Freud: a psychological explanation

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The origins of ‘God’: psychological and social explanations

Freud: a psychological explanation

In The Future of an Illusion, Sigmund Freud presents a psychological explanation of the origins of beliefs in God. He suggests that these beliefs could originate not in an attempt to explain the world, but in a very deep unconscious wish that human beings have. This wish goes back in history to the emergence of the human race, and in each individual, to their earliest infancy. The wish is for consolation and reassurance.
In the face of the uncontrollable forces of nature, we feel vulnerable, afraid and frustrated that there is so little we can do. We want to rob life of its terrors. Likewise, when we are infants, we are completely helpless and dependent and need protection. Both motives come together in the thought that there is a God, a protector, a means by which we can control nature (for early religions) or feel safe in the face of danger and uncertainty. Our relationship to God takes on the intimacy and intensity of our relationship to our parents (Freud thought the father gives protection and security, so we think of God as more of a father than a mother).
Religious beliefs are
fulfilments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind. The secret of their strength lies in the strength of those wishes. (The Future of an Illusion, p. 30)
Isn’t it remarkable, he says, that religion describes the universe ‘exactly as we are bound to wish it to be’? A belief that is based on a wish, rather than on evidence, Freud calls an ‘illusion’. It isn’t necessarily false; it’s just that it isn’t based on seeking the truth.
(Just as religious beliefs are based on wishes, so religious experiences are as well. Freud argues that dreams are caused by deep desires we are unaware of, and he argues that religious experiences are similarly caused. They are hallucinations that happen when we are awake, caused by the wish for security and meaning, for things to ‘be ok’.)

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