Projection theories of religion have been around since at least the time of Ludwig Feuerbach (c. 1840s). Unfortunately, they differ from fine wines in that they do not improve with age. Here is how Feuerbach himself stated his thesis:
“This doctrine of mine is briefly as follows. Theology is anthropology: in other words, the object of religion, which in Greek we call theos and in our language God, expresses nothing other than the essence of man; man’s God is nothing other than the deified essence of man, so that the history of religion or, what amounts to the same thing, of God …is nothing other than the history of man.”
The interesting thing is that this is presumably a conclusion but many atheists today treat it as a self-evident first principle. Shawn, regular reader of this blog, provides a typical case. He writes on his blog:
“I’m just an ordinary guy who has spent many years considering how theists can so adamantly hold onto such illogical views of how the universe operates. I came to the conclusion that it’s predominantly out of fear implanted during childhood.”
This seems to suggest Freud’s version of the projection thesis. We theists can’t handle the truth (Shawn is playing Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men” while we theists are in the dock, face in hands, sobbing in existential angst and desperately attempting to project a divine being to hold the descending anomie at bay).
I asked Shawn if he was serious in this claim. He replied: “I do indeed believe this explanation for theism Randal, so do many ‘respected’ psychologists and atheists (bet John Loftus agrees).”
I replied with my irrepressible charm: “Your reasoning is as bizarre as this: ‘I once owned a pink Oldsmobile and so did John Loftus. Therefore all Oldsmobiles are pink.'”
Shawn, it seems to me, tried to deflect this observation by replying: “Except nearly (excluding the poor ‘born agains’) every Christian theist I know drives a pink Oldsmobile.”
But after all the good-natured ribbing is done, the problem remains. Shawn, and other armchair projection theorists, have a real problem. Do they have an adequate selection sample to warrant the rational inference that all theists likely have their belief as a result of fear? Let’s low-ball the numbers by saying there are four billion theists in the world. Do atheists like Shawn have a sufficient sample to warrant that conclusion?
Shawn’s evidence is first an appeal to authority: he knows of some “psychologists and atheists” who hold this view. He then adds “But I know it to be true, for one unarguable reason. I lived it myself as a Roman Catholic.” I take this to mean that because he apparently believed in the existence of God out of fear, everybody else must as well. Finally, as a parting salvo he links us to a review of a Christian book on parenting. This is evidence? (Ironically, if it is evidence it may be for exactly the opposite conclusion. The book in question, according to the reviewer, is focused on the goal of raising “joy-filled, fruitful, enduring (real)” Christians. Note the reference to fostering joy in the young ones. Not fear-mongering.)
The frustrating thing is that I encounter so frequently atheists and skeptics who toss out clear thinking, the careful weighing of evidence, the judicious use of inductive argumentation, the careful postulation and revision (and falsification) of hypotheses precisely when it comes to religion.
Perhaps Shawn should read some of psychologist Paul Vitz’s work. He argues that many atheists adopt their atheism because they had bad relationships with their fathers and are now projecting their personal experiences onto the universe. (Did you ever hear Christopher Hitchens talk about his dad?)
You see, this sword has two edges.