This is an essay i wrote for my masters in religions and i'm considering sending it to some journals in order to get published, would like some feedback from here. Its a critique of the 'scientism' and bourgeois rationalism of the new Atheist 'movement'.
Critique of the New Atheists
“Since the real existence of man and nature has become evident in practice, through sense experience, because man has thus become evident for man as the being of nature, and nature for man as the being of man, the question about an alien being, about a being above nature and man – a question which implies the admission of the unreality of nature and of man – has become impossible in practice. Atheism, as the denial of this unreality, has no longer any meaning, for atheism is a negation of God, and postulates the existence of man through this negation; but socialism as socialism no longer stands in any need of such a mediation. It proceeds from the theoretically and practically sensuous consciousness of man and of nature as the essence. Socialism is man’s positive self-consciousness, no longer mediated through the abolition of religion” (Marx, 1844)
In the course of this essay I will be attempting to formulate a critique of the ‘New Atheist’ movement, exemplified in the writings of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. It will be shown that this movement expresses many tendencies of ‘modern’ thought which are unable to fully comprehend the idea of God, and that therefore the outlook which it puts forward is a particular kind of atheism reflective of a particular historical worldview, the worldview of the modern epoch in history, i.e. the bourgeois epoch. The key deficiency in this outlook is its narrow rationalism which causes its followers to misunderstand the nature of religious ideas. Part of this is the ‘scientistic’ tendency to reject lived experience and to treat the idea of God as a ‘rational’ or even ‘irrational’ hypothesis, when it is nothing of the kind.
Marx’s view of religion
Christopher Hitchens at the beginning of his diatribe against religion, God is not Great, quotes Marx approvingly, arguing (correctly) that the famous ‘opium of the masses’ quote has been unfairly misused by many people. However he then goes on to say very little about this passage while simultaneously treating it in much the same way as the majority of writers who fail to understand its full implications. One section in particular is very rarely dealt with in an appropriate manner: “criticism (of religion) has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chain, not so that man will wear the chain without any fantasy or consolation but so he will shake off the chain and cull the living flower.” (1843)
What does this quote mean? What is the ‘living flower’? To understand the answers to these questions it is necessary to understand what lay at the heart of Marx’s view of religion. Marx saw many (in general the most important) religious ideas as visions or images of the truth which will, with the advent of communism and the liberation of humanity, be fulfilled in material form - in religious terminology, will be ‘made flesh’. As he puts it here: “the world has long dreamed of possessing something of which it has only to be conscious in order to possess it in reality” (1843). In this sense then the ‘living flower’ is the truth of religion, what religion at its best moments was hinting at and grasping towards. Therefore, there is a division in Marx’s view between the true and false aspects of religion, the fantasy and consolation which is purely the result of a situation which “requires illusions” (1843), and those truths which are deeper and in some sense yet to be fully comprehended or known.
The next important aspect to decipher in Marx’s poetic language is the meaning of ‘the chains’; what are these chains and where do they come from? For Marx these chains are representative of all the forces which have enslaved and limited mankind throughout its history. This enslavement occurs both in the material form of social relations and class divisions but also subjectively in the ‘spirit’. This leads us to the most important distinction between Marx and the New Atheists; their respective views of modern, capitalist society. Both Richard Dawkins and Hitchens are in essence defenders of this modern civilization. They see in ‘democracy’ and ‘liberalism’ the key for a solution to all the world’s ills, which they to a large extent blame on religion. This is the complete opposite of Marx’s view, which declares that “the Gods are real powers” (ref – 1844), that is they are projections of real social and natural powers which have hitherto dominated and in some cases enslaved humanity. This is similar to the Freudian and Jungian conception of ‘the gods’ and other archetypes as projections of real instinctual drives (we will return to the similarities between these theories with those of Marx later on in this essay). In Marxist terminology the New Atheists display a clear sign of a fundamentally ‘idealist’ position. This is because they blame social problems on ideas alone and see the solution to these problems in the changing of ideas, namely in the adoption of a good, ‘civilized’ ‘liberal’ (bourgeois) worldview. Marx on the other hand saw that in order to dispel illusion you had to do away with the world which not only required illusion but fostered and produced these illusions.
This idealism is also expressed in one of the principle defects of the ‘New Atheist’ approach, the tendency towards a narrow rationalism which fails to deal with the real issues of religious belief. This is nowhere more clear than in The God Delusion in which Dawkins spends a great deal of time refuting the ‘rational’ arguments put forward throughout history for the existence of God, such as ‘Pascal’s Wager’, the ‘ontological argument’, the ‘teleological argument’ among others, which he deals with adequately as far as it goes, showing clearly why all such arguments at best serve as interesting word-games with little power to convince anyone, anyone that is who is not already inclined to believe in God. This expresses well the fundamental problem with the approach of any rationalist attempt to deal with the question of God’s existence: it treats God as a merely rational idea, as if it is derived from a logical argument. In reality it is much more of an experience in itself and akin to Jung’s idea of an archetype, an innate symbol of the human mind which expresses many deep desires, capacities and tendencies. However as soon as Dawkins attempts to deal with the argument from personal experience, his ‘scientific’ rationalism is shown for all it is worth. He spends a total of five and a half pages debunking the entirety of religious experience throughout human history with no argument more complex than a report of his childhood in which he believed he heard a ghost “murmuring as if in recitation or prayer” but as he stepped closer “it suddenly flipped inside my head. I was now close enough to discern what it really was. The wind gusting through the key hole” (2007:115). He argues that this tendency for the human mind (especially the human child’s mind) to turn innocuous objects and events into ordered and recognisable stimuli is a sufficient explanation for almost all ‘supernatural’ or ‘religious’ experiences.
Dawkins’ approach is to treat religious experiences merely as hallucinations, only differing from madness in the degree to which they are accepted in wider society. “You say you have experienced God directly? Well, some people have experienced a pink elephant, but that probably doesn’t impress you.....individuals in asylums think they are Napoleon or Charlie Chaplin, or that the world is conspiring against them...we humour them but don’t take their internally revealed beliefs seriously, mostly because not many people share them”(2007:112). This view, while being logically tenable to an extent, completely ignores fundamental differences between religious revelation and symptoms of mental illness. Firstly it ignores what William James (1960) noted as one of the key attributes of religious experience, that of gnosis and a feeling of being saved or healed by such experience, whereas mere hallucinations and mental illness tend instead towards creating greater distress within the individual who experiences them. Even so the attitude of Dawkins et al towards mental illness itself is expressive of a rigid form of rationalism which completely rejects any attempt to understand or even listen to the subjective realities of these experiences and to therefore understand the meaning of such hallucinations. This is in stark contrast to the attitudes of both Freud and Jung whose principle differences with many psychologists of the past and present is that they took seriously the subjective experiences of their patients as being the only starting point from which an understanding of the patient’s symptoms can be obtained.
Jung is a particularly good counter-example here as he based much of his psychological theories on the religious experiences of both himself and his patients. Jung was one of the pioneers in the modern tendency towards the ‘psychologising’ of religion as he believed that what was important to religious ideas was the experiences themselves and not the ‘objective’ reality of the phenomena experienced: in other words the inner god was sufficient without reference to a god outside of the human psyche. This is the complete opposite to the views of the ‘New Atheists’ such as Hitchens and Dawkins who see validity exclusively in the objective world and show a marked disinterest in the inner workings and subjective experiences of humanity (at least when these experiences have any religious or ‘spiritual’ connotations).
It is significant that Dawkins in this section does not once deal with or even mention any recognisable form of authentic mystical experience as described by mystics and prophets throughout the ages. He shows a complete lack of understanding of the manner of these experiences and the staggering similarities between the reports of mystics separated by massive distances of time and space and cultural background. For example, it has been reported the world over from mystics of all traditions that the experience of God (with the exception of Buddhism which nevertheless defines Nirvana and enlightenment in exceedingly similar tones) is an experience of something ‘eternal’, all encompassing, free of all limitation and contradictions. To dismiss these experiences as mere hallucinations, no different to madness or a child’s credulity, is to show an astonishing arrogance in the face of thousands of years of human understanding and practice.
This connects to another important element, which illustrates why the view of Dawkins et al is so unsuited to the study of religious experience. This is their opposition to the ‘imprecise’ and symbolic nature of the reports these experiences tend to produce. The theologian John Haught (2007) makes an important point with regard to this limited literalism when he shows the way in which the ‘New Atheists’ deal almost entirely with the most simplistic religious thinkers and schools and show a marked disdain for all attempts to understand religious teachings and texts symbolically. Haught accurately describes the attitudes and techniques of the both Dawkins and Hitchens when he states that: “Their understanding of religious faith remains consistently at the same unscholarly level as the unreflective, superstitious, and literalist religiosity of those they criticize. Even though the new atheists reject the God of creationists, fundamentalists, terrorists, and ‘intelligent design’ (ID) advocates, it is not without interest that they have decided to debate with these extremists rather than with any major theologians”(2007:46).
Hitchens makes this point clearly when he himself says “either the gospels are in some sense literal truth or the whole thing is essentially a fraud”. This point blank refusal to accept that they may be any grey area at all is typical of the ‘bourgeois’ rationalist worldview which cannot stand symbolic consciousness and dismisses it merely as a lie or as gibberish; hence the complete rejection by this strand of thought of the idea that dreams (as one particularly universal example) mean anything and have any ‘truth’ to them. A particularly revealing example of this is when Dawkins deals with the ideas of ‘pantheism’ and what he terms the ‘God of Einstein’ i.e. the use of the term God to denote the entire universe or ultimate reality itself. Dawkins sees pantheism as simply a form of atheism lite, atheism for those not brave enough to follow through their ideas to their logical conclusion. This completely dismisses the subjective reasons behind people’s choice to label the totality, or the universe, as ‘God’. Talk of ‘God’ in this context is largely a result of the failure of language, in particular modern Western language, to communicate the meaning intended by this use. There simply is no word with anything like the same emotive and poetic power to convey the experience that lies behind the ‘pantheistic’ view. The broader point to this however is that symbolic/poetic language is, as has been admitted by religious scholars since time immemorial, the only adequate way of describing ‘God’, the ‘Divine’ or ultimate reality.
Critique of scientism
Another common feature of the ‘New Atheists’ is the lack of any critical analysis of their own world view: that is, the ‘modern’ scientific view of things is taken completely at face value without any understanding of its social and historical context. While Dawkins nominally attempts a defence of science in Unweaving the Rainbow, (1999) arguing against the idea that science makes the universe dull, taking away the ‘magic’ by explaining its workings, he fails to deal with any of the most telling criticisms of the ‘modern’/bourgeois world view which deeply affects the way science is conceived and used in present-day society. For example, while Dawkins argues that science does not necessarily create a view of nature as dull or depressing, he does very little to attempt to understand why this feeling is so strong among many people - scholars as well as ‘ordinary’ members of society.
It is necessary to state that it is not science in itself which is being criticised here but, in the words of Norman O. Brown, the “the unconscious schemata governing the pursuit of knowledge in modern civilization - specifically the aim of possession or mastery over objects and the principle of economizing the means...partial impulses in the human being which in modern civilization have become tyrant organizers of the whole of human life”(1959:209). In short it is ‘scientism’, science deformed by the dominant ideology, not science itself which is at fault; and the scientist is merely an expression of deeper problems with the modern, capitalist world and its reflection in consciousness. Therefore it is the alienation from nature and from ourselves, the turning of all things into ‘commodities’ which creates the ‘dead’ view of the universe which is the day to day experience of the majority of people living in modern civilization. In this view the world/existence itself has become merely a series of separate ‘things’ with very little if any life of their own apart from their economic use for mankind. From Brown’s perspective this is the same as the withdrawal of the uniting principle of the life-energy ‘Eros’ from the modern experience of and relationship with nature/existence: “The withdrawal of Eros from sublimation is the great disillusionment”(1959:264). The great disillusionment corresponds to Marx’s metaphor of man living with only chains and no consolation.
This critique of the scientistic mind-set has been well illustrated by writers such as Whitehead and Norman O. Brown who argued against the asceticism and dualism of the ‘scientific’ attachment to ‘objective’ as opposed to subjective realities. “Whitehead’s critique of abstraction is a critique of the abstract, impersonal, quantifying rationality; and his objection to abstraction is precisely that through it a partial impulse becomes equated with the whole. Whitehead’s philosophy of organism protests against quantifying rationality on behalf of the living body as a whole: ‘But the living organ of experience is the living body as a whole’” (1959:276-277). Brown goes on to quote Gaston Bachelard, a psychoanalytical minded historian of science as saying that “It does indeed seem that with the twentieth century there begins a kind of scientific thought in opposition to the senses, and that it is necessary to construct a theory of objectivity in opposition to the object...It follows the entire use of the brain is being called into question. From now on the brain is strictly no longer adequate as an instrument for scientific thought; that is to say the brain is the obstacle to scientific thought. It is an obstacle in the sense that it is the coordinating centre for human movements and appetites. It is necessary to think in opposition to the brain”(1938:120-22). Whether or not this trend can be said to only begin in the twentieth century is a contentious issue; however the point being made is clear: scientific rationality needlessly disregards a whole section of human consciousness in favour of a partial drive, which pretends to be capable of describing and discovering reality as a whole. Norman O. Brown, with his insistence on the necessity for a loving, ‘erotic’ relationship of oneness with the body and the universe, imagines a future science which would be free from this attitude towards life, while recognising in line with his Marxist leanings that this attitude can only be overcome by transcending the social organisation which gave rise to it.
What all this means with regard to the treatment of religious ideas and experience among the New Atheists is illustrated clearly by an excerpt from Hitchen’s God is not Great when he talks about the religious idea of the apocalypse (an idea which develops relatively late in the history of religions and is technically only found in the ‘historical religions’-e.g. Judaism/Christianity/Islam). Hitchens argues that this idea expresses destructive tendencies within the human psyche, arguing that “connections between religious belief and the sinister, spoiled, selfish childhood of our species is the repressed desire to see everything smashed up and ruined and brought to naught”(2007:57). In fairness to Hitchens he notes that if this is indeed an infantile repressed wish then it is just as present in secular/modern people as in religious people: “The death wish, or something not unlike it, may be present in all of us”(2007:59). Nevertheless he qualifies this by objecting that “religion makes such impulses legitimate”(2007:60). The point to make though is that the modern, secular version of science can offer very little but repression; in this case, the infantile death wish is simply repressed and kept out of consciousness and therefore no solution to it or overcoming of it is possible. Norman O Brown in fact argues that science in its modern form is an expression of the highest level of repression in human history (the withdrawal of Eros from culture is in his view synonymous with this); moreover he claims that the entire culture of modern capitalism to which science is historically, intimately linked is the most profound expression of the death wish (death instinct) hitherto: “modern science, as criticised by Whitehead, is one aspect of a total cultural situation which may be described as the dominion of death-in-life” Brown argues that this leaves humanity to face “irredeemable damnation”(1959: 255). Scientific ‘rationality’ offers no language with which to commune with these repressed desires or drives.
The bourgeois conception of the universe is thus more often than not a distinctly depressing one. Although writers such as Dawkins and Hitchens often profess -and there seems no reason not to believe them - a deep sense of wonder for the universe, they are certainly not free from this viewpoint. A common viewpoint which I would (only partly) jokingly call the ‘argument for pointlessness because of bigness’ appears again and again. That is, the sheer scale of the universe compared to us humans makes all our lives and strivings ultimately pointless. Hitchens for example says “Our place in the cosmos is so unimaginably small that we cannot, with our miserly endowment of cranial matter, contemplate it for long....We may have learned about our modest position on the scale, about how to prolong our lives, cure ourselves of disease....but then, the awareness that our death is coming and will be succeeded by death of the species and the heat death of the universe is scant comfort” (2007:91). One point to be made is not that this is necessarily untrue, but that firstly the opposite can just as equally be said - that is that the majestic size of the universe makes our evolution and existence all the more incredible; that this awe-inspiring reality has in some sense carried us into existence. More important is the fact that the religions of the world have come to the same conclusion about the fundamentally pointless nature of ‘individual’ human effort but have experienced this knowledge in a liberating and joyous manner completely at odds with the pessimistic views of many modern theoreticians. For example while Buddhism declares all life to be transitory and therefore subject to suffering, there is crucially in Buddhism a way out of this dilemma. There is the possibility of mankind reaching a higher state of awareness which can transcend this feeling of aloneness and despair; this sense of a ‘way out’ is indeed present in all religions.
The Higher Self
The modern or in Marxist terminology the bourgeois world view displays an important element which distinguishes it from all other world views in history: its extremely widespread disbelief in the existence of a ‘higher self’. That is, its disbelief in the possibility of humans reaching a higher level of being, and in some way already possessing in embryo the awareness of this state. There are three main thinkers that this essay will deal with who in some way posited either the need for or the existence of a higher self and who made the link between this idea and the idea of God. These are Freud, Jung, and Marx.
In Life against Death Norman O Brown argues that Freud’s theories call out for the necessity of a higher self, of the need for humanity to rise above its current level of consciousness; but Freud, for an array of historical and personal reasons, was characterised in the final analysis by a pessimistic outlook in which humanity was doomed to forever be at the mercy of unconscious desires and conflicts, and he ended up preaching in favour of the necessity of psychic repression in coping with this state of affairs. Jung remained convinced that there was a higher self and that humans were capable of attaining to it: his theory of ‘individuation’ aimed at precisely this outcome. However he won this optimism lightly; he managed to posit the existence of a higher self in part by under-estimating the scale of the problem, this was true both on the social and the personal level. On the personal side he limited the importance of repression in psychic life and on the social plane he simply could not envisage how a fundamentally different society could emerge nor the extent to which the social forms hitherto (in particular social forms based on class division and exploitation) were premised precisely on the need to ‘repress’ and keep the full attainment of life out of reach for the majority of the population. A thoroughgoing understanding of Marxism is the only way in which the hope of the higher self can be maintained alongside the recognition of the full scale of the question posed by this idea.
Freud explained the God idea in terms of reference to infantile images of the parental figures, in particular (as a result of the fact that he dealt mainly with the patriarchal Abrahamic religions) with regard to the ‘Father figure’. This identification of God with the ‘father’ of infantile experience was fundamentally linked to two closely related aspects of the ‘father figure’: that of ‘identification’ with the perceived attributes of the father and the ‘incorporation’ of the parental ideals in the form of the ‘super-ego’ (1927). This function in Freud’s view is often given many negative connotations as it is connected with the problem of guilt, in which humanity ‘polices’ itself from the inside by the ideals and views instilled both by parental influence and society more generally. This has been understood in a negative way by many writers, Dawkins and Hitchens included, as ruining many people’s lives by burdening them with an excessive amount of guilt and shame, especially concerning matters of sexuality. Marx also railed against this ‘false’ God, the controlling judgmental God which keeps the mores of society intact and in his view keeps the people in their place. However there is also a positive element to this aspect of the experience of God; Marx, following on from Feuerbach, saw God as a symbol of the potential of humanity. This idea is in effect the same as that of Freud, in that God represents the ‘ideal’ of how humanity wishes to be and also a glimpse of how humanity could be. It is even closer to the views of Jung who saw God as a symbol of the Self, the total, complete self which is in union with its surroundings and all the layers of its own being, conscious and unconscious.
This possibility of mastering consciousness and of attaining a greater sense of wholeness and union is clearly lacking in the New Atheist analysis. This is illustrated when both Norman O. Brown and Dawkins happen to reflect on a similar point, that humans seem to be practically speaking ‘instinctive dualists’ and idealists despite the supposed monism of the modern materialist world view. The illusion of as Dawkins puts it “a me perched somewhere behind my eyes” (2007:209) is not overcome by mere rationalist argument. In fact this sense of a separate ‘I’ hidden somewhere inside the body could be said, according to a reading of Marx and Freud, to have increased substantially in the modern, bourgeois age, despite it being the age of ‘rationalism’ and ‘materialism’. While Norman O Brown definitely maintains that this illusion is based on what he calls the ‘neurosis of man’ (i.e. the need for psychic repression, in the face of the fear/non-acceptance of death), he sees this as being possible to overcome and suggests that the mystics of the past offer great insights into this possibility. Buddhism is obviously the most relevant here as the only major religion which formally denies the existence of this ‘me’, although most mystical traditions tend towards a similar realisation, if not the same realisation put forward in different terms: the possibility, in other words, of overcoming the illusory separation of this ‘I’ from the universal being.
Again there is another interesting moment where Norman O. Brown and Hitchens make a similar point, which is that mankind’s major problems – in which both writers include the existence of religion- is the fear and non-acceptance of death. “It (religion) will never die out... until we get over our fear of death” (2007:12) However Hitchens, in his dismissal of religion, dismisses all the methods by which mankind has historically attempted to achieve this end. Mystics of all religions and cultures have dedicated their life to overcoming precisely this fear of death. Norman O. Brown recognises this and along with these mystics proclaims the fact that it is only through overcoming the limited view of who and what we are that this overcoming of death is possible. It is only by transcending the ego, by ceasing from identifying with our ego-consciousness and attaining a higher level of being that this leap into ‘the dark’, or perhaps more appropriately ‘the light’, can be achieved.
In conclusion the problem with the New Atheists is that there is nothing new about them: it is the same old bourgeois atheism which cannot offer humanity anything except the cold dead universe of scientism, to replace religious illusions. It leaves humanity forever trapped inside its own ego, forever peering out into a hostile alien universe which threatens at all times to engulf them. This is not a ‘view’ which is thought of and articulated consciously by many writers but rather a trend of modern consciousness in general, reflecting the material workings and basis of bourgeois society.
It is in part a result of an unwillingness to bow down in front of the awesome power and majesty of existence, which is at once modern society’s main strength and one of its chief spiritual weaknesses. This can only be understood historically, as it is partly a result of the fact that capitalist society has reached an unprecedented level of control over nature and partly a result of the drastic increase in alienation from nature that has accompanied this ‘progress’. The increase in control has lead to an extending of mankind’s sense of its own power and strength which has also led it to overestimate its own independence from the very being or reality which gave it the power to achieve these feats. Marx noted that bourgeois society is historically unique in the extent to which it rests upon “egoistic man” (1844). This means more than that the individual is particularly stressed in modern bourgeois society. It means also that alienation has reached unprecedented heights, the individual feels himself uniquely separated from the rest of his community, from nature and from himself. The result of this alienation is that the ‘I’ becomes stronger, in the sense that it is more rigidly separated from the rest of existence and therefore becomes more important. This highest form of alienation ever known in mankind’s history cannot be ignored when dealing with the theories and perceptions generated by this society.
The New Atheists on the other hand accept wholeheartedly this ‘modern’ society and its consciousness.. In fact its answer to the world’s problems is invariably, more modernity, more ‘liberalism’, and more capitalism- ultimately more of what is producing these problems in the first place. This unquestioning view of ‘modernity’ and ‘science’ as uniquely rational and reasonable not only prevents them from seeing in the forms of thought of the past- religion in particular- anything but superstitious nonsense. It also prevents them from understanding why such ideas persist in the modern world.
In contrasting the New Atheists with the thoughts of Marx, Freud and Jung, an unquestioning acceptance of these theories as opposed to those of the New Atheists is not sought. The aim of the comparison is to illustrate a fundamental difference of approach which I believe I have demonstrated in this essay. The principle difference being the respective views of ‘ideas’ and subjective realities; while the New Atheists tend to view anything non-objective as ‘untrue’ these other thinkers all in their own ways, acknowledge that these ideas have reality and power in their own right.
A diluting of the atheism of Marx and Freud and to a lesser extent Jung is similarly not the solution: it only causes more confusion and half truths. There is a God which is rejected by all these forms of thought and which from any view which stays concerned with the aim of the liberation of humanity. This has been called the ‘Goad’ by Ernst Bloch (1972), and “old Nobodaddy” by Blake (1793). It is the oppressive God of ‘civilized’ religion which has become part of the very forces enslaving human society, therefore preventing real spiritual development of humanity. This in Freud’s language is the oppressive ‘superego’, the introjected image of the father figure who stands above us waiting to punish any perceived wrong doing. This god will only be overcome by the overthrowing of his source of power and being- the real world oppressors themselves and the need for guilt which any inhuman social system needs to posses in order to function. As Freud puts it: “civilization...can only achieve this aim (of uniting its members into a coherent social unit) through an ever increasing reinforcement of the sense of guilt” (1930: 70). In the modern historical epoch this means the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement with a truly human society in which the need to repress oneself in order to function in society can finally be overcome. Therefore the brand of atheism proposed by the New Atheists only succeeds in eliminating the ‘true’ God of mystical experience while leaving the false God of guilt in total command of human lives.
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