One of the odder things Freud ever wrote was his 1927 essay The Future of an Illusion, in which he applied the ideas of psychoanalysis to cultural behavior and defined religion as an obsessional neurosis. Freud, of course, was a somewhat uncompromising non-believer whose ideas prefigured (by nearly 50 years) Ernest Becker's terror management theory in The Denial of Death.
For Freud (and Becker) religious belief functioned to ward off the terror of our helplessness before uncontrollable natural forces and the inevitability of our own demise. It was a way of coping with the indifferent cruelty of the natural world. Another non-believer, Richard Dawkins, once characterized nature as an endless horror show in which the "amount of suffering per year is... beyond all decent contemplation." Dawkins put it this way:
During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease.
So religion--and culture in general--are reactions that attempt to frame the human condition as a special exception to the horror show. We come to believe that nature 'red and tooth in claw' doesn't apply to us. We're civilized, more intelligent, possess a soul, whatever. Even so, civilization doesn't do much to erase our ominous forebodings of mortality. For that we need some assurances that there is a divine providence at work and maybe the promise of an afterlife if we get with the plan. The view of religion as an infantile attachment to daddy is standard, off-the-shelf atheism and so deeply reductive as to be absurd. It's the kind of analysis that sounds inane the minute you speak with any decent and faithful person.
Anyway, Freud's take on religion is not what makes the Future of an Illusion so odd. What makes it odd is that he cracks out of turn. He begins by defining religion as a neuroses in reaction to an intractable problem: we know we're going to die. And he ends with a very out-of-character optimism that human beings will somehow outgrow their need for illusions of an afterlife. He writes,
And as for the great necessities of fate, for which there is no remedy, [people] will simply learn to bear them with resignation... By withdrawing their expectations from the next world and concentrating their energies thus freed on earthly life, they will likely manage to make life bearable for all and see to it that culture no longer oppresses anyone. Thus without regret they will be able to say with one of our unbelievers: "Den Himmel überlassen wir / Den Engeln und den Spatzen" (We leave the heavens to the angels and the sparrows).Keep in mind that this essay was written three years before he completed Civilization and Its Discontents, which argues that oppression is a necessary condition for civilization. Without it we would be giving vent to every dark impulse our savage little souls could conjure forth. I don't know. It just strikes me as odd that Freud once predicted that the future of an illusion would be some illusory future of clear thinking about death.
I'm not sure such clear thinking exists and I think about death all the time. I don't have any particular belief in an afterlife, but that doesn't mean I have no terror to manage. I hope I make it to see my son launched into life. I worry about what will happen to my wife. I lament that I haven't spent more time fishing. Seventy or 80 years seems like such a swindle, hardly enough time to get it right or even get the taste of life in your mouth.
I also think often of a line from Phillip Larkin, who once said that life can be divided into two parts: "first boredom, then fear." I mean you spend most of your early years bored out of your skull and waiting for something to happen. Then, around the age of 50, you find yourself thinking: "Good Lord, I sure hope something doesn't happen."