Wednesday, September 12, 2007

No One Is an Atheist on Their Deathbed (Right?)

Mark Edmundson writes this in his article about Sigmund Freud's later years in Sunday's New York Times Magazine:

"The ability to believe in an internal, invisible God vastly improves people's capacity for abstraction. [Sigmund Freud writes in "Moses and Monotheism"] 'The prohibition against making an image of God--the compulsion to worship a God whom one cannot see,' he says, meant that in Judaism 'a sensory perception was given second place to what may be called an abstract idea--a triumph of intellectuality over sensuality.' If people can worship what is not there they can also reflect on what is 'not there, or on what is presented to them in symbolic and not immediate terms. So the mental labor of monotheism prepared the Jews--as it would eventually prepare others in the West--to achieve distinction in law, in mathematics, in science and in literary art.' It gave them an advantage in all activities that involved making an abstract model of experience, in words or numbers or lines, and working with the abstraction to achieve control over nature or to bring humane order to life. Freud calls this internalizing process an 'advance in intellectuality' and he credits it directly to religion."

In the words of Linda Richman, discuss.

1 comment:

whatyoudream said...

Two things about Freud before I answer the question. One is that as far as I know, he remained a staunch atheist to the end. Although he was a Jew, as soon as he began his studies it became apparent to him that there was no God. Having become an atheist at a young age, I would be surprised if he considered religion the only thing that would advance intellectuality. Second, I have to say that his argument seems more than a little faulty, and I think a lot of people who study him think so as well; "Moses and Monotheism" is definitely not considered one of his best works, and in general he is thought to have gone awry in his logic (especially) when it came to anything outside psychology and psychoanalysis.

But my main problem with this thought is the idea that there would be a "triumph of intellectuality over sensuality." Maybe this is quibbling, but our senses enable our thinking about the world and what's in it, or not in it. Sensory data is how a person might even begin to make sense of an idea like God. If what is important is to think about things or people "whom one cannot see," then thinking about God would be just as useful an addition to intellectual life as would thoughts about Zeus, unicorns, Mickey Mouse, Socrates, Thomas Jefferson and aliens. Or science, for that matter.

Rather than religion, maybe it's better to start with someone like Descartes, whose questioning of the outside world has set up one pretty good way of building a foundation of knowledge on an abstract idea.

The only way I can buy this argument is on a personal basis. When examining someone's life, it might end up being accurate to say that the thing that caused that person to be able to think abstractly was religion. In my own life, for instance, I would certainly have to give it a little credit, even though I also believe it was the restrictions of religion that prevented me from taking seriously some of the most important ideas.