Sigmund Freud was critical of the Enlightenment. I believe he was right about that. What do you think?
Freud is considered the father of psychoanalysis. But he was first a philosopher—and a deeply insightful and prescient one at that. Prior to about 1879, when Freud started his studies, psychology was considered to be part of philosophy. Early psychologists were trying to develop a philosophy of the human mind. They mostly worked within a paradigm they had inherited from René Descartes, the father of the Enlightenment.
Descartes’ paradigm was based on two issues. The first is the “mind-body problem.” What is the precise relation between our mental states and our physical body? The second is the “mind-mind problem.” How are our minds related to ourselves?
Descartes held that our minds and bodies are essentially unrelated. I am entirely a thinking being (“I think, therefore I am”). Descartes added that the mind is entirely conscious (solving the mind-mind problem). Individuals relate to themselves by having direct access to 100 percent of their mental states. In sum, I am what I think I am. Period. I am totally self-aware and cannot be mistaken about my mental states.
Freud doubted that Descartes was right. The work of Charles Darwin, a contemporary of Freud, indicated our mind and body are deeply connected. We are more than thought. And research into hypnosis indicated that the mind is not 100 percent transparent to itself. Freud’s hypnotic experiments seemed to demonstrate that we have subconscious ideas, refuting the belief that our mind is entirely conscious.
Freud would became a critic of the Enlightenment. In 1915, he wrote, “ideas come into our head, we know not from where, and with intellectual conclusions arrived at, we do not know how.” He felt there is vast subconscious thought process that is inaccessible to those who self-report their mental (or spiritual) states.
Yet that is what most Americans do. Especially evangelical Christians. Beginning in the late 1700s, evangelicals stirred up what is called the Second Great Awakening. Alan Taylor, a professor of history at the University of Virginia, writes that they “championed individualism.” Evangelicals felt the state of your soul is 100 percent transparent to yourself. No authority or institution should obstruct your religious assessment of yourself. This individualistic faith caught fire in independence-minded America.
Today, Enlightenment individualism typifies American evangelicalism. Consider Descartes’ mind-body solution. Like Descartes, most evangelicals believe our minds and bodies are unrelated. Spiritual growth doesn’t require our body; just our brain. Few evangelicals I know practice the bodily disciplines, like silence or fasting. If we think right—by listening to sermons, studying scripture, or hearing the Spirit—we’ll act right.
All three are necessary but insufficient. Bodily appetites and impulses shape behavior far more than conscious thinking processes. They require training, i.e., spiritual disciplines.
And consider Descartes’ mind-mind solution. Like Descartes, most evangelicals assume that individuals are 100 percent conscious of their motives. No one can challenge my take on my spiritual state. If you try, I’ll rebuff you. I understand me. You don’t.
This is dangerous nonsense. Blaise Pascal, a Christian from an earlier age, wrote: “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.” The truth is that only about five percent of what we do is the outcome of conscious thinking. Ninety-five percent of our behaviors are nonconscious, shaped by cultures, writes Timothy Wilson, a psychologist at the University of Virginia and author of Strangers to Ourselves.
Scripture agrees. The prophet Jeremiah warned that our conscience—what ought to make us self-aware—often dupes us (Jer. 17:7-9). Individuals self-reporting are notoriously unreliable. William Wilberforce, an English evangelical, cited Jeremiah in urging his daughter Elizabeth to instead cultivate “self-suspicion.” We benefit “from the friendly reproofs of a real friend” for our souls are 100 percent transparent to ourselves.
I’m coming to see I’m an English evangelical more than an American one. That’s why I see Freud as a real friend of the faith. I think Americans, including evangelicals, would be wise to take seriously his critique of the Enlightenment.
 Alan Taylor, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016), p. 30.