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Freud's Illusion: New Approaches to Intractable Issues

David E. Kronemyer
International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 2011, 21 (4): 249-275.


In his later theological work The Future of an Illusion, Freud (1927/1961) makes provocative suggestions about the psychological significance of religious ideas. Freud begins by analyzing their meaning in the lives of particular individuals. He then extrapolates to a critique of their effect on human civilization. Religion originally evolved in order to explain difficult concepts such as death and fate. It quickly outgrew its purely theological dimensions and became a social regulator by coercing compliance with a set of cultural norms. The purpose of this article is not to evaluate whether Freud was right, that is, if religion in fact is an illusion. Rather, using concepts derived from current work in analytical theology, it examines the internal logic of Freud's analysis and some of the assumptions he made to reach this conclusion. Despite his theoretical insights, much of Freud's reasoning is invalid and many of his premises are questionable. Freud adopts assertions without explaining them and does not offer much in the way of deductive or inferential support for his argument. This article advocates an epistemological approach to understanding Freud's use of terms such as "wishes" and "illusions." Adopting this perspective uncovers tacit presuppositions underlying his theory about the origins of religious belief and its relationship to culture and society, and clarifies the conceptual links holding it together.