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.”

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  1. Abigail February 26, 2013

    “In what ways have you experienced religious belief as an illusion?”
    I was taught and believed that God/Jesus/Holy Spirit would protect me, prevent me from doing stupid things if I prayed enough, provide what I needed, be a friend when I was down, give me an “abundant” life, tell me where to go and what to do with my life. Seems to work for some and not for others, so it must be an illusion.

  2. Mark February 26, 2013

    Ha! I told you it would e an Arrested Development post!

    • administrator February 26, 2013

      … Or did you make it happen? ; )

      • Mark February 27, 2013

        Perhaps I prayed it into existence. 😉

        • jcandito March 4, 2013


  3. Thule Kinnison February 26, 2013

    My biggest illusion experience with religous belief happened when I realized that I expected “God” to do things for me. If I prayed enough, God would answer. But when my prayers were not answered, I was left with confusion. Today, I do not rely on God to do things “for” me. Yet, I connect with God in relationship, as a partner on the journey.

    • Thule Kinnison February 26, 2013

      I have escaped the “Arrested development of religion” by not expecting God to fix the human life experiences I’m having; as God did not fix Jesus’s human life. I’d rather be in relationship, than someone who “needs” something from God.

      • njb10e February 26, 2013

        I love this. Thank you.

        • Jim February 27, 2013

          Agreed. Well said (er, written).

  4. Will February 26, 2013

    Do good, pray, trust, love above all, and God will make everything OK. There is no magic formula to earn God’s favor, if any favor exists or if God exists. The illusion is coming unraveled daily about ” the man in the sky.” As I have said, I am certain that God is not who or what we believe he/she/it is. The ancient fables and myths are there for guidance and not necessarily answers.

    “All things happen for the good of those who are called according to His purpose.” A beautiful and comforting illusion? Perhaps…

    • Abigail February 26, 2013

      “The illusion is coming unraveled daily about ‘the man in the sky.'”

      Indeed. As global information increases, and we see how much others in poorer countries suffer, and how good we have it by comparison, the question is, am I really that much better than those people, to deserve more blessings from God than they have?

    • Jim February 27, 2013

      The “all things happen” is easy to say when you’re experiencing them as good and want to validate yourself as “called according to his purpose.”

  5. […] week in the Atheism for Lent posts, we are exploring the work of Sigmund Freud.  Freud’s name is popularized by the […]

  6. Austin February 26, 2013

    As an individual far removed from an unabashed devotion to a form of fundamental Christianity, it is easy to look back and see my previous religion as an illusion. But such an observation does little to stimulate the mind or promote growth. More importantly, I need to question whether or not my current ‘spirituality’ – embracing doubt while attempting to be empathetic and loving – is actually a radical change in my life, or merely my next illusion.

    This thought emerged specifically from Freud: “What is characteristic of illusions is that they are derived from human wishes.”

    If I am honest with myself, I’ll admit that I’m still pursuing what I wish to be true; my wishes have simply changed. I’m not sure what to make of this thought, but it seems worthy of investigation.

    • summers-lad March 28, 2013

      “My wishes have simply changed.” It seems to me that this, rather than belief per se, is the core of Christian conversion, spiritual maturity, conforming to Christ, call it what you will. It need not be consciously godly (“blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”) but it is a matter of the heart’s desire. Of course it could describe a change away from godliness as well, but an attempt to be empathetic and loving is not a change in that direction. Carry on investigating, and I’ll try to do so too.

  7. Miriam March 12, 2013

    Its a bit frustrating not being able to see the film clip as I’m outside US. Is the clip entirely releventto the discussion?
    is there a transcript or can someone say the key points? thanks?

    • Abigail March 12, 2013

      Miriam, on my side, the clip is only 14 seconds long, and not very interesting. A crude joke between sleazy guys about a “trick” being something “a whore does for money.” (I was a little offended, honestly, but I’m on the sensitive side.)

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