A reconstruction and critique of Sigmund Freud on religion
"Myth is not fiction: it consists of facts that are continually repeated and can be
observed over and over again. It is something that happens to man, and men have mythical
fates just as much as the Greek heroes do." - Carl Jung
Freud Religion Introduction
It's no challenge to portray Freud as the thorough vituperater of religion. Though
more taxing, it's also possible to paint a more flattering picture of Freud's
'religion' after it has passed through the proverbial Freudian
religion grinder. More difficult still, is the trial of providing fresh
insights proving that Freud's analysis actually empowers religion. The reader should be
familiar with both Freud's three major works concerning the subject of religion: Totem
and Taboo, The Future of an Illusion, and Moses and Monotheism, and
some canonical commentaries and snubs thereof. I'll briefly summarize these as we uncover
a few original ideas.
Totem and Taboo
The gist of Totem and Taboo is the claim that religion and neuroses are similar
enough to warrant dismissing religion as nothing more than a giant universal
neurosis. Freud makes several comparisons between acts done in the name of
religion and the actions of obsessive neurotics. He cites the work of
many prominent anthropologists to back up several claims, outlining totemism largely consistently with recent popular research of Native American bestiaries. He makes a
direct comparison between totemic practices and the events of the Oedipus
complex. But Freud's hasty conclusions, ostensibly meant to erode religion,
leave the door open for the empowerment of religion, or at least healthy criticism.
The first line of attack against Freud, a well-worn and thus well refuted path; "Freud had no business messing around with an area outside of his own expertise," holds no water because it is fairly well established that Freud did his homework on the subject of religion. Still, we can bludgeon Freud when he summarizes thousands of years of quirky, pre-religious animal worship as one word and one
single concept... totemism. He then blindly leaps
from totemism to modern religious practices, ignoring the tremendous gap and treating the
two ideas as one and the same. In attempting to show a sense of continuity
between the primitive and the contemporary, Freud fails. There is little
connection save for his ideas regarding totemism and the Oedipus Complex.
Freud claimed that, "... children displace some of their feelings
from their father on to an animal."[i] Then he implies that children are
primitives as far as psychoanalysis is concerned. Freud cites his analysis
of "Little Hans" to provide support for the unconscious natural connection between his
pet complex and bizarre primitive behavior concerning animals, but fails to provide
the support to make it stick. He succeeds in comparing the love/hate
relationships of father/son and totemic animal/primitive man but these are trivial and by
no means ought to be grounds for discounting totemism as a peculiar, innate act of the
unconscious. Furthermore, though accepted by many to be fact, it seems silly
to equate the totem animal with the father of the totemic tribe. Though
there are father-like qualities given to a totem animal, calling it a father figure as
Freud implies, is anthropologically and theologically missing the point. Another pitfall
for Freud is the fact that totemism is not universal in religions'
histories. Many ancient groups did not pass through a totemic phase, a fact
that deteriorates already weak connections in Freud's attack.[ii]
In the fourth essay of Totem and Taboo Freud bestows the mother of all damning
disclaimers. Not only does he acknowledge the vast task of
tackling religion, he also boldly states that his 'science' is incapable of comprehensively
reducing religion to what we might call a simple explanation. Moreover, in New Introductory Lectures on
Psychoanalysis, Freud summarizes his views on religion as, "the only significant
rival to a scientific world view,"[iii] Insinuating that it provides
knowledge to the true nature of things. So if the
murky dualities and ambiguities of religion correspond closely to those of the science of
psychoanalysis, then using Freudian logic, one could posit that religion and psychoanalysis are equally scientific.
The Future of an Illusion
Several years passed before Freud again put his mind to a project on
religion. Though it is his most thorough and thoughtful publication
concerning religion, The Future of an Illusion is a moth-eaten, foraminate statement at best. At the time of its publication Freud was 71 years old and fighting
cancer and critics alike. The Future of an Illusion should be seen
not as a chiding denunciation of religion, but as the pessimistic rationalizations of a
crotchety, frustrated, old man, preoccupied with his own imminent mortality.[iv]
Freud again begins with a whopper of a disclaimer. He contends that his
limited life experience and subjective expectations might prevent him from adequately
assessing religion.[v] He then discusses the restrictions
placed on a society by religion. It seems that religion, which he almost
equates with a higher form of civilization, requires man to forego his physical desires
in place of the security of a higher good. Thus Freud saw religion as the
object of the ultimate sublimation. He also considered sublimation as man's most highly
developed psychic capacity.[vi] Furthermore, he describes ideal
religion as a sort of unattainable dream, or wish fulfillment. It would be
impressive if Freud went on to prove religion nothing more than a wish fulfillment, but
he doesn't. When libidinal energy is redirected
away from direct fulfillment to religion, it seems that Freud is implying that this
sublimation doesn't really satisfy the id. There are millions who would
disagree, but I suppose Freud would dismiss them all as fanatic, obsessive neurotics.
In distinguishing between illusion and delusion Freud continues to unintentionally
empower religion.[vii] Though Freud does differentiate
between objective (or scientific) reality, and the unconscious reality of the mind that
religion addresses, he classifies religion as illusion rather than delusion. I.e. by
Freud's definition, religion is not necessarily in error regarding the nature of reality
whereas a delusion is born of human wishes. There exist many religious maxims clearly
stating that the physical world is full of deceptions and misgivings, which when taken as wrote further
complicating Freud's attempts to criticize religion. Freud first claims that
religion can tell us something about reality and then argues for just the opposite. If
religion can tell us something about the mind and is a useful tool in psychoanalysis,
then is this section of The Future of an Illusion really a decisive blow to
religion? No. Nor does Freud gain ground in his final
Moses and Monotheism
In Moses and Monotheism, Freud's delirious deathbed declaration, Freud presents a preposterous fantasy in an attempt to bastardize Judaism and Christianity. He performs a sketchy psychoanalysis of assumed past events leading to the spectacular conclusions that Moses was indeed not a Jew and that he was killed by the people of Israel in a fit of Oedipal rage! It seems obvious that Freud's line of thought here came from the implications of his own feelings toward his cowardly father.[viii] Freud probably would
have benefited from seeing a therapist. Too bad they weren't around yet. A shrink might have at least tempered this strange tangent.
Though Freud concocts several interesting pieces of evidence to support his claims in this otherwise absurd (albeit entertaining) piece, his research reeks of bias. Moses and Monotheism is an ultimately misguided final work of speculation, totally unfounded in the reality that Freud so valiantly tried to ascertain in his work and does not aid in his effort to wear down the walls of religions.
Freud, Religion, Giambattista Vico and Buddah All Get on a Train with no Wheels
Several noted philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists and other scholars have
also addressed the problem of religion. Some were directly commenting on
Freud, and others were talking shop long before his birth. Giambattista Vico, one such pre-Freud thinker raised many points that Freud would
later trumpet as his own. The two agreed that, "the language of myth
[religion] was a profound source of truth about human life, even where direct evidence
was wanting, if a proper hermeneutic could be developed to understand it."[ix] ...An agreement that clearly
empowers religion as at least a pseudo-science. Vico however did not always
fall in line with Freud. Vico calls religion, "necessary
and... universal."[x] He discounts Freud's
(or anybody's) ability to accurately discern the nature of religion through anthropological
studies. He claimed that early religious people, "were poets who spoke in
poetic characters," and that Freud, because of his civilized nature, "cannot at all
imagine the poetic nature of these men."[xi] He also refers to
religion as the, "never failing light of truth beyond all question."[xii]
It's nice to have an eloquent guy like Vico on my side, but having an entire religious
tradition to back Freud up isn't bad either. I.e. What if a religion often AGREED with
Freud about the nature of the world and humanity? Would he continue his attack? Or would
their common ground erode his anti-religion case?
Padmasiri De Silva's Buddhist and Freudian Psychology draws a clear set of
correlations between early Buddhism and Freudian Psychoanalysis. Summarizing
a few similarities might make Freud roll over in his grave with the
posthumous realization that his narrow brand of psychology is nothing more than Buddhism
glorified with a near-scientific frosting.
While Freud diagnoses us all with the neurosis of religion, Buddhism similarly claims,
"All worldlings are deranged."[xiii] The Freudian libido is the
equivalent to what the Buddhists call Kamatanha. [xiv] Both Freud and the Buddha
agreed that the pleasure principle was a dominating force in life and said there were
ways to abate the corresponding desires. There are powerful ego instincts in both
traditions.[xv] Buddhism refers to the, "root ill will
or hate," called dosa that closely corresponds with Freud's thanatos.[xvi] The ideas aren't identical, but they
both express a certain sense of self annihilation. Finally and generally,
both traditions are concerned with curing the ailments of humanity.
Though Freud claimed that he did not become a doctor out a, "craving to help suffering
humanity," it is clear that his passion was directed to this end.[xvii]
Even Dr. Alfred Alder admitted that he (Adler), "...could be tolerant
of religion if it, like psychology has the goal of perfection of mankind."[xviii] Buddhism plays an integral role in
both Adler's acceptance of religion and Freud's illogical anti-religion
stance. How can Freud effectively defame religion when this new assessment
would also have him razing tenents of his own Psychology? He can't,
at least not effectively.
Part V - Conclusions
Freud noted that, "The very vehemence of our denials often affirms our unconscious
acceptance."[xix] Is this proof that a lot of Freud's
passionate views are actually representative of Freud's belief in just the
opposite? That would account for his singular arguments regarding
religion and similarly explain the different instances of Freud's unintentional
empowerment of religion noted here. But alas, Freud doesn't provide a thorough discourse
on religion; he's otherwise occupied with preconceived notions that religion is a complete
crock. If Freud was so concerned with cures, how did he fail
to recognize or even harness the ameliorating power of religion by dismissing it as a
universal neurosis for which he had no cure?
Freud was nearly obsessed with being purely inductive in his work, and as religion did not fit into his ideal, objective, scientific world view, naturally, he stumbles.
Both traditional and modern Hermeneutic schools provide ammunition against Freud here, asserting that scientific truths would not even be possible without religion. Freud
failed in his attempt to create a verifiable, empirical science (psychoanalysis) and then
proceeded to condemn religion primarily using concepts from his so-called
science. Why wouldn't Freud debase religion's ability to really tell us
anything about reality? His attempts to destroy the fibers of religion
otherwise are but the futile gasps for air of a man drowning in the sea of false
science. Religion was (and maybe still is) probably the single greatest
threat to acceptance of Freudian psychoanalytic theory.
I'm not as critical of Freud as these words suggest. (I've no particular affinity
toward any psychologist.) I'm also not typically an apologist for religion. (I'm an
atheist-leaning agnostic.) Freud is the father of psychoanalysis; an inventor and early
adopter, and therefore an easy target. Several of his ideas (even on religion) are
fascinating and appealing. Some people think Freud had no business delving
into theology. I don't necessarily agree, but for the sake of argument, I'll
just say that he should have honed his fledgling 'science' of
psychology before he presented psychoanalysis of antiquity as a science to chop away at
the foundations of the spirit world.
Kung, Hans. Freud and the Problem of God. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.
Preus, Samuel J, ed. Explaining Religion. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987.
Gay, Peter, ed. The Freud Reader. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1995.
Silva, Padmasiri De. Buddhist and Freudian Psychology. Singapore: Singapore UP, 1992.
Doniger O'flaherty, Wendy. Other People's Myths. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
Yerushalmi, Yosef Hayim. Freud's Moses. New Haven: Yale UP, 1991.
Wulff, David M, ed. Psychology of Religion. Massachusetts: Wheaton College, 1994.
[iv]Freud supposedly still had his sharp wit and passion
for objectivity, but for the sake of this argument, I don't buy it.
[vii]Discussion begins on page 704, Gay.
[viii] Wulff, page 255 leads me to this conclusion.
[ix] Preus, p 79. I have equated
'myth' with 'religion'. As far as
Freud is concerned, I believe it is a safe correlation.