chapter  2
24 Pages

Freud, madness and the delusion of religious belief


In this chapter I shall seek to demonstrate how the religious thought of Judaism is the matrix within which Freud develops his theoretical arguments about religion. I shall therefore have little to say about the historical truthfulness of his arguments, although I shall touch on this, but rather I shall seek to demonstrate how Freud’s critique of religion is based on a mode of thought that stems precisely from the Judeo-Christian tradition. This hypothesis is not widely shared. Peter Gay (1998), for example, traces the cultural foundations of psychoanalysis to the philosophical tradition of the enlightenment and of scientifi c positivism. I shall go through the works in which Freud explicitly examines religion: ‘Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices’ (1907); Totem and Taboo (1913); The Future of an Illusion (1927) and Moses and Monotheism (1939). Religion does appear in other works, such as the case of Little Hans, in Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood (1910); Civilization and its Discontents (1930); the letters; The Interpretation of Dreams (1900); ‘On Narcissism: An Introduction’ (1914b); ‘The Moses of Michelangelo’ (1914a) and Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921). But the places where references to religion appear are not as important as the question of how religion is defi ned by Freud in his construction of the psychoanalytical method. Spencer Brown, in his classic book Laws of Form (Spencer-Brown 1979) argued that to indicate something it is necessary to fi rst draw a distinction (Spencer-Brown 1979); and Martin Buber (1951) wrote an article, which has also become a classic, on the need to distance oneself from the other in order to construct a relationship. I shall therefore take as my point of departure the distinction that Freud traces between his scientifi c thought and religious thought, and the animistic thought on which it is based: ‘The human race, if we are to follow the authorities, have in the course of ages developed three such systems of thought – three great pictures of the universe: animistic (or mythological), religious and scientific’

(Freud SE 1913: 77). For Freud these three systems are not separate, although they do employ different logical systems and languages, which are incommensurable. This incommensurability is due to the different explanations of phenomena. Whereas animism is totalising in that it ‘gives a truly complete explanation of the nature of the universe’ and ‘contains the foundations on which religions are later built’ (Freud SE 1913: 77), scientifi c thought is characterised by its incompleteness: ‘Our god oo is perhaps not a very almighty one, and he may only be able to fulfi l a small part of what his predecessors have promised. If we have to acknowledge this we shall accept it with resignation’ (Freud SE 1927: 54). However, Freud’s view did not take into consideration the fact that the logos of religion coincided for a long time with the logos of science, and that the separation occurred in a precise context. This is usually identifi ed as the dispute between Galileo and Robert Bellarmine. In the dispute the nub of the question was whether the telescope used to observe objects on earth was of any value in also observing heavenly bodies existing in the Aristotelian fi fth essence, i.e. the ether – this fi fth element (or essence) not being part of the earth, as distinct from the other four: earth, water, air, fi re. Cardinal Bellarmine, who represented the establishment, made (as we now know) a fundamental error, but ever since then religion has abandoned knowledge of the universe and left it to science. That is to say, the separation between religious and scientifi c thought did not centre on the study of humanity, the psyche or the soul, but concerned the study of the universe.