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Jeff Frieden

CTL 277

Freud, Illusion, and the Inquisitive Mind

The story of conflict between science and religion is a tale as old as time or, at least, as old as the

Enlightenment and the advent of science. Still, it is a common theme in contemporary culture, and it owes

much to the work of Sigmund Freud. He claims that religious belief is incompatible with psychological

maturity and therefore with the good life, a claim which existential authors both agree and disagree with.

Freud understands the good life as a life of psychological maturity. This requires living and

functioning in the real world and not in an illusory one. More basically, this means being able to accept

the world as it is and not wishing it away, Freud writes, “These [religious doctrines], which we are given

out as teachings, are not precipitates of experience or end-results of thinking; they are illusions,

fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind” (703). Specifically, humans are

subject to the triple failure: they are overwhelmed by nature, frustrated in relationships, and doomed to

die. With Christianity, one is overwhelmed but supported, frustrated but loved infinitely and

unconditionally, doomed but promised eternal life. Freud says no evidence supports these claims and that

no evidences could support these claims. They cannot be supported because of their very religious nature.

He writes, “Religious ideas are teachings and assertions about facts and conditions of external (or

internal) reality which tell one something one has not discovered for oneself and which lay claim to one’s

belief” (Freud 700). He continues, saying there are three reasons to believe religious claims: 1. one’s

ancestors believed in that revelation, 2. they gave us proofs of this revelation, and 3. it is prohibited to

question them. These are all insufficient reasons and themselves point to the inadequacy of religion. “The

secret of their [the arguments’] strength lies in the strength of those wishes” (703). According to Freud,

religion is wish-fulfillment. One sees her/his father and wishes that she/he had something like that, but

capable of fulfilling every need and protecting from every evil.

The good life of psychological maturity requires being a rational agent, specifically through

science. Freud writes, “Scientific work is the only road which can lead us to a knowledge of reality
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outside ourselves” (705). The following summarizes the crux of the relationship between religion and the

good life: We need to be rational in order to be well-adjusted and properly functioning adults. Religion is

not rational. Therefore, religion is an evil which prevents us from maturing, though it must be tolerated

until everyone can come to know moral truths through science.

Both Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit and Albert Camus’ novel The Fall examine, on some level,

the relationship between the good life and religion, although The Fall examines it much more directly. In

No Exit, Sartre writes, “INEZ: You brute! GARCIN: Yes, a brute, if you like. But a well-beloved brute”

(25). While neither character speaks of God here, this dialogue still relates to the conversation.

Throughout “The Future of an Illusion”, Freud’s opponent says the value of religion lies in its unique

ability to enforce morality. However, this misses the point of Freud’s argument that religion draws its

psychological weight from its ability to appear to meet the needs of the triple failure, including frustration

in relationships. Contrary to the claims of Freud’s opponent, Christianity enables people to act immorally,

much as Garcin’s unconditionally loving wife enabled him to act immorally. If God loves a person no

matter what and will forgive that person for anything, why should that person act morally? An atheistic

contemporary philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, has said that value of Catholicism as a religion lies in its ability

to allow people to be sinning brutes but still be well-beloved by a forgiving God.

Famously, Sartre also writes that, “Hell is—other people!” in this novel (45). According to Freud,

however, heaven is other people, provided those people fulfill all of one’s relational needs. Other people,

however, do not fulfill these needs, leading to frustration. Therefore, they are some kind of hell. But God

loves all people perfectly, and being loved perfectly and feeling it with one’s whole being, to be the

beloved of another—that is heaven. There is just one problem: it does not exist. For Freud, people create

God in an attempt to find a perfect friend. It is not surprising that they also conceived the opposite as a

total frustration of relationships, also known as hell.

In Camus’ The Fall, he writes “Grace is what they want—acceptance, surrender, happiness, and

maybe, for they are sentimental, too, betrothal, the virginal bride, the upright man, the organ music”

(135). All religious people, no matter how judgmental or bitter, ultimately want their needs to be
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fulfilled by God. Here, Jean-Baptiste speaks of the relational needs. This acquiescence to perfect love is

an illusion, but a powerfully appealing one. It is precisely one of the needs articulated by Freud. Camus

continues, “God is not needed to create guilt or to punish. Our fellow men suffice, aided by ourselves”

(110). In Freud’s view, society impresses its repressive morality on the individual, which internalizes it as

the superego, which represses the id. It would seem that the same tools society uses to impress this

morality—the threat of death, rejection, and being alone in the face of nature—are enough to enforce

societal norms. Simply stating that all who kill will be killed seems much more obvious and efficient than

establishing religion.

As a response to his, I first affirm science. I love science and use the scientific method frequently.

However, I think it is not only possible but necessary to establish other means of knowing alongside it.

Freud states that science is the only legitimate path to knowledge of the outside world. This statement is

itself unscientific and fails its own criteria for truth. It is self-refuting. Therefore, assuming there are

legitimate paths to knowledge, science is not the only one. Before moving on, however, it is important to

acknowledge the differences between and within various religions. Since I am unfamiliar with most of

them, I will restrict my scope to Catholicism. In the light of Freud’s claim that religion justifies itself by

forbidding question, I must acknowledge the history of censorship in Catholicism. However, it remains to

be seen whether censorship is essential to Catholicism or merely an aberration. If we turn to St. Thomas

Aquinas, a doctor of the Church, we see a model of the inquisitive Catholic intellect. In many of his

writings, he writes in the style of the disputatio, or disputed questions. He asks all sorts of questions, even

daring to ask whether or not God exists. Furthermore, at the Council of Trent, the council fathers placed a

copy of his Summa Theologiae on the altar. The juxtaposition of a book asking such questions being

honored by a council condemning a wide range of heresies is remarkable. The council fathers, not unlike

Freud, desired to defend the public from pernicious falsehoods in their condemnation. Coercion, which

was much more culturally acceptable at the time, was sadly used to force faith, which cannot be forced. It

would seem that Catholicism at least allows such questioning, contrary to Freud’s claim.
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Catholic tradition endorses proofs, some of which are new, and some of which have been handed

down from antiquity. Freud quickly dismisses proofs in the service of religion, but can these be so easily

dismissed? I propose that no, not all of these proofs can be immediately dismissed. There is an argument

from the order of nature. It goes: 1. Nature acts according to certain principles, a premise also held by

science. 2. All things which begin are things which are caused. 3. Basic principles such as the strong,

weak, and electromagnetic, forces had a beginning. This is supported by the Big Bang Theory. 4.

Therefore, these basic principles are caused. 5. Eventually, there must be an uncaused causer. 6. This

uncaused causer is God. Is this proof perfect? Maybe not; I certainly would expect Freud to have a

response. Can it be evaluated based on reason and observation? Yes. One would be right, however, to

point out that this argument does not prove revelation. Of course it doesn’t; it is revelation. It is the

supernatural self-revelation of the above-mentioned God and it requires our belief just as much as the

natural self-revelation of another person. While revelation is not itself the product of human reason,

Catholicism holds that it can be inspected by reason. Revelation could be fitting or unfitting for what we

know of the world and God. This is another question which St. Thomas treats elsewhere and I’ve

engaged, but this paper is already too long without discussing it. Anyways, it would then seem that

religion, particularly Catholicism, could work as a means of knowing alongside science, meaning that,

contrary to Freud’s claims, not all religion is an evil standing in the way of psychological maturity and the

good life.

Freud fails to establish that religious belief is incompatible with the good life because he fails to

prove that psychological maturity consists in only knowing the external world through science. Camus

and Sartre agree that religion is wish fulfillment, while still being authentic to their existentialist views.

Religion, while not entirely provable, is not eliminated from the good life.

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