Why hasn’t religion died?

Why hasn’t religion died? May 12, 2018


Was Freud correct or not in his anticipation of the demise of religion in “The Future of an Illusion”?


Ah, 1927, the year of Lindbergh, “The Jazz Singer,” Mount Rushmore, Sacco and Vanzetti, Dempsey and Tunney, the Yankees and Murderers’ Row, CBS Radio and the BBC. And the year of British philosopher-mathematician Bertrand Russell’s booklet “Why I Am Not a Christian.”

By coincidence, that same year Sigmund Freud applied his psychoanalytic theories to religion in “The Future of an Illusion.” Arguably, these were the 20th Century’s most influential atheistic books.

To over-simplify (which is what we journalists do), Freud (1856 – 1939) thought that belief in God arises from a neurotic childhood longing for a father-figure. Yes, religion provided certain comforts to our primitive ancestors. But that was wishful thinking. People in the age of modern science now have the ability to test and reject imaginative fantasies, embrace reality, and as a result become more psychologically healthy and mature.

Yet religion in fact hasn’t died out and it looks like it never will, to judge from all the evidence in the nine decades that followwed Freud’s book. Contra his deathly forecast, religion survived and in many places has thrived. This is especially remarkable because the past century brought unprecedented political power exercised by atheists, which resulted in the most bloodthirsty effort in history to exterminate religious faith — and many religious believers as well. Meanwhile, in free nations  public expressions of hostility toward traditional faith have never been so unimpeded.

Followers of Freud can correctly point out that since World War Two Christianity has gradually slumped into widespread desuetude across western Europe, especially in urban centers. Yet sectors of vitality persist. The most notable are among immigrants from Africa and Asia, both Muslims and Christians. Faith likewise thrives in the immigrants’ homelands (unless autocrats suppress it artificially by force).

Among other highly developed nations, the United States stands out as relatively devout though slow institutionl decline is evident. Even legions of dropouts remain “spiritual” though not “religious.” Canada falls somewhere between the U.S. and western Europe.

Obviously, Freud and others of like mind were mistaken. So the really interesting question then becomes: Why?

Religious believers would respond that religion remains an inherent part of individual lives and of civilization because it is true. For the sake of argument, let’s leave aside the truth issue here. Actually Freud himself provided some of the answer in “Illusion.” He carefully and correctly described the ways in which faith has helped people surmount the insults of daily life, seeks to explain the inexplicable questions everyone ponders, and has fended off moral anarchy.

The old cross-and-crown alliances are long gone, and in most of the world people are free to forsake religion without social penalties. Yet they continue to believe. Religions can be seen as healthier and more authentic than ever because faith results from personal choice and conscience, not obedience to social convention or family expectations. From all the evidence, large numbers of people, whether paupers or plutocrats, plowmen or Ph.D.s, freely embrace faith because they perceive it as true and wholesome for themselves and for their societies.

Preacher’s kid Carl Jung (1875 – 1961), was a noted psychiatrist who worked alongside Freud for five years but broke from his doctrines. He wrote that “Illusion” typified a commitment to the narrow, “outmoded rationalism and scientific materialism of the late 19th Century.” Another angle came from a sociologist and iconoclast, Peter L. Berger (1929 – 2017). He sought to “relativize the relativizers” or apply skepticism to the skeptics. Like Freud, Berger was a native of Vienna with Jewish roots. He ended up as a liberal Lutheran.

Berger proposed a sideways case for religion in his small classic “A Rumor of Angels,” which appeared in 1969, an apogee of doubt and secularism among certain church intellectuals. He insisted that “signals of transcendence” are the common experience surrounding all of humanity, and that these suggest the existence of a supernatural realm and, of course, the Supreme Being. He offered five examples: The creation of order, play, honor, hope, and peoples’ inborn sense of moral outrage.

Going forward, a broad overview of the writings from Freud’s atheistic successors indicates that they find the following to be religion’s major weak debating points.

— There is no absolute scientific proof that God exists. True, believers will admit. There’s also no absolute scientific proof that God does not exist. Stalemate.

— Religious teachings are inhumane or immoral or stupid. Well, each such specific complaint needs to be closely examined on its own terms and from both sides. Disputes over religious figures’ political entanglements are a sub-theme.

— Religious believers are inhumane or immoral or stupid. For sure, believers should continually assess how their behavior reflects on their faith. The ready answer here is that all humans are shadowed by sin or lacking in enlightenment and believers are not magically exempt. An old jest says “original sin is the only Christian doctrine that’s empirically verifiable.” Religions seek to counteract these failings as best they can.

— If God is powerful, and good, then why do good people suffer? The attempt to answer that is known as “theodicy.” Yet the opposite is equally puzzling: Why does God bestow so many blessings upon us sinful people? Humanity has attempted to understand this one since the biblical Book of Job, which provided no crisp answer.

— The major world faiths disagree with each other on important questions. True enough. This is an invitation for thoughtful, fair-minded skeptics and believers alike to explore the claims from their best and wisest advocates, with an open mind.



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