Recently, I read an article by Sean Illing that talks about the failure of the so called new atheists to properly grapple with the “religious compulsion.” This basically means that they have a tendency to “think of God only in epistemological terms.” What’s interesting to me is that I happen to know a number of religious folks who do the same thing: belief, for them, is primarily an issue of being right; it is an epistemic concern, rather than a concern of faith or faithfulness, or any search for transcendence. It’s hardly ever got anything to do with the desire for inner transformation that Illing suggests is at the core of the religious impulse. This tendency to argue belief or unbelief in terms of a kind of rigid dogmatism is a really fascinating thing to examine through the lens of psychoanalysis.
In his book Why do I do that?, Joseph Burgo argues, quite reasonably I think, that all of us to varying degrees respond to the world through defence mechanisms of various kinds, which amount to lies we tell ourselves in order to prevent us from confronting that which would cause us pain. Such lies are especially obvious in those who, as Shakespeare would put it, “protest too much.” When someone, for instance, keeps on telling you that they’re not an addict even when you haven’t insinuated anything of the kind you can be almost certain there’s a problem. Why bring it up if it’s not an issue? As another example, there are those studies that demonstrate that it’s very likely that homophobic men are in fact closeted homosexuals. Their hatred is merely an expression of their unconscious desires. Generally speaking, it turns out, those who are most hateful towards the so-called other are often simply reacting to something that they find repulsive in themselves but do not want to acknowledge. They know something, but they do not want to know that they know it.
The first wave of feminism showed their hatred for the patriarchy, for instance, by imitating it without even once realising that that is what they were doing. Even the recent horrors of the xenophobic attacks in South Africa reflect this: foreigners are attacked because they are apparently taking the jobs of locals; they represent the immorality in those people who are unconscious of their own unemployability; violence is done to the other only because the subject is vile. The list of examples is endless because defence mechanisms are an alarmingly fundamental component of the human experience. For now, though, I want to simply and very briefly look at the issue of belief with the notion of defence mechanisms in mind.
The context I want to use is precisely that of the often wrong-headed debates between theists and atheists. I have a few friends who are rather fond of what is known as “Christian apologetics” — it is not about going around apologising for being Christian, although some of them should try doing this, but is rather about the defence of Christianity in rational and often rationalist terms. While most of these friends of mine are quite reasonable about their appreciation for apologetics, because they honestly and earnestly see Christianity as a kind of elegant puzzle that is worth figuring out in more clinical or philosophical terms, there’s one friend in particular that I can think of who is so very adamant about his desire to prove the truth of Christianity that something has become extraordinarily clear to me: he doesn’t believe any of it. Consciously, he is a Christian; unconsciously, he is an atheist.
Christianity, in other words, fits intellectually for him but the soul of faith and its goal of inner transformation is utterly gone. For him, to quote Nietzsche, God is dead: a mere dead concept in a system of concepts rather than a living consciousness that grounds our own awakeness. This friend of mine, who when he reads this will probably think I’m talking about someone else, gets very emotional when people tell him that Christianity is bogus or that it includes somewhat irrational or nonrational or perhaps transrational elements. This emotionality, however, is not because he believes they’re wrong but rather seems to be because he actually believes they’re right. Apologetics, for him at least, is the edifice that hides the painful truth: for him, there is no ultimate ground to meaning. He knows about Christianity, but does not feel it. His desperate desire to cling to a particular tradition is really a refusal to acknowledge that the rug has already been pulled out from under him. Keeping in mind that self-deception of any kind is owed largely to pressure — in this case, the social pressure to conform — it is simply much more convenient to hold onto the elegant lies that he has told himself. If he owns up to the lie, he may lose friends, damage his marriage, or change his style of parenting, among a number of other things. Change of any kind is difficult but changing your worldview has massive repercussions. The pain that is being avoided is precisely this need for change.
The same sort of irrational insistence, though, is equally evident in the the rhetoric of the new atheists. Why do they invest so much time and energy disproving what they don’t think is real unless it presents a genuine problem for them? For the usual atheist, God is an indifferent concern. But for the new atheist, God is the biggest issue. Of course, as in the case of my apologist friend, I cannot be absolutely sure that this is what’s going on but the signs are there: something is being repressed, pushed down into the unconscious. In fact, this is why Lacan’s formulation for atheism was not the Nietzschean one —”God is dead” — but rather “God is unconscious.” (The Nietzschean formulation, as intimated above, works better for the fundamentalist theist). That is, for the new atheist, God still functions as if he existed. God is still there, relegated to the unsconscious as the Real that is too traumatic to face up to.
So it is, rather ironically, that in the opposition between new atheists and dogmatic theists (fundamentalists), it is the theists who symbolise atheism and the atheists who symbolise theism. I’m particularly fond of this irony, because it so nicely exposes one of the dominant defence mechanisms highlighted by Burgo, namely splitting.
Human beings have a tendency to resist ambiguity even though it is so obviously woven into the fabric of our human experience. When faced with complexity, we prefer to opt for either/or distinctions. We tend to ‘resolve’ the complexity, even when it is actually irresolvable. Obviously, splitting the world up in this way has its uses but when it is excessive, as it is in the split between theists and atheists, we run into a whole lot of trouble. The facade (the split) easily replaces the truth (complexity and ambiguity). There’s more to splitting than this, obviously, but for me it’s particularly interesting because this splitting is an attempt, not to make the world more ordered (because reality is what it is, no matter what we say about it), but to defend ourselves against the complexities and traumas that are actually there within ourselves. When people who supposedly believe opposite things clash, the conflict is not the result of a disagreement at all but is the result of a fundamental agreement: both parties don’t believe what they claim to believe, and they also both don’t want to admit it; the other party is an irritation only because they confront the other with this frightening truth: the lie at the centre of their believing.
However, I’m not, in all of this, saying that there is ultimately no value to philosophically investigating belief and unbelief. It is a tremendously valuable thing. God remains, for both atheists and theists, a vital and beautiful question, albeit one that is not revolvable in purely epistemic terms. I’m also not saying that we should all be agnostics: agnostic is just the Greek word for the Latin ignoramus, and I can’t see how this is something worth promoting at all. What I am saying is this: that however we navigate what we believe about what is transcendent or ultimate, we need to begin within the complexities of the human experience, and with a kind of radical honesty about our own darkness, doubts and self-deceptions. We need, in other words, to aim for earth before we aim for heaven (somewhat contra CS Lewis); we need, in a sense, the face of the other before we arrive at the ought (as in the work of Levinas); we need grace before law (to follow St. Paul); and we need to grapple with what it means to live with each other before we throw around theories about how Evolution dispenses with the need for God. If a theory is any good, it will point us back to our own enfleshment, not take us out of it (The word must take on flesh, as the Gospel according to St. John suggests). If we don’t do this, it would probably just mean that we are claiming that right belief is more important than earnest belief.
(Originally published on May 13, 2015)