Category Archives: Sigmund Freud

Getting All Ziggy-Zaggy

Before Google Maps and Delta Air Lines, word drifting back on boats from parts unknown had the feel of authentic pre-history. Imagine breaking through the brush in a plateau in the Amazon Basin and finding — ick! — a bunch of dinosaurs, untouched by time, unwrecked by Western European wizardry.

Well, that’s how sociology was done at the turn of the 20th century. Some data would come back from some tribe, they’d think “Aha! the primal sweetness!” and dive in with their intellectual meathooks and cleavers. Big assumption was (a) these tribes hadn’t changed in millenia, and (b) they represented a picture of a civilization — any civilization, including our own — at an earlier stage of development. So we could get to the real object of obsession: our own selves.

This “method” required the armchair socio-anthropologists, back home in England and Prussia, to make massive leaps of logic. Stories filtering in from Australian aborigines (a favorite) and Papua New Guineans (another) were fragmentary, scattershot. They required a LOT of imaginative reconstruction — and I do mean reconstruction. Look at The Golden Bough or Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. These are Tolkien-esque feats of mental empire building.

Which  brings us to Sigmund “Ziggy” Freud’s two flyers at imposing a reading on limited inputs: aka, “Moses and Monotheism” and “Totem and Taboo.” Both reconstructed absolutely bonzo fantasies out of the limited aboriginal data that had primitive tribes, including the Jews, enacting a depraved orgy of incest, patricide and guilt. Yes, Freud looked at Australia and the Hebrew Bible and found the Oedipal Complex in action. You can’t make this stuff up.

Nietzsche starts the “Genealogy” thanking psychologists for “hauling the shameful part of our inner world into the foreground, in order to look right there for the truly effective and operative factor which has determined our development.” He wrote this in 1887; Freud was in college in Paris at the time. But he could have been summarizing “Totem” and “Moses.”

Ziggy believed that civilizations evolve and grow up the same way people do, passing from primitivity to maturity. This evolution necessarily involves turning enacted feelings (i.e., actual incest and daddy-murder) into repressed feelings (i.e., incest fantasies and Oedipal complexes). Otherwise: no civilization. So it seemed reasonable to take contemporary evidence of aboriginal tribes as a window into our own childish minds.

As Freud put it in his essay on “Leonardo da Vinci” (1916): “The psychic development of the individual is a short repetition of the course of development of the race.” It’s quite touching, in a way: the Zig-man thought all people, all civilizations, were essentially the same, and that the maturing modern mind went through all the episodes of our collective history.

Pause tape. An extraordinary claim. These late Victorian Austro-Germans like Freud and Nietzsche were so bold, and wrote so vividly and idiosyncratically, it’s a positive joy to behold. Maybe that’s what genius is: the ability to outrage in original ways.

I don’t know. At any rate, “Totem and Taboo” — based on the aboriginal evidence and the evidence of Freud’s psychoanalytic practice — reconstructs a collective past where a polygamous tribal father who monopolized all the luscious tribal booty was murdered by his sons (on account of said booty monopolization), who then felt guilty and set up all kinds of tribal taboos and resulting repressions.

“Moses and Monotheism” does the same, but with Jews. It was Freud’s last book, written before he died in England, on the run from the rat-bastard Nazis. Jews begged him not to publish it because he claimed Moses was an Egyptian, not a Jew, and that he was murdered in the desert by Jews who were enacting an Oedipal drama.

“The reviews were terrible,” says the New York Times. “The private response was often bitter. And Freud was delighted.” It sold well. He knew he was right. His personal review: “Quite a worthy exit.”

I’ve gone on longer than usual because I feel the need to move along. Freud is a trap: I don’t think he answers the question whether there is or is not a God. Certainly, he thought religion was worse than misguided – that it was a roadblock to progress. He noticed “the feeble intellectual powers of the average adult” – hey! – and suspected religious education.

In short: Zig-inator found the idea of God “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 would never be able to rise above this view of life.” Sigh.

But he makes a slip at one point in “Illusion” – a subtle, telling slip that speaks psychoanalytic volumes, I think. If he succeeds in ridding society of the “neurotic relics” of religion, he says, then “our appointed task of reconciling men to civilization will to a great extent be achieved.”

Hold on. Isn’t “reconciling men to civilization” exactly what Freud thinks RELIGION does? The analogy is quite direct: Psychoanalysis is a Religion. But if that’s true, who is God? Two guesses, and the first one doesn’t count.

For those of us made stupid by a religious education, Freud comes out and says: “Psycho-analysis is my CREATION!” [italics, caps and exclamation point added for comic effect]


Into the Freud

So why do we insist on believing in the “illusion” of God and participating in the “universal obsessional neurosis” that is organized religion? Freud has two good reasons, the second a lot weirder than the first — in fact, a tad creepy.

"Wah wah! Where's my daddy?"

First, it’s a psychic defense against reality, which is chaos. “Life and the universe must be robbed of their terrors,” he says, quite reasonably. There’s a horrible helplessness in the raging face of “impersonal forces and destinies” — and not just for primitives. “Every civilization rests on a compulsion to work and a renunciation of instinct.” So religion appears to soften our fears with fantasies of key lime pie in the sky in the sweet by-and-by; civilization condones it to channel the unmanageable instincts we all have to scream, fight and — much, much worse! — quit our jobs.

There’s an Oedipal dimension, of course. This IS Ziggy Freud talking here, bros. “Once before one has found oneself in a similar state of helplessness,” he says, “as a small child, in relation to one’s parents.” We feared them, especially dad, but they protected us, especially dad. (We’ll get to the Oedipal part tomorrow; it’s too freaky for a Friday.) So he comes up with the compelling idea that God is an infant’s image of a father.

After I heard this idea, I happened to be scrolling past a Southern Baptist confab on the flat-screen Insignia and saw all those large white adults with their hands in the air, looking exactly like toddlers reaching up to their daddy and thought: Darn if this Freud fellow isn’t onto something.

Second, creepier reason: Religion is born from “memories of the helplessness of [our] own childhood” — he just told us that, but wait: “AND THE CHILDHOOD OF THE HUMAN RACE” [block caps added for maximum dramatic blog-tastic effect].

Say what? Religion is not just infantile wishful thinking. Oh no, that would be too simple. It’s all tied up in a collective historical memory of a terrible incident in the sands of Egypt when our ancestors rose up and killed Moses. Not in the Bible, you say? Ziggy’s truth is far deeper than mere works of Hebrew fiction.

Are you on the edge of your virtual psychoanalytic couch, girls? We thought so.

Grand Freud Auto

Not sure what that title has to do with anything, but it’s the best I can do, as we Minnesotans have passed the point of being restless and bored with winter. Now we peer over the railing of the Washington Bridge on our daily march to work and gaze longingly at the icy depths, begging God to take us into His own sweet embrace … except He can’t because the Mississippi River is covered with ICE!

So we trudge on — much as Sigmund “Ziggy” Freud did — howling all the way. “The elements,” he says in a particularly lovely phrase in his anti-God screed The Future of an Illusion, “have passions that rage as they do in our own souls.” Ziggy had soul! He had something he did not even believe existed.

As we’ve wandered deeper into January’s theme of Atheism, I’ve noticed a strange, Midwestern quirk in these skeptics. They don’t go all Medieval on the Big Banana and try to PROVE It does NOT exist, the way Anselm and Maimonides tried to prove that It did. No, they go all passive-aggressive on It.

Freud comes right out: “To assess the truth value of religious doctrines does not lie within the scope of the present enquiry.” And yet. Sociologists who study religion practice “methodological atheism,” which means they supposedly set aside truth claims about God and study only the human element. But darn if they don’t leave you feeling stupid for believing, every time.

As a theologian, Ziggy was a great psychoanalyst. The “God” he describes (briefly) in Illusion is like a caricature of a picture book from a Shul class for eight year-olds called “Is God My Daddy?” Like the captions from a pamphlet I got at Sunday school in Birmingham, Michigan called “Jesus Is My Best Friend.” As the great Karen Armstrong points out in The Case for God, most atheists are smart people who haven’t bothered to learn much about religion.

Ziggy’s grasp of theology, much less religious experience, is about as compelling as my grasp of neurobiology. It’s that weak. Which doesn’t make him wrong, just less mind-blowing.

So here it is, free from The God Project Dot Net for the people of the world:

Judeo-Christian Theology, According to Ziggy Freud

First, religious ideas are “given out as teachings” and people believe them “because our forefathers believed.” Religious people all believe three things:

  1. “Benevolent rule of divine Providence” — that God “orders everything for the best — that is, to make it enjoyable for us”
  2. “A moral world-order” — that is, “in the end all good is rewarded and all evil punished”
  3. “Prolongation of earthly existence in a future life”

And that’s about it. Religion as a long, warm bath, with our eyes wide shut. Which is — to be honest — exactly what we need right now. Shalom.


Well, seekers, we never thought we’d say this but here it is out loud in gray and white: Reading Sigmund “Ziggy” Freud is fun! He’s a blast of psychoanalytic organ music! A God-bashing geriatric gong!

The Father of Psychoanalysis

Of course he’s an atheist. Wake me up when you say something new. But I’d forgotten — if I ever knew — just what a splenetic, sassy, paranoid, ad hominem windbag of woe he appears on the pages of “The Future of an Illusion.” To be fair, this screed was committed in 1927 during the terrible pre-Nazi years, when Ziggy himself was 71 years old and feeling it.

But hey. If only people still wrote with such spiraling self-esteem, such eccentric style! It’s inspiring — and I mean this sincerely — to encounter such a clear point of view. Freud is no Minnesotan: he KNOWS for a fact that you are wrong.

“Illusion” is the primary text of atheism. It rehearses all but the most sociological and directly theological arguments against belief. It has no punchline; the thesis is right in the title, dude. Take a peek. About religious beliefs, Ziggy says: “All of them are illusions and insusceptible of proof.” And, worse: “Religion [is] the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity.”

His point makes more sense if instead of “illusion” you substitute “wishful-thinking.” He thinks religion is a Fantasy Island we’ve constructed to console us in a hostile world, a kind of imaginary prolongation of the warmer parts of pre-teen life.

Well, maybe. What’s more striking is Ziggy’s method. It’s frighteningly confident. For an anti-theological nuclear wedgie, “Illusion” contains not a single quote from scripture, theologians, church historians, any historians, other skeptics, atheists or angry colleagues from the Psychoanalytic Institute; not a lonely recitation of an event from history (except, weirdly, Prohibition), biographical sketch or amusing anecdote from the life of an Austrian truth-teller.

Nope: Freud is monologizing. More than once I thought of Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy. He just goes on and on.

And did someone say paranoid? Near the end, Freud frets that his dangerous ideas will once again bring him nothing but grief. But he is prepared: “If a man has already learnt in his youth to rise superior to the disapproval of his contemporaries, what can it matter to him in his old age … ?”

What, indeed? Let we who are about to die, deny God.

We’d like to get to what he means by “religion” — to what he’s attacking — but are out of human time. Interestingly, it turns out a few years later Ziggy is not quite so insistent. In “Civilization and Its Discontents,” he talks about religious feelings (as opposed to doctrines) almost respectfully:

“From my own experience I could not convince myself of the primary nature of such a feeling. But this gives me no right to deny that it does in fact occur in other people. The only question is whether it is being correctly interpreted and whether it ought to be regarded as the fons et origo of the whole need for religion.”

Jumping for Freud

Lately we’ve been dipping our neurotic, mother-loving wicks into Sigmund “Ziggy” Freud’s incendiary essay on religion, “The Future of an Illusion.” And all we can say is: Oh, God! What an atheist!

Sigmund Freud

Ziggy doesn’t just say there is no God. The obvious drops below his dignity. No, he has a far more destructive destination: to prove that belief in God is not just incorrect but pathological, that religion causes mental illness and believers are clinically deluded. And unlike Karl “Grumpy” Marx, Ziggy really cared about religion – cared the way he cared about incest and murder fantasies, as cryptic messages from the darkened tunnels of the mind.

To his dying twitch, Ziggy thought believers in God should be “cured” and their infantile goofiness replaced with reality. This very issue was one of the main causes of his break-up with Carl “Cool Cat” Jung. Reading Freud on religion is like sitting on a sofa at a party next to a kind-looking older man and listening to him say, hey, you’re an idiot, and by the way here’s two hours of why.

Luckily, “Illusion” is only 66 pages long. Though at a list price of $13.95, it’s 42 cents per double-sided page, which is quite a premium to pay for cold water down the back of your pants. But no matter: The God Project Dot Net is open-minded, undecided, and if there really is no God we might as well find out before we waste any more Sunday mornings at the beautiful, thriving St. Mary’s Basilica in downtown Minneapolis (“America’s First Basilica”).

Before we toddle in, here’s a short, highly biased bio of the great Ziggy “Killjoy” Freud:

He was born. His seductive, magnetic mother adored him, perhaps a bit too much. The family were unobservant Jews. After medical school, he worked in Paris for a hypnotist. Back in Vienna, he got married and thought cocaine could cure unhappiness. He best-friended – and later hated – a throat doctor named Wilhelm Fliess. According to Yale’s Peter Gay, Freud originally held that “every neurosis resulted from premature sexual activity, mainly child molestation, in childhood.”

His first book, Interpretation of Dreams, sold 351 copies over six years. Ziggy was 50 when he met Carl Jung, but “he had long brooded on himself as aging and decrepit,” says Gay. He best-friended – and later hated – Jung. He best-friended – and later hated – Alfred Adler, who believed that all neurosis was caused by “organ inferiority.”

Freud was 61 when he had his first best-seller, Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1917). He adored his sixth child, Anna, perhaps a bit too much. Freud psychoanalyzed her, on the couch, for years. A lifelong cigar habit gave him the palate cancer that made his last years so painful. He was 71 when he wrote “The Future of an Illusion.” Two of his last three books were attacks on religion.

In 1939, at the start of World War II, Freud asked his doctor to euthanize him. He died.

A Brief History of Skepticism, Backwards (Part I)

There’s the New Atheists and the Evangelicals and you and me. God dies on the cover of Time magazine in 1966. Liberation theologians and feminists. Existentialists, who seem to turn people into God; who give people the power to control their own fates through their decisions. Of course, I’m misunderstanding. Right?

Monkey pondersAnd the great Karl Barth. Enraged by the breathtaking spinelessness of his former theological idols in Germany, who supported World War I, Barth makes a riveting, very Protestant case that God is unfathomably, utterly Other than us; that the so-called reasonable, liberal theology that had us all in its monkey paw from Schleiermacher in 1805 until well into the 20th century – that it trivializes God into an intuition.

Just like the Book of Job: Barth says it’s not our, um, job to understand God or to get it – our, ahem, job is to submit with faith to the grace that God bestows. And this is not passivity; it’s reality.

And then Karl Marx calls religion a Machiavellian smokescreen obscuring the boot-heel-grinding tactics of the ultrarich, an “opiate” about as real as any drug-induced hallucination. And Freud, on the other flank, saying faith is an immature adaptation to conflict of no use whatever in the process of growth.

We come to the 19th century – and Zionism, and some unbelievably reactionary Popes, such as Pius IX, who not only declares himself infallible in some circumstances, but issues a proclamation stating that modernity, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, none of it happened.

Nietzsche announces “God is dead – and we have killed him.” Could not have been talking about Charles Darwin, whose The Origin of Species is not about how men descended from apes. Darwin’s just observing that individuals who are more suited to their environment are more likely to breed. What’s so deadly about that?

There’s the beginnings of the critical study of the Hebrew Bible, the identification of four or five different sources for the Pentateuch, which may not have been written by Moses after all.