Sunday, November 29, 2009

50 blogs on disbelief - Psychology

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
P204 Tamas Pataki “Some Thoughts on Why I Am an Atheist”

This one took a while, partly because it was Thanksgiving weekend. I might be slowing the pace a bit. Also, this one is rather dense. Get the dictionary back out. I will be summarizing some of his discussion and definitely not doing it justice. It is unique in that it spends most of its time discussing why someone might believe rather than the merits of what they believe. For him, this is a way to argue for non-belief. It could also be a way to examine what role religion has played and could play, but he doesn’t do that.

I’m not sure what titles he holds, but Pataki is well versed in Philosophy, Anthropology, Psychoanalysis, Religion and Social Inquiry. This may be another of the essays that actually converts a few theists, at least those who can work through it. Here is a sampling:

“Psychology cannot of course refute all religious claims, but it can do much to undermine many of them. It can debunk arguments from religious and mystical experience, for example, and, by providing parsimonious naturalistic explanations for the phenomena of religious devotion, display the superfluity of its metaphysical underpinnings.”

He starts off with a simpler discussion of how there are things we do intentionally or unintentionally or there are things that just happen to us. Just as we do not choose where to be born, most of us acquire our beliefs passively. Some beliefs are acquired after deliberation, still others are held because, as Francis Bacon said, we wish them to be true. Or at least, it is more pleasant to believe than reject them.

He mentions the struggle atheists need to go through to shed their heritage. In his case he says, “formal religious education rescued me.”, the stories were so implausible. University study confirmed his early conclusions. He does not rehash arguments for or against gods. He does acknowledge theological doctrines that reject conceptions of an existent deity. For me, this is refreshing because so much of the atheist argument does not acknowledge these: entities beyond language games, empirical or metaphysical disconfirmation. Although he quickly points out their lack of coherence or intelligibility and states only ignorance follows mystery.

He then lists some reasons why someone might believe, regardless of whether they have considered the reasons themselves:

Beliefs provide a consoling perspective.
Some people are just gullible or indifferent.
People rely on others (priests or theologians) to justify their beliefs.
Powerful social forces, and severe sanctions in some cultures.
“A substitutive satisfaction for ineluctable unconscious desires.”
Some have reasoned their faith, but Tamas believes they have erred.

He does not spend much time discussing the arguments for the existence of God because, he says, even if there were better arguments, they would remain disconnected from why most people embrace belief. He argues that it is these psychodynamics that are an important part of the case for rejecting religion.

His psychological explanation has two parts; first beliefs can pacify dispositions, and gives three examples:

Obsessional – need to control sexual and aggressive impulses
Hysterical – split off the profane aspects of personality from the spiritual
Narcissistic – Unconscious need to feel special or chosen

The second part is that religious conceptions shape a child’s mind and create some of the needs that religion may then satisfy. A relationship with an unconditionally loving being can be sustaining for someone unloved as a child. These fantasies may also distort, leading to a pathological grandiose self, of if falling short of the ideal, of being an unworthy, irredeemable sinner. Religious institutions can and do fashion themselves to accommodate and assuage these needs. These are some of the aspects of religion that earlier essays were suggesting need to be extricated.

He discusses many of the pathologies of the religious, and happily also acknowledges that for some, their atheism may arise from psychopathological roots. This is not true for all, in fact I’m sure it is a minority, but it does account for the often cited reason that atheism is just a reaction to religion. Someone once said to me that they realized that they had been viewing God as an angry man in the sky, with their father’s face. Pataki distinguishes atheism in that it is frugal in its metaphysics and does not provide scaffolding for pathologies to build upon.

In his final statement, he notes that the exposing of the needs he has discussed in his essay should be attended to with care. I would hope we would all take to that heart in all of our interactions.


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