The Authenticity of Faith: Part 6, The Defensive Theology Scale

Having set out the rival hypotheses of William James and Sigmund Freud--Are there religious experiences that are not motivated by providing us existential consolation and comfort?--the fifth big move in The Authenticity of Faith was figuring out a way to assess the issue empirically.

The biggest problem here, obviously, is that you just can't walk up to people with the question "Do you believe in God because you are afraid?" and expect to get good responses. If Freud was correct, and we've admitted that he was, religious belief can have a defensive aspect. Consequently, direct questions about the role of existential consolation are going to tend to elicit defensive, anxious answers.

Again, this isn't news. We've all encountered this. When you start to question sacred things, people start getting nervous. Emotions come to the surface and rational conversation ends. And when you see that happen you're looking at precisely what Freud pointed out: Underneath religious belief is a lot of anxiety.

And yet, if William James is to be believed, this doesn't explain everything about religious belief and its underlying motivations. So how to sort all this out? How can you separate Christians into the sick souls versus the healthy-minded, the Winter Christians from the Summer Christians?

In my empirical research this was the approach I adopted.

First, let's admit that religious beliefs can reduce anxiety. Okay, then what specific sorts of beliefs (I was focusing on Christians) would reduce anxiety? What sort of beliefs are comforting and consoling? Let's identify these beliefs and then see who strongly endorses them versus who denies them. That was my strategy.

So in 2004 I published a scale called the Defensive Theology Scale (DTS). The DTS was designed to assess five sorts of beliefs that provide existential comfort and consolation. These beliefs are: 
1. Special protection 
Theme: The belief that the believer will experience less misfortune than non-believers due to God's protection.
Anxiety-reducing function: Creates an aura of "safety," allowing for equanimity in a painful, tragic world.

2. Special Insight
Theme: The belief that we can clearly discern the actions of God in life and the will of God in personal choices.
Anxiety-reducing function: Reduces the existential burden of freedom and choice (e.g., "God opened a door for me."). Further, allows seemingly chaotic circumstances to be "explained" by God's Providence.

3. Divine Solicitousness
Theme: The belief that all our needs and requests, even the most trivial, are of import to God and demand God's attention and intervention.
Anxiety-reducing function: Makes the mundane issues of life cosmically significant. Creates a sense of "specialness" to have the Deity acting as a Cosmic Butler.

4. Special Destiny
Theme: The belief that God has a very specific, providential plan for your life.
Anxiety-reducing function: Allows life to be experienced as intrinsically meaningful and heroic. A heroic "destiny" is handed to a person rather than a life that involves uncertainty, risk, and the prospect of failure.

5. Denial of Randomness
Theme: The belief that God's hand is involved in all the events around us. Nothing is random or accidental. Thus, even tragedy is meaningful and good.
Anxiety-reducing function: Unpredictability is inherently scary. Further, chaos and suffering makes us feel that God is not in control. Thus, by banishing randomness/chance/accidents/chaos/tragedy from the world we maintain equanimity. 
For many readers of The Authenticity of Faith, the Defensive Theology Scale is the hardest part of the book. The beliefs surveyed in the DTS are very common and widely shared. So it's a bit jarring to have your beliefs--and vital, cherished beliefs at that--held up as exemplars of "defensiveness."

So a quick comment about that. The DTS wasn't created so assess theological or biblical truth. The issue, when you look at the DTS themes, isn't, for our purposes here, to debate the truth of any given belief. Does God, for example, have a specific, predetermined plan for your life (special destiny)? Does God will that hurricane, car accident, or cancer diagnosis (denial of randomness)?

Theologically, we can debate those questions. But the point of the DTS is simply to say that, if you do believe that God has a providential plan for your life or that God has a plan for that cancer diagnosis, that these beliefs are comforting and consoling. They reduce our anxiety. Conversely, if you feel that God doesn't have a detailed, worked out plan for your life, or that God doesn't have a plan for the cancer, well, those conclusions are more distressing. A life lived under those sorts of beliefs is more risky, uncertain, and fragile. And that makes us anxious.

All that the say, while a person can object to the DTS on theological grounds, I think it's pretty obvious that certain sorts of beliefs can reduce (or increase) anxiety. That doesn't make a given belief right or wrong, theologically speaking. It's just the simple recognition that beliefs affect us psychologically. Beliefs have emotional consequences.

So the strategy behind the DTS was this. Christians who strongly endorse the DTS themes would have a very comforting, anxiety-reducing suite of beliefs. Christians who do not, to some degree, endorse the DTS themes would have a suite of beliefs that would make them more vulnerable to anxiety.

Framed in terms of the William James vs. Sigmund Freud debate, the people we are most interested in looking at are Christians who would tend to reject, partly or wholly, the DTS beliefs. These would be Christians who would be pushing away existential comfort and consolation. Consoling beliefs are on offer--"This cancer diagnosis was God's will and plan."--and these Christians are rejecting that consolation.

In fact, I would argue that belief in God, while rejecting a consoling belief in the face of a cancer diagnosis, exacerbates the existential burden, making it heavier. Biblically, we call this additional burden lament.

Two questions follow from this strategy of using the DTS to sort Christians into these types.

First, are there actual Christians who reject the DTS beliefs? Could such a person even be considered Christian? I mean, what sort of Christian denies that God has providential plan for their life?

Second, even if we could, using the DTS, sort Christians into two different types, do these groups of Christians behave any differently?

That is a hugely important question. Like we said in an earlier post, the reason any of this matters is because of how we see Christians behaving badly in the world, intolerantly and even violently. Our suspicion, following Freud, is that fear is driving all this bad behavior. So even if we could use the DTS to sort Christians, if these Christians didn't behave any differently then this whole exercise isn't going to amount to much. If non-anxious Christians behave just as badly as anxious Christians then this whole inquiry becomes merely an academic exercise.

The next two posts will tackle these two questions in turn.

First, are there Christians who don't endorse the DTS beliefs?

And second, do they behave any differently from Christians who do?

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