Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Psychology of Atheism: Part III

NYU psychologist Paul Vitz, in his presentation "The Psychology of Atheism," looks at deeper psychological reasons for atheism. (In Willard, A Place for Truth)

See my two previous posts on this here and here.

Vitz looks at the atheism of the psychologist Freud. Freud's atheism comes from what has been called the "projection theory" of German philosopher-theologian Ludwig Feuerbach. Vitz writes: "When Freud was writing his Future of an Illusion in the 1920s, he was updating Feuerbach." (142)

Freud's atheism is not itself part of his psychoanalysis. Vitz writes: "The thing to keep in mind is this: Freud had very little experience, maybe none at all, with the psychological study of people who believed in God. (143) Freud published no case histories of people who believed in God at the time of their psychoanalysis. "So Freud was really not an expert on the unconscious psychology of people who believed in God." (Ib.) Freud, therefore, did not give us a good theory of religious belief since his idas are not psychoanalytically rooted and are not at all based on much personal experience with God-believers. Freud merely warmed up Feuerbach's projection theory. This is not good scholarship.

Feuerbach's theory is found in his The Essence of Christianity. Feuerbach wrote:
  • What man misses - whether this be an articulate and therefore conscious, or an unconscious, need - that is his God. 
  • Man projects his nature into the world outside himself before he finds it in himself.
  • To live in projected dream-images is the essence of religion. Religion sacrifices reality to the projected dream. . .
Elsewhere Vitz explains: "What Freud did with this argument was to revive it in a more eloquent form, and publish it at a later time when the audience desiring to hear such a theory was much larger. And, of course, somehow the findings and theory of psychoanalysis were implied as giving the theory strong support."

"Strangely enough, however, Freud has inadvertently given us a basic theory for understanding why people would not believe in God, why people would be atheists!" (In Willard, op. cit., 143) The projection theory cuts both ways. To understand this Vitz looks at the one idea Freud is famous for, and which is central to his theory: the "Oedipus Complex."

Next Psychology of Atheism post: Freud's Oedipus Complex & atheism as an example of Oedipal wish fulfillment.