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Notes on the origin and nature of religion (2)

By Douglas Anele

For example, the notion of projection cannot account for the psychology of fear and devotion associated with religion. Besides, human nature is multi-dimensional and difficult to define. Therefore, if the idea of God is just the projection and worship of human nature, what determines aspects of human nature that are projected unto God and the ones that are not? It is difficult to answer these pertinent questions based on Feuerbach’s theory.

Karl Marx, the patron saint of Marxism, affirms that religion is a by-product of economic exploitation of the masses in the capitalist system. In his view, religion is the opium of the people, the cry of the oppressed under merciless conditions. In response to the anguish and poverty caused by excruciating economic exploitation, Marx expatiates, the masses look up towards the sky to an imaginary being, God, for deliverance. That is why the poor cling to religion devotedly; it also explains why people tend to be more religious in times of suffering and hardship. He avers that the religious misery is simultaneously the expression of real misery, and protest against the real misery. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the feeling of a heartless world just as it is the spirit of a spiritless condition. Members of the ruling class, including the rich, encourage religion because it works like a sedative and an effective disincentive that discourages the masses from revolting against their oppressors. Thus, religion, by emphasising the doctrine that devout believers who suffer in this life will be rewarded by God with eternal bliss in an incomparably better place called heaven, serves as a powerful weapon against the urge to change existing oppressive socio-economic system. The question that naturally arises is: what is the best approach for tackling the oppressive conditions which drive people to religion? Marx answers by recommending complete overhaul of the exploitative capitalist system responsible for the poverty and misery in human society. Once capitalism is eliminated, and therewith the economic exploitation associated with it, religion will die out.

Any objective examination of the provenance of religion must acknowledge the nexus between the economic conditions prevalent in society and religion. It is undeniable that religion is more prevalent in poor, economically backward, countries than in developed rich countries. Again, people tend to cling closer to religion in times of hardship and suffering. That said, Marx’s analysis does not tell the whole story about religion. The phenomenon of religion has always been part of human existence irrespective of economic system and social conditions. Therefore, even if capitalism and economic exploitation were eliminated worldwide, religion will remain because there are certain existential conditions peculiar to humans that impel people to religion. Consequently, any theory that explains religion solely based on economic exploitation pays lip service to the deep-rooted psychological dimension of religious consciousness.

The most famous French sociologist, Émile Durkheim, posits a sociological explanation of religion in his work, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Durkheim argues that religion is a social product, which functions as an instrument for controlling members of the society. The society has such a tremendous impact on its members that the latter personifies its influence into a divine being that symbolises the might of society. Hence, “collective” individuals worship society in the form of God. Durkheim re-echoes Feuerbach’s view that all divine attributes of God are nothing other than the qualities of the society. What religious adherents refer to as commandments of God are the moral demands of the society. Moral demands are the demands that society makes on its members for its own self-preservation.

A little reflection shows that Durkheim is right in drawing attention to the social dimension of religion, since religion is an important component of a people’s culture. In addition, he correctly notes the pervasive influence of society on its members and the way it generates religious consciousness. However, his reification and apotheosis of society as if it is something apart from the individuals and institutions that constitute it goes too far. Granted that society, through the mechanism and operation of traditions and institutions, exerts a tremendous influence on its members, it does not follow that individuals cannot overcome societal influences to create a fresh vision of the world based on new foundational moral and spiritual principles that oftentimes contradict existing norms. Largely, paradigmatic individuals and creators of new worldviews and religions like Krishna, Zoroaster, Socrates, Muhammad and others changed profoundly the moral cum spiritual temperature of their societies by stepping beyond existing moral and spiritual consciousness through an appeal to a force or dimension beyond the society. In that regard, although the origins of most world religions cannot be dated with exactitude, a single person usually apprehends the vision that eventuates into a new religion first before other members of the society where it originated and beyond convert to the new faith.

Sigmund, the founder of psychoanalysis, was extremely interested in religion. This is not surprising, considering that there is a fundamental psychological dimension in religion. In his works, especially Totem and Taboo, The Future of an Illusion, and Moses and Monotheism, he expresses his views on the subject.  Freud describes what he calls the “oceanic feeling” or mystical experience associated with religion as a feeling of an indissoluble bond or oneness with the whole of the universe, a feeling of something infinite, and a sensation of eternity. For Freud, who unequivocally accepts the existence of oceanic feeling, that very feeling reflects the infant’s undifferentiating consciousness in which the ego and the world are intimately connected experientially.

Naturally, the ego eventually develops capacity to separate itself from the world as the infant grows, but a residue of the child’s inclusive ego persists into adulthood. He believes that the origin of religion is rooted in the child’s relationship with  the father. Typically, a child is weak and incapable of dealing with the challenges of life without help. Realising his weakness, the child naturally seeks the protection of his father in times of difficulty. Religion, Freud maintains, is fundamentally this childhood mentality extended into adulthood.

More generally, faced with the existential vicissitudes of life, particularly the uncaring powerful forces of nature, disease, frustrations, and, ultimately, the certainty of death, humans realise the utter helplessness and vanity at the core of their being. Like a child, they spontaneously seek the protection of a father. Finding none, they imagine one for themselves and invest the object of their imaginative creation with superlative human attributes. Therefore, God, according to Freud, is an imaginary being, an imaginary father who is nothing other than a child’s image of his father.

Religion is an illusion, a psychotic delusion and a neurotic compulsion.  An illusion is not necessarily contrary to fact, whereas a delusion contradicts reality. Furthermore, illusions may or may not be realisable; what characterises them is that they typically originate from wishes.

To be concluded.


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