Freud to Cognitive Psychologies

This lecture will discuss atheist and/or secular psychologists and their impact on Western society during the 20th and early 21st centuries.  Freud and Skinner are emphasized, along with two consequential psychologies of the present day—Cognitive and Evolutionary, with a brief glance at the Humanist and Existentialist Schools.  Freud and Skinner are discussed in the context of their psychological theories, the influence their theories had on 20th century thought, and what their atheism had to do with their psychologies.

Freud’s (subjective) and Skinner’s (objective) psychologies have similarities in certain respects.  They both maintain that human behavior is the outcome of complexly determined causal events that lie outside awareness.[1] Both psychologies are products of a positivistic and materialist world view that believes people have deep seated delusions and ignorance that prevent them from dealing with themselves and the world in an effective way. The two psychologies are dedicated to saving people from illusions. Both theories issued severe challenges to religious faith.

(Please see Atheist (Sociologies)for a very brief discussion of some possible reasons for the paucity of atheist studies in both the psychology of religion and the sociology of religion.)

Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939)

Freud founded the psychoanalytic method, which was based on the belief that there were unconscious thoughts that influenced people’s behavior and mental illness.  He maintained that those thoughts could be accessed through the analytic technique of a dialogue between patient and practitioner. His life work was dedicated to trying to develop a cogent theory to explain all human behavior.  Some of his most important theories were of the mind, the conscious, unconscious, and subconscious. The most well known of Freud’s concepts is the id (the inborn part of the mind, center of drives and passions), the ego (the reality principle that works for the preservation and well being of the individual), and the superego (the mental watchdog that prevents transgressions and giving way to so called “immoral” drives.) Another important theory is the concept of the libido, the inborn drive that motivates us to strive and survive, of which sex is a part.  Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex, a boy’s desire for his mother and competition with his father, is a cliché in the cultural vocabulary of the West.   In a girl, the problem is called the Electra complex.  Two other notable psychoanalytic concepts are defense mechanisms to prevent us from unpleasant ideas, and sublimation, translating our libidinal energies to “higher” aims, such as career, caring for others, study, and so on.

Freud’s persistent and robust critique of religion is of most interest to atheists.  Freud not only banished religion from his home, but undertook an analysis of it as well, a devastating warfare he waged on a lifelong enemy. Peter Gay makes the point that Freud was a loyal son of the European Enlightenment,the last of the philosphes  .His thinking owed a debt as well to Feuerbach, the atheist philosopher, and Feuerbach’s work, The Essence of Christianity (1841). (See Philosophy.)

Freud commenced his critique of religion early in his career.  His paper, “Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices, “(1907) compared religious rituals to obsessional neurosis.  He returned often to his theory that the Oedipus complex was one of the most important roots of religion.  In his essay on the Italian Renaissance artist, Leonard da Vinci, he associated the belief in a personal god with a child’s relation to his father. One of Freud’s conclusions about Leonardo was that “…if his (Leonardo) imitation of his father hurt him as an artist, his rebellion against his father was the infantile determinant of what was perhaps an equally sublime achievement in the field of scientific research…”[2]

Freud carried the concept of the Oedipal conflict’s connection with religion even further in Totem and Taboo (1913), in which he noted the two prohibitions of most early totem clans.  Members of those close-knit groups were not allowed to kill the totem animal and were prohibited from having sexual relations with the same totem members. He wrote that the following scenario had once taken place, and then had been repeated in many clans over the years. The strong and violent father of an early human tribe seized all the women for himself, and drove off, killed, or dominated his sons, until one day they rose up, killed and ate the fierce father.  Filled with guilt and remorse, because they also loved and admired their father, they established a taboo figure (the totem animal) in his place, and renounced their female relatives.

Because it was established that many of the totem tribes celebrated an occasional ritual killing and eating of the totem, Freud was reinforced in his beliefs. He maintained that the concept of Oedipalism remains in Christianity up to the present.  The sacrifice of Christ, who gave up his life and became reunited to his father was an excellent example of the Oedipal theory, particularly since Christ then replaced the father as the center of religious devotion. Freud was convinced that the story was an Oedipal outcome.  The eating of the Eucharist by religious followers is both identification with the father and “fresh elimination of him.”[3]

Freud’s imaginative volume, Moses and Monotheism, (1937-1938), emphasized his belief that father murder was connected to religion. He maintained the Biblical leader of his people, Moses, was not Jewish but an Egyptian. Even the name Moses was an Egyptian one, Freud noted.  He theorized that Moses was a follower of the Egyptian pharaoh, Ikhnaton, a monotheistic worshipper of the sun god, Aten. After the pharaoh’s death and the return of the old polytheistic religion in Egypt, the disappointed Moses turned to the Jews and chose them as his protégés, particularly the Levites. He taught them Ikhnaton’s religion, instituted the practice of circumcision, and led them out of Egypt. However, they eventually rebelled against such a spiritualized religion and killed Moses.  The Jewish tribes then worshipped a local god, Yahweh, bloodthirsty, jealous and vengeful.  Eventually the two religions blended and the religion of Moses became dominant again.  Freud believed that the Jewish people were indebted to this religion for a grand conception of a god, for having the sense of being a chosen people, and for pronounced intellectuality and self control.[4]

Freud not only theorized about religion’s historical roots, but also its personal roots in one of his most read books, The Future of an Illusion (1927.) He maintained that religion is a very powerful illusion, which resists reason and observation; and he believed that particular religious illusions are “…fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind.” (30) Freud elaborated on the concept, positing that the personal roots of religion lay in the infantile past of the individual, and her feelings of helplessness, often relieved by the ministrations of the mother, and later, the protective father.  The grown person realizes that she is still helpless in the face of nature’s force, other people’s actions, forces within herself, and finally death itself.  Therefore a benevolent provider is conjured up, who protects us, punishes evil, rewards good, and promises a life after death.  This irrational idea gives people a sense of inviolability.  The illusion is then extended from the provider to laws and institutions, which ostensibly protect, but also further restrain people.  Freud worried if people could cope with the removal of illusional underpinnings.  But he decided that it might be possible.  “If the achievements of religion in respect to man’s happiness, susceptibility to culture and moral control are no better than this,” Freud concluded, “the question cannot but arise whether we are not overstating its necessity for mankind and whether we do wisely in basing our cultural demands upon it.” (30).

Although Freudian theory is seldom taught in degree psychology courses today, Freud’s theories have been of great consequence for Western society.   He not only mounted an intellectual attack on religion, but his ideas have illuminated our own human capacity for self-deception.  Freud attempted to minimize illusion’s effects on our efforts to build a better world, one based on reason and scientific method.

Note: James Strachey remains a popular translator of Freud.  Joan Riviere is sometimes considered the best.  There is a great deal of controversy concerning translations of Freud and their accuracy, so the reader is advised to choose editions and translations after researching them.

B.F. Skinner (1904 – 1990)

B.F. Skinner was a pioneer of the objectivist theory of behaviorism.  Behaviorists believe that all behaviors are due to conditioning: acting, thinking and feeling.  They don’t subscribe to internal physiological states or the concept of mind. Pavlov was Skinner’s forerunner in classical conditioning, but Skinner devised methods that he believed were much more like learning in daily life. Skinner invented an “Operant Conditioning Apparatus,” called the Skinner Box.  A hungry rat is placed in the box and at some point, presses a lever, upon which food pellets are released.  When the rat presses the lever again and again, food is released.  After a while, no food pellets are forthcoming, but the rat still continues to press the lever for a while.  He is, in Skinner’s terminology, “operantly conditioned.” The rat will continue to press the lever indefinitely as long as food is sometimes released, which Skinner called “partial reinforcement.” Skinner discovered that in general, the response time for partial reinforcement was about half a second.  That is why he believed children should be corrected immediately for misbehavior.  He thought the short response time for partial reinforcement accounted for the fact that the penal system doesn’t work.  A prisoner commits a crime, and by the time he is caught, tried, and put in prison, several months frequently elapse.  That is too long, Skinner believed, for the punishment to be effective. 

Although the results of Skinner’s experiment with pigeons and the development of “superstitious behavior” are disputed by other psychologists, it is an interesting  theory, and the story is worth repeating.  Pigeons associated food release with whatever actions they had been performing at the moment of food delivery, and continued that behavior whether there was food delivered or not.  One pigeon thrust his head into the corners of the cage.  One turned counter clockwise, making two or three turns before food delivery.  One developed “tossing” behavior, placing his head under an invisible bar, and lifting, or tossing his head.  Two extended their necks and then swung them back and forth.  Although Skinner discussed this “superstitious behavior” with regard to gamblers’ behavior, atheists will have no difficulty seeing a connection between the pigeons’ actions and religious rituals. Animal advocates will see the pigeon’s reactions as stress, due to captivity and experimentation.

Skinner believed that education would help change people for the better if administered correctly.  For example, teachers can write down what they intend to achieve with their pupils in the classroom, called Behavioral Objectives. Skinner’s theories for classrooms were not popular until the 1960’s.  They were used fairly extensively with the arrival of computer assisted learning, teaching machines and programmed instruction.  He was a great believer in positive reinforcement and thought that the “carrot was better than the stick.”  Skinner demonstrated what he considered an ideal society in his book, Walden Two (1948- See Book List).  

For atheists, Skinner’s secularism is the most important aspect of his theories.  Many atheists will be interested in his ideas concerning religion, particularly in the earlier and most influential portion of his career.  He believed that religions are designed to control behavior.[5] Since he believed that all institutions act to control, he was only concerned with who controlled and how.  He disliked the rigid controlling of dogmatic religion. He discussed how operant conditioning works in institutions of society, including politics, government and religion in his volume, Science and Human Behavior (1953). Skinner believed that a “god” was the archetypal pattern of an explanatory fiction, of a miracle working mind, of the metaphysical.  He explained that when people show what is described as “pious behavior,” they are exhibiting forms of behavior shaped by social environments. Skinner found the idea of a god was a useless concept.[6]

Behaviorism was a highly influential psychology until the second half of the 20th Century, when cognitive psychology became a dominant paradigm.  The two schools have much in common, with practical therapeutical techniques, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, which works with such problems as phobias and addictions.[7]  Present day behaviorism thrives.  There is a large Association for Behavioral Analysis: International and a Journal of Organizational Behavior Management. There are many special interest groups within the field, dealing with such problems as developmental disabilities, cultural psychology, clinical psychology, verbal behavior and behavioral analysis. Skinner attempted to apply his theories to language acquisition in his book Verbal Behavior (1957). Noam Chomsky, a well-regarded linguist and philosopher, gave the theory and book a highly negative review and was instrumental in Skinner’s language concept having been ignored.[8] However, with the advent of new language theories in the present day, Skinner’s language acquisition ideas have had a robust revival.[9]

Humanist and Existential Psychologies

Many psychologies sprang up about the time behaviorism began to wane.  Two of the most popular were the humanist school and the existential school. (See Philosophy- (Humanism and Existentialism.)  Cognitive psychology began about the same time as the first two, but today it and its outgrowth, evolutionary psychology, have become the dominant paradigms. (See Cognitive Psychology Below.)

Humanist psychology disliked the reductionism of Skinner’s behaviorism and was not satisfied by Freudian negativity, with its emphasis on mental illness, hatred, jealousy, anxiety and so on.  The humanists emphasized mental health and the means by which it could be attained.  Abraham Maslow and Karl Rogers were important pioneers in humanist psychology.  Abraham Maslow was an atheist who believed that people needed satisfaction of their physiological needs (food, sleep, etc.), then of safety, then love and sexual satisfaction, and finally self-actualization, which included peak experiences when an individual is in harmony with himself and the world, and a person experiences a burst of wholeness and creativity.  Maslow maintained that these events are profound and that self-actualized people experience many of them.  He called his theory the “Hierarchy of Needs.”  Maslow studied healthy people as an alternative to Freudian practices with neurotics, which Maslow believed focused too exclusively on human illness.  Although their methods were somewhat different, both Maslow and Rogers thought that individuals who reached full maturity were people who had an objective perception of reality and accepted their own nature, were committed to their work, were independent and yet caring of others, non-conformist, creative and capable of the previously mentioned peak experiences.

Erich Fromm was a humanist who started from a Judaic religious outlook, but moved to secularism more and more throughout his career.  He tried to strike a middle ground between authoritarianism and moral relativism.  He wrote on alienation, loneliness, self-awareness and love.  He believed that we could achieve a sane, psychologically balanced society with the efforts of humans caring for each other. He was committed to helping people take independent action and living with reason and love rather than alienation.  Fromm was a strong proponent of biophilia, love for humanity and nature, as well as independence and freedom.  His values still hold for atheists and secular people devoted to shaping a sane and vibrant society, where people are free to create and live fully and meaningfully.[10]

The most important and influential existential psychologists were Rollo May, Viktor Frankl and Joseph Royce.  May, Frankl and Royce were theists, but their views on self-actualization are still compelling for people, including secular thinkers.  Their thinking has relevance for our secular viewpoint.  Joseph Royce discussed four points that he considered necessary for both psychology and religion to take into consideration.  They were (1) the importance of self realization, living one’s life authentically, (2) the centrality of the non rational in human life, (3) the significance of anxiety, and (4) the role of symbolic processes.[11] Symbolic processes in psychoanalytic terms are disguised by and from the individual using them, are unconscious, and may not serve any conscious communication in the external world.

Rollo May’s theories were very much in the existential tradition of self realization.  He believed there were several stages a young person passed through to maturity.  He saw the first as innocence, where the child is in a state of unknowing, then a rebellious state, and then a time of decision, when the person could make the proper decisions and go on to a creative life.  However, the “ordinary state”, as May termed it, was always an alternative and negative choice; some people would become anxious at having to accept full responsibility for their lives and would choose conformity and received opinion.  May found the society of his time troubled and distanced from the security of people caring for each other.  He maintained society was developing the stance of separating love from sex and emotion from reason.  May believed the care that people had for one another was the only real stabilizer for society, and that it was evaporating.

Viktor Frankl was a Holocaust survivor, who lost his wife and parents in the Nazi death camps.  He survived and found meaning in the entire horrific experience.  He believed that even in the most sordid and painful surroundings, life has meaning.  He stated that meaning can emerge from pain itself.  He found that the lack of meaning was the most painful experience that modern man undergoes.  He maintained that many people in the contemporary world suffer from boredom, apathy and emptiness.  Frankl originated the concept of logotherapy, based on reason.[12]  He believed that people have a “will to meaning,” and that the search for intention was the most powerful and motivating factor in human life.

New therapies, some of which seem to reduce humans to their physiological functions, and the advent of anti-psychotic, anti-depressant and other medications for human difficulties, make the theories of the humanist and existential schools of psychology appear more important than ever.  atheists are independent people, frequently with strong humanist beliefs.  They are already on the path of self-actualization by their secular stance, which necessitates non-conformity, self responsibility, and commitment to freedom.  Men such as Maslow and Fromm have much to offer the secular community in the way of direction and inspiration.

Cognitive Psychology

From about 1920 to the 1960’s many psychologists were behaviorists, but then came a general rejection of behaviorism’s denial of mentalism.  Psychologists realized that it was not possible to eliminate concepts of beliefs and desires when studying the human mind.  The advent of computers and discussions of Artificial Intelligence put behaviorist learning theories to the test, and those theories were frequently refuted.  The mind was once again accepted as a valid scientific concept.  Cognitive psychology studies how people think, remember, speak, perceive and solve problems.[13]   

Cognitive psychologists describe the mind as a kind of computer.  What they mean is that the brain functions as a set of operations for processing information.  The brain is something like a machine that runs the mind.[14]  Unlike earlier analogies, the computer/mind analogy is more salient, as they both have the same function, processing information.

In the late fifties, Noam Chomsky discovered that a general purpose learning program did not learn languages as well as young children.  David Marr discovered that creating a software program to recognize and differentiate objects was extremely difficult.  Many psychologists now realized the mind was far more complex than had been imagined.  The American philosopher, Jerry Fodor, came to an interesting conclusion in 1983.  He stated that the mind could not be a single, general purpose program, but a collection of many special purpose programs, each with its own rules. Cognitive beginnings came from several dissident behaviorists.  In 1960, Bruner and Miller established The Center for Cognitive Studies at Harvard, and Ulrich Nesser published Cognitive Psychology in 1967.[15] Not all cognitive psychologists accept the modular theory of the mind, but many do and the theory has become very influential.

Pascal Boyer, a French anthropologist, is one of the leading figures in the cognitive psychology of religion. Some of the most important concepts in the field that are  of interest to atheists is the idea that religion is a cognitive by-product of such cognitive mechanisms as agent detection (of predators) and counterintuitive concepts, such as talking rocks and disembodied spirits, which makes some of these counter intuitions striking enough to be remembered. David C. Noelle discusses the theory in his article on Cognitive Science in the New Encyclopedia of Unbelief.[16] Pascal Boyer believes that religion is a by-product of evolutionary adaptations and that as a result, it will be very difficult to eradicate it. His book, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (2001), while not living up to its title, is an excellent elucidation of religion for atheists interested in some of its evolutionary roots.(See Anthropology)

Adherents of the by-product theory are growing. They include prestigious researchers such as Armin Geertz and Ara Norenzayan, who study religion, religious thought and its impact on human behavior.  Although belief in the supernatural may be a cognitive by-product, there is an idea that such beliefs have helped motivate pro-social behavior.  Scott Atran and H. Henrich have authored an important and sophisticated article concerning this thinking.[17] But secular readers will have no trouble remembering the many anti-social and vicious behaviors connected with religious belief through the centuries.  The Preface will peruse some other theories of religion before moving on to Steven Pinker and the Evolutionary Psychology theory he embraces.

There are three theories concerning religion that have currency at present, the first being the concept of secularization.  This is the idea that science and technology will replace religion, which was Freud’s thinking in Future of an Illusion. The second theory is that social disintegration and individualism will result in spiritual seeking, not toward organized religion, but rather multiple religious and spiritual systems, including New Age spiritualism.  Ronald Inglehart argues that religion developed to fill human needs for security and that the social and economic security in Europe has brought about secularization.  Religion grows in the Third World where social and economic conditions are poor.[18]  In addition, James Leuba has published a psychological study of religious mysticism.  He has found that the mystical experience is very similar to drug-induced experience.  He maintains that religion should be treated naturalistically.[19]

Stephen Pinker, a “contented atheist,” finds religion a puzzle.  He does not consider adaptationist ideas cogent because religion does not meet the criteria for adaptation.  In a speech he gave in Madison, Wisconsin in 2004, he stated that it was unclear why the mind would receive comfort from a falsehood, such as religion.[20]  He mentioned many possible reasons for spiritual beliefs, including elders wanting to assure good treatment by making people think they will be around forever, as immortals; rites of passage; asking god for “stuff” and recovery from illness. But he admits that he does not have a single theory concerning religion.

Pinker, a cognitive psychologist, has embraced the concept of evolutionary psychology as a means for explaining human nature. Pinker articulated the theoretical underpinnings of the now popular paradigm of EP in How the Mind Works (2007) and the Blank Slate: the Denial of Human Nature (2003.) Robert Wright wrote a shorter volume, The Moral Animal (1995,) which maintained similar concepts. Evolutionary psychology sees human nature as a universal set of evolved psychological adaptations to recurring problems in the ancestral environment. Evolutionary Psychologists maintain that the human brain has hundreds, perhaps, thousands of modules for special tasks and purposes.  Leda Cosmides, a psychologist and John Tooby, an anthropologist, who are among the leading proponents of EP, believe that each of these modules has a specific task.[21]  EP maintains that our adaptations are based on brains that evolved up to the time of the late Stone Age culture, when people were hunter/gatherers.

EP’s adherents, such as Steven Pinker, claim that the human brain has not had time to evolve since the beginning of agricultural societies about 10,000 years ago. Pinker states that for 99 percent of human existence people lived as foragers in small nomadic bands.[22] There is a general assumption that some of our present behavior is maladaptive, not based on the way we live now in cities and with technology, but centered in Stone Age adaptations to life on the African savannah. Hunter/gatherers lived in small, tight knit groups with a great deal of social interaction.  Their environment was hot and grassy.  The modules that humans developed helped with taking care of children, mate selection, avoiding predators, eating the correct foods, “reading” other people’s minds and so on.  Humans in today’s very different environments are responding to many situations with a hunter/gatherer mentality.  Pinker states that we now are enticed to non adaptive choices.[23] 

There are numerous criticisms of EP.  David J. Buller, the theory’s most eloquent and devastating opponent, has written a book, Adapting Minds, (2006) which claims that there is very little empirical evidence for EP’s theories.  He devotes an entire chapter to debunking a study that claimed data compiled on stepchildren’s abuse demonstrated that abuse was higher for stepchildren than that of natural children. The researchers maintained that their findings bore out EP theories of parental solicitude as an earlier adaptation. By examining data carefully, Buller finds that the evidence does not conform to the study’s predictions.[24] 

Buller has written an article for Scientific American’s Special Issue on Evolution, “Four Fallacies of Pop Evolutionary Psychology,” in which he robustly attacks four foundational theories of EP.  The first is that analysis of Pleistocene adaptive difficulties can shed light on the mind’s design.  Not only do we have little evidence for discovering what social relations took place in the Stone Age, but in extant hunter/gatherer societies there is considerable variation of life styles, even in the regions of Africa where early humans lived.  The next theory is that we can discover why distinctly human traits, such as language, evolved, but Buller explains we have do not have enough evidence for that.  We do not know what motivated humans to an adaption as language,while our closest relatives, the chimpanzee and bonobo do not have language.  We need hard evidence to identify the environmental demands that drove our evolutionary separation from our close relatives. The third theory is that we are “stuck” with Stone Age minds because of the slowness of evolution.  But Buller states that recent studies have demonstrated that selections can radically alter the life-history traits of a population in as few as 18 generations (for humans, roughly 450 years.) The fourth and last fallacy of EP, states Buller, is that its psychological data provide clear evidence for the EP theory.  But Buller has discovered that the data are based on “forced answer” questions and a limited array of behavioral data. At best, the evidence is inconclusive.[25] 

Jaak Panksepp and Jules B. Panksepp are among the articulate critics of evolutionary psychology. In their article, “The Seven Sins of Evolutionary Psychology,” they criticize EP’s theory of brain modules. They state: “It is equally sad to see clear disregard for the likelihood that much of our neocortex is based upon general purpose engineering principles rather than genetically guided modules.”[26] 

Buller is a philosopher, and this Preface now returns to his volume, Adapting Minds, for the final critique of evolutionary psychology.  This is a difficult criticism to discuss, because there are distinguished atheists in EP’s ranks.  Buller finds EP simply “views evolutionary theory as an alternative to creation by God as an explanation of the production of complex psychological design….it {EP} retains the structure of the theoretical framework of natural theology.”[27]  Atheists will be pleased to discover that many of evolutionary psychology’s critics are secular thinkers, who are not so much motivated to critique EP as to find out how the mind functions.  They want to accomplish this discovery with genuine scientific methods and not by coming to premature conclusions.  Neuroscience is just beginning to make inroads in learning how consciousness works and what motivates religious beliefs, out of body experiences, and other illusions.[28]  Scientists have already explained that the mind is a function of the brain; there is no disconnected “soul” commanding the actions of human beings.  We are at the threshold of understanding why we believe falsehoods and why we have the capacity to imagine and then realize technology, art and other inventions that enrich our lives.  Mankind’s secular journey has just begun.

Jerry A. Coyne, the author of Why Evolution is True,” and an atheist, does not believe that evolutionary biology is a “panacea for all the world’s ills.” (See Anthropology) In his review of David Sloan Wilson’s The Neighborhood Project, he cautions that understanding human nature by speculating on the behavior of early humans will not solve the problems of society.  He emphasizes that we have little evidence that “selection on groups has promoted the evolution of any trait.” “Our world,” Coyne states, “is no longer the one in which we evolved.”  We should keep in mind that it is we who have constructed the contemporary world.  Coyne has an interesting website, Here is the link to his review in the New York Times.

Video: Atheist Psychologies

Video Discussion: Atheist Psychologies


1 Wulff, David M. Psychology of Religion: Classic and Contemporary. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997. 258.

2 Gay, Peter.  A Godless Jew: Freud, Atheism and the Making of Psychoanalysis. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1987. 41.

3 Freud, Sigmund. (1910)   ” Leonardo Da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood.” In Peter Gay, ed. The Freud Reader. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1995. 433.

4 Freud, Sigmund. (1913) Totem and Taboo: Resemblances between the Psychic Life of Savages and Neurotics. Tras. A.A.Brill, Stillwell, Kansas: Digireads, 2008. 89.

5 Freud, Sigmund. (1937-1938.) Moses and Monotheism.Tras.Katherine Jones. New York, Vintage Books, 1939.  158.

6Wulff, David M. Psychology of Religion: Classic and Contemporary. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997. 132.

7 Wulff, 131.


9 Chomsky, Noam. “The Case against B.F. Skinner”. Review of Verbal Behavior by B.F. Skinner. The New York Review of Books. 30 December 1971.

10 Wiki

11 Lowen, Jeannette.  “Erich Fromm.” In Tom Flynn ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007.  349.

12 Wulff, David M. Psychology of Religion: Classic and Contemporary.  New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1997.  624.

13 Wiki.

14 Wiki. Psychology

15 Pinker, Steven. How the Mind Works. New York:  W.W. Norton & Co., 1997. Chapter 2- Thinking Machines.

16 Goleman in Schultz, D. P. and Schultz, S.E., eds. A History of Modern Psychology. 6th Ed. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1996. 451.

17 Noelle,David C. “Cognitive Science.” In Tom Flynn, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief.  Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 201.

18 Atram, Scott and J. Henrich. “The Evolution of Religion: How Cognitive By-Products, Adaptive Learning Heuristics, Ritual Display and Group Competition Generate Deep Commitment to Pro-Social Religions. Biological Theory 5:1.

19 Inglehart, Ronald. “Globalization and Post Modern Values.” In The Washington Quarterly 23.1 (2000.) 224.

20 Leuba, James H. Psychology of Religious Mysticism.  Whitefish, Montana: Kessenger Publishing, 2003.

21 Pinker, Steven“The Evolutionary Psycholog of Religion.” 

22 Barkhow, Jerome H. ed., Leda Cosmides ed. and John Tooby ed. The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture.  New York: Oxford University Press U.S.A. 1995.

23 Pinker, How the Mind Works. 42.

24 Pinker, 42.

25 Buller, David J. Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature. Cambridge, Mass.: London, England: MIT Press, 2006. Chapter 7, Parenthood.

26 Buller, David J. “Four Fallacies of Pop Evolutionary Psychology.” In Scientific American.  Jan. 2009. 74-81.

27 Panksepp, Jaak, and Jules B. Panksepp. “The Seven Sins of Evolutionary Psychology.” Evolution and Cognition. Vol 6, no.2. 108-131.

28 Buller, Adapting Minds. 478-479.

The following books have been chosen for their merit by critics and readers:

Barkow, Jerome, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, eds. The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Adapted Mind is a huge volume that is considered the foundational text of evolutionary psychology.  The authors believe that the mind is not a general purpose computer, but that it has developed a network of specialized modules (small computers) which perform specialized tasks. There are many critics who believe the introduction by Cosmides and Tooby is the most important portion of the text.  Cosmides and Tooby critique what they call the SSSM, for standard social science model, which they believe has dominated the behavioral and social sciences.  They maintain that researchers in the field have attempted to promote nurture as the basis for psychological “phenomena.”  They believe this approach is flawed, and they offer arguments prioritizing nature to explain human behavior.

The volume features 18 papers by 25 scholars.  Cosmides and Tooby discuss Darwinian theory in the first part of the book and most of the subsequent essays discuss various contemporary human behaviors in terms of the past.  Evolutionary psychologists consider the hunter/gatherer civilization the time when the human mind evolved to a state similar to today’s mind.  They do not consider the past 10,000 years of agricultural societies enough time for the human mind to significantly evolve. EP posits a universal human nature.  Some of the writers decry the dogmatism of social scientists and scholars in different schools of thought, and purport to have a scientific basis for their own theories.  EP has presented a framework for understanding certain behaviors that is appealing for many readers. 

The authors of the various essays appear to have explained everything with regard to human behavior by looking back to hunter/gatherer civilization: mating selection, child rearing, language acquisition, women being treated as chattel and some human aesthetic responses. It is an impressive volume but there are still questions concerning the scientific basis for EP theories.  See the Preface- Evolutionary Psychology for critiques of EP by scholars.  Many readers find the text dry, uninteresting and difficult to read.  Others feel it has explained something about human psychology that they had not considered; these readers believe Adapted Mind makes good sense and has had a positive impact.  This book is a must read for people that want to know more about Evolutionary Psychology, the dominant paradigm in the field at present.

Fromm, Erich. (1956) The Art of Loving.  New York: Harper Perennial Classics, 2006.

Erich Fromm was a humanist psychologist who believed the ultimate question for people was how to love.  This short volume is his analysis of love in all its forms, from infatuation, brotherly love, self love, erotic love and love of god (which atheists will likely want to skip!) What Fromm has to say about our hiding from love amid all the clutter and “busyness” of our material society is very telling.

Fromm analyzed the infatuation, where the barriers of the self are broken down, because such a rush of love and sexual attraction demands unity.  Then as the infatuation wanes, many people seek to recapture the intense feelings they had at the start of their love affair, by moving on to a new person and new intensity.  Real love, according to Fromm, is made up of care, responsibility, respect for the other’s freedom to be, and knowledge and full understanding of the love object. Fromm believes that attaining the ability to love maturely is a practice.

It is remarkable to read books by such authors as Maslow, Fromm and Frankl (see Preface) in the present age.  The cognitive therapies point to their success in contemporary therapy and have the data to prove it.  Their ambitions and goals seem limited and narrow in scope, however.  People who still read these earlier psychologists often report being inspired and helped by them.  The eclipse of the humanist/existential psychologies is a cause for regret.   Rather than locating human behavior in a Stone Age past and a fixed human nature, the humanists and existentialists exhorted us to look up and ahead, to actualize ourselves and improve our society.

Jones, Ernest. (1953-1957) Sigmund Freud: Life and Work. 3 Vol.  New York: Basic Books, 1981.

Jones’ biography of Freud is the most important study of the “father of psychoanalysis,” although Peter Gay and Ronald W. Clark have both authored consequential books about him.  Life and Work has been translated into all the major European languages.  The first volume deals with Freud’s early life, including the beginning of his discovery of psychoanalysis.  The second volume covers Freud’s mature years, his scientific achievements, the International Psychoanalytic Movement, and the expelling of the so-called “heretics,” Adler and Jung.  The third and final volume discusses Freud’s later scientific achievements, his illnesses, and the flight from Nazi persecution to London.  This last volume contains an overview of Freud’s work and its links to the natural and social sciences, as well as the part psychoanalysis played in the understanding of art, literature and religion.

Life and Work has factual errors and a few critics have denounced it.  But Jones, a psychoanalyst himself, was in poor health when he wrote the biography. It is also important to keep in mind that a considerable amount of documentation was not available to him at that time.  Jones was able to write critically of Freud, and his biography of him is still considered the best source for readers who want to learn more about the man who declared himself “godless.” 

Please note that Freud was an elegant writer and his four short volumes dealing with religion have been discussed in the Preface-Sigmund Freud. Leonardo Da Vinci (1910); Totem and Taboo (1913); The Future of an Illusion (1927); and Moses and Monotheism (1939.)

Maslow, Abraham. (1962) Toward a Psychology of Being.  3rd Ed.  New York: Wiley, 1998.

Abraham Maslow spoke directly to professionals in the field in the last chapter of Being. He stated: “…our books, our journals, and conferences are primarily suited for the communication and discussion of the rational, the abstract, the logical, the public, the impersonal…” But, Dr. Maslow chides, the kind of psychology they are practicing is also deeply subjective.  Maslow believed that this volume, Toward a Psychology of Being, speaks for a normative social psychology, and posits the search for values as essential for society.

Maslow did not believe human nature was evil, but rather neutral or good.  He maintained that humans are reluctant or afraid to realize themselves, and that it is psychology’s responsibility to help “tip the balance in favor of health.” (See the Preface for an explanation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and his description of the peak experiences self actualized people attain.)

Toward a Psychology of Being is an exceptional volume for its insistence on humanistic values and its faith in human improvement.  Readers vary about its accessibility for non professional readers, but most find Maslow’s book a fairly easy read.  What is very compelling is the response of many contemporary readers, some of whom are fascinated by the book, and report having been inspired to either practice psychology or to make other positive changes in their lives.

Pinker, Steven. How the Mind Works. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997.

Steven Pinker is the director at the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and this volume is an important addition to the literature generated by the evolutionary psychology movement.  In his earlier work, The Language Instinct (1994), Pinker discussed language acquisition in children and did not accept that parents were the chief teachers of language to the young.  He believes that children’s language learning follows a kind of instinctive path, some internal grammatical structure. 

In this volume, Pinker states he wants the reader to step outside his own mind a moment and see his thoughts and feelings as inventions of the natural world and not the only way things could be.  He believes that the mind cannot comprehend all mysteries and truths.  It is a sweeping work, discussing the mind in relation to religious beliefs (Pinker is an atheist,) aesthetics, humor, genetics, emotions and so on.  He repeats one of the basic tenets of EP- that 10,000 years of agricultural society is not enough time to have had an evolutionary impact on human minds. He holds that the mind has incredible computational abilities and that the cognitive skills humans evolved has given us the advantage over all the other species. 

Pinker has studied with Cosmides and Tooby at The Center for Evolutionary Psychology, at Santa Barbara, Calfornia.  He is a proponent of EP theory, and shares most of the psychology’s primary concepts.  He has no belief in free will, and maintains there is a universal human nature.  He thinks much of our behavior is maladaptive, having evolved to deal with the environment and other people during the hunter/gatherer period.  His book deals with human behavior and the influence exerted on it by that past civilization, such as mate selection, procreation, sexual commitment, child-rearing, violence and so on. 

Evolutionary psychology maintains that its methods are scientific, but that statement is under question. (See Buller’s and Panek’s critiques in the Preface- Evolutionary Psychology.)  How the Mind Works combines science with humanism and the ideas are very provocative.  Pinker is an interesting, conversational writer and the book is very accessible to most readers.

Skinner, B.F. Walden Two.  New York: Macmillan, 1948.

B.F. Skinner, the famous behaviorist psychologist, attempted to write novels as a young man, but abandoned the project after deciding he had no talent as an author.  Walden Two is his attempt to popularize his behaviorist theories in novel form.  Six characters visit Walden Two, a utopian community run by T.E. Frazier, a character closely modeled on Skinner.  The novel is narrated by one of the six, a jaded and disenchanted college professor named Burris, whose name echoes Skinner’s first name, Burrhus. 

Frazier explains the workings of his ideal community, and defends it from charges that it is totalitarian.  He proselytizes Walden Two’s superiority over the outside world.  Like Skinner, Frazier maintains that free will is an illusion and that behavioral engineering is already exploiting people in the greater society. Cynical and unscrupulous advertisers, salesmen, politicians and educators have already begun using these conditioning techniques for their own ends.  Frazier/Skinner believes that operant conditioning should be in the hands of enlightened, benevolent scientists who want to create a better world.  Frazier’s solution to child rearing is to separate children from their parents and to rear them in communal nurseries, using operant conditioning. (See the Preface- B.F. Skinner for a description of operant conditioning) to eliminate counterproductive character traits.

Interestingly, religion has not been banned in Walden Two, and some community members have religious services, which are described as more secular celebration than spiritual.  Frazier explains that the services attract less and less people, that conditions are so optimal in Walden Two that members do not feel much need for a religious component to their lives.

By the novel’s end, three of the characters have decided to join Walden Two.  Frazier has pointed out many of the problems in post war America, such as divorce, promiscuity, crime and so on, and claims that Walden Two has cured the difficulties.  This is a novel based on dialogue, with shallow characters and little action, but it is a very palatable way to expose readers to Skinner’s theories.  Skinner was a rather dry and non interesting writer, unlike Freud. Most of Skinner’s theories are laid out in Walden Two and beginners in behaviorism will profit from reading this book before going on to Skinner’s more technical volumes.

Wulff, David M. Psychology of Religion: Classic and Contemporary.  New York: John Wiley, 1997.

Wulff’s volume is a masterly treatment of the history, figures and literature of the psychology of religion.  There does not seem to be a comparable volume with regard to quality in either the sociology or anthropology of religion. The chapters cover the biological theories of religion (including drugs and brain damage), behavioral and comparative theories of religion, the problem of meaning, and so on.  Wulff is a keen evaluator of different psychological schools and their religious positions.  His treatment of Freud, Jung, Erikson and James is thorough, even-handed and informative.  He closes the text with an excellent description and evaluation of the Humanist Schools. 

Wulff’s textbook is never dry or uninteresting.  It is nuanced, objective and captivating.  For atheists, it is an excellent introduction to Freud and Skinner, but it is also a fine, secular analysis and history of the various psychological schools and their religious stance.  Wulff does not say outright that religion is false in its transcendent claims, but in keeping with his objective outlook, he concludes that “religion is through and through a human preoccupation.” (633). Highly Recommended.

Further Reading

Sigmund Freud. Interpretation of Dreams (1900); The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901); B.F. Skinner. Science and Human Behavior (1953); Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971); Viktor Frankl. Man’s Search for Meaning. (1946); Rollo May. Man’s Search for Himself (1953); Peter Gay. A Godless Jew. (1987); David Buss. Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind. (2007); The Murderer Next Door. (2006); The Evolution of Desire (2003); Steven Pinker. The Blank Slate (2003); Robert Wright. The Moral Animal. (1995.); David J. Buller.Adapting Minds. (2006). Frederick Crews. The Memory Wars.( 1990); Unauthorized Freud. (1999. In both of these volumes, Crews takes a very sharp scalpel to Freud and Psychoanalysis.) O’Donahue, William. The Philosophy of Psychology. (1996); Daniel M. Robinson. An Intellectual History of Psychology. (1986.) M.D. Faber. The Psychological Roots of Religious Belief. (2004); Todd Tremlin. Minds and God: The Cognitive Foundations of Religion. (2010)

The Teaching Company has courses on Psychology.  There are generally 12 to 24 classes to a course, of about a half hour each. Two Courses are : Great Ideas of Psychology and Psychology of Human Behavior. ( See Neuroscience ) for more course offerings. See The Teaching Company at

The Better Angels of Our Nature
There is a very fair review of Steven Pinker’s book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” in the New York Review of Books, Jan. 12, 20012.  Jeremy Waldron does not reject Pinker’s claim outright, but asks many searching questions.  Pinker is arguing that violence has actually declined in our modern world as compared to man’s distant, and recent past.

Waldron asks some significant questions: what is Pinker’s time frame?  What is violence? Waldron also questions some of Pinker’s detailed description of violence, such as torture and crucifixions from medieval and early modern times.  He feels it is unnecessary and takes up too much of the book’s pages. 

I would like to urge readers to obtain the review as I cannot post it.  Nearly every reviewer has been subdued a bit by Pinker’s statistics.   I, being the skeptic I am, am waiting for a thorough, unbiased and professional review of those statistics and what conclusions may be drawn from them.

Pinker has created a very appealing picture that is very flattering to humanity in this dark and troubled time in history.  Or have most times been dark and troubled?  At any rate, telling us, and at length, how much we have improved morally and ethically is a lovely message and people are snapping Pinker’s thinking up as though it were a massive piece of chocolate  I am among those who remain unconvinced… 

Anthony Gottlieb has written an excellent review of David Barash’s new book, Homo Mysterious: Evolutionary Puzzles of Human Nature, Oxford, 2012.  The review, titled “It Ain’t Necessarily So” appears in The New Yorker, Sept. 17, 2012. Barash’s volume is yet another volume in the evolutionary psychology sector that seeks to explain how all our sexual behavior, mental ability, religion and art can be understood by referring to that school’s speculative notions. Barash is a professor of psychology and biology at the University of Washington.

Gottlieb provides readers with a fine critique of the overreaching of both sociobiology and evolutionary psychology’s claims.  EP’s advocates say religion is adaptive, that its origin is in natural selection.  Barash apparently never states his position clearly or explains it thoroughly. Gottlieb counters his claims by pointing out that for the first time in history there are hundreds of millions of unbelievers.

Gottlieb goes on to discuss some of the methods of EP.  The tests, which are surveys or questionnaires, use a disproportionate amount of college students who, as Gottlieb explains, are unusual in many ways, including their spatial connections, responses to optical illusions, styles of reasoning, cooperative behavior, ideas of fairness and risk taking strategies.  “They may,” says Gottlieb, “be one of the worst subpopulations one could study.”  In addition, the subjects are most frequently from Western industrialized nations and American colleges.  This is pretty unscientific experimentation from scientists who are confident of finding a universal human nature!

The famous EP study that purported to show stepfathers are more likely to physically abuse their stepchildren is once more debunked by Gottlieb.  “More biological fathers abuse their children; most stepfathers don’t abuse anyone; most kids don’t have stepfathers.”

Gottlieb tells us that “Barash muses,” at the end of his book, on the fact that our minds have a stubborn fondness for simple-sounding explanations that may be false. “ He ends his review with the observation that such a fondness “complements a fondness for thinking that one has the key to everything. Perhaps there’s an evolutionary explanation for such proclivities.” I could not concur more!

Video of Lecture: Freud to Cognitive Psychologies

Lecture: Freud to Cognitive Psychologies

Video of Discussion: Freud to Cognitive Psychologies

Discussion: Freud to Cognitive Psychologies


Atram, Scott and J. Henrich. “The Evolution of Religion: How Cognitive By-Products, Adaptive Learning Heuristics, Ritual Display and Group Competition Generate Deep Commitment to Pro-Social Religions.” Biological Theory 5:1.

Barkhow, Jerome H., Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby, eds.The Adaptive Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, U.S.A., 1995.

Behaviorism, Wikipedia.

Buller, David. Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature. Cambridge, Mass.; London, England: MIT Press, 2006.

Buller, David. “Four Fallacies of Pop Evolutionary Psychology.” In Scientific American. Jan. 2009.

Chomsky, Noam. “The Case against B.F. Skinner.” Review of Verbal Behavior by B.F. Skinner. “The Case against B.F. Skinner. The New York Review of Books. 30 December 1971.

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Frankl, Victor, Wikipedia.

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Freud (1937-1938) Moses and Monotheism.  Tras.Katherine Jones. New York: Vintage Books, 1939.

Freud (1913) Totem and Taboo: Resemblances between the Psychic Life of Savages and Neurotics.  Tras.A.A. Brill. Stillwell, Kansas, DigiReads, 2008.

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