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Against Religion

Scribe 2007
RRP $22.00

In the pantheon of anti-religious deities, Tamas Pataki is small fry. His contribution to the cause does, however, significantly augment the writings of the big four – Dawkins, Harris, Hitchins and Dennett.

Pataki is Honorary Senior Fellow and sometime philosophy lecturer at Melbourne University. In his small book Against Religion (128 pages), he goes a step further than Dawkins in attempting to account for the “tenacity and intensity” of religious belief. For Pataki, Dawkins’s ‘gullibility account’ “seriously underestimates the immense psychological significance of religious belief”. (50)

In a bid to restrict his investigation to manageable proportions, Pataki focuses on monotheistic traditions, and on what he calls the “religiose”, those for whom religion is a matter of ultimate consequence, a deep expression of conviction and character. He’s discussing fundamentalists, in other words, though his ‘religiose’ is, he admits, “a large but indeterminate” group (127) and a “somewhat artificial construction” (108).

This is familiar territory: Dawkins has been roundly condemned for generalising about religion based on arguments to do with the loony fringe. Perhaps Pataki has a point, though, when he notes that while the “resting state” of humankind is religious conviction, at present “the primitive edges of the religious spectrum are incandescent” (21-22).


In any case, fundamentalist religion is real and Pataki’s psychoanalytical explanation of it is cogent and helpful. Noting the similarities among fundamentalists across cultures – aggression, exclusivity, God as Authority, demand for obedience, control of female sexuality and so on – he suggests that such religious belief and practice is chiefly about the fulfilment of intense needs, wishes and “phantasies”. As the infant longs for an omnibenevolent world where its needs are met on demand and mother’s whereabouts are always known, so the religiose seek omnipotence and omniscience to reassure them about their own safety and self-worth. In a word, it’s about narcissism:

It is remarkable, is it not, that these attributes – omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence – so necessary in the regulation of infantile narcissism and wellbeing, are precisely the key perfections attributed to God. (63)

Pataki goes in some detail into the dialectic of self-love and self-loathing, the complex relation to self and to authority that characterises narcissism. Identifying with an absolute Authority demanding obedience from everyone – or with a group espousing this kind of view – is a way of asserting one’s specialness and superiority. It means that no other person can have dominion over the religiose, so they need not fear retribution from others for their own repressed anger and envy. As part of the Elect, they share in the reflected glory of God and become, after all, omniscient and omnipotent. And of course, though they may not know very much, through their sacred text they can access ultimate and infallible knowledge.

Keeping women in their place is a punishment and safeguard, a way of dealing with deep-seated frustration and anxiety about mother who is needed and desirable yet ultimately unattainable. And adopting St Paul’s view of women means that at a stroke, and without any effort on his part, the religiose male attains superiority over half of humanity.

Because they are laid down at such a formative stage, the underlying psychological configurations of religion are especially deeply embedded – a fact, says Pataki, which helps to explain the intensity with which the religiose hold their views: For many of the religiose, any perceived assault on their religion threatens… exposure, and is received with fury. (68)

Provided you find a fundamentally Freudian analysis of the human condition plausible, Pataki’s exposition of ‘religiose’ religion is illuminating. But it is not without its problems.

The worst typifies the whole

Chief among its difficulties is the one already noted, the tendency to tar all religion with the brush of the extreme varieties.

Pataki is a little imprecise in his references to religion, and the use of the “artificial” term ‘religiose’ is no small part of the problem. He wants to distinguish between the ‘religious’ and the ‘religiose’, those for whom religion can be conceived, approximately, as a matter of opinion or belief; and those for whom it is a powerful expression of conviction and character. (15)

Nevertheless, religion itself is clearly tainted in Pataki’s view. He concedes that religion is larger than the beliefs and practices of the religiose, but argues nonetheless that …narcissistic concerns certainly are central in most religions, and… the attempt to indirectly satisfy narcissistic wishes is a fundamental motive to religious confession. (109)

Though we are to read the word ‘religion’ in the text as the beliefs and practices of the ‘religiose’, the distinction is seldom reinforced beyond the introduction and becomes more and more blurred as the book proceeds.

In short, the book is misnamed (though the fault may rest as much with publishers as with the author). It is not ‘against religion’: it’s against that intensely-held religion typified by fundamentalism which a great many ‘mainstream’ Christians, Muslims and Jews reject as misguided and harmful.

Call that religion?

I have two other concerns about Pataki’s work. Religion for Pataki is narrowly restricted to its popular expressions: he will accept nothing short of belief in a personal, active and transcendent or supernatural being. His argument from psychology, as noted above, works well on this level, but I would protest the attempt to excise any sophisticated realism or non-realism from the realm of the religious. Naïve realism is surely not the only genuinely ‘religious’ position to take within the monotheistic faiths.

In fact, Pataki’s language becomes revealingly snide here: Many contemporary thinkers have tried to dispense with the personal attributes of God altogether. Their industry has manufactured a variety of recherché conceptions of deity, subtle interpretations and allegorisations of the holy texts and teachings, and ingenious philosophical inventions that dispense with the anthropomorphisms. (38)

(‘Recherché’ means ‘pretentious’, by the way!)

DZ Phillips and others who reject the supernatural, personal God of orthodoxy “misrepresent (or ignore) what religion has been historically, and still is, for most people”. (114) Postmodern approaches to the question merely produce “muddled contentions”; Heidegger and Derrida …wish to rescue religion from the old metaphysical God, and mutter darkly about a non-metaphysical, unconceptualisable God who is beyond Being. But even if there was any sense in that, postmodernism’s radical relativism is still fatal to orthodox religion. (120)

Apparently we have a stark choice: stick with primitive, naively-realistic anthropomorphic notions of the divine – or “mutter darkly” about muddled and pretentious notions that cannot be called ‘religious’.

Pataki seems to want his religion calcified. It’s a strikingly similar position to that taken by the ‘religiose’: religion cannot change and religious ideas must not develop. How dare we attempt to do what theologians have always tried to do: rethink our ideas in terms that make sense for our own age! Bonhoeffer, Tillich, Bultmann, Cox, Altizer, Spong, Holloway, Geering, Cupitt: they’ve all dispensed with “the old metaphysical God”. How silly of us to think of them as religious.

Of course, it suits Pataki’s argument to have religion set in first-century cement. Against One Popular But Outmoded Version of Religion just wouldn’t have the same ring about it, after all.

Why single out religion?

A second concern is Pataki’s failure to consider the idea that political and nationalist ideologies that explicitly reject religion can be as much a vehicle for narcissistic expression – and every bit as destructive – as religion. He says: The idea that people should be killed for holding beliefs that are deemed errant and a threat to the faithful is, I believe, an entirely Judeo-Christian-Islamic conception. (84)

Surely, however, Stalin, Mao, the Red Army, Kim Jong-Il and Pol Pot – if not many more atheistic and despotic individuals and groups – have provided just as fertile an environment for the kind of infantile urges that Pataki sees as so uniquely satisfied in religion. Absolute and inerrant authority, the demonising of the outsider, the demand for obedience, the illusion of having superior knowledge: all are present. And if you think it’s perfectly safe to hold any sort of belief in (atheistic) China today, try standing in Tiananmen Square with a placard reading ‘I believe in democracy’.

Pataki has done us a service in Against Religion by helping us to understand fundamentalism in a new light. Sadly, though, this new addition to the anti-religion pantheon does a ‘Dawkins’: his anti-religious fervour contaminates an otherwise clear-sighted and useful book.

Reviewed by Greg Spearritt who is currently webmaster for Sea of Faith in Australia, a network of Australians interested in the open and non-dogmatic exploration of issues of religion, faith and meaning.