The Future of an Illusion

A review of The Future of an Illusion by Rob Mason

Religious ideas are teachings and assertions about facts and conditions of external reality which tell one something one has not discovered for oneself and which lay claim to one’s belief. Since they give us information about what is most important and interesting to us in life, they are particularly highly prized.  Anyone who knows nothing of them is very ignorant; and anyone who has added them to his knowledge may consider himself much the richer.
There are of course many such teachings about the most various things in the world.  Every school lesson is full of them. Let us take geography.  We are told that the town of Constance lies on the Bodensee.  I happen to have been there and can confirm the fact that that lovely town lies on the shore of a wide stretch of water which all those who live round it call the Bodensee; and I am now completely convinced of the correctness of this geographical assertion.  In this connection I am reminded of another, very remarkable experience. I was already a man of mature years when I stood for the first time on the hill of the Acropolis in Athens, between the temple ruins, looking out over the blue sea.  A feeling of astonishment mingled with joy. It seemed to say: ‘so it really is true, just as we learnt at school!’ How shallow and weak must have been the belief I then acquired in the real truth of what I heard, if I could be so astonished now. All teachings like these, then, demand belief in their contents, but not without producing grounds for their claim.  They are put forward as the epitomized result of a longer process of thought based on observation and certainly also on inferences. If anyone wants to go through this process himself instead of accepting its result, they show him how to set about it. Moreover, we are always in addition given the source of the knowledge conveyed by them, where that source is not self-evident, as it is in the case of geographical assertions. For instance, the earth is shaped like a sphere; the proofs adduced for this are Foucault’s pendulum experiment, the behaviour of the horizon and the possibility of circumnavigating the earth.

Let us try to apply the same test to the teachings of religion. When we ask on what their claim to be believed is founded, we are met with three answers, which harmonise remarkably badly with one another.  Firstly, these teachings deserve to be believed because they were already believed by our primal ancestors; secondly, we possess proofs which have been handed down to us from those same primaeval times; and thirdly, it is forbidden to raise the question of their authentication at all. In former days anything so presumptuous was visited with the severest penalties and even today society looks askance at any attempt to raise the question again.

This third point is bound to rouse our suspicions.  After all, a prohibition like this can only be for one reason- that society is very well aware of the insecurity of the claim it makes on behalf of its religious doctrines. Otherwise it would certainly be very ready to put the necessary data at the disposal of anyone who wanted to arrive at conviction. This being so, it is with a feeling of mistrust which it is hard to allay that we pass on to an examination of the two grounds of proof. We ought to believe because our forefathers believed.  But these ancestors of ours were far more ignorant than we are.  They believed in things we could not accept today; and the possibility occurs to us that the doctrines of religion may belong to that class too. The proofs they have left us are set down in writings which themselves bear every mark of untruthfulness. They are full of contradictions, revisions and falsifications, and where they speak of factual confirmations they are themselves unconfirmed.  It does not help much to have it asserted that their wording, or even their content only, originates from divine revelation.; for this assertion is itself one of the doctrines whose authenticity is under examination, and no proposition can be proof of itself.
Thus we arrive at the singular conclusion that of all the information provided by our cultural assets it is precisely these elements which might be of the greatest importance to us and which have the task of solving the riddles of the universe and of reconciling us to the suffering of life-it is precisely those elements that are the least well authenticated of any. This state of affairs is in itself a very remarkable psychological problem.  And let no one suppose that what I have said about the impossibility of proving the truth of religious doctrines contains anything new. It has been felt at all times- undoubtedly, too, by the ancestors who bequeathed us this legacy.. Many of them probably nourished the same doubts as ours, but the pressure imposed on them was too strong for them to have dared to utter them. And since then countless people have been tormented by similar doubts, and have striven to supress them, because they thought it was their duty to believe; many brilliant intellects have broken down over this conflict, and many characters have been impaired by the compromises with which they have tried to find a way out of it. If all the evidence put forward for the authenticity of religious teachings originates in the past, it is natural to look around and see whether the present, about which it is easier to form judgements 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 and they seek 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 I have made- both of which convey the impression 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 tgabsurdum of the early Father of the Church. 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 to be 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 is one to do about the many people who do not have 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 doctrines from a state of ecstasy which has deeply moved him, of what significance is that to others?

The second attempt is one made by the philosophy of 'As if'. This asserts that our thought activity includes a great number of hypotheses whose groundlessness and even absurdity we fully realize.  They are called 'fictions,' but for a variety of reasons we have to behave 'as if'' we believed in these fictions. This is the case with religious doctrines bcause of their incomparable doctrines for the maintenance of human society. This line of argument is not far removed from the 'Credo quia absurdem.' But I think the demand made by the 'As if' ' argumnt is one that only a philosopher could put fprward. A man whose thinking is not influenced by the artifices of philosophy will never be able to accept it; in such a man’s view, the admission that something is absurd or contrary to reason leaves no more to be said. It cannot be expected of him that precisely in treating his most important interests he shall forgo the guarantees he requires for all his ordinary activities. I am reminded of one of my children who was distinguished at an early age by a peculiarly marked matter-of-factness.  When the children were being told a fairy story and were listening to it with rapt attention, he would ask: Is that a true story?’ When told it was not, he would turn away with a look of disdain.  We may expect that people will soon behave in the same way towards fairy tales of religion, in spite of the advocacy of ‘As if.’
But at present they still behave quite differently; and in past times religious ideas, in spite of their incontrovertible lack of authentication, have exercised the strongest possible influence on mankind.  This is a fresh psychological problem.  We must ask why the inner force of those doctrines lies and to what it is that they owe their efficacy, independent as it is of recognition by reason.

I think we have prepared the way sufficiently for an answer to both these questions. It will be found if we turn our attention to the psychical origin of religious ideas.  These, which are given out as teachings, are not precipitates of experience or end-results of thinking; they are illusions, fulfilments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind. The secret of their strength lies in the strength of those wishes. As we already know, the terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood aroused the need for protection- for protection through love which was provided by the father; and the recognition that this helplessness lasts throughout life made it necessary to cling to the existence of a father, but this time a more powerful one. Thus the benevolent rule of divine Providence allays our fear of the dangers of life; the establishment of a moral world order ensures the fulfilment of the demands of justice, which have so often remained unfulfilled in civilization; and the prolongation of earthly existence in a future life provides the local and temporal framework in which these wish-fulfilments shall take place. Answers to the riddles that tempt the curiosity of man, such as how the universe began or what the relation is between body and mind, are developed in conformity with the underlying assumptions of this system.  It is an enormous relief to the individual psyche if the conflicts of its childhood arising from the father complex- conflicts which it has never wholly overcome- are removed from it and brought to a solution which is universally accepted.

When I say that these things are all illusions, I must define the meaning of the word. An illusion is not the same thing as an error; nor is it necessarily an error. Aristotle’s belief that vermin are developed out of dung (a belief to which ignorant people still cling) was an error; so was the belief of a former generation of doctors that tabes dorsalis is the result of sexual excess. It would be wrong to call these errors, illusions. On the other hand, it was an illusion of Columbus’s that he had discovered a new sea route to the Indies. One may describe as an illusion, the assertion made by certain nationalists that the Indo-Germanic race is the only one capable of civilization; or the belief, which was destroyed by psycho-analysis, that children are creatures without sexuality. What is characteristic of illusions is that they are derived from human wishes. In this respect they come near to psychiatric delusions.  But they differ from them too, apart from the more complicated structure of delusions. In the case of delusions, we emphasize as essential their being in contradiction with reality.  Illusions need not necessarily be false-that is to say, unrealizable or in contradiction to reality. For instance, a middle-class girl may have the illusion that a prince will come and marry her. This is possible and a few such cases have occurred. That the Messiah will come and found a golden age is much less likely. Whether one classifies this belief as an illusion or something analogous to a delusion will depend on one’s personal attitude.
Thus we call a belief an illusion when wish-fulfilment is a prominent factor in its motivation, and in so doing so we disregard its relations to reality, just as the illusion itself sets no store by verification.

 Having thus taken our bearings, let us return once more to the question of religious doctrines. We can now repeat that all of them are illusions and insusceptible of proof. No one can be compelled to think of them as true, to believe in them. Some of them are so improbable, so incompatible with everything we have laboriously discovered about the reality of the world, that we may compare them-if we pay proper regard to the psychological differences- to delusions. Of the reality value of most of them we cannot judge; just as they cannot be proved, so they cannot be refuted. We still know too little to make a critical approach to them. The riddles of the universe reveal themselves only slowly to our investigation; there are many questions to which science today can give no answer.  But scientific work is the only road which can lead us to a knowledge of reality outside ourselves.  It is once again merely an illusion to expect anything from intuition and introspection; they can give us nothing but particulars about our own mental life, which are hard to interpret, never any information about the questions which religious doctrine finds it so easy to answer. It would be insolent to let one’s own arbitrary will step into the breach and, according to one’s personal estimate, declare this or that part of the religious system to be less or more acceptable. Such questions are too momentous for that; they might be called too sacred.

At this point one must expect to meet with an objection.  ‘Well then, if even obdurate sceptics admit that the assertions of religion cannot be refuted by reason, why should I not believe in them, since they have so much on their side- tradition, the agreement of mankind, and all the consolations they offer?’ Why not indeed? Just as no one can be forced to believe, so no one can be forced to disbelieve. But do not let us be satisfied with deceiving ourselves that arguments like these take us along the road to correct thinking. If ever there was a case of lame excuse we have it here. Ignorance is ignorance; no right to believe anything can be derived from it. In other matters no sensible person will behave so irresponsibly or rest content with such feeble grounds for his opinions and for the line he takes. It is only in the highest and most sacred things that he allows himself to do so. In reality these are only attempts at pretending to oneself or to other people that one is still firmly attached to religion, when one has long since cut oneself loose from it. Where questions of religion are concerned, people are guilty of every possible sort of dishonesty and intellectual misdemeanour.

Philosophers stretch the meaning of words until they retain scarcely anything of their original sense. They give the name of ‘God’ to some vague abstraction which they have created for themselves; having done so they can pose before all the world as deists, as believers in God, and they can even boast that they have recognised a higher, purer concept of God, notwithstanding that their God is now nothing more than an insubstantial shadow and no longer the mighty personality of religious doctrines. Critics persist in describing as ‘deeply religious’ anyone who admits to a sense of man’s insignificance or impotence in the face of the universe, although what constitutes the essence of the religious attitude is not this feeling but only the next step after it, the reaction to it which seeks a remedy for it. The man who goes no further, but humbly acquiesces in the small part which human beings play in the great world- such a man is, on the contrary, irreligious in the strict sense of the word.

To assess the truth-value of religious doctrines does not lie within the scope of the present enquiry.  It is enough for us that we have recognised them as being, in their psychological nature, illusions. But we do not have to conceal the fact that this discovery also strongly influences our attitude to the question which must appear to many to be the most important of all. We know approximately at what periods and by what kind of men religious doctrines were created. If in addition we discover the motives which led us to this, our attitude to the problem of religion will undergo a marked displacement.  We shall tell ourselves that it would be very nice if there were a God who created the world and was a benevolent Providence, and if there was a moral ordering the universe and an after-life ; but it is a very striking fact that all this is exactly as we are bound to wish it to be . And it would be more remarkable still if our wretched, ignorant and downtrodden ancestors had succeeded in solving all these difficult riddles of the universe.