Sigmund Freud: The Future of an Illusion
The following paper contains an attempt to define Sigmund Freud's perception of religion. After defining his perception, I will then attempt to point out to a couple of strengths and weaknesses contained in his definition.
Freud believed religion was a cultural product, the creation of civilization itself. Civilization's principal task was to defend humankind against nature (Freud, pg. 19). It accomplished this by generating religious ideas in response to nature and fate. By humanizing the elements of nature, nature no longer seemed like a blind force insensitive to humans, but any emotional being capable of feeling sympathy and showing mercy. Religion made the untouchable forces of nature become acts of will and not just something that happens without any rational reasoning. It gave the forces of nature the qualities of a father figure, powerful yet merciful, and turned them into gods (Freud, p. 17). Finally, religion gave civilization a sense of control over one of its greatest fears, death. Religious beliefs in all societies have some idea of the way ultimate reality should be, and how things ultimately should be in the universe. Religion gave individual life a higher purpose. It gave hope after death. Religious beliefs made death less a fearsome end and made it simply a passing by command of a superior intelligence (Freud, p. 19). A superior intelligence who orders everything for the best (Freud p. 19). And a place where all good is rewarded and all evil is punished, and all of the hardships and sufferings of life are obliterated (Freud, p. 19). Religions therefore made the awesome elements of nature, especially death, appear much less threatening to civilization and gave a sense of influence over nature.
Secondly, Freud believed that religion was an illusion. Religious ideas are not based on experiences of rational thinking, but our illusions based on the "most urgent, strongest, and oldest wishes of mankind" (Freud, p. 30). To Freud illusions were "derived from human wishes" and are not necessarily "false" (Freud p. 39). Freud says that "we call a belief an illusion when a wish-fulfillment is a prominent factor in its motivation, and in doing so we disregard its relationship to reality, just as the illusion itself sets no store by verification" (Freud p. 40). Illusions are not necessarily unrealized or erroneous (Freud, p. 31). It was an illusion of Columbus's that he "discovered a new sea route to the Indies" (Freud, p. 30). His illusion was not an error. Some illusions however, are so incompatible with reality that they can be compared to delusions, which are flat out contradictions to reality (Freud, p. 31). Illusions deal with reality and are therefore not to be confused with delusions.
With this definition of an illusion in mind, Freud perceived religion to be an illusion. For this definition Freud looks to the definition of religion put forth by Ludwig Feuerbach, another contemporary thinker on religion. To Feuerbach, religion is a dream of the human mind. Even dreaming is a form of reality, and not completely nonsense. Some dreams are so real that even we can tell the difference. Dreaming is reality dressed up by the human imagination. Feuerbach continues by saying religion is real but has been altered by the imagination. He also says religion houses truth. Religion than, though an illusion based on human wishes, still contains truth and is not necessarily a contradiction to reality.
Finally, Freud believed religion was the "universal obsessional neurosis of humanity" (Freud, p. 55). Freud makes an analogy to the neuroses a child encounters during normal development. An example of such a neurosis might be the Oedipus Complex in which the child, usually male, competes with the father for the mothers love and affections. Through the normal process of maturation, the boy comes to terms with his situation and progresses to the next stage of development.
Some neuroses are more difficult than others to overcome. The more difficult neurosis become rooted in the child and may manifest themselves as irrational fears. To conquer the fears encountered in this stage, the child makes up things to cope with these fears. The child may recite a saying or perform a ritual before encountering whatever his fear is related to. The child could then perform the activity with peace of mind. This ceremony would eventually be outgrown. This, Freud believed, was essentially what religion was, a neurosis made up to help civilization deal with fears of the unknown, nature, and is discussed earlier, death. Freud believed that as humanity aged and matured past this stage, it would simply turn away from religion (Freud, p. 43). The rituals and sayings would simply be lost and forgotten.
If such a thing would occur, civilization would have to admit to itself the full extent of its helplessness and insignificant to machinery of the universe (Freud, p. 49). Civilization will no longer be protected from nature by religion. Humanity leaving religion is analogous to a child leaving the parental house (Freud, p. 49). Like the child would have to just, so to humanity would have to adjust to life without the psychological aid of religion to calm its fears.
I will now attempt to indicate what I feel are Freud's strengths and weaknesses in his evaluation of religion. Freud is confusing question of religious questions and questions about religion. Religious questions are questions about ultimate reality or God. Questions about religion deal mainly with historical questions. Freud claims religion is based on truths in religious doctrines that are so distorted and disguised that the mass of humanity cannot recognize them as truth. He believes religion is accepted because of three reasons: our ancestors believed, we have proofs handed down to us, and we are forbidden to doubt the teachings authenticity (Freud, p. 44). Freud claims the religious doctrines are full of contradictions, revisions, and falsifications, and speak of factual confirmations yet unconfirmed (Freud, p. 26). The history of religion may be a little shaky. They may be inaccurate of history itself, but all of his evidence put forth pertains to questions about religion, not religious questions. Freud's argument against his or her religion only undermines the history of religion, not the essence of religion, which transcends all human understanding.
One of the strengths of Freud's evaluation of religion lies in the fact that religion is a cultural product. Religious ideas were generated by civilization to subdue its deepest fears. Civilization couldn't deal with blind force so it created religion to humanize the force. Religion not only defends them against nature, but also defined the way a person should live as an individual and as a part of a larger civilization. It also gave reasoning to live this way. It was a way to define the self, the world, and ultimate reality. Religion accomplished this by providing a moral law to guide one's actions throughout life. A law which suppressed the individuals instincts and extended to humanity itself. By extending to humanity, it prevented humankind from extinguishing itself. The threat of extinction was not enough to suppress these instincts and thus religion made a claim to ultimate reality. By living according to the moral law, one's existence on earth would be rewarded with a passing to a higher form of life. This made sacrificing instincts much easier. It also gave hope to the continuing existence of humanity itself. Religion not only defendant civilization from nature, but also defends nature from itself.
Although Freud has some strength to his argument, I still believe he is way off-based. I feel that one of the major factors in being religious is doubt. Without this aspect one cannot truly understand and accept religion. It would also be difficult to reap all of the benefits religion has to offer. It is for those reasons that I strongly disagree with Freud's interpretation of religion.