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3.8: Religion and Spirituality

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  • In the last section of this book, we will look at spiritual philosophies that provide positive guidelines for personal development and living one’s life. Freud had rather strong feelings about religion, and simply put, he did not approve! Freud actually considered religion to be an obstacle to the further development of civilization, and of the “three powers” that oppose a scientific worldview (art, philosophy, and religion), “religion alone is to be taken seriously as an enemy” (Freud, 1933/1965). In his first and last books reviewing psychoanalysis Freud makes almost no mention of religion (Freud, 1917/1966, 1938/1949), a rather conspicuous absence. In between, however, he wrote two books thoroughly condemning religion and societies depending on it.

    In The Future of an Illusion (Freud, 1927/1961), Freud describes the role that religion has played in establishing and maintaining inequitable civilizations. According to Freud, the primary purpose of civilization is the gathering of wealth and, then, its distribution. This distribution is almost always unfair, and leads to the establishment of a small group of wealthy elite and a much larger mass of lower classes. The challenge for the wealthy elite is to maintain this unfair distribution, without the unreasonable use of force. The use of force will ultimately fail, since the instinctual demands for pleasure by the masses (driven by their id impulses) will drive them to take whatever they want from each other and from the wealthy. And the masses have power in numbers! Religion has served civilization by providing a controlling force over these instinctual demands, incorporated directly into the psyche of each individual by means of the development of the superego. The problem, however, lies in the fact (according to Freud) that there is no God, it is all an illusion. Thus, in Civilization and Its Discontent (Freud, 1930/1961), Freud states that the “religions of mankind must be classed among the mass-delusions…” that are used to provide people with a certain degree of happiness and protection against suffering, in spite of the reality of an unfair and uncertain world.

    In his last completed book, Moses and Monotheism (Freud, 1939/1967), Freud flatly rejects the entire basis for Judaism and Christianity. Based on archaeological evidence, Freud claims that Moses was not Jewish, but rather an Egyptian. Furthermore, he argues that the monotheistic religion that provides the basis for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (the Abrahamic religions) was a discredited Egyptian religion established by the pharaoh Amenhotep IV. When Amenhotep IV died, and Egyptians who still followed the traditional religion of Egypt came back into power, Moses led the Jewish people out of Egypt so that he would have followers to whom he could teach the religion he hoped to maintain. Since Moses was a hero to the Jewish people, Freud claims that they rewrote the story to say that Moses was Jewish and that their one true God had been revealed to them long before they entered Egypt (Freud, 1939/1967).

    If religion is nothing more than an illusion, where does it come from, and what is the danger of it? According to Freud, the development of religion is analogous to the development of each individual. Basically, God is symbolic of our relationship with our own father. In his New Introductory Lectures… (Freud, 1933/1965), Freud neatly lays out this relationship. Religion serves to provide us with an understanding of the origins of the universe and life, it offers us hope for protection and ultimate happiness, and it lays down moral guidelines for living our lives. Similarly, our fathers give each of us life, they protect us when we are young, and they teach the rules and morality of our culture. Although the establishment of religions by our primitive ancestors may be quite understandable, Freud used rather harsh language when referring to religion. He wrote that “…our wretched, ignorant and downtrodden ancestors…” “…were far more ignorant than we are…” (Freud, 1927/1961). In his opinion, ancient religious books are the product of “fraud” from a time when “man’s ignorance was very great…,” and he includes the Bible and the Koran in that category (Freud, 1933/1965). He considered religion to be the antithesis of science and art, the two highest achievements of man (Freud, 1930/1961). Even when addressing more modern times, he compares the political oppression by the Russian Bolsheviks, with its prohibition of thought (punishable by death), as “just as ruthless as was that of religion in the past…doubts of its correctness are punished in the same way as heresy was once punished by the Catholic Church” (Freud, 1933/1965). And in anticipation of his views being challenged, Freud wrote that his considerations “will impress only that minority of readers familiar with analytical reasoning and able to appreciate its conclusions” (Freud, 1939/1967). The danger in all of this, according to Freud, is what might happen if people become aware of this illusion and fraud. If people become aware that there is no God, if they discover that no one else believes, then there may be a violent reaction as a result of the inherent hostility toward civilization by the masses (Freud, 1927/1961). Accordingly:

    …either these dangerous masses must be held down most severely and kept most carefully away from any chance of intellectual awakening, or else the relationship between civilization and religion must undergo a fundamental revision. (pg. 39; Freud, 1927/1961)

    And yet, in spite of such harsh condemnation of religion, Freud was at times fascinated by individuals who expressed deep spiritual experiences. While in college, Freud was profoundly impressed by the religious philosopher Franz Brentano, a former Catholic priest. Freud wrote to a friend that he could not refute any of Brentano’s theistic arguments, and he referred to Brentano as a “remarkable man” (cited in Nicholi, 2002). Much later in life, Freud discussed an alternative to his earlier analysis of the basis for religion. He had sent a copy of The Future of an Illusion to a friend who was well versed in traditional Yoga. This friend, named Romain Rolland, described for Freud an “oceanic” feeling, a sense of eternity and limitlessness. Freud was unable to discover such feelings within himself, and expressed a general dissatisfaction with scientific investigations of such phenomena. Today, however, neuroscientists are using real-time brain imaging techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), to study the alterations in brain activity unique to meditative states and, in particular, positive emotions (e.g., see Barinaga, 2003; Goleman, 1988, 2003; Mathew, 2001). Although Freud obviously had no knowledge that such studies would someday be possible, he did acknowledge that experiences like the “oceanic” feeling might form the basis for religious sentiments in the human species (Freud, 1930/1961). Yet another friend encouraged Freud to practice Yoga, particularly meditation, to experience these altered states of mind for himself. It is unclear whether Freud ever attempted to meditate, but he does make mention of his friend’s belief that meditation may reveal a primordial state of mind, perhaps even deeper than that of the id and the unconscious with which Freud had occupied his career (Freud, 1930/1961). Freud even went so far as to suggest that if we could somehow achieve a complete reduction, an extinction, of the tension between our instinctual needs and the constraints imposed by reality and the superego that we might achieve “nirvana” (Freud, 1938/1949).

    How might we reconcile the seeming contradiction between Freud’s harsh attitude toward religion with his apparent fascination with mystical spirituality and deeply spiritual individuals? Freud believed that religion had failed society. Religion has ruled human civilization for thousands of years, and yet, “We see that an appallingly large number of people are dissatisfied with civilization and unhappy in it…In every age immorality has found no less support in religion than morality has…” (Freud, 1927/1961). Also, it is undeniable that death awaits each of us, and Freud was definitely concerned with death. In 1909 Freud met William James (Freud, 1952). James asked Freud to carry the bag James had with him and to walk on; James said he would catch up after dealing with an attack of angina pectoris. James died of heart disease a year later. Freud wrote that “I have always wished that I might be as fearless as he was in the face of approaching death.” Freud was also concerned about how his own death might affect his mother, who lived to a ripe old age. Martin Freud noted that “Grandmother Amalia…looked for some time as if she would live forever, and my father was terrified by the thought that she might survive him and, in consequence, have to be told of his death.” (M. Freud, 1983). Perhaps we should not be surprised that someone who was so thoughtful regarding death, someone who proposed a death instinct, might be inclined to have some concern regarding what happens after one’s life comes to an end.

    As gloomy as Freud’s perspective may seem at first, he remained hopeful regarding the future of humanity. He considered religion to have been just one step in the development of our species, and that science had reached a point where it could move us ahead another step. When addressing the belief of many people that we were created in the image and likeness of God, a god who must also have created evil and the Devil (other theologians have come to a different conclusion on this point; see, for example, Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis [1952]), Freud suggested that we bow to the deeply moral nature of mankind, which has overcome this difficulty (Freud, 1930/1961). He acknowledged the positive role that religion has played in redirecting and transforming some of our sexual impulses into impulses experienced as love. Indeed, the purpose of civilization itself is to serve Eros, the life instinct, by combining individuals into “families, then races, peoples and nations, into one great unity, the unity of mankind” (Freud, 1930/1961). But the natural aggressive instinct, the death instinct manifested as the hostility of the individual for civilization, opposes the establishment of civilizations. Thus, the meaning of the evolution of civilizations becomes clear:

    It must present the struggle between Eros and Death, between the instinct of life and the instinct of destruction, as it works itself out in the human species. This struggle is what all life essentially consists of, and the evolution of civilization may therefore be simply described as the struggle for life of the human species. And it is this battle of the giants that our nurse-maids try to appease with their lullaby about Heaven. (Freud, 1930/1961)

    Discussion Question: Freud believed that religion has failed to resolve the difficulties that many people face, that it has outlived its usefulness, and that God is only an illusion anyway. Does this fit with your view of the world in which we live?