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On Freud's "The Future of an Illusion"

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"The Future of an Illusion" reveals Freud's reflections about religion as well as his hope that in the future science will go beyond religion, and reason will replace faith in God. The discussion with an imaginary critic revealed his internal debate, mirroring the debate about this subject in the outside world. However, it also enlightens his way of thinking: deconstructing and constructing at the same time. This volume considers Freudian ideas and their implications today, while focusing on the contradictions and gaps in Freud's proposals. The question of the coexistence between religion and psychoanalysis, as well as the place of ideals, belief, illusion, and imagination - and, no less important, the benevolent and destructive aspects of religion - also come into play.

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10 Chapters

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1: Deconstructing Freud's The Future of an Illusion: eight conceptual strands

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1

Ethel Spector Person

…the less a man knows about the past and the present the more insecure must prove to be his judgment of the future.

Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion (1927c), p. 5

The editor's note at the beginning of Volume 21 of the collected works of Freud, which features both The Future of an Illusion (1927c) and Civilization and Its Discontents (1930a), remarks on what Freud described as “a significant change from his writings of the previous decade. He observes that “after making a long detour through the natural sciences, medicine and psychotherapy”, he has turned to the cultural problems that had fascinated him in his youth. The editor notes that the piece that marked the beginning of this venture was The Future of an Illusion. But Future of an Illusion is in many ways a transitional paper. As I have read and re-read this paper, which has many defects, I would suggest that it served its purpose by leading into the more complex rendition of culture as depicted in Civilization and Its Discontents.

 

2: The illusion of a future: the rhetoric of Freud's critique of religious belief

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2

Jonathan Lear

1. Freud took himself to have a psychoanalytically valid argument against the honest viability of religious belief. By psychoanalytically valid I mean an argument that ought to convince anyone who accepts the basic principles of psychoanalytic explanation and interpretation. Thus, while the argument was not meant to persuade those who did not already believe in psychoanalytic diagnoses, the claim was nevertheless a strong one: namely, that no one who properly understood psychoanalytic insights could legitimately find a way also to embrace religious belief. (I take “proper understanding” to imply living in the light of that understanding.) If Freud's argument was as strong as he claimed it to be, it would mean that anyone who, in the face of his interpretation, continued to adhere to religious conviction would thereby reveal him- or herself as to some degree psychoanalytically unfit—that is, they would thereby show themselves to be clinging to infantile wishes. As a social fact, Freud's argument had a significant effect on the development of psychoanalysis in the twentieth century: though there were a few exceptions, his argument provided an orientation for analysts towards analysands who professed religious conviction, and it playedan important role in who was allowed to train to be an analyst (for some notable exceptions, see, e.g., Loewald, 1953; Meissner, 1984; Rizzuto, 1998). This is one reason why a careful examination of Freud's argument is not an arcane matter: people were excluded from the psychoanalytic profession, and analysands were regularly regarded as psychically unhealthy, based on the assumption that Freud's argument was sound. By way of comparison: the American Psychoanalytic Association has officially distanced itself from Freud's arguments that homosexuality is a form of psychic ill health. Indeed, such a view is now taken to be a form of discrimination (APA, 1992). Is it not at least possible that Freud's argument against religious belief fosters a similar discrimination (not yet recognized as such) against religious believers?

 

3: The past of an illusion: an evolutionary perspective on religious belief

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3

J. Anderson Thomson, Jr

Biology is truly a land of unlimited possibilities. We may expect it to give us the most surprising information, and we cannot guess what answers it will return in a few dozen years to the questions we have put to it. They may be of a kind which will blow away the whole of our artificial structure of hypotheses.

Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g), p. 60

We do not have the option of “choosing” absolute truth or faith. We only have the right to say, of those who do claim to know the truth of revelation, that they are deceiving themselves and attempting to deceive—or to intimidate— others. Of course, it is better and healthier for the mind to “choose” the path of skepticism and inquiry in any case, because only by continual exercise of these faculties can we hope to achieve anything. Whereas religions are merely “fossilized philosophies” or philosophy with the questions left out. To “choose” dogma and faith over doubt and experiment is to throw out the ripening vintage and to reach greedily for the Kool-Aid.

 

4: Religious fundamentalism and violence

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4

Vamlk D. Volkan

This chapter describes what is meant by religious fundamentalism and the kinds of unconscious motivations that make some individuals cling to exaggerated religiosity. It also focuses on religious fundamentalism as a shared group process as it occurs in religious cults. An examination of the characteristics of an extreme religious cult provides a necessary platform from which we can take a closer look at global violent fundamentalist religious movements like al-Qaeda.

Definition

The English term fundamentalism as it relates to religious self-definition was coined in the late 1920s in the United States. Two Union Oil tycoons in California, Lyman and Milton Stewart, financed the publication of a series of pamphlets called The Fundamentals, which enumerated five points essential for Christian orthodoxy: biblical inerrancy, the virgin birth, Christ's atonement and resurrection, the authenticity of miracles, and dispensationalism. At that time “fundamentalists” were simply defenders of these five doctrines (Balmer, 1989). Even though the term “fundamentalism” in relation to religion was first used in the 1920s, earlier in history and on countless occasions, individuals or groups from many parts of the world and from practically every faith turned to exaggerated religiosity.

 

5: The morality of an “oppressed group”

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5

George A. Awad

In this chapter I focus on one aspect of Freud's The Future of an Illusion—namely, the morality of the group that he variously referred to as “underprivileged”, “suppressed”, “oppressed” and “uneducated:”

These underprivileged classes will envy the favoured ones their privileged classes and will do all they can to free themselves from their own surplus of privation…. it is understandable that the suppressed people should develop an intense hostility towards a culture whose existence they make possible by their work, but in whose wealth they have too small a share…. It goes without saying that a civilization which leaves so large a number of its participants unsatisfied and drives them into revolt neither has nor deserves the prospect of a lasting existence. [Freud, 1927c, p. 12; italics added]

Subsequently:

Civilization has little fear from educated people and brain-workers. In them the replacement of religious motives for civilized behaviour by other, secular motives would proceed unobtrusively; moreover, such people are to a large extent themselves vehicles of civilization. But it is another matter with the great masses of the uneducated and the oppressed, who have every reason for being enemies of civilization. [p. 39; italics added]

 

6: Illusion, disillusion, and delusion: war and faith in the Andes

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6

Moisés Lemlij

The society of the “great harmony”, the radical and definitive new society towards which 15 billion years of matter in movement, of that part which we know of the eternal matter, makes its way necessarily and inexorably. It is the only and irreplaceable new society, with neither exploited nor exploiters, neither oppressed nor oppressors, with no classes, no State, no parties, no democracy, no arms, no wars.

The Communist Party of Peru (PCP), the Shining Path, in 1986

Freud thought that the origin of religion was to be found in the terror of nature, disease, death, conflict with fellow humans, which led our first ancestors to seek an all-powerful father and protector. Religious beliefs would then be the product of these phylogenetic residues, which are reproduced ontogenetically during infancy. We could then say that religion is the result of the denial of death. In general, the Freudian theory of culture “is a deeply critical theory about how human beings fall short of who they can be by refusing to be the mortal beings they are” (Drassinower, 2003, p. 1).

 

7: Freud's omission of the maternal in God: was he disillusioned with mothers?

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7

Jennifer Bonovitz

the primal father was the original image of God, the model on which later generations have shaped the figure of God…. Religion would thus be the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity; like the obsessional neurosis of children, it arose out of the Oedipus complex, out of the relation to the father.

Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion (1927c), p. 43

Freud's impassioned criticism of the infantile derivatives of religion is well known. Less recognized is the striking omission of the maternal and feminine in this formulation. Freud allowed no possibility for the life-giving, growth-promoting, maternal, sustaining functions of God, nor does he consider even a destructive derivative of the mother–child relationship in his construct of God. Religion is sought as a necessary defence against “the crushing superiority of nature” and the “painfully felt imperfections of culture”.

He describes a God born of the child's fear of the father, as well as of his need for protection by the powerful parents, primarily the father. “Now that God was a single person, man’s relation to him could recover the intimacy and intensity of the child's relation to his father” (1927c, p. 19). This is a son in relationship with a masculine deity who punishes transgression and strongly defends against internal and external attackers of all persuasions. He inspires fear in the service of controlling the destructive instincts and assuages fear by promising to protect against the destructive vagaries of everyday life. The protection provided by the first love object, the mother, “is soon replaced by the stronger father, who retains that position for the rest of childhood” (p. 24).

 

8: Three archaic contributions to the religious instinct: awe, mysticism, and apocalypse

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8

Mortimer Ostow

Of course there is no religious instinct. I use the term as a metaphor for the almost universal readiness of individuals to cohere into social units in which all participate in cultic practices and shared beliefs in a supernatural entity with parent-like functions. Religious behaviour and thought seem to possess both primary, universal components and secondary, diverse components. The primary components should be sought in the psychobiology of the human organism. The secondary components can be understood in terms of local cultural, environmental, and historical influences.

This chapter discusses three of the many primary universals, perhaps determinants of the religious “instinct”, and describes their psychodynamics, their neuroscience background, and how they develop. I address these determinants from within the Jewish religious tradition, since that is the only one in which I have any competence, but I believe that with respect to these archaic mechanisms, the various religions resemble each other. I place awe, mysticism, and apocalypse in a specific sequence—the sequence in which they appear at the inception of the prophecies of the three major prophets of Israel. Arlow (1951) spoke of the experience as the consecration of the prophet and pointed out that in each case the procedure involved is identification with the superego by incorporation of the divinity through one of the body orifices. The most complete statement is contained in the Book of Ezekiel.

 

9: Re-reading Freud on religion in Hindu India

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9

Sudhir Kakar

And there is the further difficulty that precisely in a judgment of this kind [on the future of civilization] the subjective expectations of the individual play a part which it is difficult to assess; and these turn out to be dependent on purely personal factors in his own experience.

Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion (1927c), p. 5

I first read The Future of an Illusion (Freud, 1927c) when I was 18. A youth who had grown up in provincial Indian towns, I had come to study mechanical engineering in Ahmedabad, a large city intimately associated with Gandhi and the Indian freedom struggle. It was here that I came across Freud's writings and took my first steps into the world of Western ideas and imagination. I cannot pretend that I understood everything I consumed so voraciously. I sensed, though, that in my inner world I was being gently guided away from my native Hindu–Indian imagination, full of myths and marvels, lighted by a romantic numinosum, into an iconoclastic way of seeing the world where, if one looked hard and deep enough, all gods have clay feet. The experience was exhilarating.

 

10: How belief in God affects my clinical work

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10

Neville Symington

God as the Infinite

Belief in God lies at the core of all religious denominations. Thera-vada Buddhism is an exception to this general rule, and for this reason it is sometimes described as a Philosophy rather than a Religion. My belief in God affects my clinical work, but how? What follows is a personal statement: it is the way this belief affects my work in the consulting-room. It contains no statement about how such a belief may affect someone else, nor is it a recommendation for other clinicians.

Mystics, such as Meister Eckhart and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing emphasize that the reality of God is obscured through the word God. The word conjures up in the mind an image that blinds me to the reality that the word God is supposed to designate. Thus the word makes the reality foggy. The way in which a word can disturb our understanding has been emphasized by Wilfred Bion, by the philosopher Frege, and also by G. K Chesterton, who said this:

Atmosphere ought not to affect these absolutes of the intellect; but it does…. We cannot quite prevent the imagination fromremembering irrelevant associations, even in the abstract sciences like mathematics. [Chesterton, 1933, p. 180]

 

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