Peter Kreeft

The Pillars of Unbelief—Freud

Source: Jan-Feb 1988
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Just as we have pillars of Christian faith, the saints, so are there individuals who have become pillars of unbelief. Peter Kreeft discusses six modern thinkers with an enormous impact on everyday life, and with great harm to the Christian mind:

He was the Columbus of the psyche. No psychologist alive escapes his influence.

Yet, along with flashes of genius, we find the most bizarre ideas in his writings—e.g., that mothers cuddle their babies only as a substitute for their desire to have sexual intercourse with them.

Sigmund Freud's most influential teaching is his sexual reductionism. As an atheist, Freud reduces God to a dream of man. As a materialist, he reduces man to his body, the human body to animal desire, desire to sexual desire and sexual desire to genital sex. All are oversimplifications.

Freud was a scientist, and in some ways a great one. But he succumbed to an occupational hazard: the desire to reduce the complex to the controllable. He wanted to make psychology into a science, even an exact science. But this it can never be because its object, man, is not only an object but also a subject, an "I."

At the basis of our century's "sexual revolution" is a demand for satisfaction and a confusion between needs and wants. All normal human beings have sexual wants or desires. But it's simply not true, as Freud constantly assumes, that these are needs or rights; that no one can be expected to live without gratifying them; or to suppress them is psychologically unhealthy.

This confusion between needs and wants stems from the denial of objective values and an objective natural moral law. No one has caused more havoc in this crucial area than Freud, especially regarding sexual morality. The modern attack on marriage and the family, for which Freud set the stage, has done more damage than any war or political revolution. For where else do we all learn the most important lesson in life—unselfish love—except in stable families who preach it by practicing it?

Yet, with all his faults, Freud still towers above the psychologies that replaced him in popular culture. Despite his materialism, he explores some of the deeper mysteries of the soul. He had a real sense of tragedy, suffering and unhappiness. Honest atheists are usually unhappy; dishonest atheists happy. Freud was an honest atheist.

And his honesty made him a good scientist. He believed that the mere act of raising up some repression or fear from the hidden darkness of the unconscious into the light of reason would free us from its power over us. It was the faith that truth is more powerful than illusion, light than darkness. Unfortunately, Freud classified all religion as mankind's most fundamental illusion and materialistic scientism as his only light.

We should distinguish sharply among three different dimensions in Freud. First, as an inventor of the practical, therapeutic technique of psychoanalysis, he's a genius and every psychologist is in his debt. Just as it's possible for a Christian philosopher like Augustine or Aquinas to use the categories of non-Christian philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, it's possible for a Christian psychiatrist to use the techniques of Freud without subscribing to his religious views.

Second, Freud as a theoretical psychologist is like Columbus, mapping out new continents but also making some serious mistakes. Some of these are excusable, as Columbus' were, by the newness of the territory. But others are simply prejudices, such as the reduction of all guilt to pathological feeling and failure to see that faith in God could ever have anything to do with love.

Third, Freud as a philosopher and religious thinker is strictly an amateur and little more than an adolescent. Let's explore these points one by one.

Freud's greatest work is certainly "The Interpretation of Dreams." Investigating dreams as a printout of the subconscious seems obvious today. But it was utterly new to Freud's contemporaries. His mistake was not to overemphasize the subconscious forces that move us, but to underemphasize their depth and complexity, as an explorer of a new continent might mistake it for simply a large island.

Freud discovered that hysterical patients who seemed to have no rational cause for their disorders were helped by what he called "the talking cure," using "free association" and paying attention to "Freudian slips" as clues from the subconscious. In a word, the thing worked despite the inadequacies of the theory behind it.

On the level of psychological theory, Freud divided the psyche into the id, the ego and the super ego. This seems at first to be quite similar to the traditional and commonsensical division into appetites, will and intellect (and conscience) that began with Plato. But there are crucial differences.

First, Freud's "super-ego" is not the intellect or conscience, but the unfree, passive reflection in the individual's psyche of society's restrictions on his desires—"thou shalt nots." What we take to be our own insight into real good and evil is only a mirror of man-made social laws, according to Freud.

Second, the "ego" is not free will but a mere facade. Freud denied the existence of free will, he was a determinist and saw man as a complex animal-machine.

Finally, the "id" ("it") is the only real self, according to Freud, and it's comprised simply of animal desires. It is impersonal; thus the name "it." Freud thus is denying the existence of a real personality, individual I-ness. Just as he denied God ("I Am"), he denies God's image, the human "I."

Freud's philosophical ideas are most candidly expressed in his two most famous anti-religious books, "Moses and Monotheism" and "The Future of an Illusion." Like Marx, he dismissed all religion as infantile without seriously examining its claims and arguments. But he did come up with a detailed explanation of the supposed origin of this "illusion." It has basically four parts: ignorance, fear, fantasy and guilt.

As ignorance, religion is a pre-scientific guess at how nature works: If there is thunder, there must be a Thunderer, a Zeus. As fear, religion is our invention of a heavenly substitute for the earthly father when he dies, gets old, goes away or sends his children out of the secure home into the frightening world of responsibility. As fantasy, God is the product of wish-fulfillment that there's an all-powerful providential force behind the terrifyingly impersonal appearances of life. And as guilt, God is the ensurer of moral behavior.

Freud's explanation of the origin of guilt is one of the weakest parts of his theory. It amounts to the story that once, long ago, a son killed his father, the head of a great tribe. That primal murder has haunted the human race's subconscious memory ever since. But this is no explanation at all; Why did the first murderer feel guilt?

Freud's most philosophical book was his last, "Civilization and its Discontents." In it he raised the great question of the summum bonum—the greatest good, the meaning of life and human happiness. He concluded as Ecclesiastes did, that it is unattainable. "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity," he says in effect. Instead, he promised to move us through successful psychotherapy, "from unmanageable unhappiness to manageable unhappiness."

One reason for his pessimism was his belief that there's a contradiction inherent in the human condition; this is the point of his title, "Civilization and its Discontents." On the one hand, we are animals seeking pleasure, motivated only by "the pleasure principle." On the other hand, we need the order of civilization to save us from the pain of chaos. But the restrictions of civilization curtail our desires. So the very thing we invented as a means to our happiness becomes our obstacle.

Toward the end of his life, Freud's thought became even darker and more mysterious as he discovered thanatos, the death wish. The pleasure principle leads us in two opposite directions: eros and thanatos. Eros leads us forward, into life, love, the future and hope. Thanatos leads us back to the womb, where alone we had no pain.

We resent life and our mothers for birthing us into pain. This mother-hate parallels the famous "Oedipus complex" or subconscious desire to murder our father and marry our mother—which is a perfect explanation of Freud's own atheism, resenting Father God and marrying Mother Earthiness.

As Freud was dying, Hitler was coming to power. Freud prophetically saw the power of the death wish in the modern world and was unsure which of these two "heavenly forces," as he called them, would win out. He died an atheist but almost a mystic. He had enough of the pagan in him to offer some profound insights, usually mixed up with outrageous blind spots. He calls to mind C.S. Lewis' description of pagan mythology: "gleams of celestial strength and beauty falling on a jungle of filth and imbecility."

What raises Freud far above Marx and secular humanism is his insight into the demon in man, the tragic dimension of life and our need for salvation. Unfortunately, he saw the Judaism he rejected and the Christianity he scorned as fairy tales, too good to be true. His tragic sense was rooted in his separation between the true and the good, "the reality principle" and happiness.

Only God can join them at their summit.