Freud and the Love Delusion

If you think Christianity is foolish, you’re not alone. Marx believed that the promise of immortality kept the working classes shamefully submissive. Nietzsche said Judaism and Christianity had inverted human virtue, trading strength for pity. And Freud diagnosed religion as a form of mass delusion.

But to cite Marx, Nietzsche and Freud is merely to round up the usual suspects. What is interesting is to hear Christians weighing in on the same side with many of the same words. Most prominently, the apostle Paul says that the message of the cross is foolish, weak and scandalous: “For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.” (I Cor 1.18-31).

This is one thing that believers and skeptics should be able to agree upon: the story of Jesus is nonsense. Christ’s call to love all people universally and unconditionally is the height of idiocy – if the natural world is all there is.

Whereas Ivan Karamazov famously argues, ‘If God does not exist, all things are permissible,’ Freud argues that if God does not exist, unconditional love is impossible. Why? Because for Freud, love must be earned. Love is not love if the other person does not deserve it. Otherwise it is worth nothing. And how does one deserve such love? ‘He deserves it if he is so like me in important ways that I can love myself in him; and he deserves it if he is so much more perfect than myself that I can love my own self in him.’[1] In short, to love another person is to love oneself.

What then happens to the one who has nothing to offer in return for my love? Freud answers that it would be wrong to love a person who has ‘no worth of his own’ since it puts the unattractive on par with those whom I prefer. It would be an insult to those I truly love.

In the end, Freud admits that the stranger must be put on the same level as the enemy. ‘Not merely is this stranger in general unworthy of my love,’ he writes; ‘I must honestly confess that he has more claim to my hostility and even my hatred.’[2] Christ’s command to love one’s neighbor, then, amounts to the same thing as his command to love one’s enemies.

Freud’s final reason for rejecting this call to unconditional love is simple. When one fails to live up to this impossible ideal of love, one feels shame, which in turn leads to neurosis. The believer becomes a fool.

Freud and Paul agree. Self-sacrificial love is foolish to those who don’t believe. It confounds human wisdom by exalting folly; it undermines power by reveling in weakness. However, Freud and Paul part ways at the point of decision – Freud rejects the way of unconditional love; Paul embraces it.

Foolish to the end, Paul gives his life for a story about a homeless Jewish criminal who rose from the dead. Whereas Freud, the realist, confesses in the end, ‘I have not the courage to rise up before my fellow-men as a prophet, and I bow to their reproach that I can offer them no consolation.’[3]

Paul is a fool for believing in the impossible — unconditional love. Freud is a fool for guarding his mind against hope, rejecting the possibility of love. There is no neutrality when it comes to the foolishness of self-sacrificial love.  What kind of fool will you be?

Matt Mattoon


[1] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1961), 66.

[2] Ibid., 67.

[3] Ibid., 111.


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3 responses to “Freud and the Love Delusion

  1. Beautiful and deep. I have accepted to be the one who goes for the unconditional love, given for free. That’s all about grace.
    Peace,

  2. Very insightful comments and you are correct. Emotion is the enemy if intellectuals and God is ultimately based off…an emotion. As a result they are not compatible and never will be. Personally I will be a fool for Christ.

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