The Authenticity of Faith: Part 3, Why Christians Need to Take Freud Seriously

The second big move of The Authenticity of Faith is that I insist we have to take Freud seriously.

That insistence startles and disorients many Christian readers of the book. A lot of Christians would like to dismiss Freud. Wasn't Freud an atheist? If so, why should we listen to him?

Well, because Freud was right about a lot of stuff. So if you want to offer a credible assessment of Freud's analysis of religious belief, you have to admit where he got things right.

Reflective and self-aware Christians have always known that Freud has a point. Religious belief does provide existential consolation. As the saying goes, there are no atheists in foxholes. In the face of suffering, meaninglessness, and death religion is a balm. No doubt about that.

Of course, the issue that we need to talk about is if providing consolation is the only thing religion is doing. Freud's theory is very reductive. More on that in the next post. But before we get to that issue, we have to admit that existential consolation is involved in religious belief, just as Freud pointed out. We can't assess Freud properly unless we are willing to admit he got some things right about this.

But this isn't just about being able to assess Freud's claims honestly and scientifically. There's a more important reason why Christians need to take Freud seriously.

The issue isn't just if Christians believe in comforting illusions. If that's all that is at stake it's not all that interesting. People believe all sorts of strange things, from food to health to conspiracy theories to spirituality to aliens to parapsychology. If all we were doing was lumping traditional religious belief into this list the debate doesn't matter all that much. Religion is just one more strange thing people believe. Live and let live.

But Freud's critique of religion has a darker aspect that Christians must attend to with deadly seriousness. Specifically, if religious belief is being driven by a need for consolation and comfort then that means that religious belief is being driven by anxiety and fear. And a fear-driven religion is a very worrisome thing.

Think about the evidence here and how worrisome it is.

Do we see evidence around us that Christians are being motivated by anxiety and fear? I think we do.

Do we see evidence that this fear is causing Christians to behave badly? I think we do.

Do we see evidence that this fear makes Christians vulnerable to fear-mongering and demagoguery? I think we do.

I talk about how fear hurts our ability to show hospitality to strangers in Chapter 7 of Stranger God.

This is where Freud can be extraordinarily helpful to Christians, why Christians need to take Freud seriously.

Because if Freud is right, and I think he was, fear can drive religious belief, and this fear is the source of the darkness we see within Christian communities.

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