Sigmund Freud

The Future of an Illusion

Review by Mark Shan, 2008

Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1961.

Through the painful experience of World War I and the loss of his beloved daughter in the postwar misery, Freud naturally began to examine human civilization from his unique psychoanalytic point of view. He wrote this book, and the later book Civilization and Its Discontents, as “a convinced atheist’s dissection of religion” in 1917 (xxi).

Freud viewed religion as a symbolic reflection of the child’s sense of weakness and helplessness when faced with dangerous and powerful nature. Religious ideas are really just wishes and consolations, which essentially are an illusion and will in the future be dissolved by scientific understanding and achievements. This concept represents the popular confidence of people of that time in science and a portrayal of the meaning of scientific materialism for the future of religion.

Civilization (i.e. culture) rests on a dilemma. Civilization comes from two aspects: the knowledge and capacity of the human race to “control nature and extract its wealth”(6) and regulations (forms an internal morality) to adjust relations among people and the distribution of the wealth. Therefore, people need civilization for protection yet they are frustrated with its prohibitions on human instincts (12).

Religion can be seen as an infantile and phylogenetic prototype. Because of danger, cruelty, and death from nature and Fate, and out of the feeling of helplessness and weakness like a child, the human race in childhood (Freud means before the Enlightenment) established the idea of a divine person as a Father. This is called religion and it is just another part of civilization. It gives people a way out from a sense of helplessness, fear, and anxiety (21, 23, 28). Religious doctrine “solves the riddles of the universe and reconciles us to the sufferings of life” (34).

Religion is an illusion. The existence of a powerful divine person is one of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind. Illusion is not error, but a “wish-fulfillment as a prominent factor in its motivation and [a] disregard of its relations to reality.”(40) While admitting religion has clearly performed great services for human civilization Freud firmly denies its truth saying religion has really failed to make people satisfied in the past few thousands of years (47). Natural science has identified the errors in religious documents and thus decreases their influence among the masses (50). Freud treated religion as a universal obsessional neurosis (55). Finally, Freud deconstructed the argument that religion furnishes essentially plausibility structures for society by saying that people should withdraw from religion and rely instead on scientific knowledge, which would increase the power and independence of humans in the face of nature and Fate (63).

Freud produced a convincing analysis that the human race is stuck between animal instinct and regulations, and also between building civilization and rebellion against civilization. Through an atheistic psychoanalytic approach, Freud drew a picture of a “scientific utopia” by saying that without religion humanity will be liberated and “probably succeed in achieving a state in which life will become tolerable for everyone and civilization no longer oppressive to anyone (63).” The atheistic, utopian and “communistic blueprint” he created here proved to be an illusion and a catastrophe only a few decades later.