The Future of Sigmund Freud's De/Il-lusions

Freud and the Fatherhood of God

I will be the first to admit that the title of this handout is a bit loaded and doubtlessly reveals my own distrust and antagonism towards Freud's position, but I think it is worth subjecting him to something like his own analysis. What might even a brief study of his own neuroses and defensiveness reveal? 

Read through the following materials. What do they suggest about Freud's view of God and his own father? Likewise, what do they suggest about Freud's view of human (and theistic) hypocrisy? Can Freud be said in any way to lack self-awareness? What do his own slips tell us?

"My dear Son: It was in the seventh year of your age that the spirit of God began to move you to learning. I would say the spirit of God speaketh to you: 'Read in my Book; there will be opened to thee sources of knowledge and of intellect.' It is the Book of Books; it is the well that wise men have digged and from which lawgivers have drawn the waters of their knowledge."
--Jacob Freud, Sigmund's father, inscribed in the front of his Jewish Bible, sent to his son on his 35th birthday

"The derivation of religious needs from the infant's helplessness and the longing for the father aroused by it, seems to me incontrovertible. . . The common man cannot imagine this Providence otherwise than in the figure of an enormously exalted father."
--Civilization and Its Discontents

"In the second half of childhood a change sets in in the boy's relation to his father--a change whose importance cannot be exaggerated. .  He finds that his father is no longer the mightiest, wisest and richest of beings; he grows dissatisfied with him, he learns to criticize him and to estimate his place in society; and then, as a rule, he makes him pay heavily for the disappointment that has been caused him . . he becomes model not only to imitate but also to get rid of, in order to take his place."
--Some Reflections on Schoolboy Psychology

"In your case, they are young persons faced with conflicts of recent date, who are personally drawn towards you and are ready for sublimation, and to sublimation in its most comfortable form, namely the religious. . . [Y]ou are in the fortunate position of being able to lead them to God and bringing about what in this one respect was the happy state of earlier times when religious faith stifled the neuroses. For us this way of disposing of the mater does not exist."
--Letter to good friend and pastor, Oskar Pfister, 2 September 1909

"I do not break my head very much about good and evil, but I have found little that is 'good' about human beings on the whole. In my experience most of them are trash, no matter whether they publicly subscribe to this or that ethical doctrine or to none at all. That is something that you cannot say aloud, or perhaps even think, though your experiences of life can hardly have been different from mine. If we are to talk of ethics, I subscribe to a high ideal from which most of the human beings I have come across depart most lamentably."
--Letter to Pfister, 10 September 1918

"I see in life a continual struggle between Eros and the death instinct, the outcome of which seems to me to be indeterminable, I do not believe that in coming to those conclusions I have been influenced by innate constitutional factors or acquired emotional attitudes. I am neither a self-tormentor nor am I cussed and if I could, I should gladly do as others do and bestow upon mankind a rosy future, and I should find it much more beautiful and consoling if we could count on such a thing. But this seems to me to be yet another instance of illusion (wish fulfillment) in conflict with truth."
--Letter to Pfister, 2 July 1930


The Future of an Illusion--Key Ideas--Chapters 1-6

Chapter I

  1. Human civilization is necessary to control the forces of nature as much as possible for human needs, and this requires protecting it against the individual animosity of those whose desires it controls or denies.
  2. Only the determined leadership of the few can make civilization more adaptable to the needs of the greatest number.

Chapter II

  1. Civilization must frustrate the felt needs of many, which requires a set of prohibitions and privations. The super-ego must include these commands, and the more these are internalized, the less external coercion is needed.
  2. However, many are motivated by only external coercion, and the underprivileged classes growing in envy of the privileged, may revolt with intense hostility.
  3. Civilization may offer forms of compensation for this felt privation, including a sense of inherent superiority and the consolations of art.

Chapter III

  1. Without civilization, ultimately only a tyrant of ultimate power could fulfill his own instincts, so the abolition of civilization would be a destructive answer.
  2. Civilization must defend us against the inescapable pains of nature, including natural disasters, disease, death, and psychological suffering.
  3. Civilization consoles our suffering by humanizing nature, first as Fate, then as personal deities. This dream-work is especially pronounced in the making of divine fathers.
  4. Eventually, a cosmic deism results with a faith in a well-ordered cosmos, a moral law, and the promise of eternal life.
  5. Those who advance to this position, begin to see themselves as a chosen people.

Chapter IV

  1. Human beings are born into a heritage of religious ideas. Primitive human beings have no other way of thinking, being the only means of compensation.
  2. However, science is a later stage in human evolution that better assists civilization in mastering nature, both as compensation and through physical technology.
  3. The gods are creations of the ambivalent father-attachment, who is both respected and dreaded, a source of emulation and terror.

Chapter V

  1. There are any number of beliefs that we must take on the good testimony of others, though we know we could establish them for ourselves; however, the claims of religion cannot be subjected to this test.
  2. Many beliefs of our ancestors have fallen into disrepute, and the scriptures themselves are full of errors and contradictions.
  3. The claim that theology is above human reason or that philosophically one best continues "as if" they were true only further reveal the lack of verification  religious ideas can provide.

Chapter VI

  1. Religion is, then, large-scale wish-fulfillment. 
  2. An illusion may not be an error since it can connect with reality; rather, illusions neither seek nor answer to verification.
  3. "Scientific work is the only road which can lead to a knowledge of reality outside ourselves" (40).
  4. Sensible, rational people who claim to believe in the claims of religion are acting out of intentional ignorance, hiding behind deism or a broader religious existentialism.
  5. Hard to believe that our "wretched, ignorant and downtrodden ancestors" could have real answers here.

Discussion Questions

  • Is Freud's Hobbesian view of civilization and nature convincing? Why or why not?
  • Are human beings best understood as a collection of instincts and frustrations?
  • Does theism offer any the compensations that Freud charges it with? Is there another way to understand its comforts?
  • Do "sensible people" really act toward religion in the way that Freud describes?
  • Conduct the following thought experiment: Substitute the words "religion" and "belief" in Freud's claims with "psychotherapy" and "disbelief." Do his own claims take on a different possible resonance?
 

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding