Freud deemed religion a childish illusion

By James A. Haught | 21 September 2023
Freethought Now

Portrait of a seated Sigmund Freud. (Image credit: Max Halberstadt / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Editor’s note: Although FFRF columnist James Haught died, sadly, on July 23 at age 91, we are lucky to still have a bunch of pieces Jim gave us to use — some fresh and others previously published — that we will be sending out till we exhaust this treasure trove.

Sigmund Freud, who died 84 years ago this week, is recognized worldwide as the chief founder of modern psychiatry. The public is generally unaware, though, that Freud was a fervent crusader against religion, which he deemed an obstacle to human intelligence.

“Religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires,” he stated.

Biographer Philip Rieff remarked: “Religion may have been the original cure; Freud reminds us that it was also the original disease.” And British Jewish leader Jacob Meitlis recalled that Freud, his friend, felt that “all religions were matters created by human beings, and he could discern no trace of sanctity in any of them.”

Again and again in his writing, Freud contended that small children have awesome images of their fathers as powerful protectors and punishers, and that, years later, this fantasy of the Great Father, still buried in the subconscious, attaches itself to the imaginary God of religion. Thus, unwittingly, believers worship the submerged infantile memory of their fathers. Repeatedly, Freud called religion a “universal obsessional neurosis.”

Freud’s scientific realism developed at an early age. A brilliant student, he entered medical school under physiologist Ernst Brucke, who taught that the human psyche is purely biological, not mystical or divine. This helped shape his notions on religion. “Religions originate in the child’s and young mankind’s fears and need for help; it cannot be otherwise,” he remarked.

Throughout his career of analyzing human behavior, Freud attempted to apply scientific methods to understanding fears, feelings and fantasies. Today, his methods have been partly abandoned, yet he is known as the principal pioneer in grasping the submerged elements of human nature. That’s why his perspective on religion comes from a place of learning.

“Neither in my private life nor in my writings have I ever made a secret of being an out-and-out unbeliever,” he proclaimed.

So many years after his death, the thinking of this brilliant mind still deserves respect.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

James A. HaughtJames A. Haught died on 23 July 2023. He was editor emeritus of West Virginia’s The Charleston Gazette-Mail and was a senior editor of the Free Inquiry magazine. He was also the author of numerous books and articles; his most recent book was Religion is Dying: Soaring Secularism in America and the West (Gustav Broukal Press, 2010). Haught won 21 national newswriting awards and thirty of his columns were distributed by national syndicates. He was in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in the World, Contemporary Authors, and 2000 Outstanding Intellectuals of the 21st Century.


Sigmund Freud: The Father of Psychoanalysis

Explaining Sigmund Freud’s Theory of Religion (Totem and Taboo)

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