The Problem of Religion (Part 2): Hume and Freud

David Hume

Hume is similar to Nietzsche in that he attacks philosophical norms, but what is pertinent to this article is that he likewise attacks religion. Hume finds many philosophical worries with religion. One of these worries is with the inadequacies of supposed proofs such as arguments from experience and miracles, which are at the core of many religions.

Hume presents a proof for the existence of God from experience through the character Cleanthes. This is the popular argument from design, which contends that since there is in the universe design and order there must also be a designer. After all, whenever there is design in our experience we infer that there must be a human designer, or so the argument goes. Through Cleanthes Hume states a powerful rendition of the argument.

Look round the world: contemplate the whole and every part of it: you will find it to be nothing but one great machine, subdivided into an infinite number of lesser machines, which again admit of subdivisions to a degree beyond what human senses and faculties can trace and explain. All these various machines, and even their most minute parts, are adjusted to each other with an accuracy which ravishes into admiration all men who have ever contemplated them. The curious adapting of means to ends, throughout all nature, resembles exactly, though it much exceeds, the productions of human contrivance; of human designs, thought, wisdom, and intelligence. Since, therefore, the effects resemble each other, we are led to infer, by all the rules of analogy, that the causes also resemble; and that the Author of Nature is somewhat similar to the mind of man, though possessed of much larger faculties, proportioned to the grandeur of the work which he has executed. By this argument a posteriori, and by this argument alone, do we prove at once the existence of a Deity, and his similarity to human mind and intelligence. (Hume 143)

One immediate problem with this argument is that it excludes the transcendent nature of many conceptions of God. Since finite features like intelligence are attributed to God analogously, the incomprehensibility of God suffers (Hume 141). Of course, there is no reason to think that knowledge of a wholly transcendent God is even possible if one is to be consistent with non-Christian thought, so the opposite position is not tenable either. Hume does not stop here though, he goes on to criticize the argument from design and all similar arguments from analogy further through the voice of his character Philo.

Our ideas reach no further than our experience. We have no experience of divine attributes and operations. (Hume 142)

This consideration efficiently decimates the argument if it has not already been fatally wounded. The objection is very straightforward and commonsensical; we cannot speak of what we do not know. We know that watchmakers make watches in our experience, but we do not know that gods make universes, or what kind of gods or universes would be a part of such a scheme. There is no warrant for moving from finite experience to claims about infinite beings, especially since it seems right to think that the causes of things are proportional to their effects (Hume 144). An infinite being and creator of a world seemingly should create some sort of infinite world, and the world we experience is nothing like this. In fact, nature is not only finite, but it is also flawed (Hume 166). Of course the religious person is probably not going to accept that God is also finite and flawed.

Many religions involve miracle claims, and more than that, some of them actually rely upon miracles claims to verify that they are true or worth subscribing to. Unless someone experiences a miracle firsthand, miracles are accepted based on the testimony of those with a supposed experience or experiences of the miraculous. Testimonies are usually accepted, setting aside worries about the credibility of sources and such, because the things that people testify to are generally found along with the actual events they describe. This is the angle Hume approaches this topic from.

It being a general maxim, that no objects have any discoverable connexion together, and that all the inferences, which we can draw from one to another, are founded merely on our experience of their constant and regular conjunction; it is evident, that we ought not to make an exception to this maxim in favour of human testimony, whose connexion with any event seems, in itself, as little necessary as any other. (Hume 123)

In other words, inferences drawn from particular objects or events to others are not based on any kind of certainty about what kind of causes or effects must necessarily go with them, because there is no such certainty. Inferences are all drawn from experience, observing the same objects and events together with certain others over and over again. With testimony it is the same. So the acceptance of any testimony about anything follows a particular course of reason which first makes sure that the source is not a known liar and other such things which would discredit the source and then infers that the claim being made corresponds to some actual event. An exception should therefore be made when the testimony is one which would destroy the uniformity in experience upon which it is based.

The reason why we place any credit in witnesses and historians, is not derived from any connexion, which we perceive a priori, between testimony and reality, but because we are accustomed to find a conformity between them. But when the fact attested is such a one as has seldom fallen under our observation, here is a contest of two opposite experiences; of which the one destroys the other, as far as its force goes, and the superior can only operate on the mind by the force which remains. (Hume 125)

According to Hume, a testimony may not be trusted if it describes a miraculous event because miraculous events do not comport with common experience. This alone would not be a problem, except that common experience is the foundation for Hume’s epistemology of testimony. Again, there is trouble in the case of miraculous claims.

The very same principle of experience, which gives us a certain degree of assurance in the testimony of witnesses, gives us also, in this case, another degree of assurance against the fact, which they endeavor to establish; from which contradiction there necessarily arises a counterpoise, and mutual destruction of belief and authority. (Hume 125)

A testimony of a miraculous event is a self-defeating testimony. Not only this, but testimonies about miracles are also self-frustrating because for something to be considered miraculous it must violate uniformity of experience. So a uniformity of experience must be in place, but a violation of it must simultaneously be in place. In other words testimonies about miracles occurring are attempting to convey two contradictory views of experience of the world. Hume explains this.

There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation. And as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle; nor can such a proof be destroyed, or the miracle rendered credible, but by an opposite proof, which is superior. (Hume 127)

What may be seen in Hume’s work on religion when all is said and done is that he is at the very least totally unimpressed with philosophical claims about religion. He views religion as needing philosophical support, or at least sees that many have attempted to provide such support, and easily refutes these attempts as very poor arguments.

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud likewise takes a view of religion being something which must submit to philosophical demands, though he uses much broader sweeping attacks and deals with more anti-philosophical religious views as well. He also attempts to provide some psychological explanations for religion and in the process outlines the pragmatism of religion and how it has the potential to influence the intellect and behavior through providing comfort.

Freud begins by relating many of the cruelties of life to his readers. Examples include the elements, earthquakes, floods, storms, diseases, and death. These forces make humans feel as though they have no control over anything, they feel weak and helpless. In addition to this are other problems and suffering caused by the civilizations humans find themselves in and other humans as well (Freud 19-20). Freud explains that much of the sting of these realities is taken away once the impersonal nature of many of them is replaced by something more familiar that can be dealt with.

Impersonal forces and destinies cannot be approached; they remain eternally remote. But if the elements have passions that rage as they do in our own souls, if death itself is not something spontaneous but the violent act of an evil Will, if everywhere in nature there are Beings around us of a kind that we know in our own society, then we can breathe freely, can feel at home in the uncanny and can deal by psychical means with our senseless anxiety. (Freud 20)

Once nature has been given personal attributes or is seen to have personal forces behind it humans can feel more in control. Humans know how to relate to other persons and begin to relate to these imagined personal elements beyond the impersonal elements in much the same way. So the relationship between humans and the tragic forces that often oppose them changes so that, “we can try to adjure them, to appease them, to bribe them, and, by so influencing them, we may rob them of a part of their power” (Freud 21). This is exactly the process that Freud thinks is enacted by humans.

And thus a store of ideas is created, born from man’s need to make his helplessness tolerable and built up from the material of memories of the helplessness of his own childhood and childhood of the human race. It can clearly be seen that the possession of these ideas protects him in two directions – against the dangers of nature and Fate, and against the injuries that threaten him from human society itself. (Freud 23)

Freud gets to the “gist” of the matter, explaining what purposes religion serves (Freud 23). More or less, it comforts humans in a variety of ways over against the discomfort wrought by uncontrollable nature and others. There is a higher purpose to life which involves making human souls better, a higher intelligence that brings everything about for the best and for human enjoyment, a loving Providence watching over humanity, life after death, and fair rewards and punishments; religion often promises all of these (Freud 23). Of course these ideas have gone through numerous developments and are set forth in a slightly different way depending upon the religion they find themselves in, but the point is still the same (Freud 24). Religion has become such a dominative force because it is so highly valued and important for many who are just trying to cope with some of the less highly favored realities of life.

People feel that life would not be tolerable if they did not attach to these ideas the value that is claimed for them. (Freud 25)

Religious ideas are, in other words, the most valued thing in civilizations, and made to appear more so by the preeminence given them by the various members of societies (Freud 24-25).

Religious claims are accepted upon testimony just as other claims are, for example, in school. The difference is that learners are encouraged to go and check claims out further if they for whatever reason want more information pertaining to a claim taught to them in school (Freud 32-33). With religion this is not always so. There are three reasons given for why anyone would believe religious claims.

Firstly, these teachings deserve to be believed because they were already believed by our primal ancestors; secondly, we possess proofs which have been handed down to us from those same primaeval times; and thirdly, it is forbidden to raise the question of their authentication at all. (Freud 33)

It is, of course, worthy of our suspicion that the third answer given to someone inquiring about religion dismisses and discourages inquiry. This shows a known lack of support for religious claims. Of course the first reason given to believe religious claims is silly, because there is no reason to suppose that those of antiquity were always right, in fact there is every reason to suppose that they were often wrong. It might then be assumed that they were wrong about their religious beliefs as well, but at the very least an appeal to ancestral belief supplies no support for current acceptance of religion. Finally, the proofs of religious claims are often contained in writings full of contradictions and alleged facts which remain unconfirmed. Appeals to sacred texts and revelation assume that the sacred texts and revelation are trustworthy to begin with, which assumption is itself one of the religious claims that an inquirer is setting out to discover the validity of. The conclusion thus far is that religion exists philosophically unfounded on anything (Freud 33-34).

By examining the present as far as authentication of religion is concerned one runs into the claims of mystics and spiritualists. The experiences of these people are of course subjective and may easily be thought to stem from their own mental activities. Indeed, many of the things they say about these experiences give even more reason for doubt.

They have called up the spirits of the greatest men and of the most eminent thinkers, but all the pronouncements and information which they have received from them have been so foolish and so wretchedly meaningless that one can find nothing credible in them but the capacity of the spirits to adapt themselves to the circle of people who have conjured them up. (Freud 35)

The only two routes of defense left for religion, according to Freud, are the routes of belief by virtue of absurdity or behavior in line with imagining that religion is true. The first describes religion as being “outside the jurisdiction of reason” or “above reason” (Freud 35). This means that, “Their truth must be felt inwardly, and they need not be comprehended” (Freud 35). This shares some similarities with the claims of mystics and spiritualists, in that it cannot be tested and has little to no persuasive element as far as others are concerned who have not believed or had experiences. Freud is right to ask whether or not one must believe also every other absurdity, or if not, why religious absurdities only (Freud 35)? The second of the two final attempts to defend religion is simply behaving as though religion is true while knowing that it is either not or it cannot never be known whether or not it is. According to Freud, this is unacceptable to the vast majority of people.

A man whose thinking is not influenced by the artifices of philosophy will never be able to accept it; in such a man’s view, the admission that something is absurd or contrary to reason leaves no more to be said. (Freud 36)

There are actually some religious thinkers who take an approach to religion which is very similar to what Freud describes here, as will be seen later on.

Works Cited

David Hume. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding And Selections From A Treatise Of Human Nature. The Open Court Publishing Company. Illinois. 1963.

David Hume. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Pearson. NJ. 2008.

Sigmund Freud. The Future of an Illusion. Norton & Company. New York. 1989.

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