Making sense of Religion - What is the Philosophy of Religion?

Making sense of Religion
Making sense of religion
• The extent to which religion might be ‘explained away’ by social science.
• The various problems and solutions regarding the status and interpretation of religious language that have been motivated by
• Whether religion should be understood as a language game or autonomous ‘form of life’.
• Students should consider what is meant by ‘religion’, whether it is a well defined or integrated phenomena and the relation
between ‘religion’ and other kinds of discourse and activity.
The Psychogenesis of Religion
Among the central tasks of the psychology of religion is to give an explanation of the origins of religious belief based on human psychology. By
examining the human mind, it has often been thought, we can discover why it is that people believe in God. The idea is that religious belief is not
a result of a recognition of an external reality but rather arises from inward patterns of thought, it emerges from the mind. Religion is not
revealed to us; rather, it is invented by us. Proper understanding of psychology provides a naturalistic explanation of religion, an explanation
of why we believe in God that does rely on the idea that God exists.
Not all psychologists of religion have been hostile to religion, but many have. The approach to the origins of religion that assumes the
psychogenesis, rather than the revelation, of religion, is naturally seen as a threat to religious belief. If an explanation of how human
psychology naturally gives rise to religion, irrespective of whether or not God exists, is available, then believers must surely regard their own
beliefs with suspicion. Psychology would not only have explained religion; it would also have explained it away.
The two most influential theories of the psychogenesis of religion are those of Ludwig Feuerbach and Sigmund Freud. Both are set out here.
Ludwig Feuerbach: Theology as Anthropology
The idea that religion is not something instituted by God, but rather is man-made, can be traced back to ancient Greece. It was not until the
18th Century, however, that it began to seem possible to finally prove what had previous been mere speculation. Ludwig Feuerbach, drawing on
Hegelian philosophy, set out the idea that the process by which religion was invented was wish-fulfilment. God, according to Feuerbach, is
projection is the strongest desires of humanity.
For Feuerbach, much of the appeal of Christianity lies in its promise of immortality. Human beings have many fears, but most of all we fear
death. Christianity, in promising eternal life, offers to take this fear away from us. If we are willing to buy into religion, then we can escape
from our fear, and live in blissful ignorance of our mortality. This accounts for the attractiveness of religion, the strength of its grip on human
Of course, for this process to work we cannot consciously decide to adopt a religion as a means of escaping from our fears. No, the decision
must be unconscious; it is the unconscious mind that drives us to religion.
To understand God, on this view, one must understand human psychology; as Feuerbach put it, “theology is anthropology”.
Sigmund Freud: Religion as wish fulfilment
Sigmund Freud is the father of psychoanalysis, massively influential. He was led into the field of psychoanalysis by his opposition to religion.
Freud believed that religion was a great hindrance to society, and so set out to prove that it is merely a product of the mind, an illusion. He
offered both a psychological and a historical explanation of the origins of religion.
Freud’s historical explanation of religion is set out in his Totem and Taboo. There he imagines a father of a primal horde, whose sons envy his
access to the tribe’s women, and so overwhelm and kill him. Even after their rebellion, the sons cannot fulfil their desire to emulate their
father, due to competition between them. Religion arose out of the frustration and guilt that they felt.
Freud’s psychological explanation of religion builds on the ideas of Ludwig Feuerbach. Feuerbach developed the idea that God is projection of
the unconscious mind; Freud added to this a psychological foundation. For Freud, as for Feuerbach, religion is wish-fulfilment. Freud adds the
explanation that the adoption of religion is a reversion to childish patterns of thought in response to feelings of helplessness and guilt. We feel
a need for security and forgiveness, and so invent a source of security and forgiveness: God. Religion is thus seen as a childish delusion, and
atheism as a grown-up realism.
Religion and Memetics
Evolutionary theory has revolutionised modern thought. The way that we understand the world has been profoundly influenced by Darwin’s
insight into the way that natural selection guides progress over time. Recently, it has been recognised that Darwin’s theory applies not only to
biological organisms but also to ideas. Some, such as Richard Dawkins, Susan Blackmore, and Daniel Dennett, have argued that this provides
an explanation of religious belief, and that this explanation counts against the idea that such beliefs are true.
The Theory of Evolution
Darwin’s theory of evolution sought to explain the diversity of species in the world in the following way:
The world contains only a limited supply of the resources necessary to support life. Organisms must therefore compete with each other for
these resources in order to survive.
As biological organisms reproduce, random genetic mutations occur, introducing variety into the species. Because of these mutations, some
members of the species are better able to compete for resources, i.e. fitter, than others.
The result of this natural selection is the survival of the fittest. As the competition is won or lost, weaker members of the species will die out,
without reproducing, and their genes will be lost to the gene pool. Stronger members, on the other hand will survive, and their fitter genes will
be replicated.
The process will then repeat, with mutations again introducing new genetic variety, and natural selection again choosing the fittest members
of the species to survive and reproduce.
There are thus two stages to evolution: mutation, which introduces variety into a species, and natural selection, which chooses between the
members of the species, driving progress by ensuring that only the fittest members survive and reproduce.
With each iteration of the process of natural selection, the gene pool becomes stronger; species develop on an upward trajectory. Given
enough time, evolution theory holds, this upward trajectory can take a species far; indeed, we ourselves are thought to have evolved from
single-celled organisms via this process.
Evolution and Ideas: Memetics
Recently, it has been recognised that this theory can be applied not only to biological organisms, but also to ideas. Ideas, too, replicate
themselves, passing from one individual to another, changing over time. Ideas, too, compete for survival in the minds of the people of the time;
an idea that is rejected altogether dies out.
Just as the fittest organisms will survive and reproduce, then, so too will the fittest ideas. Ideas that replicate themselves in this way have
been called memes, a term coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene; the study of this process is called memetics.
What makes for fitness in ideas will be similar to what makes for fitness in genes. The ability to replicate itself is important if either a gene or
an idea is to spread; the greater this ability the better. The ability to survive is also vital if the gene or idea is not to be wiped out before it
One thing that need not be involved in the fitness of an idea is truth. An idea may replicate itself widely and be extremely robust without
corresponding to reality.
The Fitness of the Christian Meme
Christianity does indeed possess those features that are necessary for an idea to compete for survival effectively.
Christianity is very good at replicating itself; the great commission, Jesus’ instruction to his followers, is to go and make disciples of all
nations. Those who possess the Christian meme, who believe in the God of the Bible, therefore replicate Christianity as far as they are able to
do so.
Christianity is also very robust. The all too common emphasis of religion on faith to the exclusion of reason makes those that possess the
Christian meme liable to reject evidence against it. Christianity has even been accused by Antony Flew in his paper “Theology and Falsification”
of being unfalsifiable, i.e. of being such that no evidence could possibly count against it. Those that possess the Christian meme are therefore
unlikely to lose it.
The Memetic Critique of Christianity
None of this memetic critique of Christianity, of course, proves that Christianity is false; that is not what it attempts to do. Rather, what the
memetic critique of Christianity attempts to do is demonstrate that even if Christianity were false, we would expect belief in it to be
widespread. Atheism, the argument goes, can explain Christianity; there is nothing mysterious about the success of religion.