Sigmund Freud

The Future of an Illusion

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The Future of an Illusion Summary

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The Future of an Illusion (1927) by Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, is a psychoanalysis of religion, which Freud believes to be a false belief system and a result of societal neurosis. By discussing the origins, developments, and future of religion, Freud makes the case that science will eventually give explanations that go beyond the limits of religion. Freud formulates the work around a fictional critic he has created, and much of the writing is presented in the form of dialogue. Using psychoanalysis to explain religion, Freud concludes that religion is a mere figment of the human imagination, nothing more than an illusion.

In the first chapters of the book, Freud chronicles the origin of religion as a need for oneness. Per Freud, humans believe in religions because those who came before us already did so, laying the foundation and because “it is forbidden to raise the question of their authenticity at all.” Freud also attributes the inability to question these beliefs as a major problem; the absence of proof, or imaginary proof, means that humans have fabricated religion in their minds, perpetuating the illusion for years as if scientific fact. According to Freud, these beliefs function as wish-fulfillment—“fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind.”

Freud holds that religion derives from the vulnerabilities one feels as a child, and the desire for protection of these vulnerabilities once transitioned to adulthood. Human beings use religion as a means of escaping everyday fears and anxieties. Freud argues that individuals are the greatest risk to society, and religion is the most effective way of controlling the individual and preserving society. In this regard, Freud likens religion to totemism, emphasizing that the individual must restrain primal urges to help society function, preventing against wishes of “incest, cannibalism, and lust for killing.” In Freud’s own words, “The gods retain the threefold task: they must exorcise 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.”

Freud also asserts that religion is a response to humankind’s need to understand the mysteries of nature. As such, humans to personify nature, the most instinctual version of which often comes in the form of a parent and child. Therefore, natural forces, such as weather, are viewed as gods and goddesses, requiring sacrifice from human society. Freud notes how humans evolved to equate the awe of nature with divinity—a divinity that, in turn, settles disputes humanity causes. Freud notes that “illusions need not necessarily be false,” yet one cannot wish without being disillusioned. Freud differentiates illusion from error, citing wishes as being inextricably linked to illusion. As an example, Freud cites a middle-class woman wishing to marry a prince. While such a fate is unlikely, it is not impossible; that her desire is grounded in a wish is what makes it illusory.

Freud also attributes religious dogma and iconography to humans’ need for a father figure, which they project into the heavens as an almighty protector. Children, inherently helpless, rely on the father figure to provide protection. Children simultaneously fear and respect the father figure. Freud asserts that religion is simply the attempt to recover the lost love that originates between a parent and a child. As a result, Freud draws a parallel between religion and the Oedipus complex, as the love of a child is felt strongest for its mother first, its father secondarily. The child grows up weak, knowing it must rely on the father for strength and protection. Humans project this fatherly protection on to the godly religious leaders they worship. According to Freud, the human mind creates a powerful deity that represents the protective father figure.

In addition to seeking protection, Freud posits that religion is also used to ensure human morality. Rather than naturally learning the difference between wrong and right through the course of one’s life, religion merely provides a few basic guidelines to assist them in becoming a moral part of society. Freud also attributes religion to helping create some of the most advanced civilizations in history, and even curing certain members of society from their neurosis. Freud theorizes that without religion, certain members of society would not be able to cope with the harsh realities of the world and would become a burden to society. Still, Freud insists that civilization runs a greater risk by maintaining its current view on religion rather than amending it. Religion has reached its pinnacle, according to Freud, and should evolve to lead to scientific truth. Freud hypothesizes that there are humans who must know religion is based on fabricated illusions but are too intimidated by the status quo to speak out or question such misconceptions.

Freud concludes his argument by suggesting only one way for human society to advance. Humans must ditch the collective neurosis of religion that has become a hindrance to societal development and embrace scientific education instead. As Freud puts it, “No, our science is no illusion. But an illusion it would be to suppose that what science cannot give us we can get elsewhere.” Freud’s psychoanalysis of religion leads him to conclude that perhaps, one day in the future, society will be driven by scientific fact rather than religious illusion.