The Psychology of Religion Part 2

Hi again!  This post is the last in a series of four – It all began when I found a couple of books by a Christian Psychologist. “Unclean” and “The Authenticity of Faith” by Richard Beck. I have found the journey interesting, hopefully I have been clear in my presentation and you have been able to follow along. The first three posts can be found below.

1. That’s disgusting

2. The Privy Tower

3. The Psychology of Religion

My previous post pointed out a very real dynamic working in the Christian faith – one of fear.

Freud and many others after him have gathered a whole pile of empirical evidence against religion – faith according to him is inauthentic, a form of illusion – the key psychological symptom of this dishonesty is existential consolation. Both Freud and Marx compare religion to a narcotic. Basically an analgesic that reduces our anxiety. Freud felt that religion was infantism, an unwillingmess to face the realities of life.

Is this all we are? There is definitely a truth to what he says, I have observed it in religious circles over the years and lab studies confirm it.

Reading about the psychology of religion was no surprise for me – but I have realized how dangerous we are as a church if we refuse to acknowledge this fear dynamic within our walls. With our multi-cultural society we have many world-views and religions at our doorstep and there is a call for tolerance – it is this call that is scary, it makes the suggestion that all world views are equal thus undermining our own as the ultimate source of meaning and significance. This fear is lethal, it is so easy for us to resolve to strengthen our boundaries. It is happening, as I pointed out previously – a fear based religion results in an inability to hear anothers views, exclusion, intolerance and fundametalism.

Perhaps Freud was a bit too passionate in trying to prove religion wrong. Could there be faith that doesn’t have its primary function as consolation?  I think I have met some of these people. If there is, what does this faith look like?

Our multi-cultural society, the rising acceptance of Gay Marriage, the presence of suffering and pain – (theodicy) may well make us retreat into the safety of our familiar numbing drug called Lutheranism OR we might take the challenge to face the open wound, the doubts, the fears, face the ….the ….trying to remember another new word I learnt….the cognitive dissonance we feel when reading scripture. Cognitive dissonance – I impress even myself – makes it sound like I know something don’t you think?

So we have two options.  Option one is referred to as “the healthy soul” by William James in his study on religious experience. Healthy souls are labelled thus because they are dogmatic in their interpretations. A common statement by a healthy soul may sound something like this: “The Bible says it so I believe it.” Healthy because it ignores the realities of life. Option two is referred to as the “sick soul”.

The “sick soul”, because it chooses a path that doesn’t opt for the “band aid” answers to lifes ambiguities, has an emotional cost – thus the title “sick soul”. Their faith experience is often full of conflicting feelings, doubt  and  lament.

To end this post I leave you with Becks words:

…..But this goes beyond mere tolerance. true, by refusing to engage in world view defense, sick souls are better positioned to approach others with warmth, curiosity, and a spirit of hospitality. While engaging with others will cause the sick soul to ask some hard questions about the ultimate truthfulness of their own worldview, the moral benefits here are obvious. But the deeper significance of exposing oneself to suffering and pain, and ambiguities of life is that the exposure allows one both to see and stand in solidarity with those who are suffering. Thus the virtues of the sick soul  are less about tolerance, although that is no small accomplishment, than about increased capacity for empathy, compasssion, and love. Facing the evil and suffering in life is hard and it raises all sorts of difficult questions for people of faith. But if William James (1902/1987) is correct, the path of the sick soul, as hard as it is, may be in his words “the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth.”

Perhaps then in the final analysis, faith, dogmatically understood, must be traded for love. Doubts are the burden that believers must carry to keep their eyes opened to the suffering of others. It is as Moltmann (1993) described it, “The more a person believes, the more he experiences pain over the suffering inthe world.” What, then, might be the ultimate proof of the authenticity of faith? Perhaps it is as simple as St. Paul suggested in the First Epistle to the Corinthians: “And now these three remain: faith,hope and love. But the greatest of these is love….”

On that positive note I leave you with a sobering observation – Don’t you think it ironic that the best proof we have of the authenticity of Faith, is often the very people the church wants to silence.

An apology: I have presented this topic highly in favour of the sick soul Christian – I have done this intentionally to make a point. I do recognize that there are many consoling words in scripture and God is the ultimate solace in fear and trauma. However this should never be at the cost of the “other”, the very real fear dynamic that is often the motivation behind our beliefs needs to be acknowledged and worked on. Otherwise we end up a scary scary religion.

10 Responses to “The Psychology of Religion Part 2”
  1. stasisonline says:

    “the best proof we have of the authenticity of Faith, is often the very people the church wants to silence.” Really, Tapman? Like who?

    • Tapman says:

      Richard Beck has this to say about “sick souls” – they….”appeared more comfortable with the existential anxieties associated with the human body. This allowed them to embrace doctrines that have historically caused a great deal of anxiety within the Christian tradition.”

      • stasisonline says:

        When I pondered who best proves authenticity of faith, my mind was drawn to figures like Bonhoffer, Mother Theresa, Brother Andrew; those who seemed to lay down their lives or who embraced grave risks in their mission. And I couldnt recall attempts from the church to silence them. But yes I suppose there have been others, like Luther, who faced friction with the church at the time.

      • Tapman says:

        Interesting that you mentioned Mother Teresa – she is a good example of a “sick soul” Christian. When she was sainted she asked to be known as a saint of darkness – for much of her ministry she lived in doubt and felt abandonded by God. We often think that doubt and faith are opposites.

      • stasisonline says:

        She experienced doubt, but I suspect that “living in doubt” may overstate her experience. I still see faith and doubt as opposites.

      • Tapman says:

        Perhaps you would like to read her biography yourself – I have only read snippets on a sermon and in the book I referred to. I would say faith and unbelief are opposites, maybe doubts even prove you have faith…perhaps.

      • stasisonline says:

        Yes, youre right. The true opposite of faith is unbelief. ‘Doubt’ describes the state in between faith and unbelief.
        Ive searched the internet and found that yes there are claims that Mother Theresa wrote in a letter that she experienced extended and deep doubt. When I first read what you wrote, Tapman, I perceived you to be claiming that she embraced and was comfortable with a life of doubt. Whether that was your intention or not, I suggest that the evidence shows her as uncomfortable with the doubt she experienced. I also found that the quote about being a saint of darkness was not about her doubt and sense of abandonment. The attributed quote is “If I ever become a Saint — I surely be one of ‘darkness’. I will continually be absent from Heaven — to light the light of those in darkness on earth.” As quoted in Mother Teresa : Come Be My Light (2007) by Brian Kolodiejchuk

      • Tapman says:

        Thanks stasisonline. We are not meant to be comfortable with doubt that is part of th point being made. So often we expect black and white answers from the bible and we accept slickly answers to difficult questions because we don’t want to feel uncomfortable. That is why Christianity can be used as a drug – to hide those things that make us uncomfortable, to make us feel better. A “sick soul” doesn’t want to hide from the uncomfortablness of life or hide from the ambiguities and difficulties with scripture. For this reason they are able to embrace humanity in love – one example would be the gay issue.

      • stasisonline says:

        Sounds like people are better off without Scripture? Im sensing that you are not called to be an evangelist.

      • Tapman says:

        Interesting that you not only mentioned Mother Teresa but Bonhoeffer – remember the context of my post, we are not discussing faith and doubt we are discussing the psychology of religion. Bonhoeffer in his writings from prison shortly before his death wrote of the “next Epoch” in the life of the church where God would become bigger than one whose only role is to provide us with a psychological crutch….I believe he called it a “religionless Christianity”. Sounds very much like the stuff I am talking about in my post. Sounds to me like the Holy Spirit is working in His Church.

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