By: Aryeh Schonbrun  | 

The Futility of Atheistic Belief: How Freud Proves that God Must Exist

Today’s society presents a challenge for us Modern Orthodox Jews. When encountering the world today, the religious Jew faces the inevitable challenge of standing firm in his belief, loyal to his ancestral tradition, while not unnecessarily ensconcing himself in comfortable ignorance. It was the midst of this conflict that I found myself as an adolescent, and, in many ways, the quest for reliable truths and theological certainty has partly defined my young adult life. However, I am certainly not alone in seeking to reconcile my knowledge with my beliefs. Every proper philosopher has written on such matters, and, I must assume, every human ever to have roamed the earth has, to some degree, contemplated these perennial questions in search of meaning and purpose.

When I embarked on my journey, I did not begin too far from home. Drawing upon the terrific resources afforded me by my privileged upbringing as a religious Jew, I became acquainted with the eternal questions and the traditional responses, as formulated by the great rabbis of antiquity and modernity, and with the depth of the literature on such issues. Though I remain deeply indebted to the wisdom and eloquence of the religious thinkers and theologians who have inspired me, I could not find an adequate, succinct solution to the immense problems that we face today in their works.

It was to my ambivalent surprise, then, that I found an answer in the writings of Dr. Sigmund Freud, the renowned (or notorious) psychologist whose innovative ideas have reshaped our picture of the psyche. It may seem odd that I would find a reason for faith in the works of a professed atheist, but, upon further consideration, it makes some sense. Owing to the popularity of the question of faith, I assume that most conventional avenues of inquiry have been thoroughly explored and, in some cases, depleted. What remains is that which I hope to demonstrate.

Throughout Freud’s extensive writings, religion shows up in different forms and is described from different perspectives. In Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices (1907), a psychological work primarily concerned with clinical theory, Freud speaks of adherence to ritual (i.e., a patient suffering from OCD) and muses on the connection of such a neurosis to mass-religious experience. In Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics (1913), he analyzes the underlying taboos present in uncivilized societies and their relationship to modern religious precepts. If one were only to read the references made to religion in these materials, he would most certainly come to an understanding of Freud’s personal views on the subject. In both cases, Freud undermines the institution of religion by seeking out psychological sources for the various “rituals” of his patients and the “taboos” of the aborigine peoples brought to his attention by contemporary anthropologists. In comparing the two, he claims that the universal ritual adherence to religion (both savage and modern) constitutes a “universal obsessional neurosis.” This language, though, still lacks the clarity of a thorough analysis. That he proceeds to accomplish in his book The Future of an Illusion (1927), a work entirely devoted to the study and analysis of the phenomenon of religion and its effects on modern, civilized society.




To start with, I should define for you what Freud meant by “illusion.” Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines “illusion” as a “perception of something objectively existing in such a way as to cause misinterpretation of its actual nature,” or, alternatively, “something that deceives or misleads intellectually.” When Freud uses the word “illusion,” though, he does not mean this. Actually, Freud withholds judgement on the truth value of religion: “when I say that these things are all illusions, I must define the meaning of the word. An illusion is not the same thing as an error; nor is it necessarily an error… What is characteristic of illusions is that they are derived from human wishes… In the case of delusions, we emphasize as essential their being in contradiction with reality. Illusions need not necessarily be false—that is to say, unrealizable or in contradiction to reality… Whether one classifies this belief as an illusion or as something analogous to a delusion will depend on one’s personal attitude.” This means a lot for the subsequent understanding of Freud’s analysis. While he may have held personal beliefs that did not adhere to traditional religious ideology, he at least felt the need to highlight the fact that he did not know the ultimate truth, and did not set out with the intent to prove religion false (a feat he himself admits to be impossible). He professes objectivity, and upon this impartial basis he presents his enquiry.

When assessing religion’s deep psychological underpinnings, Freud begins by accounting for the stresses present in human experience that, in part, create the need for mitigating factors. In religion he sees a source of relief for man, a glade of solace in a tumultuous world. Here’s an excerpt from the text that (somewhat repeatedly) demonstrates this point:

“In what does the peculiar value of religious ideas lie?… For the individual,… life is hard to bear, just as it is for mankind in general. The civilization in which he participates imposes some amount of privation on him (vide Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents (1930)), and other men bring him a measure of suffering… To this are added the injuries which untamed nature—he calls it Fate—inflicts on him. One might suppose that this condition of things would result in a permanent state of anxious expectation… A man makes the forces of nature not simply into persons with whom he can associate as he would with his equals—that would not do justice to the overpowering impression which those forces make on him—but he gives them the character of a father. He turns them into gods… And thus a store of ideas is created, born from man’s need to make his helplessness tolerable and built up from the material memories of the helplessness of his own childhood and the childhood of the human race. It can clearly be seen that the possession of these ideas protects him in two directions—against the dangers of nature and Fate, and against the injuries that threaten him from human society itself. Here is the gist of the matter: Life in this world serves a higher purpose; no doubt it is not easy to guess what that purpose is, but it certainly signifies a perfecting of man's nature. It is probably the spiritual part of man, the soul, which in the course of time has so slowly and unwillingly detached itself from the body, that is the object of this elevation and exaltation…In this way all the terrors, the sufferings and the hardships of life are destined to be obliterated…When the growing individual finds that he is destined to remain a child forever, that he can never do without protection against strange powers, he lends those powers the features belonging to the figure of his father; he creates for himself the gods whom he dreads, whom he seeks to propitiate, and whom he nevertheless entrusts with his own protection. The defense against childish helplessness is what lends its characteristic features to the adult’s reaction to the helplessness which he has to acknowledge—a reaction which is precisely the formation of religion.” He further reiterates: “they [religious sentiments] are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind…The benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fear of the dangers of life…it is an enormous relief to the individual psyche if the conflicts…are removed from it and brought to a solution which is universally accepted.”

Though Freud's atheistic bias is clearly present in these reflections, the message itself need not be taken the wrong way. He argues that man needs God; that man, upon seeing the majesty and immensity of creation, feels himself insignificant and vulnerable, and must therefore seek out the One who is in charge. This forms the essence of our relationship with God and can be corroborated by the fact that thrice a day we beseech God for compassion, sustenance, health, and peace, among other things, and thank Him for all the good that He has bestowed upon us.

Additionally, Freud emphasizes the self-evident truth that one cannot merely “use” religion for the purpose of dealing with worldly stresses without possessing true, authentic belief. He denies the benefits of such “Orthopraxy,” or, as he calls it, one who performs ritual “As if”: “I think the demand made by the ‘As if’ argument is one that only a philosopher could put forward. A man whose thinking is not influenced by the artifices of philosophy will never be able to accept it; in such a man’s view, the admission that something is absurd or contrary to reason leaves no more to be said. It cannot be expected of him that precisely in treating his most important interests he shall forego the guarantees he requires for all his ordinary activities.”

To summarize, Freud argues that religion fulfills a psychological need for man. Man, a mortal being, needs the help of the divine in order to reconcile himself with his mundane existence. Such a need, though, can only be fulfilled through an authentic belief; otherwise, man’s own reasoning mind, his subversive conscience, will get in the way of any psychological benefit he may derive from religious practice.

To be sure, Freud is not the first writer to inform us of the psychological necessity of religion. One can argue that Kohelet makes a similar claim towards the end of his philosophical work, where, after having explored all possible philosophical approaches to answer his existential doubts, he acknowledges the futility of it all: “Vanity of vanities, says Kohelet; all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 12:8). He concludes: “The end of the matter, all having been heard: fear God, and keep His commandments, for this is the whole of man” (12:13). Similarly, the Talmud (Berakhot 33b) teaches: “R. Hanina further said: Everything is in the hand of heaven except the fear of heaven.” Both passages appear to intimate the natural proclivity of man to believe in God (but not necessarily to fear Him).

We can find similar themes in contemporary psychology and philosophy. In an article titled “A Reason to Believe,” published in the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology (12/2010), Beth Azar describes man as “predisposed to believe” and asserts that “research also supports the notion that religious thought is in many ways an unavoidable byproduct of the way our minds work.” She quotes Scott Atran, PhD, who criticizes the approach of so called “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins who “want to see religion disappear...that will be difficult if not impossible if religion is a byproduct of the way our brains work.” However much you try to escape the bonds of religious thought, she contends, the innate human, neuro-cognitive qualities of religion will win out.

In an essay published in The Atlantic (12/2014) titled “Why God Will Not Die,” Jack Miles writes of his struggle with maintaining an atheistic belief when confronting the vast ignorance of modern science. Although science has made great strides in recent history, it does not offer the benefits of increased existential security. “Scientific progress is like mountain climbing: the higher you climb, the more you know, but the wider the vistas of ignorance that extend on all sides.” He quotes from Leszek Kolakowski, a “repentant Polish Marxist,” whose essay, “The Revenge of the Sacred in Secular Culture” (1973), deals with this problem: “Religion is man’s way of accepting life as an inevitable defeat. That it is not an inevitable defeat is a claim that cannot be defended in good faith. One can, of course, disperse one’s life over the contingencies of every day, but even then it is only a ceaseless and desperate desire to live, and finally a regret that one has not lived. One can accept life, and accept it, at the same time, as a defeat only if one accepts that there is sense beyond that which is inherent in human history—if, in other words, one accepts the order of the sacred.” In the end, Miles concludes that one should be a “religious pluralist,” open to the concepts of religion, in recognition of the shortcomings of a truly atheistic belief.

Aware of such arguments, Freud tried to fend them off throughout his book. Playing the part of his critic, he asks himself: “On the one hand you admit that men cannot be guided through their own intelligence, [that] they are ruled by their passions and their instinctual demands. But on the other hand you propose to replace the affective [emotional] basis of their obedience to civilization by a rational one[!]” He replies: “They will have to admit to themselves the full extent of their helplessness and their insignificance in the machinery of the universe…They will be in the same position as a child who has left the parental house where he was so warm and comfortable.” Instead of religious idealism, he proposes following the dictates of reason: “Our god, λόγος [reason], will fulfill whichever of these wishes nature outside us allows.”

However, many would argue that such a proposal is bound to fail. By investing reason with the equivalent of divine status, Freud confers omnipotence to those who define reason. Freud himself acknowledges the failings of previous such attempts to create innovation through reason, mentioning the Jacobins of the French Revolution and the (at the time) nascent Soviet Union. He takes these warnings in stride and admits that “should the experiment prove unsatisfactory I am ready to give up the reform and to return to my earlier, purely descriptive judgement.”

I would argue that, today, we have gathered enough evidence to disprove Freud’s rationale. He bases much of his argument on the belief that science and technology will develop the resources necessary to displace much of the anxieties that plagued humanity. But this illusion of the power of human innovation can never be fulfilled. As much as we progress scientifically, we become more acutely aware of our weaknesses. Though man now lives longer than he ever has, treats illnesses in ways that would have been considered magical just a century ago, and develops technology that increases our collective potential, we remain the same mortal beings of ancient history. A study published in Nature (10/5/2016) this fall extinguished the hopes of some who believed in an ever-lengthening life-span. It concluded that humans will most likely not live more than 115 years, even with the expected arrival of more sophisticated technologies, better living environments, and greater happiness. Faced with the inevitability of his ultimate demise, man will surely seek out a higher purpose for his temporal existence in the ancient form of religion.

It seems to me that in this era of accelerated modernization, of technological prowess and perceived growth, we tend to lose sight of the lowly part of our humanity. In the end, we are but animals with a soul—it would be most unnatural to sever ourselves from our worldly restraints. Instead of fighting man’s natural disposition to seek out God, we should acquiesce to traditional religious notions, in recognition of our finiteness and in fear of our shortcomings. If our religious zeal does not find a proper outlet, we risk sublimating it, investing our hopes and security in false gods and fallible human institutions (a narcissistic defense). This process drives the misguided forms of nationalism that we have witnessed and the inexplicable blind-faith some maintain in modern institutions such as the democratic process, courts, the free market, and the U.N., regardless of their actual functionality, or inherent value.

“We are believers, sons of believers, and we have nothing upon which to rely, except on our Father in heaven.”