Religion Doomed: Was Freud Right?

Says It is at Point Where It Must Give Way Before Science 

That was the headline from the New York Times that greeted Americans in December of 1927. Freud had just published his provocative analysis of religious belief in his book The Future of an Illusion in which he suggested that religious superstition will give way to a more modern and scientific view of the world.

And not much has changed since 1927. We still see headlines and book titles like this. The End of Faith. The God Delusion. Breaking the Spell.

But was Freud right?

In The Future of an Illusion Freud makes the argument that religious belief is, at root, a means to repress and assuage anxiety in the face of a cold, hostile, impersonal and forbidding universe. Freud writes:
There are the elements, which seem to mock at all human control: the earth, which quakes and is torn apart and buries all human life and its works; water, which deluges and drowns everything in a turmoil; storms, which blow everything before them; there are diseases, which we have only recently recognized as attacks by other organisms; and finally there is the painful riddle of death, against which no medicine has yet been found, nor probably will be. With these forces nature rises up against us, majestic, cruel and inexorable; she brings to our mind once more our weakness and helplessness...
According to Freud we cope with these feelings of "weakness and helplessness" by creating a set of consoling religious beliefs:
And thus a store of ideas is created, born from man’s need to make his helplessness tolerable... Here is the gist of the matter. Life in this world serves a higher purpose... Everything that happens in this world is an expression of the intentions of an intelligence superior to us, which in the end, though its ways and byways are difficult to follow, orders everything for the best that is, to make it enjoyable for us. Over each one of us there watches a benevolent Providence which is only seemingly stern and which will not suffer us to become a plaything of the overmighty and pitiless forces of nature. Death itself is not extinction, is not a return to inorganic lifelessness, but the beginning of a new kind of existence which lies on the path of development to something higher… In the end all good is rewarded and all evil punished, if not actually in this form of life then in the later existences that begin after death. In this way all the terrors, the sufferings and the hardships of life are destined to be obliterated.
So that's the basic idea, Freud's basic argument. Religious belief is an existential fix, an anxiety reduction coping mechanism.

No doubt you are familiar with this argument. Since that New York Times headline in 1927 this argument has been a staple in the debates about the origins and function of religious belief.

But was Freud right?

That's a really hard question to answer. Which is one of the reasons why I think Freud's line of attack has proved to be so durable and unsettling. How could you go about evaluating Freud's claim?

Could you, for instance, walk up to people at your church and say, "Hey Sally, let me ask you a question. Do you believe in God because you're afraid of death and your eventual extinction?"

Your social skills aside, could Sally even answer that question? Honestly and truthfully? Could any of us?

And what if Sally did say "No," would you trust her answer?

As I point out in The Authenticity of Faith this is what makes Freud's argument so powerful and insidious. Freud effectively impugns the motives of the witness. By appealing to unconscious fears and defense mechanisms the believer no longer knows his or her own mind. After Freud, you don't trust Susan's answer. Or even your own. You lay awake at night wondering, "Am I fooling myself with all this religious stuff?"

This is why, I think, no one has made much progress on evaluating Freud's assertions. From 1927 to the present no one had figured out how to get around this data collection problem.

But I think I might have figured out a way to make progress on this question. Which why, when I have fits of vanity, I think the The Authenticity of Faith represents a change in what has been, since 1927, a static and tired debate. The Authenticity of Faith describes a method of cracking the Freudian nut along with some preliminary research aimed at answering the question "Was Freud Right?"

So was Freud right?

Well, the answer is complicated. You'll have to read the book. Let's just say that Freud wasn't all wrong. But he also wasn't totally right.

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15 thoughts on “Religion Doomed: Was Freud Right?”

  1. I beleive what Freud said is true.... however he seeks to explain it away as an existentail issue ... a man looking in from the outside.
    The reality of God exists within man .... looking from the inside outward. This may be just semnatics, but what is inherent is what reveals God to us.
    I do not believe mankind is intelligent enough to create any form of religious belief aside from that which is placed within us by God as His created beings.
    The 12 Step program has a step where you are to find God, if you do find God that will be God ... there is no other God apart from God. This may souind confusing but God will reveal Himself to all who seek Him
    It is relatively the same with Freud's words, whether existential or not God is the only God

  2. It seems inconceivable to me that a religion which produced
    the psalms, exalts martyrs and takes as its defining event the torture and death of its God
    would be vulnerable to such a critique. But it clearly is and clearly we are.
    Maybe the enduring relevance of freud (and Feuerbach?)  just goes to show that we are all only one
    step away from paganism, all the time.


    Maybe we ought to enshrine the idea that any god talk that
    makes us feel better, more in control, more safe is immediately evidence that
    something has gone wrong.  I am reminded
    of Stanley Hauerwas’ dictum that as soon as we feel the need to defend god we
    are into idolatry.


    Maybe we need a return to the mystical vocabulary of
    unknowing, darkness of faith etc. Going back to an earlier post, 'God' has definitely got too big!

  3. Nonetheless, his criticism of religion needs to be answered, as it is a powerful one. Obviously, it's more sensible to say religious belief is not ONLY this or that, which was Freud's favorite method with patients (whom he often utterly failed to heal).

  4. This post reads more like self promotion of your book than theological reflection. No offense intended, it just left me wanting more but i gotta buy the book to get it.

  5. I look forward to reading the book (are to expect a continuation of this new book prolificity?), but one comment: I actually find myself surprised, at least in our highly rationalist tradition, how little death or fear of death plays into people's motivations, so far as they are discernible. A surprisingly large number of people (again, at least in our tradition) are Christian for a single reason: because they are absolutely and unequivocally convinced that it is true, and the only truth. Consequences spin out from there, but that's the rub.

    No doubt this is psychologically and empirically thin, but it's anecdotal experience at the very least.

  6. If you follow the work of Ernest Becker, and the empirical data that backs up his theory, death anxiety manifests consciously as self-esteem or a feeling of meaning/significance. So yes, we don't consciously experience death anxiety as a motivation as self-esteem is functioning as an "anxiety buffer."

    If that seems a stretch, there is laboratory data that points to the existential function/role of self-esteem in the face of death. See:

    Greenberg et al. (1992). Why do people need self-esteem? Converging evidence that self-esteem serves an anxiety-buffering function. JPSP, 63, 913-922.

  7. That is true. I meant no criticism. I just really found it interesting and thought I wish he would continue and say more about cracking that nut!

  8. The problem with this, is that we have no pure access to revelation. That is to say, all revelation is interpreted through our senses, our perception, our assumptions and so on. So whilst the revelation in and of itself is no projection, we project all kinds of things as we then make sense of that revelation. However, as I say that, Paul affirms in 1 Corinthians 13 that we only see a part of the whole now (as the reflection of a riddle) and only upon the final consummation will we see in totality. So even the idea of the sufficiency of the revelation is problematic.

  9. I bought this book a few months ago, so I'll offer some feedback here.  First the good: I quite enjoyed content of the book and the price of the Kindle version is quite reasonable.

    And the bad: Unfortunately, the Kindle version is also almost unusable. There's no index, the layout is pretty rough, and typesetting gets stuck on italic for chapters at a time which makes reading quite uncomfortable.

    For others who might read this: Buy the book, it's highly recommended.  But you may wish to choose the paperback version instead of the Kindle one if you value your eyes, unless some of the problems with it get fixed.

  10. Looks like there is a Nook version out now for the same price.  I'm planning on picking it up and hope the formatting is better.

  11. I read this book and it spoke quite profoundly to me, so I did what I do when something speaks profoundly to me, I wrote something:

    Thanks for the book. It was, at least for me, very helpful.

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