Freud Religion as an Illusion

Born in 1856 in Vienna, Austria, Sigmund Freud has had a huge impact on psychology and how the psyche is examined today. Spending most of his life in Austria, Freud was raised as a secular Jew, meaning he did not participate in religion growing up. He spent a majority of his childhood in Vienna, growing up in a Catholic culture. However, during his time there he felt a negative hostility towards his own culture. Towards the end of this life, this negativity from the Nazis forced him to flee to London. Freud had wanted to become a doctor but due to the anti-Semitism, this goal seemed almost impossible to reach. This hardship led Freud to study psychology and view himself as more of a scientist than a doctor. He set out to understand the journey of human knowledge and experience and became one of the first people to deal with the unconscious as a reality.

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Freud is most famously known for his development of psychoanalysis, a method through which an analyst releases unconscious conflicts based on the free associations, dreams, parapraxes and neurotic symptoms of a patient. This was one of his most crucial concepts as it established and changed psychology for the better. Freud’s commitments to the study of psychology modified not just the way analysts evaluate patients, but additionally the approaches psychologists take to see the way of life and society encompassing them.

Using psychoanalysis as the framework, Freud spent a lot of time examining and writing about his negative views on cultural issues, specifically religion. Through viewing psychology as a science, he looked at science as a means to destroy philosophical and theological ideas about the soul, especially religion. Freud firmly believed that religion was an illusion and was solely connected to wish fulfillment. Although he acknowledges religion works for some people, he believed it was in no way beneficial to humans, but rather seen as neurotic. Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic approach that civilization dissatisfies showcases his biased view of religion as an illusion which fails to account to make a fair attempt at blending science and religion, making his stance on religion illogical. Through Freud’s historical account of religion and his belief that civilization dissatisfies, he is able to showcase his biased view of religion as an illusion making his stance on religion illogical.

To fully examine Freud’s view on religion, it is important to grasp Freud’s idea of the psyche and his psychoanalytic approach to looking at it. Freud believed all humans have an unconscious which contains motivations people are not fully cognizant of. This unconscious is filled with impulses, desires, and wishes not understood by one’s conscious mind. These desires make up a lot of who humans are, but the unconscious buries them because it does not want to deal with them. Given this, the point of psychoanalysis is to bring those unconscious thoughts to the conscious and to handle them. This specific therapeutic approach is usually pretty time consuming and involves the patient lying down and simply talking to Freud about their thoughts, whether that was dreams, memories or anything else on the patient’s mind. Freud would then look for clues of underlying traumas within the patient and over time attempt to bring these to the surface and help the patient to overcome them and free themselves of the trauma.

While examining his patients, Freud developed his idea of the human psyche which was composed of three parts: the id, the ego and the superego. The id is entirely unconscious and is present within us from birth. It is the primary component of our personality and driven by the demand of immediate satisfaction of urges. The superego is the voice of the conscious. It has internalized morals and ideals and is the source for guilty feelings. The ego is the part of the human mind that deals with reality and it functions in the conscious, preconscious and unconscious. Its main purpose is to deal with the urges that come about in the ID and the criticism of those urges by the superego. Therefore, Freud’s purpose of psychoanalysis is to allow the ego to become stronger than the id. Freud’s view of the human psyche is vital in understanding why he believed religion was an illusion.

In two of Freud’s most popular works, Totem and Taboo and Future of an Illusion, he explains his view on religion. Totem and Taboo focuses more on the origin of religion whereas Future of an Illusion goes more into detail about the future of religion. In Totem and Taboo, Freud offers his thoughts on the beginnings of monotheistic religions. He describes how neurotic symptoms arose from the father-son relationship saying, “spirits and demons were nothing but the projection of primitive man’s emotional impulses” Freud does this by telling the story of how there was once a society which functioned under a Father who was in charge of a hoarde as well as all of the women. Because of this, the clan of brothers decided to overthrow and kill the Father in order to have access to the women. However, overtime the return of the repressed came and the brothers felt guilty for killing their father and sleeping with the “mother”. In order to attempt to gain forgiveness from their dead Father, they represented him through totem and replicated the moment in which they killed him by eating the totem and purging their guilt. This symbolic representation of totem and taboo is based on Freud’s concept of the Oedipus complex, the idea that a child feels desire towards the opposite-sex parent and ambivalence towards the same-sex parent. Freud states, “the nucleus of all neuroses as far as our present knowledge of them goes is the Oedipus complex.” The father figure corresponds to a monotheistic concept of God. He explains how the origin of religion is based off of the Oedipus complex and he goes into more detail of the relationship between psychoanalysis and the Oedipus Complex in Future of an Illusion. (pg 234 more things, the religion of toteism included not only manifestations of remorse and attempts at reconciliation, but also serves to commemorate the triumph over the father (247).

In Future of an Illusion, Sigmund Freud explains his views on religion being connected to wish fulfillment. Within this piece of writing, he states how civilization dissatisfies and how nature troubles which leads to the ideas of compensation and projection. Freud states “the gods exist to exorcise the terrors of nature, to explain fate, and to compensate for the privations of culture.” As a society, we need civilization to remain orderly and calm. However, to remain orderly that means humans are not always going to get what they want, forcing humans to give up some of their impulses that may arise in the id. This being said, humans use religion to compensate for the fact that we cannot get everything we may want. The idea of the afterlife becomes a coping mechanism to withstand the frustrations of not satisfying our impulses knowing that one day we will get everything we once wanted. As for nature troubling, Freud believes the lack of control we have over nature leads us to think there is a higher power in control. Humans project these fears from nature into these figures to make it easier to deal with them. Therefore, religion helps sooth our anxiety caused by nature by knowing that a higher power is in control, allowing us to further invest in religion. Freud goes on to explain how this belief is neurotic. He states, “we call a belief an illusion when wish-fulfilment is a prominent factor in its motivation, while disregarding, its relations to reality, just as the illusion itself does”

Discussed in both Totem and Taboo and Future of an Illusion, Freud explains how as time progresses humans will come to realize how religion should no longer be practiced or accepted, mainly because science will begin to progress. Freud writes “we ought to believe because our forefathers believed. But these ancestors of ours were far more ignorant than we; they believed in things we could not possibly accept today; so the possibility occurs that religious doctrines may also be in this category.” He is saying how there are concepts humans once believed that given time were eventually disproven and the same will one day go for religion. Freud had hoped that people would stray away from this particular type of “neurosis” and become healthier as a civilization. However, several years after this was written, religion is still consistently practiced by a large majority. Pew Research Center released a study in 2014 that showed 63% of Americans were absolutely certain in their belief of God.

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Freud Religion as an Illusion. (2022, Sep 05). Retrieved October 7, 2022 , from
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