Freud – The Future Of An Illusion Religion Is The Universal Neurosis

Sigmund Freud

It is no surprise that Freud’s dissection of everything that rallies under the label “supernatural” appears in the Penguin Books – Great Ideas series which identifies the most significant and influential texts in written history. He carries his objective psychoanalytical approach to religion with a relentless drive for truth that sees him take on God and the human fallibilities that have lead to the proliferation of deities throughout human experience.

This short but incredibly poignant text published towards the end of his life (1927) exposes the reasons for belief in a higher power. Freud reveals “the paternal core that had always lain hidden behind every god figure” with which people can reconcile their lost protection and intimacy they had as children.[1] He perceives a belief in a higher power as the desire to never mature, to permanently retain an omnipotent guardian so that they may offer protection in a daunting world. This, Freud conveys, emulates the devotedness children show towards their parents. The recognition of this condition leads Freud to conclude, quite rightly, that an emancipation of religion can be traumatic and unappealing. It is to throw away the illusory comfort blanket in return for the cold truth, to which end Freud propels us towards. Carl Sagan in his Cosmos series echoes Freud’s point, “Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable”, in what is an example of the far-reaching influence this text has had. Both conclude the necessity in deposing irrational beliefs as the greatest step we can take to liberate our minds.

However, Freud recognises the outcry that will always confront his arguments and that this response will almost always be of an emotional nature which allows the believer to cling on to their religion despite overwhelming evidence. This effectively  establishes religion’s outrageous offences to the intelligence. He holds religion to account for the mass infantilising and enslavement of our cognitive faculties through his exploration of the subtitle “Religion Is The Universal Neurosis”. He recalls the whimpering excuse of the opposition that religion is credo quia absurdum, above the requirements of reason. The author purposefully constructs a dialogue between himself and an imagined critic. This was, unfortunately, an unnecessary technique that detracts from the style and fluidity of the text by dragging out quite a simple argument. On the other hand the result of this internal debate is pivotal to his argument. Freud resolutely propounds that “there is no higher authority than reason” and that “Ultimately, nothing can withstand reason and experience, and the fact that religion contradicts both is all too tangible”.[2][3]

It is all too clear having read this book that Freud views religion in the most negative terms because of its enforcement of unquestionable adherence despite innumerable contradictions that are frequently being revealed through the advances of science. It preys on our most basic instincts of fear; fear of death and fear of the unknown. As long as we hold on to this evolutionary baggage we will not escape the childish fantasies that entrench rampant credulity, allowing such a society to be easily mislead and manipulated to devastating consequences. Most recently, in the last century, the charge of deicide on the Jewish people came to a climax on the back of enormous religious credulity. Religion has been an expedient for persecution, mental and physical slavery and untold misery that blots our history with the primordial  savagery it arose from. Freud’s work takes us a step closer to confronting why we are so prone to a belief in the supernatural and why the desire for a parental dictator to protect and love us yet punish and instil fear in us is so widespread, “they are illusions, fulfilling the oldest, most powerful, most pressing desires of the human race; the secret of their strength is the strength of those desires”.[4]

This text is an essential reference for those with an interest in psychoanalysis as well as the everyday sceptic. The debate on why so many people believe in some kind of religion is not exhausted in this book and many others have contributed to this line of inquiry like Richard Dawkins with his suggestion that it has been an evolutionary advantage to adhere to authority. Following a parent’s or leader’s instructions could well have been beneficial for our species in our early years and it is easy to see why. When a parent tells an inquisitive child not to touch fire, they are protecting the child from harm. It is, therefore, no great leap from this to the willingness to adhere to a deity, similarly sought for guidance in the unknown. The difference between our species’ early years and the present, however, is that what mystified us then does no longer. Science has provided, and continues to do so, rational explanations for the things that terrified our ancestors. We no longer see earthquakes and volcanoes as expressions of the gods, rather, the activities of plate tectonics. We now know that the existence of microbial life can cause disease, not the punishment of God. Science has erected the road that leaves religion a clear run to the grave. Freud eloquently ushers this along. The questions and conclusions raised by Freud lay bare the very human side of religion, giving enormous weight to the truism that man is not made in God’s image, God is made in man’s image.

[1] Freud, S., The Future Of An Illusion (Penguin Books, 2008) trans by J.A. Underwood & S. Whiteside, p. 22.

[2] Ibid., p. 33.

[3] Ibid., p. 69.

[4] Ibid., p. 36.

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