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The Future of an Illusion (Die Zukunft einer Illusion) is a 1927 book by Sigmund Freud. It describes his interpretation of religion's origins, development, psychoanalysis, and its future. Freud viewed religion as a false belief system.

Religion as an instinct restrainerEdit

Freud attempts to turn our attention to the future that awaits human culture. In the process of developing his thought, he finds it necessary to deal with the origin and purpose of human culture as such. By human culture Freud means all those respects in which human life has lifted itself above the animal condition and in which it differs from the life of the beast. Human culture includes, on the one hand, all the knowledge and power that men have accumulated in order to master the forces of nature, and on the other all the necessary arrangements whereby men's relations to each other may be regulated. These two conditions for culture are not separable from one another because the existing resources and the measure by which they satisfy the desires of our instincts, are deeply intertwined. Although man forms culture, he is, at the same time, subject to it because it tames his raw instincts and makes him behave in a socially acceptable way. Thus Freud writes: "It seems more probable that every culture must be built upon . . coercion and instinct renunciation." Freud maintains that the essence of culture does not lie in man's conquest of nature for the means of supporting life, but in the psychological realm, in every man's curbing his predatory instincts. One of the instinct restrainers that man has devised to perpetuate his culture is religion. The unique aspect of religion as reflecting moral conscience was recognized by Freud as he writes of one of its functions is attempting, ". . . to correct the so painfully felt imperfections of culture."

Religion as an illusionEdit

Freud defines religion as an illusion, consisting of "certain dogmas, assertions about facts and conditions of external and internal reality which tell 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. Wishes that are the "fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind." (Ch. 6 pg.38). Among these are the necessity to cling to the existence of the father, the prolongation of earthly existence by a future life, and the immortality of the human soul. To differentiate between an illusion and an error, Freud lists scientific beliefs such as "Aristotle's belief that vermin are developed out of dung" (pg.39) as errors, but "the assertion made by certain nationalists that the Indo-Germanic race is the only one capable of civilization" is an illusion, simply because of the wishing involved. Put forth more explicitly, "what is characteristic of illusions is that they are derived from human wishes." (pg. 39) He adds, however, that, "Illusions need not necessarily be false." (pg.39) He gives the example of a middle-class girl having the illusion that a prince will marry her. While this is unlikely, it is not impossible. The fact that it is grounded in her wishes is what makes it an illusion.

Origins and development of religionEdit

Freud begins by explaining religion in a similar term to that of totemism. The individual is essentially an enemy of society[1] and has instinctual urges that must be restrained to help society function. "Among these instinctual wishes are those of incest, cannibalism, and lust for killing." (pg. 10) His view of human nature is that it is anti-social, rebellious, and has high sexual and destructive tendencies. The destructive nature of humans sets a pre-inclination for disaster when humans must interact with others in society. "For masses are lazy and unintelligent; they have no love for instinctual renunciation, and they are not to be convinced by argument of its inevitability; and the individuals composing them support one another in giving free rein to their indiscipline." (pg. 7) So destructive is human nature, he claims, that "it is only through the influence of individuals who can set an example and whom masses recognize as their leaders that they can be induced to perform the work and undergo the renunciations on which the existence of civilization depends." (pg. 8) All this sets a terribly hostile society that could implode if it were not for civilizing forces and developing government.

He elaborates further on the development of religion, as the emphasis on acquisition of wealth and the satisfaction of instinctual drives (sex, wealth, glory, happiness, immortality) moves from "the material to the mental." As compensation for good behaviors, religion promises a reward.

The topic is resumed in the beginning of Freud's subsequent book, Civilization and Its Discontents:

One of these exceptional few calls himself my friend in his letters to me. I had sent him my small book that treats religion as an illusion, and he answered that he entirely agreed with my judgement upon religion , but that he was sorry I had not properly appreciated the true source of religious sentiments. This, he says, consists in a peculiar feeling, which he himself is never without, which he finds confirmed by many others, and which he may suppose is present in millions of people. It is a feeling which he would like to call a sensation of 'eternity', a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded--as it were, 'oceanic'. This feeling, he adds is a purely subjective fact, not an article of faith; it brings with it no assurance of personal immortality, but it is the source of the religious energy which is seized upon by the various Churches and religious systems, directed by them into particular channels, and doubtless also exhausted by them. One may, he thinks, rightly call oneself religious on the ground of this oceanic feeling alone, even if one rejects every belief and every illusion.

The views expressed by the friend[2] whom I so much honour, and who himself once praised the magic of illusion in a poem [3] caused me no small difficulty. ... From my own experience I could not convince myself of the primary nature of such a feeling. But this gives me no right to deny that it does in fact occur in other people. The only question is whether it is being correctly interpreted and whether it ought to be regarded as the fons et origo of the whole need for religion.[4][5][6][7][8]

Today, some scholars [attribution needed] see the arguments set forth in The Future of an Illusion as a manifestation of the genetic fallacy, in which a belief is considered false or inverifiable based on its origin.[9] Scholars still dispute this claim.

Psychoanalysis of religionEdit

Religion is an outshoot of the Oedipus complex, and represents man's helplessness in the world, having to face the ultimate fate of death, the struggle of civilization, and the forces of nature. He views god as a manifestation of a child-like "longing for [a] father." (pg. 18) In his words "The gods retain the threefold task: they must exorcize 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." (pg. 19)

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit

NotesEdit

  1. Freud uses the German word Kultur. It has been translated sometimes as "culture" and sometimes as "civilization", denoting as it does a concept intermediate between these and at times inclusive of both.
  2. Romain Rolland
  3. Lilluli 1919
  4. Civilization and its discontents. James Strachey trans. pp 1-2
  5. In this way, then, the ego detaches itself from the external world, or to put it more correctly, originally the ego includes everything, later it separates off an external world from itself. Our present ego-feeling is, therefore, only a shrunken residue of a much more inclusive--indeed, an all-embracing--feeling which corresponded to a more intimate bond between the ego and the world about it. If we may assume that there are many people in whose mental life this primary ego-feeling has persisted to a greater or lesser degree, it would exist in them side by side with the narrower and more sharply demarcated ego-feeling of maturity, like a kind of counterpart to it. In that case, the ideational contents appropriate to it would be precisely those of limitlessness and of a bond with the universe--the same ideas with which my friend elucidated the 'oceanic' feeling. ibid p. 5.
  6. Freud rejects this as the basis of the religious impulse overall however in favor of the notion of the father figure: "Thus the part played by the oceanic feeling, which might seek something like the restoration of the limitless narcissism, is ousted from a place in the foreground. The origin of the religious attitude can be traced back in clear outlines as far as the feeling of infantile helplessness. There may be something further behind that, but for the present it is wrapped in obscurity." -- ibid p 8.
  7. In my Future of an Illusion I was concerned much less with the deepest sources of the religious feeling than with what the common man understands by his religion--with the system of doctrines and promises which on the one hand explains to him the riddles of this world with enviable completeness, and, on the other, assures him that a careful Providence, will watch over his life and will compensate him in a future existence for any frustrations he may suffer here. The common man cannot imagine this Providence othewise than in the figure of an enormously exalted father. Only such a being can understand the needs of the children of men and be softened by their prayers and placated by the signs of their remorse. The whole thing is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able rise above this view of life. It is still more humiliating to discover how large a number of people living in to-day, who cannot but see that this religion is not tenable, nevertheless try to defend it piece by piece in a series of pitiful rearguard actions. One would like to mix among the ranks of the believers in order to meet these philosophers, who think they can rescue the God of religion by replacing him by an impersonal, shadowy and abstract principle, and to address them with the warning words: 'Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain!' And if some of the great men of the past acted in the same way, no appeal can be made to their example: we know why they were obliged to. Let us return to the common man and to his religion-- the only religion which ought to bear that name. The first thing that we think of is the well-known saying of one of our great poets and thinkers concerning the relation of religion to art and science:
    Wer Wissenschaft und Kunst besitz, hat auch Religion;
    Wer jene beide nicht besitzt, der habe Religion.
    Goethe Zahme Xenien IX
    ibid beginning of Ch. II
  8. Religion restricts this play of choice and adaptation, since it imposes equally on everyone its own path to the acquisition of happiness and protection from suffering. Its technique consists in depressing the value of life and distorting the picture of the real world in a delusional manner--which presupposes an intimidation of the intelligence. At this price, by forcibly fixing them in a state of psychical infantilism and by drawing them into a mass-delusion, religion succeeds in sparing many people an individual neurosis. But hardly anything more. There are, as we have said, many paths which may lead to such happiness as is attainable by men, but there is none which does so for certain. Even religion cannot keep its promise. If the believer finally sees himself obliged to speak of God's 'inscrutable decrees', he is admitting that all that is left to him as a last possible consolation and source of pleasure in his suffering is an unconditional submission. And if he is prepared for that, he could probably have spared himself the détour he has made. ibid end of Ch. II.
  9. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 1978 XLVI(3):351-368; doi:10.1093/jaarel/XLVI.3.351


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