Freud, Evolutionary Psychology, and Religious Experience

Just read an interesting summary of some of Freud's ideas about religious belief and experience. (I also read parts 1 and 2 of the series.) A few thoughts:

1. The distinction Beck makes between the question "Is religious belief true?" and the question "Why is there religious belief?" is very important to keep in mind. You'd be surprised by the extent to which anti-religious discourse centers on the latter and not the former.

2. Often implicit in the question "Why is there religious belief?" is some assumption that religious belief is unjustifiable. In other words, people who pose the question "Why is there religious belief?" are often really asking, "Given that religion is implausible, why is there religious belief?"

3. Freud writes, "We shall tell ourselves that it would be very nice if there were a God who created the world and was a benevolent Providence, and if there were a moral order in the universe and an after-life; but it is a very striking fact that all this is exactly as we are bound to wish it to be." (Or, as Beck puts it: "[F]or Freud, the fact that the very thing we vitally wish for is precisely the thing we believe to be the case seems a bit too coincidental.") In Freud's mind (as in the mind of many other people), potential psychological explanations for religious belief count as evidence against religion - the questions "Why is there religious belief?" and "Is religious belief true?" are somehow linked.

4. For some (hypothetical) fact to constitute evidence against religion, it must be a fact that would be incompatible with a particular religious worldview. But there is no prima facie reason to believe that God would design us not to be psychologically inclined toward religion; on the contrary, most religious people (or at least monotheists) would agree with St. Augustine's assertion in the Confessiones: "Thou [i.e., God] hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee." This is an important point to remember: For a fact to count against a certain belief, it must be incompatible with that belief. But the "facts" which Freud discusses - our natural inclination to desire that God exist - are not incompatible with most religious systems.

Of course, a non-religious account of religious belief and experience (such as Freud's) can possibly neutralize some arguments for religion that are grounded in design or experience. But it cannot neutralize religion itself.

In fact, I could construct an argument from Freud's psychological theories for the opposite metaphysical conclusion. I could "spin" the psychological evidence the other way: Given that we are psychologically inclined toward belief in God, is it not reasonable to conclude that God was somehow involved in our creation? Is it truly plausible that evolution accidentally inclined us toward belief in a fictional being completely unlike anything else in existence? Or that evolution would lead us to some philosophical abstract for our emotional consolation? (This echoes C.S. Lewis' line from Mere Christianity: "If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.")

I am not saying that this is a good argument; in fact, I would be wary of it, because I am not an evolutionary psychologist. But the point remains.

5. As Beck notes, religious belief and experience are multifaceted and powerful phenomena. It will not suffice simply to identify some experience associated with "religion" and explain that experience. Religious experience varies tremendously within and among religious traditions. Can the same evolutionary hypothesis explain Benny Hinn, Laozi, and everything in between? I doubt it.

In my opinion, the fact that this entire debate is centered around "religion" betrays a central conceit of those opposed to "religion" - a tendency to group all "religious" people together. But from a psychological perspective, this hardly seems reasonable, given how differently a Taoist and a Pentecostal will "experience" "religion."

6. None of this necessarily means I disagree with any or all of the theories proposed by evolutionary psychologists concerning religion.