Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) is the father of psychoanalytic theory who is remembered for his unique contributions to understanding the human mind. His work as a psychologist required he engage the topic of religion. He approached religious belief from the assumption of philosophical naturalism in which he did not believe that the supernatural or God exists. Arguably Freud’s most relevant book on religion is his Future of an Illusion (1927) in which applied his theory of human psychology to society and civilization as a whole. He moves from the individual level to the universal (i.e. to the level of the human race in general) and most of this analysis will concentrate here.
Freud claimed that because human beings live in society they are forced to control themselves through repressing desire. One has to repress her desires as not to act on all of them. One cannot just do as she pleases, take whatever she wants, or have sex with just anyone she wishes to. Freud deemed this to be a source of frustration and pain. He applied this conviction to explain religious belief in gods and, later, God (Freud assumed that polytheism is older than monotheism and that monotheism gradually evolved out of polytheism). Human beings invent gods because it alleviates their pain. They invent them because the gods will reward and/or compensate people for their Earthly troubles in the afterlife.
Freud claimed that the gods are a collective representation of human individual experiences as children. As children, people come to know the feelings of fear and dependence, and later they project this out of the child-parent relationship into the wider universe. The result is the imagination of large scale cosmic parents who care about them. This belief, Freud maintained, eventually caused the emergence of monotheism (belief in one God or a single Heavenly Father). In this case, human beings feel helpless in a hostile world where they do not get what they want. Because of this, human beings want there to be a Heavenly Father and this causes them to believe in such a being who will protect and sustain them. Freud claimed that as humanity became less superstitious through advancements in human knowledge, people learned to restrict the role of the gods and ultimately decided that they only needed one of them (monotheism). Freud referred to this formation of belief in God as wish fulfillment, meaning that one ends up believing in something because he or she strongly wants it to be true. Scholar of religion Ivan Strenski explains that,
“Freud makes problems for religion by arguing that religious experiences are to be explained in terms of mental causes that are themselves not religious. These experiences have to do basically with relations between children and parents, not between people and God.”
Belief in God is an “illusion.” It is an illusion not only because it is a product of wish fulfillment or wishful thinking but also because God can be neither proven nor disproved. Freud did not say that an illusion is by definition false, but rather that it is unlikely to be true. He sketched the analogy of a middle class woman who desired to marry a prince, which although not an impossible fate is certainly an unlikely one.
Freud did believe that religion had done good things. He believed that it has positively contributed to human civilization and sustained society. He thus compared it to totemism which itself encourages people to restrain from their primal urges leading to a functional society as a whole,
“The gods retain the threefold task: they must exorcise the terrors of nature, they must reconcile men to the cruelty of Fate, particularly as it is shown in death, and they must compensate them for the sufferings and privations which a civilized life in common has imposed on them.”
Freud did, however, believe that civilization has outgrown religion: human beings are no longer children and they do not need wish fulfillment. Instead, humanity now possesses reason and science, which Freud assumed had revealed a godless world: “No, our science is no illusion. But an illusion it would be to suppose that what science cannot give us we can get elsewhere.”
What are some of the strengths and weaknesses to Freud’s theory of religion?
A strength is found in his theory capturing an authentic component to religion, which is that for many people religious belief plays a comforting role. Many believe in religion because they desire a religious worldview. They want a religion’s doctrines to be true for whatever reason. It also seems that evidential reasoning and argumentation for the truth of religious worldviews is not of primary importance for most religious people. This is an insight that no doubt sits comfortably with Freud’s wish fulfillment thesis. There is the risk, however, of overstating Freud’s thesis. It is not clear that this is the case for all religious people. Some religious believers claim reason to be at the heart of their religions. They believe in their faith because they deem it reasonable on evidential grounds to do so. These believers would not doubt contend against the idea that belief in God is simply a product of fear, repressed desires, or wishful thinking.
A major weakness to Freud’s theory is that it appears to be influenced by his philosophical convictions. Freud assumes naturalism and his conclusions are always prejudiced against belief in the supernatural, religion, and God. It is clear that at the outset he intended to ground religion and religious experiences in the Earth-bound human realm. Where religious experience occurs they are always, according to Freud, expressions of purely human determinants of thought and action. As such, any religious experience is prejudged as illusory. Freud assumed that the religious believer never experiences God or the supernatural; rather, he or she just experiences as natural phenomenon or object masquerading as the supernatural. Such a conviction should be held tentatively. It is not possible that Freud could claim this to be absolutely the case. He did not have access to the consciousness of all human beings and therefore to their experiences. Further, philosophical worldviews are a matter of continued debate and disagreement.
Should a skeptic of religion use Freud’s argument to claim that all religious belief is false, then he runs the risk of committing the genetic fallacy. This is a fallacy in logic that undermines a specific belief based on how that belief originates in the one holding it. But the origin of a belief says nothing concerning the validity or the truth of a belief. Freud also assumes that any proof or evidence needs to be empirical, which he believed is impossible in the case for religious belief. Freud threfore appears to advocate a type of scientism, a controversial philosophical view with little contemporary philosophical and scientific support.
Freud’s thesis has limits, primarily given that it focuses predominantly on monotheistic religions. This is understandable given that Freud came from a Jewish family. His theory, however, is less clear on how it would apply to religions like Confucianism, Daoism, Chinese traditional religions, or Buddhism. Given that his thesis is an explanation for the sources of belief in monotheistic religion, Freud did not provide a general theory of religion, which is likely the biggest issue many scholars within religious studies will have with it.