The Future of an Illusion

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Future of an Illusion by Sigmund Freud.

In The Future of an Illusion, Freud suggests as a germinal postulate of religion, “Life in this world … signifies a perfecting of man’s nature. It is probably the spiritual part of man, the soul …” (23). The Greek for soul is psyche. Psychoanalysis, which set itself the task of diagnosing and treating the psyche (and not merely the conscious mind, nor the organic brain as such), seems to be a phenomenon in some measure tailor-made to supplement, supplant, or substitute for religion. Freud presented a clear claim that religion is a mass neurosis, not only in The Future of an Illusion, but also in his later work Moses and Monotheism. To the extent that one sees the collective problem of religious ‘delusion’ as analogous to obsessional neurosis in the individual, one might take psychoanalysis, the custodian of techniques to address the latter, as a point of departure to cope with the former. And while he does not make light of the difficulty in coming to do without traditional religions, Freud insists on the desirability and even “fatal inevitability” of such “growth” in the human condition (55).

The “care of souls” is the pastoral function in Christian religion, and equally a mission of psychoanalysis as a therapeutic institution, with its priestly class of analysts. Freud does not hold himself back from the pleasures of religiously-based rhetoric. For example, he writes that “the questions which religious doctrine finds it so easy to answer” … “might be called too sacred” to be addressed in a traditional, unquestioning manner (40). Taking a cue from the Dutch anti-colonialist Multatuli, Freud makes reference to “our God, Logos” slowly fulfilling the desires of mankind (69). And he sometimes shows a rather “religious” tendency (as he would perhaps describe it) to pick and choose among scientific theories for the sake of doctrinal coherence in psychoanalysis.

In one of his devil’s advocate passages in The Future of an Illusion, Freud remarks, “If you want to expel religion from our European civilization, you can only do it by means of another system of doctrines,” which would itself engender a functional religion, with all of the concomitant drawbacks (65-6). In replying to his own objection, Freud emphasizes the desired differences in his post-religious system: it is to be non-delusive and more capable of being corrected. It will be science, not religion. But Freudian psychoanalysis, for all of its scientific trappings, is already at some remove from the positivist territory of the physical sciences. It is no closer to, say, biology, than the monotheism of Moses was to the polytheistic religion of eastern Mediterranean antiquity. In effect, Freud’s proposal is that the superstitious religion of traditions focused on God should be replaced in the future with a scientific religion trained on the soul. [via]