Is religion an illusion

Sigmund Freud and religion

April 8, 2017, 9:58 pm

Expert opinions on Freud's relationship to religion

What is the relationship between belief and psychotherapy according to Sigmund Freud? What were the reasons for his atheism? What is the permanently justified concern of his criticism of religion? Questions that "Logos" investigated on the occasion of the Freud anniversary year.

Religious teachings only illusions

"Religious ideas are not precipitates of experience or final results of thought, but illusions, the fulfillment of the oldest, most urgent desires of mankind; the secret of their strength is the strength of these desires."

This is what the father of psychoanalysis wrote in his work “The Future of an Illusion”, published in 1927. For Freud, religion is not a response to an original experience or the result of a thought process, but a system of teachings - a worldview.

Renunciation of "exaggerated Father God"

According to Freud, religion arises from several sources: an infantile father's longing, the need to be protected from the dangers of life and the desire for justice in an unjust society and for the prolongation of earthly finite existence.

According to Freud, people only become mature when they face reality and take their fate into their own hands. But this means renouncing a belief in - as Freud sees it - "exaggerated Father God." Belief in science gives more support than religion and will one day also replace it, believes the psychoanalyst.

Compulsions and religious exercises

That is the name of the article, published in 1907, in which Freud first made public statements about religion. He describes it as a "universal obsessional neurosis". With this at the latest it is clear: Freud himself rejects religion as a worldview.

This is to be distinguished from his relationship to religion as a psychoanalyst. The correspondence with the pastor and psychoanalyst Oskar Pfister shows that his work "The Future of an Illusion", in which he rejects religion, is not part of the analytical structure:

It is my personal attitude that coincides with the well-known atheistic attitude of many non- and pre-analysts and is certainly not shared by many good analysts.

Three-stage law as an atheistic basis

Sigmund Freud develops his atheism within the framework of his psychoanalytic theory of history. Their philosophical background is the three-stage law of Auguste Comte. According to Comte, human cultural history unfolds in three stages of development: At the beginning there is the theological-fictional, then the philosophical-abstract and at the end the positive-real stage. In this, people have said goodbye to the gods and turn to the sensible facts.

The psychoanalyst first appreciates religion in its part in the development of human culture. Because: "It calls for the renunciation of selfish, socially harmful drives". His main argument against religion is not the prohibitions that religion imposes, but the exaggerations of the same and that it responds to justified resistance with thought prohibitions.

The two basic themes of Freud

Sigmund Freud determines the human being in such a way that his essence consists in the gratification of instincts. Man strives for a maximum of pleasure. According to Freud, peaceful coexistence with other people now requires a laborious task from the conscious mind: The ego has to balance its own biological drive claims and needs with the social demands and moral norms of the outside world. Freud wanted man to take note of his instinctuality, not to deny it and to suppress it into the unconscious, because it would then return in a neurotic form.

The instinctuality and the spiritual abilities of the human being - these two basic themes of Freud could already be found in the Bible in the third chapter of Genesis - the narrative of the Fall. The Protestant religious psychologist Susanne Heine refers to this: "People who eat from the tree of knowledge open their eyes; that is, they come to their senses. At the same time, they become aware that they are naked: they recognize themselves as sexually instinctual beings" .

Approaches to criticism

Sigmund Freud, who on the one hand honors the cultural achievement of religion, on the other hand rejects it as an "illusion" and an expression of human wishful thinking. And this is where the criticism of Freud's understanding of religion begins. Just as he describes man as a needy instinctual being, he sees religion only as the function of satisfying needs.

Sigmund Freud therefore has a need religion in mind. As a result, some have a longing for a higher being who will explain the world riddles to them, give protection, give meaning and vouch for compensatory justice. But, according to Freud, mature personalities no longer need this and have learned to realistically reconcile themselves with life's frustrations. The Viennese philosopher and Freud connoisseur Augustinus Wucherer-Huldenfeld criticizes precisely this religion of need as a form of decay of the original faith.

Freud's theses as a future opportunity

In the elucidation of pathological forms of the religious, Sigmund Freud, as a critic of religion, does an indispensable service. According to his theses, religion can be an infantile illusion, an expression of a neurosis and psychological immaturity. But - and that is the decisive point of criticism of Freud's conception: it does not have to be, nor is it the original religious experience.

Freud wanted the truth of man to come to light. Its essence must be understood from the reference to reality. Against this background, however, the question of religion could arise anew: How is it that man is such a truth being, to whom every moment is given new and unique time?