A Difference of Opinion: Foundations of Religion

Part One in a Three Part Series on C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 10:22 PM

It is hard to imagine a fundamentally more important question than if God exists or not. Arguably, all of eternity is at stake. While this is not a good reason for belief by itself, this very issue led to Pascal’s argument for a wager on the question of God (Hick 59). If I “bet” on God, I lose relatively nothing if I am wrong, but if I bet against God, I have everything to lose. Whether true faith can come from such a pragmatic, cynical approach to belief is a topic for another day, but it does demonstrate how important belief in God is, if theists are right in their arguments.

The idea of belief, or lack thereof, by rational calculations, on the other hand, is sometimes argued as an unrealistic view of how we come to believe. In the video the Question of God, skeptic Michael Schemer argues that part of his reason for joining the camp of skeptics was that he liked the people in that “community” better, and, he asserts, theists would do well to admit that purely emotional reasons are part of the reason why we believe as we do as well (“A Transcendent Experience”).

To an extent, Schemer may be correct in reference as to why a lot of people come to believe or disbelieve. Few of us are willing to give up the time necessary to do a thorough rational analysis of whether we should believe, instead choosing to simply build up arguments after the fact to support where we stand. However, the cases of C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud are not typical cases at all. In these two men we see two of the most brilliant minds of the late nineteenth through the middle twentieth centuries who did more than simply follow an emotional appeal to their positions, and once there, they did not continue to sit idly on a sandy foundation, but continued to build a strong, systematic defense of their respective beliefs. Both grew up in religious homes and both became skeptics in their youth, but one returned to faith and one did not.

The two books under consideration, Mere Christianity and Future of an Illusion, demonstrate the opposite sides that these two men fall on, but with a distinct difference worth mentioning early on. C.S. Lewis builds up to his deeper chapters by first demonstrating the reasonableness of believing in the divine origin of Biblical teachings in a manner that can be judged by the individual, but Freud’s polar theory on the origins of religious teachings does not have a method to verify itself by. As Lewis notes early on, most people will agree that Jesus was a “great moral teacher” (52). The rub is that a man who was just a good teacher would never say the things Jesus said; to the contrary, Lewis asserts, a mere human saying what Jesus did would not be a “great moral teacher” at all. As Lewis put it, that is “patronizing nonsense.”

We must therefore choose one of the following options concerning such a person: that person was an evil liar, an insane person or was exactly what he claimed to be. Now, of course, the case could be made that the early Christians distorted what Jesus said to fit their needs, but it seems that the claim of the deity of Christ was so ingrained in the early church, it is hard to imagine that Jesus did not accept that attribute being applied to him.

Given this, we receive an easy way of testing Jesus’ claims. We should read the words of Christ and, it is likely we will find that these do not sound like the words of a liar or a lunatic. If he was not a liar or a madman, then we have but one choice: we must accept the claims that Jesus gave. Now, someone could argue that Jesus was sincerely mistaken about this issue, but that takes us back to the state of being mad; I might be misguided on my understanding of a certain mathematical formula without being mad, but if I claim to be the God of all the universe and am not, I must be either mad or lying – I cannot just be sincerely mistaken. Lewis says the choice is obvious to him; Jesus was not a liar or a madman (53). If we can say this, then we have established that the origin of Christianity is God Himself.

Freud on the other hand begins by demonstrating his theories on the origin of religion, namely, of the primal horde (53-54) and wish fulfillment projection (21). In this text, Freud concentrates primarily on the latter, but he asserts they are not different theories, but rather two parts of the same puzzle (28-29). Therefore, since Freud sees the projection ideas explained in Future of an Illusion as simply adding to his earlier statements, it makes sense to consider the problem of the “son-father relationship” (primal horde) theory of the origin of religion before looking at Freud’s primary theory in the book. There is one problem with the primal horde theory that causes a significant impairment to what he assumes based on it: the historicity of this theory’s occurrence is generally rejected today by experts such as anthropologists (“Freud’s theory”). That is, it would appear that Freud did not properly examine the evidence before positing the theory (Hick 34, Scupin 30) and therefore his own suggestion appears to fit his definition of an illusion (Freud 40). Moreover, as Lewis notes, when wandering away from the area of curing neuroses, as he does when discussing theories of the origin of religions, Freud is merely speaking “as an amateur” (89). The issue of evidence presents a serious difficulty in boosting this theory, needless to say. This is not to say that Freud should be written off wholesale. If we substitute his primal horde for Emile Durkheim’s view on the origin of religion, we end up with a bit more stable theory, and in fact, Freud spends a significant amount of time discussing religion in terms of keeping people civilized (Freud 17), something that sounds a lot like what Durkheim had to say. Freud also posits religion as a calming agent for keeping the status quo of society, rather like Marx (62).

However, the theory of religion as an abstraction of society has serious flaws too. Many religions, especially the ones that command the majority of adherents today, have at sometime, past or present, been destructive to the status quo of society rather than helpful in keeping it unified (Hick 32). Christianity may have helped unify the Roman Empire, but before that, it was a schismatic movement that was divisive to the ideas of the Jews and the Romans. Likewise, we can look throughout history and find cases concerning Islam, Buddhism and so on, wherein the religious sentiment did anything but aid in the status quo of society. This is a theory on shaky ground, to say the least.

Now, so far, it has been demonstrated that Freud’s attempt to get his foot in the door of arguing against religion can be quickly rebuffed, but C.S. Lewis’s argument, while not able to convince everyone who reads it, is much harder to dismiss wholesale as a flawed argument. Generally people do like to think that we can tell the difference between the writings of a “great teacher” and a madman, and C.S. Lewis puts the reader to the challenge of doing just that. In other words, the foundation of Freud’s assumptions, the “horde” and “civilization” theories, both seem to be less easily testable than what Lewis uses to base his rationale for arguing for Christ.

In the next part of this three part series, I shall consider the implications and counter-arguments concerning Freud's second theory on the origin of religion and consider the issue of moral law and where it originates.

Note: Works cited information will appear in the third part of this series.

Tags: Religion

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