The Cartoon History of Humanism, Episode 43 When Civilization Goes Neurotic: Sigmund Freud's Theory of Religion

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When Civilization Goes Neurotic: Sigmund Freud’s Theory of Religion

Civilization is a slim thing, certainly buttressed by empathy and the will to comfort but constantly corroded by the gnaw and gnash of human instinct. By Sigmund Freud’s reckoning, his discoveries about the dark power of the unconscious mind represented humanity’s third great humbling, following hot on the heels of those delivered by Copernicus and Darwin. The former flung us from our special spot in the universe, and the latter out of our uniqueness as a species, but Freud dealt us the worst blow of all—removing us from significant control of our own minds.

By the reckoning of the great anti-psychoanalytic backlash of the 1980s, Freud (1856-1939) was alternately a misogynistic and painfully bourgeois Victorian, a power-mad fraud, a prude masquerading as a sexual revolutionary, and a self-hating Jew with a Messiah complex.

SigmundFreudAnd while we might feel viscerally that a decade that gave us understated triumphs like Alf, (I Wear My) Sunglasses at Night, and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo can do no wrong, it’s well time for us, generally as people but especially as humanists, to try to put Freud back in some sensible perspective again. He was a quintessential middle-class Viennese of the early twentieth century who scratched away for four decades at our deepest contradictions as individuals. His answers, even when wrong (and they could be profoundly wrong), staked out paths for new lines of inquiry that have defined our sense of self and our perspectives on the unconscious cost of civilized society.

Should we choose to be wildly irresponsible, we could break Freud’s life and work into three main stages: the neurological, the psychoanalytic, and the socioanalytic. There are, of course, bleed overs at the edges and threads of each that never quite go away, but the virtue of being wildly irresponsible is that we’re gleefully passing those over.

Freud’s first stage encompassed a number of years as a medical researcher under Ernst Brücke, investigating the differences in the neural structures of vertebrates and invertebrates, detailing the form and function of the medulla oblongata, discovering the formation of nerve cells from undifferentiated cells in lampreys, and laying out a theory of signal conduction that was a hair’s breadth from the modern neuron theory, ten years before the fact. It’s not too much to say that had Freud never put a single neurotic on a couch, we’d still have ample cause to speak of him for his rigorous neurological studies alone.

In later life, Freud downplayed this time as a cutting-edge researcher as part of his campaign for more lay practitioners in psychoanalysis, and his biographers tend to follow suit to get to the titillating stuff—his development of psychoanalysis from the 1890s through to the early 1920s. And if it’s good enough for Peter Gay…

We self-informed postmoderns take it as a given that we’re all a bit messed up and that nothing is so suspicious as Normal Behavior. We say things we don’t think we mean but do, do things we think we want but don’t, and want things we aren’t aware of and would be terribly and insincerely shocked by if we were. We know we do all of these things, and it was Freud who set us the task of puzzling out why.

Through dreams and free-association, neurotic behavior and explorations of deep fears, he gave the trailing end of Victorianism to understand that sex was important, deeply important, and good, and the more thinly you slice down its permissible varieties, the more suffering you invite. He reached into the formative days of childhood and made us think about the tectonic psychological shifts of the maturing process. Even if you don’t believe a word about the Oedipus complex or penis envy, his serious treatment of how children internalize the social structures and aggression around them at a very young age, carried on magnificently by his daughter Anna, is a touchstone of modern theories on childcare.

As sentient twenty-first century beings who generally enjoy sex in its many flavors and sometimes also even enjoy the sight of children smiling, we have enough to be thankful for just there, but what we’ll always remember Freud for, what feeds directly into his scathing commentaries about the juvenile neuroticism of religious belief, is his expansion of the unconscious mind’s place in our lives. Take the terms Ego, Id, and Superego as you will, but I think we all do well by recognizing the curtailments that consciousness suffers and must suffer just to keep us moving through the day.

We are well aware now that the brain feels the need to report shockingly little of its activities to conscious awareness. It is constantly gathering data, weighing its importance through purely chemical processes, and discarding massive amounts of it as Stuff You Don’t Need to Know That You Knew. Let’s say that you’re sitting down with The Cartoon History of Humanism: Volume One (available now!) and have lost yourself in the delights of its humorous vignettes and barely competent cartooning, when your friend calls out for you to help him with something invariably dumb in the basement.  Your ear heard those words perfectly well, but your brain decided it wasn’t going to share that particular input with you and left you to your important business.

We accept that selective editing on the brain’s part readily, but what Freud gave us was a deeper theory of self-protection, of a consciousness assaulted by the world, with its limitations, temptations, and demands on one side, and the unconscious, sudden impulses and unspeakable urges on another, and with a self-monitoring agency that has internalized all the deep taboos of our family and culture on a third, all hounding our conscious self for attention and action. The idea of the self as a constantly beleaguered, thin line ground between massive and irreconcilable forces is the very stuff of our modern sense of fractured and frayed being. Realizing what long odds we are under to navigate it all happily has resulted in many of our best notions about how to acknowledge and support the fragile balance of existing.

Freud believed that many of our oddest behaviors have at their root unresolved tensions between the world, unconscious, internalized society, and the conscious mind. We twist ourselves into psychological knots as our brain desperately works behind the scenes to push down traumas or disturbing desires, resulting in neurotic behavior that defies our reason. This brings us to Freud’s third stage, the socioanalytic. He continued to modify his theory of the psychological self right up to his final years, adding for example, a controversial Death Drive that competes for expression with our erotic instincts. But his attention, especially as the world seemed to fall apart all around him in the years following the First World War, was increasingly focused on the curious behavior not of individuals, but of societies. Civilization and its Discontents (1929) is the sterling centerpiece of those reflections, but we are going to focus instead on his specifically religious tracts: Totem and Taboo (1913), The Future of an Illusion (1927), and Moses and Monotheism (1939).

And really, to be perfectly honest, just the second one of those. Totem and Taboo was a brazen shot across the bow of religion, tracing the roots of totemistic religious belief (and thus of modern religions) to internalized guilt at the slaying of an ancestral father figure.  It’s an interesting pounce in the dark attempting to explain some of the stranger aspects of totemistic religions, but there’s a pretty high kooky factor. Moses, for its part, is an odd historical novel that he wrote during the last year of his life, while suffering from unbearable pain from mouth cancer. (The description of the various prostheses he was made to wear over the years is not for the weak of stomach!) He was also on the run from the Nazi-inspired anti-Semitism that was ripping Viennese culture apart. It builds on Totem and adds a semi-popular theory of the time that there were, in fact, multiple Moseses (Mosi? Mosenia?). Again, fascinating, a bit tragic, but also prrrrrretty up there on the kook.

The Future of an Illusion is the book that got it just right and brought a lifetime of psychoanalytic insight to bear on the thorny question of religion’s improbable existence as a thing that humans believe and do. Freud’s first task is to remind us of just how weird religious belief really is. How is it, he wonders, that humans, so skeptical and suspicious in all aspects of their lives, are so phenomenally credulous to the point of childishness about precisely the thing that’s supposed to matter most to them? Why do we rush to Google Maps when somebody says that there is town called Embarrass, Minnesota, and yet, when told that death is the punishment for some ancestor accepting an apple from a talking snake but that it all got cleared up when some God offered himself as a sacrifice to himself, we nod and go about our business entirely untroubled?

Freud had seen this sort of behavior before in his neurotic patients—people so shattered by the truths of their lives and the stress of their existence that their minds developed wild fictions and strange behaviors just to keep functioning in the face of life’s daily besiegement. Religions, Freud suggested, key into that capacity, just on a civilizational scale. To exist together as a society, we must mercilessly curb our impulses, accepting massive limitations to everything that our erotic and death drives most dearly want. Doomed to a sort of quarter-life by these restrictions and faced with the overwhelming reality of death at the hands of an entirely indifferent natural order, the individual begins to crumple.

In a last ditch effort to restore balance and sanity, we fish for psychological supports that have served us well before and find them in early childhood:

The child’s attitude to its father is coloured by a peculiar ambivalence.  The father himself constitutes a danger to the child, perhaps because of its earlier relation to its mother. Thus it fears him no less than it longs for him and admires him. The indications of this ambivalence in the attitude to the father are deeply imbedded in every religion, as was shown in Totem and Taboo. When the growing individual finds that he is destined to remain a child forever, 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 human weakness. The defense against childish helplessness which he has to acknowledge—a reaction which is precisely the formation of religion.

One of the strangest demands of religion has always been the necessity of loving entirely a being who is pitilessly cruel to you at every step of existence, to double think hatred and animosity and resentment into adoration in order to believe yourself protected and immortal. Freud saw the vast parallels with what he had discovered about the ambivalence and tensions of the family dynamic and gave us an accounting of religion that combined the historical imagineering of the high Enlightenment with the fragmented internal politics of the modern ego. Whatever fraction of his family theory you find compelling, there’s little doubt that, after Freud, thorough-going accounts of religion could no longer honestly afford to omit a defense of its infantile defense mechanisms.

Sigmund Freud was often and majestically wrong. His views of the psychological developmental differences between men and women are rightly seen as encodings of Victorian social practice with a bit more sex than usual. His idea that historical-psychological events like the murder of the ancestral father could be transmitted biologically to future generations is equally and rightly mocked as a bit of mental Lamarckism that’s best nudged quietly aside. But that is simply to say that a single human didn’t solve every corner of our labyrinthine unconscious world in one lifetime. It’s a testament to his influence that our expectations of him run so unreasonably high. He let us engage honestly with those aspects of ourselves we rejected and denied to our own harm, and he created a vision of a flawed humanity that could be supported and built upon which we recognize as our own, far from perfection, but far as well from evil.

Further Reading

Sure, the landmark biography is Ernest Jones’s three-volume account. Jones was part of Freud’s trusted inner circle of psychoanalysts and more or less ran psychoanalysis in Britain for decades, so his insights are valuable not only for his perspective as a firsthand witness of Freud’s development, but for his own place in the midst of the in-fighting that characterized early psychoanalysis. Buuuuuut it’s also well-nigh 3000 pages long. It’s worth it, but if you’re looking for a single-volume work, then pick up Peter Gay’s 1988 Freud: A Life for Our Time. It’s powerfully slim on his work as a neurologist but makes up for it splendidly in placing Freud in the context of Viennese intellectual history. For a good time lingering on how much of a gigantic dick Carl Jung was, Walter Kaufmann’s Freud, Adler, and Jung (1980) is a great, great time.