I Don't Care If My Faith Seems Infantile?
Or, Why Freud Was Wrong But We Still Act Like He Was Right
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I regularly run into those smug side eyes and patronizing nods that communicate that really believing in a personal God—that you can talk to and interact with—is, well, good “for you” simple-minded people, but us open-minded and educated people understand what is really going on with “religion”.
Since Freud, it has generally been assumed that fervent faith is infantile—that it is the immature state of the weak-minded. This is the implicit (if not explicit) claim by those who say they are spiritual but not religious, and those who have left faith.
In the view of early psychology (and much pop psychology still), ardent faith—really believing in a real way—is childish, an infantile regression to the dependence of a baby, blocking avenues of mature psychological development (so the story goes).
So let’s dig a little deeper into this “religion is infantile” claim.
And then we’ll show why it is wrong—psychologically, not just theologically.
Religion is an Illusion—a Neurosis (according to Freud)
For Freud, religion is an illusion functioning as a form of wish fulfillment based on the need for protection against
the forces of nature, and
the obligations of culture.
Rather than standing bravely before the uncontrollable force of nature and resisting the controlling forces of culture, religion offers the easier path of conformity and capitulation.
As an illusion of something (someone) behind or beyond nature and culture, commitment to religion is a neurosis that everyone passes through in the development from childhood to mature adulthood.
"The whole thing is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life," he suggested.
As Kendra Cherry says, “Because people need to feel secure and absolve themselves of their own guilt, Freud believed that they choose to believe in God, who represents a powerful father-figure” (from “Sigmund Freud's Theories About Religion”).
Proof that religion is infantile is…
People raise their hands in worship in order to be picked up by a higher power.
People become either ecstatic or overly compliant in religious environments, like small children around their parents.
People speak gibberish, cry, or fall apart before “god”, just like children who are overwhelmed.
Religion is an illusory, nerotic response to the “oceanic” feeling of unboundedness, the sense of eternity within time. But this “oceanic” feeling as the energy of religion was really, for Freud, a narcissistic longing of an infant for the union with the mother—an immature dependence that he thinks we should all outgrow.
“Don’t take it too seriously…”
Psychologists and therapists (probably many because of the implicit Freudian influence on the psychology and sociology of religion) have held that fervent faith probably masks hidden psychological maladjustments.
I would think this is the case even within the emergence of therapy that takes spirituality seriously these days (which is hopeful). It might say, “We can take spirituality seriously, as long as we don’t take it too seriously.”
Within our therapeutic culture, it is fine to have a kind of spirituality as an expression of your independent development, your self-actualization, as a part of your authentic self.
But a fervent faith in a God who
speaks to me,
guides me in times of trouble,
and even commands and calls me to specific action (even seemingly against my preferences, desires, choices, or “self-care”)
and asks me to to die to myself…
…this seems—within this Freudian perspective that dominates our cultural consciousness—it seems like an unhealthy dependence on a divine authority figure who is probably traumatizing and abusive.
The goal for Freud, and most psychological theories after him, is the freedom of mature independence that casts off immature dependence.
Thankfully, some psychological theories are breaking with this view by incorporating a more socially nuanced view of maturity. But the jury is still out if this has made it to an understanding of religion.
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Freud’s Own Myth of Freedom—3 thoughts
Here are just three brief problems with this view.
First, people have recently pointed out that Freud’s entire theory functions more as a myth than science, and his myth was partly to replace the need for religion (which is not to say that all psychological theories fail this way). So let’s stop saying that “science says…”
Second, the idea that the complexity of religion can be reduced to wish fulfillment as projection is itself simplistic. Most cultural anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists have moved on from this view (but it still persists in the popular imagination, meaning that it can still influence the work of practicing therapists and spiritual writers if not consciously overturned).
Third, the cultural development proposed by Freud, based in the Eurocentric anthropology of his time, is problematic as science and clearly ideologically—it is basically racist. Like other scholars of his time, Freud’s disparaging of religion as infantile suited his sense of cultural superiority. Ideologically, the clear cultural progression from primitive humanity (suspiciously as everything outside the West) which then matures into a cultured humanity (culminating in the West) is clearly racist (which is also true of other supposedly psychologically based theories of cultural-as-development-of-consciousness like spiral dynamics).
So, what if Freud’s hope for freedom without religion is his own form of wish fulfillment? Especially given the mental health benefits of organized religion (see Why We Need Religion, written by an atheist).
An Alternative: Attachment Theory
What if faith is not infantile? What if faith isn’t a childish regression to dependence (which is already an inaccurate, overly passive, and mythical view of infants, who are in fact quite creative, communicative, and full of agency)?
What if childlike trust in God is actually the faithful expression and truest path of maturity in which we learn to both rely on others and become self-reliant?
Attachment theory—which began by disputing other fundamental principles of Freudian psychotherapy—does a different direction (which obviously I’m talking about regularly [see 4 Reasons Why Spiritual Formation Needs Attachment Theory], and I offer a learning cohort all about it).
A Secure Base: For going out and coming in
Attachment theory talks about how a secure attachment relationship functions as a secure base from which a child can go out and explore, and toward which the child can return when frightened, overwhelmed, or distressed.
Secure attachment means that maturity looks like going out, exploring independently, and creating in the world.
This is high independence.
And secure attachment means that maturity looks like coming in, drawing close to others, getting your needs met through dependence on others.
This is high intimacy.
And we never outgrow this dynamic. And this secure base, this going out and coming in, persists throughout life in changing forms (see “Attachments across the life span”).
Ok, well, that is enough for now.
All this to say, I don’t really care if people think my faith is infantile. They just means I’m still trying to be a good human being.
I haven’t yet written about God as a secure base, but I’m working on it, especially through the Psalms (so subscribe below so you don’t miss it).
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