Future Of An Illusion By Freud Essay

, 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

and release.

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

sexual component.

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

April Quetschke

July 22, 1999

Philosophy 101


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