Thursday, March 31, 2011

Religion as Trickery: Brown (4)

Here are a couple of the interviews with Derren Brown that I used to write the material on Religion as Trickery for our "Atheism for Lent" Course at Journey:

"Magic and Being Human" (Derren Brown interview with Nigel Warburton)

"Appearance and Reality" (Derren Brown interview with Nigel Warburton)

I'll post Derren Brown's Channel4 documentary, "Messiah," that we're going to watch and then discuss on Sunday night at "Atheism for Lent" tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Religion as Trickery: Brown (3)

Knowledge about what Derren Brown calls the ‘false logic’ involved in religious, spiritual, magical, psychical and other paranormal practices can help in this process of questioning.

Thus Brown’s work often hinges on exhibitions and explanations of the human ability to anticipate and manipulate the actions of others, demonstrating powers that condition and convince, transform and convert, as well as revealing luck, fate or destiny to be intricately linked to aptitudes for working with predictability and probability. The elements of illusion involved here come, therefore, from the performer’s adeptness at misdirection and misinformation, rather than from the subject’s gullibility – though what Brown sees as a ‘hard-wired’ susceptibility to make patterns and tell stories that make sense of our experiences of impossibility plays a part as well.

As far as what I do goes, I see it about playing very specifically to people’s intelligence [and not naivety]. You create a false logic. You create what appears to be an A, B, C. So, you know, in the case of a card trick, A is you pick a card, B is I make some magic thing over it, and C is it’s in my pocket, and that seems impossible.

But you miss, in fact, between A and B there was another stage, where maybe you picked a card and then maybe I took them back and gave them a little shuffle and then handed them back to you or there was something in the way that you picked the card that actually I was forcing a card on you, I was controlling your decision, but it doesn’t seem important so you don’t remember that.

And similarly between me doing the magic part [B] and it ending up in my pocket [C] maybe I did something else, maybe I asked you to put the cards in your pocket and I gestured in my pocket as I did that and that’s when I loaded the card in, but it doesn’t seem important to the story and you remember an A, B, C that’s impossible.

But if you see it in terms of that’s actually A, C, E and the real route actually goes A, then B, then C, then D, then E, then it becomes quite possible.

So to me that’s not about gullibility, that’s about a certain grammar that people will follow… We can’t function unless we form those patterns and this presumably goes back to, “if you see half a sabre-toothed tiger coming round the corner at you, you don’t wait for the other half, you run.” …In the same way, the magician creates that pattern knowing that we are hard-wired, probably, to fall for that, and fall for the easier pattern that’s presented to us. (Brown, in interview with Nigel Warburton, "Appearance and Reality")
Just as we might have missed the steps that would expose our experience of an impossible card trick to be based on a false logic that is in turn grounded in a lack of information about the knowledge and skills of a talented magician, might there be steps – that are consciously taken and thereby exposed by Brown, but perhaps unconsciously taken by those in the institutions and ‘industries’ around religious, spiritual and paranormal beliefs and practices – that we also miss (Brown, "Messiah")?

What are the steps – A, C, and E – which we use to form our beliefs and practices? To what extent do we only ‘notice what supports our beliefs’ in order to construct patterns, and ‘disregard the rest’ ("Messiah")?

What might steps B and D actually be? What aspects of our beliefs and practices don’t we consciously remember or don’t seem important?

Are we telling ourselves the story of the easier pattern?

If religious beliefs and practices operate on the unconscious false logic of a magic trick...

...what happens to my faith?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Religion as Trickery: Brown (2)

Derren Brown is a performer who ‘combines magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship in order to seemingly predict and control human behaviour’ (website). Behind his performances lie both an atheistic scepticism and a form of suspicion which ask questions about ‘why we believe things’ (Brown, "Messiah"). His study of religion, psychology, magic, hypnosis, psychic ability, spiritualism, and New Age beliefs such as crystal energy and alien abduction leads him to debunk as delusions and deceptions contemporary religious, spiritual, or paranormal beliefs and practices, as well as the ‘mind tricks’ of entertainment, alternative medicine, and other everyday “bad sciences” (Brown, Tricks of the Mind; see also recommended reading list on his website).

His books and TV shows therefore encourage a suspicion of appearances that presupposes the distinctions made by Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche between manifest and latent motives. Brown’s conscious manipulation of human behaviour, including performances in which he converts people to Christianity ‘with a single touch’ ("Messiah"), acts as a mirror to aid reflection upon some of the operative yet unconscious motivations involved in all systems of belief and practice.

What Brown does primarily interests him (and his audiences) not at the transcendent level at which ontological or metaphysical questions are asked about the existence of God or UFOs, the ability of psychics, or the power of crystal energy – but at the immanent level at which historical, sociological and, particularly, psychological questions are asked about how and why we come to believe and do certain things.

Talking to a psychic, there’s the cheap illusion of her psychic ability or his psychic ability that’s questionable, but what to me is more interesting is the human level, the fact that I could sit and listen to a psychic and be so convinced, what that actually says about me and us as people and the way we interact and the way that we do form those patterns, the way that we will see design where there is none, the way that we’ll come to those conclusions, at a purely psychological level is so much more interesting, ’cos that says something about us as humans, which ultimately has to be more powerful and more beautiful than nonsensical guff about the ether. (Brown, in interview with Nigel Warburton, "Magic and Being Human")
The more interesting illusions that Brown suspects are involved in religion – as well as, for example, in cold reading (whereby the reader conveys more details about another person than s/he actually does know) and slight-of-hand entertainment – are not related to degrees of either incredulity or gullibility. He does, however, stress the importance of information. He says, ‘it doesn’t really matter how much you believe in it or [don’t] believe in it;’ instead, it depends on whether you have ‘specific knowledge about specific skills’ that magicians or psychics or religious institutions and practitioners employ (in interview with Nigel Warburton, "Appearance and Reality"). For example, he notes that ‘[r]eligions tend to encourage either high-energy crowd activity or candle-lit monotony to invoke a suggestible state among the congregation.’

As ‘intelligent human beings,’ Brown suggests therefore that ‘we should be prepared to question our beliefs and [to question] the people who encourage us to make life decisions based on the information they give us’ ("Messiah").

Monday, March 28, 2011

Religion as Trickery: Brown (1)

Derren Brown, interview with Richard Dawkins for Dawkins' Channel4 programme, "The Enemies of Reason."

Richard Dawkins: Where does your scepticism come from?

Derren Brown: Well, in terms of my history, I used to be a very devout Christian when I was younger, but didn’t have a Christian family, didn’t have Christian friends… but it came from a Bible reading class when I was young; it was an unpleasant childhood indoctrination. But because I grew up without a Christian peer group, when I got to university it was relatively easy for me to kind of think my way out of it, to start to challenge it and not feel too much guilt…

At the same time I was getting into magic and, through magic, realising how things like tarot cards and psychics really work and that there’s nothing mystical about it that could therefore be seen as dangerous, but it’s just simply sort of rubbish and charlatanism and psychology at work…

I’d talked to psychics and I’d listened to their sort of circular beliefs and I remembering thinking, “I am doing exactly the same thing, but as a Christian.” The only difference is that it’s easier to laugh at them because it’s a fringe belief, whereas my belief is so much more endorsed institutionally, it’s more respectable, that I thought, “I’m just being a hypocrite.”

So I started to read some theology texts and books about how the Bible really came together and a kind of mixture of books that I hoped would at least challenge my easy, pat answers that I had as a young Christian. And I felt that if I could just undo all the easy answers, if I just had a bunch of questions, that I might actually be able to build a much stronger, more defensible faith from it.

And then that sort of just didn’t happen. It just all seemed silly and I realised that there was no going back, and once you realise that the Bible isn’t an historical account of things that have happened, then, you’re sort of left with no basis for it at all.

From that, then, I wanted to defend my non-belief as strongly as I felt that I should’ve been able to defend it as a believer, so that’s something that’s been left with me.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Atheism for Lent: Nietzsche

At "Atheism for Lent" tonight, we had the most heated discussion so far on the Course. Nietzsche's critique of religion, which is strongly connected to his genealogy of morality, furnished us with the material for such a great debate that it was hard to get the group to think not only about his atheistic scepticism (see this post for the difference between scepticism and suspicion) and "immorality" (see here) but also about what questions his hermeneutic of suspicion might raise about our own faith (whether atheistic, theistic or neither).

I began with a summary of the material I prepared about Nietzsche (which you can access using the links below), for whom the story of how belief in God arose is the only argument against belief in God that atheists need to employ. To explain the emergence of belief in God, Nietzsche puts forward two interlinking theses, an ontological one about the "will to power" and a more historical or sociological one about the "morality of mores," which taken together suggest that every morality is an expression of that community's will to power.

Nietzsche's "death of God" thesis, which is prophetic even to the atheists for whom God is already dead, highlights that the implications of this death have yet to be properly understood by humanity, since it entails the collapse of western morality. For Nietzsche, the atheists are still acting like theists; the atheists are still acting as if there is an eternally stable point of reference to guarantee the meaning and purpose of life.

It was hard to get some people in the group to really agree with Nietzsche that not even secular human Reason can attain a fixed reference point for morality. Many people felt very strongly that universal values had to exist for ethical and pragmatic reasons, but it was great trying to get them to grapple with Nietzsche's hypothesis that the will to power is what is operative even amongst action for equality, justice and peace - that self-interest, self-preservation, envy, aggression and resentment might be latent in manifestly humanitarian motivations and activism. I would've liked to have explored in a bit more detail about Nietzsche's identification of Pharisaism and moral superiority (see here) within Christian morality.

We talked quite a lot about master and slave moralities, and tried to help each other work through the differences between the two and about what the possibilities of hope might be in Nietzsche's work. But it was hard to do justice to Nietzsche's contention that master morality, with its open and honest revenge, hatred and anger (which are all-pervasive, given the will to power), is preferable to slave morality. Even if equality, justice and peace are functions of the "will to power," many within the group wondered, why isn't striving after these ideals at least a bit better than the "justice" of master morality in which the continued oppression of the powerless is justified as "just the way the world is" (see here).

Walking home, my partner Sim mentioned a Blake poem that would've been useful to illustrate the differences between an open and honest resentment (master morality) which exercises revenge and a festering, poisonous resentment (slave morality) which has no outlet for vengeance.

A Poison Tree, by William Blake

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I water'd it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright;
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine,

And into my garden stole,
When the night had veil'd the pole:
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretch'd beneath the tree.

Religion as Revenge: Nietzsche (1)
Religion as Revenge: Nietzsche (2)
Religion as Revenge: Nietzsche (3)
Religion as Revenge: Nietzsche (4)
Religion as Revenge: Nietzsche (5)

Next week we're going to watch a documentary by Derren Brown, but I've written a bit of material to go with it, so I'll post that here too as this week unfolds.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Religion as Revenge: Nietzsche (5)

By further examining some specific moral virtues, it becomes clearer why Nietzsche’s hermeneutics of suspicion interpret Christian morality as slave morality and therefore why he disdains it as a ‘great curse’ and an ‘immortal blemish’ of humanity (The Gay Science, Book 5, S343).

For Nietzsche, justice and love (including, compassion, charity or pity) are ‘parallel expressions of the revenge of the resentful’ (Merold Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, p.252). Within slave morality, whilst distributive justice (equality) expresses the latent envy of those who have the least share, retributive justice (punishment) expresses an operative desire to be executioners. This is why Nietzsche has Zarathustra say, ‘[m]istrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful… the hangman and bloodhound look out of their faces. Mistrust all who talk much of their justice’ (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part 2, Chapter 7). In their mouths, the word “justice” is ‘like poisonous spittle’ (On the Genealogy of Morals, Essay 3 S4).

Nietzsche’s comments on the dangers of eager moral judges raise the question of moral fanaticism, even of terrorism and fascism.
Nietzsche is easy to deal with when he can be treated as a proto-Fascist whose doctrine of the will to power portends Hitler. [But a]… more disturbing [suggestion is]… that the great gulf we have fixed between ourselves and fascism is largely wishful thinking… We would like to say that the fascists and the terrorists represent the distortion and misuse of the ideals of justice. Nietzsche’s reply is that those ideals are in essence, and not accidentally, moral distortions because of their origin in resentment. Probably nothing makes his case stronger than comparing the fascist Final Solution with the Christian Final Judgement (Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, pp.255-256).
In a similar way, love within slave morality is a virtue that expresses revenge. In any act of giving, we are able to demonstrate that we are ‘the more powerful’ and to experience ‘the taste of superiority.’ In ‘active gratitude,’ we enact ‘benevolent revenge.’ But the object of love, compassion, charity or pity experiences this as a form of ‘contempt’ (Daybreak, SS133-138), since, ‘[g]reat indebtedness does not make men grateful, but vengeful; and if a little charity is not forgotten, it turns into a gnawing worm’ (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part 2, Chapter 3).

Within both justice and love, then, will to power within slave morality, ‘the will to power of the weakest’ (On the Genealogy of Morals, Essay 3 S14), expresses the repressed resentment that cannot otherwise find expression in a form of moral superiority. Nietzsche refers to this unconscious vengeful moral supremacy as Pharisaism, since Pharisees are ‘all men of ressentiment… a whole tremendous realm of subterranean revenge,’ who ‘walk among us as embodied reproaches’ (S14). In slave morality, ‘the good must be Pharisees – they have no choice,’ since their goodness depends on the evilness of others (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part 3, S12.26). ‘Pharisaism is not a degeneration in a good man,’ Nietzsche writes, ‘a good deal of it is rather the condition of all being good’ (Beyond Good and Evil, S135). In slave morality, moral superiority is therefore inbuilt in the moral value “good.”

From biblical descriptions of Pharisees, it is not hard to see why Nietzsche uses this term to describe the moral superiority of slave morality. Think, for example, of the Pharisee who prays, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector’ (who prays beside him in Luke 18:11).

Remembering that ‘[o]ne does not have to be a Pharisee in order to be a Pharisee’ (Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, p.267), to what extent do our beliefs and practices unconsciously express moral superiority?

How close, then, do they lie to moral fanaticism and even fascism?

What happens to our manifest beliefs in forgiveness, salvation or love of neighbour, if our notions of “goodness” depend on latent comparisons with those whom we have first deemed “evil”? How can we forgive ‘those on whose wickedness [our] own goodness depends?’ (p.272)

Do we make virtues out of weakness and various forms of impotence? Do we mask fear and cowardice as obedience and humility?

If “God,” “morality,” “truth,” and other Christian “ascetic ideals” are nothing more than means to justify an unconscious desire for revenge...

...what happens to my faith?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Religion as Revenge: Nietzsche (4)

It is not hard to see, therefore, that Nietzsche’s critique of biblical religion (both Judaism and Christianity) is that it operates within slave morality. When he writes that the Jews ‘mark the beginning of the slave rebellion in morals’ (Beyond Good and Evil, S195) and that ‘[o]ne knows who inherited this Jewish revaluation’ of morality (On the Genealogy of Morals, Essay 1 S7), Nietzsche is emphasising both the “Jewishness” of Christianity and the “Jewishness” of Christian anti-Semites – thereby scorning rather than securing later Nazi attempts to appropriate his philosophical legacy for the purpose of fascism. For him, biblical religion is a religion of priestly power, by which he means an impotent power. Whilst priests are a caste that can acquire great political power, even supremacy, and enjoy a strong social function, the origin of their power is weak, or, as Nietzsche increasingly refers to it, “sick,” since it is grounded not in master morality but in the slave morality that first labels its enemies as evil and then labels itself as good. Priests emerge from a slave ‘ressentiment without equal, that of an insatiable instinct and power-will that want to become master’ (Essay 3 S11), but ‘[i]t is because of their impotence that in them hatred grows to monstrous and uncanny proportions, to the most spiritual and poisonous kind of hatred’ (Essay 1 SS6-7). But priests must also be powerful:
Dominion over the suffering is his kingdom, that is where his instinct directs him, here he possesses his distinctive art, his mastery, his kind of happiness… He must be sick himself… but he must also be strong, master of himself even more than of others, with his will to power intact, so as to be both trusted and feared by the sick, so as to be their support, resistance, prop, compulsion, taskmaster, tyrant, and god (Essay 3 S15).
As Paul Ricoeur notes, ‘[t]his passion is all the more treacherous for it believes itself to be serving the truth’ (History and Truth, p.179). This truth is what Nietzsche calls an “ascetic ideal,” shaped by religious and ethical beliefs and practices, which forms the ‘moral basis of pastoral power’ (Merold Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, p.241) and acts as the ‘best instrument of power’ and the ‘supreme license for power’ (On the Genealogy of Morals, Essay 3 S1). That ascetic ideals might function to legitimise the power of its priestly keepers is clear. As an instrument of power, however, ascetic ideals also enable priests to apply their power since these ideals and values are, for Nietzsche, the origin of guilt and bad conscience. Nietzsche describes Greek gods as ‘those reflections of noble and autocratic men, in whom the animal in man felt deified and did not lacerate itself, did not rage against itself!’ – a projection which enabled the Greeks to avoid guilt about desires and actions, ‘the very opposite,’ Nietzsche writes, ‘of the use to which Christianity puts its God,’ which functions to instead encourage bad conscience (Essay 2 S23). Evil as an expression of resentment and an instrument of revenge is thereby applied by Christians to themselves, and this “guilt before God” is then exploited by priestly power.
“I suffer: someone must be to blame for it” – thus thinks every sickly sheep. But his shepherd, the ascetic priest, tells him: “Quite so, my sheep! someone must be to blame for it: but you yourself are this someone… you alone are to blame for yourself!” – This is brazen and false enough: but one thing at least is achieved by it, the direction of ressentiment is altered (Essay 3 S15).
In needing to be shepherd of the ‘sickly sheep,’ priestly power manipulates both weakness and guilt into fear and trust. In this way, Christian virtue is, according to Nietzsche, ‘the cunning of impotence.’ An impotent slave morality says, ‘[w]e weak ones are, after all, weak; it would be good if we did nothing for which we are not strong enough,’ making a virtue of weakness and turning ‘anxious lowliness into “humility”; subjection to those one hates into “obedience”… [and] inability for revenge is called unwillingness to revenge, perhaps even forgiveness,’ such that impotence becomes ‘a voluntary achievement, willed, chosen, a deed, a meritorious act’ (Essay 1 SS13-14).

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Religion as Revenge: Nietzsche (3)

Returning to his genealogy of moral pluralism, Nietzsche identifies ‘two basic types’ of morality – “master morality” and “slave morality” – within ‘the many subtler and coarser moralities’ (Beyond Good and Evil, S260). The difference between these two moralities illustrates how Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity centres on the charge that it is a religion born ‘out of the spirit of ressentiment’ or resentment (Ecco Homo, p.312).

These two moralities differ in origin, with master morality found among the strong and powerful, and slave morality among ‘the violated, oppressed, suffering, unfree, who are uncertain of themselves and weary’ (Beyond Good and Evil, S260).

But they also differ in content, as Nietzsche’s account of master morality highlights:

The concept good and evil has a two-fold prehistory: firstly in the soul of the ruling tribes and castes. He who has the power to requite, good with good, evil with evil, and also actually practices requital – is, that is to say, grateful and revengeful – is called good; he who is powerless and cannot requite counts as bad. As a good man one belongs to the “good,” a community which has a sense of belonging together… As a bad man one belongs to the “bad,” to a swarm of subject, powerless people… Good and bad is for a long time the same thing as noble and base, master and slave. On the other hand, one does not regard the enemy as evil: he can requite. In Homer the Trojan and the Greek are both good (Human All Too Human, S45).
As ‘the soul of the ruling tribes and castes,’ the master morality consists of ‘the evaluative traditions and customs’ of a particular community of the strong and the powerful (Merold Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, p.233). As such, revenge, which is the power to requite evil with evil in the service of the community, is a virtue, a natural expression of that community’s will to power.

The primary dualism within master morality is good/noble versus bad/base (rather than versus evil) such that even ‘the enemies of the good are themselves good and not evil.’ To designate the enemy or the weak as bad/base is ‘not to signify some harmful quality they possess, some essence they exhibit, but rather to express the “pathos of distance” in which they are recognized as lacking what makes life worth living for the strong, what makes the good good’ (On the Genealogy of Morals, Essay 1 S2).

Further, since the primarily value within master morality is good/noble, rather than bad/base, the key to this morality is, as Merold Westphal notes, that ‘the goodness of the good does not depend on the badness of the bad’ (Suspicion and Faith, p.233). As Nietzsche puts it, ‘every noble morality develops from a triumphant affirmation of itself’ rather than from a denigration of its enemies (On the Genealogy of Morals, Essay1 S10). This means that, within master or noble morality, ‘no one is evil’ (S2).

However, Nietzsche observes, ‘[w]hen man possesses the feeling of power he feels and calls himself good: and it is precisely then that the others upon whom he has to discharge his power feel and call him evil!’ (Daybreak S189). This latter point introduces the primary characteristic of a second morality in Nietzsche’s prehistory, slave morality.

That lambs dislike great birds of prey does not seem strange: only it gives no ground for reproaching these birds of prey for bearing off little lambs. And if the lambs say among themselves: “these birds of prey are evil; and whoever is least like a bird of prey, but rather its opposite, a lamb – would he not be good?” there is no reason to find fault with this institution of an ideal, except perhaps that the birds of prey might view it a little ironically and say, “we don’t dislike them at all, these good little lambs; we even love them: nothing is more tasty than a tender lamb.” (On the Genealogy of Morals, Essay1 S13).

Within slave morality, then, the wickedness of the wicked is primary, with the goodness of the good emerging in comparison to enemies already designated as evil: ‘He has conceived “the evil enemy, “the Evil One,” and this in fact is his basic concept, from which he then evolves, as an afterthought and pendant, a “good one” – himself!” (S10)

This means that, for Nietzsche, “good” has ‘two diametrically opposed meanings, depending on whether its opposite is bad or evil, or, to be more specific, depending on whether it designates the values perceived by the masters to be in their interest or those perceived by the slaves to be in theirs’ (S11). For example, “justice” (to which we shall return shortly) is understood within slave morality as altruism and equality, but this is because it has much to gain from such a virtue whilst master morality has everything to lose. Accordingly, master morality understands justice in the sense of ‘the primordial law of things’ (Beyond Good and Evil, S265), the way things are and should continue to be, because it is from this that it benefits: ‘Big fish eat little fish’ (Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, p.235).

But because slave morality is that of the weak, weary, and oppressed, it ‘gives no ground for reproaching’ the evil enemy (On the Genealogy of Morals, Essay1 S13). This means that whilst revenge is a virtue, as it is for master morality – remembering Nietzsche’s will to power thesis, revenge will be all-pervasive in morality – within slave morality the will to power has no means of exacting this revenge. This resentment is, then, ‘the ressentiment of natures that are denied the true reaction, that of deeds, and compensate themselves with an imaginary revenge,’ whereas in master morality, revenge, ‘if it should appear in the noble man, consummates and exhausts itself in an immediate reaction, and therefore does not poison’ (S10).

In slave morality, resentment cannot be acted upon, is an impotent resentment, and is compensated with what Nietzsche calls an imaginary or ‘spiritual revenge,’ in which resentment festers and grows (S7). Whilst master morality can be honest about its vengeance, slave morality has reason to be ashamed: ‘It is a morality that preaches forgiveness, but whose motivation is revenge, that preaches love of enemies, but is the creation of the enemy as the incarnation of evil’ (Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, p.236).

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Religion as Revenge: Nietzsche (2)

That there is no one morality, no one perspective from which to judge or to guarantee what is right and wrong, is part of what Nietzsche is referring to when he writes that ‘God is dead.’

Briefly examining his “death of God” thesis will enable us to begin to recognise the relationship between his genealogy of morals and his critique of religion. The parable that most clearly expresses this thesis is found in Section 125, “The Madman,” of The Gay Science,

Haven’t you heard of that madman who in the bright morning lit a lantern and ran around the marketplace crying incessantly, “I’m looking for God! I’m looking for God!”

Since many of those who did not believe in God were standing around together just then, he caused great laughter. Has he been lost, then? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone to sea? Emigrated? – Thus they shouted and laughed, one interrupting the other.

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Where is God?” he cried; “I’ll tell you! We have killed him – you and I! We are all his murderers.

“But how did we do this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Where is it moving to now? Where are we moving to? Away from all suns? Are we not continually falling? And backwards, sidewards, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an up and a down? Aren’t we straying as though through an infinite nothing? Isn’t empty space breathing at us? Hasn’t it got colder? Isn’t night and more night coming again and again? Don’t lanterns have to be lit in the morning?

“Do we still hear nothing of the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God? Do we still smell nothing of the divine decomposition? – Gods, too, decompose! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How can we console ourselves, the murderers of all murderers! The holiest and the mightiest thing the world has ever possessed has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood from us? With what water could we clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what holy games will we have to invent for ourselves? Is the magnitude of this deed not too great for us? Do we not ourselves have to become gods merely to appear worthy of it? There was never a greater deed – and whoever is born after us will on account of this deed belong to a higher history than all history up to now!”

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; they too were silent and look at him disconcertedly.

Finally he threw his lantern on the ground so that it broke into pieces and went out. “I come too early,” he then said; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightening and thunder need time; the light of the stars needs time; deeds need time, even after they are done, in order to be seen and heard, This deed is still more remote to them than the remotest stars – and yet they have done it themselves!

It is still recounted how on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there started singing his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but, “What then are these churches now if not the tombs and sepulchres of God?”

Primarily addressed to those who do not believe in God, the madman’s proclamation of the death of God remains prophetic even to atheists, since this death is ‘too great, too remote from the multitude’s capacity for comprehension even for the tiding of it to be thought of having arrived as yet’ (The Gay Science, cited in Spinks, Friedrich Nietzsche, p.118). The idea of God’s death is ‘too great’ to comprehend because, when, as Nietzsche observes, God has become nothing more than the foundation for and guarantee of meaning and purpose, the death of God brings the death of any absolute (religious or non-religious) systems of value and morality.

As a ‘prophet of doom’ to both theists and atheists, then, Nietzsche’s madman announces the death of any viable “God’s eye” perspective on, transcendent source of, or justification for any universal moral principles, including those provided by atheistic Reason. When Martin Heidegger writes that, now, ‘[t]he ultimate blow against God and against the suprasensory world consists in the fact that God, the first of beings, is degraded to the highest value,’ he explains that, after the death of God, “God” becomes – in an elevation that is simultaneously a degradation – a “value,” a tradition, a custom to obey, an instrument of the human will to power. ("The Word of Nietzsche: 'God is Dead'" in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, p.105).

Monday, March 21, 2011

Religion as Revenge: Nietzsche (1)

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, from Lee Spinks, Friedrich Neitzsche, p.118:

The greatest recent event – that “God is dead,” that the belief in the Christian god has become unbelievable –is already beginning to cast its first shadows over Europe. For the few at least, whose eyes – the suspicion in whose eyes is strong and subtle enough for this spectacle – some sun seems to have set and some ancient and profound trust has been turned into doubt; to them our old world must appear daily more like evening, more mistrustful, stranger, “older.” But in the main one may say: The event itself is far too great, too remote from the multitude’s capacity for comprehension even for the tidings of it to be thought of having arrived as yet. Much less may one suppose that many people know as yet what this event really means – and how much must collapse now that this faith has been undermined because it was built upon this faith, propped up by it, grown in it; for example, the whole of our European morality. This long plenitude and sequence of breakdown, destruction, ruin, and cataclysm that is now impending – who could guess enough of it today to be compelled to play the teacher and advance proclaimer of this monstrous logic of terror, the prophet of a gloom and an eclipse of the sun whose like has probably never yet occurred on earth?
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Book 5, Section 343:

I call Christianity the one great curse, the one enormous and innermost perversion, the one great instinct of revenge for which no means are too venomous, too underhand, too underground and too petty – I call it the one immortal blemish of mankind.
According to Nietzsche, the philosopher ‘has a duty to suspicion today, to squint maliciously out of every abyss of suspicion’ (Beyond Good and Evil, S34). Squinting suspiciously at religion, he writes that, ‘[i]n former times one sought to prove that there is no God – today one indicates how the belief that there is a God could arise and how this belief acquired its weight and importance: a counter-proof that there is no god thereby becomes superfluous’ (Daybreak, S95).

He calls his hermeneutics of suspicion “genealogy,” a method of inquiring into the origins of beliefs and practices unconsciously concealed by self-deceit and hypocrisy. Genealogy is not archaeology, since it seeks not a transcendent origin or archē (beginning, first cause) ‘behind the world’ but, rather, origins within the world. These immanent origins are not found at the surface of things, however, since beliefs and practices ‘are never what they appear to us to be!’ (Daybreak, S116). Nietzsche therefore describes himself as a ‘subterranean man’ and a ‘solitary mole’ that ‘tunnels and mines and undermines,’ concerning himself with searching for the conditions out of which religious beliefs and practices emerged and, in particular, out of which moral values arose (Preface to Daybreak, S1).

This involves putting into question the very criteria by which we evaluate values and, therefore, the ways in which we come to prize the moral values that we do. Since he is willing to question the very formation of morality, which many might consider immoral, Nietzsche calls himself an “immoralist.”

He asks whether the act of adopting moral values is done for reasons that accord with the very morality being adopted, noting in the process that the operative motives for espousing a certain morality are, on the one hand, historically conditined and, on the other, ‘uncontaminated by moral restraint and, just for that reason, repressed and unconscious’ (Merold Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, p.222).

The more Freudian element in Nietzsche is due to their shared pessimism regarding the essentially tragic nature of humanity. For Nietzsche, this finds expression in his ontological or metaphysical theory of “the will to power.”

Both the individual and the community are driven by ‘the psychical extravagance of the lust for power’ (Daybreak, S113). The individual body and the body politic,

if it is a living and not a dying body… will have to be an incarnate will to power, it will strive to grow, spread, seize, become predominant because life simply is will to power… “Exploitation” does not belong to a corrupt or imperfect and primitive society; it belongs to the essence of what lives, as a basic organic function; it is a consequence of the will to power, which is after all the will of life (Beyond Good and Evil, S259).
The will to power is joined by a more Marxian element in Nietzsche, which seeks to identify the historical or sociological origin of beliefs and practices, and finds expression in what he calls “the morality of mores.”

Nietzsche’s “genealogy of morals” illustrates the ways in which ‘morality is nothing other (therefore no more) than obedience to customs’ (Daybreak, S9). For him, ‘[t]o be moral, to act in accordance with custom, to be ethical means to practice obedience towards a law or tradition established from of old’ (Human All Too Human, S96). Mores, customs and traditions emerge from a community’s sense of self-preservation, and morality is nothing more than obedience to these norms.

This means that morality is plural; different communities have different self-interests which give rise to different values and therefore different moralities. When morality is the ‘social straitjacket’ a given community enforces to preserve itself, its socially conditioned nature means that different moral virtues will be useful to different societies in different situations (On the Genealogy of Morals, Essay 2, S2). In other words, ‘[h]e is called good because he does what is customary,’ yet what is customary will differ (Human All Too Human, S96).

In relation to the morality of our adoption of morals, then, Nietzsche writes that, ‘[t]o become moral is not in itself moral… Subjection to morality can be slavish or vain or self-interested or resigned or gloomily enthusiastic or an act of despair, like subjection to a prince: in itself it is nothing moral’ (Daybreak S97).

Together, these essentialist (the will to power) and historical (the morality of mores) theses form Nietzsche’s central argument that what is operative in any given morality is that community’s will to power.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Atheism for Lent: Marx

Tonight there were sixteen of us exploring "Atheism for Lent" at Journey and we looked at Marx's critique of religion.

I started the discussion off by giving a brief overview of the reading material that I put together (see below for links to the relevant posts): how Marx's historical materialism differs from Freud's essentialisation of psychological conflict and common unhappiness (last week) such that there remains the possibility of struggle and revolution in the face of contingent social hopelessness; how Marx can be understood to radicalise Feuerbach's atheist theory of religion as projection (see this post) such that the critique of religion presupposes the critique of current material socio-economic relations; and how both religion and the state function as ideologies, serving as imaginary relationships between theology and politics (on the one hand) and people's real existence in sin and self-interest (on the other) (see here and here).

We then discussed a range of topics, from the cult of capitalism, consumerist desire, and materialism in this sense to historical materialism, immanence, and responsibility. Commenting that we need to get rid of this idea of a "good God" that will solve our problems, one group member argued for the notion that a transcendent God absolves us of our social, economic and political responsibilities, and that instead of looking "up to heaven" or "after life" for answers we should act together in community in the here and now of material relationships.

The notion that church can sometimes function as a social club arose, and we talked a little about the dangers (coccooning or ghettoisation, for example) and opportunities (identity, belonging, etc) of that understanding of church. This discussion really peaked my interest, thinking in particular about Tony Jones' thesis that emerging Christianity can be likened to a new social movement. I wondered about the possibility of thinking about church as a co-operative, or union, or Party. In other words, as another Course participant said, as operating in a non-commercial environment. The possibility or impossibility of functioning outside western capitalism aside, it proved food for thought. Particularlity since Journey is in the process of transitioning away from being a "church" (albeit one they built themselves under a railway arch) to a "vegetarian cafe."

Anyway, here's a collection of links to the material I wrote introducing Marx's critique of religion:

Religion as Ideology: Marx (1)

Religion as Ideology: Marx (2)

Religion as Ideology: Marx (3)

Religion as Ideology: Marx (4)

Religion as Ideology: Marx (5)

Religion as Ideology: Marx (6)

Nietzsche starts tomorrow!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Religion as Ideology: Marx (6)

Because Marx gives to religion ‘an enormous responsibility for the political and economic shape of human life’ (Merold Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, p.165), it is possible, however, to also read in his critique of religion the prospect of religion as a form of social protest. But having introduced early on in his career the possibility of religion as ‘at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering’ (Marx, "Towards a Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right,"), Marx himself them ignores it quite completely thereafter.

His scathing observations of the history of Christian social principles quoted earlier perhaps indicate the main reason for his cynicism, but Karl Mannheim also points to the privatisation of religion, when he writes that ‘[t]o live consistently, in the light of Christian brotherly love, in a society which is not organized on the same principle is impossible’ (Ideology and Utopia, pp.194-195). But whilst such pessimism may be a function of his sceptical atheism, Marx’s hermeneutic of suspicion provides an opportunity to ask some hard questions of our own faith.

How do our religious beliefs and practices function materialistically? In other words, what sort of material social relations do they legitimise?

How do our religious beliefs and practices functino ideologically? Or, how do they act as the legitimation of an imaginary or unreal relationship with our own and others’ real conditions of existence?

What kinds of injustice and suffering do our beliefs and practices legitimise by tolerating the economic and political ways in which the social order is currently structured?

Does Christianity mask special interests as the common good? ‘Whose wars does it bless? Does it leave unchallenged the nationalism and consumerism that lie at the heart of so much of the world’s suffering?' (Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, p.171). How might our beliefs and practices do this? Does, for example, ‘spiritualizing, allegorizing, inwardizing, and futurizing the Kingdom of God’ make Christianity latently compatible with the social evils that it otherwise manifestly disavows? (p.198).

How else is the critical potential of Christianity – the critique of idolatrous religion and unjust politics inherent to the Christian religion itself – neutralised?

How can our beliefs and practices be more than a painkilling opiate? How can they be more than a deodorant to mask the bad aroma of today’s capitalistic society?

To rebut the charge of being the “opium of the people,” in which Marx and later Lenin summed up an irrefutable historical experience, is more than a matter of theory: it is a matter of political and social practice. And it is for Christians and their Church to give this practical proof (Roger Garaudy, Marxism in the Twentieth Century, p.163)
If religious beliefs are projections of humanity’s highest attributes that simultaneously justify their lowest – by ideologically validating oppressors and consoling the oppressed and thereby encouraging social complacency...

...what happens to my faith?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Religion as Ideology: Marx (5)

Marx has a materialist conception of history, which came to be referred to as his “historical materialism.” Just as suspicion is directed at the historical question of the extent to which beliefs self-deceptively hide our own operative motives and not the metaphysical question of the “truth” of those beliefs, so Marx’s materialism is not an answer to the metaphysical question of ‘whether mind or matter is the basic stuff of the universe’ but expresses an historical concern to ask about the material relations ‘between economic, political and intellectual factors in social structures and their transformation’ (Merold Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, pp.154-155).

His materialism exposes another illusion of both religion and the state, “The Illusion of Autonomous Origin,” which relates to the conditioned character of religious and political beliefs and practices.

Marx writes that,
[t]he ideas of the ruling class [or classes] are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production… The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships (Marx, Selected Writings, p.176).
When we lose sight of the contingent and conditioned nature of ideas and practices, which according to Marx express the dominant ordering of relationships between classes, we are trapped in The Illusion of Autonomous Origin. We are, in other words, unaware of the way in which ideas and practices are expressions of certain “ideologies.”

The term “ideology” refers to ‘any interpretation of history which is based on… ideas divorced from the social-economic realities in which those ideas originate’ (Louis Dupre, The Philosophical Foundations of Marxism, p.146). Further than this, however, these interpretations are characterised not only by ‘our unawareness of their origin in social conditions’ – The Illusion of Autonomous Origin – but by our ignorance of ‘the part they play in maintaining or altering those conditions’ (Leszek Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism, vol.1, p.154) – what Westphal calls “The Illusion of Neutrality.”

That we are unaware of the social impact of ideas and practices is the key to the operation of ideology, ‘[f]or to the degree that [The Illusion of Neutrality] prevails the victims of political power will feel less resentful and the perpetrators of political power will feel less guilty’ (Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, p.160). The Illusions of Overcoming the World and of Autonomous Origin therefore function to support the central illusion at work in ideology, the Illusion of Neutrality, and together these illusions act to mask the fact that ideology is ‘the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence’ (Louis Althusser, "Ideology and the State," p.162) and forestall questions from both the perpetrators and victims of political power about its injustices.

For Marx, both religion and the state perform this ideological function, serving to mask the contingent ordering of society that benefits some whilst oppressing others.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Religion as Ideology: Marx (4)

Religion attempts to overcome evil and sin with ‘high-sounding stories’ of love, justice and forgiveness (Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rainbow, Michel Foucault, p.108), just as the state’s narrative of common good will attempts to overcome individual self-interest. And since religion is the archetype of politics’ (Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, p.151), the critique of religion is the presupposition of the critique of the state and of socio-political relations in general.

But, as Westphal summarises, ‘Marx is telling the story of the ways in which religion not only endures but eventually embraces evil’ (p.152).

Marx writes, clearly bitterly, that

…[t]he social principles of Christianity justified the slavery of Antiquity, glorified the serfdom of the Middle Ages and equally know, when necessary, how to defend the oppression of the proletariat, although they make a pitiful face over it.

The social principles of Christianity preach the necessity of a ruling and an oppressed class, and all they have for the latter is the pious wish the former will be charitable.

The social principles of Christianity transfer the… adjustment of all infamies to heaven and thus justify the further existence of those infamies on earth.

The social principles of Christianity declare all vile acts of the oppressors against the oppressed to be either the just punishment of original sin and other sins, or trials that the Lord in his infinite wisdom imposes on those redeemed.

So much for the social principles of Christianity (Marx and Engels, On Religion, pp.83-84).

For Marx, both religion and the state are illusions, then, manifestly professing to overcome, yet latently preserving, current socio-economic divisions and injustices.

[T]he political illusion consists in the unreality of the community and general will, which is so prominent in political self-consciousness, and in the unrecognized reality of conflict among the classes generated by the division of labour…

Similarly, the religious illusion consists in the unreality of the happiness it promises and in the unrecognized reality of the class interests at work in ethical-religious and metaphysical-religious ideas (Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, p.157).
For Marx, ‘religion offers an illusory comfort and politics an illusory community’ (p.156), both forming unreal illusions that purport to overcome but actually sustain the real worlds of sin and self-interest.

Thus they are illustrative of what Westphal calls “The Illusion of Overcoming the World,” to which we shall return shortly.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Religion as Ideology: Marx (3)

In the opening paragraphs of one of his earliest philosophical essays, Marx writes that ‘[a]s far as Germany is concerned, the criticism of religion is essentially complete, and the criticism of religion is the presupposition of all criticism’ ("Towards a Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right"). Westphal explains that, here, Marx asserts that the critique of religion offered by philosophers like Feuerbach ‘has gone as far as it can go while concerning itself merely with religion,’ and that it must now ‘go on to play its proper role’ (Suspicion and Faith, p.136); namely, as illustrative of the critique of ideology more generally.

When Marx writes in the same early essay that ‘man has found in the imaginary reality of heaven where he looked for a superman only the reflection of his own self,’ he deduces that humanity ‘must seek his true reality’ elsewhere. Since religion is, for Marx, a ‘general theory of the world,’ the world’s ‘logic in popular form,’ its ‘moral sanction’ and ‘universal basis for consolation and justification,’ he concludes that, ‘the struggle against religion is indirectly the struggle against the world whose spiritual aroma [i.e. deodorant] is religion.’

This is why he writes that the critique of religion presupposes all criticism, since ‘[t]he criticism of religion ends with the doctrine that man is the highest being for man, that is, with the categorical imperative to overthrow all circumstances in which man is humiliated, enslaved, abandoned, and despised’ (Marx, Selected Writings, p.69). The critique of religion must play its proper role in the critique of the world as it is currently socially, politically and economically ordered.

Marx’s critique of religion can thus be seen as intricately linked to his critique of the state, and understanding the latter can shed further light on the nature of the former.

Marx turns his attention to both the Christian and the secular states. Of the Christian state, he observes that religion merely operates as ‘a sacred cloak to hide desires that are… very secular’ (Selected Writings, p.17), since ‘[r]eligion is to support secular matters without the latter’s being subject to religion’ (Marx, Writings of the Young Karl Marx on Philosophy and Society, pp.77-78). The Christian state is, therefore, not really Christian but idolatrous since it forms, in practice, ‘the religion of domination, the cult of the will of the government’ (Marx and Engels, On Religion, p.36). Whilst manifestly Christian, the latent god of the Christian state is the state itself.

Of the secular state, Marx notes the schizophrenic ‘separation of man into a public and private man’ (Selected Writings, p.47). This dissection means that ‘we have a private, exclusive, self-seeking role to play and a public, communal, common-good-seeking role to play at the same time.’ These demands are functions of our dual existence within both civil society – ‘the capitalist marketplace of individual economic self-interest’ – and the political state – a domain in which we experience community and pursue the general good. (Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, p.148). Privatised within the secular state, religion becomes ‘the spirit of civil society, the sphere of egoism, the [war of all against all];’ it is therefore ‘the expression of the separation of man from his common essence, from himself and from other men.’

For Marx, religion in a religious state is self-restrictive and oppressive, whilst religion in a secular state is self-alienating and repressive. In both forms of state, however, religion therefore plays a large role in legitimising the political status quo – the contingent, rather than natural, social order.

In a crucial passage linking his critique of religion to his critique of politics, Marx explains further the nature of the ‘double life’ – ‘a heavenly one and an earthly one’ – that we lead,

[Man] has a life both in the political community, where he is valued as a communal being, and in civil society where he is active as a private individual, treats other men as means, degrades himself to a means, and becomes the plaything of alien powers… The political state… stands in the same opposition to civil society and overcomes it in the same manner as religion overcomes the limitations of the profane world, that is, it must likewise recognize it, reinstate it, and let itself once more be dominated by it (Marx, Selected Writings, pp.45-46)
In other words, in the same way that religion claims to overcome the profane (or sinful) world, yet remains dominated by it, the political state claims to overcome civil society, the (profane or sinful) world of self-interest, yet remains dominated by it.

As Westphal explains, ‘this is what makes politics so “heavenly.” For it is in the same way that religion overcomes the evil in the world, in theory but not in fact’ (Suspicion and Faith, p.151).

As an example, Marx asks, ‘[d]o you offer your right cheek when you are struck upon the left, or do you not institute proceedings for assault? Yet the Gospel forbids that’ (Marx and Engels, On Religion, p.35).

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Religion as Ideology: Marx (2)

Marx can be said to radicalise Ludwig Feuerbach’s critique of religion.

Feuerbach’s theory of religion involves the central assertion that religion is a projection – not, as Freud suggests, of humanity’s shameful desires and needs, but of humanity’s own best attributes, ‘that which is worthy of adoration’ (Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, p.12).

What man praises and approves, that is God to him… Religion is a judgement. The most essential condition in religion – in the idea of the divine being – is accordingly the discrimination of the praiseworthy from the blameworthy, of the perfect from the imperfect (p.97).
For Feuerbach, then, ‘[m]an first unconsciously and involuntarily creates God in his own image, and after this [it is believed that] God consciously and voluntarily creates man in his own image’ (p.118).

However, rather than the unconscious projection of individual desires, religion for Feuerbach is the unconscious projection of collective ideals. He writes that ‘God is the idea of the species as an individual’ (p.153) and that, ‘[t]he divine being is nothing else than the human being, or, rather, the human nature purified, freed from the limits of the individual man, made objective’ (p.14). In other words, ‘while the perfections we represent to ourselves as divine are really human, they belong not to the individual but to the species,’ or to ‘the human spirit in some collective sense’ (Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, p.125-126).

This means that, according to Feuerbach’s theory of projection, ‘[t]he secret of theology is anthropology’ (Feuerbach, The Fiery Brook, p.153), such that ‘[c]onsciousness of God is self-consciousness, knowledge of God is self-knowledge’ (The Essence of Christianity, p.12). As the unconscious projection of the self-consciousness of humanity, then, ‘religion is man’s earliest and also indirect form of self-knowledge.’ It is a necessary, albeit juvenile, stage in humanity’s self-discovery, one which Merold Westphal suggests is analogous to the ‘discovery of the true ontological status of Santa Claus, who turns out to be but the personification of the human spirit of giving’ (Suspicion and Faith, p.127).

But Feuerbach, like Freud, naturalises or essentialises the unhappiness against which religion is a defence and escape. As such, Marx writes, ‘I approve of Feuerbach’s aphorisms, except for one point: he directs himself too much to nature and too little to politics’ (in Schlomo Avineri, The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx, p.10). For Marx, this unhappiness or hopelessness is not an inevitable condition of the essence of human nature but a social circumstance that is historical and contingent and, as such, capable of being altered. In other words, happiness and hope are possible.

It is in reference to Feuerbach’s critique of religion that Marx writes, therefore, that, ‘philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it’ (Marx, Selected Writings, p.158). His atheistic project makes explicit the links between religion and social complacency, between the critique of religion and the critique of ideology, and, therefore, between religion and the possibility of protest.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Religion as Ideology: Marx (1)

Abridged from Karl Marx, "Towards a Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right: Introduction," cited in Merold Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, pp.134-140:

Man has found in the imaginary reality of heaven where he looked for a superman only the reflection of his own self. He will therefore no longer be inclined to find only the appearance of himself, the non-man, where he seeks and must seek his true reality… The foundation of irreligious criticism is this: man makes religion, religion does not make man…

Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the feeling of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless circumstances. It is the opium of the people…

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusions about their condition is a demand to give up a condition that requires illusions… Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chains not so that man may bear chains without any imagination or comfort, but so that he may throw away the chains and pluck the living flowers…

It is therefore the task of history, now the truth is no longer in the beyond, to establish the truth of the here and now. The first task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, once the holy form of self-alienation has been discovered, is to discover self-alienation in its unholy forms. The criticism of heaven is thus transformed into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.

From Merold Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, p.159:

The idea that our political, legal, economic, moral, religious, and metaphysical theories are deeply conditioned by the world into which they are born, in which they live, and from which they die, especially by the economic class struggles of that world, is expressed by Marx in a single word, “ideology.”
It is a familiar Marxist commentary upon religion that it is ‘the opium of the people,’ a comparison also made by both Freud, for whom religion and ‘intoxicating substances’ are alternative strategies for dealing with the human predicament (Freud, The Complete Psychological Works, vol.21, p.75), and Nietzsche, who refers to Christianity and alcohol as ‘the two great European narcotics’ (The Portable Nietzsche, p.507).

These substances to which religion is likened are, for these critics, addictive painkillers that treat symptoms of disease rather than the disease (or dis-ease, i.e. ‘common unhappiness’ ) itself.

But Marx differs from Freud and Nietzsche in his diagnosis of religion as distracting from not a necessary and natural or essential hopelessness but from an unnecessary and social hopelessness.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Atheism for Lent: Freud

Just got back from first session of "Atheism for Lent" in which we looked at Freud's critique of religion. I was bold over by the attendance (Journey's pastor, Chris, found it somewhat telling that there were 9 that morning for the morning worship service at church and 18 in the evening for atheism!)

I started off by asking (prompted by Chris!) why each person was interested in the course, which evoked some really good responses to do with neo-atheism, doubt, disbelief, defensiveness, openness, and self-examination. Whilst Journey is very broadly a liberal and leftist congregation (it's an eco-congregation that is part of the pro-LGBT MCC association of churches), there remained some diversity within the group theologically, with many really embracing the challenge to challenge themselves and each other.

Our discussion of Freud began by remarking how "miserable" he appears, a symptom (!) of his emphasis on external (self/nature/culture) and internal (self/id/super-ego) conflict and essentialisation of "common unhappiness." Merold Westphal's distinction between suspicion and scepticism (see this post here) was really helpful in moving everyone from discussing Freud's atheism and the critiques of his theory of the psyche, of dreams and of religion towards reflecting upon what his critique might mean for the different (broadly Christian but also interested in Buddhism, paganism and humanism) faith of the people in the room.

One really great comment was that, in congregations like Journey, it can be easy to read critiques and just completely agree (as a badge of being liberal) without really challenging ourselves... to identify fundamentalism, for example, as the Christianity that Freud is critiquing and thereby to miss the opportunity to use Freud to purge our own faith of its more instrumental (see this post) aspects. We can say, "oh, our God is better than the God of the Christianity Freud is exposing, because we sometimes refer to God as a Goddess or as a tree or rock or river."

So it was great to see the group trying to relate Freud's critique of religion to their own faith, and not just to the easier target of "other people's faiths."

To read the material I prepared (using Merold Westphal's Suspicion and Faith: Religious Uses of Modern Atheism) see the following posts:

Religion as Wish-Fulfilment: Freud (1)

Religion as Wish-Fulfilment: Freud (2)

Religion as Wish-Fulfilment: Freud (3)

Religion as Wish-Fulfilment: Freud (4)

Religion as Wish-Fulfilment: Freud (5)

Religion as Wish-Fulfilment: Freud (6)

And then join us tomorrow for the start of Religion as Ideology: Marx!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Religion as Wish-Fulfilment: Freud (6)

Freud writes that, ‘filial rebelliousness also emerges, in the later products of religion, often in the strangest of disguises and transformations’ (Freud, The Complete Psychological Works, vol.13, p.145).

Do we, in our own contemporary contexts, as well as in these tribal societies, attempt to “bargain” with a god we have created in our own image, “purchasing” ‘the right to guilt-free rebellion’ (Merold Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, p.114)?

Are our religious beliefs and practices re-enactments of our hostility towards and our desire to control or cheat God?

Does belief in Christ’s atonement for our sins reveal a wish to displace blame and disown responsibility? Does this belief allow us to “buy” our continued revolt?

Does the practice of Eucharist both renounce and re-enact the torture and execution of the father? Does this ceremonial allow us to symbolically renounce our guilt, yet symbolically re-enact our triumph, over breaching the prohibition “thou shalt not kill”?

Do we insolently refuse to ethically renounce “some freedom” by substituting for this the ritual renunciation of “some thing”? Does our participation in religious beliefs and practices function as a bribe for rebellion?

To the extent that it does function in this way, perhaps our religious beliefs and practices are indeed formed from our needs, wishes and wants. From our fears and anxieties. Our ambitions, aspirations or pride. Our anger or envy. Our cynicism or mistrust. Our resentment, bitterness or spite.

But if religious beliefs are wish-fulfilments and religious practices are strategies to manage guilt and mutiny...

...what happens to my faith?

Religion as Wish-Fulfilment: Freud (5)

Freud further highlights the connection between neurotic ceremonials and religious practices in his study of the totemic cultures of tribal societies, Totem and Taboo.

He suggests that cultural taboos against touching or harming the totem (the tribe’s sacred animal) are so strong since they correspond to a repressed desire to do precisely what is prohibited.

This ambiguity results because, for Freud, the totem represents the father:

On the one hand, the totemic taboos against killing the totem and having sexual relations with women of the same totem (tribe) are designed to defend against the Oedipal guilt of wanting to kill the father and sleep with the mother.

On the other hand, however,

[t]otemic religion not only comprised expressions of remorse and attempts at atonement [in the form of ethical obedience], it also served as a remembrance of the triumph over the father. Satisfaction over that triumph led to the institution of the memorial festival of the totem meal, in which the restrictions of deferred obedience no longer held. Thus it became a duty to repeat the crime of parricide again and again in the sacrifice of the totem animal (Freud, The Complete
Psychological Works
, vol.13, p.145).
Together, these religious ceremonials (the taboo against killing the totem and the festival at which the totem is killed and eaten) form the symbolic renunciation and symbolic re-enactment of aggression, hostility and rebellion directed towards powerful figures, such as parents – and ‘at bottom God is nothing other than an exalted father’ (vol.13, pp.147-148).

Thus, for Freud, all religious ceremonials share with neurotic ceremonials this defensive character, since a symbolic re-enactment of wish-fulfilment (eating the totem) replaces such an action in reality, and therefore allows us to "cancel out" our guilt. The purpose of participating in religious rites is to circumvent the punishment that would be meted out were the taboo(s) in question to actually be breached. The renunciation involved – of various kinds, depending on the ritual; for example, sacrifice of some possession, or atonement through abstention from certain activities and behaviours for a period of time – replaces the renunciation that would be involved in the punishment for any violation of the prohibition.

But whilst renunciation ostensibly expresses remorse, it actually repeats the offence, since through the self-imposed substitution of one renunciation (of “some thing” in ritual sacrifice) for another (of “some freedom” in ethical abstention) it is possible to both “cancel” our guilt and renew the rebellion by offering sacrifices as a bribe in exchange for continued disobedience and defiant freedom.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Religion as Wish-Fulfilment: Freud (4)

For Freud, religious practices are akin to neurotic symptoms. He writes,

I am certainly not the first person to have been struck by the resemblance between what are called obsessive actions in suffers from nervous affections and the observances by means of which believers give expression to their piety. The term “ceremonial,” which has been applied to some of these obsessive actions, is evidence of this. The resemblance, however, seems to me to be more than a superficial one, so that an insight into the origin of neurotic ceremonial may embolden us to draw inferences by analogy about the psychological processes of religious life (Freud, The Complete Psychological Works, vol.9, p.117).

While neurotic ceremonials are private and individual in nature and sexual in origin, and religious ceremonials are public and communal and related to pride, they share an ‘underlying renunciation of the activation of instincts that are constitutionally present’ (vol.9, pp.126-127).

They share the dual function, therefore, of symbolic re-enactment and symbolic repudiation of forbidden desires (Merold Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, p.98). The intolerable wish seeking fulfilment is displaced, replaced by more bearable notions and the resulting symptoms of obsessive symbolic actions. Think, for example, of Lady Macbeth, whose concerns about moral purity (wish-fulfilment) become displaced by the idea of physical cleanliness (displaced wish-fulfilment) and who consequently experiences an abnormal compulsion to wash her hands (symptom).

Neurotic and religious ceremonials are richly meaningful, but those who perform such an action do so ‘without understanding its meaning – or at any rate its chief meaning’ (vol.9, p.22). This means that the conscious reasons we give for what we do are rationalisations of what we are doing, but not the real meanings of our actions.

According to Freud, ceremonials are ‘penitential measures,’ expressing repentance on the one hand and self-imposed punishment on the other. Self-reproach is therefore key to ceremonials of both kinds, since they function as a defence not only against our guilt in relation to the original desire or act, but also against the anxiety associated with our on-going temptation to fulfil the desire or to repeat the act.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Religion as Wish-Fulfilment: Freud (3)

As wish-fulfilments, religious beliefs are ‘illusions,’ a technical term which has a specific meaning for Freud: ‘we call a belief an illusion when a wish-fulfilment is a prominent factor in its motivation, and in doing so we disregard its relations to reality’ (Freud, The Complete Psychological Works, vol.21, p.31). Therefore, the ‘psychological nature’ of religious beliefs as illusory (vol.21, p.33) does not involve ‘the truth of the foundation of religious ideas but their function in balancing the renunciations and satisfactions through which man tries to make his life tolerable’ (Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy, pp.234-235).

Religious beliefs function as illusions when

[w]e represent God to ourselves, not in accordance with the evidence available to us but in accordance with our wishes; in other words, we create God in our image, or at least in the image of our desires. Now we have three things to be ashamed of: (1) the desires that govern this operation, (2) our willingness to subordinate truth to happiness, and (3) our [hubris] in making ourselves the creator and God the creature. If we are not utterly shameless, we will do our best to distract attention, especially our own, from what is going on (Merold Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, p.62).

For example, when God is ‘only seemingly stern,’ or when we are God’s ‘only beloved child, his Chosen People’ (vol.21, pp.19-20), ‘I need fear no punishment and can count on rewards, both quite independently of what I deserve’ – and quite independently of the biblical evidence which suggests that the chosen people have a special responsibility rather than enjoying a special exemption (Suspicion and Faith, p.63-64).

Further, as David Hume notes of these ‘comfortable views’ of God, ‘[w]hat so corrupt as some of the practices, to which these systems give rise?’ (The Natural History of Religion, p.76). A religion whose God is constructed in believers’ own image serves to legitimate “our” way of structuring the social world and ‘buttress’ the persecution of anything “other,” by authorising ‘the social status quo’ or by its simple compatibility with it (Suspicion and Faith, p.131).