A model for Christian atheism

Sigmund Freud, that ever-controversial figure, is more known for his views on the unconscious and the Oedipus complex than for his theological work, but indeed, as time spent in his house, now museum, in North West London will reveal, a lot of his efforts and interests were devoted to religious symbols, figurines, artworks and texts. From as early as childhood Freud viewed religion as merely a fantasy based entirely upon a childish wish fulfilment, this view most explicitly stated in his work of 1927 entitled The Future of an Illusion where he made clear that though many childhood wishes were unlikely, they were not impossible.

Freud held this particularly negative view of religion up until 1935 when an evident sea-change became apparent in his manner. In private correspondence Freud started to acknowledge the intellectual qualities of God on thought and enquiry, after all the speculation of an absent property had immense benefits for abstract contemplation. Freud’s understanding of the concept of God changed from illusion to promoting sapience. Rather than bogging one down with idle introspection, the concept permitted investigation.

What Freud’s more mature work suggested was that there are substantial benefits to accepting the limits of our knowledge, and having something akin to faith in a truth not necessarily interpreted by the senses. For Freud, Moses represented such an intellectual leap (PDF file), that he refused to accept a life of sun idolatry for something more intellectually cultivating, meant that religion was more than simple childishness, and that even as an atheist – as Freud persistently was throughout his life – Freud realised that there was something important to be maintained from the Judeo-Christian legacy.

Funny, then, that the new atheists – who include well-known figures such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens – all include in their anti-religious polemics appeals to the, slapdash, early Freud view that religion is illusory, a view that, as Ana-Maria Rizzuto reminds us in her excellent book Why Did Freud Reject God: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation, was born out of a rebellious reaction to his Father’s beliefs. Less is said by these bestselling authors about what is valuable about the Judeo-Christian legacy, and there is one simple reason for that, they are in denial of it. At best the so-called humanistic values to which they espouse are offshoots of elements otherwise unparalleled in Christian ethics (to be sure, if there is no God, the guidelines attributed to religion are in some ways expressions of a humanist imperative, but more than that the Golden Rule, as only one example, is a most impressive humanist guide) and at worst they represent the most foul turns of immorality imaginable, from the anti-Christian Adolf Eichmann’s part played in the Final Solution, to Sam Harris’ more recent enthusiasm for torture and the morality of collateral damage. This is not to conflate atheism with immorality, by no means, but by pretending to hold the moral high ground on the basis of non-religion alone, is a grave flaw unlike any other, an illusion.

John Gray, in his take on the phenomena of the new atheists, rightly identified that ‘zealous atheism renews some of the worst features of Christianity and Islam’. The character trait he most deplores in Dawkins et al is their insistence of a new socio-cultural shift that will emerge on the advent of decreased religious influence/tolerance. For Gray, any agenda for dramatic change on a massive scale is doomed to failure before it starts, he imagines that societal thirst and energy for grand narratives has all but dried up, and any remaining hopefuls of radical transformation are setting themselves up to fail. He holds new atheism in this esteem, subtly mocking scientific ‘consciousness raising’ – the analogy of the day – as overoptimistic bunkum.

Though for me it is not because of this hope of societal shift that I find the new atheist project to be largely detrimental, but rather because of the denial of such a transaction’s Christian heritage. Instead of avowedly viewing their conscious-raised utopia as being not too dissimilar from the Christian efforts for transformation by salvation of the existing social order, it instead chooses to caricature religion as indefinitely and unalterably evil, while upholding the folly that atheism is fully grounded on reason, humanism and a pursuit of good, morally superior as a consequence. Such is the nature of the new atheism delusion.


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