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The Pillars of Unbelief Looking at Kant, Freud, and Sartre from a Christian View

  1. Sep 9, 2005 #1
    What do you think of Peter Kreeft's article which regards Kant, Freud, and Sartre as the pillars of our prevalent secular society.
    Please do discuss your viewpoints.

    here's the article:

    Just as we have pillars of Christian faith, the saints, so are there individuals who have become pillars of unbelief. Peter Kreeft discusses six modern thinkers who've had an enormous impact on our everyday life. They have also done great harm to the Christian mind. Their names: Machiavelli, the inventor of “the new morality”; Kant, the subjectivizer of Truth; Nietzsche, the self-proclaimed “Anti-Christ”; Freud, the founder of the “sexual revolution”; Marx, the false Moses for the masses; and Sartre, the apostle of absurdity. The articles in this series constitute background to help us understand the main personalities, and those ideas they advocated, which have led us to the secular society.

    The Pillars of Unbelief — Kant PETER KREEFT

    Few philosophers in history have been so unreadable and dry as Immanuel Kant. Yet few have had a more devastating impact on human thought.

    Kant's devoted servant, Lumppe, is said to have faithfully read each thing his master published, but when Kant published his most important work, “The Critique of Pure Reason,” Lumppe began but did not finish it because, he said, if he were to finish it, it would have to be in a mental hospital. Many students since then have echoed his sentiments.

    Yet this abstract professor, writing in abstract style about abstract questions, is, I believe, the primary source of the idea that today imperils faith (and thus souls) more than any other; the idea that truth is subjective.

    The simple citizens of his native Konigsburg, Germany, where he lived and wrote in the latter half of the 18th century, understood this better than professional scholars, for they nicknamed Kant “The Destroyer” and named their dogs after him.

    He was a good-tempered, sweet and pious man, so punctual that his neighbors set their clocks by his daily walk. The basic intention of his philosophy was noble: to restore human dignity amidst a skeptical world worshiping science.

    This intent becomes clear through a single anecdote. Kant was attending a lecture by a materialistic astronomer on the topic of man's place in the universe. The astronomer concluded his lecture with: “So you see that astronomically speaking, man is utterly insignificant.” Kant replied: “Professor, you forgot the most important thing, man is the astronomer.”

    Kant, more than any other thinker, gave impetus to the typically modern turn from the objective to the subjective. This may sound fine until we realize that it meant for him the redefinition of truth itself as subjective. And the consequences of this idea have been catastrophic.

    If we ever engage in conversation about our faith with unbelievers, we know from experience that the most common obstacle to faith today is not any honest intellectual difficulty, like the problem of evil or the dogma of the trinity, but the assumption that religion cannot possibly concern facts and objective truth at all; that any attempt to convince another person that your faith is true — objectively true, true for everyone — is unthinkable arrogance.

    The business of religion, according to this mindset, is practice and not theory; values, not facts; something subjective and private, not objective and public. Dogma is an “extra,” and a bad extra at that, for dogma fosters dogmatism. Religion, in short, equals ethics. And since Christian ethics is very similar to the ethics of most other major religions, it doesn't matter whether you are a Christian or not; all that matters is whether you are a “good person.” (The people who believe this also usually believe that just about everyone except Adolf Hitler and Charles Manson is a “good person.”)

    Kant is largely responsible for this way of thinking. He helped bury the medieval synthesis of faith and reason. He described his philosophy as “clearing away the pretensions of reason to make room for faith” — as if faith and reason were enemies and not allies. In Kant, Luther's divorce between faith and reason becomes finalized.

    Kant thought religion could never be a matter of reason, evidence or argument, or even a matter of knowledge, but a matter of feeling, motive and attitude. This assumption has deeply influenced the minds of most religious educators (e.g., catechism writers and theology departments) tody, who have turned their attention away from the plain “bare bones” of faith, the objective facts narrated in Scripture and summarized in the Apostles' creed. They have divorced the faith from reason and married it to pop psychology, because they have bought into Kant's philosophy.

    “Two things fill me with wonder,” Kant confessed: “the starry sky above and the moral law within.” What a man wonders about fills his heart and directs his thought. Note that Kant wonders about only two things: not God, not Christ, not Creation, Incarnation, Resurrection and Judgment, but “the starry sky above and the moral law within.” “The starry sky above” is the physical universe as known by modern science. Kant relegates everything else to subjectivity. The moral law is not “without” but “within,” not objective but subjective, not a Natural Law of objective rights and wrongs that comes from God but a man-made law by which we decide to bind ourselves. (But if we bind ourselves, are we really bound?) Morality is a matter of subjective intention only. It has no content except the Golden Rule (Kant's “categorical imperative”).

    If the moral law came from God rather than from man, Kant argues, then man would not be free in the sense of being autonomous. This is true, Kant then proceeds to argue that man must be autonomous, therefore the moral law does not come from God but from man. The Church argues from the same premise that the moral law does in fact come from God, therefore man is not autonomous. He is free to choose to obey or disobey the moral law, but he is not free to create the law itself.

    Though Kant thought of himself as a Christian, he explicitly denied that we could know that there really exists (1) God, (2) free will, and (3) immorality. He said we must live as if these three ideas were true because if we believe them we will take morality seriously, and if we don't we will not. It is this justification of belief by purely practical reasons that is a terrible mistake. Kant believes in God not because it is true but because it is helpful. Why not believe in Santa Claus then? If I were God, I would favor an honest atheist over a dishonest theist, and Kant is to my mind a dishonest theist, because there is only one honest reason for believing anything: because it is true.

    Those who try to sell the Christian faith in the Kantian sense, as a “value system” rather than as the truth, have been failing for generations. With so many competing “value systems: on the market, why should anyone prefer the Christian variation to simpler ones with less theological baggage, and easier ones with less inconvenient moral demands?

    Kant gave up the battle, in effect, by retreating from the battlefield of fact. He believed the great myth of the 18th-century “Enlightenment” (ironic name!): that Newtonian science was here to stay and that Christianity, to survive, had to find a new place in the new mental landscape sketched by the new science. The only place left was subjectivity.

    That meant ignoring or interpreting as myth the supernatural and miraculous claims of traditional Christianity. Kant's strategy was essentially the same as that of Rudolf Bultmann, the father of “demythologizing” and the man who may be responsible for more Catholic college students losing their faith than anyone else. Many theology professors follow his theories of criticism which reduce biblical claims of eyewitness description of miracles to mere myth, “values” and “pious interpretations.”

    Bultmann said this about the supposed conflict between faith and science: “The scientific world picture is here to stay and will assert its right against any theology, however imposing, that conflicts with it.” Ironically, that very “scientific world picture” of Newtonian physics Kant and Bultmann accepted as absolute and unchangeable has today been almost universally rejected by scientists themselves!

    Kant's basic question was: How can we know truth? Early in his life he accepted the answer of Rationalism, that we know truth by the intellect, not the senses, and that the intellect possesses its own “innate ideas.” The he read the Empiricist David Hume, who, Kant said, “woke me from my dogmatic slumber.” Like other Empiricists, Hume believed that we could know truth only through the senses and that we had no “innate ideas.” But Hume's premises led him to the conclusion of Skepticism, the denial that we can ever know the truth at all with any certainty. Kant saw both the “dogmatism” of Rationalism and the skepticism of Empiricism as unacceptable, and sought a third way.

    There was such a third theory available, ever since Aristotle. It was the common sense philosophy of Realism. According to Realism, we can know truth through both the intellect and the senses if only they worked properly and in tandem, like two blades of a scissors. Instead of returning to traditional Realism, Kant invented a wholly new theory of knowledge, usually called Idealism. He called it his “Copernican revolution in philosophy.” The simplest term for it is Subjectivism. It amounts to redefining truth itself as subjective, not objective.

    All previous philosophers had assumed that truth was objective. That's simply what we common-sensically mean by “truth”: knowing what really is, conforming the mind to objective reality. Some philosophers (the Rationalists) thought we could attain this goal through reason alone. The early Empiricists (like Locke) thought we could attain it through sensation. The later skeptical Empiricist Hume thought we could not attain it at all with any certainty. Kant denied the assumption common to all three competing philosophies, name that we should attain it, that truth means conformity to objective reality. Kant's “Copernican revolution” redefines truth itself as reality conforming to ideas. “Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects...more progress may be made if we assume the contrary hypothesis that the objects of thought must conform to our knowledge.”

    Kant claimed that all our knowledge is subjective. Well, is that knowledge subjective? If it is, then the knowledge of that fact is also subjective, et cetera, and we are reduced to an infinite hall of mirrors. Kant's philosophy is a perfect philosophy for hell. Perhaps the damned collectively believe they aren't really in hell, it's all just in their mind. And perhaps it is; perhaps that's what hell is.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 9, 2005 #2
    The Pillars of Unbelief — Freud PETER KREEFT

    He was the Columbus of the psyche. No psychologist alive escapes his influence.

    Yet, along with flashes of genius, we find the most bizarre ideas in his writings — e.g., that mothers cuddle their babies only as a substitute for their desire to have sexual intercourse with them.

    Sigmund Freud's most influential teaching is his sexual reductionism. As an atheist, Freud reduces God to a dream of man. As a materialist, he reduces man to his body, the human body to animal desire, desire to sexual desire and sexual desire to genital sex. All are oversimplifications.

    Freud was a scientist, and in some ways a great one. But he succumbed to an occupational hazard: the desire to reduce the complex to the controllable. He wanted to make psychology into a science, even an exact science. But this it can never be because its object, man, is not only an object but also a subject, an “I.”

    At the basis of our century's “sexual revolution” is a demand for satisfaction and a confusion between needs and wants. All normal human beings have sexual wants or desires. But it's simply not true, as Freud constantly assumes, that these are needs or rights; that no one can be expected to live without gratifying them; or to suppress them is psychologically unhealthy.

    This confusion between needs and wants stems from the denial of objective values and an objective natural moral law. No one has caused more havoc in this crucial area than Freud, especially regarding sexual morality. The modern attack on marriage and the family, for which Freud set the stage, has done more damage than any war or political revolution. For where else do we all learn the most important lesson in life — unselfish love — except in stable families who preach it by practicing it?

    Yet, with all his faults, Freud still towers above the psychologies that replaced him in popular culture. Despite his materialism, he explores some of the deeper mysteries of the soul. He had a real sense of tragedy, suffering and unhappiness. Honest atheists are usually unhappy; dishonest atheists happy. Freud was an honest atheist.

    And his honesty made him a good scientist. He believed that the mere act of raising up some repression or fear from the hidden darkness of the unconscious into the light of reason would free us from its power over us. It was the faith that truth is more powerful than illusion, light than darkness. Unfortunately, Freud classified all religion as mankind's most fundamental illusion and materialistic scientism as his only light.

    We should distinguish sharply among three different dimensions in Freud. First, as an inventor of the practical, therapeutic technique of psychoanalysis, he's a genius and every psychologist is in his debt. Just as it's possible for a Christian philosopher like Augustine or Aquinas to use the categories of non-Christian philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, it's possible for a Christian psychiatrist to use the techniques of Freud without subscribing to his religious views.

    Second, Freud as a theoretical psychologist is like Columbus, mapping out new continents but also making some serious mistakes. Some of these are excusable, as Columbus' were, by the newness of the territory. But others are imply prejudices, such as the reduction of all guilt to pathological feeling and failure to see that faith in God could ever have anything to do with love.

    Third, Freud as a philosopher and religious thinker is strictly an amateur and little more than an adolescent. Let's explore these points one by one.

    Freud's greatest work is certainly “The Interpretation of Dreams.” Investigating dreams as a printout of the subconscious seems obvious today. But it was utterly new to Freud's contemporaries. His mistake was not to overemphasize the subconscious forces that move us, but to underemphasize their depth and complexity, as an explorer of a new continent might mistake it for simply a large island.

    Freud discovered that hysterical patients who seemed to have no rational cause for their disorders were helped by what he called “the talking cure,” using “free association” and paying attention to “Freudian slips” as clues from the subconscious. In a word, the thing worked despite the inadequacies of the theory behind it.

    On the level of psychological theory, Freud divided the psyche into the id, the ego and the super ego. This seems at first to be quite similar to the traditional and commonsensical division into appetites, will and intellect (and conscience) that began with Plato. But there are crucial differences.

    First, Freud's “super-ego” is not the intellect or conscience, but the unfree, passive reflection in the individual's psyche of society's restrictions on his desires — “thou shalt nots.” What we take to be our own insight into real good and evil is only a mirror of man-made social laws, according to Freud.

    Second, the “ego” is not free will but a mere facade. Freud denied the existence of free will, he was a determinist and saw man as a complex animal-machine.

    Finally, the “id” (“it”) is the only real self, according to Freud, and it's comprised simply of animal desires. It is impersonal; thus the name “it.” Freud thus is denying the existence of a real personality, individual I-ness. Just as he denied God (“I Am”), he denies God's image, the human “I.”

    Freud's philosophical ideas are most candidly expressed in his two most famous anti-religious books, “Moses and Monotheism” and “The Future of an Illusion.” Like Marx, he dismissed all religion as infantile without seriously examining its claims and arguments. But he did come up with a detailed explanation of the supposed origin of this “illusion.” It has basically four parts: ignorance, fear, fantasy and guilt.

    As ignorance, religion is a pre-scientific guess at how nature works: If there is thunder, there must be a Thunderer, a Zeus. As fear, religion is our invention of a heavenly substitute for the earthly father when he dies, gets old, goes away or send his children out of the secure home into the frightening world of responsibility. As fantasy, God is the product of wish-fulfillment that there's an all-powerful providential force behind the terrifyingly impersonal appearances of life. And as guilt, God is the ensurer of moral behavior.

    Freud's explanation of the origin of guilt is one of the weakest parts of his theory. It amounts to the story that once, long ago, a son killed his father, the head of a great tribe. That primal murder has haunted the human race's subconscious memory every since. But this is no explanation at all; Why did the first murderer feel guilt?

    Freud's most philosophical book was his last, “Civilization and its Discontents.” In it he raised the great question of the summum bonum — the greatest good, the meaning of life and human happiness. He concluded as Ecclesiastes did, that it is unattainable. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” he says in effect. Instead, he promised to move us through successful psychotherapy, “from unmanageable unhappiness to manageable unhappiness.”

    One reason for his pessimism was his belief that there's a contradiction inherent in the human condition; this is the point of his title, “Civilization and its Discontents.” On the one hand, we are animals seeking pleasure, motivated only by “the pleasure principle.” On the other hand, we need the order of civilization to save us from the pain of chaos. But the restrictions of civilization curtail our desires. So the very thing we invented as a means to our happiness becomes our obstacle.

    Toward the end of his life, Freud's thought became even darker and more mysterious as he discovered thanatos, the death wish. The pleasure principle leads us in two opposite directions: eros and thanatos. Eros leads us forward, into life, love, the future and hope. Thanatos leads us back to the womb, where alone we had no pain.

    We resent life and our mothers for birthing us into pain. This mother-hate parallels the famous “Oedipus complex” or subconscious desire to murder our father and marry our mother — which is a perfect explanation of Freud's own atheism, resenting Father God and marrying Mother Earthiness.

    As Freud was dying, Hitler was coming to power. Freud prophetically saw the power of the death wish in the modern world and was unsure which of these two “heavenly forces,” as he called them, would win out. He died an atheist but almost a mystic. He had enough of the pagan in him to offer some profound insights, usually mixed up with outrageous blind spots. He calls to mind C.S. Lewis' description of pagan mythology: “gleams of celestial strength and beauty falling on a jungle of filth and imbecility.”

    What raises Freud far above Marx and secular humanism is his insight into the demon in man, the tragic dimension of life and our need for salvation. Unfortunately, he saw the Judaism he rejected and the Christianity he scorned as fairy tales, too good to be true. His tragic sense was rooted in his separation between the true and the good, “the reality principle” and happiness.

    Only God can join them at their summit.

    The Pillars of Unbelief — Sartre PETER KREEFT

    Jean-Paul Sartre may be the most famous atheist of the 20th century. As such, he qualifies for anyone's short list of “pillars of unbelief.”

    Yet he may have done more to drive fence-sitters toward the faith than most Christian apologists. For Sartre has made atheism such a demanding, almost unendurable, experience that few can bear it.

    Comfortable atheists who read him become uncomfortable atheists, and uncomfortable atheism is a giant step closer to God. In his own words, “Existentialism is nothing else than an attempt to draw all the consequences of a coherent atheistic position.” For this we should be grateful to him.

    He called his philosophy “existentialism” because of the thesis that “existence precedes essence.” What this means concretely is that “man is nothing else than what he makes of himself.” Since there is no God to design man, man has no blueprint, no essence. His essence or nature comes not from God as Creator but from his own free choice.

    There's profound insight here, though it is immediately subverted. The insight is the fact that man by his free choices determines who he will be. God indeed creates what all men are. But the individual fashions his own unique individuality. God makes our what but we make our who. God gives us the dignity of being present at our own creation, or co-creation; He associates us with Himself in the task of co-creating our selves. He creates only the objective raw material, through heredity and environment. I shape it into the final form of myself through my free choices.

    Unfortunately, Sartre contends that this disproves God, for if there were a God, man would be reduced to a mere artifact of God, and thus would not be free. He constantly argues that human freedom and dignity require atheism. His attitude is like that of a cowboy in a Western, saying to God as to an enemy cowboy: “This town ain't big enough for both you and me. One of us has to leave.”

    Thus Sartre's legitimate concern with human freedom and his insight into how it makes persons fundamentally different from mere things lead him to atheism because (1) he confuses freedom with independence, and because (2) the only God he can conceive of is one who would take away human freedom rather than creating and maintaining it — a sort of cosmic fascist. Furthermore, (3) Sartre makes the adolescent mistake of equating freedom with rebellion. He says freedom is only “the freedom to say no.”

    But this is not the only freedom. There's also the freedom to say yes. Sartre thinks we compromise our freedom when we say yes, when we choose to affirm the values we've been taught by our parents, our society, or our Church. So what Sartre means by freedom is very close to what the beatniks of the `50s and the hippies of the `60s called “doing your own thing,” and what the Me generation of the `70s called “looking out for No. 1.”

    Another concept Sartre takes seriously but misuses is the idea of responsibility. He thinks that belief in God would necessarily compromise human responsibility, for we would then blame God rather than ourselves for what we are. But that's simply not so. My heavenly Father, like my earthly father, is not responsible for my choices or the character I shape by means of those choices; I am. And the fact of my responsibility no more disproves the existence of my heavenly Father than it disproves the existence of my earthly father.

    Sartre has a keen awareness of evil and human perversity. He says, “We have learned to take Evil seriously...Evil is not an appearance...Knowing its causes does not dispel it. Evil cannot be redeemed.”

    Yet he also says that since there is no God and since we therefore create our own values and laws, there really is no evil: “To choose to be this or that is to affirm at the same time the value of what we choose, because we can never choose evil.” So Sartre gives both too much reality to evil (“Evil cannot be redeemed”) and too little (“We can never choose evil”).

    Sartre's atheism does not merely say that God doesn't exist, but that God is impossible. He at least pays some homage to the biblical notion of God as “I Am by calling it the most self-contradictory idea ever imagined, “the impossible synthesis” of being-for-itself (subjective personality, the “I”) with being-in-itself (objective eternal perfection, the “Am”).

    God means the perfect person, and this is for Sartre a contradiction of terms. Perfect things or ideas, like Justice or Truth, are possible; and imperfect persons, like Zeus or Apollo, are possible. But the perfect person is impossible. Zeus is possible but not real. God is unique among gods: not only unreal but impossible.

    Since God is impossible and since God is love, love is impossible. The most shocking thing in Sartre is probably his denial of the possibility of genuine, altruistic love. In place of God, most atheists substitute human love as the thing they believe in. But Sartre argues that this is impossible. Why?

    Because if there is no God, each individual is God. But there can be only one God, one absolute. Thus, all interpersonal relationships are fundamentally relationships of rivalry. Here, Sartre echoes Machiavelli. Each of us necessarily plays God to others; each of us, as the author of the play of his own life, necessarily reduces others to characters in his drama.

    There is a little word which ordinary people think denotes something real and which lovers think denotes something magical. Sartre thinks it denotes something impossible and illusory. It is the word “we.” There can be no “we-subject,” no community, no self-forgetful love if each of us is always trying to be God, the one single unique I-subject.

    Sartre's most famous play, “No Exit,” puts three dead people in a room and watches them make hell for each other simply by playing God to each other — not in the sense of exerting external power over each other but simply by knowing each other as objects. The shocking lesson of the play is that “hell is other people.”

    It takes a profound mind to say something as profoundly false as that. In truth, hell is precisely the absence of other people, human and divine. Hell is total loneliness. Heaven is other people, because heaven is where God is, and God is Trinity. God is love, God is “other persons.”

    Sartre's tough-minded honesty makes him almost attractive, despite his repellant conclusions like the meaninglessness of life, the arbitrariness of values and the impossibility of love. But his honesty, however deep it may have lodged in his character, was made trivial and meaningless because of this denial of God and thus of objective Truth. If there is no divine mind, there is no truth except the truth each of us makes of himself. So if there's nothing for me to be honest about except me, what meaning does honesty have?

    Yet we cannot help rendering a mixed verdict on Sartre, and being gratified by his very repulsiveness — for it flows from his consistency. He shows us the true face of atheism: absurdity (that's the abstract word), and nausea (that's the concrete image he uses, and the title of his first and greatest novel).

    “Nausea” is the story of a man who, after arduous searching, finds the terrible truth that life has no meaning, that it's simply nauseating excess, like vomit or excrement. (Sartre deliberately tends toward obscene images because he feels life itself is obscene.)

    We cannot help agreeing with William Barrett when he says that “to those who are ready to use this [nausea] as an excuse for tossing out the whole Sartrian philosophy, we may point out that it is better to encounter one's existence in disgust than never to encounter it at all.”

    In other words, Sartre's importance is like that of Ecclesiastes: He asks the greatest of all questions, courageously and unswervingly, and we can admire him for that. Unfortunately, he also gives the worst possible answer to it, as Ecclesiastes did: “Vanity of vanity, all is vanity.”

    We can only pity him for that, and with him the many other atheists who are clear-headed enough to see as he did that “without God all things are permissible” — but nothing has meaning.
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