Posted by: Dan | August 25, 2006

Freud and Postmodern Christianity

“I still maintain that what I have written is harmless in one respect. No believer will let himself [sic] be led astray from his faith by these or any similar arguments… But there are undoubtedly countless other people who are not in the same sense believers. They obey the precepts of civilization because they let themselves be intimidated by the threats of religion… They are the people who break away as soon as they are allowed to give up their belief in the reality-value of religion.”
~ Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion

Within The Future of an Illusion, Freud makes his argument that reason, and not religion (which is understood to be an “illusion” — i.e. that which is primarily motivated by wish-fulfillment, regardless of its relation to reality), should become that which forms and structures human “culture/civilization” (both of those words — culture and civilization — are captured in the German term 'Kultur' which Freud employs throughout). Religion, perhaps a neurosis necessary to infantile humanity, has served its purpose and now must be transcended — just as children often overcome their neuroses as they transition to adulthood — so that civilization may continue to better conquer the forces of nature and better govern the way in which people relate to one another. Science, of course, is the dominate means offered as the proper alternative to religion, although Freud recognizes that science cannot make any definitive statement on the grand topics that religion attempts to address. However, Freud argues that science should not attempt to answer these questions, and a mature and intelligent humanity should not be troubled by this. (By the by, it is interesting to note that Wittgenstein ,in his Tractatus, comes to a very similar conclusion about language. He concludes that language is useful to discuss daily practicalities, but it is not at all useful for the discussion of the grand themes of philosophy. Therefore, Wittgenstein concludes, “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”)

In the passage cited above, Freud anticipates the negative reaction that Christians will have to this book and, to a certain extent, he tries to assuage their fears. It it interesting to try to evaluate Freud's words from the perspective gained within a “postmodern” Christian context — especially considering the ongoing demonization of Freud within the Christian community.

So, my question is this: is Freud right? Did Christians really have nothing to worry about? After all, don't many postmodern Christians see the secularization of society as a good thing? Didn't the secularization process simply reveal that a large contingent of those who were declared to be “Christian” actually weren't Christian at all but merely accepted the label because “Christianity” had become a social norm? If this is so, shouldn't we be thanking Freud for deconstructing Christianity as a punitive social power and thereby allowing a more genuine form of Christianity to emerge? Is there now room for a more gracious reading of Freud's reflections on religion?

Anybody want to answer these questions?

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