Ask most anyone about the religious convictions of Sigmund Freud, and they’ll tell you he was an atheist. They would be right, but there’s more to Freud’s story than a simple label.
Freud was born to Jewish parents. Religion was a large part of his background, but from an early age he developed an affinity for science and embraced atheism. Yet he was deeply fascinated by the effect that religion had upon thought processes and lives, and he studied religion throughout his entire career.
In many of his early works, such as Civilization and its Discontents and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud described religion in terms that sound negative. According to Freud, religion was a means for people to exert control over the unstable outside world, and return to the bliss of childhood. Religion was an illusion, delusion, or “universal obsessional ritual.”
Freud saw that religion wielded power over people’s lives. It unified social groups, and, like scientific theories or philosophical systems, was a way for people to make sense of their world and discover their place in their surroundings.
Many religious followers react negatively to Freud’s description of faith as a “neurosis.” Yet the Freud Museum in London defends his use of the term, stating that to Freud, neurosis was not necessarily a negative descriptor, but was “more or less a shorthand description for the human condition.”
Perhaps the pervading sense of disapproval is a reaction to a complex and easily misunderstood man. Freud continually strived to learn and develop new ideas. Later in life, he could even decipher some good in an institution he had previously rejected.
One of Freud’s last works, Moses and Monotheism, presents theories about the person of Moses that not many following the Abrahamic faith traditions could espouse. He introduced evidence that Moses was actually an Egyptian and that monotheism grew out of worship of the Egyptian sun god Aton.
In a New York Times article, Mark Edmundson, professor at the University of Virginia, pointed out that Freud’s controversial book provides insight into his changing view of religion. Freud began to appreciate distinctive aspects of Judaism, and he related to the persona of Moses.
Freud noted that many religions maintain a visual aspect: people desire to visibly encounter the deity they follow. Yet Judaism relied solely on faith and not on sight. Freud credited this belief for a heightened ability to think abstractly. According to Freud, Jewish thought laid the foundation for intellectual progress in the Western world. He even held up psychoanalysis as the heir of Jewish thought.
The belief in an unseen God also helped Jews develop another unseen feature of life: the mind. According to Edmundson, “Freud argues that taking God into the mind enriches the individual immeasurably.” The Jewish people were able to develop introspection through their faith in God.
Freud maintained his atheism alongside his ethnic identity as a Jew. He hoped that, someday, mankind would move past the need for religion. Yet he also found poetry in religion. Even though he disagreed with religious practice, he was willing to learn from it. That trait of discovery can be respected and emulated even by those who believe deeply today.