What do you know about Freud?
Good. That’s more than me. Probably. I know very little about Freud. What I do know is a mixture of his beliefs, and the caricatures of his beliefs that others have presented me. In essence, it is this: young boys lust after their mothers and want to kill their fathers, a perversion that leads to a large part of the malaise and despair intrinsic to being a grown-up. Young girls are broken and weird, a perversion that leads to a large part of the malaise and despair intrinsic to being a grown up.
There. That’s it.
What do you know about Andrew Brown? All I know is a mixture of his beliefs, and the caricatures of his beliefs that he so bizarrely and inanely presents to Guardian readers on the occasions when another fantastical grudge against atheists springs into his mind. In essence, it is this: Andrew Brown is part of the malaise and despair intrinsic to being a grown up. Plus he thinks that new atheists are broken, weird and perverted. Or something like that.
I’m therefore approaching Andrew Brown’s recent blog post without a great deal of expertise of the subject I’m dealing with.
Luckily, if he doesn’t need expertise, nor do I.
Andrew Brown has re-read Freud, for the first time in years. It must also be the first time he’s read Freud since the incident with the very cute ducklings, the cement truck, and the combine harvester driven by an atheist (NOOOOOoooOOo!!!!!! He’s lost control and is veering into the Sisters of Mercy Home for Gentle Orphans and Kittens With Poorly Feet!!! STOPPP HIIIMMM!!!). At least, I assume that it is the first time he’s read it since some cataclysmic accident involving an evil atheist, because this time around, he sees that Freud is an atheist and ATHEISM IS WRONG!!!
Both him and I acknowledge that Freud was wrong on many matters (I don’t quite know HOW many, but I’ve heard his science roundly dismissed on many occasions by those who know more than me).
What I didn’t know, however, is that this means that WHATEVER ELSE FREUD EVER SAID OR BELIEVED IN IS AUTOMATICALLY FALSE! FALSE FALSE FALSE!
That, in a nutshell, is Andrew Brown’s position – there, I’ve saved you having to read his article.
At least, that’s the impression I get. Mr Brown has decided that, since A) Freud was an atheist, and B) Freud was incorrect in his hypotheses on sexuality, therefore C) atheism is incorrect.
[Freud's attack on religion] states very clearly one of the central New Atheist rhetorical moves. This is to define religion as the belief system of ignorant fools.
Andrew Brown has nominated Freud as the new figure head for Nü-Atheïsm (no-one can tell me what that is, so no-one can tell me how it’s spelled), because of this ‘rhetorical move’.
Just to get things straight, I’m probably what one would describe as a ‘new atheist’ (I’m a good few decades younger than Prof. Dawkins, for instance), and am a bit confused by this. I believe that religion is an ignorant and foolish belief system (all religion, though in degrees), but by no means is it the ONLY ignorant and foolish belief system – some people still use Microsoft Windows after all (OOOOoohhhh!!!) – indeed, atheists can be ignorant and foolish too. However, atheists, new and used, old and young, vary immensely. Many don’t see religion as a bad thing at all. A very few even think it is beneficial, but simply can’t buy into it.
I’ll give Andrew Brown the benefit of the doubt. I’ll assume that by ‘new’ he doesn’t mean new (Freud? ‘New’?), but rather ‘vocal in their disapproval of religion’ – and that by ‘the belief system of ignorant fools’ he means ‘a foolish and ignorant belief system’. I’m willing to let him off on these points. After all, the semantics here are small fry compared to the silliness of his grander conclusions.
He then quotes Freud’s view of what “common man understands by his religion”
…the system; doctrines and promises which on the one hand explains to him the riddles of this world with enviable completeness, and, on the other, assures him that a careful Providence will watch over his life and will compensate him in a future existence for any frustrations he suffers here. The common man cannot imagine this Providence otherwise than in the figure of an enormously exalted father. Only such a being can understand the needs of the children of men and be softened by their prayers and placated by the signs of their remorse.
This may seem like a fair description of the Abrahamic god: a caring father figure, looking over us, explaining the mysteries of life and promising an eternity of paradise, but Andrew Brown accuses Freud of “Having set up a system in which only fools could believe…” – he mustn’t be going after the Church of England crowd, then.
Freud is quoted again, ‘point[ing] out that only fools could believe in [this description of religion]‘.
The whole thing is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able rise above this view of life.
And yes, I agree with Freud here. Well, actually, I haven’t the friendliest attitude towards humanity, but I do have a passion for knowledge and understanding, and it is painful to think that an enormous proportion of the world’s populace will be content with the lies they are fed, or lack the resources to clear their ignorance, or simply do not care enough to find out. However, I don’t believe that only fools could believe in it. People are, by and large, indoctrinated into religion – it is a culturally accepted form of ignorance. Intelligent people often hold one or two silly or contradictory views. Religion is just a common one – and this quote doesn’t argue otherwise, either.
Freud apparently then settles on a No-True-Scotsman-type conclusion – what isn’t “what the common man understands by his religion” (Freud mentions doctrines, worldly explanation, guidance, future compensation and a father figure) oughtn’t bear the name of religion – it is merely a whispy shade, an impoverished ghost that lacks the courage of its convictions and will shy away wherever science shines a light towards it.
Andrew Brown disagrees with this, whilst also (once again) indirectly and accidentally arguing that the ‘common man’, believer of the faith portrayed by Freud, is a bit dim and uncouth:
Intelligent, cultured and brave believers do pose a real problem for atheists, but it’s not one we honourably solve by simply denying their existence. Freud goes on to dismiss anyone with the brains to see that a God who is merely an enormously exalted father can’t be worth worshipping – yet who still isn’t an atheist.
How do these people pose a problem to atheists? I’ve never noticed. I’ve never said religion makes somebody automatically stupid, uncultured, or cowardly. As I said earlier, people may hold a stupid belief, but still be intelligent – I know lots of people who prefer Oasis to Blur (OOoohhhh!!!) – they may may still be cultured (last I checked, religion and culture were pretty close – music, architecture, art?), they may still be brave (I’m sure as hell too cowardly to strap myself with explosives and blow myself into a jig-saw puzzle in exchange for an after-death paradise). Religion is undoubtedly ludicrous and credulous, but it also resides in a great spectrum of human beings and their attitudes. This is no problem for atheists, and never has been.
It seems in Andrew Brown’s world, atheists are good at scaring off the crows.
Anyway, the way in which Freud ‘dismisses’ the deistic, apologetic believers is to point out that they cannot see that religion is ‘untenable’, and defend it ‘piece by piece in a series of pitiful rearguard actions’. He accuses them of thinking ‘they can rescue the God of religion by replacing him by an impersonal, shadowy and abstract principle’, effectively taking the lord’s name in vain, and asserts that the ‘great men of the past’ who did do this were forced to because of fear or cultural norms.
Now, I don’t know about you, but Andrew Brown’s entire article seems, to me, to be a ‘series of pitiful rearguard actions’, trying to ‘rescue the God of religion by replacing him by an impersonal, shadowy and abstract principle’. So too does the attitude of such ‘theistic scientists’ as Francis Collins, and indeed, the attitude of EVERY (Abrahamic) religious person who claims to have no quarrel with science. Freud seems to have got it spot on this time.
However, Andrew Brown manages to counter Freud’s position with one of the most powerful tools available to the writer. He writes something that makes no sense to me.
Okay, I’m a bit tired, so it may well be my fault. But in response to Freud saying that “if some of the great men of the past acted in the same way, no appeal can be made to their example: we know why they were obliged to.” Andrew Brown responds:
Well actually, we don’t. If he means to imply that they were liberal theologians out of fear, he knows nothing of the history of religious persecution during the sixteenth and seventeenth century, in which the liberal or latitudinarian was as dangerous to strict orthodoxy as the atheist, and a damn sight easier to catch and persecute. If they were orthodox out of fear, they were not liberals.
OK, I can see that he’s saying it was as dangerous to be a liberal theologian as it was to be an atheist. It’s the last line that gets me: “If they were orthodox out of fear, they were not liberals”. Right, so – someone writing liberal theology must have believed it, to risk writing it. But if they were orthodox out of fear, why couldn’t they be liberals? Were liberals not scared too? What about pretending to be orthodox prevents you from being liberal? If liberal theologians were genuinely liberal theologians, how does that also mean that no orthodox theologians were liberals in disguise, in order to escape persecution? And how does the inaccuracy of Freud’s belief that they were obliged to be liberal and deistic affect his overall argument? I don’t see why it should be unusual for a ‘great mind’ brought up in a time when ALMOST EVERYBODY believes in a god to believe in a liberal god. As I’ve said, people can hold stupid or contradictory views. What is unusual about somebody living in a god-saturated time, with a great many gaps in human knowledge for that god to reside in, believing in a liberal god? Freud may not approve, but so what?
Frankly, I don’t give a damn. I just don’t care in this instance whether or not believing in a deistic god is more or less intellectually dishonest than believing in a theistic god. Yes, Freud found it ‘humiliating’ how many people made excuses for a god. So do I. Why should it be important whether in the past such excuses were made by ‘great’ people out of fear of persecution or not? The important part is surely the silliness and vacuity of making such excuses? Freud is pointing to the lengths it is necessary to distort religion to make it fit in with reality – from talking snakes and large-scale foreskin theft, to ‘guiding evolution’ or influencing quanta. Surely, that is taking the lord’s name in vain, whoever does it? Would the god of 100AD recognise himself at a Church of England dinner party as he guided, imperceptibly, the brewing of the tea?
In his last two paragraphs, Mr Brown does little more than waste the reader’s time with whatever ideas float through his mind.
“It is the utter refusal to grant that his opponents may be sincerely mistaken which strikes me here”.
From his own quoting of Freud, the only time Freud seems to suggest this is the line “And if some of the great men of the past acted in the same way, no appeal can be made to their example: we know why they were obliged to.” Hardly utter refusal, and hardly the strongest statement Freud could have made. I don’t think that Freud, or anybody else, has seriously been trying to say that liberal believers are actually atheists in disguise!
Yet, from this, Andrew Brown seems to claim that ‘something changed’ in the turn from the nineteenth to twentieth century, which made it ‘necessary to ignore and disparage liberal religion in a different way to the treatment handed out to the conservative stuff.’… What?! I thought that one of the most common arguments against ‘new atheists’ is that they’re too vicious, too willing to attack ALL religion, be it geocentric bunker-ranch in Texas, passing-round-the-orange-squash religion, or vague, floaty ‘spiritual’ crystals-and-Jesus religion!
And, finally, Andrew Brown sums up his article with a reference to Dawkins (who he says also wants Freud ‘utterly discredited’ intellectually) and a single, brilliant sentence. A sentence that sums up everything that is wrong with his article, with his style of thinking, and with his completely misinformed caricature of atheist philosophy:
But if Freud was wrong about everything else, why assume he was right about religion?
Yes, Andrew Brown can’t get his pathetic, pseudo-sagacious intellect around this fact. Atheists AREN’T atheists because of Freud. They don’t ‘assume’ he’s right about religion. They reach religion for their own reasons, from their own investigation, and it just so HAPPENS to be (for some) the same viewpoint as expressed by Freud.
Let me illustrate my point. Before the comments have even started, let me Godwin this blog post.
I agree with Hitler’s belief that the ground was solid. Look at any picture of Hitler standing on a podium, walking about, or driving in his car. Does he look terrified that he will fall through the ground, into the very fiery bowels of our planet itself, where he will be burnt to a crisp by the scorching caress of magma? No.
“But… but…” I hear Andrew Brown cry, “But… Hitler was a BAD MAN! He got things WRONG! If Hitler was wrong about everything else, why assume he was right about the ground being solid? I’m not walking ANYWHERE in case I plummet to my fiery demise!”
That’s right, Andrew. Hitler was a bad man. He was very, VERY wrong on many issues. He was, in fact, an utter bastard, perhaps the biggest bastard of the twentieth century, with premium-grade wackaloon ideas to match.
Yet people who are generally wrong can be right sometimes, and vice-versa. We should look at statements based not on who made them, but on their own merits. Hitler would have been stopped a lot earlier if the German population had, in 1933, said ‘I know Adolf’s got a great rep and all, but why exactly are Jews inferior?’.
Freud was wrong about many things, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t right about religion. It’s not that surprising. I had never heard Freud’s views on religion, yet those quoted seemed fairly similar to my own. I, and others, ‘assume’ that he is right about religion because it matches what we already knew.
However wrong a person is normally, they can still be right sometimes.
Don’t worry Andrew; we’ll wait as long as it takes you.
- The Freudulent Colonel Molerat
*STOP PRESS! EMERGENCY-SUPER-CONFUSED-LAST-MINUTE-PRE-POST-EDIT!!!!!
Waaaaiiiiit a second….
I’ve been reading through the comments on the blog post, and ‘ballymichael’ has pointed out that Andrew Brown
…self-identifies as an atheist in this thread, “Intelligent, cultured and brave believers do pose a real problem for atheists, but it’s not one we honourably solve by simply denying their existence” as in most others.
He’s an atheist?! How odd! Looks like my point that
Many don’t see religion as a bad thing at all. A very few [atheists] even think it is beneficial, but simply can’t buy into it.
has been proven!
Although, I must say, I do get images of Andrew Brown self-flagellating each night before bed, screaming “Oh Lord! Have mercy! Why won’t you let me believe in you?!? Why, Lord, WHY? WHHHHHYYYYYYYYYYYYYY?!?!?!?!