A Universal Neurosis

The first week of Atheism For Lent led us to explore the theme of desire. From a hole-shaped God to Ludwig Feuerbach and Ted Mosby to Ricky Gervais, we are honestly asking what we make of God when God has become the object of our desire and the perpetual projection of our own image. And now we turn to the first of our four atheists for the season: Sigmund Freud. A name that is likely familiar to anyone who sat through psychology class, Freud is often the stereotype (and grandfather) of psychotherapy, dream analysis, penis envy, and daddy issues. But our starting point with Freud will be his well-known differentiation of the id, ego, and superego.

The id, ego, and superego can roughly be described (respectively) as purely instinctual drive, conscious experience, and unconscious norms that regulate between drive and conscious experience.  The infant is pure id, but quickly adapts to the superego expectations of its family (and later, friends and culture) in order to develop a concept of itself in the form of an ego.  However, if an adolescent never questions the superego norms she has grown up with, she develops a highly neurotic dependence on those norms that prevents normal maturation.  Freud argues that this neurotic dependence is the same as what a culture experiences if it is never allowed to question its religious beliefs.

Freud calls religious belief an illusion rather than a delusion, and the distinction is crucial to understanding the goal of his critique.  An illusion is a belief based on a wish, whereas a delusion is a belief based on an essential conflict with reality.  The example Freud uses in The Future of an Illusion is Columbus’ discovery of the New World, which is both illusion and delusion.  His wish to find a path to the East lead to the illusion that he had succeeded, but the fact that it was not the East makes him delusional.

Next, Freud asks what we are to make of the statement, “The Messiah will come.”  It is clearly based on a desire, making it an illusion, but the lack of evidence either way in the case of a perpetually postponed event means this cannot be called a delusion.  In short, Freud is less interested in the veracity of belief and more interested in what causes us to believe the things we believe.

A society’s attachment to religion creates a universal neurosis and our religious practices resemble neurotic ceremonials.  The believer that questions a belief may appear psychotic to the universally neurotic community.  Why go this trouble of questioning religious illusions?  Freud claims that illusions tend to 1) be personally and socially dangerous, 2) continue the cycles of frustration, and 3) hide truth (Freud claims religious dogma is merely disguised truth).

Questioning beliefs creates the same anxiety experienced by a rebelling adolescent or a neurotic individual in therapy, but Freud believes this painful process is worth the struggle.

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  1. Chuck February 25, 2013

    An illusion is a false assumption based on an honest misinterpretation of the evidence. A delusion is when that false assumption becomes a warranted belief despite parsimonious challenges against its reality. The first is an accident and the second is a willful deception (unless of course one has a brain illness that doesn’t allow them to understand how parsimony works in defining a truth claim, e.g. Schizophrenia).

    All religious practices operate for group inclusion and therefore become a signal for “in-group” trust, rather than the personal edification they pretend. One only need to examine the contradictions to religious principle, afforded by individual Republican representatives in America, while accepting that their brand image is based on being the party of, and for, theistic religious belief, to see the neurotic ceremonial of “God Bless America!” as a religious test for public office.

  2. Abigail February 25, 2013

    I’ve been looking forward to seeing what {whoever’s running this site} had to say about Freud. As a dream interpreter myself, I disagree strongly with Freud’s approach to dream interpretation, but I never knew of his stances on religion and atheism. I’ll have to chew on this material a bit before I can spit out something useful… But I’m curious a few things. “Neurotic ceremonials” means what? Is that like an OCD person having to wash his/her hands a certain number of times, etc.?
    And didn’t Columbus finally realize, by his 3rd voyage, that he hadn’t actually reached the East? Instead he decided that he’d reached the Garden of Eden. So I’d say he was illusional all the way, not so much delusional.
    I think bringing the word “neurotic” from its use in the 19th century to today’s setting has the potential to be inflammatory. It could quickly be perceived as name-calling, or haughtiness. Kind of like when I watched a video by Stefan Molyneux about brain damage in children, and then he twisted it at the end, trying to “prove” that most people who disagreed with him were brain damaged. How rude!
    OK, more later.

    • Chuck February 25, 2013

      Oooooh, the special pleading defense of one’s premise is never any good (vis a vis Stefan Molyneux)

    • administrator February 25, 2013

      A neurosis is the formation of behavioral/ psychosomatic symptoms as a result of the return of the repressed. It becomes a serious problem, for Freud, when living an active life is interfered with, when the patient can’t achieve their goals because of the return of such repression. So a neurotic ceremonial might be a church cermony in which collective repression creates certain behavioral symptoms, i.e. the active exclusion of those who are “different,” violence (either physical or otherwise), etc. Neurosis can result in diverse states from megalomania to melancholia, each I think we might be able to identify in our experience of religion.

      • Abigail February 25, 2013

        I recognize that there are a lot of churches out there, the ceremonies of which might “create certain behavioral symptoms, i.e. the active exclusion of those who are “different,” violence (either physical or otherwise), etc.” In my case, though, I was lucky to have always had pretty good church experiences. The ceremonies, themselves, weren’t what directly brought on MY religious neuroses, except in that they were means of communicating the MESSAGES that dramatically harmed my life. The ceremonies I was involved in were pretty uplifting, actually. Music, community, a time to relax. I was usually in pretty welcoming communities, so there was very little active exclusion or violence in my experience. I have heard plenty of stories of people who’ve had bad church experiences, though.
        I could see the “ceremonies” (church attendance, or the equivalents in other religions) as being kind of like the OCD-sufferer’s compulsion to wash his/her hands, though. You go to make yourself feel a little bit better about yourself, or to find something to fixate on for awhile.

  3. Will February 25, 2013

    Strangely I find that the shared illusion of religion is a uniting factor for those of the religious ilk. Many of these discussions continue to bring me back to the tribal or social aspect of our humanity. We all seek acceptance from our tribe or culture. It seems that our innate need for acceptance pushes us to accept the views of others in order to be included in the group.

    • Mark February 25, 2013

      Wow! Never thought that Stephan Molyneux woul be spoken of in these comments.

      • Abigail February 25, 2013

        Ha ha. You can always count on me to be unpredictable. (Hey look, a paradox.)

    • administrator February 25, 2013

      If only Rene Girard were an atheist we’d have a week on his anthropological theories, especially mimesis and scapegoating…

      • jcandito March 4, 2013

        I think Rene Girard’s reflections on the violence and scapegoating in religion would be helpful. As would his unique vision of Christianity’s “unmasking” the scapegoat mechanism.

  4. Mark February 25, 2013

    Anyone want to bet tomorrows post has to do with Arrested Development?

  5. Abigail February 25, 2013

    OK, after a bit more thought, the only thing I can really offer is that this tension between what Freud calls the super-ego and the ego is, in my opinion, actually a healthy thing. To go too far off into the collective so as to become a sheep or a doormat is one side of the pendulum, and to rebel too much against it so as to become anti-social or violent is the other side. There is plenty of wisdom to be found in the collective voice of our elders; it’s silly to try to re-invent the wheel. But everything should be tested, too, and if an artifact is no longer useful (or proven to be false!), it should be given a proper burial (metaphorically speaking). I think it’s good and healthy to walk that middle line of being your unique self and still fitting in with your community.
    So say the intellectuals of society, that is. We must recognize, though, that not everyone has the desire, or even the capacity, to question the norm and formulate a logically sound redefinition of reality. And it can be incredibly lonely, too, to put oneself in that place.

    Here’s another question that’s loosely related to today’s post. So Freud seems to see religious beliefs as being either illusional (if they stem from a wish) or delusional (if they stem from a conflict with reality). But I see many religious beliefs as neither of the two. Some of them are based on simply being unable to interpret certain phenomena any way besides putting it into the realm of “god did it.” In essence, god gets to be everything that we don’t understand. How is that wish-fulfilment? And it’s not delusion, because the unexplainable actually DID occur.

    For example, I’ve had experiences of dreaming the future that cannot be explained using any science that we have mastered yet today. I’ve had experiences of total strangers dreaming about extremely specific and personal details about my life, right down to the name of the person involved. I’ve seen miraculous healings with my own eyes, in my own brother and father, so I can absolutely verify the authenticity of the healings. Or even this–how many of us have had the experience of an inner voice suddenly popping through our normal thoughts and offering guidance that proves to be correct, when there wasn’t adequate stimuli to otherwise propel us to do something? I think that someday science will be able to explain these kinds of things. Meanwhile, most people say, “it must have been god.” Not because they don’t WISH to understand how that happened, or that they have a WISH that this kind of experience is fulfilling (because they didn’t make it happen!), but because something just happened TO them, that they have no way to explain.

    It’s the human mind’s natural function to try and create some kind of meaning out of its experiences. Having no means to do so, people will often use god as the explanation for the unexplainable. (Which, if you think about it, doesn’t really explain anything. It’s just giving a personhood to “I don’t know.”) Weather patterns, fire, and all kinds of other natural phenomena used to fall under this category too. I don’t blame people for trying to create meaning from their lives.

    • Exia March 10, 2013

      Abigail, interesting thoughts. I’m not sure I agree that most people say “it must have been god” because “something just happened TO them and that they have no way to explain”. When something happen to me and if I don’t understand yet, one option I have is simply to say “I don’t understand” or “I don’t have an explanation for it yet”. I don’t have to say “it must have been god”. In other words, experiences by themselves do not constitute illusions or delusions but the misinterpretation of them do.

      Some Christians tend to attribute only the GOOD and unexplainable to god. This makes them illusional because they WISH they know their beliefs in a good god is true. By attributing the good and unexplainable things to god gives them certitude in their belief.

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  7. Tim C. February 27, 2013

    Frederick Buechner on illusion or wishful thinking:

    “CHRISTIANITY IS mainly wishful thinking. Even the part about Judgment and Hell reflects the wish that somewhere the score is being kept.

    Dreams are wishful thinking. Children playing at being grown-up is wishful thinking. Interplanetary travel is wishful thinking.

    Sometimes wishing is the wings the truth comes true on.”

  8. Exia March 10, 2013

    I’ve never read Freud but would like to learn more about his thoughts. If “ego” is the conscious self we think who we are or would like others to know who we are, what does Freud call the “true self”? Or, does he believe there is one? Or, it’s just the “id” in his understanding?

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