Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Psychology of Atheism

Found this interesting read from an orthodox blog regarding the psychology behind atheism. This read was, in turn, taken from Dinesh D'Souza's book "What’s So Great About Christianity". Here it is:

Sigmund Freud saw religion as providing a cowardly refuge from the harsh realities of life and the inevitability of death... Wish fulfillment would most likely give rise to a very different God than the one described in the Bible. Wish fulfillment can explain heaven, but it cannot explain hell.

... the reason many atheists are drawn to deny God, and especially the Christian God, is to avoid having to answer in the next life for their lack of moral restraint in this one.

In a powerful essay, “The Discreet Charm of Nihilism,” Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz argues that in order to escape from an eternal fate in which our sins are punished, man seeks to free himself from religion. “A true opium of the people is a belief in nothingness after death—the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders, we are not going to be judged.” So the Marxist doctrine needs to be revised. It is not religion that is the opiate of the people, but atheism that is the opiate of the morally corrupt.

If you want to live a degenerate life, God is your mortal enemy. He represents a lethal danger to your selfishness, greed, lechery and hatred. It is in your interest to despise Him and do whatever you can to rid the universe of His presence.

To me, this makes very much sense and can easily be one of the major reasons why many people turn to atheism. It's sad really. But at the same time, it gives hope to those who choose to be in a state of unbelief. For one, it confronts them with the reality of the issue.

Because just as they may think that religion is only a psychological crutch, the denial of religion can equally be so (perhaps even to a greater extent).


Jesse said...

Hey Dave, it's Jesse from Rutgers. We'll catch up later, but for now I have to say I disagree with you on this one. Religion or lack thereof has very little to do with a person's morals. Plenty of bad people have believed in God (or gods) and plenty of good people haven't. The psychological reasons for religion or atheism has far more to do with the need to believe in something greater than one's self. For the religious person, faith provides community and connection, for the atheist/agnostic, it creates unnecessary rules and devaluation of the self.

Somewhere in the high 90 percent of people in the world believe in some sort of higher power, and yet I suspect we can both agree that a greater percent of people than that engage in behavior unworthy of the virtues of the great monotheistic faiths. We'd probably also agree that the correlation is not 1:1 in any case. Many atheists and agnostics are also better at holding to their own moral codes, because they are self-made instead of imposed by family or culture.

For all this, I'm not downing your faith or anyone else's out of hand. I'm just saying you shouldn't assume religion equates to virtue, because history has shown it clearly does not.

David Yuen said...

Hey Jesse, thanks for responding to the blog entry. Overall, I agree with you entirely that there have been many theists throughout history who have done terrible things, just as there have been many atheists/secularist who have done terrible things as well.

The basic "thrust" of what I was trying to get at was that although atheists have used the argument that religion is nothing more than a psychological crutch or an opiate for the weak, that argument is invalid in the sense that it could easily be used against them in the same way.

Just as people may have reasons to "motivate" them into believing in God (hope, a sense of divine purpose), people can also have reasons to motivate them into disbelieving in Him as well (independence, a sense of individual "freedom").

Another point that I wanted to bring up in the post was that, yes, a person's religious belief/lack of religious belief doesn't necessarily guarantee whether he or she would be either evil or good. I agree with you on that.

But if a person knew what was wrong and still wanted to center his life around doing wrong despite this knowledge, then disbelieving in a higher authority would be far more appealing to him than believing in one. I mean, think about it for a moment--unless you join a religion that worshiped an evil or apathetic god, the only other viable way to justify yourself completely in the indulgence of evil is simply to deny the existence of an authority of absolute good that could hold you in account.

Jesse said...

I agree that atheists and agnostics are just as capable of bad things as anyone else. Communism and the Reign of Terror show us that.

As to what you're saying though, a person acknowledging that what they do is wrong takes a great degree of self-awareness. Most people usually don't think they're bad people, even if they do bad things. They justify themselves or assume their infractions are minor ones. I'll agree that in some circumstances, lack of religious belief might make bad behavior more convenient, and there probably are nihilists out there who justify their actions in this way, but I think that's a far cry from most atheists, and most theists as well.

Very few people have absolutely no moral code. Whether it's instinctual, taught, or self-built, people of all faiths or lack thereof design their systems, and try to feel as though they are good people. This is not to say they are or aren't, just that most people like to believe their actions are the right ones. Given this, I don't know that either way yields a superior person, but I will say that people hang their misdeeds on all manner of crutches.

David Yuen said...

Overall, I agree with you on the idea that many people, even possibly the worst of all people, have the tendency not to view themselves as "evil" per se, but I do disagree with the idea that it requires a person with a great degree of self-awareness to realize what they're doing is wrong.

Yes, people have the tendency to justify or minimilize their transgressions when they commit them, but you must consider the fact that most of the time, this is an after-thought.

In many cases, people already KNOW what they're doing is wrong, but still want to do it anyway, so in reaction to this, they THEN find ways to minimalize, justify, or whatever. Sometimes, they become so use to it that they begin to convince themselves they're innocent. But when confronted with the evidence or the consequences, the truth eventually comes out.

In such cases, the self-justification for a crime is merely a defense mechanism to avoid something that the person already knew from the beginning. It's a desperate means for a person to be able to live with him/herself.

And what better means of self-justification(besides ignorance) than to claim that one's own morality is as good as anyone else's, since there is no ultimate authority beyond man to establish/enforce it from the very beginning.

Jesse said...

Ah, I think what you're talking about there is moral relativism. I will agree that relativism is a very slippery slope, and can certainly be a convenient rationale for many people. Does that come from lack of belief in a higher power? I'd say that's trickier. It could I suppose, but it's not the only way such people might go.

A defined set of values probably does work to prevent relativism, but that could be constructed by either a religion or an individual willing to stick to their guns. Perhaps the great crutch we're missing out on here is people who are simply unwilling to think their belief systems through. A well thought-out person is less likely to lapse, or at least more likely to attempt some sort of self-correction in the case of a lapse, because they have a harder time lying to themselves.


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