In The Future of an Illusion, Freud (1961) shares that:

"I am reminded of one of my children who was distinguished at an early age by a peculiarly marked matter-of-factness. When the children were being told a fairy story and were listening to it with rapt attention, he would come up and ask: ‘Is that a true story?' When he was told it was not, he would turn away with a look of disdain" (p. 36).

Could Freud's son have periodically noticed disdain on his father's face when confronted with questionable matters of believability concerning God or religion? Maybe or maybe not. Who can say?

According to Freud in The Future of an Illusion "When the growing individual finds that he is destined to remain a child for ever, that he can never do without protection against strange superior 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. Thus his longing for a father is a motive identical with his need for protection against the consequences of his human weakness. 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" (p. 30.)

Freud's son probably did not long for a heavenly father or live in a state of helplessness as an adult to protect him from strange superior powers. Obviously, Freud did not—at least not for very long, or he could not have written The Future of an Illusion. It could be argued that "those powers the features belonging to the figure of his father" could also belong to the figure of his mother, or any other care giver for that matter. There is an element of ambiguity here, for Freud could have been referring to the figure of his heavenly father. Freud's wording lends itself to different interpretations. However, in Freud: Conflict and Culture, his writing is not as ambiguous when he stresses the same point: "Men cannot tolerate being bereft of parents[,] & so they create a new parental couple from God and nature [God the Father and Mother Nature]: foundation, ultimate foundation of religion [is] man's infantile helplessness (p. 26).

The comparison Freud makes in The Future of an Illusion between teaching children geography and teaching them religion is characterized by three points. He asserts that:

"Firstly, these teachings deserve to be believed because they were already believed by our primal ancestors; secondly, we possess proofs which have been handed down to us from those same primeval times; and thirdly, it is forbidden to raise the question of their authentication at all. In former days anything so presumptuous was visited with the severest penalties, and even to-day society looks askance at any attempt to raise the question again" (p. 33).

Things have not changed much since he wrote that. Some may find it surprising to discover that Christianity is not a minority religion in the world. Christians far outnumber all other faiths and groups. Statistics from the World Almanac in 1992 showed that at the height of the millennium, the Christian population on earth measured one-third of all the world's inhabitants. Can we accept the three points Freud made? Denying the first and second ones would be hard, in that a good portion of the Christian population believe because it was handed down from generation to generation. What worked for them has certainly been working for many since then. The third one about not challenging an established belief system is apparently adhered to widely. Religious belief systems are quite often passed down through many generations.

Depth psychology challenges the status quo, including traditional religious dogma. Joseph Campbell, for example, emphasizes in his video, The Hero's Journey, that "God is a metaphor for a mystery that absolutely transcends all human categories of thought. Even categories of being and non-being are categories of thought--it is as simple as that." Campbell believed that myth is also a metaphor; therefore, millions of people live by a mythology; therefore, the mythology of religion. Jung (1958) agrees: "The life of Christ is understood by the Church on the one hand as an historical, and on the other hand as an eternally existing, mystery" (C.W. 11, par. 146).

In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud states that he sent his book The Future of an Illusion to a friend who "entirely agreed with his judgment upon religion," but then stated that he was sorry that Freud "had not properly appreciated the true source of religious sentiments." Freud's friend attempted to convince him that these religious sentiments "consists in a peculiar feeling, which he himself is never without, which he finds confirmed by many others, which he may suppose is present in millions of people." It was a feeling that he considered "a sensation of eternity, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded--as it were, ‘oceanic'." (pp. 10, 11).

Freud's friend stated his agreement to Freud's theory, then turned around and discreetly challenged it. It is Freud's contention in The Future of an Illusion--the very book he sent to his friend that "No believer will let himself be led astray from his faith by these or any similar arguments. A believer is bound to the teachings of religion by certain ties of affection." (p. 59). These ties of affection in Freud's friend are in the form of a feeling. It was a feeling that he considered "a sensation of eternity, as of something limitless, unbounded--as it were, ‘oceanic'."

This feeling could be compared with Carl Jung's view of religion: "A religious truth is essentially an experience, it is not an opinion. Religion is an absolute experience. A religious experience is absolute, it cannot be discussed" (C.W. 18, par. 692). Feeling and experience here can be thought of as synonymous.

It is apparent that Freud's friend and Jung look at religion in a non-traditional way. Their experiencing of God or religion does not comply with what Freud is denying, though Freud, in Civilization and Its Discontents does state that "I cannot discover this ‘oceanic' feeling in myself" (p. 11). He felt that it was impossible to "work with these almost intangible quantities" (p. 21). Freud also thought of Yoga, and other "trances and ecstasies" as part of a psychological life he equated to religious experience. Today there are non-traditional views of God and religion that are commonplace.

Twelve-step programs, such as Alcoholic's Anonymous, advocate "God, as we understood him." This leaves God open to interpretation. AA members can view God in any way they want and still be accepted in mainstream society by using the term God. However, many of those do not consider themselves religious.

It would be interesting to know how much of the population believe in the God of traditional religious theory like that of the Christian faith (creationists), and how many believe in the term God to describe an entity that does not comply with the traditionalists. Considering this, there might well be considerably more atheists (or agnostics) in the world than what the statistics reflect.

Despite Freud's atheistic views, he reminds us in The Future of an Illusion of something worth considering: "If men are taught that there is no almighty and all-just God, no divine world-order and no future life, they will feel exempt from all obligation to obey the precepts of civilization" (p. 44). Therefore, it can be surmised that Freud is not against religion per se, but rather challenges the likelihood of its authenticity, such as biblical history and/or the fundamentalist God. Religion then, without doubt, is serving society in a beneficent manner, and it does so in different ways, with different definitions of God and religion.

In an essay by Murray Stein (1998), he shares a letter from a former patient, which ended by stating "What a fool I was! How I tried to force everything to go according to the way I thought it ought to!" Stein then explains that from an attitude such as this, which does not renounce any of the Christian values won in the course of "a long and arduous development, but which, on the contrary, tries with Christian charity and forbearance to accept even the humblest things in one's own nature, will a higher level of consciousness and culture become possible." This attitude is religious, and therefore therapeutic, for religions are also therapies for the sorrows and disorders of the soul. (p. 166).

It can hardly be denied that religion serves a policing function. One does not necessarily have to believe in all facets of it, nor believe in the mythology of it, to benefit from it. In Civilization and Its Discontents, even Freud agrees: "Once again, only religion can answer the question of the purpose of life. One can hardly be wrong in concluding the idea of life having a purpose stands and falls with the religious system" (p. 24, 25.).

For those who have read some of Freud's writing and decided that he is an unabashed atheist who does not have anything positive to say about religion, then they have not read enough of his writing on the subject to make an objective conclusion to that effect. Freud quotes Goethe: "Wer Wissenschat und Kunst besitzt, hat auch Religion; Wer nene beide nicht besitzt, her habe Religion," which translates to: He who possesses science and art also has religion; but he who possesses neither of those two, let him have religion. Freud says "This saying on the one hand draws an antithesis between religion and the two highest achievements of man, and on the other, asserts that, as regards their value in life, those achievements and religion can represent or replace each other" (p. 23). Here Freud continues in an ambiguous vein regarding religious sentiment, going back the other way: "A special importance attaches to the case in which this attempt to procure a certainty of happiness and a protection against suffering through a delusional re-moulding of reality is made by a considerable number of people in common. The religions of mankind must be classes among the mass-delusions of this kind. No one, needless to say, who shares a delusion ever recognizes it as such" (p. 32).

Where are religious thought and theory going in the future? In a collection of essays in Psychology and Religion at the Millennium and Beyond, Dourley (1998) believes that "humanity's future survival in the new and subsequent millennia will depend on its ability to survive its current religions and their disparate ‘wholly other' deities (p. 23). Dourley discusses Carl Jung's theories to address psychology and religion. Levine (1998) addresses the millennium in Taoist thought, where "The third position or the third millennium must emerge from the interaction of the first and second millennia. So then, heaven representing one pole and earth representing the other have sponsored the creation of a third which is everything" (p. 45). Orenstein (1998) gave her thought from a shamanistic perspective, and the rest of the essayists gave their slant for the future. In Freud: Conflict and Culture Cioffi quotes T.S. Elliot as having once said that Christianity is constantly modifying itself into something which may be believed (p. 172).

What about Freud's opinion? As far as religion goes, its future is an illusion; therefore, he saw the future in science when he wrote:

"We believe that it is possible for scientific work to gain some knowledge about the reality of the world, by means of which we can increase our power and in accordance with which we can arrange our life. Science has many open enemies, and many more secret ones, among those who cannot forgive her for having weakened religious faith and for threatening to overthrow it" (p.70).

The final word here is not so much that Freud's writing is ambiguous, but it is sometimes difficult to make sense of, either because of his style of writing or the time-period that he was writing in--or both. However, his views are at times contradictory. His rhetoric is that of a fiction writer; therefore, his audience usually finds him entertaining--it is as though he is writing as Sherlock Holmes, figuring out the mystery. Sigmund Freud was one of the most prolific writers of the twentieth century and one of the most influential.


Brown, Stewart L. (Producer), &: Cox, Roy A. (Director). (no date). The Hero's Journey: Joseph Campbell--A Biographical Portrait [Film]. (Available from Unapix Entertainment, Inc., 200 Second Avenue West, Seattle, WA 98119)

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. (1961). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Freud, Sigmund. The Future of an Illusion. (1961). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Jung, C.G. The Symbolic Life. (1950). Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Jung, C.G. Psychology and Religion. (1958). Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Roth, Michael S. (Ed). Freud Conflict and Culture: Essays on His Life, Work, and Legacy. (1998). New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Spiegelman, J. (Ed). Psychology and Religion at the Millennium and Beyond. (1998). Tempe, Arizona: New Falcon Publications.

Good News Christian Ministry. (1998). The World's Major Religions By Size. [On-line], Available:

Author's Bio: 

After 40 arrests, five formal probations, four country jail sentences, and a prison term (as a result of chemical dependency), I turned my life around. I was released from prison in Dec 1989, and have been clean and sober since. I started at Barstow College in Feb 1990. Received my AA degree in '92 from Barstow College in Barstow, CA; BA in '94 from Chapman University in Orange CA; MHS in 98 from National University in San Diego CA, and finished with a Ph.D. from Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, CA in Feb 2004. I have taught as an adjunct instructor for Park University and Barstow College. I can be contacted through my website or directly to my email account