{Better Living Through Science and Technology} “The Future of An Illusion” by Sigmund Freud (1927)

Sigmund Freud’s The Future of An Illusion is a book that is deadset on proving that God is mankind’s creation and not the reverse. Unpretentiousness is Freud’s first step in liberating his scientific faculties towards achieving an “education to reality” that is unavoidably irreligious in scope: “Men cannot remain children for ever.” Freud erects logos in the belief that “in the long run nothing can withstand reason and experience.” Freud’s deposition of religion and the traditional understanding of the Christian God, follows multiple paths, but in summary only one. It is his own experience of the world that he evaluates. He looks at mankind and at the world around him, coming to the conclusion that the idea of God comes from a rather simple, if primitive urge: wish fulfilment.

Mankind has always been in a precarious position when confronted with nature; the relationship is an imposing one, with mankind forever tottering on the frail end. Civilization, with art and religion as its essential consolations, is mankind’s response to its position of inferiority: “nature rises up against us, majestic, cruel and inexorable; she brings to our mind once more our weakness and helplessness, which we thought to escape through the work of civilization.” It is a remarkable conceit Freud delivers. Nature is portrayed as an icy, wicked coquette that “destroys us—coldly, cruelly, relentlessly.” It is certainly one way of viewing nature. Freud’s writing is compelling and, perhaps to his dismay, even imaginative. He obviously learned a thing or two from his studies in literature focusing on the works of Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Dostoevsky.

The Future of An Illusion is dramatic on a literary scale, a quality that does necessarily make it untrue. Freud is not writing fiction, but his book does borrow techniques from fictional writing that make it more compelling. His analysis of religion is a jarring one. He traces the origins of religion back to primitive times, focusing on mankind’s helplessness before nature, leading our species to create a type of illusion whereby our safety could be guaranteed. The illusion is none other than religion and the comforts it bestows on us—the centerpiece being a caretaker father figure who guarantees our survival after death. Freud’s understanding of religion, the suspicion that enables him to logically account for its position in society, rests on the act of wishing.

Mankind wishes to understand the world. We crave to comprehend our place in it: where we came from, where we are going, and what it all means. Religion is the primitive, subjective form of this wish. Along with civilization, religion is the great step we make towards finally humanizing nature: “Primitive man has no choice, he has no other way of thinking. It is natural to him, something innate, as it were, to project his existence outwards into the world and to regard every event which he observes as the manifestation of beings who at bottom are like himself.” Even the staunchest theist would need to admit that the religious world does bear more than passing resemblance to what we desire and what we would create if we had carte blanche. In other words, we desire to escape death; therefore, we create a system of thought to suppress our feelings of anxiety. Freud identifies such an act as an illusion.

Religion satisfies the needs of people in at least two ways: it identifies our origins and it reveals our purpose, albeit in an inconclusive fashion. It does not vastly differ from science in this respect. Science also seeks to understand the origins of mankind, but it differs from religion in its methods and makeup. The drive to understand is what both have in common; however, religion aims to create belief where science develops scepticism. Religion prefers a certain realm of experience and science prefers another. Freud is intelligent enough to realize this and he admits that religion has improved many facets of our lives. The future of our species is what finally concerns him.  Freud feels that religion is hampering the development of science and holding back the improvement of civilization. Freud’s analysis of religion and civilization is a good one. It is interesting, plausible, and finally believable; however, we must remember that Freud’s view is just one of the many available to us.

Freud’s main contribution is to the field of psychoanalytic study. He roots religion in the Oedipus complex and even though his view is compelling we must understand that it is also subjective. The interlocutor in the The Future of An Illusion offers better critiques to Freud’s study than I am able to. He borrows from Plato in this capacity, but it does give his book a well-rounded appearance. His wish is to liberate rational thought and to shape civilization by these means. Such a wish is not despotic, as some plead; it is inevitable. Mankind will make use of its available tools; scientific inquiry is a process we cannot obstruct in the long run. If I had to draw a line between two conflicting forces, it would not be between religion and science, but instinct and intellect, or will and reason. Freud’s absolute belief in reason is naïve to me. He is not the first man to make his God or ideal, Logos. Despite some people’s insistence, beyond reasons I can comprehend, reason will never conclusively overcome its opposite, unreason.

Friedrich Nietzsche, who influenced Freud, believed that reason was a superfluity in light of our other drives, like desire or will. “He who possesses strength divests himself of mind.” From Nietzsche’s perspective civilization is a hindrance to the strong man unless there exists a will and an imperative in an institution “which is anti-liberal to the point of malice.” The kind of society Nietzsche has in mind would be one organized with a small, aristocratic minority ruling over a kind of plebeian herd constituting the majority of the population. Freud accounts for this view in The Future Of An Illusion and considers it shortsighted, as well as potentially destructive to civilization as a whole. His premise is simple: if the “illusion” of religion is exposed to the public, and a large majority of them cease to receive the varied consolations of their respective beliefs, the reality of a civilized world with its many rules and regulations becomes arbitrary in scope, not God-willed, and tyrannical in its application.

What has changed from one moment to the next? So the dream has been vanquished and good behaviour will not pay off, what is left for the everyman who does not have a favourable position in society making leisure frequently available to him or her? Perhaps rebellion? With the abnegation of religion our position in the larger scheme of things becomes unintelligible. We do not know why we are here and for what reason, therefore everything is permissible. The Nietzchean aristocracy would put down this uprising in a heartbeat, breaking the vigour of the mob, and placing the yoke firmly back in its place. This would be a most unpleasant reality for the majority of people and in fact is the kind of material dystopias like Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World are fashioned from.

Freud understands that the only people who would profit from such a society would be tyrants and that such a culture could not maintain its strength for long. It would be a brutish and nightmarish sentence to participate in such a society. Religion is arguably the force that has made every tyrannical circumstance endurable in all cultures. Freud sees civilization reforming itself to the point where it may take the place of religion. The interlocutor in The Future of An Illusion states: “If men are taught that there is no almighty and all-just God, no divine world-order and no future life, they will feel exempt from all obligation to obey the precepts of civilization. Everyone will, without inhibition or fear, follow his asocial, egoistic instincts and seek to exercise his power; Chaos, which we have banished through many thousands of years of the work of civilization will come again.” Chaos and the destruction of civilization are only avoidable if the burden of society is made understandable to each person living within it. In other words, we must replace the “effects of repression by the results of the rational operation of the intellect.” Freud is pursuing another Age of Enlightenment by which we may make the “rational grounds for the precepts of civilization” known to every last member of our civilization. It is possible for us to live for the here and now: for our families, careers, hobbies, and homes, totally immersed in the present tense, but also gazing into the wondrous potential of the future, better living through science and technology?

“Oh, tell me who was first to announce, first to proclaim that man does nasty things simply because he doesn’t know his own true interest; and that if he were to be enlightened, if his eyes were to opened to his true, normal interests, he would stop doing nasty things at once and would immediately become good and noble, because, being so enlightened and understanding his real advantage, he would realize that his own advantage really did lie in the good; and that it’s well known that there’s not a single man capable of acting knowingly against his own interest; consequently, he would, so to speak, begin to do good out of necessity. Oh, the child! Oh, the pure innocent babe!” The scoundrel uttering these words is none other than Fyodor Dostoevsky’s unnamed man from his metaphorical underground lair; but how well he knew the ilk of mankind, the skein of our existence! Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground is as philosophic as Freud’s The Future of An Illusion is literary. Dostoevsky looks into the caverns of our collective psyche in such a thorough fashion that he anticipates the psychoanalytic work of Freud. Dostoevsky does his very best to dissipate the possibility that mankind can exist and co-exist with each other for long without the belief in a God. The Underground Man describes all systems of thought that attempt to tell man what is best for him and how he can achieve happiness as “logical exercises.” According to him mankind does not always want what is best for itself. He draws our attention to civilization, which in his opinion has not made mankind milder or kinder, but only created the appearance of such, where in fact “rivers of blood are being spilt, and in the most cheerful way, as if it were champagne.” This is true of his time and more so in the 20th Century and beyond. Ares and his minions are running as rampant as ever.

What is mankind’s true nature? Are we warmongers by design or do certain, particular circumstances demand a violent response from us? One of the many functions of religion is to calm the warring thirst in people. This is certainly one of the main teachings of Jesus that launched the Christian religion. By most accounts Christianity, and other religions, are peaceful in theory and meant to be peaceful in action, and yet they too have inspired so much bloodshed. Civilization is another attempt people have made to promote peace and organization, at least within the constraints of a given society. As a whole, the process of civilization is meant to stabilize society, promoting partnership and cooperation between strangers working together for a common goal; be it the development of wealth, culture, or simply a more comfortable way of life. Civilization is a work in progress. Arguments can be made that life has gotten better and worse because of it; however, it is interesting to consider what role religion has played in the promotion of civility between people. Freud largely considers religion to be a kind by-product of civilization, at least in the present context, but an argument can be made that religion and civilization cannot be separated because they fundamentally support each other. Can a society truthfully function without a religion to bind its citizens together?

In a multicultural city like Toronto or New York where literally dozens of races are mixed together to form a society there can be no hope of a single religion presiding over people, and yet the society continues to function and even thrive, but why? Work and culture take time away from religious practice. The need for religion is replaced by the demand to focus on the here and now, living for the pressures of the day and the anxieties of tomorrow. Religion is a convoluted term, but at heart it is meant to tell us why we live, why we die, and what we should be doing in the interim; religion also serves to explain our relation to the divine, to a God or Gods, and provide a picture of the afterlife, and so much more. Therefore, Freud’s agenda is not only to attack religion, but what is connected to religion as well. It is an affront to society itself, or a type of society. The working class does not really have the leisure time to inspire true religious feeling; participation in a given religious institution or practice, like reading or praying, is the best most people can achieve.

For most people work comes first, even when it comes at the expense of actual religious life. There is a divide between the secular and religious life. I doubt that any person working would consider their job holy or as forming part of their religious life, unless their religion already instructed them that work is what we are meant to do and God ordains it. Many people take it for granted that the secular and religious are separate by nature. This kind of thinking conditions our practices in daily life, compartmentalizing our psyches, and segregating what we ought to do from what we are doing. This kind of life is created for utilitarian purposes, fuelling a city that is driven by economic ambitions. Freud says a “civilization cannot consist principally or solely in wealth itself and the means of acquiring it and the arrangements for its distribution.” But there are many people that driven to acquire wealth like maniacs, who will use all people in their paths like natural resources, exploiting people and nature alike to produce personal wealth; and yet these people are not castigated for their actions, they are called entrepreneurs and have the very best seats in restaurants reserved for them, as if all of society and nature is designed to serve them: “For masses are lazy and unintelligent; they have no love of instinctual renunciation and they are not to be convinced by argument of its inevitability…it is only through the influence of individuals who can set an example and whom masses recognize as their leaders that they can be induced to perform the work and undergo the renunciation on which the existence of civilization depends.” Freud’s statement is very agreeable in print alone, but when it is juxtaposed with the work-a-day world it acquires an especial degree of irony, but who is laughing anyway?

Most people only have a problem with religion if it takes itself too seriously; the same statement can be made with regard to art. If religion or art somehow manages to interrupt the economic world, garrulously coined the “real world,” then it is being fanatical, which has become an especial problem for people ever since a certain jet collided into a certain tower that will go unnamed here. Again boundary lines are drawn, but with no definable conclusions. The Christian Right Coalition in America has come under tremendous scrutiny as of late (deservedly so I may add), but is it so difficult to tell the good guys from the bad guys anymore. What makes the leaders of America any different from their avowed enemies? A bully is a bully even if called by any other name. When it comes right down to it, religion is not a consolation of any sort; it is the practice of a certain kind of person because they cannot behave any differently. Nietzsche is quoted as saying that the only true Christian died on the cross, which is true, but there have been many more since him, in other places, called by other names. Religion is as fundamental breathing or loving for some people, which is why it reappears even when it is not expected or even wanted.

For other people hating and warring is natural; Nietzsche believed this was a condition most natural, but he was a man who attested to hate comforts and the milder pleasures in life. He was prescient to life like no other when he asserted that all of our drives compete with each other for dominion. Freud wanted to liberate the desires of the working class from religion in order to stave potential anarchy, and also to rid himself of the intellectual nuisance that is Christianity. He did not set out to change the very structure of civilization, which he agrees is a good thing despite acknowledging the fact that most, if not all, present day cultures have not gotten beyond the point where “one portion of its participants depends upon the suppression of another, and perhaps larger portion.” Again, Freud only wants to adjust the levers of society a little as if it were an experiment: less pressure here may yield better results over there, and yet he asserts that his sympathies lie with the frustrated people of society. It seems that Freud does not want to understand that a large portion of people in this world have a very difficult time coming to terms with reality and the world outside of themselves.

The belief in a world beyond the one we occupy is the only thing that saves many people from destroying themselves or venting their hatred onto the world, or their neighbour per se. People are simply frustrated by civilization or religion, but by reality itself. From one perspective this can account for the vigour people embrace art and religion with, recklessly, wholeheartedly, and at the expense of all else.  In Leo Tolstoy’s book, What Is Religion, Of What Does It Consist? the author states “those who belong to the upper, governing classes pretend to be concerned for the welfare of the masses, they will never attempt (nor can they, guided as they are by worldly pursuits) to destroy the torpor and enslavement in which the masses live, and which enables the governing classes to rule over them. In exactly the same way, those belonging to the enslaved masses and also guided by worldly aims cannot wish to worsen their burdensome situation by struggling against the upper classes in order to expose the false teaching and propagate the truth.” Tolstoy believed that worldly aims are what keep people from embracing a religious life that is opposed to oppression, enslavement of the masses, and materialistic gain. For him the religious life is the reasonable choice. Everything else is limiting. William Blake believed that the desire of man is infinite, therefore if anyone can desire what he incapable of possessing, despair must be his eternal lot because man is himself infinite. Nobody ever accused us of being a happy bunch.