Thursday, June 25, 2009

Freud and Religion

Last night Laura Sizer and I went to see Freud's Last Session in Pittsfield, MA (here is an earlier post with a review from the Boston Globe). The play has a good tempo and does not extend its welcome. In 75 minutes we get to enjoy a good intellectual exchange between Freud and CS Lewis set at the eve of the second world war and close to Freud's death. As expected (and perhaps appropriately for this play), it leaves the question of religion open for the audience to interpret. But the play is not dull. If you have the opportunity, check it out (it runs until July 3rd). If nothing else, you will get a quick tutorial on their basic positions on religion.

Oh--and also note that it is playing on Stage 2 of the Barrington Stage Company, which is 2 blocks from the main theater. So may be you should get there 10 minutes early to figure out the exact location of the play. Of course - this warning is not because of our experience or any thing... :)

By the way, here is a 2-year old article from the NYT that talks about Freud's views on religion. It focuses on his later years - and provides an excellent companion-piece to the play. Some of Freud's ideas may be wrong, but it is great to see his nuanced approach to religion:
Late in life — he was in his 80s, in fact — Sigmund Freud got religion. No, Freud didn’t begin showing up at temple every Saturday, wrapping himself in a prayer shawl and reading from the Torah. To the end of his life, he maintained his stance as an uncompromising atheist, the stance he is best known for down to the present. In “The Future of an Illusion,” he described belief in God as a collective neurosis: he called it “longing for a father.” But in his last completed book, “Moses and Monotheism,” something new emerges. There Freud, without abandoning his atheism, begins to see the Jewish faith that he was born into as a source of cultural progress in the past and of personal inspiration in the present. Close to his own death, Freud starts to recognize the poetry and promise in religion.
But there’s more to Freud’s take on religion than that. In his last book, written when he was old and ill, suffering badly from cancer of the jaw, Freud offers another perspective on faith. He argues that Judaism helped free humanity from bondage to the immediate empirical world, opening up fresh possibilities for human thought and action. He also suggests that faith in God facilitated a turn toward the life within, helping to make a rich life of introspection possible.
He takes an interesting stance in "Moses and Monotheism" regarding the belief in an invisible God:

About two-thirds of the way into the volume, he makes a point that is simple and rather profound — the sort of point that Freud at his best excels in making. Judaism’s distinction as a faith, he says, comes from its commitment to belief in an invisible God, and from this commitment, many consequential things follow. Freud argues that taking God into the mind enriches the individual immeasurably. The ability to believe in an internal, invisible God vastly improves people’s capacity for abstraction. “The prohibition against making an image of God — the compulsion to worship a God whom one cannot see,” he says, meant that in Judaism “a sensory perception was given second place to what may be called an abstract idea — a triumph of intellectuality over sensuality.”

If people can worship what is not there, they can also reflect on what is not there, or on what is presented to them in symbolic and not immediate terms. So the mental labor of monotheism prepared the Jews — as it would eventually prepare others in the West — to achieve distinction in law, in mathematics, in science and in literary art. It gave them an advantage in all activities that involved making an abstract model of experience, in words or numbers or lines, and working with the abstraction to achieve control over nature or to bring humane order to life. Freud calls this internalizing process an “advance in intellectuality,” and he credits it directly to religion.

I don't know if Freud said much about Islam, but it would probably fall in the same category as Judaism on this one. But he contrasts this belief in the invisible God with the beliefs of early Greeks and then later Christianity:
Freud speculates that one of the strongest human desires is to encounter God — or the gods — directly. We want to see our deities and to know them. Part of the appeal of Greek religion lay in the fact that it offered adherents direct, and often gorgeous, renderings of the immortals — and also, perhaps, the possibility of meeting them on earth. With its panoply of saints, Christianity restored visual intensity to religion; it took a step back from Judaism in the direction of the pagan faiths. And that, Freud says, is one of the reasons it prospered.
I don't know about this sharp contrast. The Greeks led the way in early scientific thinking and there really has been no shortage of abstract thinking in Christianity. But I'm commenting on this article and have not read much Freud. In any case, here is a point that places his comments on religion in a more complex light:

Though Freud hoped that mankind would pass beyond religion, he surely took inspiration from the story of Moses, a figure with whom he had been fascinated for many years. (He published his first essay on the prophet in 1914.) Freud wanted to lead people, and he wanted to make conceptual innovations that had staying power and strength: for this there could be no higher exemplar than the prophet.

“Moses and Monotheism” indicates that Freud, irreligious as he was, could still find inspiration in a religious figure. Something similar was true about Freud’s predecessor, Nietzsche. Nietzsche is famous for detesting Christianity, and by and large he did. But he did not detest Jesus Christ — whose spontaneity, toughness and freedom of spirit he aspired to emulate. “There has been only one Christian,” he once said, one person who truly lived up to the standards of the Gospel, “and he died on the cross.”

Schopenhauer, to whom both Nietzsche and Freud were deeply indebted, was himself an unbeliever, as well as being an unrelenting pessimist. To Schopenhauer, life was pain, grief, sorrow and little else. Yet he, too, was able to take inspiration from Christianity, affirming as he did that a faith that had a man being tortured on a cross as its central emblem couldn’t be entirely misleading in its overall take on life.

Interesting stuff. Read the full article here.

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