Atheists and Agnostics Compendium

Interview with Sigmund Freud

INTERVIEWER: Good afternoon, Dr. Freud.

FREUD: Good afternoon.

INTERVIEWER: It's an honor to be able to talk with the father of psychoanalysis.

FREUD: Well – I don't know how much of an honor it is these days. I understand for the 21st century my ideas no longer hold the power they once had.

INTERVIEWER: Yesterday's heresy becomes today's banality.

FREUD: I hate clichés.

INTERVIEWER: I was trying to be philosophical. Your ideas were certainly heretical in their day.

FREUD: Some of them still are.

INTERVIEWER: That's what I want to talk to you about. I would like to explore your ideas about religion.

FREUD: Read my book. It's less than 100 pages. It won't take you long.

INTERVIEWER: I did read The Future of an Illusion. But I have some questions.

FREUD: And they are?

INTERVIEWER: Well, first — you said that nature does not ask us to restrain our instincts. Do you mean that for their psychological well-being people should give in to them?

FREUD: You are both right and wrong.

INTERVIEWER: I don't understand.

FREUD: Yes – people have instincts and repressing them sends patients to my fellow practitioners. No – we can't give in to instincts or we would end up killing each other. That is why we create civilization. We create society to defend us against our own natures.

INTERVIEWER: I thought it was religion that keeps us from living like animals.

FREUD: Nein.

INTERVIEWER: Then what is religion for?

FREUD: (sigh) This is a complex business. (patiently explaining) In the face of accident and death people recognize their cosmic helplessness. There is nothing new in this situation. It has an infantile prototype. For once before a person has been in such a state of helplessness: as a little child in one’s relationship to one’s parents. Infantile helplessness arouses the need for protection that the father supplies. The discovery of the adult that this helplessness will continue through the whole of one's life makes it necessary to cling to the existence of a father—but this time a more powerful one, the father in heaven. It is a tremendous relief for the individual psyche if it is released from the conflicts of childhood arising out of the father complex. One fears the father, though at the same time one seeks his protection against dangers. We give god the characteristics of the father.

INTERVIEWER: Is that all that religion does, provide a cosmic father?

FREUD: By no means. Religion would console us that there is a providence, which will not suffer us to become the plaything of the stark and pitiless forces of nature. Thus death becomes not annihilation but the beginning of a new kind of existence. An existence that lies on the road of development to something higher. In the religious view, life in this world serves a higher purpose. Everything that takes place in this world expresses the intentions of a superior intelligence that in the end orders everything for good. Although its devious ways may be difficult to follow.

INTERVIEWER: What do you think is the psychological significance of religious ideas?

FREUD: Religious ideas are highly valued because they give information about the most interesting and important things in life. He who knows nothing of them is ignorant indeed, and he who has assimilated them may consider himself enriched and, most important psychologically, enlarge the ego of the believer.

INTERVIEWER: Religious ideas seem to be formed in every culture. Why are religious ideas so prevalent?

FREUD: As I said, everyone feels the need for protection from the dark. And then there is tradition. People tend to believe because their ancestors did. Also there are so-called proofs, which have been handed down to us; and thirdly, because, at least in my time, it was forbidden to raise the question of their authenticity. Such a prohibition can surely have only one motive: that society knows very well the uncertain basis of the claim it makes for its religious doctrines.

INTERVIEWER: But there many old ideas that are true.

FREUD: But the idea that we ought to believe simply be-cause our forefathers believed is a false one. Those ancestors of ours were far more ignorant than we; they believed in things we could not possibly accept today.

INTERVIEWER: And the proofs that the Bible gives witness to?

FREUD: The proofs they have bequeathed to us in the Bible bear every trace of being untrustworthy. It is full of contradictions, revisions, and interpretations. Thus we arrive at the singular conclusion that just what might be of the greatest significance for us, the information which should solve for us the riddles of the universe and reconcile us to the troubles of life, that just this has the weakest possible claim to authenticity.

INTERVIEWER: You doubt the authenticity of the Bible?

FREUD: I am sure I am not the first. Probably many of the ancients nursed the same doubts as we, but the pressure imposed on them was too strong for them to have dared to utter them. And since then countless people have been tortured by the same doubts, and many brilliant intellects have been wrecked upon this conflict and many characters have come to grief through the compromises by which they sought a way out.

INTERVIEWER: But millions of people are certain that the Bible is the word of god.

FREUD: My friend, the whole of the religious system would become infinitely more credible if one could succeed in removing the element of doubt from only a single part of it. For instance, most of the religious are convinced of the immortality of the individual soul. Un-fortunately they have not succeeded in disproving the fact that ghostly spirits are merely the productions of their own mental activity. Belief in the immortal soul is a wish-fulfillment.

INTERVIEWER: You called your book The Future of an Illusion. I assume you mean that religion is an illusion. What do mean by that?

FREUD: We call a belief an illusion when wish-fulfillment is a prominent factor in its motivation, while disregarding its relations to reality. Religious doctrines are all illusions, they do not admit of proof. Some of them are so improbable, so very incompatible with everything we have laboriously discovered about the reality of the world, that we may compare them to delusions.

INTERVIEWER: Delusions?

FREUD: Yes. The riddles of the universe only reveal themselves slowly to our inquiry. For many questions science can as yet give no answer; but scientific work is our only way to the knowledge of external reality.

INTERVIEWER: You likened the belief in god as a father substitute. What about the conception that some scientists hold that there is a higher power, not a personal caring god — but a supernatural power that is responsible for all existence?

FREUD: Where questions of religion are concerned people are guilty of every possible kind of insincerity and intellectual misdemeanor. Philosophers stretch the meaning of words until they retain scarcely anything of their original sense; by calling ‘God’ some vague abstraction which they have created for themselves, they pose as deists, as believers, before the world; they may even pride themselves on having attained a higher and purer idea of God. But their God is nothing but an insubstantial shadow and no longer the mighty personality of religious doctrine.

INTERVIEWER: But aren't such abstract concepts also a religion? A religion not accounted for in your analysis? Aren't individuals who believe in the abstract idea of a superior power deeply religious?

FREUD: I call ‘deeply religious’ a person who confesses to a sense of man’s insignificance and impotence in the face of the universe. And all mankind, even abstracting scientists are only grownup children facing the dark unknown.
We know that the human child cannot well complete its development without passing through distinct phases of neuroses. Most of these childish anxieties and fears are over-come spontaneously as one grows up. In just the same way one might assume that in its development through the ages, man-kind as a whole, experiences conditions that are analogous to the neuroses.

INTERVIEWER: Are you saying that the development of the human race is like the development of a child?

FREUD: In many ways it is precisely that. And accordingly one might prophesy that the abandoning of religion must take place as a simple matter of growth. I think that we are just now in the middle of this phase of development.

INTERVIEWER: I see. (pause) But Dr. Freud in the turmoil and confusion of everyday life would you deny man and women the consolation of religion? There are individuals who absolutely need it to carry on.

FREUD: (passionately) I disagree with you when you go on to argue that man cannot in general do with-out the consolation of the religious illusion — that without it he would not endure the troubles of life. Certainly this is true of the man into whom you have in-stilled the bitter-sweet poison of religion from childhood. But what of the other, who has been brought up without it? Perhaps he, not suffering from it, will not need the intoxicant of religion to deaden cosmic anxiety.

INTERVIEWER: But Dr. Freud, don't people need a feeling that life holds some purpose? I think that religion give them a sense that they are part of something bigger? Isn't life difficult without it?

FREUD: (almost angrily) A healthy mind does not need a placebo! It is true that man will then find himself in a difficult situation. He will have to confess that he is no longer the object of the tender care of a benevolent providence. (more calmly) He will be in the same position as the child who has left the home where he was so warm and comfort-able. But, after all, is it not the destiny of childishness to be overcome? Man cannot remain a child forever; he must venture at last into the hostile world. This may be called ‘education to reality.' It is the sole aim of my book to draw attention to the necessity for this advance.

INTERVIEWER: And what will be the benefits of what you call this 'education to reality?'

FREUD: By withdrawing his expectations from the other world and concentrating all his energies on this earthly life he will probably attain to a state of things in which life will be tolerable for all and no one will be oppressed by religion any more.

INTERVIEWER: Finally Dr. Freud, in your work you have pointed out how strongly hidden human desires dominate what we think are self-determined actions. Besides using psychoanalysis to help us, how can the human race achieve this "education to reality" you call for?

FREUD: People may insist as much as they like that the human intellect is weak in comparison with human instincts. They may be right in doing so. The voice of the intellect is a soft one, but it does not rest until it has gained a hearing. Ultimately, after repeated rebuffs, it succeeds. This is one of the few points in which one may be optimistic about the future of mankind.

INTERVIEWER: This has been very interesting. Thank you very much.

 

This is a simulated interview with Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). His ideas and, in some cases, his words are taken from his book, The Future of an Illusion.

This "interview" is meant to illustrate Freud's thoughts about religion in a more interesting way than a lecture.