To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.
Mar 22, 2015
Freud and Nietzsche were two of the towering intellectual figures of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and their atheism was a major part of what they had to say. In Atheists: The Origin of the Species, the author Nick Spencer provides an overview of their influential points of view on religion. In this blog, we look at Freud. In the next, Nietzsche.
The Baha’i Writings have only very little to say about Freud and his methods. The only mention I have been able to find is the following from a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, head of the Baha’i Faith from 1921 to 1957:
There is nothing in our teachings about Freud and his method. Psychiatric treatment in general is no doubt an important contribution to medicine, but we must believe it is still a growing rather than a perfected science.
As Bahá’u’lláh has urged us to avail ourselves of the help of good physicians Bahá’ís are certainly not only free to turn to psychiatry for assistance but should, when advisable, do so. This does not mean psychiatrists are always wise or always right, it means we are free to avail ourselves of the best medicine has to offer us.
Sigmund Freud and His Modern Reputation
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the father of psychoanalysis, was one of the most influential thinkers of the last 200 years. In a tribute after his death in 1939, the poet W. H. Auden captures the flavor of the regard with which he was held. “Freud, he wrote, was “a whole climate of opinion / under whom we conduct our different lives”.
But current thinking holds differently and Freud no longer enjoys the intellectual status he once commanded. A.C. Grayling, in Sigmund Freud: Scientist or Storyteller, captures how our understanding has shifted:
Criticism from science and philosophy … charge[s] that the empirical basis of psychoanalysis is inadequate, that its central concepts are untestable, and that its aim – which is to give a complete theory of human nature – is overambitious. Its methodology is inadequate, they argue, because it rests on speculation and subjective insights, not on objective examination of public and repeatable phenomena. It depends on generalisation from single cases or very small samples… It assumes that mental activity is causally deterministic, and a number of philosophers, among them Wittgenstein, note that Freud also conflates the concepts of an action’s causes and the reasons why it was performed.
Above and beyond these criticisms are concerns about the role that Freud proposes for the unconscious mind. Grayling summarizes these concern as follows:
At base, Freud’s theory rests on a claim, which, expressed unadorned and without preamble, looks frankly absurd: that an infant sexually desires its parent of the opposite sex, and is therefore hostile towards, because jealous of, its parent of the same sex; and that because neither the desire nor the hostility is acceptable, these feelings are repressed into the unconscious, as a result of which internal conflicts arise; and that this – the Oedipus complex – is the key to human nature. It is not, note, the key only to pathological human nature: but to human nature as such.
It is against the backdrop of Freud’s ambitious attempt to explain human nature on the basis of these claims that we must look at his atheism.
Freud and Atheism
Spencer describes Freud as “the third great icon of this age of atheist promise after Marx and Darwin.”
Freud, born in the latter half of the 19th century, grew up in an age of disbelief. He rarely questioned the received perspectives about religion of his time:
He never had any religious beliefs, nor any doubts that science would one day utterly vanquish religion. “The scientific mind generates a specific way of approaching the things of this world,” he would write in The Future of an Illusion. “Faced with the things of religion, it pauses, hesitates, and finally here too steps over the threshold. The process is unstoppable.” Religious ideas … were illusions, ‘fulfilling the oldest, most powerful, most pressing desires of the human race’.
His point of view, Spencer tells us, was highly derivative:
This was pure Feuerbach, although Freud would add some psychological depth, and not a little colour, to these already well-established arguments.
Freud, as you might expect, thought that religion was rooted in the unconscious. “A personal God” he wrote in 1910, “is psychologically, nothing other than an exalted father … the roots of the need for religion are in the parental complex”.
He expanded on this theme in Civilisation and its Discontents:
[Religion is composed of] doctrines and promises which on the one hand explains to him the riddles of this world with enviable completeness, and, on the other, assures him that a careful Providence will watch over his life and will compensate him in a future existence for any frustrations he suffers here. The common man cannot imagine this Providence otherwise than in the figure of an enormously exalted father. Only such a being can understand the needs of the children of men and be softened by their prayers and placated by the signs of their remorse.
He sometimes argued against religion on the basis of the Oedipus complex, his aforementioned view that children want to have sex with their parents, a view that has not aged well nor found empirical support (see Oedipus Complex).
Spencer outlines Freud’s argument:
Humans, he argued, had once lived in hordes that were ruled by a despotic, primal father who enslaved the men and possessed the women. Tyrannized beyond endurance, the men eventually banded together to kill their oppressor, a crime for which they felt such intense guilt that they subsequently deified the murdered father figure, thereafter honouring him through ritual and obedience. Religiosity was thus a kind of collective human neurosis, from which science in general, and psychoanalysis in particular, offered liberation.
On his deathbed, Freud kept to his atheism, but began to find something to appreciate in religion. His last book, Moses and Monotheism, often reads like a bad historical novel, but it says something positive about religion. Here is how Mark Edmundson, author of The Death of Sigmund Freud, writes about it in the New York Times (see Defender of the Faith):
[Freud] makes a point that is simple and rather profound … . Judaism’s distinction as a faith, he says, comes from its commitment to belief in an invisible God, and from this commitment, many consequential things follow.
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.”
If people can worship what is not there, they can also reflect on what is not there, or on what is presented to them in symbolic and not immediate terms. So the 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.
Summary and Comments
Critics like Karl Popper, Frederic Crews, Frank Sulloway and others have come down hard on Freud in the last 30 years. Their claims are that his work is pseudoscience, that psychoanalysis is ineffective as a therapy, that immense harm has been done by his focus on repressed and recovered memories, and that Freud’s very simplistic emphasis on sexuality was not only inaccurate but destructive.
Its tempting take a Freudian slant on all this and conclude that Freud’s views on religion were just an illusion, a rejection of the authority of his father rooted in his unconsciousness thought, a form of wish projection, or just another of those unknown and unknowable urges we are prone to. There is much that is correct about this approach, I believe.
But perhaps it would be better to recognize two other aspects of his thought.
One is his attempts to look for new answers. Certainly, religion seemed to have failed western Europeans. Thinkers like Freud, eager to exercise the authority of science, were rejecting old modes of thought and desperately looking for new paths forward. That some of the paths would generate tremendous excitement is not surprising, nor is it surprising that they would seem wrong and foolish – the verdict on Freudianism today – at a later time.
The second is his idea that there are aspects to our lives that are unconscious. The idea certainly has truth value to it – as all who are on the path of spiritual growth know. So, we can readily accept some aspects of Freud’s thought on the basis that he was on the trail of something important, even if his pursuits were derailed by his – and his era’s – limitations.
What WAS that something important? Clearly, some of it had to do with medical and mental health conditions, we now know.
But Baha’is and others can readily acknowledge that there are deep, dark – even subterranean – forces at work within us. For example, Shoghi Effendi – who speaks authoritatively on the Baha’i point of view – talks about about the two meanings of self, one being created by God, the other due to our animalistic (evolutionary?) side:
[The] self has really two meanings, or is used in two senses, in the Bahá’í writings; one is self, the identity of the individual created by God. This is the self mentioned in such passages as “he hath known God who hath know himself”, etc. The other self is the ego, the dark, animalistic heritage each one of us has, the lower nature that can develop into a monster of selfishness, brutality, lust and so on. It is this self we must struggle against, or this side of our natures, in order to strengthen and free the spirit within us and help it to attain perfection . . . .
It is in this realm of the self that Freud seems to have found his explanations for human nature. Insufficiently aware, apparently, of the spiritual aspects of our nature, a child of materialistic philosophies wedded to a narrow scientism, his attempts to describe our basic nature fell “into the despairing slough of materialism.”
In the next blog, we will consider that atheistic writings of Nietzsche, a thinker who commands extraordinary respect to this day and whose understanding of the consequences of the European rejection of the God and religion far exceeded that of most of his contemporaries, even as his philosophy contributed to the chaos, confusion, and sheer barbarity of the modern age.
This is the 38th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.