Freud’s Critique of Religion

Sigmund Freud

The thesis of God as a “father-wish” originated with the publication of Sigmund Freud’s main critique of religion, The Future of an Illusion (1927). This thesis has been widely discussed and analyzed; only some highlights will be reproduced here.

1. It is impossible to deny that “wishing for God” is a perennially recurrent phenomenon; even atheist Friedrich Nietzsche displayed this tendency: “I hold up before myself the images of Dante and Spinoza, who were better at accepting the lot of solitude… [and] all those who somehow still had a “God” for company… My life now consists in the wish that it might be otherwise… and that somebody might make my “truths” appear incredible to me” (Kaufmann, trans., The Portable Nietzsche, p. 441).

2. The deductive argument for atheism from Freudian Illusion Theory may be pronounced effectively dead, reduced in current thought to an instance of the genetic fallacy (the claim something is false merely by virtue of its ostensible origin). Something is not ipso facto illusory merely because it is wished for, but only if it is a mere wish. As Hans Kung observes:

“…is a faith bad and its truth dubious simply because –like psychoanalysis itself– it also involves all possible instinctual inclinations, lustful inclinations, psychodynamic mechanisms, conscious and unconscious wishes? …Perhaps this being of our longing and dreams does actually exist… the psychological interpretation of belief in God is possible and also legitimate. But is the psychic aspect itself the whole of religion? It should be observed that Freud has not in fact destroyed or refuted religious ideas in principle, and neither atheists nor theologians should ever have read this into his critique of religion. For, by its very nature, psychological interpretation alone cannot penetrate to the absolutely final or first reality: on this point it must remain neutral in principle. From the psychological standpoint, then, the question of the existence of God –and even the positive force of the argument must not be exaggerated- must remain open.” -Hans Kung, Does God Exist, p. 302

3. The God of Judaism and Christianity is as much an *anti-wish* as he is a wish. If it were not so there would be no human sin. Frequently God is precisely what no one wanted, or would be likely to want; he frequently demanded, and does demand, precisely the opposite of what any sane person would have placed on their wish list. It is not hard to imagine Abraham saying “You want me to cut off what part of my body?!” “You want me to kill my son Isaac?! The one you promised to bless the whole world through?!” Jeremiah had absolutely no desire to preach. Jeremiah’s audience had absolutely no desire to hear. God was not what anyone wanted; he was what everyone didn’t want. If Dietrich Bonhoeffer was correct in saying “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship), that is precisely what no one wants unreservedly. C. S. Lewis was mortified when he became a Christian; it was the last thing he ever wanted to be; he describes himself as having entered the kingdom of God “kicking and screaming.” Similarly once upon a time the last thing I ever wanted was to become a Christian. It seemed silly and false to me. Yet I have found it to be a pearl of great price…

4. Not only the existence of God, but also the rejection of God, or the rejection of a particular kind of God, can have a psychological origin in wishes. Mircea Eliade brilliantly articulated the nature of Freudian ideology as a cultural fashion:

“…a cultural fashion is immensely significant, no matter what its objective value may be; the success of certain ideas or ideologies reveals to us the spiritual and existential situation of all those for whom these ideas or ideologies constitute a kind of soteriology” (Mircea Eliade, Occultism, Witchcraft, and Cultural Fashions: Essays in Comparative Religion, p. 5).

Thomas Paine’s opposition to the ancien régime in France, for example, undoubtedly gave additional impetus to his desire to assault the Christian faith so virulently. Professor Eliade’s observation clearly suggests the alternate possibility, from a Christian point of view, of:

5. A Christian Psychology of Atheism. Fr. Andrew Angiorus presents a Christian view of this whole question:

“‘Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts’ (Rom 1:24). Generally, atheists and agnostics are talking about themselves when they talk about the absence of God. They simply express their personal subjective truth (that their souls are empty) in an objective way and try to generalize their experience. In other words, there is no theology, or even philosophy here, it is just their own ill or deficient psychology, which is what atheism is… In the Scriptures Christ says clearly that only the pure in heart will see God. In other words, intellectuals, examiners and professors will never understand God, if their minds are not pure… How do we know if someone has a pure heart? The pure heart is evidenced by the way we live. As Peter says, a person devoted to the Lord “does not live the rest of his earthly life for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God” (1 Peter 4:2); “Who may ascend the hill of the LORD? Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false. He will receive blessing from the LORD and vindication from God his Savior” (Ps 24:3-5).” +Fr. Andrew Anglorus

Cf. also the extensive documentation by Paul Vitz of New York University of socio-psychological correlates to affirmation of atheism in Vitz, Paul, The Faith of the Fatherless.

© 2011 by (text)

This entry was posted in Philosophy, Philosophy of Religion, Psychology, Psychology of Religion, Theology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Freud’s Critique of Religion

  1. This is a wonderful piece, would it be okay if I used if as a handout for my students?

  2. David says:

    Thanks, and yes you may use it as a handout; we hope you (and/or they) will share any reactions.

  3. Simon Lee says:

    Thank you.

  4. cephash says:

    Could there be another angle? A Jesuit by the name of Miceli once wrote a book entitled _The Gods of Atheism_, in which he notes that the great “atheist” thinkers in fact end up deifying something or other (Historical Necessity, for example, in the case of Marx). I’ve noticed that for most “atheists” I’ve known, there’s some Number One or “Ultimate Concern” (much as I don’t really see myself as a Tillich fan). Could it be that the “atheist” is in fact an idolator who is either to lacking in self-awareness or too disingenuous to name his [little] god?

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