Believing the unbelievable 9

Theodore Dalrymple, a psychiatrist as well as a writer by profession, writes in his book Out Into The Beautiful World*:

Freud was no scientist; he was instead an unscrupulous charlatan, oscillating between wishful thinking and outright lying, a psychopathic manipulator who owed his success not to the truth but to the emptiness of his theories, the founder of a religious sect rather than of a scientific discipline, a man avid for fame and fortune only too aware that he might not achieve them by more conventional means, and an incestuous adulterer to boot. Moreover, his technique, if something as nebulous as psychoanalysis can be called a technique, was of no greater therapeutic value than exorcism, although much more expensive and a great deal less fun – except for those who desired to talk endlessly about themselves and were willing to pay someone else to listen to them or at least pretend to listen to them. …

The question is why theories so arcane, so preposterously speculative, so lacking in evidence in their favor and even in the possibility of there being any such evidence, should for a number of decades have conquered the most scientifically-advanced regions of the world.

This last sentence reminds us of another religion: Christianity.

Let’s  review the story.

As Saul, later Paul, of Tarsus told it, a Jewish man named Jesus in Greek, who was executed by the Roman authorities in the province of Judea, came back to life and rose bodily to the highest heaven where he reigns over the world along with God, his father. They are both God, father and son. Yet although they are two Persons, they are not two gods but the same One God. Paul learnt by intuition that Jesus, knowing he was about to suffer death by crucifixion, had told his twelve close followers at the last meal they had together in Jerusalem, that bread was his body and wine was his blood. Bread and wine, blessed by priests of Paul’s new religion, were to be ritually consumed by his acolytes, thus taking the body and blood of Jesus into their own bodies.

The story was elaborated by others, and while varying in details came broadly to be this:

Jesus was born of a virgin mother. In his maturity (early thirties or late forties) he gathered twelve close followers, preached to multitudes how to be good by being humble, loving and forgiving, bearing no grudges, and returning kindness for unkindness. He performed miracles of healing, brought a dead man back to life, catered miraculously at a wedding (turning water into wine) and at an outdoor religious convention (making a few loaves and fishes stretch to feed five thousand), walked on water, calmed a storm with a command. He was killed by the Romans for leading a seditious conspiracy, but only because the Jews demanded his death (for no crime or sin known to Jewish law or tradition). After three days hanging on a cross (crucifixion being the common Roman punishment for sedition), his dead body was taken down, wrapped in cerements, and entombed in a cave, its entrance being sealed with a boulder. (This despite the usual way the Romans had of disposing of crucified corpses by throwing them on waste ground to be consumed by the vultures.) After another three days, the heavy boulder was found rolled away from the entrance to the tomb, the cerements intact, not unwound nor cut open, but with no corpse in them. An angel was hovering near by. For a short time Jesus was seen walking about in Judea, appearing in the flesh fully clad to many and various witnesses –  though some who had known him well did not at first recognize him. Then he rose bodily to heaven. He was expected to come back to earth again quite soon (which he did not). His virgin mother also after a time rose bodily to heaven, not under her own steam like her son, but lifted there by angels. There is only one God, but he consists (not of two, but) of three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Among the many disagreements between sects that worship this triune god, one is over the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit or “Holy Ghost”: was he emanated by the Father only, or by both the Father and the Son? Another disagreement, wrangled over from the fourth century to the present day, is about whether the Son is of the same divine substance as the Father, or whether their divine substances are only similar. Multitudes have died for strenuously defending the one or the other position.

Once a man who lived at a certain time in human history was believed to be God, awkward questions were bound to arise. Why did the all-powerful lord of the universe let himself suffer on a cross? How could the immortal God die? Why did Jesus on the cross cry out “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (quoting Psalm 22:1). The answer to these questions, provided by the arbiters of orthodoxy and considered by them to be perfectly satisfactory, is that Jesus was “both fully divine and fully human”. While to non-believers this may seem to beg the question rather than answer it, believers are satisfied with it.

Besides which, as the son of God, Jesus – according to St. Paul – had to suffer and die on the cross as a human sacrifice to save human beings from their sins; in particular the “original sin” of Adam and Eve who, in disobedience to God’s orders, tasted the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, and so tainted the whole human race which descended from them.

Despite the sacrifice of Jesus to save human beings, they are still not saved from sin and punishment. Christianity invented Hell to which sinners go. Christian authorities resolve this apparent contradiction by saying that Jesus, by sacrificing himself (to Himself), gave human beings the hope of being forgiven for their sins and living eternally in Heaven if they followed his teaching and were good. Yet most mainstream Christian sects maintain that being good won’t cut it; that only the grace of God will get you into Heaven. Catholic Christianity taught this at first, but eventialy came round to conceding that by doing good works you may buy yourself a place up there. Calvinism and Lutheranism make no such concession (your posthumous destiny being decided before you are even born). St. Augustine – one of the most illustrious of Christian saints – believed that most people would be damned to Hell. And St. Thomas Aquinas thought that one of the joys of being in Heaven would be contemplating the suffering of those in Hell.

Why did a creed so arcane, so preposterously unlikely, so confused and frightening, so lacking in evidence in its favor and even the possibility of there being any such evidence, conquer the European mind for twenty centuries?


*Out Into The Beautiful World by Theodore Dalrymple, New English Review Press, 2015, Chapter 14.

Posted under Christianity, Judaism, Religion general by Jillian Becker on Wednesday, September 13, 2017

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This post has 9 comments.

  • Cogito

    This is a marvellous precis of Christian absurdities, but I confess a lingering admiration for Freud. Surely, his beautiful prose, his insights into the unconscious, the nature of dreams, and human sexuality demand , not ridicule, but some respect. Dalrymple disappoints here.

    • His prose, yes. His book “Moses and Monotheism”, yes (with some reservations when he brings in his “collective unconscious”). Insights into the unconscious, the nature of dreams, and human sexuality ? That we all want to kill one of our parents and marry the other? No, no, no. ( I did want to kill my mother, and perhaps I should have, but not for Freudian reasons, and I certainly did not want to marry my father!) I am glad that Dalrymple, with his knowledge and experience, endorses my extreme skepticism about all that. And as for the other giants of psychoanalysis who followed after him but went their various ways, Jung and Reich, in particular … Oh, disgust with the former and a dry laugh at the latter will do.

      • Cogito

        I think Civilization and it’s Discontents is a classic of the 20th. Century.

        The dark primordial workings of the human psyche have long fascinated and puzzled mankind. The early Greeks called this irrational and unfathomable aspect of our minds as Dionysian.
        Augustine called it original sin. Anthropologists call it the hind brain. Freud call it the Id.

        Modern psychiatrist mock him but have very little to offer but fanciful notions of altered chemical states in the brain. This is reductionism at its worst.

        The fact that we are filled with revulsionby the idea of sexual attraction to the parent of the opposite sex is to miss the point completely!

        • Yes, Freud invented the “dividual” – as opposed to the “individual”. The three-layered self. How would you apply Popper’s falsification test to that theory?

          Scientists admit that little is known about the human brain. Slowly more and more is being discovered about its functioning. The mystery of the subjective self will never be solved, either by science or philosophy. It has been found that people suffering from certain mental diseases are helped by certain drugs to live normal lives. Is that a bad thing?

          I don’t think critics of Freud’s “Oedipus complex” are necessarily revolted by the idea of sexual attraction to a parent. Some may be, sure. Most just don’t think it is true. In your experience, have you observed any confirmation that it is true of human beings in general?

          • Cogito

            The notion of a divided self can be traced as far back as Plato at least. This is not new.

            Freud’s theories, I agree, can not be falsified in the Popperian sense.

            But I do not read Freud for his debunked scientific claims. I read Freud, as I read Ovid or Plutarch, Shakespeare, for their dazzling insights into the human condition. All the more enjoyable for their literary panache!

            Despite all his personal and professional failings, Freud is one of the last great public intellectuals.

  • Robert Kantor

    Enthusiasm for all-embracing closed thought systems (Freudianism, Marxism, Catholicism) is the mental and moral disease of the educated classes. Think of the passion displayed in the past century for Marxist Communism in this country. Much of the intelligentsia were enraptured by it; the so-called working class which it was supposed to liberate ignored it almost completely. And even today, when Marxism has been totally discredited by real-world events, it is still regarded with sympathy within academia.

    • liz

      Yes, definitely a “closed thought” system. Free speech (and therefore free thought) was the grand cause of Marxists in the sixties, till they took control of all our institutions. Predictably, they have now become our self appointed “Thought Police”, labeling any expression of opinion they don’t agree with “hate speech” and demanding that it be silenced.

  • liz

    Well it’s easy to understand how it caught on so well to begin with – it was developed out of the religious myths of earlier ages, during a time when these were still widely believed, and fact-based reasoning wasn’t exactly a thing yet.
    Then it persisted because, once a myth becomes widely accepted, it’s hard to dislodge it from culture and tradition. (Not to mention those who profit from it.)
    But still, you’d think after 20 centuries – especially the last few, in which the advance of reason has so greatly benefited humanity – that religion would have finally lost its credibility. Instead, it persists, and even if the reduced numbers in Christianity seem like a positive trend, don’t get your hopes up – it’s being replaced by the even more mentally destructive myths of Marxism and Islam.
    The description Dalrymple gives of Freud, interestingly, could in many ways be a fitting description of both Marx and Mohammed! Both were “unscrupulous charlatans”, “psychopathic manipulators”, and founders of a religious sect (in Mohammed’s case an actual religion based on lies about ‘revelations’; in Marx’s case a secular pseudo-religion based on “wishful thinking and outright lying” parading as “a scientific discipline”, just like Freud.)

    • Glad you brought in Marx and Mohammed., liz. The description fits them perfectly.