The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.
– Richard P. Feynman
Attempts to define religion often situate it in relation to some other reality – variously termed the sacred versus the profane, the supernatural, the universe, a spiritual realm, metaphysical reality, transcendence, mystery, cosmic consciousness etc. – yet science denies such reality. It becomes, however, much clearer what is meant by these terms when one conceptualizes religion in psychological terms – “man” is the ego and “universe”, “transcendence” and the “supernatural” is his or her unconscious. Even though it is rarely defined in such a way in contemporary sociology of religion, religion expresses the relationship of the ego to the unconscious mind.
Thought of this way arguments between believers and their scientifically-minded detractors become much more comprehensible. Believers often base their faith on supernatural experiences – meaningful coincidences, talking with dead spirits, smelling your mother’s favorite flowers before she dies, seeing ghosts, having prophetic dreams etc. – while skeptics deny any otherworldly reality with which such experiences can be associated and consider them random. But if supernatural phenomena are seen in relation not to the external world but to the unconscious mind, they become explainable. Ghosts, spirits and God can be explained by the workings of the unconscious mind and can be interpreted as its – and not otherworldly beings’ – attempts to communicate with the conscious.
In his 1948 book “The Unconscious God” Victor E. Frankl wrote:
Not only is the unconscious not divine, but furthermore, it does not possess any attribute of the divine, and thus lacks divine omniscience as well.
However, if you think that the unconscious has no power, consider the fact that the numbers 4 and 7 appear two times in the number of people who voted leave in the Brexit referendum and that Britain left the EU after 47 years of membership.
Anyway, in this short essay I want to look into theories of religion that hold that it is nothing but the external projection of man’s inner nature.
One of the earliest exponents of this theory is the ancient Greek poet-philosopher Xenophanes, who famously argued:
But mortals suppose that gods are born,
wear their own clothes and have a voice and body.
Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black;
Thracians that theirs are blue-eyed and red-haired.
But if horses or oxen or lions had hands
or could draw with their hands and accomplish such works as men,
horses would draw the figures of the gods as similar to horses, and the oxen as similar to oxen,
and they would make the bodies
of the sort which each of them had.
In the 17th century Benedict de Spinoza expressed a similar view, writing that the biblical authors
imagined God as ruler, legislator, king, merciful, just, etc., despite the fact that all the latter are merely attributes of human nature and far removed from the divine nature.
The main proponent of the projection theory of religion in the modern period, however, is Ludwig Feuerbach. In his 1841 book “The Essence of Christianity” Feuerbach wrote that properly understood, religious claims express anthropological rather than theological truths. The qualities of God such as love, justice and wisdom refer to deep-seated human nature of which God is an imaginary representation.
In 1886 Friedrich Engels wrote of the book:
One must oneself have experienced the liberating effect of this book to get an idea of it. Enthusiasm was general; we all became at once Feuerbachians.
Writing that the ancient Greeks deified virtues, states of mind and passions as independent beings and that in Rome even the passions of fear and terror had their temples, Feuerbach notes the same thing about Christianity:
The Christians also made mental phenomena into independent beings, their own feelings into qualities of things, the passions which governed them into powers which governed the world, in short, predicates of their own nature, whether recognised as such or not, into independent subjective existences. Devils, cobolds, witches, ghosts, angels, were sacred truths as long as the religious spirit held undivided sway over mankind.
According to Feuerbach, religion is humankind’s earliest form of self-knowledge. That is why it precedes philosophy as societies develop.
Man first of all sees his nature as if out of himself, before he finds it in himself. His own nature is in the first instance contemplated by him as that of another being. Religion is the childlike condition of humanity; but the child sees his nature—man—out of himself
This external view of God throws a person’s own morality into light – if God is a perfect being then man is condemned to tremble before him, for he is conscious of his failings. To escape the wrath of God, people invent God’s love as one of his own attributes – he no longer only “hates and curses sinners, and excludes them from his grace, the source of all salvation and happiness” but is also a “loving, tender, even subjective […] being (that is, [has] sympathy with individual man).”
Such a reading of religion casts it as a device to make life more bearable:
It is pleasanter to be passive than to act, to be redeemed and made free by another than to free oneself; pleasanter to make one’s salvation dependent on a person than on the force of one’s own spontaneity; pleasanter to set before oneself an object of love than an object of effort; pleasanter to know oneself beloved by God than merely to have that simple, natural self-love which is innate in all beings; pleasanter to see oneself imaged in the love-beaming eyes of another personal being than to look into the concave mirror of self or into the cold depths of the ocean of Nature; pleasanter, in short, to allow oneself to be acted on by one’s own feeling, as by another, but yet fundamentally identical being, than to regulate oneself by reason.
However, for Feuerbach, religion is ultimately alienating, since it is a form of self-consciousness that involves a relation to ourselves as though to a different being.
And then, finally, we come to Freud. In his 1901 “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life” he wrote:
a large portion of the mythological conception of the world which reaches far into the most modern religions is nothing but psychology projected into the outer world… We venture to explain in this way the myths of paradise and the fall of man, of God, of good and evil, of immortality and the like—that is, to transform metaphysics into meta-psychology” (italics in original)
God, For Freud, is nothing but an introjected image of the father which resides in the unconscious. In his 1913 “Totem and Taboo” he wrote that psychoanalysis of individual human beings
teaches us with quite special insistence that the god of each of them is formed in the likeness of his father, that his personal relation to God depends on his relation to his father in the flesh and oscillates and changes along with that relation, and that at bottom God is nothing other than an exalted father
The view that religion is the outside projection of the unconscious might provide the grounding for a more common-sense place for it in society. A person is bound to forever have a relation to his or her unconscious and so long as the “ever-present causes” of religion, according to Durkheim, operate in society, religion will be with us. It might, then, make sense to replace it instead of something archaic and naive into a more mature version such as science, which Freud regarded as a marker of the maturity of a civilization.
The fact that God is unconscious, for some, does not necessarily mean that he does not exist. Frankl, for example, defended the view that while the conscience is unconscious, it has a transcendental origin. It is a feature of the mind but arose only because there is some supreme reality – for Frankl, God – to which it is in relation. A similar argument was made by the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, of whom Stephen Thornton writes:
Plantinga contends—at least for those who believe in God—that humans have been so constituted by the creator to have a deeply-felt need and wish to believe in him. On this view, the very existence of the wish for a transcendent Father may be taken as evidence for the truth rather than the falsity of the beliefs which it inspires: “Perhaps God has designed us to know that he is present and loves us by way of creating us with a strong desire for him, a desire that leads to the belief that in fact he is there” (Plantinga 2000, 165).
Given the long history of human self-deception, I would not bet on it.
In “The Unconscious God”, for example, Frankl argues that an irreligious person does not seek beyond his or her conscience as a psychological entity, “because he does not want to lose the ‘firm ground under his feet’. The true summit is barred from his vision; it is hidden in the fog, and he does not risk venturing into it, into this uncertainty.” Nothing could be further from the truth, though – it is the religious person who cannot tolerate the absurdity of existence and his or her mortality, not the atheist.
As Alice Miller has argued:
Religions were obviously created not by people respected in childhood but by adults starved of respect from childhood on and brought up to obey their parents unswervingly. They have learned to live with the compulsive self-deception forced on them in their earlier years. Many impressive rituals have been devised to make children ignore their true feelings and accept the cruelties of their parents without demur. They are forced to suppress their anger, their TRUE feelings and honor parents who do not deserve such reverential treatment, otherwise they will be doomed to intolerable feelings of guilt all their lives.
I will end this essay by an observation by Feuerbach that, even if we do not believe in religion, it is worthwhile to harbour values such as love and kindness. Only he to whom such values are nothing is an atheist:
Hence he alone is the true atheist to whom the predicates of the Divine Being — for example, love, wisdom, justice,—are nothing; not he to whom merely the subject of these predicates is nothing.