Freud and Religion: Faith Versus “Illusion”
Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents is an essay which is supposed to be analyzing the origins and necessity of civilization as viewed from the psychoanalytic perspective (of which Freud is the progenitor), though it is often somewhat disjointed and frequently falls off into long digressions, which Freud himself repeatedly calls attention to. For the most part the bulk of this “essay” (as he refers to it) seems to be rehashings of ideas he had introduced previously in his earlier works, including The Future of an Illusion, The Ego and the Id, and even The Interpretation of Dreams. As a result, this work has more of a disjointed, cut-and-paste kind of feel to it. A Freud’s-Best-Of, if you will. This disjointedness can be seen also in Freud’s seemingly random and almost entirely unrelated attacks on religion. He makes a mockery out of religion at every opportunity he can, and even takes long moments to thoroughly dispute some of the tenants of moral ideology.
First of all, it seems almost natural that a man like Freud would have some skepticism towards religion, religious doctrine specifically. He is a man of science, after all, and a very strict and unrelenting scientist at that. It would be more strange perhaps to discover him to be a religious person, or find evidence supporting religious faith in his writings. That being said, his attacks on religion in Discontents come, quite literally, out of nowhere, and are not pivotal or necessary to the greater arguments he is making. In the very beginning of this essay, Freud introduces the text by digressing into a story about a friend of his whom he respected and admired, and he proceeds to recount how he had sent a copy of his text The Future of an Illusion to this friend of his and the friend responded by saying that Freud did not understand the nature of religious sentiments. He describes a feeling of “eternity,” and a sense of something “oceanic” which, even in the absence of a specific religion, is still a religious feeling. Freud begins his essay with the attack of this idea, making a mockery out of that feeling of something “oceanic” and reducing it to being nothing more than the lifelong reverberating effects/echoes of infantile helplessness, and in a greater sense the need for paternal protection. He is incredibly dismissive to the feelings of eternity and endlessness described by his friend (and more still, by a great many number of religious people in the world), simply reducing it all to feelings of helplessness and inability tracing back to our days as infants unable to take care of ourselves. Our ego, a term that Freud is fond of throwing around, is seeking out a be-all-end-all answer to the problem of our helplessness, and is conveniently given that in the form of religion (and, as it seems, Christianity specifically, as this seems to be the one Freud takes the greatest issue with). Freud balks at the idea of such a neatly packaged answer to all of life’s questions, stating, “The whole thing is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life” (22). Not only is he mocking the view itself, but he is also mocking all those who allow themselves to be indoctrinated into such a viewpoint, further stating how pathetic he believes it to be by making a blanket fatalist statement about how sad it is that humanity will never be able to rise above its own simplistic need to believe in a higher power that has all the answers they don’t.
To give Freud some credit, it is perhaps indicative of a humanitarian when a person seems to be so concerned about the greater aspirations of civilization and humanity, and genuinely desiring for all of mankind to succeed in the greatest possible way. (It is also indicative of a narcissist who believes that the only way for mankind of achieve the greatest success is through the means he proscribes, but this is beside the point.) Perhaps Freud’s bitterness comes from a place in which he is really interested in the greater intellectual success of the human race, and in his viewpoint mankind will never be able to achieve this kind of higher intellectual enlightenment as long as they continue to chase some invisible man in the sky who knows everything and has an answer to everything. To his scientist’s mind, the idea that the common man is basing his entire purpose in life on the idea that there is some greater “Meaning” to it all, and that everything that happens, good or bad, is all according to “God’s Will” and is “Meant to happen.” To Freud, this defies all sense of logic, which he values above all else. (Like a religion.) So it is possible that Freud’s clear sense of disappointment with the human race is born of his desire for the human race to aspire to something greater (much like he himself has), and his vicious and mostly unrelated attacks on religion are born of his realization that no matter how “enlightened” society becomes, religion will always be an element in it.
Furthermore, Freud is also very much in keeping with his scientist’s logical mind when he calls out the “convenience” of how religion is able to magically explain everything in life, all of its woes, and give meaning and purpose to all of it. If there is something a person doesn’t understand, all they need to do to satisfy themselves is have faith that God knows/has the answer. Freud objects to the idea that religion offered all of its supporters a way to fill in all the gaps in life, without them doing so themselves. The idea that any one thing can explain all other things is, of course, a relative impossibility, and, from a logical, empirical-data-driven mind, this is the kind of argument that effectively debunks the entire “theory” of religion.
I don’t make any kind of declaration that I can answer any of life’s questions or even begin to debate whether or not God exists. In response to the question of whether or not Freud’s opinions will have an effect on how I feel or what I believe, the answer is a resounding “no.” I am not a person of very strong religious convictions. In fact, I would probably be best described as an agnostic, if it weren’t for that pesky feeling of something “oceanic” gnawing at me. Freud’s opinions on religion don’t affect mine at all. In fact, while I will not dispute that society’s need for an all-seeing, all-knowing Answer to Life seems to be more deeply rooted in a natural human fear of helplessness and hopelessness, I, unlike Freud, do not take issue with that. Life is not easy. If a person needs to believe in a higher power, or a higher authority, just so that he feels he has some purpose in life that is greater than his dead-end job and uncaring family, just to help him get through his daily life, then I would not begrudge him that. In fact, it seems more cruel to take that away from him than it does to let him live clouded by his “illusion.” The intention of religion is not just to teach and uphold morality; it is also to give all people meaning to their lives—a reason for all the suffering, all the death, and the undeserved struggles and hardships and the inequality of all it. It’s all just a little bit easier to swallow when you can have the faith and inner strength to say, “It’s God’s will,” and then be able to accept that. And who is Freud or anyone else to tell people that they’re wrong? Or that it is wrong for them to need something like that in their lives? The truth is, no one can really prove one way or the other if God exists, so really it seems pointless to argue about it. Organized religion has its faults, but in this essay it doesn’t sound like Freud is attacking organized religion specifically, but in a more sweeping sense all religion and any kind of religious inclination. And it is in this very idea of religion lending meaning to people’s lives that Freud seems to have a problem: “One can hardly be wrong in concluding that the idea of life having a purpose stands and falls with the religious system” (25). While I don’t dispute this observation, I also don’t see anything wrong with what it is implying.
One of the reasons Freud takes such issue with religion seems to be because it is fostered in “illusion” (his wording). He notes, “…satisfaction is obtained from illusions, which are recognized as such without the discrepancy between them and reality being allowed to interfere with enjoyment” (31). This is actually not a discussion regarding religion in which he makes this statement, but it does refer back to everything he does say about religion, implying it is essentially a form of self-delusion and referring to it in general as “illusion” (most particularly in his previous work, The Future of an Illusion). When referring to religion in such a clearly condescending manner, Freud’s message seems to be that religious belief is a form of mental illness. His use of the word “illusion” is no mistake, and is in fact intended to sound much like “delusion,” which psychotics often suffer and in which they believe any number of fantastic things about themselves or other people. Here, God is the illusion, and everyone with faith in God is deluded, giving all believers the same status as psychotics, and making them appear to be just as unstable. While one should hope that Freud, as a man of science, should certainly know that not to be the case, his use of verbiage to confer his low opinion of those with faith is certainly very intentional, meant as a further attack without question.
As far as Freud’s take on morality is concerned, here is when my sense of logic begins to be shaken up by him a bit. I am in the school of thought that basically states, “People should be good because they should be.” I honestly have nothing more than that to back up my claim that “People should be good.” I just feel, personally, that people should be good to others—they should be courteous and respectful and polite, as well as kind and friendly. I have no real concrete reason for feeling that this is the way people should behave, I just know that I feel this way. But how is that fair of me to expect from other people or to even so much as say to someone, when I can’t even attempt to articulate a reason for it? Certainly one of the most influential sin-stopping elements of Christianity is the idea that if you do something wrong, you could go to hell and suffer for all eternity. This is a religion in which the followers are self-governed, out of a fear that has been ingrained in their heads since they were children. This Foucauldian Discipline-and-Punish mentality is what prevents some people from committing crime (not to mention the real legal consequences, jail time, and attorney fees)—they’re not abstaining because they believe whole-heartedly that it’s wrong or that they feel they could never do something like that, they’re abstaining because they do not want to be punished (by God or man). Therefore, in the absence of a solid religious ideal to uphold, I fail to have any other solid reason why people should be good to each other than my extremely vague concept of, “Because that’s what right.” Sure, maybe it is the “right” thing to do, but if there are no legal repercussions for it—it being anything that would be considered “wrong”—then how many more people would do it?
I bring this up here to specifically address Freud’s take on this idea that “People should be good.” Freud takes on the very famous edict of the Christian faith, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” This is one of the “Commandments,” which is another issue that Freud has with it—the fact that people are being “commanded” to do these things, as opposed to doing them of their own free will, and the fact that if they don’t do these things they’ll be punished with an eternity of hellfire and brimstone. Freud makes a very well thought-out and convincing argument as to why this absolutely should not be the case. To summarize (paraphrased and with a few extended assumptions), to love all people equally and the same as you love yourself cheapens the whole concept of love in the first place. If you love someone, they must somehow deserve it; there must be something within them that reminds you of something within you that you can see, relate to, and respect, thereby loving. To place a stranger among the same ranks as those you have made a conscious decision to love is an injustice to those people and it cheapens your love of them. Your love is a precious gift to give someone, and it should be well within your right to decide who you should give that gift to—and if you give it to all people equally, it becomes meaningless. Freud continues on to say, “Not merely is this stranger in general unworthy of my love; I must honestly confess that he has more claim to my hostility and even my hatred” (67). He reasons this out by showing the various ways in which one human being will gladly trample over another, especially a stranger, when there is something at stake, or when he feels he can better himself by degrading others. He states how people generally abuse and mistreat others, showing how this absolute commandment of “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is commanding people to love those who hurt them—and, furthermore, to love them as you would those whom you have chosen to love. There is also another commandment which runs along the same vein as this one, “Love thine enemies,” which Freud also disagrees with for the same reasons as above.
This thorough refutation of the commandment to “Love thy neighbor as thyself” follows the same failure of logic as my idea that “People should be good because they should be.” While yes, both things sound like very nice things for a person to do, neither one has any real solid logical or ethical basis. There is nothing unethical about not loving your neighbor—or, to update the commandment a little, to treat others as you wish to be treated. It would not be considered unethical if you treated people indifferently—not with kindness or respect, but certainly not with anger or hostility either. To treat an unknown person with hostility I believe would break a basic code of ethics, which is more a mortal law than one proscribed by God (but which still offers to incentive not to misbehave—unlike with Christian beliefs, your soul is not being saved from hell as a reward for behaving a certain way…unless you believe in the Eastern idea if karma, there really are no repercussions for you to shun human ethics as much as God’s commandments). But to treat a person indifferently, not with the love God is commanding you to but as if the person doesn’t even exist, you’re really not doing anything inherently wrong. To apply this to my feeling that people should be good, there is no reason or incentive (from a logical, scientific, sociological what-drives-human-nature standpoint) for them to be. They don’t have to be bad instead of being good, because for them to respond with bad behavior means they are also breaking society’s generally agreed-upon code of ethics, which helps keep civilization civilized (another idea Freud delves into a little, but from his psychoanalytic standpoint and not so much in reference to religion). But they can be indifferent, and not be doing anything wrong or even morally objectionable.
I wouldn’t say that Freud’s ideas on the subject of morality have in any way altered my own, because despite having a solid, irrefutable reason as to why exactly people should have to be good, I still feel that they should be. It is something that is coded into my moral DNA, that it is simply not enough to not hurt someone, one must also help. I think the measure of a person is not in what they haven’t done (i.e., “Well, I’ve never killed another man, so that must make me a good person.”), but rather in how they treat others, and how others feel as a result of having that person touch their lives. While a person can certainly rest peacefully knowing that they never took another human life, that person is still lacking the greater sociological fulfillment of aiding one’s fellow man in time of need and not allowing for others to suffer in one’s presence. (Freud’s response to this statement would undoubtedly be to point out that this altruistic behavior is still being done with an agenda—to seek fulfillment through works of kindness and charity, believing those things lead to the betterment of self—and thus is all an ego-driven behavior seeking a form of the pleasure principle.) If all people throughout the world made a conscious, conscientious, and sincere effort to be kind to all other people (“Love thy neighbor,” being “good”), there is no doubt that all of the conflict and strife in the world would end immediately. This does not happen because it is against human nature to behave in this altruistic manner, which is exactly the reason why it is something we the human race can and should aspire to it. It is a goal for the betterment of civilization, no different than technological advancement or increased levels of education.
My belief that people should still strive to be good, under the assumption that it is the morally right thing to do, is not shaken by Freud’s ideas on morality. I will say, though, that his ideas have certainly called into question my own reasoning for things and my own ability to defend the logic employed behind my ideas. I will agree with Freud insofar as to say that if something is going to be demanded of an entire group of people across all the ages, than it had better have some solid logical basis backing it so that it makes sense for people to have to abide by it. Thus, I have changed my thinking from “People should be good because they should be,” to “People should aspire towards goodness because it is a higher level of humanity for them to aspire to for the betterment of all mankind.” Okay, it’s a bit wordier, but also I think a bit more ideologically acceptable to the masses, instead of just making a sweeping generalized claim without supporting it (and expecting people not to question it).
Generally, I believe the probing questions Freud raises in Civilization and Its Discontents are valid, and are very much worth questioning. I have heard it said before that a necessary element of faith is the ability to question it, and that a person’s faith is only strengthened through the examination of his doubt. In this regard Freud isn’t overstepping his boundaries. But in the sense that he presents his probing questions in the form of vicious attacks, he is just as guilty of trying to instill his will onto other people as those very religions which he is arguing against. It is one thing to not have any faith yourself, because you made the decision that this is the most logical conclusion to make. It is quite another thing to expect the rest of humanity to follow your lead because you decided it was best for all of them, which is essentially what Freud is trying to do here.