“The Future of an Illusion” by Sigmund Freud

by Joshua H. Liberatore

I’m not sure what moved me recently to pick up my copy of Sigmund Freud’s classic critique of religious belief, The Future of an Illusion (1927), which has been sitting on my bookshelf for years. Perhaps the impulse grew out of my observation of (and growing distaste toward) the breezy manner in which religion is often dismissed by fashionable liberals and otherwise smart men like Bill Maher and Christopher Hitchens but also many among my educated, well-meaning peers. I’d read and profited from the successor companion volume, Civilization and Its Discontents (1929), in which Freud explains how the destructive instinct in mankind is firmly rooted in both his culture and his psychological makeup. The order of these two books might well have been reversed, I now realize, since Freud was clearly interested in exploring how men can (and must) control and suppress the will to destroy that grows out of intensified individualism (our native egocentrism) in order to preserve civilization, which many do through mythmaking and religious doctrine. Civilization (Freud’s untranslatable Kultur), in turn, paradoxically propagates and encourages this destructive principle, for men tend to demonize and lash out at the forces that keep them from realizing a full expression of their egos, sometimes unconsciously, often in full awareness of their dangerous folly. So perhaps the order of Freud’s essays makes sense after all, since Freud’s overarching narrative suggests a dynamic feedback loop connecting the desire to destroy with the necessity to civilize. So, religious belief, even though childish and predicated on fear according to Freud, is nevertheless useful as a functional way to keep the house in order.

    Consummate scientist that he was, Freud can’t help himself from positing a possible civilization in which scientific principles and reason prevail over the “magical thinking” (Bill Maher’s characterization) that has made religion such an indispensable component to the successful “maintenance” of societies thus far. Is that the epoch in which we live in 2009, more than 80 years after Freud hoped for its emergence? Not at all, say our liberal critics, who attach themselves to the idea that religion, contrary to Freud’s contention, breeds all sorts of destructive and violent (indeed repressive) behaviors, motivating men to commit great evil in the name of their gods. Thus, they say, religion itself has become an impediment to the flourishing of enlightened civilization. Though I’m not a very religious person myself, I often find myself defending religion in conversations of this drift if only because I think religion gets singled out so narrowly and so blithely, whereas I see it as just one item from a vast menu of organizing forces that may lead to good or ill, depending on the user and the context.

    Now, I can arm myself with Freud’s own insights, though he nowise concealed his skepticism of religion as the chief purveyor of lies and fantasies, circumscribed by infantile wish-fulfillment and longing for the father. Lies and fantasies, nevertheless, have been quite effective in historical terms, argues Freud, in so far as they function in their high purpose of restraining our base natures. He only wishes their eventual replacement with what he calls “the primacy of the intelligence over the life of the instincts.” I venture to add, however, that science cannot boast a better – or at least a pure – record in any case, despite Freud’s ardent projections, which turn out to be naive from the relatively placid vista of the late 1920s. Europe to date had only flirted with self-annihilation just the once, with the help of industrial-grade weapons and scientific planning quite inferior to what the next generation would witness beginning in 1938 (Freud died in 1939). Rationalist liberals often point to the persistence of jihad and abortion-clinic arsonists in our modern world as proof that religion begets hatred and violence. Religious traditionalists meanwhile offer nuclear weapons and industrial pollution as equally destructive and barbaric on the global scale. Neither camp, it seems, has read Freud carefully.

    Civilization, I contend, is not vulnerable to an epic clash between religion and science. Both exist at once, in one cultural space (yes, even in the “Muslim world”!), as competing loyalties, by no means mutually exclusive. Moreover, both religion and science exist alongside and in grand mixture with all the other organizing structures Freud would recognize as buffers to self-destruction, all of them irrational loyalties, de facto “faiths” of a sort: political ideologies, patriotism and ethnic identity, cults of personality and hero worship, institutions of marriage and family, even technology itself. Ours is a world in which Sunday mass is no more destructive or benign than Facebook or “The Bachelorette,” no more repressive or productive than income tax or the all-volunteer army, no worse or better than Brita filters or Viagra. Religion is simply another instrument with which we tamp down our all-consuming egos. But make no mistake: I’m not advocating any kind of easy relativism here. The contextual equality of these competing, organizing forces does not relieve us of the burden of making choices and value judgments, nor does it remove the necessity of constructing meaning out those choices. Our postmodern birthright is such that we choose our discipline as freely as we choose our poison. Our ignorance is often that we posit poison and discipline as opposites, adversaries, when in fact they are two sides of a coin.

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One Response to “The Future of an Illusion” by Sigmund Freud

  1. Drausin says:

    Some fresh thinking on an oft-discussed issue (I feel like I’ve been reading a good bit about the relationship between science and religion). I agree with Freud (and you) to a point that science is yet another “organizing force,” alongside the next-most powerful, religion, and then politics and the rest, but must forcefully disagree in what you call the postmodern birthright that casts the differences between science and the rest as simply one of degree. No other organizing force has the same epistemic claim to truth as science does and thus the same “right to the throne,” so to speak. Perhaps I should write my own post hashing this idea out, but what what you’ve said of Freud, it seems he might agree with me.

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