The Future of an Illusion by Sigmund Freud
(This review was originally posted 2012/07/14, but posting got contaminated by distracting ads, requiring me to trash that version and re-post the original.)
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Where does the belief in a god come from? And why does it persist even among educated adults, who have available to them much more convincing explanations of all that God is supposed to represent? And finally, will it ever be possible for a society to disabuse itself of this notion, and what would be the costs (psychological and social) and benefits? These are Freud's central questions in this 1927 essay, and they are just as urgent today, when even the Higgs boson can't shake the faith of true believers.
"An illusion is not the same as an error, nor is it necessarily an error. … For example, a middle-class girl may entertain the illusion that a prince will come to carry her off to his home. It is possible, cases of the sort have occurred. That the Messiah will come and establish a new golden age is far less likely; depending on the personal stance of the person assessing it, he will classify this belief as an illusion or as analogous to a delusion. … we refer to a belief as an illusion when wesh-fulfilminet plays a prominent part in its motivation, and in the process we disregard its relationship to reality, just as the illusion itself dispenses with accreditations."
The question then is why do humans so wish for God or gods to exist?
Freud has a pretty convincing hypothesis. "As for humanity as a whole, so too for the invividual human, life is hard to bear." In the face of events he can't control and often can't understand, "man's badly threatened self-esteem craves consolation, the world and life need to lose their terror, and at the same time humanity's thirst for knowledge, which is of course driven by the strongest practical interest, craves an answer." The invention of gods, attributing human personalities to the unseen and threatening forces, gives great relief; "a person may still be defenceless but he is not helpless any longer, he can at least react. In fact, he may not even be defenceless: he can deploy against those violent supermen out there the same resources as he uses in his society. He can try beseeching them, appeasing them, bribing them…"
At a later stage, many peoples compress all their gods into one, thus exposing "the paternal core that had always lain hidden behind every god figure… With God now a single being, relations towards him could recover the intimacy and intensity of the child's relationship with its father." It is this relationship with "God the Father" that people find so hard to give up, regardless of all the evident contradictions of the notion. We could, and a minority of us do, accept that we are small and impotent "in the face of the totality of the world" without taking that next step, imagining a protective God-Parent. That is, we accept responsibility for our own actions, confront setbacks as well as we can with our own resources and seek explanations of mysterious phenomena — the creation of the universe, for example — without recourse to magic.
The alternative is to remain in a child-like state, expecting Daddy to take care of us. And since Daddy knows all, we should stop asking embarrassing questions. "Think of the distressing contrast between the radiant intelligence of a healthy child and the intellectul feeblenes of the average adult. Is it not at least possible that in fact religious education is largely to blame for this relative atrophy?"
The worst part is that we (well, many people) think he is the Daddy of us all, and will punish us if we do not punish others who disobey him. He is also hypersensitive, despite being all powerful, and wants anybody who dares insult him to be burned at the stake, or stoned to death in the public square, or bombed to Hell. That makes life difficult in multicultural contacts, where people are listening to different Daddies with different rules, and some have left behind Daddy along with the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, and "the Invisible Hand".
Can any large number of humans free themselves from the illusion? Not by decree. "It is certainly a nonsensical plan to seek to abolish religion by force and at a stroke. Principally because there is no chance of its succeeding." Substituting some other "doctrinal system" (such as the CPSU's "dialectical materialism") "would assume, in its own defence, all the psychological characteristics of religion, the same sanctity, rigidity, intolerance, the same ban on thought."
But it is possible to win such freedom from the imaginary bully-cum-protector, at least for some people who are willing to heed their own doubts about the established religions. "[T]he voice of the intellect is a low one, yet it does not cease until it has gained a hearing. In the end, after countles rejections, it does so. This one of the few respects in which one may be optimistic for the future of the human race…" And, Freud writes later on in his argument, "ultimately, nothing withstand reason and experience, and the fact that religion contradicts both is all too tangible."
In Egypt, the masses have just elected as president an engineer educated at Cairo University and the University of Southern California, who is also a self-proclaimed Islamist and former head of the Muslim Brotherhood. In Spain, even socialist party activists participate in religious processions. And in the U.S., almost no politician, regardless of party or education, dares say he or she is an atheist. But the low voice of the intellect persists, though perhaps it needs more amplification.
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Actually, the PP refers to itself as the "Popular Party," implying both that it is well liked (it isn't) and that it represents the common people (it doesn't). It was elected on promises of bringing up employment, protecting benefits in health and education and generally preserving the welfare state much better than the PSOE. What it did was slash employment (with "reforms" making it easier and cheaper to fire workers), cut funding for hospitals and schools (and trying to privatize both, by selling them to their associates to turn them into for-profit corporations), cut budgets of regional and local governments, and do everything it could to bring down already low wages. And try to set back abortion law to the restrictive policies of the Franco era. The only people it has been helping have been the bankers (huge bailouts), corporations, and their own party officials, by doing everything possible to prevent judges from bringing them to justice for the huge corruption scandals. The latest has caused practically the entire PP government of Santiago de Compostela to resign — sometimes the scandals are just too blatant to hide.
What to do? As Lenin asked in 1902 (What is to be done?) Same question, but too late to give the same answer. Times have changed, the suffering masses now have Internet or at least What'sApp, and nobody is going to tolerate a vanguard party dedicated to enlightening the rest of us without a lot of debate. Which doesn't mean that nobody will try — veteran leftists find it hard to break old habits — only that it's not going to work. And more and more of those veteran leftists, and newcomers to politics mobilized sometimes by personal crises, know that we have to try other ways.
The Right, with its absolute majority of the Party of Privilege now in power, has proven itself to be an absolute disaster, incapable of fulfilling even its own aims of guaranteed enrichment of the upper classes, strengthening the repressive authority it hopes to share with the Catholic Church, or winning elections. In fact, both major parties — PP and PSOE — saw their votes plummet in the May 25 European elections. So more and more people are ready to turn left.
But which way is that?
But they've jolted the whole, broad family of the Left in Spain. Even the Socialist Party is now trying to shake itself free of old bureaucratic habits and promises to hold primaries. The principle enemy of the Left in Spain, as in Italy and many other countries, has always been the Left. In Spain, the party calling itself (optimistically) Izquierda Unida, a coalition run mainly by the small Communist Party, against the Socialist Party, regional left parties like Catalonia's ERC against both, and a multiplicity of smaller outfits — Izquierda Abierta, a breakoff from the Communists, and more narrowly focused groups like the anti-eviction PAH — all bickering, all rivals.
But that is changing. Amazingly, after years of bitter antagonism, PSOE and Izquierda Unida have even joined to form a regional government in Spain's biggest region, Andalusia. And all of them are learning from experiences such as the mass mobilizations of 15M (May 15, 2011) and from those of one of 15M's offspring, Podemos. We may not know for sure which way is Left — where to look for the solutions to our multiple economic crises and social inequality — but we know that we're going to have to find the direction together, without all-knowing vanguards, but lots of tumultuous democracy.