Friday, February 24, 2012
For Freud, religious beliefs are ‘illusions’, a technical term which has a specific meaning for him: ‘we call a belief an illusion when a wish-fulfilment is a prominent factor in its motivation, and in doing so we disregard its relations to reality’ (Freud, The Complete Psychological Works, vol.21, p.31).
This is the second post on Freud’s critique of religion in this Atheism for Lent series. Remembering the distinction drawn yesterday between scepticism and suspicion, the ‘psychological nature’ of religious beliefs as illustory (vol 21, p.33) does not involve ‘the truth of the foundation of religious ideas but their function in balancing the renunciations and satisafactions through which man tries to make his life tolerable’ (Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy, pp.234-5). In other words, Freud’s sceptical atheism is of less interest here than his suspicion.
Merold Westphal explains that religious beliefs function as illusions when
[w]e represent God to ourselves, not in accordance with the evidence available to us but in accordance with our wishes; in other words, we create God in our image, or at least in the image of our desires. Now we have three things to be ashamed of: (1) the desires that govern this operation, (2) our willingness to subordinate truth to happiness, and (3) our [hubris] in making ourselves the creator and God the creature. If we are not utterly shameless, we will do our best to distract attention, especially our own, from what is going on.
Suspicion and Faith, p.62
For example, when God is ‘only seemingly stern’, or when we are God’s ‘only beloved child, his Chosen People’ (vol.21, pp.19-20), ‘I need fear no punishment and can count on rewards, both quite independently of what I deserve’ and quite independently of the biblical evidence which suggests that the chosen people have a special responsibility rather than enjoying a special exemption (Suspicion and Faith, pp.63-4).
Further, as David Hume notes of these ‘comfortable views’ of God, ‘[w]hat so corrupt as some of the practices, to which these systems give rise?’ (The Natural History of Religion, p.76). A religion whose God is constructed in believers’ own image services to legitimate “our” way of structuring the social world and ‘buttress’ the persecution of anything “other”, by authorising ‘the social status quo’ or by its simple compatibility with it (Suspicion and Faith, p.131).
For Freud, religious practices are akin to neurotic symptoms. He writes,
I am certainly not the first person to have been struck by the resemblance between what are called obsessive actions in sufferers from nervous affections and the observances by means of which believers give expression to their piety. The term “ceremonial”, which has been applied to some of these obsessive actions, is evidence of this. The resemblance, however, seems to me to be more than a superficial one, so that an insight into the origin of neurotic ceremonial may embolden us to draw inferences by analogy about the psychological processes of religious life.
While neurotic ceremonials are private and individual in nature and sexual in origin, and religious ceremonials are public and communal and related to pride, they share an ‘underlying renunciation of the activation of instincts that are constitutionally present’ (vol.9, pp.126-7).
They share the dual function, therefore, of symbolic re-enactment and symbolic repudiation of forbidden desires. The intolerable wish seeking fulfilment is displaced, replaced by more bearable notions and the resulting symptoms of obsessive symbolic actions. Think, for example, of Lady Macbeth, whose concerns about moral purity (wish-fulfilment) become displaced by the idea of physical cleanliness (displaced wish-fulfilment) and who consequently experiences an abnormal compulsion to wash her hands (neurotic ceremonial symptom).
Neurotic and religious ceremonials are richly meaningful, but those who perform such an action do so, Freud suggests, ‘without understanding its meaning – or at any rate its chief meaning’ (vol.9, p.22). This means that the conscious reasons we give for what we do are rationalisations of what we are doing, but not the real meanings of our actions.
According to Freud, ceremonials are ‘penitential measures’, expressing repentance on the one hand and self-imposed punishment on the other. Self-reproach is therefore key to ceremonials of both kinds, since they function as a defence not only against our guilt in relation to the original desire or act, but also against the anxiety associated with our on-going temptation to fulfil the desire or to repeat the act.
In tomorrow’s final post on Freud in this Atheism for Lent series, I will raise questions for self-reflection in relation to this great atheist psychoanalytical critique of religion.