Sigmund Freud’s A Future of an Illusion (1927) is one of the classical works in psychology of religion that students still read nowadays. And for a good reason, because Freud’s ideas informed the whole bunch of twentieth century psychologists, many of whom, like Erich Fromm, also touched a topic of religion. Following is my brief overview of Freud’s ideas about religion as described in the Future of an Illusion.
Freud’s attitude towards religion was generally critical. That is, he was an atheist and criticized religion as a social institute, although he recognized that religion fulfills some important social functions. However, as most early psychologists, Freud was also interested in psychic phenomena and, as he acknowledges in one of his private letters, believed in telepathy (see: Kripal J. J. Esalen. America and the Religion of No Religion. P. vi).
This ambiguous approach towards the realm of spiritual opened the way for different interpretations of psychoanalytic doctrine. Some authors, such as Wilhelm Reich and Carl Gustav Jung, developed it in the direction that included all sorts of paranormal and esoteric experiences in the scope of their theories, eventually creating approaches at the fringe between the academia and esotericism (although Freud has never approved such exercises of his former students).
1. According to Freud, culture is built on limitation of our desires — which are, as Freud says in ch. 2, essentially incest, cannibalism and murder. Obviously, if people act according to these desires, any settled social order would be impossible. Therefore, a culture impose prohibition of these desires, which leads individuals to frustration of desires (i.e. absence of satisfaction) and eventually leave them in a state of privation (i.e. a chronic frustration of desires).
2. That, of course, makes people potentially hostile to culture, so the question is why they prefer to remain a part of society rather than to leave it altogether? The answer is basically very simple — the culture provides many benefits like secure environment, warn house, nice food. Even more important is that eventually people realize that even it is very convenient to kill a person who disturbs you, it is not very nice to know that others may do the same with you (ch. 8) — here it seems that Freud more or less relies on Hobbes’ idea of bellum omnia contra omnes.
3. Moreover, society not only oppresses us with its regulations, it also psychologically rewards us when we follow the rules. This reward is of a narcissistic nature — even if we have less immediate satisfaction, we can compensate for that stating that we are more cultural, morally refined persons.
For example, imagine that a Victorian era English person visits a tribe somewhere in Amazon forests which is far less restrictive about sex or violence than Western society of this period. According to Freud, this European traveler will fill envy; however, this envy will be counterbalanced with the idea that Western culture is superior to these “savages.” This is a sort of narcissistic satisfaction that a culture uses to compensate an absence of an immediate satisfaction. In Freud’s own words (ch. 2):
One may be a wretched plebeian, plagued by debt and military service; still, one is a Roman, with a share in the task of ruling other nations and establishing their laws.
Over time, thanks to these mechanisms, we will internalize cultural norms, and developed cultures rely not as much on external pressure as on internal coercion, i.e. conscience of individuals.
4. But not only culture restricts us, the nature does the same. We all depend on good weather, sources of food, we are subjects to diseases and death. And all of that is a traumatic experience.
So, as Freud profoundly notice, “life is hard to bear for the individual,” because individual constantly clashes with culture and with nature (ch. 3). Culture, of course, protects us from nature to some extent — because “the chief task of culture … is to defend us against nature” (ch. 3) — but, as we have discussed before, it essentially leads to new problems. So, culture needs reliable instruments to psychologically compensate for this.
5. Here comes religion. Religion is essentially an instrument of culture, which (a) rewards us for conformist behavior and (b) protects us emotionally from facing the nature.
The nature of religion is that it is an illusion. It means that religious worldview is created not because of reason and knowledge, but because of our desires. Freud writes in ch. 6:
“[Religious ideas,] promulgated as doctrines, are not residues of experience or final results of thought. They are illusions — fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and the most fervent wishes of humanity.”
6. Now, it is important to stress that “an illusion is not identical to error, and is not necessarily an error” (ch. 6). Many religious statements may be perfectly correct. For example, if religion tells you that you should not kill your neighbors that might be a good rule to follow.
What is wrong about religion is the motivation behind this regulation. In this case, for example, it is possible that you should not kill your neighbors because if you do not kill your neighbor, you will get to Heaven, which is good, because Heavens eventually provides the eternal life as opposed to eternal death for our sins. And fear of death and desire for life is one of the deepest biological urges that exists in every human being.
7. What is important to understand is that, according to Freud, religion works. It persists precisely because it fulfills its social functions. However, we can and should discuss if it is (a) the only instrument and (b) an effective instrument at all. Freud’s answers for both questions is “no” (ch. 7):
“It is doubtful whether people were, at the time of the unrestricted rule of religious doctrines, generally happier than today; they were certainly not more moral.”
So, people might as well live without any religion, and other social institutes will replace it as effectively.
8. Why we should consider these alternatives very seriously, according to Freud, is because the development of science gradually erases religion (ch. 7):
“Criticism has eaten away at the evidential force of religious documents, natural science has exposed the errors contained therein, and comparative research has noticed the fatal resemblance between the religious ideas we revere and the mental products of primitive peoples and times.”
9. Why it is important is because religion will eventually cease to exist, and if we continue to build our morality on religion, morality will be destroyed together with it.
Freud sees two possible solutions: either we establish a totalitarian anti-utopia that will enforce morality by means of power, or we revise relationships between culture and religion.
10. Such a revision will require promotion of rational rather than emotional reasons for moral behavior which Freud envisions mostly in utilitarian terms.