Sunday, September 21, 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 Agent Intellect)

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.