Deane, having been back from a trip to Australia for about three hours, has already at least doubled the number of words posted to this record that I managed to post in the entire two weeks he was gone. I am well and truly shamed and must endeavour to do better …
In the very appropriate spirit of shame, a few thoughts on reading Sigmund Freud, which I am doing in preparation for teaching a class on religion and modernity in which the poor students will have to take Freud seriously. In his 1927 book on religion, The Future of an Illusion, as translated by James Strachey in The Complete Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (London: The Hogarth Press, 1961), Freud writes,
Sigmund Freud in The Hague in 1920
If all the evidence put forward for the authenticity of religious teachings originates in the past, it is natural to look round and see whether the present, about which it is easier to form judgments, may not also be able to furnish evidence of the sort, If by this means we could succeed in clearing even a single portion of the religious system from doubt, the whole of it would gain enormously in credibility. The proceedings of the spiritualists meet us at this point; they are convinced of the survival of the individual soul to demonstrate to us beyond doubt the truth of this one religious doctrine. Unfortunately they cannot succeed in refuting the fact that the appearance and utterances of their spirits are merely the products of their own mental activity. 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.
I must now mention two attempts that have been made – both of which convey the impressions of being desperate efforts – to evade the problem. One, of a violent nature, is ancient; the other is subtle and modern. The first is the ‘Credo quia absurdum‘ of the early Father of the Church [Tertullian]. It maintains that religious doctrines are outside the jurisdiction of reason – are above reason. Their truth must be felt inwardly, and they need not be comprehended. But this Credo is only of interest as a self-confession. As an authoritative statement it has no binding force. Am I obliged to believe every absurdity? And if not, why this one in particular? There is no appeal to a court above that of reason. If the truth of religious doctrines is dependent on an inner experience which bears witness to that truth, what one to do about the many people who do not this rare experience? One may require every man to use the gift of reason which he possesses, but one cannot erect, on the basis of a motive that exists only for a very few, an obligation that shall apply to everyone. If one man has gained an unshakable conviction of the true reality of religious deoctrones from a state of exstasy which has deeply moved him, of what significance is that to others? (pp. 27-28).
That I find myself in more or less absolute agreement with most of Freud writes here is disturbing on a personal level, as I find Freud to be a load of destructive nonsense and antinomian conjecture; however, on closer inspection, there is something glaringly off about this passage in light of Freud’s larger project. This is an instance of what I want to call the ‘Animal Farm Tendency’ within intellectual inquiry. Recalling the bitter climax of George Orwell’s masterpiece Animal Farm, first published in the UK in 1945 as Animal Farm: A Fairy Story, the modification of the original credo of ‘all animal are equal’ to ‘all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others‘, this tendency, endemic within many fields of academic inquiry, is the tendency to be blind to the lapses in reason in every system of thought but one’s own.
The cover of the first British edition
For example, Freud’s entire system of thought, impressively involved as it is, is instantly undermined by the simple fact that Freud is as indebted as any Christian to the acceptance of certain assertions based less on reason than on other factors. If one rejects as rank assertion Freud’s sacred trinity of Mother, Father, and Child (and all of the implicit sexual tension within this trinity) and the whole apparatus of his symbolic interpretation of dreams, the whole of the Freudian structure of though becomes largely untenable. This is especially glaring given his arrogance and his pretensions towards science. After all, he did write that many of the things plaguing humanity, religion among them, would eventually be ‘destroyed by psychoanalysis’ (31).
Freud is not alone in this sort of thinking. We need think only of any of the predestinarian theologies, which assert a standard of evidence that neccessarily excludes those who are disinclined to believe in such theology. This is even more true among the many theologians who have adopted a putatively – but poorly understood and lazily formulated – postmodernism. Here we need only think of someone like Jean-Luc Marion, who uses the language of open inquiry to mask what is in reality a simple assertion of the truth of Christian Revelation. John W. Cooper gives us another example:
In response to modernist claims of rational autonomy, some Reformed apologists have so strongly emphasized the relativity of reason to true faith and uniquely Christian presuppositions that the universal availability of any truth whatsoever has in effect been denied. What results is a kind of religious relativism. Truth is admitted to be completely system-relative, but only (Reformed?) Christians are acknowledged to have the right system.
The logic, undoubtedly given a boost by the language of the postmodern movement, goes something like this: ‘in a relativistic world, there is no such thing as thought free from presuppositions; therefore, everyone must be obliged to respect the presuppositions of others’. Fair enough. As far as this goes, we are still within the relatively respectable territory of ‘all animals are equal’. However, the next step within the Animal Farm Tendency is to add a further phrase: ‘there is no such thing as thought without presuppositions; therefore, everyone must be obliged to respect the presuppositions of others; therefore, we are justified in claiming that our presuppositions are superior (or more equal)’ to those of others.
Animal Farm illustration by Jim Conte
Other scholars in many disciplines, biblical studies and broader religious studies among them, have used a similarly uncritical relativism to support absolutist claims or to simply and without reflection claim the truth of a given set of presuppositions. Much as it may pain me to say this, there are many examples of the Animal Farm Tendency within contemporary Marxist thought; in fact, anyone relying uncritically on Marx’s materialist meta-narrative of history is guilty of walking on two legs after denouncing walking on two legs.
Such thinking, whether it aimed at religious, historical, ethnic, or scientific ends, reminds at least this reader unavoidably of the immortal Leninist slogan delivered the pig Napoleon at the end of Animal Farm.
Let’s have some more examples, this time from the audience …