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A. Freud

There are several sides to Freud’s critique of religion. For example, he was fascinated by what he saw as the Darwinian picture of early human beings coming together in packs or herds (like wolves or elk), all the females belonging to one powerful, dominant, jealous male, and he tells a dramatic story about how religion arose out of an extraordinary interaction among the members of that primal horde:

The father of the primal horde, since he was an unlimited despot, had seized all the women for himself; his sons, being dangerous to him as rivals, had been killed or driven away. One day, however, the sons came together and united to overwhelm, kill, and devour their father, who had been their enemy but also their ideal. After the deed they were unable to take over their heritage since they stood in one another’s way. Under the influence of failure and remorse they learned to come to an agreement among themselves; they banded themselves into a clan of brothers by the help of the ordinances of totemism, which aimed at preventing a repetition of such a deed, and they jointly undertook to forgo the possession of the women on whose account they had killed their father. They were then driven to finding strange women, and this was the origin of the exogamy which is so closely bound up with totemism. The Totem meal was the festival commemorating the fearful deed from which sprang man’s sense of guilt (or ‘original sin’). . . .

. . . This view of religion throws a particularly clear light upon the psychological basis of Christianity, in which, as we know, the ceremony of the totem meal still survives, with but little distortion, in the form of Communion.154154   “An Autobiographical Study,” in volume 20 of the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1953–74), p. 68. See also Totem and Taboo, authorized translation by James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton, 1950 [originally published in 1913]), pp. 140ff.


Strong stuff, this, displaying Freud’s redoubtable imaginative powers and his ability to tell a sensational story;155155   Freud tells a similarly fantastic story about how we human beings tamed fire—“a quite extraordinary and unexampled achievement,” he says—and turned it to our use:
   Psychoanalytic material, incomplete as it is and not susceptible to clear interpretation, nevertheless admits of a conjecture—a fantastic-sounding one—about the origin of this human feat. It is as though primal man had the habit, when he came in contact with fire, of satisfying an infantile desire connected with it, by putting it out with a stream of his urine. The legends that we possess leave no doubt about the originally phallic view taken of tongues of flame as they shoot upwards. Putting out fire by micturating—a theme to which modern giants, Gulliver in Lilliput and Rabelais’ Gargantua, still hark back—was therefore a kind of a sexual act with a male, an enjoyment of sexual potency in a homosexual competition. The first person to renounce this desire and spare the fire was able to carry it off with him and subdue it to his own use. By damping down the fire of his own sexual excitation, he had tamed the natural force of fire. This great cultural conquest was thus the reward for his renunciation of instinct. Further, it is as though woman had been appointed guardian of the fire which was held captive on the domestic hearth, because her anatomy made it impossible for her to yield to the temptation of this desire. (Civilization and Its Discontents, tr. and ed. James Strachey [New York: W. W. Norton, 1961 (originally published in 1930 as Das Unbehagen in der Kultur)], p. 37)
all the elements—sex, murder, cannibalism, remorse—of a dandy Hollywood spectacular are here. Taken as a serious attempt at a historical account of the origin of religion, though, it has little to recommend it and is at best a wild guess, much less science than science fiction.156156   Here see, e.g., Wilhelm Schmidt, The Origin and Growth of Religion: Facts and Theories, tr. H. J. Rose (New York: L. MacVeagh, Dial Press, 1931), p. 114, who makes an attempt to evaluate this story as serious science; see also Evan Fales, “Scientific Explanations of Mystical Experiences, Part I: The Case of St. Teresa,” Religious Studies 32, no. 1 (June 1996), p. 148. But perhaps Freud didn’t intend it as sober and literal truth. (He himself calls it a ‘vision’.) Perhaps it is something like a parable, maybe something like how some Christians understand early Genesis or Job, meant to illustrate and present a truth in graphic but nonliteral form. (Maybe here as elsewhere Freud is under the spell of biblical ways of writing and thinking.) And just as it isn’t always easy to draw the right moral from a biblical parable, so it isn’t easy to see what Freud intends us to gather from this gripping if grisly little tale.

In any event, Freud offers quite a different account of the psychological origins of religious (theistic) belief:

These [religious beliefs], which are given out as teachings, are not precipitates of experience or end-results of thinking: they are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of 139mankind. The secret of their strength lies in the strength of those wishes. As we already know, the terrifying impressions of helplessness in childhood aroused the need for protection—for protection through love—which was provided by the father; and the recognition that this helplessness lasts throughout life made it necessary to cling to the existence of a father, but this time a more powerful one. Thus the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fear of the dangers of life; the establishment of a moral world-order ensures the fulfillment of the demands of justice, which have so often remained unfulfilled in human civilization; and the prolongation of earthly existence in a future life provides the local and temporal framework in which these wish-fulfillments shall take place.157157   The Future of an Illusion, tr. and ed. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton, 1961), p. 30. This work was originally published as Die Zukunft einer Illusion (Leipzig: Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag, 1927).

As we see, there is more to Freud’s critique than phantasmagoric fables about the primal horde. The idea is that theistic belief arises from a psychological mechanism Freud calls ‘wish-fulfillment’; the wish in this case is father, not to the deed, but to the belief. Nature rises up against us, cold, pitiless, implacable, blind to our needs and desires. She delivers hurt, fear, and pain; in the end, she demands our death. Paralyzed and appalled, we invent (unconsciously, of course) a Father in Heaven who exceeds our earthly fathers as much in power and knowledge as in goodness and benevolence; the alternative would be to sink into depression, stupor, paralysis, and finally death. According to Freud, belief in God is an illusion in a semitechnical use of the term: a belief that arises from the mechanism of wish-fulfillment. This illusion somehow becomes internalized.158158   And in such a way that it (or its deliverances) rather resembles Calvin’s sensus divinitatis (chapter 6, below); see Moses and Monotheism (New York: Vintage, 1967), pp. 167ff.

An illusion (as opposed to a delusion), says Freud, is not necessarily false; and he goes on to add that it isn’t possible to prove that theistic belief is mistaken. Nevertheless, there is more here than a mere antiseptic comment on the origin of religion. Although religion originates in the cognitive mechanism of wish-fulfillment, Freud apparently believes that it is within our power to resist this illusion, and that there is something condemnable, something intellectually irresponsible, in failing to do so:

If ever there was a case of a lame excuse we have it here. Ignorance is ignorance; no right to believe anything can be derived from it. In other matters no sensible person will behave so irresponsibly or rest content with such feeble grounds for his opinions and for the line he takes. . . . Where questions of religion are concerned, people are 140guilty of every possible sort of dishonesty and intellectual misdemeanour.159159   The Future of an Illusion, p. 32.

Psychoanalysis, furthermore, provides arguments against the truth of religious belief: “If the application of the psycho-analytic method makes it possible to find a new argument against the truths [sic] of religion, tant pis for religion . . . .” (p. 37). Once we see that religious belief takes its origin in wishful thinking, we will presumably no longer find it attractive; perhaps this will also induce in us a certain pity for those benighted souls who will never rise to our enlightened heights:

The whole thing is so patently infantile, so incongruous with reality, that to one whose attitude to humanity is friendly, it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life.160160   Civilization and Its Discontents, p. 21.

Freud hopes and expects that we human beings will eventually give up religious belief, once we are clear about its origin, in favor of a view of the world that is closer to the actual facts of the matter:

I am reminded of one of my children who was distinguished at an early age by a peculiarly marked matter-of-factness. When the children were being told a fairy story and were listening to it with rapt attention, he would come up and ask: “Is that a true story?” When he was told it was not, he would turn away with a look of disdain. We may expect that people will soon behave in the same way towards the fairy tales of religion. . . .161161   The Future of an Illusion, p. 29. Freud isn’t unambiguously sanguine on this point; he thinks there are three powers (religion, art, and philosophy) that challenge the claims of science to cognitive supremacy, and of these three only religion “is to be taken seriously as an enemy” (22:160).

The fundamental theme here, therefore, is that religious belief arises from wish-fulfillment. We shall have to try to see more exactly what this amounts to and what bearing, if any, it has on the rationality of Christian belief; first, however, we should briefly note Marx’s rather similar criticism.

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