1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part Five
Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion
Evangelical leaders crying in their beer about the “New Atheism,” led by partisans like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, treat this phenomenon as somehow new. This reflects an appalling lack of historical perspective. Though today’s atheism differs palpably from pop atheist icons like Camus and Nietzsche, it doesn’t entirely plow a new road. Dawkins’ and Harris’
arguments merely extrapolate from claims first propounded by Sigmund Freud.
As a product of prewar positivism, Freud, like many of his generation, saw religion as a primitive holdover from humanity’s prior epochs. The persistence of religious belief, even among many intelligent people, vexed the scientific illuminati of his generation. By 1927, Freud had established himself as Europe’s preeminent theorist of imponderable human behavior. So he set himself to unpacking the remarkable tenacity of religious illusions in a modern, scientific era.
Freud establishes early that, in calling religion an “illusion,” he is emphatically not calling it a “delusion.” He does not contend that religion proceeds from a deviant or deficient mind. Rather, it finds its roots in a world view founded on desires and testimony, not observable evidence. In that sense, religion is like racism (yes, he makes that analogy), in that we wish it to be so, but can never test our premises and arrive at ironclad conclusions.
We must establish one fact about this book right away: it is at heart a work of philosophy, not science. Freud doesn’t even pretend to engage in empirical research or scientific discourse between these covers. And he certainly doesn’t maintain the illusion of scholarly dispassion for his subject. Well before Freud published this book, Émile Durkheim and William James had undertaken more dispassionate, methodical research into human religious experience.
The question, then, becomes not why individuals believe, but what benefit religion brings to society. (Freud treats “religion” as a sweeping category of experience, ignoring the different beliefs and aims of particular faiths.) And every religion, to some degree, propounds rule systems, which place a normalizing influence on individuals. That, Freud says, pointing triumphantly, is religion’s gift: it subsumes individual impulse to the common good.
Freud’s theory of the Oedipus Complex, perhaps blown out of proportion in his
reputation, feeds into his theory of religion. All humans, in his estimation, must somehow reconcile our innate desire for incest, cannibalism, and murder, into the needs of a society which would collapse if we acted on these impulses. The belief in transcendent forces which would hold us to account gives us an external motivation,
fear of punishment, to restrain our base appetites.
In other words, because humans recognize ourselves as only steps removed from the mud, we create the desire for something greater than ourselves, to control our animal natures. By giving us a weighted system of rewards and punishments which exceeds the sensual rewards of the moment, we give ourselves reason not to indulge ourselves. And religion persists because science has not yet provided an alternate foundation for morality among the lumpenproletariat.
Therefore, Freud makes a suggestion that would make current atheists like Harris and Dawkins choke: we must not abolish religion. Though he includes his
readers in a circle of enlightenment, he implies that the mass of humanity still consists of intellectually unevolved peons. And those lesser minds still need to believe in God, because those people still need external motivation for their moral actions. And God, for all His limitations, fills that bill.
This explanation has obvious shortcomings. For one, it only explains the Judeo-Christian, and arguably Islamic, tradition. Other religions may not emphasize judgement, like Buddhism, or may permit multiple shots at virtue, like Hinduism. This intellectual tunnel vision reflects European triumphalism (Freud, a non-observant Jew, fled Europe barely ahead of the distinctly non-Christian Nazis).
Not everything Freud writes has withstood changing time and technology.
Developments in neuropsychology, for instance, show that at least some religious impulses originate internally, not just from society’s imposed needs. But just as we read Aristotle believing that his central truths exceed his incidental limitations, Freud’s points matter more than his errors. His most important challenges still deserve answers from modern believers.