Freud’s Critique on Illusion and Delusion
The religions of mankind must be classed among the mass-delusions of this kind. No one, needless to say, who shares a delusion ever recognizes it as such.
(Freud, “Civilization and Its Discontents” 32)
In his books The Future of an Illusion and Civlization and Its Discontents, Freud equates religion to delusion and illusion. In the former book, an “illusion” is merely seen as a false belief or hope that fulfills some wishful thinking. In the latter book, Freud expands the scope of the word “illusion” to encompass all kinds of inner experiences, and not just beliefs, that could be in sharp contrast with external reality, of which religious experience is one.
In The Future of an Illusion, Freud claims that all religious ideas are rooted in deep-seated wishes and are therefore illusions — false beliefs. According to Freud, belief in God is merely a projection of powerful wishes and inner needs.
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 after-life; but it is a very striking fact that all this is exactly as we are bound to wish it to be (Freud, “Future of an Illusion” 33).
An illusion is an conceptual error, of course, but it is more than an error. An illusion, according to Freud, is an error of thinking which is a result of our wish projection. Freud differentiates between an error from an illusion by giving many examples. For instance, Aristotle believed that vermin spontaneously generated from dung — this is simply a blatant error but not a result of any wish fulfillment on his part. However, when Columbus thought he had discovered a new sea route to India, it was more than an error of thinking. It was an illusion. “The part played by his wish in this error is very clear,” says Freud (30). In Freud’s definition of the word “illusion,” an element of wishing is necessarily involved. Stated succinctly, “What is characteristic of illusions is that they are derived from human wishes.” (31)
Freud’s definition of illusions is very close to the psychiatric concept of delusions. The term illusion and delusion are almost interchangeable, but there is a crucial and interesting difference. Delusions are necessarily divorced from reality (“In the case of delusions, we emphasize as essential their being in contradiction with reality.”). But illusions, Freud observes, “need not necessarily be false — that is to say, unrealizable or in contradiction to reality.” (31). As a small example, a teenage girl may believe that in the future she would marry her favorite celebrity movie star. This is purely an illusion, but need not forever be a total fantasy as opposed from reality. There are many instances when ordinary persons or once ordinary persons have married their dream celebrity stars. While a typical fantasy of a teenager may normally seem very unlikely to ever become reality, it is nevertheless not impossible. This is an illusion in so far as it is rooted in a person’s wishes, desires, and dreams.
Human beings continually have all kinds of wishes and hopes. It is very difficult to differentiate between an illusion and a delusion among these myriad desires of the mind. What may seem completely impossible today, totally contradicting the nature of reality, may one day become possible. Freud cites the interesting example of medieval Alchemists. These people believed that they could succeed in transmuting all kinds of metals into gold. This is not just an example of logical fallacy or erroneous thinking. Clearly, their wishes were involved. If they could turn ordinary metals into gold, they could become unbelievably rich. Any person with rational and scientific thinking, however, could have dismissed the efforts of these Alchemists as purely motivated by delusion. That is to say, there is absolutely no possibility for such foolish fantasies to be ever realized, in the very nature of things.
However, today we know that changing one element to another element is not a physical impossibility, the difference between one element and another simply being the number of electrons and protons present inside their atoms. These electrons could be knocked off and we could transmute metals, or any other elemental matter. Gold can be now indeed created inside laboratories, though only in minuscule quantities. In theory it is possible today and tomorrow it may be possible in practice to produce gold from copper or diamonds from coal through commercially viable means. This is but one example of a pure delusion turning out to be more than a delusion; it is an illusion, the difference between these two being that an illusion need not be totally at odds with reality and it can indeed turn out to be a living reality in the future, whereas a delusion can never become reality.
Interestingly, Freud notes that “examples of illusions which have proved true are not easy to find” (31). But in fact, the history of science is full of them. If Leonardo da Vinci wanted to fly like a bird and was desperately devising all kinds of gadgets that could make him take off in the air, he may have appeared like a deluded lunatic to his contemporary psychiatrists, if there had been any. He was of course chasing after an illusion which a few centuries later became an everyday reality. Even just before the Wright brothers’ path-breaking flight, some noted experts of the time dismissed manned flight as a physical impossibility. In this sense, all science involves illusion, and our constant wish to become more and more powerful in fulfilling our endless desires.
But religion is an illusion of a different kind. It is not a wish to become powerful, but to get protection from an all-powerful imaginary God. Many writers before Freud wrote about God being a projection of human needs and wishes. What Freud does is to identify those wishes quite specifically. Freud asserts that the deep-seated wishes we project onto our concept of God stem early childhood. First among them is a feeling of helplessness that carries over into adulthood. He argues that we all share an unconscious but strong wish for the protection of our parents, especially that of our fathers. When we become adults, we still find ourselves helpless when confronted with the great forces of life, and so we conjure up a figure like the one who protected us as a child. Thus religious doctrines are essentially wishful fantasies.
These, which are given out as teachings, are not precipitates of experience or endresults of thinking: they are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind. The secret of their strength lies in the strength of those wishes. (30)
In The Future of an Illusion, Freud concludes that religion is nothing but a combination of neurosis and illusion.
If, on the one hand, religion brings with it obsessional restrictions, exactly as an individual obsessional neurosis does, on the other hand it comprises a system of wishful illusions together with a disavowal of reality… (43)
Freud calls religion an illusion and not a delusion because, for example, a common and fundamental religious belief that a Messiah will come in the future and establish a golden age may seem as a complete delusion for the more scientifically minded of us, however it is not a logical impossibility, and in theory it is possible for such a fantasy scenario to turn out to be true, although the actual probability of it may be negligible.
That the Messiah will come and found a golden age is much less likely. Whether one classifies this belief as an illusion or as something analogous to a delusion will depend on one’s personal attitude. (31)
Therefore, in all fairness, Freud prefers to classify religion as an illusion and not as a delusion. Freud concludes that religion is just an infantile illusion that has many elements of obsessional neurosis in it, to boot.
In 1929, two years after the publication of The Future of an Illusion, Freud came up with a book entitled Civilization and its Discontents. He looks into the issue of religion at further depth in this latter writing. He begins this essay by taking up the challenge posed by a French author of Hindu mysticism, Romain Rolland, who wrote to Freud after reading his Future of an Illusion that he agreed with Freud’s analysis to certain extent; however, even when we discard all wishes, fantasies, desires and beliefs, Rolland asserts that there are many mystics in the East and the West have affirmed the experience of an immense oceanic feeling of oneness with the universe — and this could be categorized as the true non-illusory basis of religion. But Freud begs to differ.
Freud does not bigotedly deny the reality of such experience, though he may not have personally experienced it himself. In so far such an experience is a real and one of the most powerful and timeless experiences a human being can experience, one would think that religion cannot be called a pure illusion based on imaginary conceptions and wishful projections. However, Freud expands the scope of his meaning of the word illusion. The revised new view of Freud is not contradictory to his earlier view, but obviously an expansion of it. In The Future of an Illusion, Freud was merely dealing with religion as a belief system adopted by the masses. In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud looks into deeper aspects of religion. Freud’s views in Civilization and its Discontents do not negate or indirectly affect in any way his earlier views expressed in The Future of an Illusion, but merely provide a broader framework to them.
Freud still regards religion as an illusion, though he concedes that it could be rooted in powerful inner experience and not just wishful projections. However, many forms of inner experiences can be mere illusions too, such as, for example, love or the perception of beauty. Freud now includes art also under the category of illusion.
The substantive satisfactions, as offered by art, are illusions in contrast to reality, but they are none the less psychically effective, thanks to the role which phantasy has assumed in mental life. (Freud, “Civilization and Its Discontents” 24)
Therefore something could be disconnected from reality and yet offer satisfaction, meaningful enjoyment and a degree of fulfillment. We can derive satisfaction from illusions, such as the enjoyment provided by works of art or the mystical experiences of oneness with the universe obtained from isolation with reality and society, but sooner or later reality is bound to assert itself — the reality of the world around us.
There are different ways to experience a sense of happiness and fulfillment, and illusion could play a significant role in many of them, however any escape from reality is not going to last forever. According to Freud, therefore, adaptation to the external environment, what he calls “reality,” is the most effective way to maximize pleasure. While religion can offer a valid path to happiness, there are more fulfilling and less arduous paths to achieve happiness and sense of fulfillment in human life. Further, any illusion taken to an extreme and can become a source of a neurosis. The religious hermit can turn his back upon the world…
But whoever, in desperate defiance, sets out upon this path to happiness will as a rule attain nothing. Reality is too strong for him. He becomes a madman who for the most part finds no one to help him in carrying through his delusion. (Freud, “Civilization and Its Discontents” 31)
Freud, Sigmund. “The Future of an Illusion.” 1927. The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 21. 1968. 22 Nov 2006 <www.adolphus.nl/xcrpts/xcfreudill.html >
Freud, Sigmund. “Civilization and Its Discontents.” 1961. London : W.W. Norton & Company