I’ve always been interested in how some of the brightest minds of different eras attempted to solve the dilemma of existence, those people who have cast a large shadow in history for one reason or another; people whom others have looked to for answers for their time, in whom the spirit of the age was represented but partially transcended; figures like Confucius, Jesus, Buddha, Socrates, Luther, Lincoln, Einstein, and, to cut to the chase, Sigmund Freud. The simple idea that many of our adult ‘parapraxes’ and neuroses may actually be unconscious fixations and frustrations carried over from coping mechanisms in early childhood was revolutionary, and kicked open the door to a surge of research into depth-psychology and eventually neuroplasticity. Freud was no joke, even though many of his theories were left far behind, as all theoretical tailings are, in the exhaust of later developments in psychology and psychoanalysis. The man was a courageous visionary in his time, and did much for science…and for religion. Some see his attitude towards religion as completely hostile, but I don’t think it was. His attitude towards some forms of religion and some religious attitudes was aggressive, but his posture towards religion in general was one of understanding of the time and culture in which they arose, and of the psychological prerequisites that occasion religious devotion. He happened to think that most every religion was indeed wishful thinking, or ‘wish-fulfillment’, but he didn’t think it was all bad, and actually thought it might be, in many cases, good for what ails a society and a soul.
Freud had written more extensive treatises on the evolution of religious belief in culture and individual psychology, but this short work is not to be ignored. If a work like Moses And Monotheism or Totem And Taboo was his assiduous proof, then Future Of an Illusion was his concise posit. It is direct and honest, yet offers a glimpse into what might be called Freud’s ‘humility’ in the matter of people’s cherished beliefs and traditions (though some may say it feels the opposite). I was actually impressed, and somewhat persuaded, by some of his points. There was a good bit of prefabbing and contextualization for his argument in the first few chapters, establishing that the mass of society needs either coercion or persuasion to abandon a lazy-impulsive lifestyle. He opts for the latter, persuasion, and loses no time in working to convince the reader of the dire need to displace religion with reason.
Freud is actually pretty fair in his acceptance of the idea that religion was developed as a necessary, instinctual response to the need of mankind to survive in a hostile environment. He asserts that man personified nature, creating a father-image to protect and rule over him, and slowly grew out of an infantile animism to value his personality as it grew powerful in intelligence to order his own way through chaos. He assigned this growing consciousness the value of an anthropomorphized Power—God—but now humanity is having a hard time salvaging truth from those ancient analogies (“important historical recollections”). Thus, the idea of ‘God’ is an ongoing cultural neurosis, an illusion that at one time was subscribed to by the masses and is still propagated by the collective pressure to repress the growing disconnect been our religion and our reason, and conform to the dogma of this shared myth. All is not lost, however, and even this communal fixation has some value in that “devout believers are safeguarded in a high degree against the risk of certain [individual] neurotic illnesses; their acceptance of the [cultural] neurosis spares them the task of constructing a personal one.”
Who can blame Freud for catching onto, and pulling back the curtain for others to see, the conspiracy with which religious leaders dupe simple people into believing something for which no reason or proof has been provided, except the mandate not to question or one would lose their privileged status as God’s ‘darlings.’. He specifically zeros in on three bogus claims of religious teachings that are used to manipulate the flocks of possibly well-meaning followers: 1) The teachings ought to be believed because they were believed by primal ancestors, 2) We possess ‘proofs’ from these same ancestors, 3) It is forbidden to raise a question of their authenticity on penalty of excommunication, death and/or hellfire. Who can disagree that these are indeed harmful traits and can bring any ideology into question? The real danger of trying to cement ancient paradigms lies in the attempt to transplant ideas into a new ethos, away from its native soil and environment. All the old ideas have to be put into theological zoos, cramped, withered, and anemic away from home; and the new theology all but kills the original thought which was wild, often contradictory, and rather uncivilized. The new form is hardly recognizable: “The truths contained in religious doctrines are after all so distorted and systematically disguised that the mass of humanity cannot recognize them as truth.”
Now, some of it did feel outdated. Freud lauds scientific progress ad nauseum. Does he not realize that for all his dissection of totemism in his other works, science is becoming the new totem of our age, the fetish of modernism? Here Science becomes the one god, and Freud is his prophet. Freud is a believer in logical positivism to an embarrassing extent, and subordinates the subjective thinker far below objective phenomenon, putting all his eggs in the one basket of external reality. Freud thinks reason will save the world, and I don’t blame him for pleading for more balance between faith and reason, but his answers come across as naïve. He gives a downright obnoxious illustration of one of his children that was “distinguished at an early age” for calling out during a children’s story time in which a fairytale was being shared, “Is that a true story?” When he was answered in the negative he turned away in disgust. Freud’s point? “We may expect that people will soon behave in the same way towards the fairy tales of religion.” What a downer. Did he really have no appreciation for imagination, beauty, and the power of symbols? What can I say—he wasn’t so far ahead of his times that he wasn’t influenced by the utopian dream that intellectual prowess alone can bring peace and love.
I applaud Freud for wanting change to come the non-violent way. He saw two ways that change could come about: “Either these dangerous masses must be held down most severely and kept most carefully away from any chance of intellectual awakening, or else the relationship between civilization and religion must undergo a fundamental revision.” Glad he elected to pursue the latter. What a peach. But his ending is pathetic, and, as all endings become what we are most remembered for, it is a terribly disgraceful way to go out. The paragraph to the last is a defense of science, and the last sentence is almost funny…except it’s not. “No, our science is no illusion. But an illusion it would be to suppose that what science cannot give us we can get elsewhere.” Geez.So, ironically, we’re stuck having to cull some semblance of ‘systematically disguised and distorted’ truth from Freud’s illusion of science’s majesty. What’s new?