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Blog: Humanist Voices

Cima da Conegliano God the FatherTo me it has powerful intuitive appeal. In an idealistic and probably naive frame of mind I even imagine it has the potential to snap people out of the 'sleep of theism.' I'm referring to what you might call the argument from psychological projection, the idea that, absent any direct evidence for a god's existence, any descriptive statement about a god is necessarily drawn, not from something outside ourselves, but from how we think ourselves to be.

(Does the figure at right look at all similar to any biological creature with which you're familiar?)


The expression of this view I'm most familiar with comes from 19th century philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. Consider the following quotes from his The Essence of Christianity

"As God is nothing else than the nature of man purified from that which to the human individual appears...a limitation or an evil..."[1] 

Feuerbach Ludwig"The Christians certainly gave their God no attributes which contradicted their own moral ideas, but they gave him without hesitation, and of necessity, the emotions of love, of compassion. And the love which the religious mind places in God is not an illusory, imaginary love, but a real, true love. God is loved and loves again; the divine love is only human love made objective, affirming itself. In God love is absorbed in itself as its own ultimate truth."[2]

"Whatever strongly impresses a man, whatever produces an unusual effect on his mind, if it be only a peculiar, inexplicable sound or note, he personifies as a divine being. Religion encompasses all the objects of the world; think of anything existing, and you will find that it has been the object of religious veneration. Nothing is to be found in the essence and consciousness of religion that is not there in the being of man, that is not there in his consciousness of himself and the world. Religion has no particular content of its own. Even the emotions of fear and dread had their temples in Rome. The Christians, too, hypostatized their mental states into beings and qualities of things, their dominant emotions into powers dominating the world. In short, they hypostatized the qualities of their being — whether known or unknown to them — into self-subsisting beings. Devils, goblins, witches, ghosts, angels, etc., continued to be sacred truths as long as the religious disposition held its uninterrupted sway over mankind."[3]

At every turn when attempting to define God we're inevitably referencing aspects of the self, the products of our imagination, and the categories we use to describe the material world.

The reality of this projection thesis becomes obvious in the act of prayer to a deity. When we think some mental stirring is the product of divine agency, aren't we simply committing the error of false attribution? 

The theology of the "personal god" seems an almost tacit admission that this projection is taking place. A personal god is in the main just like us, except perfected. He/she/it has emotions, intention and even manifests anthropomorphically in the person of Jesus.

And when this personal god is found to be announcing his public policy preferences through self-selected mouthpieces, by for example, opposing (or supporting) same sex marriage, the game of confirmation bias and psychological projection could hardly be more obvious. 

It's one thing to offer atheist arguments, another to imagine interventions that might loosen the grip of the worst forms of anthropomorphized faith. I wonder then how much one's capacity for introspective accuracy might explain certain constructions of god belief. Research shows that individuals differ considerably in their introspective accuracy. Could it be possible that meditation, a mediator of introspective accuracy, might make some forms of god belief more honest and truthful?

[1] p. 181 in Feuerbach, L. (1957). The Essence of Christianity. Translated by George Eliot. Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. New York: NY.

[2] Ibid. pp. 55-56 

[3] Ibid. p. 22 

-Eric Snyder

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