Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Religion as Wish-Fulfilment: Freud (2)

Part of Freud’s hostility towards religion stems from its tendency to impose ‘on everyone its own path to the acquisition of happiness and protection from suffering’ (Freud, The Complete Psychological Works, vol.21, p.84), but his critique of religion consists of both scepticism and suspicion. As ‘foreign to reality,’ religion is an error, whilst as ‘so patently infantile,’ religion is an illusion (Freud, vol.21, p.74).

Merold Westphal’s distinction between scepticism and suspicion makes the difference between these two critiques clearer. While scepticism is a function of an ‘evidential atheism’ – an atheism which requires of theism evidential proof of its claims – suspicion is a “hermeneutic,” a method or principle of interpretation.

Freud, Marx and Nietzsche, who have been called the “masters of suspicion,” practice a hermeneutic of suspicion, which, according to Westphal, is a way of interpreting beliefs and practices in an attempt to ‘expose the self-deceptions involved in hiding our actual operative motives from ourselves, individually or collectively, in order not to notice how and how much our behaviour and our beliefs are shaped by values we profess to disown’ (Suspicion and Faith, p.13).

Suspicion is cast not upon the “truth” of religious beliefs themselves, but upon the believers’ motives and the function(s) of their beliefs. ‘Skepticism is directed towards the elusiveness of things, while suspicion is directed towards the evasiveness of consciousness. Skepticism seeks to overcome the opacity of facts, while suspicion seeks to uncover the duplicity of persons’ (Suspicion and Faith, p.13).

Freud’s suspicion links religion to his theory of dreams. It is easy to see that daydreams, as ‘scenes and events in which the subject’s egoistic needs of ambition and power or his erotic wishes find satisfaction,’ are direct fulfilments of wishes, desires and needs (Freud, vol.15, p.98). Freud argues that dreams in our sleeping state also function in this way, but often only indirectly, since the wishes, desires and needs they fulfil are shameful to our waking consciousness and consequently repressed. The ensuing censorship and distortion of these desires mean that, in analysis, it is necessary to distinguish between dreams’ manifest and latent content(s). Dreams are, therefore, the disguised fulfilment of a suppressed wish.

Freud writes that,

there are some dreams which are undisguised fulfilments of wishes. But in cases where the wish-fulfilment is unrecognizable, where it has been disguised, there must have existed some inclination to put up a defense against the wish; and owing to this defense the wish was unable to express itself except in distorted shape (Freud, vol.4, pp.141-142).

From this, Freud generalises from dreams to all thoughts of the human mind, including religious thoughts.

…religious ideas have arisen from the same need as have all the other achievements of civilisation: from the necessity of defending oneself against the crushingly superior force of nature. To this a second motive was added – the urge to rectify the shortcomings of civilization which made themselves painfully felt… We shall tell ourselves that it would be very nice if there were a God who created the world and was a benevolent Providence, and if there were a moral order in the universe and an after-life; but it is a very striking fact [noteworthy, rather than surprising] that all this is exactly as we are bound to wish it to be (Freud, vol.21, pp.21 and 33).

Because, as Francis Bacon notes, ‘what a man had rather were true he more readily believes’ and ‘whatever his mind seizes and dwells upon with peculiar satisfaction is to be held in suspicion’ (Novum Organum, XLIX, LVIII), psycho-analysis is therefore ‘justly suspicious’ of religious belief (Freud, vol.5, p.517).

For Freud, then, religious beliefs are also the disguised fulfilment of repressed wishes, ‘fulfilments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind’ (Freud, vol.21, p.30).

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