The Authenticity of Faith: Part 4, Sigmund Freud vs. William James

The third big move of The Authenticity of Faith is pitting Sigmund Freud against William James.

As I pointed out in my last post, we have to admit that Freud got some things right about religious belief. Religious belief, perhaps even most of religious belief, has a defensive aspect. That is, religious belief is often aimed at providing us existential consolation. That means that religious belief is often driven by fear, and that fear makes religious believers prone to behaving badly, even violently.

But the pushback here is this: Sure, faith can be comforting and consoling, but is that all there is to religious belief?

Freud most definitely thought so. In this, Freud's theory is both comprehensive and reductionistic. All religious belief--100% of it--is motivated by a need for existential consolation.

In The Authenticity of Faith I turn to the work of William James for an alternative viewpoint.

In his book The Varieties of Religious Experience James saw the same dynamics that Freud saw. Faith can have an defensive aspect. But James saw more than Freud. James, per the title of his book, saw religious varieties, different types of religious faith. James saw more in religious believers than Freud's one-size-fits-all theory that faith is 100% about existential consolation.

Consequently, in The Authenticity of Faith I pit Freud vs. James as two rival theories about the role of existential consolation in religious belief. When it comes to existential consolation, is there a single, one-size-fits-all religious experience, as Freud supposed, or are there varieties of religious experience as James proposed?

For example, William James describes two sorts of religious experience--the sick soul versus the healthy-minded--that handle existential issues very differently. The healthy-minded believer pushes the darker aspects of existence out of mind. Thus, the healthy-minded believer is an example of Freud's assessment that religious belief is aimed at provided comfort and consolation.

By contrast, the sick soul experience focuses upon and dwells upon the darker, more painful aspects of existence. Here, according to James, is a religious experience that doesn't avoid but actively seeks out the darkness and pain.

Freud, apparently, never considered that possibility. And it's here where I think Freud failed as a scientist, letting his prejudice and ideology get in the way. James didn't have an atheistic axe to grind, and that allowed him to approach religious belief more objectively and scientifically.

All that to say, the big question that The Authenticity of Faith tries to tackle is this issue posed by Freud vs. James: When it comes to existential consolation, are there religious varieties? Specifically, are there sick souls out there?

Because if there are, then Sigmund Freud was wrong.

And that's no small conclusion.

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