About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Freud and Russell against god and other insanities

After a long hiatus I'm finally about to finish Jennifer Michael Hecht's monumental “Doubt: a History,” a must read for anybody seriously interested in skepticism. Toward the end of the book I encountered again some interesting insights from two of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century: Sigmund Freud and Bertrand Russell. Let me remind you of them as well.

Freud's opinion of religion was that “there is no distinctively religious need – only psychological need,” which indeed goes a long way toward answering the perennial question of why it is that so many people fall for religious crap. Deep-seated psychological needs, such as overcoming the terror of annihilation that comes from being conscious of one's own mortality, can get the better of even the most educated and intelligent human being.

Even better, Freud's “The Future of an Illusion” suggests that religion isn't just an error, it is a willful error. As such, the oft-heard remark that since we can't know for sure “we might as well” believe in god is bogus. As Freud put it: “If ever there was a case of a lame excuse we have it here. Ignorance is ignorance; no right to believe anything can be derived from it.”

As for Russell – whose “Why I am Not a Christian” was exceedingly influential on my own path from Catholicism to agnosticism and eventually to atheism – clearly saw that the problem isn't just religion, it's any dogmatic ideology. He knew from history what religion can do to humanity, but he saw during his own lifetime what Nazism, Fascism and Communism were capable of as well, and it wasn't a pretty picture.

Interestingly, in a quasi-psychoanalytical fashion, Russell also understood what the connection was: “I admit at once that the new systems of dogma, such as those of the Nazis and the Communists, are even worse than the old systems, but they could never have acquired a hold over men's minds if orthodox dogmatic habits had not been instilled in youth. ... [Stalin's language] is full of reminiscences of the theological seminary.”

Which is why he concluded that “I do not believe that a decay of dogmatic belief can do anything but good.” Amen.


  1. I'm just impressed that you were able to NOT read Doubt: A History straight through. I found it addictive.

    Asimov's Guide to the Bible however, been working on that for almost two years now.

  2. doubts are the dogs of the mind. they bite and make you feel uncomfortable. faith is a healing balm that though it be a lie like the center in be(lie)f is much more worthy of approval than the nihilistic meaningless drivel of atheism or agnosticism. religious people live healthier lives than most non-believers. that is because most things appear nonsen(sick)al once one gives up the purpose driven life. better to live a meaningful life-lie than die for a bitter truth that destroys all harmony, happiness and peace of mind.