Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Was Freud a Fraud?

Great Books Kansas City is a book discussion group that has been meeting monthly since 2004 “to discuss great literature that has stood the test of time.”
Last month, for only the second time, I attended Great Books KC because of my interest in the book being discussed that evening: Sigmund Freud’s “The Future of an Illusion” (1927).
That book is largely an analysis, and denunciation, of religion and faith in God.
I do not have sufficient knowledge of psychology/psychiatry to critique Freud’s psychoanalytical thought. But I do have some expertise in the field of theology and philosophy.
As I was driving downtown to the meeting, I began to wonder, “Was Freud a Fraud?” It seems that at least in some ways he was.
In his 1927 book, he makes great emphasis on science and disses religion or faith in God for being unscientific.
But as I read many of Freud’s assertions, I kept asking myself, “How does he know that?” and “How can that statement possibly be proven scientifically?”
It seems clear that much of what he wrote is theory, and many of his ideas may or may not be true. But most are not amenable to scientific proof.
Some of what Freud wrote, such as his analysis of the human id, ego and superego, has undoubtedly helped to explain significant aspects of human behavior.
But it is his analysis of religious belief that is most questionable.
For example, in Future . . . Freud avers that religious ideas are “illusions, fulfilments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind” (p. 30, 1961 trans.).
That may be true, especially for some people. But is it true for all?
Later in the same book, Freud asserts that religion is “the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity” (p. 43).
Really? Can you scientifically prove that, Dr. Freud?
Freud mainly dealt with mentally ill people, and that no doubt skewed his view of religion. Many sick people have sick religious beliefs and practices.
On the other hand, many healthy people have healthy, and socially beneficial, religious ideas.
Freud didn’t consider the great prophets or social activists whose religious faith was not for their own personal comfort but rather was impetus for challenging the ills of society.
Freud didn’t consider the great intellectuals whose religious faith was not neurotic but the spur to lofty and creative thinking.
Freud didn’t consider the great missionaries who at great personal discomfort went to lands of danger, disease, and often disappointment for the sake of the Good News that they felt compelled to share.
From a different standpoint, some who do have knowledge of psychiatry have criticized Freud severely.
For example, a clinical and research psychiatrist named E. Fuller Torrey tore into Freud, or at least the use of Freudian ideas, in his 1992 book titled “Freudian Fraud: The Malignant Effect of Freud’s Theory on American Thought and Culture.”
According to Torrey, Vladimir Nabokov, the widely-known Russian-American novelist, called Freud a “Viennese quack” and deemed psychoanalysis “one of the vilest deceits practiced by people on themselves and on others.”
Nabokov (1899-1977) also contended that “the difference between the rapist and therapist is but a matter of spacing” (Torrey, pp. 200-1).
In veiled criticism of Freudian psychoanalysis, Humbert Humbert, one of Nabokov’s characters wrote about “pseudoliberation of pseudolibidoes.”
In case you don’t recognize who Humbert is, he is the protagonist in Nabokov’s best-known book “Lolita,” which, it so happens, is the book to be discussed at this month’s Great Books KC meeting.
Great Books Kansas City is open to anyone who wants to attend. The October meeting is from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m. on Friday the 31st at the Plaza Branch of the Kansas City Public Library. The last meeting of the year is Dec. 5, and the discussion will be of “Snow Country” by the Nobel Prize winning novelist Yasunari Kawabata. I am looking forward to both of these meetings.


  1. Freud's understanding of religion was much deeper and more sophisticated than this. By far his longest and most faithful writing partner of Oskar Pfister, a Swiss protestant minister who was applying the principles of psychoanalysis to the "cure of souls," or what we would today call Pastoral Counseling. Freud was always extremely friendly, collegial and respectful in this exchange of letters, even while discussing at a very in depth level issues on which the two had differences of opinion. Freud was initially skeptical that psychoanalysis could be used in this way without thoroughly distorting its principles, but ultimately came around to agree that the way Pfister used it (to clear away the mess of defenses and pathology, ultimately opening up a space for divine encounter that was not mere projection) not only did not distort psychoanalysis, but extended it in a way that Freud himself could never have done. If you haven't read this exchange of letters (warning: hundreds of pages worth and not easy reading!) they are easily available in book form both in original German and in English translation. It is really sine quo non reading for anyone who would comment knowledgeably on Freud's view of religion. As the The Future of an Illusion, just look at it historically. The optimistic social-religious liberalism of the late 19th/early 20th century (what Protestant liberals heralded here in America as "The Christian Century" no less) had only recently collapsed into the most bitter and intractable conflagration "Christian" Europe had ever seen, with every last one of the major Christian religious leaders and theologians (possible exception - Albert Schweitzer) lining up dutifully to pronounce God's blessing on whichever side of the conflict they happened to be on; and not only did that not settle things, but it opened wide a can of worms exposing the very worst aspects of the Christianity that remained - nationalism, chauvinism, antisemitism, militarism - that would culminate in the rise of Nazism, with a poison arrow aimed right at the heart of Freud's own people. I think that we can hardly blame Freud for being rather skeptical of Christian claims about how much of a civilizing force it was, and be rather understanding and sympathetic (if not in agreement) with Freud's perspective that this whole Christian ideology is little more than a thin veneer of "respectability" covering a seething morass of nasty muck, giving us the excuse to pretend the muck isn't there and thus paradoxically increasing the odds that it would again spew out into the open in a volcano of uncontrolled hatred and violence. Glib challenges to individual statements within the book ("But can you prove that scientifically, Dr Freud?!") miss the point of this book entirely. Triumphantly labeling Freud a fraud (how clever a word play!) is in my view another gurgling of the muck. Maybe Freud was more pessimistic about human prospects for "salvation" than some are today, but remember that the same historical circumstances, Karl Barth wrote his Romerbrief, which is at least as dismissive of "religion" as anything Freud ever wrote. Yet somehow we aim our righteous wrath at Freud, not Barth. Another gurgle, perhaps?

    1. I don't usually respond to anonymous comments, for I think people ought to be willing to stand up for what they write rather than hide behind a cloak of anonymity. But the above comments were obviously made by a very educated person and certainly deserve to be taken seriously.

      Freud's understanding of religion was no doubt "much deeper and more sophisticated" than I was able to elucidate in a 600-word blog article--or than Freud was able to explain in a 60+ page book. But he is the one who wrote the book that has influenced many people to have negative ideas about religious faith, so calling those ideas into question is, surely, a legitimate thing to do.

      I know next to nothing about Oskar Pfister and have not read Freud's correspondence with him. I appreciate the introduction to a significant Christian minister about whom I would like to learn more.

      I think the reference to Freud's historical location is also an important point. Certainly there was much that needed to be criticized in European Christendom in the 1920s. But it seems to me that Freud was not just criticizing Christendom, but faith in God.

      I have great appreciation for the Danish theologian/philosopher S. Kierkegaard, whose last writings were published as "Kierkegaard's Attack on Christendom," with which I generally agree. Karl Barth, who was influenced by Kierkegaard and whose "Romerbrief" was written several years before Freud's "The Future of an Illusion," was, as the above writer stated, also dismissive of religion.

      But Kierkegaard and Barth were both men with strong faith in God. It seems that Freud did not distinguish between faith and religion, as the former two thinkers did, but rejected both together. That is a large and significant difference.

      Kierkegaard and Barth wanted to get rid of the muck of religion in order that faith in God might flourish. And while I haven't read a lot of Freud and none of Pfister, I have read enough of Kierkegaard and Barth to have complete confidence in contending that their faith in God, and all they wrote about God, was not due to an "obsessional neurosis."

  2. A local Thinking Friend wrote early this morning with reference to a somewhat related article in the New York Times a couple of days ago.

    The article is "Debating God: Notes on an Unanswered Question"
    by Gary Gutting, and the link is

    The article does not mention Freud by name, but several of the scientists who dismiss belief in God were probably influenced by Freud.

  3. Here again are perceptive comments from local Thinking Friend Erik Dollard:

    "Freud's ideas are often included in discussions of pseudoscience, and rightly so, more or less. He did recognize how much sexuality influences much of our behavior and thinking.

    "As for his condemnation of religion, he should have restricted himself to just bad religion, of which there is plenty. On the other hand, there is also much good religion, which emphasizes humility, charity, human dignity, nonviolence, and the value of life. So I agree with your views.

    "Religion is vast and complex; sweeping statements about it are not generally valid.

    "I will share a personal experience. When I was 16 years old, we went to New York City and stayed with a cousin, who lived in Greenwich Village. I asked him what had most challenged his religious faith and he replied Freud's book, 'Moses and Monotheism.'

    "Within hours or maybe minutes, I ran over the closest book store on Seventh Avenue and found a paperback edition of it. Freud's thesis is that Moses had picked up monotheism from the monotheistic pharaoh, Akhenaten, who, incidentally, was married to Nefertiti, and the father of Tutankhamun. Akhenaten's God, however, was Aten, the sun god, although he did not necessarily reject the existence of other gods.

    "I did not find Freud's argument convincing since the concept of Yahweh is very different from that of Aten. (There are some other problems with his theory as well.)

    "I was somewhat surprised that my cousin found Freud's book to be a serious challenge to his faith, but his background was in journalism, not religious studies. I never did discuss the book with him."

  4. Here are comments from Dr. Temp Sparkman, my Thinking Friend who is a retired seminary professor and who knows a lot more about Freud than I do:

    "The place where I have to break with Freud, partly because I do not fully understand it, is in his view of religion as infantile regression to the Oedipal conflicts between children to the father/mother. This so intricate, at least in his discussion of it, that it escapes me. The only way I can give credence to the notion is that Freud does not seem to consider it to be the exclusive origin of religion. Even then, though, his generalizing of this psychic phenomenon to a social illusion is questionable.

    "My main quarrel with Freud is his failure to perceive the place of religion in its attempt to articulate ultimacy as essential to wholeness in existence. He does not have to believe in God, but surely he must have perceived that there is something yet unexplained in his myopic view of personality. Far from being a weakness, recognizing ultimacy is a strength.

    "His other failure is that he has no appreciation of mystery in the natural order. It is the same flaw that plagues humanism and atheism. Other people of science like Carl Sagan, and humanists, like Nelson Mandela, recognized this reality."

  5. Freud did open the world (or at least the West) to an interesting social science which can be measurable in some areas, just as the social science of economics. Measuring spiritual / religious understandings is probably more limited to membership, money, and cultural outcomes. The holy books can be measured for historic accuracy. I enjoyed the study of child behavior and development, plus the ages and stages in my college psyc classes. But each particular proponent of a theory seemed to have other issues as well. But Anonymous above laid out a much better critique.

  6. Religion is always an easy target for an atheistic scientist. An obvious problem of presuppositionalism.

  7. A Thinking Friend in Kentucky, and also a retired seminary professor, Dr. Glenn Hinson makes the following comments:

    "Freud's pronouncements on religion have little foundation in his science because the reality of God is not open to scientific proof. Freud suffered from a lack of humility that scientific method should have communicated to him.

    "Unfortunately, devout believers often suffer from the same fault, making pronouncements about science with virtually no acquaintance. Exhibit A is Creationism. Proponents of that theory seem to know more than God does!"

  8. Considering that Freud has been dead for 75 years, it would seem only fair to only consider a possible charge of "fraud" in connection with the status of science in his day, not in ours. After decades of debates about what is and is not "science," we are more sensitive on the subject. So, we might say he mixed his science with philosophy and just plain opinions, but that is far short of fraud.

    One frustration I have with scientists is their general self-blindness to their own sloppy language. When a creationist challenges evolution, then suddenly evolution is a grand theory, just like gravity. Fine, but then, when talking among themselves, but read by everyone else, they concoct all sorts conjectures and working hypotheses that are called "theories" but are anything but grand theories like either gravity or evolution. Plenty of such theories are in psychology, but even physics has given us a completely untested theory in so-called string theory. Not only do the various forms of string theory have no empirical data to support them, no one even has any idea of how to create an empirical test. Yet it is always string theory, never string conjecture, or just plain guess. All string theory has going for it is that theoretical physicists discovered that it was the first proposed extension of particle physics that did not collapse into self-contradiction. That was exciting, but that did not make it necessarily right. So, even today, theoretical physicists equivocate on the definition of "theory."

    In honor of the American League championship series that just ended tonight in Kansas City, with the Royals' victory over the Baltimore Orioles, I would like to point out that former manager of the Orioles, Earl Weaver, had the theory of the three-run homer. He believed that a successful team should be built to hit as many three-run homers as possible, as he felt this was the key to winning the most games. Unlike string theory, I would say that had some serious empirical evidence behind it, and Weaver had a long successful career in the process. Of course, as a Royals fan, I would like to point out that pitching and defense are important, too!

    1. All words have various levels of meaning.

      Clearly, by asking whether Freud was a fraud I did not mean that he might be guilty of "the crime of using dishonest methods to take something valuable from another person," which is one meaning of "fraud."

      But "fraud" is also described as "a person who pretends to be what he or she is not." And in the sense that Freud claimed to be scientific and rational and rejected religious faith as anti-scientific and unreasonable, perhaps it is fair to say that he was a fraud. In rejecting religion he made many statements that are not subject to scientific proof.

      And even though Freud's book that I critiqued was written nearly 90 years ago, it was after noted scientific discoveries of Einstein, Bohr, Hubble and many others, it seems to me that people even then should have had a pretty good idea about what is scientific and what is not.

      With regard to the Royals, who haven't lost a post-season game in 29 years (!), how many three-run home runs have they had in this post-season string of victories, or even in the entire regular season? So maybe there is some question about the empirical evidence behind Weaver's theory.

  9. Thanks Leroy for mentioning the Great Books KC group. For those interested in more information, the following is a link to our blog.