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Notes on the origin and nature of religion (3)

By Douglas Anele

The things we long for, or dream about, sometimes correspond to an object in reality – for example, the glass of water we obtained in a dream – and sometimes  not – for example paradise on earth. A belief constitutes an illusion when a wish-fulfilment is a prominent factor in its motivation.

File photo
File photo

Wish-fulfilment, according to Freud, is the activity of imagining an appropriate tension-reducing object. Usually, wishes arise in times of need; one wishes by imagining an object in the past that satisfied the need in question, by remembering a formerly satisfying object. Freud posits that religious ideas are fulfilments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of humankind. However, the teachings of religion are derived neither from systematic and rigorous experience of matters they speak of nor from serious thinking on such matters; instead, they are illusions rooted in human imagination.

Concerning the future of religion, Freud thinks that enlightened reason will eventually displace religion. He holds that religion, grounded on repression and functioning as compulsion, has served humanity well in restraining instinct and, in particular, human violence. Now, time is ripe for replacing irrational workings of repression by the rational operation of the intellect. Full disclosure in self-awareness of the underlying unconscious psychological underpinnings of faith will eliminate religious worship.

Freud optimistically envisages the end of religion for humanity’s sake through the liberation of human powers currently in bondage to repression: human proclivity for religion will disappear through intellectual sophistication and scientific knowledge.

Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic approach rightly highlights the psychological underpinnings of religion. It offers a plausible account of why most religions conceive God as a father and of why people tend to become more religious in times of difficulty. Yet, his general theory of human life, including religion, as an intra-psychic struggle between instinctive drives, the ego, and the superego is too simplistic and overly positivistic.

It is a metaphysical assumption, an act of faith without solid scientific support. In addition, although Freud was essentially correct in drawing attention to the wish-fulfilment and compulsive character of religion, his exposition is incomplete. Just as there are immature, sick religions, there are also mature, healthy ones. For instance, Abrahamic religions, especially as practiced by masses, conform to Freud’s analysis, whereas Buddhism preached and practiced by its founder Siddhartha Gautama represents a healthy form of religious consciousness.

Theological explanations trace the provenance and nature of religion to human nature itself, which purportedly has a religious dimension. St. Augustine of Hippo, for instance, argues that there is an irresistible desire for the infinite which makes the human heart restless. The restless and irresistible quest for the infinite or God manifests in different forms of religion.

In his thought-provoking book, Confessions, Augustine addresses God thus, “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” The Italian theologian, P. Rossano, maintains that the emptiness and insecurity at the core of our being is a psychological manifestation of the human spirit’s search for the infinite spirit.

At first glance it would appear, given the universality of religion, that indeed human beings are ineradicably religious, that the phenomenon of religion is innate. Yet, research findings in relevant humanistic studies such as psychology, anthropology, sociology, philosophy and linguistics strongly indicate that environmental factors are crucial determinants of behavioural dispositions previously thought to be innate in humans.

Thus, the apparent innateness of religious consciousness is actually the by-product of the subliminal interplay of both phylogenetically programmed instincts and socio-cultural influences from childhood to adulthood. Moreover, that humanity has an irresistible quest for something (God, immortality, etc.) does not entail existence of the object or state of affairs it is so ardently seeks. There is nothing logically contradictory in asserting that the objects of religious belief are illusory.

Given the absence of well-established evidence, it is very likely that God, immortality of the soul and other items of religious devotion are non-existent creations of our fertile imagination invented to serve the interests of believers. Hence, aside from the consoling effect it has on believers, the purported quest for union with the infinite is ultimately futile.

Bertrand Russell, my exemplar of what a philosopher should be, was extremely interested in religion. In his book, Why I am not a Christian, he posits that religion is based primarily and mainly on fear – fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death, fear of the unknown. Further, because fear is the parent of cruelty, Russell affirms, “it is no wonder if cruelty and religion has gone hand-in-hand.”

Having given primacy to the emotional factor regarding the origin and nature of religion, he suggests that we should stand on our own feet and look honestly at the world – its good and bad facts, its beauties and ugliness. We should see the world as it is, and boldly conquer it with our intelligence, not by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it.

Russell’s views are well taken, although it should be pointed out that a mature benign religion like Buddhism, which makes non-violence a cardinal principle or doctrine, abhors cruelty and dehumanising worship of deities.
We now consider the theory of religion propounded by Erich Fromm, a noted psychoanalytic philosopher.

Fromm proposes that religion came into bring as a result of the basic conditions of human existence, which is characterised by minimum determination of behaviour by instinct and maximum development of the brain, particularly the neocortex. Lacking the capacity to act in a manner completely determined by instincts while possessing the capacity for self-consciousness, rationality and imagination, – new dispositions that transcend the capacity for instrumental thinking of even the cleverest primates – the human species needed a frame of orientation and an object of devotion in order to survive. It follows that religion is one of the approaches used by humans to cope successfully with the daunting challenges of living in a complex, and oftentimes hostile, world.

Religion answers the need in most people for an existential map of the world and object of devotion in other to integrate their energies in one direction, transcend their isolated existence, with all its uncertainties and insecurities, and give meaning to their lives. According to Fromm, there is a nexus between religion, socio-economic structure, and character structure. However, just as there are individual exceptions to the dominant social character, there are also individual exceptions to the dominant religious character.

In all, Fromm has a positive attitude towards religion; he sees it as necessitated by the very nature of human existence on earth. But he laments the perversion of genuine religion in its experiential subjective sense by sham Christianity.

Our brief notes on the origin and nature of religion has established beyond reasonable doubt that religion is a human creation, which should help people live better and fulfil their potentials for happiness and productivity. Therefore, it is an inexcusable aberration when fanatics and religious bigots sacrifice human lives in the pretext of fighting for God.



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