"Your substitute for
religion is basically the idea of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment in
proud modern guise. I must confess that, with all my pleasure in the
advance of science and technique, I do not believe in the adequacy and
sufficiency of that solution of the problem of life. It is very doubtful
whether, taking everything into account, scientific progress has made men
happier or better. According to the statistics, there are more criminals
among scholars than in the intellectual middle class, and the hopes that
were set on universal education have turned out to be illusory. . . .If it
were part of psycho-analytic treatment to present that despoiled universe
to our patients as the truth, I should well understand it if the poor
devils preferred remaining shut up in their illness to entering that
dreadful icy desolation."
--Oskar Pfister, Letter to Freud 24 November 1927, after the publication
of The Future of an Illusion
In The Future of an Illusion,
much of Freud's critique of religion, as he himself admits, is nothing
new. He gives voice to complaints and objections that were made by
Voltaire, by Schopenhauer, and by Darwin, just to name a few.
Significantly, he also gives voice to the utopian hope for western
civilization and modern progress that was so pervasive in his culture.
This is all the more surprising considering Freud's theories of
personality and his general melancholic distrust of human hypocrisy. The
rhetorical interlocutor that Freud
introduces in chapter four becomes more pronounced in chapters seven to
ten. The interlocutor can be said to represent not only Freud's
anticipations of counterarguments to his claims, but also at points his
own inner argument, one that already assumes that the salvific goals of a
civilization are really just a matter of utilitarian pleasure amidst
The Future of an Illusion--Key
- Freud considers whether other elements of
civilization--its political, economic, and pedagogical ideals--might
also be illusions.
- To those who fear that Western civilization will
come to an end without a religion to uphold its obligations, Freud
doubts that believers will be shaken by his views; besides, he is
saying nothing new and he is a modern man writing in a modern time.
- Likewise, psychoanalysis is not at its heart
godless, but "an impartial instrument, like the infinitesimal
calculus, as it were" (47).
- While it can be argued that religion has had an
important social function, has it really been any more successful in
making people happy?
- The evidential claims of the revealed religions
are now disproved, while the scientific enterprise continues in its
pursuit of truth. With education and modern science, comes increasing
secularization, so the educated minority should fear what will happen
when the dissatisfied masses discover the same truths.
- While civilization's prohibitions were couched in
the language of divine commands, once we realize their true source,
they can become more flexible things that can be made to serve our
interests and improve life in general.
- Even granting that sometimes religion has
protected individuals from neuroses, the concept of a father god is a
neurotic stage on the way to civilized adulthood; religion is
something to be psychoanalyzed in order to bring greater freedom in a
movement toward the rational.
- What we tell children through symbols, we openly
say to adults.
- The "psychological ideal" is "the
primacy of the intellect" (61). The healthy individual is one no
longer ruled by neuroses. The religious person is less intelligent
being in thrall to a kind of retardation.
- Freud admits he might, too, be following his own
illusion, but should his "experiment" in a godless world
prove unsatisfactory, then he is ready to give up the reform.
- But still believers are addicted to what their
religion offers and most wont be freed, and yet, we must continue to
offer "an education to reality" (63).
- If we do this, then finally we will achieve a
tolerable, oppression-free civilization.
- But perhaps this plan is only trading one
illusion for another one? But, Freud insists, that his own illusions
are open to correction, unlike religious ones.
- The intellect must express itself, and it maintains
a future hope of touching reality. It has as its goal the betterment
- The god, Reason (Logos) is a weak god, but
it will displace the false consolations of religion.
- Science is not an illusion, but will over the
long-haul provide real answers since the human mental apparatus has
evolved as an adaptive mechanism that brings together our mental
organization with that of the world's objectivity.
- Its absolute "nature" is simply a
The Therapeutic Ethos as End of
Philip Rieff in his works,
especially The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1968), traces how under
Freud, Western ethics and religion have often moved from a
metaphysically-driven ethos to a therapeutic one. The mind has
increasingly become like the body, something that must be moderated and
stabilized, while the social body has increasingly been understood more
like that of an individual. Instead of seeing social conflict as driven by
issue of injustice and tyranny, the social dimension of life is seen as
one driven by instincts which hunger for pleasure and seek to flee pain.
These must be controlled and yet met whenever possible.
this shift, Rieff sees the rise of "Psychological Man" and a
corresponding number of fundamental reworkings of the culture's purpose:
- Faith commitments are replaced by therapeutic
- The pursuit of virtue is replaced by the pursuit
of personal well-being.
- Debates about essentials become superfluous in
the display of personal values.
- The responsibility of persons for their actions
is shifted unto other forces.
- The value of suffering or stoicism gives way to
freedom from physical or mental pain or fear.
- Modest trust in authority is discounted as always
- Absolute truth is replaced with contingent symbol
systems manipulated for therapeutic reasons.
- The need for moral and spiritual renunciation is
replaced with "salvific" breakthroughs in which renunciation
(i.e. repression) is overcome.
Rieff, a secular Jew, late in his career pronounced
this resulting culture as preoccupied with death, a thantos-driven culture
denying its past by feeding off the destruction of it:
What, then, is it about the third
[present] culture that is so ominous?
"It's characterised by a certain
vacuity and diffidence. The institutions which were defenders of the
second world, or second culture [Christendom] - I think cultures are
world creations - have not offered the kind of defence or support that
would have been more powerful than therapeutic forces. So Christianity
becomes, therapeutically, 'Jesus is good for you.' I find this simply
Are therapeutic cultural drives, then,
what one might describe as hedonistic?
"Yes, many of them are pleasure
driven. But they are not unintelligent. They may be pleasure driven but
there's a limit to their stupidity. They don't act in a way that is
blatantly destructive or self destructive. Nor do they ostentatiously
deny the past. Christianity in America, for example, has in one sense
never been stronger. But I don't believe that 'Jesus is good for you,
Christ is good for you' is good Christianity. It's therapeutic
Christianity. You can find therapeutic motifs in dozens of examples of
Christianity around you today."
--from The Ideas Interview, The Guardian Monday
December 5, 2005
- How does Rieff call into question some
of Freud's utopian hopes for psychotherapy?
- Do you find Rieff's analysis convincing
of Modern Western culture, especially of Christianity?
- If Rieff is correct, are Freud's hopes
in any way still justified?
- How again might Freud's own critique be
applied to his claims?
- What do you make of Freud's interlocutor
and his increasing presence in the later chapters?
- Is it possible that at points the
interlocutor is a projection of his friend Oskar Pfister, the pastor?
- Compare and contrast Freud with
Nietzsche in regards to their view of the problem of evil, the
creation of ethics, and the hope for a better future.