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.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Nikki Bluue

    Three paragraphs starting with paragraph “This is why self-conscious atheists need to get our act together..”

    I like those three paragraphs the most. I consider myself a spiritual atheist. THis label defines me more than freethinker, spiritual-but-not-religious, weak atheist. I do firmly think that spirituality can exist and grow without any of the deities or the woo-woo new age paths with the angels or animal spirit guides (as much as I like THIS idea).

    I don’t have much hope for humanity anymore, and do think that we won’t last long beyond 200 years. Is that nihilistic enough for you? My Aztec Reconstructionist friend thinks humanity is f*cked within this century. I love her. :-) She plans world domination sometime soon—ALL HAIL!

    But despite this, I am not exactly “giving up” just yet. I am doing what I can to help others online as I find this to be easier and more productive than off-line as I am not a people person. Earthly life is more important to me right now than trying to “saaaaaaaaave the world” that too many teenyboppers (10-25 y.o.) seem to aspire. *headache* I learned the hard way, emotionally and mentally, that I have to pick my battles carefully. I tell the teenys this, despite many of them won’t listen.

    If atheism/agnosticism is for you, great. Don’t let the other strong atheists (luv’em) tell you that spirituality and atheism cannot mix. Send them my way. :-) They may love my pictures of my home altar. ;-)

    Great, wunnerful article. I look forward to more like this on your blog in the future. Anyone who likes my thoughts, feel free to friend me via Facebook.

    Woo-woo, indeed.

  • Daniel Fincke

    I like those three paragraphs the most. I consider myself a spiritual atheist. THis label defines me more than freethinker, spiritual-but-not-religious, weak atheist. I do firmly think that spirituality can exist and grow without any of the deities or the woo-woo new age paths with the angels or animal spirit guides (as much as I like THIS idea).

    Yes, I agree completely. I’ve long been dreaming up a post defending the idea that we should reclaim the word “spiritual” from the theists and woo-ers.

  • http://sannejohnson.wordpress.com SAJohnson

    Great post, Daniel. We cannot concede the domains of spirituality, values and meaning to the theists.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Thanks, SA

  • jude

    I agree with a lot of what you say, and have reservations about other bits. But let me start not by launching into my own position, but asking you to clarify yours:

    1. Can you articulate (in a bullet-pointy way is fine) what they biggest differences will be between “atheistic” affirmative spirituality that appropriates all those fundamental psychological needs, and the theist version?

    2. If I read you right your response to Wahl is that the existence of the psychological needs behind religious belief (needs whose force precludes, for Wahl, the theist from being rationally persuaded away from a religious position by rational argument) is not itself a problem, but needs to be redirected at a different object, so to speak–an atheistic object rather than a theistic one? If they are both directions of need-driven attention to “objects” that transcend current explanatory adequacy, where, again (see 1) is the real rub of the difference between atheistic and theistic spiritual intentionality?

    OK, so I can’t resist a little argument even before getting an answer: Reading those three paragraphs from Haught, I find myself agreeing with much of it; but not for denial or nihilism-fearing motives, but because I see Haught saying that it is inadequate QUA EXPLANATION that a universe that brings forth consciousness and whose understanding is pursued BY that very consciousness should ultimately be a thumb in the eye of that consciousness. That’s not the sad desperation that Wahl imputes to him, nor is it just an appropriatable psychological need as you seem to see it. I see Haught articulating an explanatory incoherence in science’s rejection of the deepest impulses of its own source (the human mind). Maybe I am too steeped in Whitehead, but since Haught is too, I think this a perfectly reasonable reading of Haught’s position, and find it somewhat question-begging to have its explanatory demands set aside in favor of mere diagnosis of psychological longing.

  • Daniel Fincke

    thanks, Jude, I want to reply properly in a post (or two), so please forgive me if it takes a few days.

  • Gregory Wahl

    Two comments:

    (1) I think the theistic position can be stated as follows: “The fact of human consciousness is prima facie evidence of a transcendent conscious entity; and this entity not only created human beings, but also values human consciousness so highly that it will find a way to preserve each individual consciousness for eternity.” (A deity who does not provide immortality will have a hard time filling the church pews on Sunday morning.)

    (2) A program to build an alternative, secular “spirituality” must begin in early childhood. Here are three relevant links:


    Even so, a theist will respond: “We’ve been providing meaning and purpose and rituals and moral guidance for thousands of years; PLUS we promise that when you die, you will be blissfully reunited with your loved ones in a better place. How are you going to top that, infidel?”

  • jude

    Thanks Dan.

    Let me add that my own position would not entail or be guided by a traditional theistic claim. I have Whitehead’s metaphysics in mind, more than process theology.

  • Daniel Fincke

    No problem. I was wondering about that earlier. Whitehead’s God to me was just an impersonal generator of forms (in my crude memory)so I wonder what would be so alienating to you about seeing ourselves as “merely” the self-awareness of the logos of the universe as it (in Hegelian fashion) becomes self-conscious of itself through our thoughts. I find that really sublime and powerful. We are the universe thinking itself, understanding its own mysteries. Out of billions of stars and planets, WE are here one of the few (and maybe the only) species to have realized the logic of the universe in explicit form.

    I honestly do not see how the religious projection to a giant human beyond this world is any more exciting and exhilarating than that.

    I get the being bummed about dying part of all this but that’s about it.

  • Gregory Wahl

    OK, I’m a conscious node of the cosmos, but I’m also 62 years old … and the exhilaration is being supplanted by constipation.

    For another perspective, Tom Wilson (the guy who played “Biff” the bully in the Back To The Future movies) wrote a facetious song called “I’m Over 40” — see it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N-t2PDrqPCc

  • Gregory Wahl

    You wrote: “This is why self-conscious atheists need to get our act together and start building secular ways of meeting religious needs … ”

    This puts me in mind of something Thoreau said: “There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, but to so love wisdom as to live according to its dictates: a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life — not only theoretically, but practically. The title ‘wise’ is, for the most part, falsely applied. How can one be a wise man if he does not know any better how to live, than other men?”

    Later, you wrote: “But the more that people’s lives are constructed in wholly secular ways . . . 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.”

    And the best way to get people started down this path, when they recoil upon seriously considering (perhaps for the first time) the notion that there is no God, is to simply say: “Look at me. I’m living proof that you don’t need religious fantasies to lead a happy and fulfilling life.”

    A good book on this subject is “Eupraxophy: Living Without Religion” by Paul Kurtz.

  • Daniel Fincke

    And the best way to get people started down this path, when they recoil upon seriously considering (perhaps for the first time) the notion that there is no God, is to simply say: “Look at me. I’m living proof that you don’t need religious fantasies to lead a happy and fulfilling life.”

    Yes, good point. But even easier would be to so structure secular life that people realize that they too already lead happy and fulfilling lives that actually need no contributions from religious fantasies. And, I think, frustratingly, a great many people already do this and believe a lie that the religious fantasies are really playing some integral role that they simply do not.

    For all people’s attestations of how much “purpose”, “moral incentive”, and “hope” they get from belief in God, I bet religious people fear, ignore, and painfully mourn deaths just the same as atheists do when the reality is contemplated, they are in practice comparably moral to atheists and motivated by the same sorts of sympathies, utilitarian calculi, and considerations of formal fairness, and “purpose” and “meaning” are empty words that no one could explain if they tried.

    In the contemporary West, we’re all secular.

    What religion is constructively providing is really just certain emotional connections between people, sustaining some traditional identities across generations, providing contexts for exercising certain meditative practices, etc. And what it is destructively providing are infrastructures for horrible political manipulation, regressive traditionalism/anti-intellectualism, and convenient tools for rationalizing indefensible prejudices towards Othered groups.

  • http://www.kiranmehdee.com/blog Kiran

    We definitely need to, and can, reclaim spirituality, as atheists. Just like we have worked on reclaiming morality (i.e. how to co-exist in human society), without religions or gods, from a naturalistic, evolutionary perspective, we can reclaim what is commonly called spirituality, i.e. how to co-exist in the universe, and come to terms with mortality. I find that “naturalistic pantheism” is rich and textured enough to suit me right now, though I detest labels, in general.

    Science is the methodology, while interconnectedness of everything in the universe, including our consciousnesses, is the narrative that could sustain us “spiritually” in a post-secular world. But pantheism requires a break from the typical Judeo-Christian-Islamic model of Ultimate Reality as an anthropomorphic entity, and this is something foreign to many of us born and raised inside the Abrahamic-Monotheistic-Narcissistic world view. To think of Ultimate Reality as Reality itself, to remove the concept of a personal God, a creator God from spirituality, requires practice, meditation, non-dualistic thinking, humility and poetry.

    Thanks for another insightful piece, Dan.

  • psycho_nude

    Holy brainwash batman! You actually think theism has a grip on people? You’ve got to be part of the mindless sheeple yourself to not see secular humanism everywhere diluting people’s minds, and oppressing their hears with empty promises. But alas, we see what we want. Down with your pseudo intellectualism!
    Here’s a clue you can use to tell if you are brainwahsed:
    1)Ask, I am saying what everyone else is saying?
    2)Is what I am saying part of academic pop culture?
    3) Does it take courage to say what I do, or do people at parties mostly agree with me?

    What to do if you answer yes to any of these questions?
    I having no f-ing clue. I guess you’re either a free thinker or not.

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