The best book defending atheism isn’t great.
I keep looking for a good book defending atheism. It’s not easy. Jon Mills’ Inventing God: Psychology of Belief and the Rise of Secular Spirituality is better than Grayling’s book, about which I posted a while back, but it’s not great.
Mills tries to do three things. First, to demonstrate that God does not exist. In this he joins a long line of aggressive atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens (2007), Sam Harris (2004), and Richard Dawkins (2006). Mills says he is not a “vociferous atheist,” but he could have fooled me with his remarks about “the believing masses [who] cannot accept the fact that we are ultimately alone.” (p 104)
The third thing Mills tries to do is construct a defense of a humanistic spirituality. He says a lot of good things about finding “intrinsic worth and meaning in living our lives for the present” (p 228), but the foundation of this claim was laid down by Camus and Sartre, and I don’t see where Mills adds a great deal to this argument. In Mills’ defense, it should be pointed out that this is not a book aimed at an academic audience, but to an educated public. Or at least that’s the way I read it.
The second thing Mills tries to do is construct a psychoanalytic argument explaining the need for God. He begins with Freud (1930), who argued that God is an infantile delusion of an enormously powerful father figure. I turn to another psychoanalyst to find a different way of thinking about God. I’ve posted about D. W. Winnicott before.
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The question “Do you believe in God?” is the wrong question. “How do you believe in God?” comes closer to the mark.
The founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, saw religion as an infantile illusion, one in which God would comfort and protect us from the harshness of the world as our parents once did (Future, pp 30-31, 43). But this is not all psychoanalysis has to say about religion.
Jung and myth
For Carl Jung, a follower of Freud in his younger years, a rebel in his later years, religious myth is a great achievement. As myth, religion is neither true, nor false. The categories don’t apply. A myth is generally the story of an epic hero sent on a journey to found or save a people, either by defeating an enemy, or solving a problem. Moses did both. So did Jesus Christ: the enemy is sin and death; the solution is believe that Christ is the Son of God, and act accordingly.
It is no repudiation of God to reject him because almost all of what we know about God and Jesus comes through stories. We live by and through narrative. Stories are how we make sense of our lives, and our world. The Bible is a series of stories, one reason it prospered while the gnostic gospels failed. Not enough good stories. About religious myths, Jung says
The religious myth is one of man’s greatest and most significant achievements, giving him the security and inner strength not to be crushed by the monstrousness of the universe (Jung, Collected Works, vol. 5, para. 343)
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