A Critique of Freud’s The Future of an Illusion:
Sigmund Freud’s The Future of an Illusion (1927) seeks to prove that “it is worth making the experiment of an irreligious education” because religion is an invented illusion, on par with a universal neurosis, that is anathema to science,“ the only road which can lead us to [a progressive] knowledge outside of ourselves.” Freud arrives at this theory of religion via the assumption of an anthropology that posits humans as fundamentally instinctual, asocial, narcissistic, and anthropomorphic beings living within an inherently evil cosmology.
Humans are instinctual, asocial beings because they bear inherent inclinations towards self-indulgent instincts which run contrary to societal living, such as cannibalism, incest, violence, and, to a lesser degree, mendacity, avarice, and sexual lust. To be human is to harbor compunction for these instincts and be, by definition, an enemy of society, that is, a creature naturally opposed to it by design; yet, humans are organized in societies nonetheless. They are compelled to disobey the very nature of their beings, and aggregate into societies of various scales, such as families, villages, and cities, in order to defend themselves against a cosmology which means to destroy them.
Freud’s cosmology believes that Nature is a vengeful entity that “rises up against us, majestic, cruel and inexorable” with the intent to “destroy us—coldly, cruelly, [and] relentlessly.” The mechanisms by which Nature attempts to achieve our destruction are many, notably in the form of elemental disasters, diseases, and “the painful riddle of death.” Freud believes that “it was precisely because of these dangers…that we came together [despite our inherent instincts to the contrary] and created civilization” as a stronghold against the attacks of Nature. To preserve the human race against these attacks is what Freud refers to as the “great common task” of humanity.
But, a human’s instincts and asocial tendencies do not vanish at the moment the person is integrated into a confected society; rather, those instincts must be suppressed as part of the tacit contract the individual makes to not only live peaceably within the society, but to work for its sustainment as well. The contract demands that individuals suppress their asocial instincts towards violence, incest, cannibalism, and, to a lesser degree, mendacity, avarice, laziness, and misanthropism, in exchange for a sense of security against the evils of Nature. A certain amount of social coercion is necessary to achieve this suppression. That social coercion is internalized, breeding hostility for society which speaks more directly to the asocial nature of human beings.
Humans are narcissistic because they place importance on a set of chosen ideals which makeup the character of their particular society’s culture. The periodic reenactment of these cultural ideals, and the critical awareness of their absence in other cultures, is a reassuring affirmation to those who created it. The formation and practice of these ideals is a narcissistic satisfaction. It serves to create an identity for society, thus strengthening the necessary bond it requires for performing the “great common task” of suppressing its people’s instincts for the sake of defending them against the viciousness of Nature.
Humans are anthropomorphic because their means of interpreting the Natural world, in preparation for defending against it, consists of regarding “every event…as the manifestation of beings who [are] at bottom like himself.” Anthropomorphism of the natural world is a human’s “only method of comprehension.” This method of comprehension via personification is rooted in “an infantile model” that was formed during early-childhood development. When children are first born, they find themselves transposed helplessly into a foreign world with which they must learn to relate; so, as they establish their first meaningful relationships with other humans, and discover this method of relation effective, they are priming themselves to revisit it later in life, when they encounter a new helplessness in the face of Nature’s inescapable mechanisms of Fate and Death; thus, anthropomorphism can be understood as a narcissistic satisfaction serving the “great common task” of humanity. Humans project the functions of their early-childhood relationships onto Nature following Freud’s aphorism that psychical mastering of nature is a preparation for the physical mastering of it.
So, how do all these adjectives which comprise Freud’s anthropology inspire humans to create and sustain the illusion of religion? To address this question, we must first delineate Freud’s threefold objectives of the Gods, here understood to represent religion as a whole: “to exorcize the terrors of nature, reconcile men to the inescapable cruelty of Fate…and compensate [them] for the sufferings and privations which civilized life in common has imposed on them.” The first two objectives correspond neatly with the objectives of society, i.e. “the great common task” of preserving humanity against Nature; thus, religion is, in theory, an invention that would contribute to the hostility of humans toward society, if it weren’t for the last objective, which is intended to make one’s social contract with society bearable. If we assume that an irreligious society can manage the first two objectives on its own, then we are left with the main purpose of religion being to make a social, non-instinctual life bearable for humans.
Narcissism and anthropomorphism become important when attempting to explain the form, and the fiction thereof, in which the human invention of religion manifests itself. Narcissistic satisfaction dictates that a society’s religion, as a cultural ideal, must be different from other religions, so as to contribute to a distinct societal identity based on unique categories. How can any religion accurately interpret the world when its content is dependent upon proving itself against the content of other religions? Freud’s understanding of anthropomorphism adds that the content of these religions will inevitably be restricted to anthropocentric projections of one’s childhood experiences; for example, humans imbue Nature with the features of their literal father in an attempt to answer one form of helplessness with the answer they used for a previous, more-infantile form. Although that answer may help humans psychically master Nature in preparation for physically mastering it, it is a narcissistic fiction that possesses no truth value, i.e. an illusion.
After criticizing the reasons why societies sustain this illusion—ancestors, proofs, and faith—through socialization of the youth, Freud arrives at the conclusion that science is “ the only road which can lead us to [a progressive] knowledge outside of ourselves.” In order to travel this road, humans must bury the illusion of religion, take up the truths of science, and fully accept the “extent of their helplessness and..insignificance in the machinery of the universe.”
I am inclined to agree with Freud on several points. I believe that the content and practice of individual religions have the effect of creating identities for the societies that sustain them. I believe that the pageantry of these religions is, in part, an act of narcissistic satisfaction, as the particular society is responsible for the perpetuation of these practices, and could stop at any time, hypothetically without any divine consequence. I believe that cultural ideals in general are held onto for purposes of being invoked during times of conflict between societies to achieve a certain effect. Religion is another cultural ideal which a society can use to understand itself, and situate itself in ‘the story of the world’. Inversely, a society can observe an opposing society’s religion in order to better understand itself by understanding what it is not.
I agree with Freud that his chosen contemporary reasons for sustaining religion—ancestors, proofs, and faith—are not strong reasons by themselves; but, seeing as I don’t consider them the only reasons for sustaining religion, I won’t bother to dissect their reasoning deeply, other than to say that the paucity of “believers” who actually know anything about their religious practices, history, or texts, is a testament to how seriously the first two actually factor into the third. I also agree with part of Freud’s understanding of anthropomorphism. To be human, is to be empirically restricted to the realm of anthropomorphic experience. I believe this can be a serious limitation for the human race, although it can also make for some beautiful fiction via such techniques as metaphors, similes, and personification. Either way, the entrapment of anthropomorphism is likely an unavoidable one. How much richer would we all be if we could observe the world, even for a minute, through the “eyes” of a flower or a fish? Such modern day atrocities as wars, race riots, gang violence, and murder prove that we are often unable to observe the world even through the eyes of another human being.
I believe with Freud that living socially requires humans to make sacrifices. I believe that the burden of these sacrifices can weigh heavily on a person and precipitate hostility towards the arrangement that imposes them; but, I believe that hostility is counterbalanced by a desire, whether conscious or subconscious, to be there in the first place. Thus brings me to Freud’s fundamental assumption of humanities unrequited misanthropism, precluded by another equally precarious assumption, the inherent evil of Nature.
The combination of these two assumptions seems like a specious attempt to explain why asocial creatures would organize themselves in social environments, while stubbornly avoiding the obvious answer: humans are not asocial. Berger arrives at roughly the same theory that religion is a socio-psychological construction from this obvious answer instead of Freud’s, thus suggesting that Freud’s basic assumption has a fragile connection to his end theory. But the assumption seems precarious anyway. History is replete with stories of individuals who have survived alone in Nature. While Freud generalizes all of humanity as asocial, he doesn’t account for varying gradations of sociality among certain individuals. Are not some of us more social than others, and if so, wouldn’t these particular individuals feel the burdens of their sacrifices to society more heavily?
On what basis can we assume that Nature is evil? Can we use the presence of Natural disasters as our evidence while ignoring the presence of “miracles”? We must remember, as Socrates said, we cannot consider Death evil simply because we are ignorant to its truths. As humans are restricted to anthropomorphic understandings of life, so too are they restricted to the experiences of this physical world, placing Death beyond the realm of human understanding; yet, Freud operates on the assumption that Death, and the inescapable Fate which leads to it, is a nefarious tool by which nature “destroys” us. All the while, Freud commits the mistake of anthropomorphizing Nature itself as a cruel woman who “rises up against us,” thus, adapting his understanding of Nature to fit a similar structure to the illusion of religion which he condemns.
The assumption of an inherently-evil cosmology seems to be a culturally-endemic belief, something that Freud is unable to account for in his treatise because he largely ignores socio-religious differences, other than to write them off as narcissistic. Select Native America tribes lived among nature, albeit in societies, but they accepted, and at times, even provoked the arrival of Death and the enactment of “cruel” Fate. I believe that we can tell a lot about a society’s motivation for religion by observing the specific content of that religion. This is how we obtain any information beyond the broad idea of “religious phenomenon” in society. And ultimately, Freud avoids offering any opinion about the forces that govern this “cruel woman who seeks to destroy us”. What controls her, what created her, and to what greater science beyond her do we owe the truths of our current scientific revelations?
But my greatest suspicion of Freud’s work lies in its over-generalization of human societies. How can we account for instances where certain societies have collected according to specific racial, ethnic, religious, or social principles, and then proceeded to exploit societies of opposing principles? It is difficult to begin to unravel the details of such exploitation when we are encouraged to understand “society” as a blanket phenomenon.
In summary, I agree with Freud that Religion is, in part, a socially-invented, anthropomorphic, and narcissistic phenomenon whose content offers no literal truth value, but the rest of his argument is hinged upon delicate assumptions that I find no valid reason to unconditionally accept.
 Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion. 1927. 80.