Freud’s God

God is a projection of the human father. As Sigmund Freud explains, God does not exist because he is just our conceptual longing for a heavenly father. He is an imaginary being we wish were there, to protect us the way our earthly father did when we were children. God is like a father for childish adults, so to speak.

Freud

When a growing individual finds out he is destined to remain a child forever, that he will never live without protection against strange superior powers, he lends these powers the characteristics of the father figure; he creates to himself the gods he fears, he tries to propitiate, and to whom, nonetheless, he trusts his own protection… A personal God is, psychologically, nothing more than an exalted father.[1]

Freud’s view makes a lot of sense, if you think about it. We are indeed born as helpless infants, who need the care of our parents to survive. We do long for security and protection against the threats of nature and society. We do miss the intimate bond we had with our parents when we were little enough to depend on them. And a personal, almighty God fits the recipe to satisfy these longings. He would be a perfect source of care, protection, and intimacy.

Yet regardless of how compelling Freud’s perspective is, in my view it does not add any data to the debate about God’s existence. It presupposes the very thing it tries to prove; it is an illuminating argument explaining the psychology of belief if we assume that God is a false idea, and try to explain how people come to believe in him anyway. Freud does not address the concrete existence of God, as a living being out there. God’s inexistence is presupposed.

But this limitation does not demerit the argument. It is still offers a compelling psychology of belief. Indeed, the problem is that it is too compelling; it backfires. If only we flip the coin, the argument illuminates how people who have a negative view of their earthly father come to wish God did not exist. Their abusive or absent father lead them to conceive God as an omnipotent bully, as a towering figure who is going to reject and abandon them, and so they reject God for it. A father maximized into eternity would be a frightening nightmare; they wish in their guts he did not exist.

Indeed many of the major atheists of history experienced their fathers’ death at early age or had a terrible relationship with their father. Friedrich Nietzsche’s close, loving father died when he was 5. Hume’s father passed away when he was 2; Bertrand Russell’s when he was 4; Camus’ when he was 1; Richard Carlyle’s when he was 4; Robert Taylor when he was 7; Jean-Paul Sartre’s when he had 15 months. Voltaire had an antagonistic relationship with his father; Albert Ellis felt profound neglect and abandonment; Madalyn Murray O’Hair tried to murder her father with a butcher knife; Freud himself despised his father as weak, unable to provide for the family and as a sexual deviant. Samuel Butler considered his parents “brutal and stupid by nature,” recording about his father that “He never liked me, nor I him; from my earliest recollections I can call to mind no time when I did not fear him and dislike him…. I have never passed a day without thinking of him many times over as the man who was sure to be against me.”[2] No wonder these experiences of abandonment and antagonism influenced even great thinkers to consider God as an enemy to be fought against.

Bottom line: our earthly father affects how we view our heavenly Father. A caring God makes sense if we had a caring father. A benevolent Father is emotionally difficult to conceive when our experiences of fatherhood are negative right at the time when we were most fragile. Mature, thoughtful belief or unbelief in God requires us to acknowledge our past experiences. So, if we had a loving dad, may this not lead us to an unexamined, naïve belief in God. On the other hand, if we did not have a father or had a bad one, may we learn to forgive him, to grow established past him, to look at life as a generous gift rather than as an universe against us, and maybe to be open to meet the living God afresh.

René Breuel


[1] Sigmund Freud, O Futuro de Uma Ilusão [The Future of an Illusion], trans. José O. de Aguiar Abreu (Rio de Janeiro: Imago, 1969), 39.

[2] Clara G. Stillman, Samuel Butler: A Mid-Victorian Modern (London: Martin Secke, 1932).

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2 responses to “Freud’s God

  1. All religions with NO exceptions are projections of the collective tribalistic ego. The tribalistic ego may only be a handful of people or billions as in the case of global Christian-ism.

    The creator-god idea is of course a projection of mommy and daddy. The good-luck “God” that protects us, punishes us when we are naughty, and rewards us when we are “good”. The Santa Claus “God” also rewards us with the goodies of life if we say the right prayers – or write a letter to Santa in the case of children.

    Meanwhile, every body inevitably disintegrates and dies. And we are “reborn” again and again in never-ending cycles, into exactly the same fear-saturated situation, until we Wake Up.

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