Voices from beyond (and within)

The Future of an Illusion The Future of an Illusion by Sigmund Freud

(This review was originally posted 2012/07/14, but posting got contaminated by distracting ads, requiring me to trash that version and re-post the original.)

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Where does the belief in a god come from? And why does it persist even among educated adults, who have available to them much more convincing explanations of all that God is supposed to represent? And finally, will it ever be possible for a society to disabuse itself of this notion, and what would be the costs (psychological and social) and benefits? These are Freud's central questions in this 1927 essay, and they are just as urgent today, when even the Higgs boson can't shake the faith of true believers.

"An illusion is not the same as an error, nor is it necessarily an error. … For example, a middle-class girl may entertain the illusion that a prince will come to carry her off to his home. It is possible, cases of the sort have occurred. That the Messiah will come and establish a new golden age is far less likely; depending on the personal stance of the person assessing it, he will classify this belief as an illusion or as analogous to a delusion. … we refer to a belief as an illusion when wesh-fulfilminet plays a prominent part in its motivation, and in the process we disregard its relationship to reality, just as the illusion itself dispenses with accreditations."

The question then is why do humans so wish for God or gods to exist?

Freud has a pretty convincing hypothesis. "As for humanity as a whole, so too for the invividual human, life is hard to bear." In the face of events he can't control and often can't understand, "man's badly threatened self-esteem craves consolation, the world and life need to lose their terror, and at the same time humanity's thirst for knowledge, which is of course driven by the strongest practical interest, craves an answer." The invention of gods, attributing human personalities to the unseen and threatening forces, gives great relief; "a person may still be defenceless but he is not helpless any longer, he can at least react. In fact, he may not even be defenceless: he can deploy against those violent supermen out there the same resources as he uses in his society. He can try beseeching them, appeasing them, bribing them…"

At a later stage, many peoples compress all their gods into one, thus exposing "the paternal core that had always lain hidden behind every god figure… With God now a single being, relations towards him could recover the intimacy and intensity of the child's relationship with its father." It is this relationship with "God the Father" that people find so hard to give up, regardless of all the evident contradictions of the notion. We could, and a minority of us do, accept that we are small and impotent "in the face of the totality of the world" without taking that next step, imagining a protective God-Parent. That is, we accept responsibility for our own actions, confront setbacks as well as we can with our own resources and seek explanations of mysterious phenomena — the creation of the universe, for example — without recourse to magic.

The alternative is to remain in a child-like state, expecting Daddy to take care of us. And since Daddy knows all, we should stop asking embarrassing questions. "Think of the distressing contrast between the radiant intelligence of a healthy child and the intellectul feeblenes of the average adult. Is it not at least possible that in fact religious education is largely to blame for this relative atrophy?"

The worst part is that we (well, many people) think he is the Daddy of us all, and will punish us if we do not punish others who disobey him. He is also hypersensitive, despite being all powerful, and wants anybody who dares insult him to be burned at the stake, or stoned to death in the public square, or bombed to Hell. That makes life difficult in multicultural contacts, where people are listening to different Daddies with different rules, and some have left behind Daddy along with the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, and "the Invisible Hand".

Can any large number of humans free themselves from the illusion? Not by decree. "It is certainly a nonsensical plan to seek to abolish religion by force and at a stroke. Principally because there is no chance of its succeeding." Substituting some other "doctrinal system" (such as the CPSU's "dialectical materialism") "would assume, in its own defence, all the psychological characteristics of religion, the same sanctity, rigidity, intolerance, the same ban on thought."

But it is possible to win such freedom from the imaginary bully-cum-protector, at least for some people who are willing to heed their own doubts about the established religions. "[T]he voice of the intellect is a low one, yet it does not cease until it has gained a hearing. In the end, after countles rejections, it does so. This one of the few respects in which one may be optimistic for the future of the human race…" And, Freud writes later on in his argument, "ultimately, nothing withstand reason and experience, and the fact that religion contradicts both is all too tangible."

In Egypt, the masses have just elected as president an engineer educated at Cairo University and the University of Southern California, who is also a self-proclaimed Islamist and former head of the Muslim Brotherhood. In Spain, even socialist party activists participate in religious processions. And in the U.S., almost no politician, regardless of party or education, dares say he or she is an atheist. But the low voice of the intellect persists, though perhaps it needs more amplification.

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Dirk van Nouhuys said...

Yours seems to me a good discussion of the issues that Freud struggled with as he presented them. I read the book decades ago and is not fresh in my mind but in hearing recent discussions of Freud's ideas generally and these in particular I am impressed how he was limited by his intense struggle with the world of ideas as he found in the Vienna of his time. For instance, his notion, as you present it, that monotheism is an advance over polytheism doesn't seem to me necessary at all. Are Hindus or the various strains of Buddhism or other Oriental religions that are polytheistic less “advanced” then Abrahamic religions? What would it mean to say they were? As I remember, he does not deal with the question of what religion is. It’s not so simple. Some argue that Buddhism, which includes atheistic and polytheistic schools, is not a religion at all, but instead a psychology? What about Taoism? Some argue that Roman Catholicism, with it’s saints and the Virgin, is really polytheistic, and, indeed, if you look at the practice in parts of Mexico it seems so. There are religions such as several varieties of Buddhism and even some Hinduism, and the Jains that are not theistic. Jains and some varieties of Hindus Buddhists do not believe in any big daddy but they do believe that the world is a kind of morality play played out in reincarnation. What would Freud had to say about that?

You see various polls and the results depend on the polling and how the question is phrased, but generally, it is now found that there are several countries that are more atheistic than theistic. Sweden and Japan pretty consistently fall in that category. Japan seems to me a particularly interesting case. Two religions are primarily practiced in Japan Buddhism, which includes an atheistic and what I would call polytheistic to schools, and Shinto, which is polytheistic and rooted in the worship of natural objects. Note that there is no imperative against following one religion rather than the other. Many Japanese practice both. I've been told that in general people perform Shinto rituals in an upbeat context and turn to Buddhism when they are stressed or unhappy. It's not clear to me what Freud would say about this.

Geoffrey Fox said...

Yes, Freud was critiquing mainly European culture, though as you know, he was fascinated by fetishes from all parts of the world and collected a great many. I don't think he meant to suggest that monotheism was in any sense superior to polytheism, but simply that (in the tradition that forked from Judaism into Christianity and Islam) it developed later, as a consolidation of the multiple deities. And in that form (monotheism), the identification of the one great deity with one's own father is much more apparent.