In his book Future of an Illusion, Sigmund Freud critique uses his method of psychoanalysis on religion. By comparing the relationship between human and religion to that of a child and his parents Freud effectively demonstrates that religion is a product of the human mind. After exposing religion as a an illusion Freud concludes that humanity will be better off when it has forgone religion. This paper will argue that Freud’s assertion that religion is an illusion is correct because of it’s blatantly traceable evolution through the history of the human civilization and psyche.
The first argument that Freud makes in his assault on religion regards civilization. Freud argues that human civilization arose as a result of mankind’s needs to protect itself from nature. “It was precisely because of these dangers with which nature threatens us that we came together and created civilization.” (Freud 19) As a result of the need for organization and manpower to prepare defenses against nature, the instincts of men had to be controlled. He furthers this argument by saying that two human traits, laziness and the unwilling nature of the masses to listen to reason are responsible for the necessity of the rule of law. Freud then describes the various methods of coercion that can be employed by civilization to halt instinctual privation. The most important of which he points out as being religion.
The main reasons that Freud ranks religion as being/having been the most important tool in civilization are it’s ability to explain the various inequities and inexplicable phenomena that afflict human civilization. Freud points out how ancient civilizations used religion to “humanize” nature. By making these natural terrors beings that could be dealt with just like men it allowed people the chance to react to and have the illusion of influence on nature. He also illuminates with slight sarcasm how convenient religion is in it’s ability to rectify all the trials and tribulations of life for us. “Everything that happens in this world is an expression of the intentions of an intelligence superior to us, which in the end, though its ways and byways are difficult to follow, orders everything for the best.” (Freud 23)
The existence of this divine creature who creates justice for us ensures that the masses will not stray from the laws and tenets of religion and society for fear of being judged by this entity. Religion is also valuable to civilization for it’s ability to explain death. Thanks to religion, death became something other than simply the termination of a life. Death stopped being the end and was recasted into the role of a doorway to another existence. As though knowing that the continuation of life were not enough, religion furthers it’s own appeal by promising that the afterlife will be better than life on Earth. The afterlife itself also serves a function as well. A desire to gain entry into this afterlife will cause many of the masses to renounce their instincts.
Another argument Freud makes is how religion is an attempt to fill in the gaps where civilization and the pursuit of life cannot make individuals happy. He says that, “The urge to rectify the shortcomings of civilization which made themselves painfully felt” is fulfilled by religion. (Freud 27) This can be seen throughout modern society in many different forms. It is telling that quite often individuals who are extremely ill, paralyzed, poor, or otherwise frowned upon by civilization and culture tend to be more religious.
Later Freud turns his argument to the legal historical proof surrounding religions. Using an analogy of a child learning geography and simply accepting on faith that the places he sees on a map exist rather than going on a journey around the world, Freud attacks religious doctrines. He does this by pointing out that though the child takes on faith what he sees on the map, he could take a journey around the world and see for himself that these places indeed exist. He then applies this same manner of thinking to religious doctrines when he asks what these kind of claims these doctrines are founded on and why we should believe them? The answers he says are that they were believed by our ancestors and that it is forbidden to question them.
Freud points out that it is the latter point which highlights society’s own awareness of “the insecurity of the claim it makes on behalf of its religious doctrines.” (Freud 33) The own paranoia that religions have of even questioned shows how much they realize that their beliefs do not follow reason. As Freud shows us the early church recognized this all too well when it instituted a doctrine that maintained that religious doctrines do fall under the microscope of reason. The most common religious document of all time, The Bible, holds a particular Proverb that further illustrates the paranoia or religion against reason. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding”. (Proverbs 3:5)
Another important concept that Freud uses to critique religion can be found in his broad background in psychology. He alludes greatly the Oedipus complex in his dealings with God and the individual. According to Freud, humankind is similar to a child who needs to be protected and supported in his/her everyday life, thus he/she sees God as supportive, protective father. Freud gives his own theories far too much justice in this regard. One does not need to regard God as a father-figure to believe in him. There are many people who believe in God but do not accept God as a beneficent omnipotent being. However, we cannot say that Freud in his genius could not apply psychoanalysis to these other divinations of God and rectify them to individual situations.
Freud’s best argument in favor of religion’s existence as an illusion is when he describes the convenient nature of religion to particular times of civilization. Freud says that we know approximately at what periods and by what kind of men religious doctrines were created. He also argues that it is very telling how religion tells us almost exactly what we want to hear. “We shall tell ourselves that it would be very nice if there were a God who created the world and was a benevolent providence, and if there were a moral order in the universe and an afterlife; but it is a very striking fact that all this is exactly as we are bound to wish it to be.” (Freud 42)
Freud’s assertion that religions are in fact illusions created to deceive men into reunouncing their instincts for the advancement of civilization is based entirely on generalizations about all religions. These generalizations, however, can be well supported when one looks back throughout history. Religion could easily be compared to a chameleon that changes it’s color to fit whatever the needs of civilization are to survive. It is ironic that religion can be traced throughout history as being so adaptable given the intransigent foundations of religion.
Whether or not religions really are illusions as Freud’s ultimate conclusion states, there is undoubtedly a clear link between religion and the evolution of civilization. A fantastic example of religion changing it’s color in order to better fit the evolution of civilization can be seen in the ancient Order of the Knights of the Temple Mount or Knights Templar. The Knights Templar in the middle ages were created to be the shock troops for Europe’s holy war against the infidels. When this war was lost and the military arm of the knights were no longer needed, the organization was systematically eliminated. It’s leaders were charged with heresy and killed and it’s wealth was confiscated, simply because the organizations purpose no longer coincide with church doctrine.
Another great example of religious adaptability can be seen in the evolution of Christianity in Rome. As the old religions in Rome were in decline and material decadence had taken over, Christianity appeared over the horizon as one of the saving graces of the Roman empire. As the threat from barbarians grew in on the empire’s borders grew, so did Christianity place in Rome. It was eventually elevated to being the state religion under the empire Diocletian. Even Christianity would not be able to save Rome from the barbarian hordes. In their hour of defeat Romans were undoubtedly able to pray and ask for salvation from Christ. It is interesting that such a doctrine would arise shortly before a time of annihilation.
Finally, it is important to note the role of religion in capitalism. Capitalism, as pointed out by Marx, is a vastly unfavorable system of economy for many people. While some would argue that it allows people the freedom make their own destinies, others would say that capitalism traps some in a cycle of poverty. Either way, those who are born poor are in a highly disadvantaged situation to those who are rich. That is, in this world. With religion and the afterlife, all are on an equal playing field. In fact, the poor even have quite an advantage. “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). This type of thinking has been fundamental for the stability of capitalism throughout history. No amount of earthly wealth could ever compare to the golden paved streets of heaven and eternal bliss.
Freud’s critique of religion demonstrates the disturbing correlations between religion and civilization and shows us the true motives behind religions existence. Freud proves that religion was a product of the human necessity to protect itself from nature and the need that arose from there to stop our own instincts from destroying our creations. In conclusion, Freud disproved the claims of religious doctrines as being divinely originated, but he did not disprove God. His belief that it was time for civilization to grow up from religion may be correct but it will never happen. Religion is far too embedded in civilization to ever be removed by simply showing the educated it’s true purpose.
Like life on this planet, religion has adapted to whatever environment our 8000 year old civilization has placed it. Even if everyone knew religion to be nothing but an illusion, that knowledge alone would not be enough to make that illusion disappear from the psyche of humanity. People would have to have a conscious desire to not believe in religion for it to be eliminated. This desire to discover the truth would be outweighed by the desire of a majority of humanity to rectify the inexplicable world of death and injustice to their own lives.