Posts in Category: Week 2 – Freud

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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I’ve Made a Huge Mistake

“It’s not a trick, Michael. It’s an illusion.”

According to Freud our religious beliefs are illusory thinking. It’s not just that they trick us, but they elude us as well. They lead us down a road of wishful thinking, a world of what-could-be but likely will not.

Our beliefs are the individual convinced that they will break Vegas with a single pull of a slot machine, a double down on the blackjack table, or an “all in” at a poker tournament. It is not impossible but is highly improbable. And as such they continue throwing away the little money they have for the money they never will have, all under the illusion of winning big. “This is,” writes Westphal in his book Suspicion and Faith, “the kind of distortion Freud finds in religious illusions. We represent God to ourselves, not in accordance with the evidence available to us,” that the house will always win, “but in accordance with our wishes; in other words, we create God in our own image, or at least the image of our desires” (62).

“It’s not a trick, Michael. It’s an illusion.”

Illusion is perhaps the most important item in the psychical inventory of a civilization. In The Future of an Illusion Freud writes, “What is characteristic of illusions is that they are derived from human wishes. In this respect they come near to psychiatric delusions. But they differ from them, too, apart from the more complicated structure of delusions. In the case of delusions, we emphasize as essential their being in contradiction with reality. Illusions need not necessarily be false….For instance, a middle class-girl may have the illusion that a prince will come and marry her; and a few such cases have occurred. That the Messiah will come and found a golden age is much less likely” (31).

“It’s not a trick, Michael. It’s an illusion.”

It is when we realize the seemingly inescapable illusion of our belief that we honestly say, “I’ve made a huge mistake.”

A Universal Neurosis << Previous  | |  Next >> An Exalted Father


An Exalted Father

“A personal God is, psychologically, nothing other than an exalted father.”
(Freud, Leonardo da Vinci: A Memory of His Childhood, 80)

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.

Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.

And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 

I’ve Made a Huge Mistake << Previous  | |  Next >> The God Behind the Curtain

The God Behind the Curtain

Pay no attention to the God behind the curtain, for God is just another Wizard from Oz, an object of our own desire and declaration. We want someone strong enough to protect us from death and friendly enough to compensate us for the sacrifices we make to the world around us. As such, God is the Wizard of Oz that we have created and perpetuated, an old man projected as an almighty force of eternal life and paradise, the illusion of our belief, the delusion of our religion.

We represent God to ourselves, not in accordance with the evidence available to us but in accordance with our wishes; in other words, we create God in our image, or at least in the image of our desires. Now we have three things to be ashamed of: (1) the desires that govern this operation, (2) our willingness to subordinate truth to happiness, and (3) our hubris in making ourselves the creator and God the creature. If we are not utterly shameless, we will do our best to distract attention, especially our own, from what is going on.
(Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, 62)

We need the persistence and curiosity of Toto to pull back the curtain and reveal ourselves as the old man pulling the levers and our religious systems functioning to distract attention from what is going on.

To assess the truth-value of religious doctrines does not lie within the scope of the present enquiry. It is enough for us that we have recognized them as being, in their psychological nature, illusions.
(Freud, The Future of an Illusion, p31)

An Exalted Father << Previous  | |  Next >> Adolescent Rebellion

Adolescent Rebellion

Freud describes cultures as needing ideals that can reign in the drives and desires of individuals.

Religion is the most important ideal a culture has, and therefore a culture discourages questioning its religious beliefs.  But religion is also based on a wish that is left unfulfilled, and as such, religion can entrap believers in an unhealthy relationship that prevents the maturity of individuals and cultures alike.

Freud sees religion as the adolescent stage of a culture; much as a child learns its parents’ ideals in order to become a part of a family, religion is a set of unquestionable norms needed for a culture to cohere.  But the adolescent must begin to rebel against those same ideals in order to become an independent adult.

The God Behind the Curtain << Previous  | |  Next >> Marx