, Research Paper
In his book The Future of An Illusion, Freud (1928) struggled to create a theory that
would distinguish morality from religion so that people would still be able to know right
from wrong even if they did not believe in a God. According to Freud, humans belonged
to civilization to control nature and to regulate human relations. However, Freud claimed
that humans have often paid a great price for civilization; this price, he believed, was
neurosis. Consequently, humans began to look for some kind of compensation to confront
the neurosis. Freud’s theory maintained that religion often evolved as this compensation.
Freud suggested that religion and ethics, to this point, have acted to maintain civilization.
However, Freud also proposed that humans were helpless before the forces of nature and
thus “needed” something to protect them. Thus, he concluded that religion has sprung out
of helplessness and therefore was unhealthy to the individual. Based on this theory of
religion, Freud proposed the need to consider a way to sustain morality apart from
As is generally known, the central Freudian criticism of belief in God is that such a belief is
untrustworthy because of its psychological origin. That is, God is a projection of our own
intense, unconscious desires; He is a wish fulfillment derived from childish needs for
protection and security. Since these wishes are largely unconscious, any denial of such an
interpretation is to be given little credence. It should be noted that in developing this kind
of critique, Freud has raised the ad hominem argument to one of wide influence. It is in
The Future of an Illusion (1927, 1961) that Freud makes his position clearest:
Religious ideas have arisen from the same needs as have all the other achievements of
civilization: from the necessity of defending oneself against the crushing superior force of
nature. (p. 21)
Therefore, religious beliefs are:
…illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind . . . As
we already know, the terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood aroused the need
forprotection-for protection through love-which was provided by the father . . . Thus the
benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fear of the danger of life. (p. 30)
Although such historical speculations fail to impress most people, Freud’s psychological
theories, appearing mostly in The Future of an Illusion, are a bit more credible. He made a
deliberate point of refusing to grant religion any sort of privileged status among human
endeavors. He put religion squarely in the middle of the larger context of human culture
and thus made it as accessible to scientific investigation as any other human conduct.
There were to be no sacred cows, no exemption from detailed analysis.
A number of different psychological motives underlying religious impulses are discussed
throughout the book and briefly in other works. A principle component for Freud was the
feeling of helplessness, occurring in a number of different areas, namely external dangers,
internal impulses, death, and society. As wish-fulfilling illusions, religious faith and gods
had specific tasks:
They must exorcize the terrors of nature, they must reconcile men to the cruelty of Fate,
particularly as it is shown in death, and they must compensate them for the sufferings
which a civilized life in common has imposed on them.
The first, of course, would be the feeling of helplessness before the awesome and
unpredictable powers of nature – mortal dangers from the external world. We are
confronted in life by many uncontrollable dangers, from hurricanes to disease – a condition
which Feud likened to the situation children find themselves in. Children, however, look to
their parents to protect them from danger. Adults thus create gods for themselves
precisely because they had similar “gods” in their homes as they grew up. Freud regarded
the link between the two to as “incontrovertible.”
However, it should be recognized that this link served Freud, since the inclusion of
childhood moved the issue to the home turf of Freud’s psychoanalysis which focused
strongly on childhood traumas to explain adult neuroses.
Perhaps the greatest danger facing a person is their own eventual demise. Religion,
however, typically promises the existence of an afterlife and hence that there is no genuine
death. Not only is death not genuine, but the “true believer” can look forward to
wonderful rewards for their allegiance to the “true faith” as compensation for whatever
tribulations they endured on earth. This was an important theme for Freud, as he
considered civilization to be oppressive on human nature, engendering many forms of
neurosis. Although he considered it necessary for survival, it was at best a something to
endure and not appreciate.
Psychological Analysis: Obsessions
A final form of helplessness against which religion acts is, according to Freud, our
helplessness before our own internal and uncontrollable desires. Freud made much of the
similarities between religious rituals and obsessional rituals (for example, the compulsive
need to wash your hands in a specific pattern every time), the latter of which functioned to
protect the ego from the emergence of fantasies, desires, and especially sexual impulses
which were normally repressed. In the ritual, however, they gain some partial expression
Freud saw “neurosis as an individual religion, religion as a universal obsessional neurosis.”
Drawing this parallel between the two, Freud called religion:
…the suppression, the renunciation, of certain instinctual impulses. These impulses,
however, are not, as in the neuroses, exclusively components of the sexual instinct; they
are self-seeking, socially harmful instincts, though, even so, they are usually not without a
Anyone who has noticed the Christian obsession with all matters sexual, and particularly
with the constant efforts to repress and deny most forms of sexual expression, will find
that even if Freud is not entirely correct, he has certainly hit upon something important.
Illusions and Delusions
The issue of “illusion” is another very important part of Freud’s critique of religion. At all
times we must keep in mind that he drew a sharp distinction between “illusion” and
“delusion,” using only the former to describe religious beliefs. Illusions, including those of
religion, are such not because of their content but by their sources. Calling religious beliefs
illusions does not automatically deny them any sort of validity – they may, after all, even
come true. Their problem lies in their source: undisciplined and uncritical human wishes.
It should be pointed out of course, that in Freud’s theories just about all thinking, including
scientific thinking, can have nonrational sources and be indicative of wishful thinking.
With both religion and science, it is not that the source determines the value of an idea – a
great idea can have a nonrational source, and a poor idea can have a rational source. What
is key is just how much influence that source continues to hold over the idea in question.
Scientists can and do come across revolutionary ideas intuitively, but their intuition and
wishful thinking are supposed to remain disciplined. Ideas are supposed to be open to
rational critique, demonstration and verification. Convictions, no matter how strong, must
be capable of being refined, modified and even abandoned if necessary. Scientific thinking
can thus be differentiated from religious thinking, since religion rarely if ever allows for
such an atmosphere to hold sway.
Freud, S. (1927/1961). The future of an illusion. New York: Norton.
A Probe of Sigmund Freud’s View of Religion
July 22, 1999