Geoffrey Fox's Reviews > The Future of an Illusion

The Future of an Illusion by Sigmund Freud
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Jul 14, 12

Read from June 21 to July 03, 2012

Where does the belief in a god come from? And why does it persist even among educated adults, who have available to them much more convincing explanations of all that God is supposed to represent? And finally, will it ever be possible for a society to disabuse itself of this notion, and what would be the costs (psychological and social) and benefits? These are Freud's central questions in this 1927 essay, and they are just as urgent today, when even the Higgs boson can't shake the faith of true believers.

"An illusion is not the same as an error, nor is it necessarily an error. … For example, a middle-class girl may entertain the illusion that a prince will come to carry her off to his home. It is possible, cases of the sort have occurred. That the Messiah will come and establish a new golden age is far less likely; depending on the personal stance of the person assessing it, he will classify this belief as an illusion or as analogous to a delusion. … we refer to a belief as an illusion when wesh-fulfilminet plays a prominent part in its motivation, and in the process we disregard its relationship to reality, just as the illusion itself dispenses with accreditations."

The question then is why do humans so wish for God or gods to exist?

Freud has a pretty convincing hypothesis. "As for humanity as a whole, so too for the invividual human, life is hard to bear." In the face of events he can't control and often can't understand, "man's badly threatened self-esteem craves consolation, the world and life need to lose their terror, and at the same time humanity's thirst for knowledge, which is of course driven by the strongest practical interest, craves an answer." The invention of gods, attributing human personalities to the unseen and threatening forces, gives great relief; "a person may still be defenceless but he is not helpless any longer, he can at least react. In fact, he may not even be defenceless: he can deploy against those violent supermen out there the same resources as he uses in his society. He can try beseeching them, appeasing them, bribing them…"

At a later stage, many peoples compress all their gods into one, thus exposing "the paternal core that had always lain hidden behind every god figure… With God now a single being, relations towards him could recover the intimacy and intensity of the child's relationship with its father." It is this relationship with "God the Father" that people find so hard to give up, regardless of all the evident contradictions of the notion. We could, and a minority of us do, accept that we are small and impotent "in the face of the totality of the world" without taking that next step, imagining a protective God-Parent. That is, we accept responsibility for our own actions, confront setbacks as well as we can with our own resources and seek explanations of mysterious phenomena — the creation of the universe, for example — without recourse to magic.

The alternative is to remain in a child-like state, expecting Daddy to take care of us. And since Daddy knows all, we should stop asking embarrassing questions. "Think of the distressing contrast between the radiant intelligence of a healthy child and the intellectul feeblenes of the average adult. Is it not at least possible that in fact religious education is largely to blame for this relative atrophy?"

The worst part is that we (well, many people) think he is the Daddy of us all, and will punish us if we do not punish others who disobey him. He is also hypersensitive, despite being all powerful, and wants anybody who dares insult him to be burned at the stake, or stoned to death in the public square, or bombed to Hell. That makes life difficult in multicultural contacts, where people are listening to different Daddies with different rules, and some have left behind Daddy along with the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, and "the Invisible Hand".

Can any large number of humans free themselves from the illusion? Not by decree. "It is certainly a nonsensical plan to seek to abolish religion by force and at a stroke. Principally because there is no chance of its succeeding." Substituting some other "doctrinal system" (such as the CPSU's "dialectical materialism") "would assume, in its own defence, all the psychological characteristics of religion, the same sanctity, rigidity, intolerance, the same ban on thought."

But it is possible to win such freedom from the imaginary bully-cum-protector, at least for some people who are willing to heed their own doubts about the established religions. "[T]he voice of the intellect is a low one, yet it does not cease until it has gained a hearing. In the end, after countles rejections, it does so. This one of the few respects in which one may be optimistic for the future of the human race…" And, Freud writes later on in his argument, "ultimately, nothing withstand reason and experience, and the fact that religion contradicts both is all too tangible."

In Egypt, the masses have just elected as president an engineer educated at Cairo University and the University of Southern California, who is also a self-proclaimed Islamist and former head of the Muslim Brotherhood. In Spain, even socialist party activists participate in religious processions. And in the U.S., almost no politician, regardless of party or education, dares say he or she is an atheist. But the low voice of the intellect persists, though perhaps it needs more amplification.
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