The Future of an Illusion is Sigmund Freud’s work of 1927 where he states his psychoanalytic view of religion. Freud is a staunch materialist who sees all religious ideas as illusory:
Freud defines religion as an illusion, consisting of “certain dogmas, assertions about facts and conditions of external and internal reality which tells one something that one has not oneself discovered, and which claim that one should give them credence.” Religious concepts are transmitted in three ways and thereby claim our belief. “Firstly because our primal ancestors already believed them; secondly, because we possess proofs which have been handed down to us from antiquity, and thirdly because it is forbidden to raise the question of their authenticity at all.” Psychologically speaking, these beliefs present the phenomena of wish fulfillment, “fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind.”¹
When I was a teenager I probably would have agreed with Freud on many points. But when I first realized that there’s more to life than sex, aggression, society and internalized norms, I came to disagree with Freud. I remember thinking how his reductive thinking could literally be dangerous to a spiritual seeker. I also recall talking with an employee in a spiritual bookstore who said, “Freud will drive you crazy, Jung won’t.” This was when I was beginning my PhD program and purchasing some core books by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, who figured prominently in my doctoral thesis.
Today, my view of Freud is not entirely negative. After converting to Catholicism I realized, from direct observation and interaction with some Catholics, that religion and neurosis, perhaps even psychosis, can coexist. While I was converting to Catholicism, the elderly priest who guided our RCIA suggested that “some insane people hide out in religion.”
I thought he was being a bit harsh at the time. But recently a Catholic parishioner whom I’ve known on and off for over a decade has started cursing and swearing at others in the Mass. Just the other day I was the recipient of her verbal attack, which was unsettling, to put it mildly.
Funnily enough, this person seems to be convinced that she knows better than everyone else. It was okay for her to swear in Church—I just didn’t understand. And after I gently suggested that she need not swear at people in the Mass, she said I was a %$%$#@$#@!
Not too holy. More like angry and conflicted.
This just goes to show that Freud and the RCIA priest weren’t entirely wrong. Some religious people really are quite borderline. And they do seem to hide out in Church instead of getting the help or spiritual direction they need.
So these days I can see that Freud, indeed, had something to say. However, I still disagree with Freud’s ideas in the sense that spiritual influences, as I see it, qualitatively differ from biochemical and social influences.
For me, the main questions concerning religion and psychology are:
- Is one’s approach to religion healthy or unhealthy?
- Could excessive prayers and countless Rosaries be a way of avoiding unresolved complexes?
With regard to the second point, I think in some instances this might be so.
Like myself, Jung didn’t reject Freudian ideas outright but came to see Freud’s view of religion and, especially spirituality, as lacking. At one time a key player in the Freudian school, Jung eventually went his own way and expanded Freud’s reductive view of spirituality with concepts like archetype, synchronicity and numinosity.
¹ Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, New York: W.W. Norton, 1961, p. 38. See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Future_of_an_Illusion