Experimental Theology: Freud, James, Summer and Winter

Richard Beck, an Associate Professor and experimental psychologist at Abilene Christian University, writes a blog called Experimental Theology. It’s full of his research and his reflections on the psychology of religion, and is well worth reading. Beck, a Christian himself, is happy to use psychological tools to study belief.

Beck recently finished a series of posts entitled The Varieties & Illusions of Religious Experience. In this series, he talks about two ideas of the psychological purpose of religion, those of Sigmund Freud and William James, and relates the results of some experiments he did to test these ideas.

Tell me about your mother

Freud wrote a book called The Future of an Illusion. In it, Freud argues that religion is a narcotic, not in the social sense of Marx’s famous saying, but rather, psychologically. Religion provides consolation in the face of uncertainity and death. In describing this psychological purpose, Freud does not argue that this means religion is necessarily false (see logical rudeness), but he says (and Beck agrees) that this consolation is suspicious: “We shall tell ourselves that it would be very nice if there were a God who created the world and was a benevolent Providence, and if there were a moral order in the universe and an after-life; but it is a very striking fact that all this is exactly as we are bound to wish it to be.”

James wrote a book called The Varieties of Religious Experience, in which he speaks of healthy-minded believers and of sick souls. The healthy-minded believer is an optimist, who lives by “averting one’s attention from evil, and living simply in the light of good”. There are good things to say about living like this, but ultimately, James thinks healthy-mindedness functions as an anaesthetic. In this, James’s view of the healthy-minded believer is similar to Freud’s view of all believers. But James doesn’t stop there. Sick souls, he says, don’t find consolation in religion and are convinced that “the evil aspects of our life are of its very essence, and that the world’s meaning most comes home to us when we lay them most to heart”. For Beck, the laments found in some of the Psalms come from sick souls. Beck cites Mother Theresa, whose letters show she felt a spiritual emptiness for much of her life, as another example.

Is Freud right? Experiments done to investigate Terror Management Theory suggest he is. Christians were primed to think about their own deaths and then ask to evaluate essays they were told were written by a Christian and a Jew. They were significantly more likely to denigrate the Jewish author than Christians who evaluated the essays without the death priming. In the face of death, believers exhibit what the theorists call “worldview defence”.

It is not the healthy who need a doctor

But, says Beck, these experiments failed to distinguish the healthy and the sick believers. If James is right and the sick souls exist, they should be less likely to defend their worldviews when primed with thoughts of death. Beck came up with what he calls the Defensive Theology Scale, a set of questions designed to rate how much Christians think God gives special insight and protection, answers even mundane prayers, and guides events in their lives. People who have these consoling beliefs score highly, and are healthy-minded, in James’s terminlogy, or Summer Christians, in Beck’s. It turns out that when the death priming experiment was re-run, high DTS scores correlated with worldview defence in the face of death. The sick souls, those Beck calls the Winter Christians, did not react like their Summer counterparts: they didn’t feel the need to defend their worldview even when primed to think of death.

There’s much more in Beck’s essays (for example, the correlation between healthy-mindedness and belief in an active Satan), but you should read them for yourselves.

Worshipping tables

Reading Beck’s stuff, I’d classify my former belief as healthy-minded or Summery. It’s pretty hard for an evangelical to be anything else: sick souls don’t have a personal relationship with Jesus, and aren’t inclined to blame sin and Satan when things get tough in their faith. Perhaps there’s some lingering remnant of evangelicalism in me, because I can’t quite see the point of being a sick soul and still being part of a worshipping community, even if you’ve had a religious experience which leads you to think there’s a God. Terry Pratchett writes that witches don’t believe in gods in the same way that they don’t believe in, say, tables: they know they exist and have a purpose, but don’t feel the need to go around saying “O mighty table, without whom we are naught”. God seems inscrutable to Winter Christians, so, as Daniel Fincke asks, Why worship someone with mysterious motives? (in the posting, we also see the important contribution of Chef from South Park to defeating various Christian theodicies). I’ll have to read more of Beck’s old posts to see whether he addresses the question of what motivates Winter Christians.

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Drama, science, evolution, morality – the usual

Link roundup and browser tab closing time…

Expel the evildoer from among you

If you’re not reading back over my old entries (why not? I used to be much better before I jumped the shark), you might not have noticed that there was some LJ drama over the last one. robhu conclusively won the debate on whether complementarianism is sexist by the cunning ploy of banning me from commenting on his blog: an innovative rhetorical tactic, and undeniably a powerful one. But it’s not over yet. I’ve realised that he may have made a Tone Argument, which might enable me to reject his ideas out of hand and advance three squares to the nearest Safe Space, so I’m awaiting the results of a steward’s inquiry. It’s possible I may have too many Privilege Points to make a valid claim for Tone Argument, but I’m hopeful the powers that be will see things my way.

Could out-consume Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Down on the Premier Christian Radio boards, they’re talking about science and religion again, specifically whether science can ignore the possibility of God’s existence. I’ve been sticking my oar in, as usual.

Red Ken again

When I reviewed Ken MacLeod’s The Night Sessions, I reckoned that he had something to do with Christianity himself at one point, as the observational humour was too keen to come from a total outsider. It turns out he’s the son of a Presbyterian minister. At an SF convention in 2006, MacLeod spoke about his childhood, discovering that creationism was wrong, and the social contract. This old speech of his was linked from his recent blog posting on the changing meaning of evolution. MacLeod says a change occurred in the 1970s when Jacques Monod and Richard Dawkins introduced a thoroughly materialistic theory. This replaced older ideas that evolution is progress up a sort of secular Great Chain of Being, ideas which C.S. Lewis grumbled about, though not for the same reasons as the biologists. “Evolutionary Humanism was no doubt troubling enough to believers, but at least it wasn’t a vision of blind, pitiless indifference at the heart of things.” It’s the latter vision which MacLeod says has so riled modern creationists. I’m not sure whether he’s right, but it’s an interesting speculation.

Morality

Some people argue that if there’s no God, you can’t have real morality. We’ve discussed this previously here (and also here). The debate seems to boil down to which definition of morality you find psychologically satisfying, since as far as I can tell it has no practical consequences: almost everyone thinks that Bad Things are Bad, whether or not they also think there are moral absolutes.

Anyway, Jeffrey Amos over at Failing the Insider Test has an interesting post specifically about the idea that morality shows there’s a God. Firstly, he argues that all moral systems have the problem of where you start from, so the Euthyphro dilemma isn’t introducing a new problem for theists. Nevertheless, it does show that the problem isn’t solved by introducing God, either. Secondly, he argues that a theist must either say that God’s ideas of morality are not similar to ours, in which case pretty much everyone is wrong about morality and once we allow this, it’s no stretch to say that they might be wrong about it in a different way (for example, maybe true morality doesn’t have to be absolute). Or a theist must say that God’s morality is similar to ours, but this runs into the problem of pain: a God whose morality was similar to ours wouldn’t allow there to be so much suffering in the world. The standard response that God allows suffering for inscrutable reasons doesn’t help: if God is inscrutable, how can we know his morality is similar to ours? The second prong of the second argument isn’t new (gjm11 makes it here, and I doubt he was the first), but I think Amos’s article states it very clearly.

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Being uncomplimentary about complementarians

Readers: in a recent thread on robhu‘s journal, Rob said I had misrepresented complementarians (of which he is one). I’m not sure how many of you click the links in my postings and have noticed that I occasionally have a joke with them, but to be clear, on the occasions where I have linked the word complementarian to Houseplants of Gor, I did not mean to imply that complementarians are the same as Goreans. Unlike Goreans, complementarians do not believe that women are intrinsically inferior to men and should naturally be their slaves. They believe that men and women are equal in status and dignity, but should occupy different roles in relationships like marriage, with women submitting to men’s loving, self-sacrificial leadership. You can find a summary of complementarian beliefs in the Danvers Statement on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

Despite the complementarian assertion that men and women are of equal status, I find complementarianism problematic because it seeks to perpetuate a hierarchy with men in a position of power over women, and claims that this sort of hierarchy is normative. While I should probably be cautious about comparing historically oppressed classes for fear of being called problematic myself (this being one of the worst things that can happen to you on LJ, as some of you will know, second only to being accused of “fail”), I’d note that replacing “men” with “white people” and “women” with “black people” in complementarian statements would not result in something many of us were happy to sign up to (with the possible exception of Rudyard Kipling, who was big on loving, self-sacrificial leadership). To be clear, I am not saying the complementarianism is racist (I’m saying it’s sexist), but I believe the analogy is appropriate as members of both classes were and are oppressed as a result of being born into a particular group.

While there are important differences between them, complementarians and Goreans are similar in that both advocate a male-led hierarchy and claim it is the correct and fulfilling state of all male/female relationships. As such, the two philosophies are, shall we say, equal in status and dignity, with complementarianism certainly not deserving more respect merely because it originates in a religion.

Hope that’s cleared things up. Must go, scribb1e‘s just finished cooking my dinner.

Update: Expelled!

Edited to add: So, Rob didn’t like my analogy and banned me from commenting on his blog.

Of course, I didn’t chose the analogy at random. The question at hand was whether complementarianism should be considered sexist. I think it should. If similar statements to those complementarians make about women were made about another historically disadvantaged group, like black people, we would rightly consider them discriminatory against that group. Likewise, there have been times when sentiments we’d now consider discriminatory have been couched in terms of self-sacrifice and serving the disadvantaged group, as Kipling’s poem illustrates.

Is complementarianism as bad as racism or sexism at its most horrible? No. It is patronising rather than hateful, and I’m not sure how much harm it does. There are much worse examples discrimination around today. I suppose what irks me about complementarianism is that it pretends to righteousness (that, and the fact that I was once taken in by it). Were the early Christians ahead of their time in their attitude to women? Quite possibly, but complementarians are behind theirs.

If anyone feels the analogy was taking things too far, I’d be interested to discuss it.

Update again: Censored!

And now the post has gone. I never appreciate people playing the “unpublishing” game: here’s my copy so you can see what I actually said.

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Pining for the fjords or I Was A Twentysomething Matt Redman Fan

Friends have been playing with Spotify, which it turns out has a whole load of Matt Redman songs (imagine U2 singing about how Jesus is their boyfriend, and you’ve got it). I heard Redman at Soul Survivor when I went, many years ago. Though the charismatic services were a little bit scary at first, the whole thing fired me up to the extent that I alarmed my parents on my return by saying I was thinking of training for the ministry (I could have been the next John W. Loftus). At one of those services, I ended up wondering whether I should ask for prayer for healing. Looking back, I can perhaps understand how the Neumanns thought it was better to pray than phone an ambulance. The question of what, if anything, God is up to these days is a tricky one, and it’s easy to get it wrong.

Praise the Prophets

A while ago, the Word of Dawkins came unto me, and the Spirit of Rationality rested upon me, and I spake forth, saying: “most believers already know what excuses to make for the apparent absence of dragons or gods, even as they claim belief in them, so they’re keeping a map of the real world somewhere. The believers without the map are the ones other believers regard either as shiny-eyed lunatics, like the folk who don’t go to doctors because God will heal them.” Prophetic, no? (You may say that I’d read about similar cases in the past, but I think you’re bringing a question-begging assumption of metaphysical naturalism to my text).

Rowan Williams has a map. He recently told everyone not to expect God to do much about global warming (by the way, Newsthump’s version of the story is good fun). Likewise, in the Neumanns’ situation, most Christians would call a doctor. So, I don’t think God is going to stop global warming or heal diabetics (much less amputees), and, for the most part, Christians don’t either. Of course, I don’t attempt to excuse the absence of the dragon by telling the story of the man on the roof of his house in the flood. But when you consider what we anticipate will happen, we’re not so very different after all.

Wasted youth

Dead parrotWhen I was a Christian, it seemed there was an unspoken understanding on these matters. God made all that is, seen and unseen; Jesus did all those miracles you read about in the New Testament; the statistical likelihood was that Jesus would, in the fullness of time, come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and bring fresh supplies of lemon-soaked paper napkins. God could do anything. Still, right now, you were more likely to see answers to prayer about work stress and for courage to evangelise your friends than answers to prayers for people to be healed of cancer. Or at least, it was best not to be too surprised that prayers for the big stuff might be “answered in a different way”. (That is, if someone dies, they don’t have cancer any more. No, really, this is not a joke). There were people who asked annoying questions about why God didn’t do more, dissatisfied customers if you will, but I just found them irritating. God obviously existed, so why couldn’t they just realise that?

The Neumanns did without this tacit understanding, which is unfortunate because having the understanding means you have the map: it’s what allows Christians to get along in polite society without, say, being jailed for killing their children. Rather, just as Elijah did, the Neumanns anticipated-as-if God would act. They believed Biblical promises on prayer, as reiterated by their supporters here and here.

So what went wrong? Well, regular readers will know that God isn’t real, though Christians can hardly say so. The usual excuse won’t do, alas: it can’t be that the Neumanns lacked faith. A family with sufficient faith to gather to pray around their ailing child as she lies on her deathbed is surely an example for Christians everywhere, even the ones who believe in doctors. Likewise, even if God has provided doctors, it seems mean-spirited for God to penalise the Neumanns for not using them: which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? We must look for better excuses.

Things not seen

Perhaps those Bible verses aren’t intended to be the promises they seem to be (though they seem pretty clear to me, so if you encounter this argument, I hope you will chastise the person making it for twisting the Scriptures). Perhaps, as the Neumanns apparently believe, God foreknew that the kid would eventually turn away from Jesus, and took her home early to prevent it (though I’m disappointed by their liberalism, in that after their child died, they didn’t slit the throats of the local pastors and turn instead to Baal, Satan or Dawkins, which would have been a more biblical response). Still, both these explanations are at least possible, and if the maintenance of your belief is itself a virtue, that possibility should suffice. As recent convert Sam Harris says:

These people [that is, neo-militant rationalist atheists like Jerry Coyne] are simply obsessed with finding the best explanation for the patterns we witness in natural world. But faith teaches us that the best, alas, is often the enemy of the good. For instance, given that viruses outnumber animals by ten to one, and given that a single virus like smallpox killed 500 million human beings in the 20th century (many of them children), people like Coyne ask whether these data are best explained by the existence of an all knowing, all powerful, and all loving God who views humanity as His most cherished creation. Wrong question Coyne! You see, the wise have learned to ask, along with Miller, whether it is merely possible, given these facts, that a mysterious God with an inscrutable Will could have created the world. Surely it is! And the heart rejoices…

Of course, one mustn’t carry this sublime inquiry too far. Some have asked whether it is possible that a mysterious God with an inscrutable Will works only on Tuesdays or whether He might be especially fond of soft cheese. There is no denying that such revelations, too, are possible – and may be forthcoming. But they do not conduce to joy, chastity, homophobia, or any other terrestrial virtue – and that is the point. Men like Coyne and Dennett miss these theological nuances. Indeed, one fears that these are the very nuances they were born to miss.

Perhaps God is not deceased, but merely pining for the fjords. This, too, is possible. And the heart rejoices…

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Dawkins: a bit like Jesus

Some theists are not far from the Republic of Heaven, it seems. Even now, I have hopes that they may turn to rationality.

First, there’s Terry Eagleton, who said in an interview in New Humanist that “If Dawkins has emancipated people, freed them from the religious closet as it were, then all credit to him. Loath as I might be to compare Dawkins to Jesus Christ, in this he resembles the heroic figure in the New Testament who comes to sweep away all the fetishism and sickness and cynicism of the neurotic religionists.”

Secondly, Richard Morgan (a Christian re-convert who was formerly a regular over at Dawkins’s site) has suggested that New Atheism may all be part of God’s plan. I have encouraged Richard to return to Dawkins in this thread. I said:

I wonder just how many de-converts who return to Christianity were ever really atheists at all. I mean, they may have looked like atheists, but were they proper atheists, like I myself am? How could they have been? Remember, posting on the Dawkins site doesn’t make you an atheist any more than going to McDonalds makes you a hamburger.

It is clear to me that these people never really had a personal relationship with Dawkins (by which I mean they read his books and sort of felt they must be true: obviously one should not be atheologically naive enough to expect any sort of clear two-way communication in a personal relationship. I did once email him, and I have every confidence he read it, plus I once got a comment on my blog and an email from Jerry Coyne, which is practically as good, surely?)

Speaking of atheological naivete, these people’s ignorance of atheism is shocking: they formerly believed in a caricatured Dawkins who advocated biological determinism and “scientism”; and they departed from orthodoxy in their concentration on Dawkins to the exclusion of the other Three Persons of the Horsemen. Doubtless some of this reflects the parlous state of teaching in atheist communities other than the ones I’m in, but I think these people have some responsibility to educate themselves. Had they even read more sophisticated atheological works? Are they familiar with Dennett on belief, Hume on miracles and on design, or Loftus on “the outsider test”? Surely not.

Richard, even now it is not too late for you. Just screw up your face and try harder, dammit.



If you’ve been moved by what you’ve heard here, there’ll be someone waiting in the comments section at the end to engage in rational debate with you. Thanks.

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Let the little children come to me

Neumann’s jury — six men and six women — deliberated about 15 hours over two days before convicting him. At one point, jurors asked the judge whether Neumann’s belief in faith healing made him “not liable” for not taking his daughter to the hospital even if he knew she wasn’t feeling well.

Neumann, who once studied to be a Pentecostal minister, testified Thursday that he believed God would heal his daughter and he never expected her to die. God promises in the Bible to heal, he said.

“If I go to the doctor, I am putting the doctor before God,” Neumann testified. “I am not believing what he said he would do.”

Wis. jury: Father guilty in prayer death case, MSNBC News.

Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.

James 5:14-16

I believe that God uses us lowly humans to enact his healing. God works his great plan through intermediaries. Sometimes, he does things himself, and that is where religious experiences come from. Things like burning bushes or bright lights that knock people to the ground on Damascus roads are of God to be sure. But, so is a doctor healing a patient. Again, God uses us humans to enact his healing and his will.

Prayer doesn’t work on its own. Ever. It requires medical intervention. Prayer is only a supplement to competent medical care.

Cory Tucholski, Josiah Concept ministries

They believed that God would heal their daughter as Jesus said, “All things whatsoever ye pray and ask for, believe that ye received (Greek in all manuscripts) them, and ye shall have them.” As with this verse the key to their faith is that we are already healed if we believe it. (1 Pet. 2:24) who his own self bare our sins in his body…by whose stripes ye were healed. Christians around the world and throughout New Testament history have received healing in this way when they held fast their faith, even when they could not get it in any other way.

They were attempting not to be double-minded, for which the scriptures say we will not receive (James 1:7,8). They believe that God even used their weakness to take their daughter home and that like many she may not have chosen to stay faithful to the Lord if she had been raised up in this increasingly corrupt society. (Isa. 57:1) The righteous perisheth, and no man layeth it to heart; and merciful men are taken away, none considering that the righteous is taken away from the evil [to come].

David Eells, helptheneumanns.com

“None of them lie, Inspector. There are no lies in religion. There are apparent facts that are illusions. There are words to be taken figuratively. There are ideas that are symbols of deeper truths. There are no lies. The people who sent me to the Middle East told us we would destroy an Evil Empire. They didn’t lie, either.”

The lieutenant, The Night Sessions by Ken Macleod

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