In 1927, Sigmund Freud wrote a book called “The Future of an Illusion.” In it, Freud asked, “In what does the particular value of religious ideas lie?” This was a fairly startling question at the time. It’s not about whether religious ideas are true and-or reasonable, which is the question that preoccupies that ever-popular, if tiresome, field of apologetics. Rather, it’s about why religion exists in the first place and what function it serves.

Freud’s answer was that religion functions as a way of coping with a terrifying world. Despite the persistent myths about how nice it would be to get back to nature, nature is actually a pretty scary thing. Indeed, the whole reason we developed civilization in the first place was to fend off nature. Unfortunately, civilization is an imperfect solution. Build all the walls and hospitals you want, you’re still going to get into arguments with your neighbors, you’re still going to get sick, and you’re still going to die. According to Freud, we needed some sort of consolation to blunt this existential anxiety and provide us with answers to all of nature’s problems. And so, to Freud, religion is wish-fulfillment, a childish illusion that makes existence tolerable.

As Richard Beck, a professor of psychology at Abilene University and author of the blog Experimental Theology (and specifically a series of posts called “The Varieties and Illusions of Religious Experience,” on which much of this column is based) points out, religion, being the product of a psychological mechanism, doesn’t necessarily make religion’s metaphysical claims untrue or reduce the value of religion as vehicle for personal transformation. But it does seem a little too pat for a person’s unprovable metaphysical claims — of freedom from death, of eternal contentment, of a God who always wants to listen and is willing to lend a helping hand — to match precisely that which they would most wish for.

A lot of Christians — though they wouldn’t use the same language and would certainly disagree about it being a childish illusion — are more or less in agreement with Freud about the function of religion. While most Christians reject the prosperity gospel — which posits that faith will make you rich — and many would accept that having faith won’t make you happy all the time, I have heard many a sermon on the potential of faith to make you “content,” which sounds very much like “consoled.” In many churches, expressions of doubt or negativity, complaints against God and even clinical depression are seen as signs of unfaith. Beck notes, for example, that churches rarely use the lament psalms in services, generally deeming them too dark and depressing.

In his book “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” published 25 years before Freud’s, William James identified two different Christian typologies. James labeled the first type of Christian “healthy-minded.” As per James, healthy-minded Christians tend toward optimism and happiness, and believe themselves and everything that happens around them to be part of God’s plan; they very clearly use Christianity as consolation. Whereas Freud viewed this as childish and immature, James saw it as a perfectly valid coping mechanism. Indeed, healthy-minded people are often successful and, well, happy. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that.

James did believe it could be taken too far, though. Too much healthy-mindedness can be almost pathological and can move beyond consolation into the realm of dishonesty, as much with oneself as with others. Further, because so much of their well-being is wrapped up in their religion, any challenge to that religion can seem extremely threatening.

James’ second type of Christian is the “sick soul.” Sick souls tend to be existential in nature, more acknowledging of the darkness of the world, and more likely to express doubt and negativity. In short, they are the authors of the ancient lament psalms. Contrary to Freud’s hypothesis, they do not seem to use religion primarily as consolation, and Beck presents empirical studies to back that up.

Speaking personally, many of the complaints I’ve received about my columns can basically be summarized as, “Not consoling enough.” This complaint does not come only from Christians.) And it’s true. My columns tend not to be consoling, and they are unlikely to ever be particularly consoling, because consolation has never been a huge part of my religious experience.

Or at least I don’t think it has. And there’s the rub. It’s hard to tell what unconsciously motivates your beliefs; that’s what makes it unconscious. And I’m sure there are times when I have turned to religion for consolation. Types are just types, after all; people move along a continuum.

A more distressing complaint is that I don’t take religion seriously. Of course, I do take religion seriously. I think and read and write about it constantly. But readers and friends often get the feeling that I don’t, that I’m just playing around. This reaction is most likely the result of my tendency to retreat into academic language and esoteric theological concepts. The odds are pretty good I’m doing it right now, actually. It’s something I do — almost always unconsciously — to distance myself from emotionally difficult ideas. And so, even as I often write against using religion as consolation, I end up taking consolation in a different, related cultural mechanism.

This fits with the theories Ernest Becker described in “The Denial of Death,” as he was nearing his own death. Becker built on Freud’s work to argue that existential anxiety can work as a powerful creative force. That is, in the face of death, we strive to feel significant. On a personal level, this might mean creating a work of art or earning a large salary or writing a religion column for your local paper. On a societal level, though, we have spent years and centuries and millennia building a culture that would specifically afford us those opportunities to feel significant. Religion is a part of it, but only a part. There’s a virtually unlimited supply of cultural mechanisms that we can employ to construct meaning for ourselves, to take consolation from the horrors of the world. If not religion, then art. If not art, then science. If not science, then day labor. If not day labor, then cooking.

On a certain level, we believe the things we believe, disbelieve the things we disbelieve, and do the things we do because it feels better to do so, and we can’t really do much to change that. And maybe that’s OK.

Justin Fowler is a student at University College of Bangor. He may be reached at justin.fowler@maine.edu. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.