Author’s Note: Special thanks to Amy, Brad, Mike, and the Free-Thought Society at Clemson University.
I declared myself an agnostic in 1983 and stayed that way until I declared myself an atheist in 1992. The road from Christianity to atheism and back to Christianity was – with my apologies to Beatles fans – long and winding. It took many years to travel.
The decision to major in psychology was one of many factors that led to my decision to leave the church. Not many psychology departments have more atheists than the nearest philosophy department. But many come close. And the way the discipline of psychology approaches religion is likely to lead some students astray.
I recall quite well my first exposure to Freud and his ideas about the Oedipus complex. I became well-schooled in his ideas about man’s compelling psychological need to create a God in his own image – to resolve various feelings of guilt flowing from childhood trauma. I was so captivated by these ideas that I read “Moses and Monotheism,” “Totem and Taboo,” and “The Future of an Illusion” in my spare time. Each took me further away from God.
B.F. Skinner had a similar impact on my thinking. The principles of operant conditioning were not always used to explain religion away. Strict behaviorists seldom have a compelling need to “look inside the black box” or, in other words, analyze unobservable thoughts. But these principles do provide a ready explanation for those convinced that man created God, not vice versa. I was so captivated by Skinner that I read “Walden Two” and “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” in my spare time. These books pushed me further in the direction of atheism.
The notion that psychology might provide an explanation for atheism – rather than theism - never really occurred to me during my years as a psychology student (from 1983 until 1989 when I received my M.S. in psychology). But, in March of 1989, a woman named Martha Hamilton – the mother of my “second mother” Lisa Chambers – responded to my praise of B.F. Skinner and the behaviorists with the following comment: “It just sounds like a bunch of people trying to get out of serving God.”
I must confess that I thought Mrs. Hamilton was just a simple-minded fundamentalist. Now, I realize that she was right and I was wrong.
If psychologists were really interested in the fair and balanced treatment of religion they would see the obvious connection between cognitive dissonance theory and atheism. And, of course, they would discuss it in their classes in conjunction with the application of Freudian and Skinnerian theories seeking to explain religion away.