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.