Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

FREUD: Civilization, Discontents and Genesis 2012

What motivates people? A quick review of our recent readings shows a diversity of answers. In Rothschild’s Fiddle Jacob was motivated by money. For Aristotle motivation comes from excelling in whatever we do. For Socrates the answer is philosophy. For Kurtz in Heart of Darkness it was personal political power. For Kant it was a clean conscience. For Marx it was getting fair wages for our work. Then we come to a reading that was baffling to Freud: Genesis. Freud could account for all the other motivations through his theory of psychology. But how do we account for this unexpected religious motivation that we find in Genesis? Freud admits that as a scientist he’s perplexed by this whole phenomenon: 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 to rise above this view of life. How can people still believe that kind of stuff in the twentieth century? What disturbs Freud even more is the sheer number of believers: It is still more humiliating to discover how large a number of people living today (who cannot but see that this religion is not tenable) nevertheless try to defend it piece by piece in a series of pitiful rearguard actions. For Freud the question is closed. Modern science has answered most of the frightening questions that drove primitive peoples to try and placate the gods. It was understandable for those who lived in ignorance. It is not understandable for those who have a scientific view of life. Here Freud is talking about what the common man understands by religion… And what is this common understanding? The common man cannot imagine 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 is childish to Freud; “patently infantile.” Science, and especially psychology, has disproven once and for all the childish idea of a bearded old man sitting in the sky who will somehow take care of us. There is simply no proof that God exists. So how do we account for people who still believe in spite of what science or Freud have to say? A contemporary of Freud’s (American economist and engineer Stuart Chase) put it this way: For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don't believe, no proof is possible. The foundation for the believer is laid in the first sentence of Genesis: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth… There isn’t any attempt to prove that God exists. God’s existence is just stated as a fact and the story moves on. Two readers can read that same sentence. One reader may simply accept the statement at face value; for them no proof is necessary. Another reader may reject it out of hand; for them no proof is possible. Freud rejects it. In his view religion is psychologically unhealthy: Its technique consists in depressing the value of life and distorting the picture of the real world in a delusional manner; which presupposes an intimidation of the intelligence. At this price by forcibly fixing them in a state of psychical infantilism and by drawing them into a mass-delusion, religion succeeds in sparing many people an individual neurosis; but hardly anything more. This is Freud’s summary of the religious motive: it’s childish. Other Great Books authors argue precisely the opposite. Genesis says that human beings are created in the image of God. That’s why the common believer thinks of God as a father figure; it’s comforting. Genesis also claims that religion elevates life, enlightens the mind, and transforms the heart. Submission to God is not infantile at all but an entirely proper response to the creator of the universe. The rebellious are generally the most childish ones. Freud and Genesis are obviously far apart. Freud says man’s judgments of value… are an attempt to support his illusions with arguments. We may have the illusion that we’re physically attractive. But Stuart Chase says the Lord prefers common looking people. That is why he made so many of them. No argument there.


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