AFL Blog Week 4 Part 4: Freud and the Illusion of Religion

Today’s AFL content was a whole chapter from Sigmund Freud’s book, The Future of an Illusion in which he describes religion as an illusion that acts to answer all of life’s hardest questions.  Here’s Peter Rollins’ write up about Freud:

Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) was an Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis. Freud remains as one of the giants of 20th century intellectual life, and continues to extend a huge influence in both therapeutic and academic domains.

In The Future of an Illusion, Freud explores religious belief as an illusion (rather than error),  transmitted via tradition, upheld because of arguments handed down from antiquity, and protected due to prohibitions against questioning. Religious beliefs are of interest to Freud because of the way that they act as a type of wish fulfillment concerning the, “oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind.”


I highlighted the words that seem to be the most important things or themes that came through in reading this chapter, and I’ll speak to them.

Freud is essentially against religion because God cannot be proven to be real, nor can one’s faith experience (though as a scientific man, he admits there are exceptions to the rule and that even science can’t explain everything. But he’s fundamentally grounded in empirical evidence, and his field of psychology is grounded in understanding why we think (or believe) the things we think (or believe.)), which is a big part of the Christian life, isn’t it?

So much is put on our personal experience of God – a spiritual encounter, or encounters. Freud would say it has more to do with neurons and brain stuff convincing you you’ve had a spiritual experience, but to us we do bank on those things as proofs of our relationship with God.

I think this is where many people hit an impasse. You either believe it a spiritual thing or a mental thing, OR you could argue that it’s both. To say that God isn’t involved with the way the brain works or how we encounter God would be counter to what we hold true about being created by God, right?

So, anyway, Freud says we rely on tradition to tell us what’s true, and what we know, and even what we believe we feel.


Religious teachings are passed on through tradition, and sometimes traditions are more worried about the string of consistency than they are truth. Take slavery for example. Slavery has existed from the beginning of human autonomy. As soon as someone owed you for something, they were indebted to you, they became your slave. Well, a lot of people, when slavery started being opposed in societies around the Western world, were more concerned with keeping things the way they were because they always had been than they were the reality of what they were doing to human beings!

Anyway, what I’m trying to get at is sometimes religious traditions and teachings have been misrepresented for the sake of simplicity, and once it’s realised it can do a lot of damage.

I was just talking with one of my best and oldest friends about a song he wrote about 13 years ago. He wrote it from a place of anger against the religious upbringing that he had as a kid, and finding out that what he was taught to believe wasn’t the way it really was necessarily, and probably more than that, he was turned off of religion by the hypocrisy he could see. He heard atheist arguments that made sense to him and he began to consider what he was taught as lies, and he loathed the fact that he was force fed these “lies.”

The words to the song are below (I’ve censored them)

It fit so nicely, everything made sense, in a sense. I won’t forgive or repent to all those teachers and preachers who knew it all, I was taught to follow when I was young and I’d buy anything they’d throw at me, now it makes no sense to me. I won’t miss the stench of the [stuff] you pulled right out of your [butt]. And I guess that now we’re on our own. To stand on something, I think I’ll stand on my own ground I found after being struck cold by desperation for an easy answer to tie it all, I never found but now I’m fine and you lied about everything. You’ve got no answers. I’ve got no destiny. And I don’t need to hide from anything but I guess that’s what you’d prefer to do. I know the day will come, we’ll be backed up against the wall. And you can have your blindfold or you can stare em straight in the eye as you yell “[back] off. Do what you will, but I’ll never believe in a promise so empty.” No, we’re not afraid. I’ll just keep on singing and you can fire away.


I hope you can see the pain in these words that he was feeling.



I found it funny, actually, that this was one of Freud’s biggest arguments. During this series I’ve actually come to find that many of the original arguments against religion are quite antiquated. Freud and others base much of their argument on the claim that questioning God or the Bible in any way is strictly prohibited.  He says, “…a prohibition like this can only be for one reason…insecurity of the claim it makes. Otherwise it would certainly be very ready to put the necessary data at that disposal of anyone who wanted to arrive at conviction.”

Well, modern biblical scholarship and theology do just that! They dive deep into cultural investigation and research the authenticity of authorship among other things too. (Just today I was at Laidlaw and I was speaking with a student who asked me if I did the assignment on the authorship of the Gospel of John. I said yes and we discussed the fact that there is heavy uncertainty as to who “the beloved disciple” that wrote the Gospel of John actually was. In the end I told him that I don’t think it really matters, but I find it interesting that people are looking into it because it means we’re not ignoring things such as this, where the church (and some very conservative circles still do) once would for fear of it destroying all faith.) 

so that got me thinking that the argument that people like Darwin, Marx, and Freud posed as a valid mark against religion – that it does not take seriously the questions it creates – is an antiquated argument itself. I wonder if Freud would be impressed with modern Biblical scholarship. However, it’s not like there was no progress in this field during his day! He must have either not been privy to it, ignored it, or disregarded it because it wasn’t mainstream conservative tradition, and that was what he was really voicing his opinions on.

Even my friend has a far less aggressive stance toward religion now than he did when he wrote the words to that song. In just 13 years his perspective has changed on the hows, the whos and the whys. A song he wrote just a few year later already suggests a different posture toward religion and faith:

There were times I sought redemption, it didn’t do me any good. I’ve had faith and conviction, I’ve thrown quarters down a well. And after all of the sins that we’ve built up, sometimes it would be nice if someone could forgive us. You have got your addictions. You search for meaning and you have faith and you read fiction and try to balance in between those white lies that nobody has witness and those little white lines of undeniable existence. So I turn and laugh about superstitions and your golden calf. But there’s times that I need something to save me so badly it seems that anything I could find would be just right. You search for answers or you can sit this one out. Everyone wants to go to Heaven, well we all want something better than this And after all of the sins that we’ve built up, sometimes it would be nice. But there’s times that I need something to save me so badly it seems that anything I find will suffice.



Finally, Freud talks about religion as an illusion because it fulfills the wishes of humanity. He says the characteristic of illusions is that they come from human wishes in the first place, thus religion – belief in God – is an illusion because it’s just a wish for something better, for a world where there is no pain, no death, no evil, etc. He says it’s just a wish.

But is it not a wish or an illusion that there is no God as well? Don’t atheists essentially wish there was no God so there’d be no religious violence? Isn’t it a wish that we’d all believe in the same thing – that there is no God? Isn’t it the main wish of atheism that humans recognise they are truth – that we are essentially our own gods? And is that not just an illusion from another perspective?

What, I wonder, is the wish-fulfillment of atheism, if not these things, and what makes it different than what Freud calls the illusion of religion?


I don’t know, but I feel like if Freud were alive today he might be surprised by some conversations with some Christians. The thing is – and this is the thing for most of my non-believing friends as well – there are still large contengencies (if not a majority) of Christians that still blindly oppose criticisms (such as this very series that Peter Rollins is doing) and scholarly digging, aka research. And that doesn’t help us with our perceived legitimacy in the discussion.


those are some of my thoughts. I’d love to hear some of yours. Peace.

p.s. if you would like to the actual songs those lyrics come from let me know and I can direct you to them online.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *