[In his 1963 book Atheism in our Time: A Psychoanalyst’s Dissection of the Modern Varieties of Unbelief, Ignace Lepp examines more kinds of atheism than most of us knew existed. A chapter is devoted to each of the following categories: neurotic atheism,* Marxist atheism, rationalist atheism, existentialist atheism, and atheists in the name of value. His first chapter, however, is entitled “The Atheist That I Was.” Though a Catholic priest and a psychotherapist when he wrote this book, as a young man he had been a Marxist atheist and a passionate and influential member of the communist party. In addition to his personal experience of atheism, the book is peppered with case studies that illustrate each of the above categories. The case below is an example of rationalist atheism.]
Quite different is the case of Dorothy, also thirty years old, and a professor of literature. She came from a deeply religious family, which was neither bigoted or Jansenistic [Jansenism is a form of Catholicism with Calvinistic overtones]. Until her marriage, she was herself very religious and active in several Catholic action groups. When she was twenty-three, she fell in love with a professor at the University who had a Protestant background but was, in fact, a convinced rationalist. During the engagement period and the first months of their marriage, Dorothy worked hard to convert John. He did not categorically resist her efforts. He read the books she gave him and had conversations with intelligent priests she introduced him to. But his rationalism proved to be as impermeable as was Suzanne’s. I later met John and, judging from the long philosophical conversations I had with him, got the impression that his rationalist rigidity could well be a compensation for suppressed emotional tendencies. This remarkable intellectual pretended to have eliminated all emotional motivation from his life and actions. He professed to live and act according to the imperatives of reason alone. He was active in some political and social projects but refused to admit that such action was a sign of generosity or compassion. Even at this level he professed to act for purely rational motives. He even rationalized his love for his wife and children.
But we were discussing Dorothy. After two years of married life and having failed to convert John, she began to notice that her own faith had suffered from contact with his rationalism. She did not go so far as to call herself an atheist. But she became convinced that, in view of her husband’s stand, she had to justify her faith fully and exclusively in rational terms. But on this level she was no match for John. When he convinced her that reason is the sole and supreme criterion of truth, Dorothy began to think that she had no right to believe and call herself a Christian.
Analysis revealed that the real reasons for Dorothy’s loss of faith were far less rational than she thought. Her vain efforts to convert her husband had given rise in her to a keen anxiety and a painful guilt complex. She felt herself guilty before God, her family, and her friends for having married an atheist, for having failed to bear witness to her faith in an efficacious manner. An upsetting tension in their home resulted. Dorothy felt that not only her married happiness but also her love was endangered. To escape this peril, she gradually let herself become convinced of her husband’s rationalism and adopted his point of view. When I explained this to her, she made no objection. She merely noted that her husband’s rationalist agnosticism satisfied her intellectually. As to the needs of the heart, she said, they were, at least for the moment, satisfied by her maternal and conjugal love. Yet she insists that her children be given religious instruction. Let us note, too, that Dorothy is in no way neurotic. But, and contrary to a widespread and false opinion, neurotics are not the only ones whose lives are influenced by the unconscious.
The different cases we have discussed show that even rationalist atheism is more often motivated by the emotions than by reason. But this does not imply, in our opinion, a depreciation of this form of unbelief. Still less do we want to discredit reason in any way. We do not criticize rationalism because of its trust in reason, but because it takes reason to be absolutely autonomous, endowed with an absolute objectivity, and capable of judging everything in a sovereign manner exclusive of other influences. Such a conception of reason does not bear up experimentally. Man is a whole; in the life of his spirit and soul** we observe an interaction of all his faculties. The flesh influences the spirit; the spirit influences the flesh. It is not only normal but desirable that reason be influenced by the emotions; otherwise, reason would be demonically cold and incapable of understanding human reality. On the other hand, it is also normal and good that man’s emotions and sensibility be controlled, in varying degrees, by reason; otherwise, the irrational and chaotic would reign.
Religious faith, which is one of the most authentically existential acts of man, can sometimes appear to contradict the rational lights a given person or civilization possess. But the believer knows that neither his reason, nor human reason in general, is an absolute source of light. Moreover, like all important psychic acts, religious faith is a complex act. It naturally embraces reason but pertains at least as much to the emotions and sensibility of the whole man. For a person to recognize some value in the objections of reason against faith, he must also recognize that more or less imperious motives induce his emotions in the same anti-religious direction. As is frequently the case in the domain of the emotions, these solicitations can be unconscious and give the subject the illusion that only the conflicts between reason and faith cause the loss of faith.
Bearing in mind this interaction of reason and emotion, it should not be too difficult for us to understand how one biologist or physician can be convinced that it is impossible for a man of scientific education to be religious, while a colleague, whose scientific achievements are no less brilliant, feels no contradiction between his faith and his science. Both are “rationalists.” But the emotions of the former incline his reason toward agnosticism, while the opposite is the case with the latter.
* It would be a serious mistake to [suppose] that all atheists would be believers if they were psycho-analyzed, or that depth psychology confirms the slogan so dear to a special breed of preachers: “The unbeliever is a believer at heart.” In the first place, there are neurotics who are atheists, and yet there is no apparent connection between their atheism and their neurosis. These people continue to be atheists after they have been cured of their neurosis. In the second place, as we stated at the beginning of this chapter, the emotionally well balanced atheists are probably just as numerous as emotionally well balanced believers. There is no need to suppose that these people need psychotherapy, and even if they did, it would not change their attitude toward God any more than it would change the philosophical, scientific, or political convictions of a normal person.
** In conversations, and perhaps also in my writings [as a Marxist], I frequently used the word “soul.” But I did not see in this “soul” and “substance.” It was merely a convenient term to designate the totality of man’s psychic faculties. I adopted the position of all materialists: the soul and what we call the spiritual are not essentially different from the biological or physical; they merely represent a superior level of the evolution of matter.
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