Freud’s Errors

The Discontent of Sigmund Freud II


Last year I looked at the views of Sigmund Freud on the source and cost of civilization, along with a brief critique. Since this foundation has been laid beforehand, in this post I will concentrate on the final step in my critique of Freud. His views on religion are perhaps the most egregious area of Freud’s errors and foolish mistakes.

There are several grounds upon which Freud’s views on religion may be assaulted


I. Biographical


Our first point of attack is on Freud’s intellectual biography. Freud, like many atheists, never seems to have taken religious belief seriously or to have known anyone who did. Beyond a childhood nanny, Freud never had a friend or patient who was a serious Christian or Jewish believer in his life. How can a man who has never known a believer claim to know what is wrong with them? While Freud read the Old Testament when he was younger; he never read the New Testament or works by such thinkers as Augustine, Pascal, Aquinas, Maimonedes or other serious intellectuals of the Christian and Jewish theistic traditions. He dismisses any attempts at intellectual justification of these beliefs as being grounded in some form of neurosis, or unwillingness to face dreadful reality that such belief is a illusion. Insofar as he does deal with what religious people actually believe Freud only sneers at the religion of the lumpenproletariat.

The argument has been made by psychologist Paul C. Vitz, that Freud’s tremendous dislike of religion stems from a projection of Freud’s own dislike his weak, perhaps even sexually perverse, father, onto God, whom Western tradition knows as the Heavenly Father. This is a fascinating argument, which Vitz backs up by looking at the biographies of major atheists from Matthew Toland, Voltaire and Diderot to Freud, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. In all cases, these men suffered either from either a lack of a father, or they held their fathers in tremendous distaste, usually because the man was weak.

How marvelous it is! That a man who claimed religion was the projection of a father figure onto the world may have been guilty of projecting his own horrid father onto the Divine Creator.


II. Polemcial


Freud approaches religion with an arrogance which, although surpassed by other atheists, is considerable just the same. As noted above, Freud never knew a theist or studied Christian theism, just the same, we will briefly look at his discussion. In his account in Future of an Illusion, he gives us three foundations for faith: 1. antiquity of belief, 2. proofs handed down by antiquity, and 3. questioning of faith being made forbidden.1 Freud’s view also held that religion is a projection onto the world, of the wishes of man’s mind. Religion is wish-fulfillment. This is as close as Freud gets to addressing the serious ideas of Theists. While Freud’s followers, and many more besides, have used Freud’s ideas about religion to attack the faithful, they, and Freud, fail on several counts.

The first is that his supposed foundations are not well digested. The antiquity of a thing, while not always a proof for it, strongly suggests that it exists for a reason and should not be overthrown in a twinkling because present dictates it. The age of a faith is regarded, by Freud as a son of the Enlightenment and Romantic eras, as a proof of how modern men are as duped now as they were centuries ago. This is a classic error of the modern mind, the belief that, because we are modern, scientific, etc, we are, therefore, superior to all those who came before us. The Christian religion stands, in part, upon the idea that those men of old had a contact with the Divine which we today can only dream about. The antiquity of a belief is neither proof for or against a thing being true; it is simply a statement that many people have held it to be so. To those of a more humble spirit than Freud, antiquity begs the question of why it was held to and whether it should be overthrown merely because the ‘times have changed.’ The second claim falls flat due to Freud’s utter failure to address theistic philosophers and their arguments. Freud holds that there can be no ‘proof’ for faith, since religion is not really a matter of reason and evidence but a matter of ‘illusions.’ His third claim is faulty because, while many people seem to think that you cannot question a belief about God or the hereafter at risk of your soul, for thinking believers doubts and questions about their faith is part of the human condition. Augustine, Pascal, Anselm and Aquinas no doubt suffered periods where they could not ‘prove’ what they believed in a way that modern people will accept, but they managed to arrive at proofs, derived from both experience and logic, which, for them, showed that what they believed was indeed rational. Augustine set the path for many Christian thinkers, including this writer, by seeking to believe in God, in order that understanding of that belief and its Object, might follow.

In the end Freud’s arrogant treatment of religion and religious believers is a mark against him. For the many who share his sneering contempt of faith in the unseen God his attitude will be acceptable. This attitude serves to shield them from the need to either examine their ‘arguments’ against faith as well as from the need to seriously speak to religious believers. How often do we, today, see the atheist dismiss Christians as the epitome of ignorance, backwardness and stupidity?


III. Scientific


Freud’s theory of religion has several pieces, each of which is open to attack. The philosophical core of his religious critique is the theory of projection, which is not original to him. Projection as the source of religious belief, the psychogenesis of belief, was first given form by Ludwig Feuerbach in his works The Essence of Christianity and The Essence of Religion. Freud is known to have avidly read these works as a young man. Freud’s attempts at giving an anthropological and psychoanalyitical basis for religious belief is driven by his own tremendous dislike of religion, which he never seems to have really understood anyway. The first problem with projection is that it seems to lack any real criterion for determining when exactly we are guilty of projecting qualities we like or dislike upon another. Only an in-depth knowledge of a person’s biography could begin to allow us to say that such and such a person has done this.2

The next aspects are anthropological in nature. Freud argues, as did several famous anthropologists and sociologists(including Emile Durkheim) that religion is in fact totemistic in nature. Totemism is the theory that religion is built upon certain items, or totems, which are held to be sacred or special in nature; to this is often added the ritual which many associate with being a mark of all religions. Yet even in Freud’s day this theory of totemism was in doubt. It has been adopted by atheistic-minded anthropologists and sociologists who try to treat religion as if it is mere ritual without any aspect of actual belief. In basic terms these scholars of human society often fail to take religion on its own word, as being aimed at either attaining or repairing a relationship with certain deities, or with one deity, as the case may be.3

To totemism Freud adds the source of the Oedipal conflict. In his attempts to explain early man in Totem and Taboo, Freud presented the following theory. Early man consisted of family groupings, ruled entirely by the father who held all women as his own. In time the sons slay their father, and take the women, their mothers, as mates. These offspring also devour their father’s flesh as a symbolical way of attaining his strength and position. For this we have no evidence at all, only Freud’s speculations.


Brief Excurses on Freud’s Religious Views

Although Freud speaks of religion as if it were an ‘illusion’ by which men try to make light of life’s burdens he does grant a view sociological observations, which it may be profitable to review. To recap slightly, permit me to quote Freud, “every civilization rests on a compulsion to work and a renunciation of instinct and therefore inevitably provokes opposition from those affect by these demands…civilization cannot consist principally or solely in wealth itself and the means of acquiring it and the arrangements for its distributions; for these things are threatened by the rebelliousness and destructive mania of the participants in civilization.”4

To survive a civilization imposes upon its members a series of restraints. This is not done consciously. History tells us of no age in which a man, or group of men planned out the rules by which society was to live. Social rules and norms seem to have arisen in the course of human history, partially as a product of religious ideas. Nevertheless, rules are essential to the survival of men, Freud calls these ‘the mental assets of civilization.’

The purpose of civilization is, ‘to defend us against nature,’ which is red in tooth and claw. Freud is certainly no optimist about the legendary ‘state of nature’ which was touted by Locke and Rousseau. Freud’s nature is no comforting, loving thing in which men might find their true selves, but a raw beast against which we must be protected. Against a hostile nature, which becomes Fate, “Man’s self-regard, seriously menaced, calls for consolation; life and the universe must be robbed of their terrors; moreover his curiosity, moved, it is true, by the strongest practical interest, demands an answer.”5

In the face of cold Nature, man is helpless, like an infant before its’ parents. Here Freud finds the psychological root of religious faith. In keeping with his theory that human development is largely determined during infancy, Freud does not shrink from this comparison. Even the understanding of nature does not undo man’s infantile feelings of helplessness before the world. Freud writes, “the gods retain their threefold task: they must exorcize the terrors of nature, they must reconcile men to the cruelty of Fate…and they must compensate them for sufferings and privations which a civilized life common has imposed on them.”6 In Freud’s vision, religious ideas continue to exist because life is still uncertain for every new generation of mankind, whatever answers the previous generation might have, they must be instilled anew in the newer generation. Life is simply a set of endless trials at the end of which is the grave. This is unacceptable, men want to believe that there is more to their existence than simply a futile struggle against the inevitability of death. So they invent the idea of gods, and in the case of the Jews, a single God. This is a watershed for human religious evolution since, “Now that God was a single person, man’s relations to him could recover the intimacy and intensity of the child’s relation to his father.”7 The infantile theory of religious origins continues to be of use.


Freud’s Failings


The infantile theory of religious origins is of use in explaining not religion, by Atheism. As we know. Freud found the origin of all human belief in the father-figure. So, too, did he write, in Moses and Monotheism, that “young people lose their religious belief as soon as their father’s authority breaks down.”8 As we know from Vitz, the greatest anti-religious figures in Western history, from Voltaire and Diderot to Nietzsche and Freud all suffered from either a lack of a father, a bad relationship with their father, or a tremendous hatred and contempt for their fathers. Is it so impossible to believe that men who hate their earthly fathers would end in hating the God who is called their Heavenly Father?

Freud’s contention that we are largely shaped in childhood, and seemingly by little after that, does not hold much scientific water. Why should it be that we are a series of “cortical dominoes extending through the decades,” in the words of Frederick Crews?9 The reduction of people to quaking infants goes against all human experience that we do not remain children forever. It does however serve Freud’s well-known dislike of people, and even of his own patients.

My apologies to my readers for the crudity of this post, an excess of work and stress have prevented me from doing any writing for over a month now. I hope to remedy that in the weeks to come.


C. McDonald

1 Future of an Illusion, pg. 33

2 I admit this applies to Vitz as much as to Freud.

3 Cf. W. Schmidt, The Origin and Growth of Religion, Trans. by H.J. Rose, pgs. 110-115

4 Freud, Future of an Illusion, pg. 12

5 Ibid, pg. 20

6 Ibid, pg. 22

7 Pg. 24

8 Cited in Sigmund Freud’s Christian Unconscious, by Paul C. Vitz, pg. 220.

9 The Unauthorized Freud, Doubters Confront a Legend, edited by Frederick Crews, pg. 72

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