Thursday, January 5, 2012

On God Our Invisible Parents

A couple of years after Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud wrote Future of an Illusion to clarify why so many people believe in God and why this is a problem for society.  All through the book he's guided along by a clever imaginary critic questioning him at every turn to ensure he presents a solid argument against religion.  He has no concerns with the book harming people by suggesting God is a hoax because those with unshakable faith will remain steadfast, but he is briefly concerned that people will write off all his theories, and all of psychoanalysis, because of his atheism. It's funny that he didn’t at all foresee that people might instead write him off for his perceived obsession with sex.  His atheism didn't become as commonly known.

First, what does he mean by illusion.  An illusion isn't an error; it's something that could be possible but probably isn't. Primarily it's a belief based on what we wish to be true, not what is true. A girl might believe that one day a prince will carry her off. It's actually possible, but highly unlikely. As a child, it's a harmless illusion, but as a middle-aged woman, the illusion can keep her from a fulfilling life. We approach religion in the same way. It's something many people really want to be true and will defend to the death, but, according to Freud, it's keeping us from a more fulfilling, authentic life.  The belief in God is often an appeal to consequence: If God exists he'll take care of us. We want Him to take care of us, therefore, God exists.  Why do we fall for this?

We believe because we're insecure.

We came together to band against the whims of nature. It can't be tamed completely, so we humanize it as a God to sometimes fear like we sometimes fear a father who protects us yet will also punish us. God also watches over us and loves us like a mother. Belief in God is like believing in invisible parents in the sky, at once punitive to keep us in line yet loving and forgiving to keep us safe. Part of the reason a belief in God is so popular is an inability for people to deal with the impending or actual loss of their parents, an inability to stand on their own two feet with a moral centre and ability to nurture coming from within instead of above (ch3).

As children mature, they often go through a neurosis of obsessions and compulsions as they first discover that some of their desires must be repressed. This creates anxiety. Most people get over this neurosis naturally as they age.  For Freud it follows that, “Religion would thus be the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity…. it is to be supposed that a turning-away from religion is bound to occur with the fatal inevitability of a process of growth, and that we find ourselves at this very juncture in the middle of that phase of development (ch8).  If we could only grow up already.  But there's another problem...

We also tend to believe we need religion to keep society in control.

We really need to live together, yet that means sacrificing some of our own desires in favour of whatever benefits the group. This is a pickle. As Freud explains, "It is remarkable that, little as men are able to exist in isolation, they should nevertheless feel as a heavy burden the sacrifices which civilization expects of them in order to make a communal life possible" (ch1). We can control nature to an extent, but are horrible at controlling people. You'd think it would be possible, but it means we have to stop suppressing people's instincts, and that means allowing the individual to gain at the expense of society, which isn't very civilized at all. 
"One thus gets an impression that civilization is something which was imposed on a resisting majority by a minority which understood how to obtain possession of the means to power and coercion, [which is fine so long as] these leaders are persons who possess superior insight into the necessities of life and who have risen to the height of mastering their own instinctual wishes" (ch1). 
Fat chance. 

A big part of the problem is basic human nature: "For masses are lazy and unintelligent; they have no love for instinctual renunciation, so they must be coerced." Men are "not fond of work, and they're unable to control their passions...[and] a certain percentage of mankind...will always remain asocial."  Here he sounds like Plato again except he suggests anything but a royal lie. 

In any group, even a small group of friends, even if you all get along, there's always that one person that's the antagonist. It can shift from time to time who will take on that role, but it seems almost always present. I wonder if conflict is necessary or we'll become bored and atrophy. What's a story without conflict? What's a life without any?

So society has prohibitions in place that start out external, but many become internalized. We don't have to remind people not to cannibalize or murder. We generally obey many prohibitions without much external coercion. But we will still commit adultery and fraud, lie, and steal, etc. so long as they remain unpunished. We won't internalize these instincts because - here he gets all Marxists on us - the lower classes see how exploited they are by the upper classes. The lower classes want to pull one over on their oppressors by ripping them off. It's payback time.

One solution is to convince the lower classes to admire the upper in order to keep them in line. North Korea anyone?  Another is if we could convince all citizens to take pride in their city, then they'd be moral. If we all see the entire city as our property, that we're responsible for it all, then we'll keep it clean and safe without any threats.  But both of these solutions take some coercion however minor.  

But Freud insists we can be good without God because it’s rational to be good. Harming others will bring harm back to us. If we want to live safely, we need to agree to not hurt each other, not selflessly, but for entirely egoistic reasons. “Insecurity of life, which is an equal danger for everyone, now unites men into a society which prohibits the individual from killing and reserves to itself the right to communal killing of anyone who violates the prohibition.”

BUT, Freud also adds that our, “purely reasonable motives can effect little against passionate impulsions” (ch8).

But he wonders if our passions override reason because of religious indoctrination and an unnecessary repression of sexual thoughts: “So long as a person’s early years are influenced not only by a sexual inhibition of thought but also by a religious inhibition… we cannot really tell what in fact he is like....Here we are justified in having a hope for the future – that perhaps there is a treasure to be dug up capable of enriching civilization and that it is worth making the experiment of an irreligious education” (ch9).

He was writing during prohibition in the US, and saw that taking away narcotics makes the longing for them more intense.  This would happen with religion too, so it's “senseless to begin by trying to do away with religion by force and at a single blow.” The neurotic need their intoxicants to cope.

“But surely infantilism is destined to be surmounted. Men cannot remain children for ever; they must in the end go out into ‘hostile life’. We may call this ‘education to reality’. Need I confess to you that the sole purpose of my book is to point out the necessity for this forward step?” (ch9)

Why not believe?

The problem with religious illusion is that it's incapable of correction. We're not allowed to question it or fix it or alter it. It must be kept as it always was even when that clearly doesn't work. Rational theories, on the other hand, can be questioned and altered.  The intellect sets itself the same aims as religion “namely the love of man and the decrease of suffering.”

“Since we are prepared to renounce a good part of our infantile wishes, we can bear it if a few of our expectations turn out to be illusions.  Freud claims that “civilization runs a greater risk if we maintain our present attitude to religion than if we give it up.” (ch.7)  There's no evidence that religion helps society, so we should try something else.
“It has ruled human society for many thousands of years and has had time to show what it can achieve. If it had succeeded in making the majority of mankind happy, in comforting them, in reconciling them to life… no one would dream of attempting to alter the existing conditions. But what do we see instead?  We see than an appallingly large number of people are dissatisfied with civilization and unhappy in it, and feel it as a yoke which must be shaken off....It is doubtful whether men were in general happier at a time when religious doctrines held unrestricted sway; more moral they certainly were not. (Ch.7)
His ultimate solution:  “We believe that it is possible for scientific work to gain some knowledge about the reality of the world, by means of which we can increase our power and in accordance with which we can arrange our life....Scientific work is the only road which can lead us to a knowledge of reality outside ourselves."  (ch10)

Since the discovery of mirror neurons, we can prove that people are empathetic.  When someone is hurt, it hurts observers too.  So it's not just for egoistic gain that we're nice to one another, but for our own emotional health as well.   We don't need dad watching over our shoulder any more.   

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