Thursday, July 05, 2007

Against Dawkins/Engaging Freud

David Sloan Wilson, despite being a fellow atheist, doesn't much care for Richard Dawkins' treatment of the subject. His explanation of why is long and science-wonky, but worth reading. (Via Andrew Sullivan; actually, I'm not sure that link I gave is working properly, so you can get to it through Sullivan if needed.)

While I was upstate celebrating the Fourth, I picked up my host's copy of Civilization and Its Discontents by Freud, and found this passage on the very first page:
There are a few men from whom their contemporaries do not withhold admiration, although their greatness rests on attributes and achievements which are completely foreign to the aims and ideals of the multitude. One might easily be inclined to suppose that it is after all only a minority which appreciates these great men, while the large majority cares nothing for them. But things are probably not as simple as that, thanks to the discrepancies between people's thoughts and their actions, and to the diversity of their wishful impulses.

One of these exceptional few calls himself my friend in his letters to me. I had sent him my small book that treats religion as an illusion, and he answered that he entirely agreed with my judgment upon religion, but that he was sorry I had not properly appreciated the true source of religious sentiments. This, he says, consists in a peculiar feeling, which he himself is never without, which he finds confirmed by many others, and which he may suppose is present in millions of people. It is a feeling which he would like to call a sensation of 'eternity', a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded -- as it were, 'oceanic'. This feeling, he adds, is a purely subjective fact, not an article of faith; it brings with it no assurance of personal immortality, but it is the source of the religious energy which is seized upon by the various Churches and religious systems, directed by them into particular channels, and doubtless also exhausted by them. One may, he thinks, rightly call oneself religious on the ground of this oceanic feeling alone, even if one rejects every belief and every illusion.
I like his friend's sentiment quite a bit. Of course, before long Freud takes issue, ascribing the oceanic feeling to "...the infant's helplessness and the longing for the father aroused by it..." Which, like so many psychological arguments, is interesting but not finally convincing to me. If the oceanic feeling is mostly in response to feeling helpless, might it follow that people should feel it most potently when they feel most helpless? (I ask earnestly.) Yet that oceanic feeling has occasionally come over me in moments of great security and comfort -- this, too, can be explained psychologically, but I'm not sure in the same way Freud intends. He probably gets around to that. I'll have to read the rest of the book and write a less embarrassing follow-up post. I'm bringing it on vacation with me, but forgive me if it proves a bit too heady for the leisurely getaway I'm seeking.


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