Defining Religion, Spirituality and Human Experience

By Padovano, Anthony T. | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Defining Religion, Spirituality and Human Experience


Padovano, Anthony T., Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Defining Religion, Spirituality and Human Experience

This paper is a thought-experiment, less a research endeavor, more an essay or analysis. It seeks a context for the Oxford Round Table discussion "Allusions to God in Literature." It searches for the infra-structure which makes such a topic possible. It weaves together three broad and gossamer threads of thought, not easily or absolutely definable: religion, spirituality, human experience. It assumes that the tapestry cannot hold together unless all the strands are intact.

We organize this thought-experiment in three categories:

1. Misdirected Assumptions

2. Defining Religious Experience

3. Corollaries and Conclusions

1. Misdirected Assumptions

A. Freudian Synthesis

Since Sigmund Freud was a comprehensive thinker, he considered religious and spiritual questions. Moses and Monotheism, Totem and Taboo, and The Future of an Illusion conclude that religious and spiritual systems derive from a universal, obsessional neurosis, an Oedipal complex and illusionary projection.

The universal neurosis is the fear of death. Such fear leads to obsessional thinking and behavior. The only recourse from this terror is religion, apparently, because no other institution in society promises relief from annihilation. A believer clings to religion tenaciously, irrationally, because it is the sole alternative to non-existence. Thus, Freud argues, religion has had a hold on us from the beginning. Religion endures because the fear is persistent. Post-Enlightenment rationality does not assuage the fear, indeed, it often intensifies it.

There is more. The Oedipal complex adds to the neurotic fear a measure of guilt. We do not live our lives without guilt. Religion promises, as no other resource does, that guilt can be absolved and that we can begin anew. This brings comfort and tranquility at a level no alternative quite achieves. Religion enlists God as the guarantor that we are forgiven and guiltless.

The final element in the Freudian synthesis is illusion. We begin life with a sense that omnipotent, omniscient, infallible, benign care-givers answer our needs and bring us happiness. As we come of age, we replace these increasingly inadequate care-givers with a cosmic parental figure, God, who is omnipotent, omniscient, infallible, benign. This God rescues us from death and brings us into bliss, to a paradise where we are known and loved, healed and immortal. The illusion is intoxicating.

Religion, Freud observes, derives its meaning and its endurance, its influence and its irreplaceability from its ingenious capacity to address the universal neurotic fear of death, the anxiety generated by guilt, and the existential loss created by the dispelling of our early illusions.

We might note, in passing, that Freud provides us with a brilliant insight into dysfunctional religiosity. Some believers all the time and most, if not all, at various times turn to religion out of fear, guilt, and disillusionment. Where Freud appears deficient is in his inability to account for religious affirmations which follow upon critical thinking and which lead to the enormous creativity religion regularly inspires. Positive consequences of religious affirmation include art and music and architecture, poetry and moral systems and learning, compassion and social justice and personal development. The negative consequences are horrific but the positive consequences are awesome. There is more in the religious equation than fear and guilt and disillusionment. This "more" is not taken into account by Freud and it inspires the positive consequences we have cited.

Nonetheless, the Freudian synthesis has had wide influences. The assumption it works with, however, is inadequate.

B. One True Religion

A further misdirected assumption maintains that only one religion is true and that all the others are false or seriously flawed. …

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