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Freud Fought Faith

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Sigmund Freud, the great Viennese explorer of the mind, is recognized worldwide as the chief founder of modern psychiatry. His explanation of childhood sexual urges and the Oedipus complex, of the action of repressed thoughts in the subconscious, of wish-fulfillment in dreams, and of other hidden mental processes, have become part of the world's scientific knowledge.

But the public is generally unaware that Freud was a fervent crusader against religion, which he deemed an obstacle to human intelligence.

Popular television host Phil Donahue wrote that Freud prodded the Western world to think scientifically and drop the "childish ways" of believing in spirit realms. Here is Donahue's summation of Freud's message:

"'Grow up,' he seemed to be saying, as if giving a child a spoonful of castor oil. 'Forget those silly old tales. There's no heaven, no hell, no angels, or devils or gods or saviors. Be brave and accept the natural world of science.' Religion's eleventh commandment is 'Thou shalt not question', and Freud saw in that prohibition a bar to scientific inquiry, which begins with questions."

Similarly, biographer Philip Rieff remarked: "Religion may have been the original cure; Freud reminds us that it was also the original disease." And British Jewish leader Jacob Meitlis recalled that Freud, his friend, felt that "all religions were matters created by human beings, and he could discern no trace of sanctity in any of them".

Again and again in his writing, Freud contended that small children have awesome images of their fathers as powerful protectors and punishers, and that, years later, this fantasy of the Great Father, still buried in the subconscious, attaches itself to the imaginary God of religion. Thus, unwittingly, believers worship the submerged infantile memory of their fathers. Repeatedly, Freud called religion a "universal obsessional neurosis".

Freud's scientific realism developed at an early age. A brilliant student, he entered medical school under physiologist Ernst Briicke, who taught that the human psyche is purely biological, not mystical or divine. Briicke had himself been influenced by physicist Hermann Helmholtz's contention that "no other forces than the common physical-chemical ones are active within the organism".

Throughout his career of analyzing human behavior, Freud attempted to apply scientific methods to understanding fears, feelings and fantasies. Today, his methods have been partly abandoned, yet he is known as the principal pioneer in grasping the submerged elements of human nature.

Incidentally, the manner of Freud's death foreshadowed today's euthanasia controversy, as it has focused on Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who assists hopeless patients in painless expiration. A heavy cigar smoker, Freud developed mouth cancer that blighted the last twenty-two years of his life. While he strove to continue working and writing, he underwent thirty-three operations and eventually was forced to wear a grotesque prosthesis. Finally exhausted, he persuaded his physician to give him enough morphine to end his suffering forever.

Freud's views on religion

"Neither in my private life nor in my writings, have I ever made a secret of being an out-and-out unbeliever." - letter to Charles Singer

"Religion is an attempt to get control over the sensory world, in which we have been placed, by means of the wish-world which we have developed inside us as a result of biological and psychological necessities. But it cannot achieve its end. Its doctrines carry with them the stamp of the times in which they originated, the ignorant childhood days of the human race. Its consolations deserve no trust.... If one attempts to assign to religion its place in man's evolution, it seems not so much to be a lasting acquisition, as a parallel to the neurosis which the civilized individual must pass through on his way from childhood to maturity." - Moses and Monotheism, 1939

"Religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires." - New Introductory Lectures in Psychoanalysis, 1933

"The God-Creator is openly called Father. Psychoanalysis concludes that he really is the father, clothed in the grandeur in which he once appeared to the small child. The religious man's picture of the creation of the universe is the same as his picture of his own creation.... He therefore looks back on the memory-image of the overrated father of his childhood, exalts it into a deity, and brings it into the present and into reality. The emotional strength of this memory-image and the lasting nature of his need for protection are the two supports for his belief in God." - ibid.

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James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.  Mr. Haught has won two dozen national news writing awards. He has written 12 books and hundreds of magazine essays and blog posts. Around 450 of his essays are online. He is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine, a weekly blogger at Daylight Atheism, (more...)

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