Today’s Show – Moral Judgment

Today’s show discusses moral judgment, particularly with respect to the work of Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg. Though by no means the final word on the subject, both made significant contributions to our understanding of moral development.

Piaget’s model for moral development included only two stages. He observed that children younger than 10 or 11 consider moral dilemmas in a more rigid way than older children. Older children have a much more nuanced view of rules and moral judgments.

Kohlberg used Piaget’s model in developing his more detailed six stage model of moral development. His model consists of:

  • Stage 1 – Obedience & Punishment – rules exist, are fixed, and are handed down by some authority figure (parents or “God”). Something is wrong if you get punished for it; if you don’t get punished, it’s not wrong.
  • Stage 2 – Individualism & Exchange – rules are no longer seen as fixed. There is still a preoccupation with punishment, but it’s now seen as a risk to be avoided and not the determinant of whether something is right or wrong. There is also an emphasis on fairness, and a belief that it’s okay to break a rule if someone is being “unfair.”
  • Stage 3 – Good Interpersonal Relationships – children at this stage are usually entering their teens. The focus at this stage is on motives – a consideration of someone’s motives, good or bad, informs moral judgments about their behaviors.
  • Stage 4 – Maintaining Social Order – this is the law & order stage. The concern in this stage broadens to encompass considerations of society as a whole instead of just interpersonal relationships. The focus is on how laws help create a smoothly functioning society. Most adults stop at this stage of development.
  • Stage 5 – Social Contract & Individual Rights – this is the beginning of thinking about society in a theoretical way. There is a recognition that different groups within a society may have different values, but that certain basic rights must be protected. Furthermore, there must be a democratic process for changing laws for the betterment of society.
  • Stage 6 – Universal Principles – this is a theoretical stage in which there is an attempt to define the principles by which a just society operates. In this society, decisions are based on equal respect for all. For example, a majority would not get to vote on restricting the rights of a minority.

This is a very high-level summary of the Piaget and Kohlberg models, but it does provide some background for the work they did on moral development in children and adults. Their work, plus some interesting facts about neurobiology, make it clear that human moral judgments are not arbitrary as some theists claim and are not dependent on religion. Religion, in fact, adds about as much to moral development as it does to evolution.

So what does contribute to moral development? Our evolutionary legacy as social animals is one thing. Our capacity to reason is another. On an individual basis, moral development has its genesis in good parenting, brain development, and practice. Kohlberg was very clear about this last requirement – moral development is not a matter of simply growing up. And handing someone a set of rules and convincing them to follow them will not improve their ability to make moral judgments. This is a higher cognitive skill that is built up step-by-step over a lifetime.

Fortunately, humans have been doing this for our entire evolutionary history. We don’t need fictional characters from Bronze Age myths dictating to us what is right or wrong. We are fully capable of making sound moral decisions all on our own.

We have great fans

Since many people that read this blog are also fans of the show, I thought I’d make people aware of our new Fan Appreciation page on the Atheist Experience web site.

The page will gather together web-based works done by Atheist Experience fans that have promoted our show. Of course, it’ will grow over time with new content as we become aware of it.

I wanted to give a special thanks to people who take clips of our show and re-post them in other venues, usually YouTube. Those little nuggets have gotten the show a lot of free advertising and we really appreciate being able to reach new audiences. On the page above, we’ve gathered those clips and indexed them by episode number. There are about 90 of them now. Who knew? They’re all in one place if you need just a little bite of atheism to help you make it through your day!

As always, send us feedback to the tv show e-mail if you see something that can be improved in some way.

Today on the show: Objecting to Objectivism

So last month, while preparing for a show on “Foolish Atheists,” I suggested three groups associated with atheism that might fit the bill: Communists, Raelians, and Objectivists. Nobody was interested in sticking up for Communists or Raelians, but we did get some email about criticizing Objectivism, both pro and con. So what good is having an atheist show if you can’t step on a few toes?

I’m personally critical of the libertarian thought that comes from Ayn Rand, but since my political beliefs aren’t the issue here, I’m going to try to stay away from that topic as much as I can manage. Instead, I want to focus on the weird cult-like status that Rand attained, and some oddities about her philosophy that make “Objectivism” seem not so objective.

Here come some links (check this post right before the show because I may add more):

  • Wikipedia article on Objectivism
  • Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature, a blog critical of Ayn Rand
    • A post from the above about “Second-Handers“. The comments section is especially amusing due to the fact that one of the Objectivist commenters attacks the author by saying “From the content of this blog alone I judge that you are a second-hander, a parasite on Ayn Rand, and to buy your book would be to enable that” – thereby providing an unwitting demonstration of the term “second-hander” as a well poisoning technique.
  • Alice in Wonderland: A critique of Ayn Rand from a Libertarian perspective
  • The Unlikeliest Cult In History by weird beliefs investigator Michael Shermer
  • Just for fun, here’s tvtropes.org explaining just which cliches are scattered throughout Atlas Shrugged. I’ll discuss a few of my favorites: “Mary Sue” (both Dagny Taggart and John Galt filling the role as idealized stand-ins for the author); “Author Filibuster” (56 pages worth of uninterrupted prosyletizing!) and “Anvilicious.”
  • Today’s musical selection is from “2112” by Rush. Neil Peart has stated that the concept album was inspired Ayn Rand’s book, Anthem.

Oh well, so much for cranky Islamic Ph.D bloggers

As an update on this situation, I just went back to check for Sona’s blog, and the new upgraded version, “Atheism the incoherence of the Illogic.” Results:


Sorry, the blog at sonasblog.blogspot.com has been removed. This address is not available for new blogs.

and

The authors have deleted this blog. The content is no longer available.

The internet can be a very ephemeral place. I do, however, find it interesting that the four “Ph.D’s” who were supposedly unconnected to Sona reacted to adversity in exactly the same fashion as Sona did: by pulling the whole thing down in a huff.

Chuck Colson responds (response #3)

Welcome back, Chuck.

I’m writing because, in church this morning (August 15), I started thinking about your comment about my being so certain in my convictions that I came across as somewhat arrogant. I think you’re probably right. And the reason, I realized as I was thinking about it, is that I have spent much time over the years pondering this question rationally. If you would have read my book Born Again you would know that my resistance to the gospel was exactly what yours is. I didn’t want to do something out of emotion; I wanted to be able to reason it through. I wanted evidence. That’s why reading C. S. Lewis’s book Mere Christianity was such a help to me. I encountered in that book an intellect the match of anyone I’d known, and I found really solid reasons for believing.

(Previous messages: Kazim’s review of The Faith; Chuck Colson’s post #1; Chuck Colson’s post #2.)

I have to admit I wasn’t expecting another one; I figured part 2 was the final response. I realize I’ve been conspicuously silent in following up on the Chuck Colson posts, and as a result the previous responses have become something of a free-for-all where the commenters are concerned. I do want to take this opportunity to state that I’ve haltingly started my own comprehensive longer reply to both (and now all three) posts from Mr. Colson. At the moment, I’m feeling like I wish to start with the third post and work my way backward. It may take some time to finish, obviously, but then I’m sure this won’t be a problem since it has now been two and a half months from the time I first discussed Chuck’s book to the most recent post.

To you folks at Zondervan, thanks for keeping me notified on the new posts, and you’ll be hearing back from me sometime in the future.

Honesty? From creationists?

Here’s a photo from Jason Rosenhouse’s Evolutionblog, where he’s been covering his visit to the Sixth International Conference on Creationism. Yes, they have those.

And if Jason’s photos from the closing presentation here are any indication, the upshot of the conference this year was, “We got jack!” A rather bold admission, you might say, but since these are people whose principal goal is the validation of religious beliefs and not the pursuit of knowledge, I don’t suspect they’ll do anything with these conclusions other than continue to bring the fail, year after year. I see some bullet points missing from these slides, such as, “We’re promoting an idea with an unfalsifiable and therefore unscientific premise,” and, “We’ve never had a peer reviewed paper,” and, “We’ve never given any examples of how creationism constitutes a theory with predictive power.” You know, little details like that. For all the problems they admit to, they’re still clueless as to the biggies.

Go have a read through Jason’s reports. Pretty interesting stuff.

Ow, the stupid, it burns!

Courtesy of WorldNutDaily comes a typical asinine piece from Dennis Prager, entitled “If there is no God.” Count the fallacies.

“What one almost never hears described are the deleterious consequences of secularism – the terrible developments that have accompanied the breakdown of traditional religion and belief in God. For every thousand students who learn about the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials, maybe two learn to associate Gulag, Auschwitz, the Cultural Revolution and the Cambodian genocide with secular regimes and ideologies.”

Gee, Dennis, I think you’re right! And those two students are probably extremely sheltered homeschoolers with ignorant, confused, fundamentalist parents. Because only an idiot would say that Auschwitz had anything to do with a secular regime.

Wait, I… I… I can’t go on. Just leave me here and do the rest among yourselves.

A thumb to suck, a skirt to hold

That was Isaac Asimov’s blunt dismissal of religion. And its appropriateness is never more evident than in this pitifully sad article currently on CNN.com, in which the point is made that “when it comes to saving lives, God trumps doctors for many Americans.”

More than half of randomly surveyed adults — 57 percent — said God’s intervention could save a family member even if physicians declared treatment would be futile. And nearly three-quarters said patients have a right to demand that treatment continue.

When asked to imagine their own relatives being gravely ill or injured, nearly 20 percent of doctors and other medical workers said God could reverse a hopeless outcome.

Here’s the utility of religion spelled out: it continues to persist, more than anything, as an anodyne against the fear of death. Say what you will about its role in building a sense of community for its followers, or the repeated testimonials from believers about God giving them a sense of direction and purpose in life. What it boils down to is that religion is mostly used by people to manage their most profound insecurities and fears. And nothing is more devastating than the loss of a loved one, except perhaps, for some people, the prospect of their own eventual death.

In a sense I can understand the desperation here. There are harsh truths few people have the courage to face. But where I think believers would tell you that their faith gives them the courage to face those truths, I see the opposite in play: they’re clinging to their faith like a drowning man clutching at a reed, to justify their ongoing denial of truth, simply because facing it involves taking an emotional body blow that the thin shield their faith provides really would buckle under the force of it. And they know it, deep down.

What, apart from people’s innate fears, keeps this practice of clinging to hope of miraculous divine intervention in the face of very real tragedy alive? Well, the fact that, on occasion, people do bounce back for any number of reasons from death’s door. And these rare occasions are justification enough for the religious mind. All it takes is one cancer patient branded terminal to go into remission instead, and the instant that person’s family starts braying about God’s miraculous cure, a million other people going through the same pain are cruelly given false hopes, only to see them dashed more often than not. It’s exactly the mentality of people who habitually play the lottery: “Sure, the odds are pretty long, but you never know.”

I remember a caller to the show back when I was host, a nice young woman who asked what we felt about such a hypothetical cancer patient, and if such events were or were not a good reason to consider the likelihood of God. I replied that I would have even more moral qualms about a God like that existing, as I would be troubled by the thought of why God would choose to save one dying mother, but not all the other dying mothers and fathers and children who were doubtless languishing in that hospital’s very same oncology wing, with family members keeping vigil by their sides with just as much pain in their hearts. Why not grant miracle cures to everyone all at once? It would hurt no one, relieve many of their emotional suffering, and give believers much stronger evidence of miracles to point to when talking to the unconverted. The caller admitted she hadn’t thought of it that way.

I think it’s good to see doctors (and frankly, if I’m ever hospitalized, I sincerely hope not to get any of the ones in that 20 percentile) dealing realistically with patients’ families in their stubbornness about godly intervention that isn’t coming. While it’s important to be respectful — no, not of the irrational beliefs, but of the very real pain and confusion that’s feeding them — it’s doubly important to guide these people towards an acceptance of the reality we will all have to face in our lives, that our loved ones die, that we too will die. As one woman interviewed in the story, who tragically lost her children in an accident, begrudgingly admits, “I have become more of a realist. I know that none of us are immune from anything.” It’s terrible she had to go through such an awful experience to learn such a lesson. I guess that’s why they’re called lessons.

Take each day as it comes and appreciate it to the fullest. If it’s a particularly shitty day, make an effort to do something to make it slightly less shitty. Take a walk in the park, jam out to your favorite album, hug a dog, excuse yourself from the presence of people who are being assholes to you. You don’t get to do this one again, and no miracle will be coming to let you hit the reset button. If nothing else, at the very end, you can say to yourself and to those who don’t want to see you go, “Don’t be unhappy. I lived.”

Bridging the Gap

This week, when I stopped at the library, I checked out Psychology and Religion by C. G. Jung. It is a short volume based on 1937 Terry Lectures presented at Yale.

I am nearly at the end of the book, and I am compelled to write about my impressions. It has provided me one of the most profound religious epiphanies, since the day I recognized god was a metaphor.

Jung has offered me a new perspective on an old mystery. While I can see in my past observations on religion that I have touched on similar ideas, I believe that my own observations only rippled across the surface, while Jung has gone down to fathoms I never imagined.

If I had to sum up Psychology and Religion, I would say that it is a message of bridging the gap between the conscious and the unconscious mind. Jung’s observations and speculations in this text, to a large degree, have since been fleshed out in neuroscientific research in a way that left me feeling that Jung’s intuitions were nearly prophetic.

At a time when Jung had to honestly write, “the unconscious mind [was] a mere assumption for the sake of convenience,” he was still comfortable assuming its existence.

Jung was unable to understand “who” was producing dreams, if not an unconscious aspect of human psyche. Dreams flow from our heads in unconscious states, with stories and images that are sometimes incredibly foreign to our conscious life. Physics is defied. We are surprised by plot changes. Dreams appear to be consciously observed content from something in our heads that is not consciously controlled or initiated. Something that is “me”—but that cannot be “me,” if “I” am conscious ego.

Jung found it beneficial to differentiate the conscious “me” (ego) from the subconscious entity for the purposes not only of examination, but also in working with his patients on a practical level. He used the term “self” to described the bundled package of all mind—conscious or otherwise. He used “I,” and variants of “I,” to represent ego. The subconscious aspects, then, are not what I consider to be “me,” but are still part of my “self,” according to Jung.

He admitted openly he had no idea what the subconscious was, exactly why it existed, or how it worked. “In reality I am totally unconscious of—in other words, I do not know at all—where [a voice in a dream] originates. I am not only incapable of producing the phenomena at will but I am also unable to anticipate the mental contents of [the voice]. Under such conditions it would be presumptuous to call the factor which produces the voice my mind…the fact that you perceive the voice in your dream proves nothing at all, for you can also hear the noises in the street, which you would not explain as your own.

“There is only one condition under which you might legitimately call the voice your own, namely, when you assume your conscious personality to be a part of a whole or to be a smaller circle contained in a bigger one.”

Jung’s assumption then was “human personality consists of two things: first, of consciousness and whatever this covers, and second, of an indefinitely large hinterland of unconscious psyche.” The problem for Jung was that he had no method to define the second aspect—or even to support its existence beyond his interpretations of his indirect observations. In Jung’s mind, there were only two choices: Dreams come from some unconscious aspect of our own minds, or they are put into our heads from an external source (such as the car noise). Since the human brain is a known mechanism for producing conscious thoughts and images in our heads, Jung saw no reason to look further for a source of the unconscious messages. To Jung, it was a safe assumption that whether we were aware of it or not, part of our self seemed capable of generating mental function that was, in an abstract way, detectible to our conscious minds.

Jung also expresses a keen awareness of what was known and what was conjecture. “If asked I shall surely stand by my convictions which do not go further than what I consider to be my actual knowledge. I am convinced of what I know. Everything else is hypothesis and beyond that I can leave a lot of things to the Unknown. They do not bother me. But they would begin to bother me, I am sure, if I felt that I ought to know something about them.” The context of this quote is in a discussion about religion, and specifically this passage follows directly a note dealing with religiously minded patients.

How familiar is this? How often do online apologists express, “If god didn’t make the world—then how did it get here? You don’t know!” To grasp tightly to a myth, no matter how true or untrue, how verified or unverified—is better than not knowing to these individuals. Religion presses us, then, to be uncomfortable with not knowing—uncomfortable to the point of embracing any explanation, no matter how fantastic.

If a patient had deep religious beliefs, Jung indicated he would not challenge them. He would work as a professional psychologist within the world constructed by the patient’s mind. In fact, he expresses that it is futile to attempt to do otherwise. “As long as such a defense works I shall not break it down, since I know that there must be powerful reasons why the patient has to think in such a narrow circle.”

I have admired the work inspired by Jung for some time. But I have also heard on many occasions that he was involved in a lot of woo. In reading this book, I find myself pleasantly surprised, then, by passages like this, “It would be a regrettable mistake if anybody should understand my observations to be a kind of proof of the existence of God. They prove only the existence of an archetypal image of the Deity, which to my mind is the most we can assert psychologically about God.” In other words, as far as Jung can tell, god exists as an idea.

Jung spends a considerable amount of real estate in the book to cover symbolic aspects of the number four in religious contexts. This ties into a particular case study he uses to illustrate many of his points. At first, I was completely dubious of this discussion. His client dreams of religious imagery that ties into the number four quite often. Jung provides examples of how the number four is used in the religion of the patient, who was raised Catholic, but who would have no more knowledge of ancient church writings than any layperson. Why would some Christian script from a millennia ago, talking about four, be significant? But, after reading further, I began to recognize that Jung is only looking to see if symbols, similar to those his patient is producing, subconsciously in a religious context, have been recorded by others with a similar religious context.

This ties into Jung’s idea of a Collective Unconscious, also known as the Objective Psyche. Jung differentiated between a personal unconscious and a collective unconscious. There are some experiences that impact us that are directly connected to the greater human experience. There are other experiences that impact us that are unique to us as individuals. When it comes to people, part of us is uniquely individual, and part of us is common to all humans. This is as true of human beings physically as it is mentally. Collective unconscious is that part of the unconscious mind that results from simply being a human animal, and not from individual, subjective experience or interpretation. There have been misguided attempts to promote this idea as some sort of “woo.” But it does not, for example, embody the idea that I can “remember” experiences of my great-great-grandmother. It means only that certain psychological aspects of my being are the result of my inescapable human aspects. And I necessarily share those aspects with other humans.

This is why Jung felt a need to examine antiquity to see if other Catholics shared the religious symbo
lism his patient’s subconscious mind was repeatedly thrusting into his dreams. Because Catholics share the same symbolic history in the context of similar religious upbringing, perhaps deciphering these symbols in the context of the patient’s familiar religion would help to flesh out whatever the subconscious was trying to relate to the conscious mind in the patient’s dreams.

Like Freud, Jung agreed that repression results in neurotic manifestations in the patient’s conscious existence. But he also felt that the unconscious/conscious divide exists for a reason. He held to a very evolutionary standpoint that because the divide exists, it must serve a purpose. And if there is benefit to evolving with an unconscious mind, then it would be “normal for a man to resist…the unconscious with all those tendencies and contents hitherto excluded from conscious life. They were excluded for a number of real and apparent reasons. Some are suppressed and some are repressed.” In other words, if the unconscious mind serves us, it makes sense that we would have an intuitive aversion to bringing it to our conscious awareness.

To Jung, our unconscious impulses, if left unchecked by the conscious ego, yield unhappy results. He uses mob mentality as an example of unsuppressed impulsive action and why it can be dangerous. All of us, he points out, to some degree suppress unconscious impulses that arise. This ties in with neuroscience (especially Crick and Koch), which has since illustrated that at least one function of conscious mind is to evaluate an act upon (or refuse to act upon) unconscious impulses that arise in a very mysterious fashion.

Suppression, Jung defines as a healthy, conscious inhibitor—a choice to not express an impulse. Repression, on the other hand is an unconscious or semi-conscious inhibition of an impulse. Jung expressed that from what he could tell, the conscious mind was a smaller and subordinate part of the greater mind, which again aligns with modern neuroscience. The unconscious mind initiates action, the conscious mind evaluates action. It is the gateway, the checkpoint, where impulses are either allowed to manifest or are suppressed. To Jung, a repressed impulse cannot be understood on a conscious level, because it is not impeded on any fully conscious level.

Phobia was one example that came to my own mind immediately. I have seen people both paralyzed with fear and white knuckled with fear of the most mundane situations and objects. When I’ve asked what exactly they are afraid of, the responses I get are not rational. I’m sure they honestly express their immediate feelings; but they do not adequately explain the reaction I am witnessing. The person, himself or herself, does not consciously understand why they have been overtaken with ridiculous levels of fear due only to their proximity to an extremely mundane situation or object. And yet, their unconscious mind is generating in their conscious mind overwhelming fear. Because it is not understood, it becomes difficult for the individual to rationalize the situation. So, there is no means to control the reaction. Their sense, literally, breaks down, and they become a mere vessel of full-bore fear in the face of what most of us consider to be nothing at all.

So, it does make sense that the less we understand our subjugation of our unconscious impulses, the worse their impact—the rebellion of the subconscious impulse, if I can personify it—will be to our conscious experience.

In Jung’s opinion, the Catholic religion, despite it’s reputation with Hell, was good at alleviating unconscious tension. The church was a supreme authority between man and god—which symbolizes the unconscious mind. As a Catholic, I could alleviate my plagued conscience at any time, merely by going to my local church and engaging in the ritual of confession. The church, as the ultimate authority on all things spiritual, reliably assured me that whatever I had done, I was now forgiven and all was absolved. With the rise of Protestantism, Jung was concerned that removing that authority would leave people with a doubt regarding their absolution—and a subsequent rise in neurotic manifestations. As a Protestant, there is no symbol (no priest) to tell me that I have been cured of my sin. Jung points out that with the fall of the church authority, we should expect that Protestants would be left foundering on their own—accounting for the myriad Protestant denominations. Since god is a symbol, a metaphor, of the human mind, spawned from the collective unconscious, filtered through the personal unconscious and then submitted to the conscious mind for interpretation, how could humans produce an unfractured model, without a strong central authority, such as the Catholic Church had provided from potentially as far back as the birth of the Christian religion?

Christianity, itself, Jung asserted, had broken out of a traditional religious symbolism that relied heavily on the number four. Whether there is any merit to his evaluation of the trinity as an incomplete symbol for what should be a four-part god, I cannot say. But his conclusions, whether his methods were valid in this regard or not, were astonishingly on target.

After leaving the church, I recall reading Eastern religious philosophy where the concept of god as being representative of a complete whole contrasted sharply with my Christian upbringing. In the East, there is a concept of a unity, a one complete symbol that encompasses everything. “All things are one thing” would be perhaps a good way to put it. In some Asian languages, there is the idea of “the Universe of 10,000 things,” but also the universe as a single, whole, complete unit. In Christianity, we see a divide of opposing natures. Heaven and Earth, Good and Evil, Spirit and Flesh, Male and Female. According to the Eastern views, this is unnecessarily divisive and not generally a healthy perspective. For a thing to be complete, it must encompass Heaven AND Earth, Good AND Evil, Spirit AND Flesh, Male AND Female.

In Christianity, god is the god of good. And evil is the domain outside of god’s context. Likewise, god appears to lack a feminine presence. Christianity is replete with concepts of an incomplete, and according to Jung, therefore inadequate, god symbol. Jung believed this was significant because god is a symbol meant to represent the human being’s concept of self. And clearly there are some key elements of self expunged from the Christian god symbol. If my conscious model violates my unconscious model, then I am, in effect, denying aspects of my self in a repressive, rather than suppressive way. And, Jung observed, this will create consciously manifesting problems for individuals.

The church, according to Jung’s model, has made open attempts to plug the holes in the incompleteness of their god symbol. “The Devil” has been incorporated as the embodiment of that which is not accounted for by the Christian god—those aspects of the self that are negatively interpreted by the religion. And Mary was at once held up to produce a symbol to embody the feminine aspect. Likewise, the Holy Spirit has been related to a feminine presence in the Gnostic texts. What is missing in the model should be assumed to be accounted for somewhere in the context of the greater set of symbols, according to Jung. And, whether via accuracy or accident, the model works.

According to Jung, it is dangerous for a person to reject a natural part of his or her own being. It is one thing to apply appropriate suppression of inappropriate impulses. But to foster self-loathing of those impulses is to encourage unhealthy repression and denial. Where religion encourages this, it necessarily causes harm to the self, or even the “soul” as Jung also referred to it (due to the religious context of this work).

The unconscious impulses that arise consciously in all of us contain some unflattering data about ourselves on occasion. The more comfortable with
and aware of this we are, the better for our mental health. The more we torture ourselves for being what and who were are, the worse off we become. “Freud has discovered repression as one of the main mechanisms in the making of neurosis…Suppression may cause worry, conflict and suffering, but never causes a neurosis of one of the usual patterns.” Jung explains why. “If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is steadily subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected. It is, moreover, liable to burst forth in a moment of unawareness. At all events, it forms an unconscious snag, blocking the most well-meaning attempts.” Further in talking about the unconscious negatively held personality aspects (“the shadow”), Jung says, “…if such a case wants to be cured it is necessary to find a way in which man’s conscious personality and his shadow can live together.”

In other words, only by understanding and accepting the things I dislike about myself, can I hope to incorporate them into my life in an adequately controlled fashion.

Because the subconscious mind relates to the conscious mind in a highly symbolic and indirect fashion (mysteriously generated impulses we may or may not understand and surreal dreams that speak to us in our sleep), it is natural for people to be mystified, fearful and in awe. God as a symbol for the mental self, then, makes perfect sense. Ideas come to us, as if from some external source. “We,” the ego, did not generate them—and yet, there they are—as if from some other personage. In fact, Jung actually suggests that at times it might be useful to model the subconscious as a separate personality, in order to examine it as separate from the ego. Is it any wonder so many people would become confused and project it into their conscious reality as a separate personality?

Perhaps the most interesting assessment Jung offers is the idea of religion as a purified form of the unconscious symbols of the self, where myriad people over great spans of time have added to the menagerie of symbols to produce a set of current symbols that relate to the individual’s unconscious model of self in a far more powerful way than any one human’s subconscious imagery ever could. In other words, it makes sense that religion will “speak to us” and ring true, the more it accurately models the self. Think about humanity on the whole, and consider the impact this system of symbols will have on the psyche of the average Joe on the street. It has become so convincing an expression of “truth” to such a great number of average citizens, purely because it has grown into such a perfect set of symbols that model the self. It confuses many into accepting that it represents a reality that can be, or even should be, consciously understood using the rules of conscious logic. (And anyone who has dialogued with a fundamentalist Christian apologist will understand how badly that endeavor must fail.)

Bridging the gap, attempting to allow the conscious and unconscious mind to meet halfway and come to some amicable understanding, is an understandable endeavor. Meditation, employed in many cultures, is an attempt to bring the conscious mind “down” to subconscious levels. Lucid Dreaming attempts the same, as, historically, has mystic and religious hallucinogenic drug use. Fasting, going without sleep, stressing the body in order to bring the unconscious impulses to light during a conscious context, is familiar to many cultures—the religious experience or the mystic vision. Modern religion, like art, is an attempt to bring the subconscious to the realm of the conscious.

The problem is that the conscious mind has not completely cracked the code of subconscious language. We recognize many of the symbols, but we can’t seem to agree on exactly what they mean or represent. They appear to be, to some degree, open to subjective interpretation. Certainly that is the nature of symbols in general. But where we have an utterly amorphous symbol, like “god”—totally without a referent in reality—that represents a practically unknown mechanism, like the subconscious mind—how can we hope to apply any objective interpretation? All interpretations would spawn from the individual’s understanding of his or her own subconscious impulses—some of which would be collective, others of which must be personal. Endowed with broad appeal and left to subjective interpretation—it has what it takes to endure for as long as the subconscious mind remains shrouded in mystery. If Jung’s interpretations and predictions apply, I would wager that if the human unconscious is ever fully understood and explained, the Christian god will go the way of the Greek, Roman, and Egyptian gods.

As Jung declares, “Why have the antique gods lost their prestige and their effect upon human souls? It was because the Olympic gods had served their time and a new mystery began: God became man.”

But, what can we do if we are in the middle of a larger culture that subscribes to a religious model that fails to adequately and fully represent the “self” and that is accepted as literal truth rather than understood as symbol? Speaking of addressing any social dilemma, Jung points out “collectives are mere accumulations of individuals, their problems are also accumulations of individual problems…they are only solved by a general change of attitude. And the change does not begin with propaganda and mass meetings, or with violence. It begins with a change in individuals. It will continue as a transformation of their personal likes and dislikes, of their outlook on life and of their values, and only the accumulation of such individual changes will produce a collective solution.” The best way I know to accomplish this is to let people know you are an atheist. It’s hard to be prejudiced against atheists when your friend, son, wife, mother, coworker, is an atheist, and someone you know and like. As far as I know this is the best way to affect individual assessments.

I still have a few more pages yet to read. But I’ll wrap up for now with the quote that spawned this article. The context is in relating the experience of a patient finding resolution to a neurotic situation. Jung describes this as a “religious experience” or “conversion”—but means only positively life-altering, not “religious” in the sense of supernatural beliefs:

“If you sum up what people tell you about their experience, you can formulate it about in this way: They came to themselves, they could accept themselves, they were able to become reconciled to themselves and by this they were also reconciled to adverse circumstances and events. This is much like what was formerly expressed by saying: He has made his peace with God, he has sacrificed his own will, he has submitted himself to the will of God.”

If god is the modern symbol of the whole of man—the self, in the language of the subconscious—making peace with god and subjecting oneself to god’s will translates directly into making peace with oneself and coming to regard oneself as whole by accepting all aspects of one’s personality without self-loathing, repression, or denial.

At this point, I’m seriously considering rereading the New Testament replacing “god” with “self” to see what sorts of new meanings the text takes on. Just in Jung’s small example of the use of “god’s will,” I see entirely new, and even useful insight.

Addendum: Of course, as I wrapped the final pages, I found a provocative quote: “The philosophy of the Upanishads corresponds to a psychology that long ago recognized the relativity of the gods. This is not to be confounded with such a stupid error as atheism.” I reminded myself this was written in the 1930s, and that I have to consider the political climate and the meani
ng of “atheist” at the time Jung was presenting. In reading further, I was somewhat confounded because it is obvious to me that, judging solely from the context of this book, Jung is as much an atheist as any atheist I’ve ever met. He no more puts forward a literal god being than I would. And his statement appears to be aimed at a despiritualization that he fears will have negative effects on society. That while some individuals can do well without religious imagery, many will not stand as well on their own merits. I have no idea whether or not that prediction would bear up.

I must recognize, however, that in Jung’s view, when a patient is faced with a choice of the “devil and the deep sea,” (his religion or his neurosis), “the devil is at least somewhat heroic, but the sea is spiritual death. The well-meaning rationalist will point out that…I replace an honest neurosis by the cheat of a religious belief…I must point out that there is no question of belief, but of experience…Is there, as a matter of fact, any better truth about ultimate things than the one that helps you to live?…The thing that cures the neurosis must be as convincing as the neurosis…It must be a very real illusion…But what is the difference between a real illusion and a healing religious experience? It is merely a difference in words.”

Whatever brand of atheism Jung considered as “stupid error,” he is clearly espousing what today, to any literalist or fundamentalist Christian, would be clear, inarguably atheistic views.