I’ve come across Sigmund Freud relatively frequently over the last couple of years, and I’ve read and heard just enough to be familiar with the broad outlines of his views on religion. Simply put, he wasn’t very high on it. According to Freud, religion represents the childish illusion of a creature that lacks the intellectual fortitude or the courage to face the world as it really is. It is the projection of all our fears and hopes onto an imaginary cosmic screen in order to provide comfort and security in a world where neither are possible. Freud (along with Schopenhauer, Marx, and Nietzsche) is often presented as a paradigmatic example of the modern atheistic critique of religion. It’s for the weak and the deluded, a “collective neurosis” for those who can’t handle the cold hard realities of the world in which we live.
With this very general understanding of Freud, I was surprised to come across this article this morning if only because it’s the first time I’ve read of him expressing anything other than outright hostility or condescension towards religion. Mark Edmundson has written a book about Freud’s last days in general, but in this article he focuses mainly on Freud’s final book, Moses and Monotheism. Here Edmundson discovers in Freud a recognition—even an appreciation—of the role that religion has played in history. Judaism in particular, according to Freud, opened up new possibilities for human beings which would eventually lead to many of the things we so highly prize in the modern world.
First, Jewish monotheism paved the way for intellectual abstraction:
Freud argues that taking God into the mind enriches the individual immeasurably. The ability to believe in an internal, invisible God vastly improves people’s capacity for abstraction. “The prohibition against making an image of God—the compulsion to worship a God whom one cannot see,” he says, meant that in Judaism “a sensory perception was given second place to what may be called an abstract idea—a triumph of intellectuality over sensuality.”
This ability to think about abstract concepts led to numerous developments which have improved the world we live in immensely:
[T]he mental labor of monotheism prepared the Jews—as it would eventually prepare others in the West—to achieve distinction in law, in mathematics, in science and in literary art. It gave them an advantage in all activities that involved making an abstract model of experience, in words or numbers or lines, and working with the abstraction to achieve control over nature or to bring humane order to life. Freud calls this internalizing process an “advance in intellectuality,” and he credits it directly to religion.
Finally, Freud acknowledged that Jewish monotheism may have prepared the ground for individual introspection, for thinking about and at least partially understanding oneself:
Freud’s argument suggests that belief in an unseen God may prepare the ground not only for science and literature and law but also for intense introspection. Someone who can contemplate an invisible God, Freud implies, is in a strong position to take seriously the invisible, but perhaps determining, dynamics of inner life. He is in a better position to know himself. To live well, the modern individual must learn to understand himself in all his singularity. He must be able to pause and consider his own character, his desires, his inhibitions and values, his inner contradictions. And Judaism, with its commitment to one unseen God, opens the way for doing so. It gives us the gift of inwardness.
This is Freud, we’re talking about? Who knew? Of course acknowledging the role religion has played and continues to play in history is a long way from embracing a religious worldview. Whatever concessions Freud was willing to make regarding the positive historical consequences of monotheism, he apparently remained an “uncompromising atheist” until his death. His place in the atheistic pantheon seems secure.
I wonder how Freud reconciled his views that a) religion represents the illusory projections of a fearful and childish creature, and b) these illusory projections played a formative role in the historical development of so many of the genuinely “humanizing” features of the modern world. Apparently, he was prepared to accept that many of the things which enrich and improve human experience were at least partially rooted in beliefs that were simply false.
Perhaps it represents a lack of imagination or courage on my behalf, but I’m not prepared to accept this. I think there is an inherent connection between truth and goodness; I find it extremely difficult to believe that so many of the things that have proven to benefit, delight, and enhance human experience of the world began in falsehood. At any rate, if Freud is right about both the historical impact of monotheism and the illusory nature of religious belief, it seems to me that this is one of the most fortunate illusions that has ever clouded our fragile, fearful, and finite little brains.