As wish-fulfilments, religious beliefs are ‘illusions,’ a technical term which has a specific meaning for Freud: ‘we call a belief an illusion when a wish-fulfilment is a prominent factor in its motivation, and in doing so we disregard its relations to reality’ (Freud, The Complete Psychological Works, vol.21, p.31). Therefore, the ‘psychological nature’ of religious beliefs as illusory (vol.21, p.33) does not involve ‘the truth of the foundation of religious ideas but their function in balancing the renunciations and satisfactions through which man tries to make his life tolerable’ (Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy, pp.234-235).
Religious beliefs function as illusions when
[w]e represent God to ourselves, not in accordance with the evidence available to us but in accordance with our wishes; in other words, we create God in our image, or at least in the image of our desires. Now we have three things to be ashamed of: (1) the desires that govern this operation, (2) our willingness to subordinate truth to happiness, and (3) our [hubris] in making ourselves the creator and God the creature. If we are not utterly shameless, we will do our best to distract attention, especially our own, from what is going on (Merold Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, p.62).
For example, when God is ‘only seemingly stern,’ or when we are God’s ‘only beloved child, his Chosen People’ (vol.21, pp.19-20), ‘I need fear no punishment and can count on rewards, both quite independently of what I deserve’ – and quite independently of the biblical evidence which suggests that the chosen people have a special responsibility rather than enjoying a special exemption (Suspicion and Faith, p.63-64).
Further, as David Hume notes of these ‘comfortable views’ of God, ‘[w]hat so corrupt as some of the practices, to which these systems give rise?’ (The Natural History of Religion, p.76). A religion whose God is constructed in believers’ own image serves to legitimate “our” way of structuring the social world and ‘buttress’ the persecution of anything “other,” by authorising ‘the social status quo’ or by its simple compatibility with it (Suspicion and Faith, p.131).