The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Volume 21. Translated by James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press, 1968.

The Future of an Illusion

Sigmund Freud (1927)

(Excerpts from an essay summarizing and analyzing Freud's work, by Marc Fonda.)

. . . [Section] III: Freud begins this section with the question "In what does the value of religious ideas lie?" For Freud the raison d'être of civilization is to defend us against nature. But . . . nature is very powerful; it is not at all under our control. Still civilization relieves each and every one of us from the task of defending ourselves from the superior powers of nature and fate. It does this, in Freud's opinion, by removing the terrors, etc. of nature. For example, the personalization of nature offers to humanity a way of understanding what it is we are so powerless over. This also permits the development of some form of control over nature. Thus it is through what . . . [has been called] "sympathetic magic" that humanity comes to gain a feeling of some kind of control over nature.

The situation or relationship of humanity to nature, as understood by archaic personifications, is one of the child to the parents. This infantile prototype, Freud says, gives rise to an understanding of the forces of nature having a paternal aspect and hence the focus of nature are eventually turned into gods and goddesses . . . From this perspective Freud attributes to the deities three tasks: [1] they must exorcise the terrors of nature, [2] they must reconcile humanity to the cruelty of fate and [3] they must compensate humanity of the sufferings and privations which a civilized life has condemned them. But, Freud notes, the role of the Gods and Goddesses have over time evolved away from their relationship to nature (the divinities and nature have become autonomous of one another). Thus it has become the task of the divinities to even out the defects and evils of civilization, to attend to the suffering which we inflict on each other, and watch over the fulfillments of each civilizations particular precepts (which incidentally were give divine origin—i.e., they have been elevated beyond human society and extended to rule over nature and the universe).

To Freud the possession of such ideas of divinity protects humanity in two directions: [1] it protects humanity against the dangers of both nature and fate, and [2] it protects humanity against the injuries which threaten us from human society itself. Once divinity has been given such attributes, Freud follows, everything that occurs is understood by humanity to be an expression of an intelligence superior to us and death is no longer seen as the extinction of life. Rather death is seen as but the beginning of a new kind of existence which lies along the path of development to something higher. This view, thus, announces that the same moral laws of civilization, also govern the whole universe. Hence there evolves an understanding of a kind of superior wisdom which directs the course of things, an understanding of a superior goodness and justice . . . From this point of view . . . humanity's relation to the divinity come to recover the intensity and intimacy of a child's relation to her or his parents. To Freud this is the most precious possession that a civilization has to offer to its members.


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IV: In this section Freud proceeds to attempt to show that religious ideas arise from the same needs as have all other aspects of civilization—i.e., from the necessity of defending oneself against the crushingly superior forces of nature. But he notes that there is a second motive involved. That is, there is a motive which derives from the urge to rectify the shortcomings of civilization[, a motive] intrinsic to religious formation. for example, one of the problems of civilization is that it hands its ideas and mores over "ready made" to its members. In such situations the individual would not be able to discover them herself or himself.

Freud suggests that it is natural for humanity to personify nature and the like as humans know from the beginning that the way to influence nature is through the establishment of relationships. The feelings of helplessness and weakness that humans feel does not argue against the notion of the exalted totem but it also has a lot to do with the relationship between the child and parents—or for Freud the Father. In what we understand of Freud's notions of the Oedipal Drama, we know that the mother is the child's first object choice. Mother, however, is soon replaced by father who is seen to be stronger, from Freud's point of view. As we remember, the particular relationship of child to father is colored by ambivalence. Thus, when he growing child learns that he (or she) is to remain powerless forever (a child), dependent upon superior powers forever, he (or she) lends to this divine figure the powers that belong to the father (projection) . . .

V: In this section Freud asks the question as to the significance of religious ideas and how they are to be classified. To Freud Religious ideas are teachings and assertions about facts and conditions of external (or internal) reality which tell one something one has not discovered for oneself and which lays claim to one's belief . . . From Freud's point of view, religious beliefs are said to be formed of three characteristics. First, that religious teachings deserve to be believed because they were already believed by our primal ancestors; secondly, we posses "proofs" that has been handed down from those same primordial times; and third, it is forbidden to raise questions as to their authenticity at all. Freud finds this third point most interesting. He thinks that there can be only one reason for such a statement and that is the insecurity of the claim it makes on behalf of its religious doctrines . . . Freud points out that this position is not new: many of our ancestors "probably nourished the same doubts as ours, but the pressure imposed on them was too strong for them to have dared to utter them." Since countless persons have had such doubts there is nothing surprising in the fact that such ideas have been suppressed.

Freud notes that there have been two responses or attempts to justify the religious point of view. The first, credo quia absurdum, is said to be of a violent nature. This perspective maintains that the religious doctrines of the early Christian church are outside of the jurisdiction of human reason. It is a position that says that their truth must be felt inward, it need not be comprehended. But this is surely an absurd position. If the truth requires something above reason—an subjective experience—how can we expect that reason has any value at all, and what of those who have not had such an experience. There is no obligation for humanity to employ reason at all, and there is an exclusive means of determining what truth is—those that have not experienced it as the church says it is do not know the truth.

The second attempt is the one made by Philosophy of "as if." This position asserts that our thought activity includes a great number of hypotheses whose groundlessness and even absurdity we recognize, but for a number of reasons we behave 'as if' we believed in these fictions. This is the case with religious doctrines, says Freud, because of their incomparable importance for the maintenance of human society.

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VI: Freud asks the questions "In what does the force of such doctrines lay?" and "To what is it that the owe their efficacy, independent of recognition by reason?"

To Freud the psychical origin of religious ideas is that they are the fulfillments of the oldest and strongest wishes of humankind. As wishes, Freud notes, they are thus illusions. That is, they are illusions or wishes for the protection of humanity against the forces of nature . . . As such wishes Freud claims that they issue from the infant's conflicts of the early father-complex . . .

To Freud an illusion is an error in terms of wish fulfillments. That is, illusions are derived from human wishes and therefore approach psychotic delusions. The difference between psychotic delusions and religious illusions is found in found in their relation to reality and falsity. A delusion is said to contradict reality utterly. Illusions, Freud points out, need not necessarily be false in relations to reality. That is, they could be either un-realizable or contradictory to reality. Freud writes:

We call a belief an illusion when a wish fulfillment is a prominent factor in its motivation, and in doing so we disregard its relations to reality . . .

Therefore, Freud concludes that religious doctrines are illusions. That is, on the one hand, [they are not compelling] . . . and they cannot be proved or refuted. On the other hand, no one can be forced to disbelieve religious doctrines. Thus it is with something that is religious or approaching religious dimensions that we suspend disbelief and become, as Freud would put it, irrational. An example of this activity is belief in religion as Freud sees it. But there are other examples that may not be as persuasive or all-encompassing. For existence there is the sincere belief by certain individuals that Elvis is alive, that the earth is flat, and so on.

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VII: Freud next questions "What other illusions could there be in civilization?"

Freud [sees some social utility in religion but asserts] . . . that "civilization runs a greater risk if we maintain our present attitude to religion than if we give it up." Freud follows with a justification of this exposition by saying that he does not offer anything different than many others have before him, in terms of a critique of religion, rather all he has done is place this argument in a psychological context. He also notes that nothing that he has said about religion really needs psychoanalytic support; "it had been said by others long before analysis came into existence."

Freud's defends his position by initially giving religion its due. He writes: "Religion has clearly performed great services for human civilization. It has contributed much towards the taming of the asocial instincts. But not enough." Religion, he claims, has ruled civilization for many thousands of years and had time to show what it can achieve. If it had succeeded in altering conditions and made the majority of people happy and reconciled them to life no one would dream of changing the situation. But, Freud asks, what do we see happening? . . . Most importantly, however, is that Freud thinks that our acceptance of religion, as the universal neurosis, safeguard believers who have a high risk of certain neurotic illnesses. That is, "their acceptance of the universal neurosis spares them the task of constructing a personal one."
Thus to Freud the knowledge of the historical worth of religious doctrines does not validate their being put forward as the basis of our civilizations precepts. "On the contrary!" he writes,

Those historical residues have helped us to view religious teachings, as it were, as neurotic relics, and we may now argue that the time has probably come, as it does in an analytic treatment, for replacing the effects of repression by the results of the rational operation of the intellect.

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To Freud the historical truths put forward in religion have become so distorted and systematically disguised that the mass of humanity cannot recognize them as truth. He compares religion to the practice of telling children they were brought by the stork . . . Just as there are people who are attached to their religious convictions by affective ties, there are people who are not in the same situation. The former individuals, Freud thinks, obey the precept of civilization because they let themselves be intimidated by the threats of religion, and they are afraid of religion so long as they consider it a part of the reality to which they belong . . . Freud notes, by the time that the child's intellect emerges he or she is already been assailed by the doctrines of religion. What is the relative merit of closing off a mind by threats of hell-fire? Freud writes: When a man has once brought himself to accept uncritically all the absurdities that religious doctrines put before him and even to overlook the contradictions between them, we need not be greatly surprised at the weakness of his intellect. But we have no other means of controlling our instinctual nature than by intelligence. How can we expect people who are under the dominance of prohibitions of thought attain the psychological ideal, the primacy of the intelligence? He also suggests that perhaps the effect of the religious prohibition may no be as bad as he supposed. He writes: "perhaps it will turn out that human nature remains the same even if education is not abused in order to subject people to religion." Although we cannot know the answer to this question, Freud suggests that it may be a good idea to make an experiment of an irreligious education . . . Freud rightly notes that to do so would be a cruelty. He does this by comparing the removal of such beliefs from an individual to the withholding of sleeping drugs for a addict.

But Freud contradicts his critic over the point that men are completely unable to do without the consolation of the religious illusion—that it is necessary for humanity to deal with the troubles of life and the cruelty of reality. He admits that this may be true for individuals brought up with in a religious system, but asks what about those that have been brought up "sensibly?" Such individuals, he thinks, will find themselves in a difficult situation. They will have to admit to themselves the full extent of their helplessness and their insignificance in the machinery of the universe; they can "no longer be the centre of creation, no longer the object of tender care on the part of the beneficent providence." What Freud is calling for, in his own terms, is a 'education to reality.' Freud is positive that humanity will be able to stand up to this task. When one is thrown to his or her own resources, he notes, "one learns to make a proper use of them. And men are not entirely without assistance," there is science.

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The critic then pleads on behalf of religious systems as the basis of education and communal life. This is, he claims, a practical problem and not a question of reality value. that is, since for the sake of preserving civilization, until he is ready on his own . . . we are obliged to control human behaviour, and religious systems are the best way of doing so. The critic points out another advantage of religion. That is, it allows for a refinement and sublimation of ideas, which make it possible for it to be divested of most of the traces which it bears of primitive and infantile thinking. Something which science, the critic maintains, is incapable of doing. Thus the critic concludes that he has shown that Freud's "'endeavors come down to an attempt to replace a proved and emotionally valuable illusion by another one, which is unproved and without emotional appeal'."

Freud responds but admitting that he is not inaccessible to such criticisms. He admits that perhaps his point of view is also illusory, but he notes one distinction that separates his thoughts from religious ones. It is this: "My illusions are not," he writes, " like religious ones, incapable of correction. They have not the character of delusion." Freud follows by noting that if experience should show that he is incorrect or mistaken, he will give up his expectations—i.e., that religion is a neurosis and the hope that humanity will overcome it.

Freud brings up two other points for discussion. First, the weakness of his position does not imply any strengthening of the religious one. He admits that the primacy of the intellect is off in the far-flung future but it is not in an infinitely distant one. He expect that it will set the same aims as have religions—i.e., the love of humanity and the decrease of suffering. Still, Freud notes, on the way to this distant goal, religious doctrines will have to be discarded, no matter whether the first attempts fail or if the substitutes prove to be untenable. The reason being: "in the long run nothing can withstand reason and experience, and the contradiction which religion offers to both is all too palpable."

The second point is as follows: there is a difference between the illusion from religion and Freud's illusion. The critic, Freud maintains, has defended his illusion with all his might. "If it become discredited—and indeed the threat is great enough—then your world would collapse." Freud notes that he is free of such bondage as he is prepared to renounce a great deal of infantile wishes and thus he can bear it if a few of his illusions are shattered.

Freud then confronts the notion that education freed from the burden of religious doctrines may not effect humanity's psychological nature. Freud notes that there has been some value in the belief in god, but does not think that this is reason enough to lose interest in the world and life, as he has one support that the religious person does not. That is, Freud believes that it is possible for scientific work to gain some knowledge about the reality of the world, and thus increase our power. "If this belief is an illusion," he writes, "then we are in the same position as you. But science has given us evidence by its numerous important successes that it is no illusion." In science's relatively short life span, Freud continues, it has clarified much that had been hidden. It is a system that is based upon laws and proofs which are said to be testable. It is a system that is said to develop hypotheses which are put forward for criticism and which evolve as they are proven false. Freud goes on to argue the case for science.