Recovering Lost Narcissism
There have been a slew of books recently on the invalidity of faith—motivated in part, one suspects, by the cheeky desire to goad and provoke. The best known perhaps is The God Delusion, in which Richard Dawkins contends that the belief in God is both delusional and pernicious. Dawkins’ central argument is that “any God capable of designing a universe, carefully and foresightfully tuned to lead to our evolution, must be a supremely complex and improbable entity who needs an even bigger explanation than the one he is supposed to provide.” Thus, the God hypothesis is very close to being ruled out by the laws of probability. Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great covers much of the same ground but treats the topic more humorously, more irreverently and, if possible, even more provocatively. His focus is less on the innate human need for religion and more on its socio-political uses and dysfunctions.
Australia enters the debate with Tamas Pataki’s Against Religion. (Pataki is an Honorary Senior Fellow in the Philosophy Department at the University of Melbourne.) Reading Dawkins, Pataki finds a weakness—psychological poverty—and swoops. In his view, Dawkins doesn’t go far enough, is much too general, and stays on “the shoals of human motivation rather than venturing into the deep”. With Against Religion, Pataki seeks to illuminate the destructive features of the major religions by relating them to a few “malign psychological currents”. By this he means ineluctable attachments and narcissistic needs.
Early on, Pataki declares his work is a polemic, which opens the door for strong claims and colourful language. He aligns himself with Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and Russell, philosophical giants upon whose shoulders he stands.
Then he jumps right in. Pataki reproaches religion for springing from fear, conceit, and cruelty; for being responsible for a terrible record of moral abstraction and slaughter; for being a delusional way of confronting weakness and helplessness; for bending thought to its purposes, distorting reality, undermining reason, inhibiting curiosity, obstructing self-knowledge, nourishing hubris, conserving oppressive political dispensations, forging pernicious group identities and, finally, given the opportunity, persecuting difference and threatening the rule of law. A heady set of accusations to say the least.
His argument, however, is that this mayhem is only possible when religious doctrines and teaching capture the mind and are held with unquestioning faith. In turn, unquestioning faith is only possible when it is reinforced and held in place by unconscious needs and phantasies.
He identifies the ‘religiose’ for whom laws and political authority derive exclusively from God. In addition to doctrinal reasons, he suggests that such minds are predisposed to invest in the god-imago for psychological reasons. Being ruled by divine law excludes being ruled by other people. It also gratifies grandiose self-conceptions, and affirms a special relationship to divine authority. Pataki stitches unconscious motivational states to religious beliefs and attitudes by focusing primarily on narcissism.
One trait of narcissism is the preoccupation with defending individual and group identity with self-esteem, ‘specialness’ and superiority; another is the need to achieve omniscience. If narcissism emerges from an unconscious striving to reconstitute the past, the lost world of childhood or the perfect moment at the mother’s breast, as Pataki concludes, then religion is a “determined, systematic extension of object-relational striving into a supernatural or spiritual dimension”.
Problems—big problems—occur when these ideas are taken to extremes. Pataki examines how even small differences become major threats to those who require the world to narcissistically mirror them. Violence is seen as a legitimate means of achieving the necessary purification. What’s worse to Pataki, religion casts itself as an explanatory system when it is not, defying all reason. Any questioning of this system is an affront to its basic narcissism and is always responded to with righteousness and indignation.
Reason is a problem for religion, Pataki asserts, because most religious claims are so contrary to it. He states: “When beliefs are especially congenial to us but there is little in the way of rational arguments to support them, we discover powerful non-rational motives”. The need to sustain interpersonal relationships is hardwired in the human brain, so powerfully in fact that we resort to ‘phantastic’ constructions of god-imagos. And this is not going to change any time soon.
Against Religion is a clever little book, well-argued and, in some of its more outrageous assertions, even risky. But that doesn’t mean it’s brave. Pataki leaves ways out, open windows through which he can leap when things get too heated. Describing it as a polemic, he may be excused for wild claims. There are gaps and oversights. He tends to brush over big themes with a self-satisfied snort. He states more than once, “We can skip over this argument…” offering no explanation as to why.
And yet, underneath the strong language runs a current of logic that is difficult to oppose. Reading Pataki, you sense you’re in the presence of a forceful mind with the ability to look at this complicated subject straight on. His claim that “faith is just a refusal to think” in a time when clear thinking is a necessity makes this book a worthy read.
(First published in Media/Culture www.media-culture.org.au.)