Sigmund Freud on Belief in God as Wish-Fulfillment and Responses

The Austrian father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) posited the wish-fulfillment hypothesis as an explanation for belief in God. 

Freud was an atheist and held a strong anti-religious stance viewing religion as a form of madness and universal, obsessional neurosis (1). Neuroses are compulsive, pedantic, and debilitating patterns of behavior (repeated washing of hands, counting, checking, obsession with personal hygiene, etc.) that render a normal healthy life impossible and require psychotherapeutic intervention. Religion, in Freud’s view, requires such intervention. 

Belief in God is an “illusion”. That such belief is an illusion is to say that wish-fulfillment is a prominent factor in its motivation. Freud claimed that feelings of fear and helplessness during childhood engendered a desire for fatherly, loving protection. This longing for a protective figure carried over into adulthood, although this time the desire is for a greater and more powerful figure. Freud explains,

“[T]he terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood aroused the need for protection – for protection through love – which was provided by the father; and the recognition that this helplessness lasts throughout life made it necessary to cling to the existence of a father, but this time a more powerful one” (2).

This explains belief in God,

“The psycho-analysis of individual human beings teaches us with quite special insistence that the god of each of them is formed in the likeness of his father, that his personal relation to God depends on his relation to his father in the flesh and oscillates and changes along with that relation, and that at bottom God is nothing other than an exalted father” (3).

Religion is the psychological projection that fulfills fundamental human needs and longings. Religion is therefore a childish residue that lasts into adulthood,

“We understand how a primitive man is in need of a god as creator of the universe, as chief of his clan, as personal protector… A man of later days, of our own day, behaves in the same way. He, too, remains childish and in need of protection, even when he is grown up; he thinks he cannot do without support from his god” (4).

The implications for religious belief are clear. God does not exist in any objective sense, as held by many religions and the devout, but is rather the product of human desires and weakness. This is where the influence of Ludwig Feuerbach’s protectionism on Freud can be most clearly seen. As Feuerbach posited, religion is nothing more than a human projection or abstraction into the cosmos of ideas that have purely human origins. As for human origins, Freud agreed.

Responses

There have been a number of responses to Freud’s wish-fulfillment hypothesis.

One reply is that Freud’s wish-fulfillment hypothesis may well be true (that one holds a religious belief caused by certain needs and desires), but that this proves nothing when it comes to the content of a belief. Even if a religious individual believes in the existence of a personal and powerful God because of a deep-seated need for a heavenly Father, it does not follow that such a personal and powerful God does not exist, or that the belief in such a Being is wrong. The question of the existence of God is another matter.

Religious persons might further argue that the desire for a divine, protective, and loving figure is deliberate in that human beings are divinely designed with such a longing. That there is a unique relationship between humans and God is affirmed in some religions and should not therefore be surprising.

Further, such feelings as the desire and longing for love and protection are not inherently bad or suspect but are, in fact, normal and even desirable in any healthy relationship. It need not be any different when it comes to belief in God, or an individual’s “relationship” with God.

Third, in a debate, a religious apologist could rightfully point out that for the skeptic to employ Freud’s wish-fulfillment hypothesis as an argument against the existence of God is to commit the genetic fallacy. The fallacy is when the skeptic attempts to undermine a particular belief by how an individual came to hold that belief. But how an individual comes to hold a particular belief says nothing about the content or truth or falsity of that belief. Truth or falsity of a belief must be debated and decided on other grounds. 

Finally, theists are fond of turning Freud’s hypothesis on its head by applying it to skeptics and atheists. Perhaps, argues the theist, it is the atheist who is wishful and has a strong inner longing and desire for God not to exist. This is, in fact, a view admitted by some atheists; the philosopher Thomas Nagel, for example, stated that “It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that” (5). Could what Nagel states here be applicable to other atheists? Possibly, which means that atheists can also be guilty of wishful thinking. Of course, this would not mean the atheist is incorrect in his belief just because he desires such a belief to be true.

References

1. Lees-Grossmann, Lorna. 2020. “Freud, Sigmund, and Religion.” In Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion, edited by D. A. Leeming. Springer.

2. Sigmund Freud quoted by Parsons, Williams. 2021. Freud and Religion: Advancing the Dialogue. Cambridge University Press. p. 97.  

3. Freud, Sigmund. 1999. Totem and Taboo: Some Points of Agreement Between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics. Psychology Press. p. 147.

4. Freud, Sigmund. 1953. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud: Moses and monotheism, an outline of psycho-analysis and other works. Oxford University Press. p. 128.

5. Nagel, Thomas. 1997. The Last Word. p. 130-131.

One comment

  1. in his book, “The Future of an Illusion,” Freud refers to the mystic’s experience of oneness as a kind of “oceanic feeling.’

    This phrase actually came from a conversation Freud had with Romain Rolland, who had talked with disciples of the great Indian mystic Ramakrishna. They told Rolland of Ramakrishna’s frequent experiences of ecstasy, in which he would at times feel as if the entire universe had become an “ocean” of bliss (“Ananda”).

    When Rolland told Freud of this, Freud responded not with scorn or a challenge but rather simply said, “I have no experience of this kind of oceanic feeling.”

    Given his extreme ambition to be successful, to the extent that he ultimately lied about the results of many of his patients, it is not surprising that at a time when materialist belief was at its highest point, Freud would write and think in a way consistent wtih obtaining success.

    However, it is less well known that toward the end of his life Freud began to accept the possibility of telepathy. It is possible if he lived longer he might have come to very different notions of what the mystics were talking about.

    in any case, given that according to Freud’s nephew, Freud hated music because it triggered emotions with which he was uncomfortable, it seems to me at least (with 20+ years of experience as a clinical psychologist and 20 years prior to that as a professional composer/pianist) anyone who hates music is not the kind of person you’d go to for understanding human beings.

    In striking contrast, Jung, near the end of his life, met a music therapist. He was so astonished at the power and wisdom of her therapy, he stated, “If I had my professional life to begin over again, the first thing i would explore is the power of music for healing.”

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