Freud on Religion as “Illusion”

Sigmund Freud.  He had mommy issues (and he thinks you do, too).
Sigmund Freud. He had mommy issues (and he thinks you do, too).

The father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, built upon the naturalist view of religion’s origins popularized by earlier thinkers like Feuerbach and Hume.  In his “The Future of An Illusion,” he posited psychological reasons for the origin of religious belief, namely, in the father-complex; that is, he proposed religion’s origin in the need for a divine father figure who was all powerful, to make up for our mortal and frail biological fathers.  He describes this phenomenon like so:

“These [religious ideas] which are given out as teachings are not precipitates or experience or end-results of thinking: they are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind. The secret of their strength lies in the strength of those wishes. As we already know, the terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood aroused the need for protection – for protection through love – which was provided by the father; and the recognition that this helplessness lasts throughout life made it necessary to cling to the existence of a father, but this time a more powerful one. Thus the benevolent role of a divine Providence allays our fear of the dangers of life; the establishment of a moral world-order ensures the fulfillment of the demands of justice, which have so often remained unfulfilled in human civilization; and the prolongation of earthly existence in a future life provides the local and temporal framework in which these wish-fulfillments shall take place. Answers to the riddles that tempt the curiosity of man, such as how the universe began or what the relation is between body and mind, are developed in conformity with the underlying assumptions of this system.  It is an enormous relief to the individual psyche if the conflicts of its childhood arising from the father-complex – conflicts which it has never wholly overcome – are removed from it and brought to a solution which is universally accepted.”

One bone to pick, if I may.  Don’t all “answers to the riddles that tempt the curiosity of man” develop “in conformity with the underlying assumptions” of whatever system to which they belong? In other words, naturalist assumptions lead to naturalist conclusions, just as supernatural assumptions lead to supernatural conclusions.  Even, we might say, the desire for non-foundationalism leads to non-foundationalist answers. There is no escaping first principles.  But that could probably be a whole separate post.

What do you think of Freud’s thesis? Is religion an illusion – or is Freud’s theory?

[Source: Freud, “The Future of An Illusion,” quoted in Hitchens, The Portable Atheist (Philadelphia: De Capo Press 2007), 146-147.]

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Drew McIntyre

A guy spoiled silly by grace. A follower of Christ and a leader in his flock. A husband, a writer, and thought leader. Blessed. Also blogging at

One thought on “Freud on Religion as “Illusion””

  1. Well,it is certainly better than than the nonsense peddled under the name of “belief”,faith and religion by all the major organised ponzi schemes which masquerade as being the words of some lord or other.Down the centuries religions have divided and caused enmity between their various followers.Urged on by their respective leaders,popes,imams,bishops or what have you-all frauds anyway-they have collectively and bloodily done their level best to destroy one another.Islam,being six hundred years behind the times is till in the European middle ages concerning religion when anyone who dissented,disagreed or rejected the faith of the time was likely to suffer a terrible,cruel and protracted death.Only science has made life at all worth living,to which observation I am sure most of the correspondents who flit through these pages might agree.Prayer is useless;worse than useless for it expends energy which migh otherwise help to alleviate dire situations .I do consider all who adhere to some form of religious,metaphysical crutch as being weak,seriously misguided,prejudiced and above all a danger to their fellow men.The dirty scrofulous and illiterate jew,jesus,would be horrified to find that the christian/paulinists have actually deified him!Amazing!

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