Saturday, September 20, 2008

A Case of Projection

Part of the whole "science vs. Christianity" metanarrative is that science has consistently shown that human beings aren't as significant as religion claims. Thus, Copernicus showed that the earth isn't at the center of the universe, astronomy has shown that we're a tiny speck in a vast cosmos, and Darwin showed that the human being is just an animal. Freud then appealed to this idea in order to validate his psychological theories, since they presumably showed that the human being is merely a sick animal.

For now I'll deal with the last link in this chain, and save the other links (as well as the chain taken as a whole) for other posts. Freud argued in The Future of an Illusion that people who believe in God were projecting a father figure onto the universe, motivated by a sense of helplessness. And, if religious beliefs are merely the result of psychological and sociological factors, then there's no point in asking whether or not they're true. This was considered by many to be proof from medical science that religion is bogus, in particular, Judaism and Christianity. The reason these two were singled out is because they most clearly define God as a father figure.

While Freud suggested that religion has a stabilizing effect on society as a whole, for the individual, belief in God should generally be treated as a psychological dysfunction. I say "generally" because psychological theories are never absolute; there are always exceptions which don't necessarily refute the theory. Nevertheless, Freudian psychologists have often held that treatment could only be considered successful once the patient has relinquished belief in God.

Of course, there were a few problems with this. Probably the most obvious is that it is a textbook example of a classic logical fallacy. The genetic fallacy is committed when you think that by explaining how a belief originates, you are thereby showing the belief to be false. But this is obviously not the case. If I was raised to believe that murder is bad, pointing this out does not show that murder is not bad.

The point here is that it's necessary to make a distinction between how we come to believe something and whether the object of that belief is true. Any belief has to be judged on its merits, not on the alleged psychological predispositions of its proponents. Freud's projection theory is guilty of reasoning in a way that has been recognized as sloppy thinking by virtually all the great intellects in human history.

Another problem with the projection theory is that Freud didn't have any actual evidence for it. As Os Guinness writes in The Long Journey Home, "the founder of psychoanalysis had astonishingly little experience either in probing the psychology of belief in God or in caring for patients who were religious." To his credit, Freud privately acknowledged that the projection theory was just his personal opinion.

But since Freud's time, plenty of evidence has been collected, and it shows the exact opposite of what Freud thought it would. Guinness writes "Religious life, in fact, has been demonstrated to go hand in hand with better physical health, greater psychological well-being, and a generally positive social influence." It doesn't show any evidence of being the psychological dysfunction Freud believed.

A final problem with the projection theory is that it's actually a better explanation of non-belief in God than belief. Paul Vitz, a psychologist at NYU demonstrates in his book The Faith of the Fatherless, that the most militant atheists had major father issues. He lists Nietzsche, Hume, Bertrand Russell, Sartre, Voltaire, Feuerbach, Ayn Rand, H. G. Wells, Stalin, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, and Freud himself among many others, stating "We find a weak, dead, or abusive father in every case." Often, this connection was openly acknowledged by the atheist. There are, of course, exceptions to this, perhaps the most prominent being John Stuart Mill. But it certainly seems to be a valid psychological theory which explains a majority of cases.

Now, it needs to be stated as clearly as possible that this does not constitute an argument against atheism. Vitz recognizes this. To think it does would be to simply commit the genetic fallacy in the opposite direction. Atheism has to be judged on its intellectual merits, not on the home life of its advocates. Rather, the point of this is that the projection theory seems to be itself a projection. Those who had a problem with their fathers and projected this into a problem with God, then projected this projection itself onto those who don't have a problem with God. They tried to explain belief in God with the same categories that influenced their disbelief in God.

In other words, Freud committed another logical fallacy. The tu quoque fallacy is committed when you accuse your opponent of something that you're guilty of. "Tu quoque" is Latin for "Oh yeah? So are you! Nyaah!" This may make for good rhetoric, but, once again, it's sloppy thinking.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)


A monkey named Darwin once lived in my house said...

If we can say that atheism is associated with the fatherless, aren't we saying that those fatherless people are projecting their early-developed emotions onto their spiritual world, just as Freud's hunch that organized religious beliefs were projections? They seem to work in tandem with each other, so your argument doesn't invalidate your initial statement. It still could be that people who are religious get more out of life because of the social aspects; in other words, the simple fact that this is what the majority of people do (project the best part of themselves onto a mythical figure instead of owning it) creates the observed benefit of being religious. Regardless of which is right, the simple fact remains that religion seems to do as much harm as it does good. We haven't yet found a way to integrate all the positive parts of the religious stories into our lives and to reject all the negative righteousness.

Jim S. said...

Thanks for commenting. One of the points of this post is that we can't use people's alleged motives for believing or disbelieving in God as a reason for rejecting their claims. To think it does is to commit the genetic fallacy. So it's not a matter of the two sides cancelling each other out, it's a matter of not committing a logical fallacy by rejecting their positions because of their home lives rather than analyzing the arguments they give.

I have two points to make regarding your claim that religion seems to do as much harm as it does good. First, "religion" is so broad a category that I don't think this says anything useful. Some religions cause a great deal of harm and not much good, such as those that practiced human sacrifice. Others have their harm and good fairly balanced (assuming, of course, that we could ever quantify such things), while still others have their good outweigh their harm. I think you have to take religions on a case-by-case basis.

Second, I take this to be true not only of religions, but of ideologies in general. Some ideologies cause a great deal of harm and not much good, etc. This is true regardless of whether the ideologies are theistic or atheistic, or have nothing to do with religion.