietzsche warned, the will cannot but will and if the only thing it has to will is nothingness, then it will go ahead and will nothingness.  I want to be part of the task of giving people more constructive, real things to will, starting with truth and goodness and community.

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