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.