The Future of An Illusion
A Personal Summary
The existence of a god (or multiple gods) has always been an intriguing yet complicated dilemma for me. Perhaps, it was first sparked by the thought that if I had not been born in Iran, would I still believe in the same kind of God that a Brazilian, an Indian, or some indigenous people in the Amazon rainforest might believe in? Following the same line of thought, one might also ask: Should a universal truth be dependent on a person's birthplace?
My quest for better answers to such questions directed me toward an informal interest in philosophy. The purpose of this post is not to respond to these questions, but to share my personal takeaways from Sigmund Freud's book "The Future of an Illusion," which explores the psychoanalytic examination of religiosity. Freud's work was influenced by his experience with patients of different religious beliefs, and their religious contemplations formed a group of symptoms for his database. Here is a brief and personal summary of his book.
According to Freud, the need for religion originates from the earliest stage of human civilization. Early human beings lived in a world filled with inherent fears and anxieties, facing the unknown and uncontrollable aspects of life such as natural disasters, illness, and death. As the human mind developed, the internalization of instinctual renunciations occurred, redirecting the coercion toward the external world inwardly. In other words, civilization demanded the suppression of instincts.
Similar to a child's need for consolation and protection from a father, mankind also craves protection from a powerful, protective figure in the face of threats, disasters, and the suppression of instincts. Human minds naturally personify things to establish a relationship with them, leading to the concept of a human-like supreme being.
Freud viewed God or Gods as illusions that fulfill the oldest, strongest, and most urgent yearnings of humankind. The strength of religions comes from the strength of these needs. He found the essence of religion not in the feeling of powerlessness against a divine, supernatural being but in the healing effect experienced by religious individuals during difficult situations.
Freud criticized three reasons that formed the basis of belief in religions for our ancestors. The first reason was the belief in teachings because our fathers believed in them. The second reason was the inheritance of proofs from our ancestors. The third reason was the prohibition to question the authenticity of beliefs. These answers were contradictory, and penalizing questioning made it almost impossible to challenge ancient proofs fairly.
One desperate effort to justify faith is the concept of 'Credo quia absurdum' (I believe because it is absurd). According to this notion, truth only needs to be felt inwardly, and factual comprehension does not apply to spiritual experiences. Freud attributed this to the early Fathers of the Church but noted that it is being used by scholars of other religions as well. However, this approach allows the acceptance of any belief without scientific evidence.
The book addresses a common claim by some believers and non-believers that even if religion were found to be untrue, it should still be upheld to prevent chaos and the decline of civilization. The author strongly believes that society has not become more moral with increasing religious dominance. He argues that religion has supported both morality and immorality. Freud suggests that the inherent "sinfulness" of mankind may have emerged due to the failure of religions.
Freud also suggests that religious doctrines hinder the sexual development of a child and bring them up with unquestionable claims, neglecting contradictions and weakening their intellect.
While religious beliefs offer consolation, Freud questions how a person without these beliefs would fare. He likens it to a child losing parental protection. A person without religious beliefs may not see themselves as the center of creation. Freud proposes moving beyond the infantile stage and embracing reality as a more convincing approach.
In the end, Freud admits that his hopes could also be illusions. However, unlike religious illusions, he believes that his illusions can be corrected. He emphasizes that science is not an illusion but acknowledges that it would be an illusion to suppose that what science cannot provide, we can find elsewhere.