"You would think that wouldn't you?" By way of Freud's Father complex and Dawkins' memes, Melvin Tinker examines how C.S. Lewis might respond, using an extract from Lewis' The Silver Chair.


It was nearly fifty years ago on November 22nd, 1963, that three highly significant figures of the twentieth century died: President John F. Kennedy, Aldous Huxley – the author of 'Brave New World' – and Clive Staples Lewis. Each represented the three dominant 'faces' of 20th century thought; there was the optimistic humanism of Kennedy, the hedonistic atheism of Huxley and the dyed in the wool 'Mere Christianity' of C.S. Lewis. Of course, Lewis was himself for much of his early adult life an atheist before he began his spiritual journey under the influence of men like J.R.R Tolkien, through theism (belief in a personal God) to Christianity (a personal trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour).

Although Lewis was a professional scholar in the arena of English literature, for a while he taught philosophy at Oxford University and at one stage this seemed to be where his future teaching career lay. And so interestingly enough, what we have in Lewis is someone who, because he had immersed himself in the world of atheism and concluded it to be intellectually and morally bankrupt, was able to promote Christianity with intellectual rigour and literary imagination – which in many ways makes him unique. What is more, because Lewis dealt primarily with trends of thought which often take time to take root in a culture before they germinate into full flower – much of what Lewis wrote about in the 1940s and 1950s is still relevant today, in some cases more so than back then.

Now tonight I want to think about one of the most common objections to Christian belief that is still out there in the intellectual world, which is being pushed through the media and probably held by many of our friends. It is based on a way of thinking which simply debunks the Christian faith and disallows many views we hold even to be expressed. I then want us to see how C.S. Lewis deals with this objection both by way of imagination by looking at an episode in the Narnia stories, The Silver Chair, and then by way of argumentation in an essay he wrote back in 1941. And I think we will find this not only interesting but very helpful whether we are Christians or not.

'Explaining' or 'Explaining away'?

Let me first give you the crude version of the way this objection is framed and then take a look at a couple of the more sophisticated versions of the argument coming from the likes of Sigmund Freud and Richard Dawkins.

belief is not simply explained, but explained away

The crude version goes something like this: "The reason you are a Christian is because your parents were Christian and you have been brought up in a so called 'Christian country'. Had you been born with different parents, maybe living in India, you wouldn't be a Christian, you would be a Hindu." Or cruder still, "The reason you are a Christian is because you are so pathetic you need an emotional crutch to lean on." Now just think about what has just been said. This is in the same category as the man who dismisses his wife's objection to his excessive drinking by saying, "Of course you would say that I shouldn't drink, you are a typical woman."  Do you see what is happening? It is being assumed that religious belief, or any belief for that matter – such as "excessive drinking is bad for you" – is not supported by reason or evidence. It has some other cause – the influence of parents or the need for an emotional crutch or a female mentality. And so belief is not simply explained, but explained away. The trick is this: simply assume the person holding the views you don't like is wrong and then find an explanation as to why he holds such stupid and weird views. You don't argue, you assert, it is of the "You would think that wouldn't you?" variety.

Sigmund Freud's father complex

So let's look at this in its more sophisticated form – (although it isn't all that sophisticated really!)

The classic instance of this debunking approach to religion is Sigmund Freud who tried to provide a psychoanalytical basis for the German philosopher Ludwig von Feuerbach's view that God is nothing more than a projection of man. This is the way Feuerbach put it, he said, "God is the highest subjectivity of man abstracted from himself." In other words, there really is no God; he is simply a fancy of our imagination. The fact that the vast majority of humankind believes in a God is no evidence for his existence – it just tells us how pathetic human beings are in needing to invent God. This turns on its head what the Bible teaches in the Book of Genesis that "man is made in God's image". "No", says Feuerbach, "God is made in our image". Do you see?

an atheist's disappointment in and resentment of his own father unconsciously justifies his rejection of God

- Freud

Well, Freud assumed this was so and then tried to explain why it was so. In his book The Future of an Illusion,  Freud wrote that religious beliefs are "illusions, fulfilments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind… Thus the benevolent rule of the divine Providence allays our fears of the dangers of life". In other words, primitive men, realising that they lived in a dangerous world, needed some kind of security that things will turn out alright, that there is a higher power, a 'supernatural nanny', who would help them make it through life. This is where we get the notion of 'wish fulfilment'. We only wish there to be a God, otherwise we wouldn't be able to cope. And so, the argument goes, people set about constructing religions. That is the essence of Freud.

That may be OK for primitive people, but it raises the question as to why do modern people feel the need for a God. This is where Freud sought to explain religion away in terms of neuroses. He wrote of "the intimate connection between the father complex and belief in God" and stated how psychoanalysis shows "that the personal god is logically nothing but an exalted father, and daily demonstrates to us how youthful persons lose their religious beliefs as soon as the authority father figure breaks down." He indicated that "an atheist's disappointment in and resentment of his own father unconsciously justifies his rejection of God". Now this last statement is going to return to bite Freud on the proverbial backside, but we will come back to that in a moment. The important thing is that we see what Feuerbach and Freud are doing – religious belief is assumed to be wrong and indeed harmful, and explained away in terms of having "father complexes and the like". If they are right, then who needs to look at evidence and use reason? When Freud as a young man did believe in God, God was just a projection of his Dad writ large.

Richard Dawkins' Meme Transmission

More recently, Professor Richard Dawkins has adopted a similar line of approach. A few years ago he likened religious belief to a 'mental virus' – a false belief which infects your mind the way a virus infects your body. Look at the symptoms, he says. People don't adopt religion after carefully weighing the evidence; faith is 'caught' pretty much the way a cold is. It spreads from one person to another like an infection, especially in families. For those who convert, says Dawkins, an evangelist may be the infectious agent. To explain this he developed a concept called 'memes'.

Memes are ideas or beliefs which are analogous to genes (that is our hereditary material) in that they can replicate and spread rapidly infecting people's minds. And so he writes, "Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain." (from The Selfish Gene).  In the TV programme 'The Root of all Evil' he dismisses all religious faith as "an indulgence of irrationality that is nourishing extremism, division and terror". Again can you see what Dawkins is doing? Religion is assumed to be a mental aberration, something irrational, and if that is the case, you don't take people who hold those views seriously and you certainly don't reason with them. Instead you find a cause for their strange beliefs – a meme – and that explains everything.

find a cause for strange beliefs – a meme – and that explains everything

It is like the story of a man who visited his doctor because he believed himself to be dead. The doctor tried to give him all sorts of reasons why his belief that he was dead was mistaken. But the man insisted, "No I am dead". Eventually the doctor got him to agree that "dead men don't bleed" – especially those who had been dead as long as he claimed to have been. And so the doctor took out a scalpel and nicked the man's hand. The man looked in horror at the blood oozing from the wound only to exclaim, "Dead men do bleed after all!" What has reason got to do with a person in that state of mind? Similarly, what has reason to do with people who believe in a personal God any more than a person who really believes in the tooth fairy? Of course in Soviet Russia such a view was taken seriously to the point that people believing in God were placed in mental asylums. Logical when you think about it.

How Might C.S. Lewis Respond?

So here is the big question: is our belief in God wholly irrational, to be explained away in terms of father complexes and mental viruses, a case of mistaken wish fulfilment or a mental aberration?  What would Lewis say? In fact, what did he say?

First of all, let's see how Lewis deals with this approach of debunking belief in terms of wish fulfilment and irrational ideas – in the sixth of the seven Narnia books, The Silver Chair. The scene is set in a dark underground world ruled by a witch – the Lady of the Green Kirtle. The Prince who comes from the world of Narnia with its sun and moon and trees and hills tries to persuade her that the dark, dingy world she inhabits is not the only world, but there is a better world – the world of Narnia. And so sceptically, the witch gets the prince to tell her about what he calls 'the sun' of which there is no equivalent in the underworld to which she belongs. In response the prince used an analogy, namely, the sun is like a lamp. This is how the story proceeds and listen very carefully in view of the objections of people like Freud and Dawkins that the 'Christian World' composed of God, angels, demons, and morality is an illusion. The Prince says to the witch:

"You see that lamp. It is round and yellow and gives light to the whole room; and hangeth moreover from the roof. Now that thing which we call the sun is like the lamp, only far greater and brighter. It giveth light to the whole Overworld and hangeth in the sky."

The witch comes back to this very quickly with her reply:

"Hangeth from what, my Lord?" asked the witch; and then while they were all still thinking how to answer her, she added with another of her soft, silver laughs, "You see? When you try to think out clearly what this sun must be you cannot tell me. You can only tell me it is like the lamp. Your sun is a dream; and there is nothing in that dream that was not copied from the lamp. The lamp is the real thing; the sun is but a tale, a children's story."

Now substitute the word 'God' for 'sun' and you have pure Freud and Dawkins. They are using the argument of the witch. And at first sight the argument seems so sophisticated, so 'reasonable', but we know it is completely unreasonable for we know there is a sun. Here in a children's story C.S. Lewis is showing that when you look at the argument in this way, much of the force is taken away. Also it does give a sad picture of what Dawkins is proposing for with him we are only left with a dark underworld, a diminished little 'reality' which is presented as the whole of reality – with the accompanying exclamation, "Isn't it wonderful?"

C.S. Lewis on 'Bulverism'

But long before Narnia, Lewis wrote an essay to expose the shear hopelessness of this way of arguing – he called it 'Bulverism'. Folk like Freud and Dawkins explain away beliefs by saying that they are the product of something else which is irrational. Here is Lewis:

The Freudians have discovered that we exist as bundles of complexes.… Nowadays the Freudian will tell you to go and analyze the hundred: you will find that they all think Elizabeth [I] is a great queen because they all have a mother-complex. Their thoughts are psychologically tainted at the source.… Now this is obviously great fun; but it has not always been noticed that there is a bill to pay for it. There are two questions that people who say this kind of thing ought to be asked. The first is, are all thoughts thus tainted at the source, or only some? The second is, does the taint invalidate the tainted thought – in the sense of making it untrue – or not? If they say that all thoughts are thus tainted, then, of course, we must remind them that Freudianism and Marxism are as much systems of thought as Christian theology.… The Freudian and Marxian are in the same boat with all the rest of us, and cannot criticize us from outside. They have sawn off the branch they were sitting on. If, on the other hand, they say that the taint need not invalidate their thinking, then neither need it invalidate ours. In which case they have saved their own branch, but also saved ours along with it."

You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong

- C.S. Lewis

Do you see? If all thoughts are poisoned in some way, and have nothing to do with truth, then the thought that 'all thoughts are poisoned' is poisoned, so why should we take that thought seriously? If it is only Christian thoughts that are poisoned and are the result of complexes, why should Freudianism be exempt? If it is exempt, then why not Christianity?

Lewis goes on:

You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it 'Bulverism'. Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father – who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than a third – "Oh you say that because you are a man." "At that moment", E. Bulver assures us, "there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall." That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

This is exactly where we are in the 21st century. Forget argument and reason, assume your opponent is just wrong or stupid or both and explain his daft ideas away by appealing to pseudoscience. This happened to me a few years ago. Some of you will remember that when I was in Jerusalem at the GAFCON1 conference. At the same time a massive gay pride event was taking place and I was invited by the BBC to attend the march and debate with one of its leaders, which I did. This then appeared on BBC world news; you can still watch it on YouTube if you want. As you can imagine I received a fair bit of correspondence as a result, not all favourable. One of the most interesting was from someone who was gay who said that my objection to homosexual practice must be because I am repressing a latent homosexuality of my own. That is pure Bulverism. He could not or didn't want to concede that I might have reasons to think it was wrong – so there must be some psychological explanation – I must be gay but refusing to acknowledge it.

The thing is, as Lewis points out, the argument cuts both ways. In the case of Freud and other atheists, it could be argued that the reason (cause) why they do not believe in God has some basis in their childhood with their Dad, having a psychological explanation and has nothing intellectual about it at all. This is itself a form of wish fulfilment, they don't wish there to be a God and so find arguments to back their position. In his book Faith of the Fatherless, the Christian psychologist Paul Vitz explores Freud's claim mentioned earlier that "an atheist's disappointment in and resentment of his own father unconsciously justifies his rejection of God". And what he did was to examine the childhood of the most famous atheists of all time – Nietzsche, Hume, Bertrand Russell, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Sartre and others and he concluded: "We find a weak, dead or abusive father in every case." In many instances the link between atheism and a defective father is openly acknowledged. Don't misunderstand what I am saying, This doesn't mean that atheism is wrong, it just means that you can't settle the validity of any belief (including atheism) on the basis of other things, you need to use reason and evidence.

you can't settle the validity of any belief (including atheism) on the basis of other things, you need to use reason and evidence

The same goes for Dawkins' notion of 'memes'. Am I a Christian because I picked up a religious virus from someone at school? Well, the same could be said of Dawkins' atheism. Supposing the reason Dawkins is an atheist is because his beliefs were 'caught' from Mr Smedly his atheistic science teacher at school. Does that mean what he believes about the meaninglessness of life is to be dismissed as a mere bout of having caught the 'atheist bug'? Of course not!Even the idea of a meme could be the result of a meme and so it really is a fruitless concept. You see, how we learn about religion or come to any belief for that matter, is a separate question from whether or not it is true. That has to be decided by looking at the evidence.

This is precisely the point C.S. Lewis is making. Technically this approach of assuming a person to be wrong, and explaining his views away in terms of "You would believe that wouldn't you? You are insecure, frightened of novelty, cowardly and so on" – is called an ad hominem argument, literally it means, you attack the man not the ideas. The tactic is that if you show the man or woman is 'religious' or 'bigoted' or what other put-down label you may want to apply, then you won't have to bother yourself with their arguments for you have already decided they are not worth listening to in the first place. The problem is that it marks the end of all argument and rational persuasion – you are simply left with bullying tactics, scaremongering and plain abuse. This also marks the end of any civilised society.

And so it is when it comes to assessing Christianity. The issue is not, who influenced me to become a Christian, but do I have any reasons for believing Christianity to be true, whether I like it or not, regardless who or what influenced me? Here is C.S. Lewis:

Christianity claims to give an account of facts – to tell you what the real universe is like. Its account of the universe may be true, or it may not, and once the question is really before you, then your natural inquisitiveness must make you want to know the answer. If Christianity is untrue, then no honest man will want to believe it, however helpful it might be; if it is true, every honest man will want to believe it, even if it gives him no help at all.

how we learn about religion or come to any belief for that matter, is a separate question from whether or not it is true. That has to be decided by looking at the evidence.

You see, it is not a matter of opinion, it is not a matter of taste, it is not even a matter of wanting something to be true because it will make me feel better – it is a matter of whether or not Christianity is true. The claim is being made that it is true, that when you look at life through the spectacles of the Christian faith, things start to look clear and make sense: you see that there is a God who made us and to whom we are accountable and on whose kind face we have turned our backs. It tells us that we are in such a bad state that when the Maker does come to our world, which he did 2,000 years ago as the God-man Jesus, we simply murdered him. But God used his death by crucifixion to be the means of ridding us of our moral guilt and making us into his friends. This Jesus, who has been raised from the dead (a resurrection backed by stacks of factual evidence by the way), invites us to lay down our arms and surrender to his loving rule. Then, as Jesus said, "If you continue in my word, then you are truly disciples of mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." (John 8:31-32)

© 2013 Melvin Tinker
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