Books blog: Why atheists put their faith in Freud

Sigmund Freud

In case I sometimes sound like an old fogey, forever lamenting the ills of the modern age, I should emphasise that there is at least one area in which I am glad I am alive today rather than in the past; this is in the area of psychiatric medicine. I say this after reading Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry by Jeffrey A Lieberman.

The book relates the bizarre and sometimes cruel ways that those afflicted with a mental illness were treated until the scientific discovery of the earliest psychopharmaceutical drugs in the 1950s. They must have seemed like miracle drugs for sufferers and their families. As I know from friends, there is nothing more isolating than having a family member suffering from an undiagnosed mental illness. The relief, once a diagnosis has been made and the appropriate drugs have been prescribed, is enormous; the transformation in the lives of thousands of patients is well-attested.

Lieberman describes the long battle in the psychiatric profession, between those who thought mental illness lies in the mind and neurologists who came along later, who were certain it was caused by a malfunctioning brain. (Today both are treated, as appropriate.) Naturally enough, the former group included its share of quacks and frauds, such as the highly influential psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, who developed his preposterous “orgone” theory. This stated that there was an invisible network of orgasmic energy surrounding us; those with mental health problems could be cured by sitting in a small “orgone box” and wired up to be “reconnected” with this energy. He was only judged “a fraud of the first magnitude” as late as 1947.

Even more startling, in retrospect, was the huge influence of Sigmund Freud. His theory that the basis of mental illness lay in the unconscious conflicts produced by perverse sexual desires could not be unproved by scientific examination. As Lieberman relates, it became a “petrified religion”, to be strictly followed by Freud’s disciples under pain of excommunication if they tried to deviate from his dogmas. The persecutions of Jews in Europe meant that these disciples swept through America, keeping the country’s hospitals and psychiatric institutions in the iron grip of psychoanalytical theory for many decades.

The trouble with Freudianism was that it attracted the “worried well” – ie. potentially all of us – rather than the seriously mentally ill. It could do nothing to alleviate the misery of those suffering from bi-polar disorder (then called manic-depression), schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive behaviour or severe depression. The author Vladimir Nabokov made his own mordant comment on its weirdness: “Let the credulous and vulgar continue to believe that all mental woes can be cured by a daily application of old Greek myths to their private parts.”

What interests me after reading this book, with its account of the bogus theories of men like Reich and Freud, is how so many seemingly enlightened atheists and agnostics fell for them. We Christians are always being told that now that God is dead, along with all our “medieval” superstitious beliefs, an enlightened, benign scientific objectivity reigns supreme. Yet the credulity of the many thousands in the 20th century who put their faith in “orgone” energy or the Oedipus complex just shows how people still long for religious faith during an age of reason, and will seize on any plausible or beguiling claptrap in their search for truth.

The one thing missing from this otherwise balanced and informative book is its lack of any reference to the part played by spiritual malaise in some forms of mental illness, particularly depression. The Catholic Guide to Depression by Aaron Kheriaty is worth reading on this. Kheriaty argues, “Depression can be influenced by cultural and spiritual factors as well as biological and psychological ones. We are spiritual beings as well as rational ones and medicine is limited when the sufferer’s illness is spiritual in origin – perhaps the result of unconfessed sin.” For Kheriaty, neurochemistry and the soul are inseparably connected.

Chesterton once wrote in his endlessly perceptive fashion that “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.” Perhaps one could paraphrase this and say that every man who knocks on the door of a psychotherapist is also looking for God.