Freud on Religion and Illusion

For many people Freud, together with Marx and a few others, is the scarecrow of religion. But at closer scrutiny he is more a friend than foe. Ricoeur here passes on to us the wisdom of Freud. The psychoanalyst

is neither a theologian nor an antitheologian. As an analyst he is an agnostic, i.e., incompetent. As a psychoanalyst he cannot say whether God is merely a phantasm of god, but he can help his patient surpass the infantile and neurotic forms of religious belief and decide, or recognize, whether or not his religion is only an infantile and neurotic belief whose true mainspring the psychoanalyst has discovered. If the patient’s belief does not survive this critical process, the only reason can be that it was not worthy to survive. But in that case nothing has been said either for or against faith in God. In another language I might say that, if faith must differ from religion, then religion must die in order that faith may be born

Freud is not speaking about the death of God here but overcoming the gods of humanity. For him these religions were illusions in the precise sense of the word: they were representations that did not correspond to reality. The faltering of religious commitment in the lives of college students (even at private Christian universities) mirrors this same process. There is much ado that a secular education dissuades incumbent classes from religion and that these students in turn lose their faith, but it seems more accurate to say that these students are losing a faith they never had. In other words, they are maturing and losing infantile beliefs that were never worth holding. What is often missed in these same schools (and what Freud fails to grasp as well) is the function of mythopoetic imagination (see here) in understanding and explaining existence which cannot be verified by mathematical or experimental methods. Perhaps this is why we aren’t seeing more faiths survive critical trials.


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