A New Apologetics

When I sent my publisher a book summary for the back cover of The Authenticity of Faith I characterized the book as providing a "new apologetics."

My publisher wondered if that description was too bold or audacious. Was I really providing a "new" apologetics?

I said it was. The Authenticity of Faith really was a new sort of apologetics. Nothing like this book had ever been published.

Sigmund Freud (along with many others before and since) claimed that religious faith was the result of wishful thinking, a craving for consolation and solace. That assessment has proved to be very potent. Especially as honest people know there is evidence backing up the claim.

As we say, there are no atheists in foxholes. And isn't life just one big foxhole?

But what can theologians, philosophers or biblical scholars--specialists in what I call "classical apologetics"--say about any of this?

Nothing really. Freud's claim isn't biblical, historical, theological or philosophical. It's an empirical claim about human psychology, about the motivations behind religious belief.

Which means that if you want to assess or evaluate Freud's claim you can't do it from the theologian's armchair or the philosopher's lectern. To get directly at the question you're going to have put Freud's claim to the test, to assess it empirically.

Is religious belief motivated by wishful thinking? Empirically speaking, either it is or it isn't.

Given that the issue regards human motivation, this seems to be a question only psychologists can address.

And if you haven't read the book, what is the take home point?

Based upon some of my own research, I conclude that Freud wasn't wholly wrong. Religious persons have to take Freud seriously. The motivations Freud describes do exist. Faith is often motivated by a need for existential consolation, and this motivational configuration has a lot of pernicious outcomes. So beware. And be aware.

That's a lesson I share with my students. "I know you want to blow Freud off, but you can't. He's making an important observation, an observation a thoughtful religious person will take seriously."

But Freud's mistake, I go on to say, was his "one size fits all" approach, his insistence on cramming the whole of religious experience into this narrow motivational box. Consequently, a better approach in describing religious motivation is the one used by William James: there are varieties of religious experiences and motivations.

And if that's the case, if there are religious varieties, how could you tell the difference?

This, it seems to me, is the crucial, diagnostic question. For individual believers and for faith communities.

And the book, which I hope you'd read, tries describe a way to answer that question.

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8 thoughts on “A New Apologetics”

  1. Coincidentally, I started reading "The Authenticity of Faith" this past weekend. I am currently beginning Chapter 4 "Terror Management." There is much in it I have liked so far. Above all, I would have to salute its honesty: the book is not afraid to confront motivations in belief and religious experience which, in the light of modern criticisms particularly, are not the best. In this regard, it calls to mind what I value so much in the approach of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others: if we de-mythologize the belief system, what remains?

    These approaches to Christianity, as well as learning what I can from the scholarship, criticisms, and experiences of others (for me, lately: Mennonite, Catholic, and Orthodox writers (and church of Christ and restorationist writers), LGBT Christian writers, feminist Christian writers, race- and economically-observant Christian writers, and some writers entirely outside of Christianity) are all having the effect, for me, of beginning to redeem the faith. They refine it for me, and I get to remove so many various forms of dross. They increase the value of what remains. It has been as invaluable as it has been unexpected.

    I also like the way the book, without leaning to heavily on the matter, applies the valuable hermeneutics of suspicion on some of the projects of certain modern thinkers. It proides a strong argument that when it comes to existential anxiety, we are all harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. In this regard, it reminds me of what Marilynne Robinson does in "Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self."

    The book's approach is unique, however. I haven't yet gotten to the data parts, to those insights your academic focus in psychology will bring to the equation, but I look forward to both. In the meantime I appreciate the balanced way it counters the excesses of reductionistic theory. I experience it, as I do this blog and the disussions here, as something of a refuge in this "most inhuman of ages,"

  2. OC, your second paragraph is golden. To let one's mind feast on all the delicious thoughts of others makes for a healthier approach to God, as well as to all God's Children.

    There is a saying of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas that I like to keep as a rule for myself when reading: "Know what is in front of your face, and what is hidden from you will be disclosed to you". Though this saying can be applied to all of our observations, it especially says to me, "Recognize truth and beauty, and the blooming of truth and beauty will never end"; and there are so many spiritual gardens and flowers out there to experience.

  3. I've read the book and use it as a form of apologetics – mostly to preach it's "gospel" to myself. I'm a winter Christian and always thought that meant there was something wrong with my faith. According to the final analysis in the book, the winter Christian type might yield a more authentic faith – if I read it correctly. If not please correct me. : )

  4. Richard, I was instructed by your book, The Authenticity of Faith, and quoted a couple of passages in my book, You Are a Wave in the Ocean of God. I took up the Freudian question and pointed to your research as well as comments from philosopher Susan Neiman. Thanks for your analytical skills and honest reporting on the nature of Christian faith.

  5. John,
    Thank you for your reply and comment. I read the Gospel of Thomas a while back. I don't remember the line you quote but, in any case, favor your interpretation, especially in this context.

    I realized the other day that my previous approach to faith was still exerting an influence on me by, among other things, causing me to seek after a fixed set of beliefs; albeit a new one. Since I don't always know what to believe these days, finding "it" seemed daunting and, worse, liable to lead me to as dead an end as last time, only doubly disappointing. I am now trying to focus less on a fixed content of belief and, instead, to relax a little more into this process, to feel comfortable simply allowing myself increasing exposure to these many new ideas and what they're producing in me. (I don't know quite how to express it; the contrast I have in mind makes me think of Micah 6:8).

    The viewpoint expressed in your interpretation multiplies the possibilities inherent in this new approach. "Endless truth and beauty" are whole dynamics away from the fixed entity/fixed letter I fear and the phrase invites me to run toward, rather than away from, discussions of faith. I appreciate it and I appreciate your uplifting view of what others have to offer. Thanks for taking the time to share your perspective with me.

  6. The line is actually saying 5, in the beginning of the book. So nice to hear from you. God bless our journeys.

  7. As we say, there are no atheists in foxholes.
    I know it's off-topic, but would you mind if I put in a request to retire this saying? It seems to be one of those things that takes an on-average, statistical observation and twists it into an absolute categorical statement, like 'men are taller than women', say.

    I'd go along with 'people in foxhole situations are less likely, on average, to be atheists', but to say that there are no atheists in foxholes does not appear to be true.

    For what it's worth, without having read the book, Freud's claim under discussion here, that religious faith is the result of wishful thinking, also sounds like it could be one of those 'thing that is sometimes true, overstated as if it were always true' claims.

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