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Religion and the Magic of Parents
Posted By Ash On January 21, 2010 @ 10:11 am In All Posts | No Comments
Freud famously hypothesized that God is little more than a projected father figure. This idea was given within the context of his psychosexual theories, which have largely been outmoded as the science of psychology has progressed. Nevertheless, Freud was probably on to something in this case.
As children, our parents are, in essence, gods to us. They are not only all powerful, but are possessed of incomprehensible knowledge and mysterious abilities; they also regularly transport us to strange new places. It is not such a far leap to suggest that a belief in a god allows us to keep a sense of the awe and safety that we are designed to feel when we are kids. There is some part of us—even as mature, educated adults—that craves a relationship with a larger-than-life being that can handle the chaos, danger, and mystery of life, that we can depend on, that will love us without limit.
It is possible that this effect goes beyond a belief in a god. It might also lead to magical thinking, even absent of any belief in a supreme being. This kind of thinking is typified by New Age practices, such as astrology, tarot cards, and candle spells. Occult-style systems can be understood as a transference of magic from the parent to the child. No longer content to leave power in the hands of humanized parents, nor to elevate it to an invisible deity, magical-thinking adults appropriate the flame of godhood for themselves. The illusion is essentially the same as that of the mainline theist, that mysterious, supernatural forces can be used to understand and effect change within the material world.
Naturalism is the only orientation that truly bucks the system—it states that there are no mysterious powers, no access to special knowledge, and no non-material parts of reality. This perspective is threatening to believers of both theistic and occult stripes, not only because humans are designed to have durable worldviews and group affiliations, but because naturalism “takes away” the sense of control and specialness that comes with supernaturalism.
That is the cost of maturity: giving up fantastical thinking. But that doesn’t mean that we have to give up any of the awe and wonder or even reverence! True, we have to learn how to cope with a lack of afterlife and control over the chaos inherent in life, but what we gain is the ability to live in reality and to bask in the majesty of Nature on its own terms. We can make choices and develop understanding grounded in observation and reason rather than scripture or divination. Instead of prayer or magic, we can adopt pragmatic action for when we wish to affect change.
There is much discussion of late about the nature and source of religion. Even if true, it seems highly unlikely that the hypothesis presented in this essay is the only element behind supernaturalism. More likely, there are numerous components, including potent sociocultural influences. It is important that social scientists continue to study religion—the more we understand that supernaturalism is a product of human thinking, the more we can transfer it’s positive elements—such as reverence, compassion, and profundity—to the actual source of reality, the natural world.
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