Classics for the Contemporary Christian: Freud’s Non-Libidinal Rub

Book Reviews, Culture, Religion — By on March 15, 2010 at 12:05 am

What do you want, purpose or happiness?

If you don’t think the two pursuits are exclusive, take it up with Freud, who says as much in his treatise Civilization and its Discontents.

“The idea of life having a purpose stands and falls with the religious system,” he said. “We will therefore turn to the less ambitious question of what men themselves show…to be the purpose and intention of their lives…happiness.” Freud asserts that religion’s goal of objective purpose is an illusion; reality demonstrates that everyone pursues happiness.

[Religion] is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life. It is still more humiliating to discover how a large number of people living today, who cannot but see that this religion is not tenable, nevertheless try to defend it piece by piece in a series of pitiful rearguard actions.

This is Freud’s first critique of religion, leading into the next: religion is not only wrong, it imposes ‘wrongness’ on everyone else.

Freud thinks there is not a universal route to happiness (i.e. pleasure). The paths are subjective, and they are all legitimate. For example, concerning sex, homosexually or heterosexuality are valued equally: if it brings pleasure, it is legitimately pursued. Even aggression towards others, such as the desire to murder, is not ‘wrong’. Civilization, for its own sustainability, has to suppress these instincts.

However, only instincts that threaten civilization should be suppressed–the ‘harmless’ ones like incest or polygamy, Freud says, are suppressed only because of religious imposition.

Examining moral standards, such as ones against heterosexuality, promiscuity or incest, Freud tasted ‘arbitrary!’ in his mouth. Still, Freud never claims that these arbitrary religious rules, in their pursuit of purpose, directly contradict pursuing happiness. Religion “spar[es] many people an individual neurosis” and, in that, could possibly bring an individual some level of happiness.

He doubts it will last long: if a believer is ever slapped awake from religion’s “mass-delusion,” he will see that “all that is left to him as a last possible consolation and source of pleasure in his suffering is an unconditional submission.” In other words, a splash of cold water, and the faithful will collapse into a nihilism.

Freud’s charge against religion is not that it does not bring happiness—he can no more say that to believers than believers can say that to incestuous polygamists. His accusation is that believers do say such things–they impose their ideals of purpose and happiness on non-Christians, culturally repressing what Freud considers natural expression of libido, (for example, incest or polygamy).

Because religion seeks ‘purpose’ over ‘happiness’, bigheaded religious disciples, thinking they’ve stumbled into the truth, feel justified in stripping away “sinful” means of pleasure. In doing this, the “lullaby about Heaven” diffuses the libido, the source of love and hate (which are essentially ‘lust’ and ‘aggression’), ending the life-creating struggle between love and hate. Expressions of love and hate suppressed, civilized humans cave in on themselves and become their own means of unhappiness through guilt and misanthropy.

To summarize: Freud thinks that religion’s illusion of morality leads to guilt over natural pleasure-drives, which leads to humans hating themselves.

What happens if Freud is arraigned in his own courthouse—does he escape Felixocentrism? (Yes, I made that word up—don’t impose on my happiness.)

Maybe the answer is up to us. If we read Freud and ignore him, he escapes his critique. But, unfortunately for Freud, if we actually fill his prescription, he’ll falls into one of two contradictions.

One contradiction is this: if Freud is right that our primary and legitimate aim is pleasure, than believers must derive pleasure from imposing their beliefs. Freud, by condemning the imposition, is imposing on what he simultaneously calls legitimate behavior.  His theory could theoretically stand, but he has broken his own rule.

The other dilemma for Freud arises from an alternative perspective on the same scenario. Again, Freud says that pleasure-pursuits are all legitimate. Assuming that believers derive pleasure from ‘ethical tyranny’, Freud’s condemnation of religion’s ‘tyranny’ can only escape hypocrisy if his theory is false, and ethical imposition is illegitimate.

Either way, if a Christian changes her ethical standards on Freud’s account, she undermine the authority of Freud himself. And that, I’m afraid, is Freud’s non-libidinal rub. ‘


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  • Gabriel

    Sigmund Freud

    The ignorant pronounce it “Frood”
    To cavil or applaud.
    The well-informed pronounce it “Freud,”
    But I pronounce it “Fraud.”

    – G.K. Chesterton

  • JillD

    Does Freud’s definition of “happiness” match yours? I would submit that true happiness is the result of true righteousness, of actions that are true, good, and beautiful. Unrestrained pleasure is NOT the same as happiness. Momentary ‘happiness’ perhaps, but it too often results in life-long misery and regret.

    The wonderful thing about being a Christian is that that pursuit of happiness also fulfills the purpose of being a Christian. They are hardly contradictory endeavors.