01/31/2007 09:21 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Religion After Freud

Sigmund Freud was the apostle of disbelief. He was the one who made psychoanalysis a part of our culture, and in so doing he kicked out a flying buttress that had been essential for holding up our cathedral of faith. There is no doubt that religion had already waned under the onslaught of the Enlightenment, but it was Freud who provided the radically new understanding of human nature that made any religious explanation of the whats and whys of our personhood seem naïve.

Religion had established rules and regulations that governed our behavior. Our impulses and instincts had been kept in check by those rules and regulations which religion had taught us had been established by God. We knew that keeping our intense sexual appetites under control and gratified only within the confines of marriage was crucial for establishing a stable society.

The reason we obeyed such rules, which were obviously a source of great frustration and, as Freud would say, "discontents," was that we believed that they were handed down to us from Heaven. We did not yield to our impulses because we were convinced that God forbade such behavior and that deviation from His will would carry with it horrendous punishments.

Freud delivered us from all of that by telling us those rules were really created by the society into which we were socialized, and were drilled into our subconscious minds by the likes of our parents (in his day, primarily fathers). Freud taught us that it wasn't God that imposed judgment on us and made us feel guilty when we stepped out of line. Instead, it was the superego--that idealized concept of what a good person is supposed to be and do--given to us by our parents, that condemned us for what had been hitherto regarded as ungodly behavior. Instead of a transcendent God, it was this subconscious ideal self that had been created by those who reared us from infancy that said "no" to our natural impulses and desires.

Through psychoanalysis, Freud told us, we could come to understand those condemning inner feelings. He delivered us from that which would otherwise have kept us from the gratifications and self-fulfillment that could make us happy.

The frustrations that result from having to obey the socially created policeman in our subconscious, said Freud, are what make us neurotic. Furthermore, if we are to become the self-actualized, fulfilled human beings we long to be, we must realize what the superego does to us, and in this understanding be freed from its "harmful" effects.

In our post-Freudian world it is no longer a goal to become people of character who live out a God-ordained ideal of selfhood. Instead, in the triumph of Freudian-inspired hyper-individualism, each person is urged to live out his or her appetites for gratification. All of this was to the end that each of us would become satiated and satisfied with life. With Freud, God, and the need for God-dictated restraints, had been abolished.

If we stop to think about it, there is, to use Stephen Colbert's term, a certain "truthiness" to Freud's theories. What he said has been asserted by great intellects, such as the recently deceased Philip Rieff, who claimed that Freud was scientific. However, it should be pointed out that there is nothing at all scientific about Freud's theories. Is there any empirical proof that fits within the canons of science and validates his claims?

Who's to say that there is any more support for Freud's psychoanalytic concept of the superego than there is for that old time religion that asserted that there is a God who ordains what is right and wrong, and that His righteousness endures for all generations?

If we are to be pragmatic and judge these two options by their results, there is little doubt that the God postulate comes out on top. In a world increasingly governed by the impulse release theories of Freud, marital infidelity has become commonplace, premarital sex with all of its destructive consequences has become prevalent, and society in general has lost, as the poet Yeats would say, "its center."

Instead of self-fulfilling and self-actualizing persons emerging out of the milieu created by the triumph of the psychoanalytical therapy created by Freud and his followers, we have instead the individuated selfish homo sapien who seeks only the maximization of personal pleasure. And since wealthy, successful people are the ones who are most likely to have the means to pursue those pleasures that offer the only meaning in this post-Freudian society, is it any wonder that we are raising up a generation of children whose aspirations in life are wholly materialistic?

If judged pragmatically, would you not have to conclude that psychoanalysis has not been the cure for society's illness but actually may be the cause of its sicknesses? Judged pragmatically, it is easy to conclude that believing in a God-ordained order of right and wrong offers the best hope for a humanity that does not go crazy with a pseudo-science that leaves us in a normless world in which each seeks the maximization of pleasure without regard to judgment.