I am, as you know, an atheist. I’m also a believer in the importance of theology.
Hard line atheists sometimes parody religious disagreements as arguments about “who has the better imaginary friend”. This trivializes what is in fact a profound factor in structuring the psyche, because what we can imagine gives us the model for how we engage ourselves and others. If you believe in a god/ess, you will live according to the type of imaginary friend you carry in your heart I offer the insights of object relations theory as one way of articulating why this is so.
The object relations school of psychotherapy evolved out of psychoanalysis. But whereas Freud believed the primary human motivation was the pleasure principle—we seek to “reduce tension,” by, say, eating, having sex, etc—object relations analyst Douglas Fairbairn argued that even more fundamental is the drive to relate. (The “object” in object relations comes from the grammatical term. In the sentences “I love you,” or “I hate you,” “you” is the object—the “other” we relate to).
Fairbairn noticed that children who were abused by their parents didn’t seek to escape them, as you would expect if we are mostly about maximizing our pleasure and minimizing our pain. Instead, they seemed more tightly bound to the abusive parent. He theorized that since children are hard-wired to attach to a caregiver, like baby geese who are imprinted by the first moving object they see, a caregiver who is dangerous creates an unresolvable problem, and the child works even harder to maintain the attachment.
Object relations theory pictures us internalizing templates for how relationship works, based on our early experience. If we are abused, the template is abuser-victim, or abuser-victim-rescuer. If we are loved and empowered, the template is good parent- good me. Our later experiences can modify these templates, so we are not doomed to live out a toxic script.
A person’s god/ess-image is one of the templates she carries. Variations on this internalized relationship range from punisher-punished, or judge-condemned, to lover-beloved, or liberator-empowered.
Any parent knows there are, in fact, better and worse imaginary friends. If your child begins to be haunted by an imaginary tormentor, you know that something is very wrong. If he nurtures and guides an imaginary friend (Winnie the Pooh), or feels protected by one, you allow it as a developmental necessity. In my therapy practice, I encounter the most appalling gods, along with some who are a genuine resource. Gods who shame the believer without mercy, and gods who egg them on to shame others. Gods who are blind to the believer’s sins against compassion, but utterly condemning of others who have struggled and failed. Gods who seem mostly concerned that believers not yield an inch to a poor or traumatized relative who is trying to rebuild a life. But also—gods who put kindness and fairness first; gods who believe that no woman should be oppressed, no matter what biblical evidence misogynistic preachers can adduce; gods who are unalterably opposed to harming a child.
If you think of my “god” as what I’ve concluded about the world, it’s an important starting point for revising an abusive script, and I have to say that good theology – theology which is rooted in a true understanding of the other, which doesn’t gloss over real life experience and aim at bogus comfort– reaches people. Therapy clients who know I don’t believe in a literal god are nevertheless helped by what I can show them in the Bible and Judeo-Christian tradition that helps them out of their theological prisons. For some, this means ceasing to believe in the god of this tradition. For others, it means a revision.
I don’t, myself, believe in an actual divine other, but I can’t get worked up about people who imagine themselves loved, protected and held accountable. I do get worked up about people imposing the “object relation” that works for them on others who find it unhelpful, or even harmful. I would argue that the critical divide is not between believers and skeptics, but between the will to dominate and the will to liberate—or as Starhawk says, the practice of “power over” vs “power with.” And the imposition of your beliefs on anyone else is, like it or not, about domination; about protecting your comfort zone from the reality of others’ experience.
You can worship power and self-aggrandisement, you can worship willful and smug ignorance, or your own security– or you can give your heart to honesty and compassion, and accept the risks entailed by living these principles. Your “god” is what you give your heart to, what you base your life on, and that makes the question of what is an idol and what is worthy of your commitment the most important of your life—even if you don’t believe in the personification of your choice.
Theology, at its best, holds the god/ess image accountable to the best ethical perceptions we have at this time in ours and our culture’s lives. It matters.