Open Letter to My Students 24: F for “Freud,” R for “Religion”

I discovered Freud and Peyton Place at about the same time. Peyton Place was a runaway best-seller because it was the first sexually explicit novel that featured teenagers like me. Libraries wouldn’t carry it and by the time I heard about it, censors had banned it, so my friends and I shared a single contraband copy that someone had smuggled into class. It was 1957, and I was 15. Need I say more?  

Freud was not as juicy, but at least he wasn’t banned, and he explained so much about the world – not just our own sexual awakening but the foibles of the adults against whom we were in temporary rebellion anyway. I read one book after another. Eventually, however, I encountered his claim that as a boy, I suffered from an Oedipal Complex that originated in prehistoric primal herds where sons rivalled their father for the sexual favor of their mother. That was too much for me. I filed my Freud books under “F” for “Fiction.” 

Years later, as a rabbi, I came to see that even when geniuses are wrong, they can be wrong profoundly, and in that more appreciative frame of mind, I returned to Freud, this time refiling him under “F” for “Freud.” His claim that religion is an “illusion” (The Future of an Illusion, 1927) gave me pause: was I selling people an illusion? My fears increased when I came to Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), where he called religion a “delusion” (Wahn in German), which seemed to me a whole lot worse.

Delusion is altogether negative. Illusion is not. We have delusions, not illusions, of grandeur. You can be deluded, not illuded. “Illusionism” is a label proudly used by historians of western art to describe painting from the Renaissance until modern times – a centuries-long experiment in rendering three-dimensional reality on a two-dimensional canvas, by using techniques like foreshortening, light, and shadows to make the painting looks like the real thing. Surrealist Rene Magritte plays with illusion when he paints a perfect pipe but tells us, “Ceci n’est pas un pipe” (“This isn’t a pipe”). Expressionist artist, Edvard Munch, paints The Scream to give us the illusion of seeing into the screamer’s tortured soul. 

All of this is illusion, not delusion. Philosophers too use the word “illusion” positively. Knowing that our eyes can fool us (we see tables and chairs, not the atoms that make them up), they label the naive trust in our perceptions as an illusion, but not as something to give up; it works quite well to sit down for breakfast every morning.

So maybe Freud is right: religion is an illusion. The important question is what it is an illusion of, and that is where Freud and I part ways. Freud called religion an illusion because he thought it was infantile projection to help us face life’s inevitable suffering, the accidents of fate over which we have no control; and for some people, it may be that. But artistic illusions provide compelling two-dimensional impressions of what cannot be captured in all their three-dimensional reality. Religion captures spiritual realities the way painting captures three-dimensional ones. They are both illusions, but not the infantile kind.

An incredibly realistic still-life painting looks exactly like the fruit bowl on our kitchen table. Similarly, the impressionists teach us to see how light changes the way an object appears: Monet’s Rouen Cathedral, for example, where, sure enough, were we in France, we could watch the real thing changing with the sunlight. But there is this important difference. Realist painting reproduces an object that we already know. Monet teaches us to see what we otherwise had never noticed. Sometimes illusions are revelatory. Even if they never quite picture what is unpicturable, they reveal reality in ways we never noticed. 

What if religion is that sort of illusion? Not a projection of infantile fear; not even just a spiritual rendering of what we already know; but a revelation of what we otherwise would have missed.

But here’s the rub! If we otherwise would have missed it, how do we know it is real? That is what must have gone through Freud’s head. He relabeled religion the way I relabeled him – but went the other way around. Religion as illusion might still be filed under R for “Religion”; religion as delusion suggests filing under R for “Ridiculous.” How indeed do we go about proving that a purpose to life or a transcendent meaning of any sort, say, are as real as the fruit bowl and the cathedral?

That is where theology comes in. Theology makes statements about God, history, human nature, and the cosmos in a way that asks our assent to what those sentences say. But it always comes after the experiential fact: the moments in life that stop us in our tracks from time to time and challenge us to ponder what they mean. I’ll never know what it is like for my own body to house what will someday be a baby, but it’s hardly something a new mother takes for granted. I do know what it was like to fall in love, and to lose the partner whom I fell in love with. I know also the fear of Covid, and the loneliness of attending weddings and funerals on a zoom screen. These are peak or nadir experiences — highs of amazement and joy or lows of heartache and loss — that evoke thoughtfulness, in, I suspect, pretty much everyone. Theology is a particular kind of after-the-fact thoughtfulness.

Religion is not all that different from art, philosophy and science, in that those who nurture a love for any of these find themselves getting stopped in their tracks more regularly — not just at highs and lows, but at the usual stuff that other people count as ordinary. A gorgeous downy woodpecker visited me the other day; the sun is setting noticeably later now; my parents died at 60, while I am 79 and still going strong. Our solar system is apparently traveling in the middle of a “bubble” of emptiness because 14,000,000 years ago, exploding stars cleared a pathway of stellar dust and gas that is 1,000 light years wide. Some of these things I experience directly; some of them I read or hear about and integrate into who I am.

Religion is its own illusionist attempt to grasp realities that stare me in the face, in a revelatory sort of way.


One response to “Open Letter to My Students 24: F for “Freud,” R for “Religion”

  1. And this says pretty much everything you need to know about why religion still matters – even now, maybe even more now than ever.

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