I saw an article on Patheos a while back called Ten Things Christians Accidentally Tell Me About Themselves. The author pointed out that Christians often project in the Freudian sense and he gave examples of Christians essentially saying “No, you are.” So I took a few of his and added a few of my own that I’ve noticed. But first, let’s talk about Freud.
You aren’t always consciously aware of why you do what you do. This was a radical idea at the time, and now we completely take it for granted. Freud may have been wrong about why this was or how it all worked — he may have been wrong about most of the specifics — but he wasn’t wrong in the general observation that we aren’t consciously aware of all the causes of our thoughts and behavior. The reasons you give for your behavior and feelings might not be the actual reasons for your behavior and feelings. Freud was wrong about a lot of the details, but he popularized the concept of the unconscious and the use of defense mechanisms to deal with some of the unconscious motives that we don’t want to deal with. One of these defense mechanisms, the one we’re talking about today, is projection. Projection, Freud said, was when our thoughts, desires, and feelings that can’t be accepted as one’s own are dealt with by being attributed to someone else.
There are a lot of problems with Freud’s ideas about psychology. Some of them are just not true, but many of them are simply unfalsifiable. There are plenty of legitimate criticisms of Freud, and I agree with many of them. But I think Freud doesn’t get enough credit. We don’t seem to realize how much his thought permeates our everyday psychological language. If you’ve ever accused someone of being anal, or of being repressed, or of projecting, or have noticed an Oedipus complex, or if you think the unconscious mind is motivating behavior in a way that the conscious mind isn’t aware of, you’re speaking the language that Freud established and you can’t deny that it’s often useful. I’m not trying to make any strong claims about what’s going on here, but I can’t lie and say that I don’t see Christians accusing us of things that are obviously true about their own worldview. So let’s go in to a few of these.
“Your worldview is egocentric and puts you at the center of all things.”
The opposite is obviously the case. I believe that I’m a part of nature, you believe that you’re above it and apart from it. I think we’re totally insignificant as far as the universe is concerned. You think that the universe is finely tuned just so you could be here and the creator of the universe could count the number of hairs on your head and concern himself with whether or not you stub your toe.
That’s biblical, by the way. Psalm 91:11-12. “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” You think that in this absurdly large universe, god himself is making sure you don’t stub your toe. The being who invented space and time and gravity and genetics and light and music, that being cares about how you feel sad sometimes. And they would say, “Yeah, isn’t it great?” Okay, fine, but to quote you a second ago, “Your worldview is egocentric and puts you at the center of all things.” I think I’m an evolved mammal of a primate species that will not last forever. The universe doesn’t care about me or even know that I’m here.
“You’re close-minded! You think there’s no way you could be wrong.”
Yeah, Christians are famously open-minded. This one is especially frustrating, given that so many atheists had such a hard time deconverting. The vast majority of us once believed one thing and changed our mind based on arguments and evidence. You still believe in the religion you were born into.
“You crave absolute certainty, and you think science is infallible.”
Science doesn’t give absolute truth or absolute certainty, ever. That’s you you were thinking of.
To quote the author of the Patheos article I mentioned earlier, “Certainty is the currency of fundamentalism. . . I’ve noticed that in church, it’s the ones who are the most confident in what they believe who have the most authority. Being unwilling to admit that you can be wrong is a weakness, not a strength.”
“People could do anything they want with no consequences!”
This is simply incredible, coming from the “saved by grace, not by works,” “Doesn’t matter if you’re a good person,” “Your righteousness is as filthy rags,” people. You can go on a murder and rape spree to end all murder and rape sprees and as long as you accept the free gift of salvation, you’re good. Gandhi is going to hell for being a Hindu, but a child raping, genocidal maniac goes to eternal paradise.
“You don’t think anything is right or wrong!”
This comes to us from subscribers of Divine Command Theory, the belief that right and wrong is entirely dependent on the nature or the commands of a divine being. This isn’t just an abstract problem — there’s no shortage of Christians who are willing to defend genocide because it’s in the Bible. They’ll defend Abraham’s willingness to kill a child. There’s nothing inherently wrong with anything, on their view — it’s only wrong if god decides it’s wrong in that moment. They always want to bring up Hitler and the Holocaust. If god commanded the holocaust, it would be good and moral, on their view.
“You don’t really believe what you say you do.”
This appears in a variety of forms, but I think we’ve all been accused of not really being atheists before for whatever reason. This, of course, comes from people perform a variety of intimate activities while god is looking straight at their face. How can you say you really believe in god when you break his commands right in front of him? Also, you seem pretty sad at funerals for people who believe in the afterlife. What’s the problem, exactly? They’re still alive and you’ll see them in a few years.
“You’re obsessed with sex!”
I can think of quite a few times I heard Christian apologists accusing atheists of just wanting to have sex. Some of them seemed to think that becoming an atheist was entirely an excuse for sexual freedom. This is a subcategory of the broader projection, “You’re an atheist because you just want to be free to sin.” Pretending there’s no god would not make me feel free to sin, since I would still believe in god and I would know that there would be devastating consequences for my actions. I can’t choose what to believe just so I can be free to do what I want. It’s interesting to know that they feel sexually restrained, though. Centuries of Christian prudishness towards sex has caused a lot of avoidable misery, and I think a more Puritan attitude towards sex is the last thing we need. And we shouldn’t be scared off of bragging about the benefits of being an atheist just because Christians are mad they don’t have as much sex as we do. We are free do to whatever we want. That’s not why we’re atheists, but it’s a great benefit. Come on down to atheism, have all the sex you want, with whoever you want, however you want (Just get consent first).
Sometimes the projection is a little less disguised, like when they openly ask, “Aren’t you afraid of going to hell?”
This is embedded in Pascal’s Wager. They’re using fear of hell as an argument. If they could listen, they’d know that I don’t believe hell is a real place, so I’m as afraid of hell as I am of Voldemort. But of course, what they’re really saying, whether or not they realize it, is that they are terrified of going to hell. Why else would they think I would find it compelling unless they do themselves?
Paul Bloom on Freud — Yale Courses [YouTube]