Future of an Illusion

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The Future of an Illusion (written 1927) by Sigmund Freud is a book that describes his interpretation of religion's origins, development, psychoanalysis, and its future.

Religion as an illusion

Freud describes religion as an illusion, wishes that are the "fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind" (Ch. 6 pg. 30). To differentiate between an illusion and an error, he lists scientific beliefs such as "Aristotle's belief that vermin are developed out of dung" as errors, but "the assertion made by certain nationalists that the Indo-Germanic race is the only one capable of civilization" is an illusion, simply because of the wishing involved. Put forth more explicitly, "what is characteristic of illusions is that they are derived from human wishes." (pg. 31) He adds, however, that, "Illusions need not necessarily be false." (p.39) He gives the example of a middle-class girl having the illusion that a prince will marry her. While this is unlikely, it is not impossible. The fact that it is grounded in her wishes is what makes it an illusion.

Origins and development of religion

At first, Freud begins by explaining religion in a similar term to that of totemism. The individual is essentially an enemy of society and [has instinctual urges that must be restrained to help society function. "Among these instinctual wishes are those of incest, cannibalism, and lust for killing." (pg. 10) His view of human nature is that it is anti-social, rebellious, and has high sexual and destructive tendencies. The destructive nature of humans sets a pre-inclination for disaster when humans must interact with others in society. "For masses are lazy and unintelligent; they have no love for instinctual renunciation, and they are not to be convinced by argument of its inevitability; and the individuals composing them support one another in giving free rein to their indiscipline." (pg. 7) So destructive is human nature, he claims, that "it is only through the influence of individuals who can set an example and whom masses recognize as their leaders that they can be induced to perform the work and undergo the renunciations on which the existence of civilization depends." (pg. 8) All this sets a terribly hostile society that could implode if it were not for civilizing forces and developing government.

He elaborates further on the development of religion, as the emphasis on acquisition of wealth and the satisfaction of instinctual drives (sex, wealth, glory, happiness, immortality) moves from "the material to the mental." As compensation for good behaviors, religion promises a reward.

Psychoanalysis of religion

Religion is an outshoot of the father-complex, and represents man's helplessness in the world, having to face the ultimate fate of death, the struggle of civilization, and the forces of nature. He views God as a child-like "longing for [a] father." (pg. 18) In his words "The gods retain the threefold task: they must exorcize the terrors of nature, they must reconcile men to the cruetly of Fate, particularly as it is shown in death, and they must compensate them for the sufferings and privations which a civilized life in common has imposed on them." (pg. 18)


The publication of a The Future of an Illusion followed The Question of Lay Analysis (1926e) and preceded Civilization and its Discontents(1930a [1929]). Die Zukunft einer Illusion soon reached a wide audience, and was translated into English in 1928 by W. D. Robson-Scott as The Future of an Illusion, and into French in 1932 by Marie Bonaparte as L'Avenir d'une illusion.

In a letter to the Swiss Calvinist pastor Oskar Pfister (November 25, 1928), Freud wrote: "I do not know if you have detected the secret link between Lay Analysis and the Illusion. In the former I wish to protect analysis from the doctors and in the latter from the priests." Freud keeps his distance from the two principal custodians of secrets protected by the law. Moreover, he considers priestly knowledge, or religious dogma, a "neurotic relic" that it is time to replace "with the results of rational mental labor."

The link between The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and its Discontents was made by Romain Rolland. Liluli, the title of a play he wrote, was a play on the word "illusion." In The Future of an Illusion Freud discusses the religious feelings then so essential to Rolland's thinking and which Freud refers to as "oceanic sensations"; these he considers both eternal and infinite. In Civilization and its Discontents Freud explicitly refers to this concept to differentiate himself from it: "I cannot discover this 'oceanic' feeling in myself."

Freud considered religion to be a phenomenon of culture or civilization, based, like all culture, on the "rejection of instincts" by means of "prohibitions." The gods retain "their threefold task: they must exorcize the terrors of nature," (especially death), "they must reconcile man to the cruelty of fate, particularly as is shown in death, and they must compensate them for the sufferings and privations which a civilized life in common has imposed on them." Religion thus constitutes a "treasure of ideas born of the need to make human misery supportable."

Freud used as an example one of the phases of religious evolution, "which roughly corresponds to the final form taken by our present-day, white, Christian civilization." Here he makes a clean break with Jung, who based many of his ideas on the religions of India (Hinduism and Buddhism primarily). Logically, he insists on an essential characteristic of Christian religion, "the father-son relationship." He asserts that "God is an exalted father, the nostalgia for the father is the root of religious need."

The entire work is marked by Freud's desire to placate his friend, Pastor Pfister, who responded the following year with the publication of a pamphlet titled The Illusion of a Future (1928). Freud distinguished illusion from error: an illusion, the product of desire, is not necessarily false. Moreover, he adds a condition to a claim present in his article on "Compulsive activities and religious exercise" (1907b): "Religion could thus be the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity." He even considers that "devout believers are safeguarded in a high degree against the risk of certain neurotic illnesses; their acceptance of the universal neurosis spares them the task of constructing a personal one."

Freud, who spent his life trying to destroy illusions and complete what Max Weber called the "disenchantment of the world," seems to hesitate when it comes to the future of religious phenomena. He says he is in favor of "retaining the religious doctrinal system as the basis of education and of man's communal life." Just as Charles Maurras at the time defended Catholicism as an element of political order in spite of his naturalist positivism, Freud, in spite of his atheism, defended Christian education (the teaching of religion was required in Austrian schools) "which is so important for the safeguarding of civilization."

He concludes his work with a case study of conversion, without confusing the beliefs of "inert and unintelligent" crowds with the more certain achievements of science. "No, our science is not an illusion."

See also


  • Freud, Sigmund. (1927c). Die Zukunft einer Illusion. Vienna; GW, XIV, p. 325-380; SE, 21: 5-56.
  • Freud, Sigmund. (1907b). Compulsive activities and the exercise of religion. SE, 9: 117-127.
  • ——. (1921c). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. SE, 18: 65-143.
  • ——. (1926e). The question of lay analysis. SE, 20: 177-250.
  • ——. (1927c). The future of an illusion. SE, 21: 1-56.
  • ——. (1930a). Civilization and its discontents. SE, 21: 57-145.
  • Freud, Sigmund and Pfister, Oskar. (1963). Psycho-analysis and faith; the letters of Sigmund Freud and Oskar Pfister. (Heinrich Meng and Ernst L. Freud, Eds., and Eric Mosbacher, Trans.). London: Hogarth Press.