Future Of An Illusion
In this essay, Freud presents his theory that civilization is built upon the renunciation of instinct and that religion is at once an instrument of coercion and a compensation for the privations civilized man suffers. Civilization has taken humankind beyond its animal status and to maintain itself must impose certain regulations to monitor the relations among its members. Such regulations are a burden to individuals, but were it not for such prohibitions, these individuals would (more frequently) display their hostility and indulge their instinctual wishes of incest, cannibalism, and murder.
Among the advances of civilization, Freud includes the high morals of psychologically developed individuals, cultural ideals, artistic creations, and religious ideas (or illusions). These assets represent the wealth of human achievement. They create in the individual a sense of cultural identity and satisfaction, sentiments that go a long way in counteracting the destructive force of hostility he feels toward the oppressive ruling class.
Freud is most concerned however with religion, in particular, its illusory nature, its current function and value in society, and the course of its ultimate outcome. Religion, he states, has three main functions. First, it serves to humanize nature, i.e., it provides a system of beings who determine the forces of nature and to whom various entreaties can be made to influence these forces. Second, it puts forth a context within which one may come to terms with the inevitability of death. Finally, it consoles individuals for the sacrifices and privations imposed by civilization (while at the same time obliges them to abide by the law). Over time, the emphasis of religion has shifted from the more primitive first function to the third function, presumably because science has provided us a far better means of understanding and controlling the forces of nature. His main point is that religious ideas have their origins in man's sense of helplessness. On this basis, he likens the religious impulse to a kind of neurosis, the core of which is repressed anxiety. In his belief that the developmental stages of the individual are reflected in the developmental course of society, and in noting that the God of Christianity has the character of a benevolent father, Freud refines the analogy of neurosis to one concerning the father-son relationship (the neurosis deriving from the childhood Oedipus complex). Hence, religion is founded on an infantile wish: that a supreme fatherly being is concerned for our well-being and watches over and protects us. As such, it is nothing more than an illusion.
The widespread belief in religious ideas is problematic for Freud. He notes that religion has lost some of its influence because of the effect of scientific advances and anticipates further disillusionment which could have disastrous consequences. If the social behavior of the masses depends on the credibility of a religious system, then what will happen when they finally realize religion is a fantasy? His vision is dystopian: the very collapse of civilization as we know it. For what is there to keep the masses, the enemies of civilization, in check without the threat of eternal punishment?
The moral system that is based on God is inferior to the one based on man's rationality - and, it is dangerous. The individual, says Freud, must give up his illusion of an omnipotent father god. It is preferable that he internalize the precepts of civilization and understand that to do so is in his best interest. Humankind's existence is fraught with conflict, the most powerful being the one between the interests of the individual and the demands of civilization. So how are the two to be reconciled without religion? Freud's solution lies in the primacy of the intellect. The intellect will ultimately prevail and accomplish the same aims as those expected from religion, i.e., the love of humanity and the lessening of human suffering. Our deerance from our affective (instinctual) selves will occur through scientific advances (including Freud's own psychoanalytic theory); what science cannot tell us about reality, holds Freud, we can not really hope to know.
The cornerstone of Freudian theory is conflict. And in this essay Freud emphasizes the conflict between the asocial (self-serving) impulses of the individual and the social demands of civilization. Conflict exists also between man's intellect and his instinctual impulses (sexuality and aggression), which arise from the depths of the unconscious. In fact, the unconscious owes its very existence to repression, a process necessitated by the individual's desire to avoid the pain of conflict. So it is no surprise that, for Freud, conflict plays an important role in the etiology of religion. Religion is simply a reaction to the anxiety man feels because of his weakness. This is analogous to the feelings a boy has for his father; these feelings too are marked by conflict - between his loving and hostile feelings toward his father (according to Freud's Oedipus complex theory). The resolution to the Oedipal conflict comes about when the boy is able to suppress his hostile impulses through the internalization of his father's prohibitions; similarly, the internalization of social ideals is needed for civilization to advance.