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Mill, Freud, and God: The Combatant Cultures of Modernist Life

Mill, Freud, and God:

The Combatant Cultures of Modernist Life

What sacrilege one commits against the splendid diversity of human life if one recognizes only those motives which arise from material needs.

– Freud, Moses and Monotheism


A version of this essay first appeared in Explorations: The Nineteenth Century, edited by Ann B. Dobie. Lafayette,Louisiana: Levy Humanities Series, iii, 1988, pp. 1-33.


To the memory of my father,

James Glassman


All my life I’ve loved literature – fiction, plays, poems, essays, letters, journals, memoirs, biographies. I always have loved all literatures of all nations, but no other literature feels to me so powerful and moving as that created during the nineteenth century in Europe and the United States.


Soaring intellects, sublime sensibilities, sincerity unalloyed and undefended, ardency impassioned and unembarrassed, unbounded hope – and pain, pain, pain. Deep, often not discussable, aloneness, alienage, and anguishing doubt: dubiety about the spirit of the times, distrust about the nature of society and the directions of polity, disbelief in the character of the culture, dismay about the sensibility and behaviors of many of its communicants.


And doubt, above all else, about religion. Dark, reluctant, resisted but cavernous skepticism about the validity of received faith in an era during which revolutions in knowledge and upheavals in tradition were vast and incessant, exciting but destabilizing. Innovations exhilarating in potential, but often awful in impact. Metamorphoses empowering for many individuals, but crushing for the multitude. Revolutions enlightening and liberating for civilization, but shockingly destructive of the divine as an idea and sacrality as an ideal.


I think the single most important determinant of pre-modernist life was the gradual dimunition in the authority of orthodox religion that took place during the nineteenth century in Europe. We can’t say that every thoughtful person became dissenting from, ambivalent about, or indifferent to religion. Faith and church continued to exert a preponderant influence upon European culture, consciousness, and creeds. We can say that the momentous transformations which took place throughout the age of industrialization and early democratization brought intense adversary pressure to bear upon the established doctrines and inherited institutions of religious experience.


Many devout people suffered acutely hurtful crises of deconversion. Many more underwent a dilution and diminishment of faith, which in numerous instances led to severe emotional damage: sorrow, self-doubt, a shocked sense of abandonment and loss, a confounding enervation of spirit, a disabling debilitation of will. These experiences of individual apostasy, attended as they often were by oppressive and seemingly irremediable feelings of guilt and grief, became throughout nineteenth-century Europe expressive and finally agential of a widespread affect of bewilderment, anxiety, and malaise.


The devolution of religious belief rarely issued in absolute despair. Nor did it produce a widespread dissolution of the moral codes and behavioral expectations that traditionally had been certified by the established religious culture. It rather was the case that many persons who experienced an involuntary loss of faith felt impelled to create other grounds upon which to sustain the principles, ethics, and modes of life that once had seemed to devolve from their relationship with God.


The new grounds of sanction for the nineteenth-century moral imagination were distinctly secular. Often they were complexly individualistic. Personal convictions and styles within the newly deconsecrated consciousness differed widely. But the process of renewing the inherited ethos of nineteenth-century life by reorganizing its constituent elements became one of the fundamental unifying principles of the industrial epoch.


Ultimately, participation in this process became incumbent upon and emblematic of the civilized person in nineteenth-centuryEurope. Lionel Trilling memorably describes this phenomenon:

The salient character-type of the Victorian educated classes was formed, we might say, in response to the loss of religious faith – the non-believer felt under the necessity of maintaining in his personal life the same degree of seriousness and earnestness that had been appropriate to the state of belief… Perhaps the greatest distress associated with the evanescence of faith, more painful and disintegrating than can now be fully imagined, was the loss of the assumption that the universe is purposive. This assumption, which, as Freud says, ‘stands and falls with the religious system,’ was, for those who held it, not merely a comfortable idea but nothing less than a category of thought; its extirpation was a psychic catastrophe. The Victorian character was under the necessity of withstanding this extreme deprivation, which is to say, of not yielding to the nihilism it implied.[1]


Professor Trilling does not exaggerate. The consciousness of “psychic catastrophe” was general during the nineteenth century inEurope. The impress of pain among individuals and the sense of impending societal collapse were pervasive, extreme, and infinitely threatening.


The influence of literature upon all the elements of this situation was significant and direct. It may be said to have been determinative. For during the nineteenth century in Europe it was in literature that the grounds for doubt, the awareness of calamity, and the imperative to reconstruct were most persistently and powerfully advanced. Never before in history has the critical examination of a civilization’s fundamental bases in tenet and psychology been so conspicuously inspired by and so manifestly transacted in discursive and imaginative writing.


The literature that helped to produce this cultural condition is notable for its immediacy and its intensity. The solemn conviction of world-historical crisis that suffused and fueled the nineteenth-century literature of doubt no longer is common among us. Nor does the felt necessity to develop alternative organizations of shared values and principles of conduct remain characteristic of our literary culture.


To read Goethe or Carlyle, Ruskin or Arnold, Dostoyevsky or Dickens, George Eliot or Mrs. Gaskell is at once to become aware of a current of cogency and consequence that must strike contemporary readers in a startling and moving way. The nineteenth century inEuropewas an age defined by many uncommonly serious authors who conducted a most urgent and earnest form of existence in an ultimately social manner. This was not a coincidence of chronology. It was, rather, the essence of their power and currency in their culture.


As we study the literature of the nineteenth century we shall discover another, closely related principle of difference between that era and our own. We shall recognize that this was an age that produced an unusually large number of remarkably productive and exceptionally influential imaginative geniuses.


It is not possible to discover all the reasons for this phenomenon, but it is possible to identify at least one major contributing cause. The broadly prevalent sense of religious crisis, when brought into association with the collective will to reconstruct “the assumption that the universe is purposive,” seems to have given rise to an imaginative surround of a singular nature: a milieu of exigent communal emergency.


In this environment of extremity, centered as it was in national cultures that cherished responsible colloquy and believed they needed restorative thought, what every advanced European society most honored and encouraged was radically engaged genius. Amidst these fertile conditions, an extraordinary number of brilliant, dedicated, and socially consequential thinkers came into being, brought before the world formidable reserves of moral and imaginative capability, and transformed civilization[2].



Certain of these thinkers have had enduring currency. John Stuart Mill in particular. Mill has influenced the modern moral imagination more powerfully than any other nineteenth-century philosopher. And it need hardly be said that one of his successors, Sigmund Freud, has exercised seismic impact on the modern “character-type.”


We may discern many principles of emotional, ideational, and stylistic difference between these two imposing figures. Yet we also may observe many arcs of correspondence. It is impossible within the compass of a single essay to examine the entire relationship of these epically important philosophers to one another. But it will be useful to identify several major areas of their congruence with one another; and several instances in which their literature crucially has affected contemporary cognition.


Among the most conspicuous of their similarities is the fact that, despite a full awareness of our species’ most ignorant, irrational, and vicious characteristics, Mill and Freud share a beatific love of humankind. As we shall see, they proclaim our flaws and failings with bold, bellicose particularity. Nevertheless they believe in and love humanity. Indeed, they insist we should revere not an image of the divine but the actuality of human potential.


We can say more. Mill and Freud are highly unusual among western thinkers in their unequivocal endorsement of – indeed, their crusade for – sage and sensible pleasure. They are anything but careless hedonists. But they do share a radical belief that one of the fundamental purposes of human life is to seek, find, comprehend, and embrace happiness.


They admire us, they love us, and they want us to be happy. However, they share a strikingly concrete, fulsomely articulated conception that our existence is tragic. They believe in the necessity and value of happiness. But they also believe that we cannot avoid experiencing intense, often incapacitating pain. They are convinced that, for a host of fixed and unalterable conditions that inhere in our biological composition and our social constitution, we luxuriantly can imagine but cannot ever accomplish sustained fulfillment. They doubt whether we even can achieve frequent experiences of substantive contentment.


Because they are convinced that our powers of pleasure are irrevocably limited, Mill and Freud believe we should strive to create as much happiness as we responsibly can. They agree that for this critical purpose disinterested, distinguished, and widely disseminated thought is of the utmost importance. And they feel certain that empowering inquiry and emancipating discovery can occur only in an environment of individual and communal freedom, tolerance, openness, and integrity.


In each of these attitudes and opinions the philosophies and literature of Mill and Freud closely cohere. There is another in which their work enters into not merely association but resolved accord.


Mill and Freud are among the principal proponents of their century’s atheistic tendency. They believe religion is devoid of truth and destructive of dignity: a demeaning delusion. They believe our lives derive content and meaning not from divine design but from our own innate and aware responses to that vast complex of ideas, values, and experience that we call civilization.


Neither Mill nor Freud feels sanguine about this phenomenon. Far more than any other of the philosophers and artists who importantly have influenced our consciousness, they contend civilization has a character and a will of its own: an intentionality and puissance incomparably more authoritative and assertive than our own.


They are convinced that civilization’s objectives are as contradictory as they are imperial. Its purposes and impacts often are beneficent. But they concurrently are brutally deleterious. And covert. In both its benevolent and malign incarnations, civilization conceals itself. It dominates our percepts and coerces our behaviors in a manner that is often difficult to perceive and therefore impossible to resist.


For this reason Mill and Freud repeatedly urge that we adopt an attitude of vigilantly watchful ambivalence toward civilization’s imperialist intention and our infantile susceptibility to it. We should cherish the virtues, protections, continuities, and community that civilization stimulates and requires. But we simultaneously should dread civilization’s incessant, gratuitous, carefully veiled arrogation. We should fear, despise, and fiercely contest civilization’s relentlessly controlling, egregiously enslaving, ingeniously masked propensities.


Mill and Freud apply these fascinating judgments to a wide variety of civilization’s structures and systems. They are especially interested in the phenomena of religious experience. Their interest is outraged, not celebrative. Exasperated, not exultant or exalting.


Their animadversion to faith, church, and worship rests upon two discrete persuasions. They believe the content of religion is fallacious and psychoneurotic. And they believe the effect of religion is lethal to our capacity for conscious, creative individuation. For differing reasons, as we shall see, they insist religion is a preposterous mythos whose primary purpose is to express and enforce civilization’s hidden mephitic interest in submissiveness, homogeneity, and stasis.


The ways in which Mill and Freud’s work on this seminal subject concur and differ can be observed most clearly in two essays of genius. In The Utility of Reason Mill explores the origins and functions of religion in society, culture, and the human mind. In The Future of an Illusion Freud investigates religion’s sources, characteristics, and what he terms its pathological purposes.


The agreements and disagreements these essays manifest are of great interest in themselves. They also are emblematic of several major transformations which occurred in the history of thought during the western peoples’ passage from an agronomic to the industrial age.


To consider these works as coeval and connected inquiries is to confront three closely related and momentous issues: the fate of religion, the fate of mind, and the fate of pleasure in modern life. To these subjects, and to the remarkable treatises that raise them, let us now turn.



John Stuart Mill


In one of his autobiography’s most stirring passages Mill describes a condition that now is common, but during his lifetime was exceptional: “I was brought up from the first without any religious belief in the ordinary acceptance of the term… I am thus one of the very few examples, in this country, of one who has, not thrown off religious belief, but never had it: I grew up in a negative state with regard to it.[3]


From his earliest boyhood Mill was taught by his manically intrusive father that he must foreswear not only organized religiosity but also any vestige of spirituality. His father further demanded that he keep his unbelief secret. His father required this because his indoctrinated embrace of atheism was so “contrary to that of the world … [it] could not prudently be avowed to the world” (Autobiography, 45).


Mill did not forever accede to his father’s insistence upon prudent hypocrisy. During his adulthood he came to believe the protracted and perilous international crisis in consciousness to which I earlier referred made it imperative that the leading thinkers of the age publicly reveal the true state of their religious opinions: “On religion in particular, the time appears to me to have come, when it is the duty of all who being qualified in point of knowledge, have on mature consideration satisfied themselves that the current opinions are not only false but hurtful, to make their dissent known (Autobiography, 47).”[4]


These courageous testimonies of responsible “dissent” will help us realize we long have reposed our culture’s moral identity and progressive direction in leaders who no longer receive communion with traditional religious beliefs:


The world would be astonished if it knew how great a proportion of its brightest ornaments – of those most distinguished even in popular estimation for wisdom and virtue – are complete skeptics in religion; many of them refraining from avowal, less from personal considerations, than from a conscientious, though now in my opinion a most mistaken apprehension lest by speaking out what would tend to weaken existing beliefs, and by consequence (as they suppose) existing restraints, they should do harm instead of good (Autobiography, 47).


The “mistaken apprehension” that we would destroy our societies’ stability if we subjected our religious beliefs to critical reconsideration seemed to Mill an onerous impediment to human progress. He wrote The Utility of Religion primarily to confront and correct this “conscientious” error.


He undertakes to accomplish his redemptive mission by:

  • Describing in a comprehensive manner the grounds for rejection of religious faith;
  • Demonstrating the archaism and irrelevance of religion to the world’s prevailing moral order; and
  • Defining alternative, entirely secular percepts and mandates that we eventually regard with the respect and reverence once accorded to sacral doctrines.


He begins in a tone of stark militancy. Religion, he tells us, is a delusory and anachronistic system that lacks empirical foundation and is becoming ever more inauthentic in its conviction and tepid in its communion: “We are in an age of weak beliefs, and in which such belief as men have is much more determined by their wish to believe than by any mental appreciation of evidence.”[5]


With an earnestness as belligerent as it is sweet, he asks if our superannuated, preposterous, and destructive set of opinions and practices need be forever preserved at the expense of reason, dignity, and progress:


We propose to inquire whether the belief in religion … is really indispensable to the temporal welfare of mankind; whether the usefulness of the belief is intrinsic and universal, or local, temporary, and, in some sense, accidental; and whether the beliefs which it yields might not be obtained otherwise, without the very large alloy of evil, by which, even in the best form of belief, these benefits are qualified (405).


He engages these large questions by observing that religion’s authority no longer has anything to do with its inherent constitutive truth. Religion’s continuing significance derives, rather, from its monopolistic control of public opinion: “It is usual to credit religion as such with the whole of the power inherent in any system of mural duties inculcated by education and enforced by opinion… It is [pubic opinion] which is the great moral power in human affairs, [and] religion only seems so powerful because this mighty power has been under its command (407).”[6]


Public opinion does not merely sacralize religious beliefs. It also enforces religion’s disciplines, and sustains its sanctions: “Religious writers and preachers are never tired of complaining how little effect religious motives have on men’s lives and conduct, notwithstanding the tremendous penalties denounced… The religious obligation, when not enforced by public opinion, produces scarcely any effect on conduct… Where the penalties of public opinion cease, the religious motive ceases also (413-14).”


In point of both its credibility and its injunctive power, religion has lost its original, once seemingly necessary force. We no longer need its “motives” and “penalties” to restrain our most threatening drives or regulate our most malignant behaviors.


Mill is the most fair of polemicists. He is quick to note that, despite the irrational terms of its ontology and the now minimal genuineness of its actual adherence, religion continues to fulfill one indispensable social function: “Nobler spirits generally assert the necessity of religion as a teacher, if not as an enforcer, of social morality. They say, that religion alone can teach us what morality is” (415).


He concedes: “there is truth in much of this, considered as a matter of history” (416). But civilization is progressing swiftly, and modern people no longer require the certifications of timeworn superstition.


With his characteristic faith in mind and its workings, he assures us: “[Morality] has become the property of humanity, and cannot now be lost by anything short of a return to primaeval barbarism” (416)[7]. In a movement of stunning rapidity and force, he proclaims: “[religion] was once of great value… but now can be done without” (429).


Mill closes the essay by posing a question that directly connects his thought with Freud’s:


Let us then consider, what it is in human nature which causes it to require a religion; what wants of the human mind religion supplies, and what qualities it develops. When we have understood this, we shall be better able to judge, how far these wants can be otherwise supplied and those qualities, or qualities equivalent to them, unfolded or brought to perfection by other means (418).


He replies to this complex query with straightforward unequivocal certainty. Religion emanates from and expresses our most infantile anxieties: our fear of mystery, our need to be parented, our longing to believe the universe is “tenanted by a benignant and not a hostile influence” (419). We yearn “to find the good [we] have failed to find on earth… So long as earthly life is full of suffering, so long will there be need of consolations” (419).


He acknowledges that many of our most powerful impulses may be regressive. But he insists our responses to them need not be. In a passage of surpassing brilliance and beauty, he proposes the possibility that we can replace our “baseless fantasies” of religion with confident belief in our own species’ significance and sanctity:


The idealization of our earthly life, the cultivation of what it may be made [can supply] in the best sense of the word, a religion, equally fitted to exalt the feelings, and (with the same aid from education) still better calculated to ennoble the conduct, than any belief respecting the unseen powers (420).


Mill closes the essay by celebrating the potential utility, power, and purity of the “Religion of Humanity” (421) that he wishes to summon into vibrant life:


Any one, who can distinguish between the intrinsic capacities of human nature and the forms in which those capacities happen to have developed [must be convinced] that the sense of unity with mankind, and a deep feeling for the general good, may be cultivated into a sentiment and a principle capable of fulfilling every important function of religion … better than any form whatever of supernaturalism. It is not only capable of being called a religion: it is a better religion than any of those which are ordinarily called by that title (422).


“The Religion of Humanity” will be superior to any other religion because it will be founded upon objective, empirically deduced, demonstrable facts and ideals. It will inculcate real and generous rather than abstruse and mindlessly inhibitive values. And it will not be stationary. It will promote continuous human assessment, and constant improvement of our own, ever-evolving attitudes, beliefs, and actions[8].


This brief synopsis of The Utility of Religion does not recount or react to the emotional intensity and luminous intelligence of Mill’s analytic, exegetic, and stylistic power. Nor does it convey Mill’s subliming intention: his impulse to stimulate constructive reverence for the limitless potential of human capability.


Throughout The Utility of Religion as everywhere else in his literature, Mill manifests boundless faith in reason and delighted excitement with the infinite improvability of civilized life. In every passage of the essay he radiates radical positiveness. Enlightened mind rather than brutal primordiality will become the vessel of our humanity. Wisdom and decency will inhere in actual people rather than in figures of delusion, figments of drama, or phantasms of dream. All that we once felt impelled to worship in neotenic fantasies we will discover and celebrate in ourselves and in our societies.


Mill undertakes in his essay to appropriate and redeploy all the salvific functions of the outmoded delusions he demystifies and disestablishes. He invests us with an inspired awareness of our power to amend ourselves and perfect our cultures. Our power to replace infantilism with maturity, dependence with autonomy, fear with hope, fallacy with truth, stasis with growth.


Mill disbelieves in the divine because he believes so deeply in the human. His response to the seemingly irresistible onslaught of nihilism in his century was to repudiate fear, reject nullification, and counsel calm, confidence, and creativity. In The Utility of Religion he makes ministry of his conviction that “moral goodness” is a human birthright which no longer need have anything to do with religion’s “baseless fantasies.”


These are convictions Freud shares. But, as we shall see, his perspectives are unique to himself; and his premises, analyses, and conclusions are revolutionary.




Sigmund Freud


Throughout his career Freud felt intrigued by the respects in which the methods and hypotheses of psychoanalysis could be applied not just to individual psyches but as well to the conscious and unconscious emotions, ideologies, purposes, and behaviors of groups, institutions, and cultures.


In a series of discrete yet interrelated studies, he masterfully argues that “even the highest achievements of the human spirit must bear a demonstrable relation to the factors found in pathology – to repression, to the efforts at mastering the unconscious and to the possibilities of satisfying the primitive instincts”[9]. In “Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices” (1907), “Psycho-Analysis and Religious Origins” (1919), and, especially, Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics (1913), he suggests that all religious beliefs and practices – indeed, that all civilized cognitions and actions – originate in and express the ambit of the Oedipus complex: the most intricate and profoundly charged of intrapsychical syndromes[10].


In 1927 Freud wrote The Future of an Illusion. This short, rapid, radical work builds upon and dramatically expands the discoveries reported in his earlier studies of the interrelationship among morality, religion, civilization, and neurosis. To this pellucid work we now shall turn.


At an early point in the essay Freud asks a question vast in its scope and insurrectionist in its terms:


Religious ideas, in spite of their incontrovertible lack of authentication, have exercised the strongest possible influence on mankind … We must ask where the inner force of these doctrines lies and to what it is that they owe their efficacy, independent as it is of their recognition by reason[11].


He tells us the solution to this important problem can be found in the conflicted purposes and subliminal dynamics of civilization; and in the conditions these phenomena impose upon the innermost reaches of our consciousness.


He prefaces his analysis by reminding us it is the fundamental task of civilization to encourage, preserve, and expand human knowledge “in order to control the forces of nature and extract its worth for the satisfaction of human needs.” This warrant can be accomplished only if civilization can “adjust the relations of men to one another and especially the distribution of available wealth”(6).


This circumstance gives rise to an epic and ultimately irresoluble contradiction. In order to free us for our “satisfaction,” civilization must repress us. In order to fulfill our economic and imaginative requirements, civilization must maim us: it must exact from us an excruciatingly painful, psychologically crippling “renunciation of instincts”(7)[12].


The tensions engendered by this paradoxical situation and the frustrations it produces are a source of anguish for each individual and a persisting anxiety for civilization itself. “Every individual,” Freud quietly notes, “is virtually an enemy of civilization”(6). Yet we each of us need, and we know that we need, the protections and affirmations social organization supplies.


This strained and precarious condition can be contained only if civilization succeeds in providing us with compensations that are at least equal to the inhibition, frustration, and anger it imposes. Religion is the most significant of the “measures” civilization creates “to reconcile men to it and to recompense them for their sacrifices” (10).


Freud identifies a number of ways in which religion compensates us for our “sacrifices.”


The first of these may seem beneficent. Civilization recognizes that we feel confounded and frightened by everything in our lives whose origin and purpose we cannot comprehend. We also feel bewildered and appalled by much that we can comprehend – particularly by our many infirmities and the crushing, irreducible horror of our own mortality: “[Civilization’s] task is a manifold one. Man’s self-regard, seriously menaced, calls for protection; life and the universe must be robbed of their terrors; moreover, [our] curiosity, moved, it is true, by the strongest practical interest, demands an answer (16)” to our ignorance about our lives’ geneses, motivating forces, and meanings.


Civilization invented and enfranchises religion in part to provide us with soothing explanations for both the mysterious and the all-too intelligible phenomena that afflict our existence. Religion consoles our confusions and solaces our sorrows by inviting us to imagine that life is sourced and governed: crafted and directed by an infinitely rational, purposive, and loving Being who has established every element of our experience for reasons that are at least potentially fulfilling to our most solipsistic interests and needs. Within religion’s sedative ministrations, Freud delicately comments, “we can feel at home in the uncanny and can deal by psychical means with our senseless anxieties” (17).


But religion’s reassurances and reliefs carry a high price, because they are not addressed to our powers of reason and choice. They operate, rather, by stealth and subterfuge directed to our least rational and most primitive pathologies. Religion coopts our intelligence and compromises our dignity by concealing civilization’s exorbitantly repressive demands behind invisible filters or screens: mystery, magic, majesty, divination, immanence, transcendence. Religion patronizes us by abhorring truth, suborning logic, and pandering to our most juvenile and fatuous gullibility.


This is not a coincidence. Nor is it a minor aspect of religion’s primacy. Exactly because it so systematically and skillfully infantilizes us, religion must be regarded as “perhaps the most important item in the psychical inventory of a civilization” (14).


Freud introduces at this juncture an ingenious theorem. He asserts there exists a direct relationship between the consolatory coercions that find expression in religious beliefs and the most potent dynamics of our subrational psychology.


The “situation” of religion, he tells us:


… Has an infantile prototype, of which it is in fact only the continuation. Once before one has found oneself in a similar state of helplessness: as a small child, in relation to one’s parents. One had reason to fear them, and especially one’s father; and yet one was sure of his protection against the dangers one knew. Thus it was natural to assimilate the two situations…. A man makes the forces of nature not simply into persons with whom he can associate as equals – that would not do justice to the overpowering impressions which these forces make on him – but he gives them the character of a father. He turns them into gods, following in this … not only an infantile prototype but a phylogenetic one (17).


The psychology of worship closely replicates the mechanics of infantile projection from which it derives. Both processes are manifestations of a remarkably resourceful but bathetically neurotic response to our real and our imagined helplessness:


The libido [in childhood] follows the path of narcissistic needs and attaches itself to the objects which secure the satisfaction of those needs … In this function [of protection] the mother soon is replaced by the stronger father, who retains that position for the rest of childhood. But the child’s attitude to its father is colored by a peculiar ambivalence … [The child] fears him no less than it longs for him and admires him. The implications of this ambivalence in the attitude to the father are deeply imprinted in every religion.


The imprint is unmistakable. In one of his most arresting passages, Freud describes the specific ways in which intrapsychical ambivalence conditions love, hope, obedience, and devotion in our family life and in our religious faith:


When the growing individual finds that he is destined to remain a child for ever, that he can never do without protection against strange superior powers, he lends those powers the features belonging to the figure of his father; he creates for himself the gods whom he dreads, whom he seeks to propitiate, and whom he nevertheless entrusts with his own protection … The defense against childish helplessness is what lends its characteristic features to the adult’s reaction to the helplessness which he has to acknowledge – a reaction which is precisely the formation of religion (24).


Religion’s ability to mask its psychosexual origin and utility could not endure without challenge and change. As science increasingly succeeded in exposing the fallaciousness of theological historiography, religion’s latent content and veiled purposes – its crude jejune theatrics – have had to adjust.


This welcome process of demystification has made nature increasingly independent of human projection, and the idea of the divine ever more accessible to rational investigation:


The more autonomous nature became and the more the gods withdrew from it, the more … did morality become their true domain. It now became the task of the gods to even out the defects and evils of civilization, to attend to the sufferings which men inflict on one another in their life together and to watch over the fulfillment of the precepts of civilization, which men obey so imperfectly (18).


The evolution in religion’s “domain,” coessential with the development of monotheism, has “laid open to view the father who had all along been hidden behind every divine figure as its nucleus” (18); and thus has exposed the hysterical infantilism which always has been embedded within every worshipper’s worship.


Freud moves rapidly to complete his relentless deconstruction:


Religious ideas, … which are given out as teachings, are not precipitates of experience or end-results of thinking: they are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind. The secret of their strength lies in the strength of these wishes[13].


Despite the beauty of many of its tenets, despite the inspiration and solace it has given its innumerable adherents, religion must be repudiated. Delusion can inspire beautiful ideas, emotions, and art, but delusion is not beautiful and it must be outgrown. It is to science, not superstition, and to the mature use of robust reason, not frightened and fixated infantilism, that we must transfer our faith and commit our fealty:


Religious teachings … are neurotic relics, and we may now argue that the time has probably come, as it does in an analytical treatment, for replacing the effects of repression by the results of the rational operation of the intellect (30).


This necessity fills Freud with hope, not dread. Like Mill, he confidently anticipates that the new age of rationality and realism their essays join in invoking will free us from dread, disease, and delusion, and grant us mature peace and pleasure:


We may foresee, but hardly regret, that such a process of remolding will not stop at renouncing the solemn transfiguration of cultural precepts, but that a general revision of them will result in many of them being done away with. In the way, our appointed task of reconciling man to civilization will to a great extent be achieved (44).


He has no doubt the reign of religion eventually must collapse, and he is thankful that it will: “In the long run, nothing can withstand reason and experience, and the contradiction which civilization offers to both is all too palpable” (54).


Freud’s hatred of religion offends many people of faith. No wonder. Who could enjoy having one’s innermost beliefs diagnosed, with seeming contempt, as the histrionic hallucinations of one’s residual infant mentality trapped in affrighted, ludicrous cathexis?


But this would be a misreading. Freud is not our adversary. He does not intend to disdain or mock us. He is not callous. He is not cruel. He is a healer, and he means to be our helpmate. He seeks only to enhance our dignity and increase our happiness. He wants to help us emancipate ourselves from illness and error, and grow.


These impulses are especially prominent in the heartening passages with which he brings The Future of an Illusion to its climactic conclusion:


[Religion] has ruled human society for many thousands of years and has had time to show what it can achieve. If it had succeeded in making the majority of mankind happy, in comforting them, in reconciling them to life and in making them into vehicles of civilization, no one would dream of attempting to alter the existing conditions. But what do we see instead? We see an appallingly large number of people are dissatisfied with civilization and unhappy in it, and feel it as a yoke which must be shaken off (37)[14]


No one ever has felt a greater awareness of the tragedy of human life than Sigmund Freud, nor a deeper sorrow for it. No one more unequivocally has asserted the necessity of suffering, and its inevitability. The Future of An Illusion undertakes to rescue us from unnecessary suffering – superfluous and therefore preventable or corrigible suffering. Intensely caring therapeutic intentionality is the hallmark of Freud’s science, and it permeates every paragraph of his indispensable literature.


This is why he conducts his assault against religion. He is trying to free us from what he regards as religion’s foundation in “morbid mental phenomena”[15]. He loathes our dysfunctions and their milieus of irrationality, puerility, and self-restriction. He wants to cure us. He wants to grant mind and its milieus of courage, truth, and freedom supreme sovereignty in the life of humankind and the kinetics of civilization.


There is much in The Future of an Illusion that shocks and frightens. Yet we understand the essay does us immense honor. We know Freud demands we renounce the degrading and unfulfilling pathology of religion not so that we will become lost and lonely, lax or licentious, but so that we may empower ourselves “to attain the psychological ideal, the primacy of intelligence”(46). We realize that in the place of the fantastic and degrading “fairy tales of religion” (29), a place of childishness, trauma, and ailment, the most liberating of philosophers offers us maturity, haleness, authenticity, and self-respect.


Characteristically, this modest genius claims no credit for discovery, and no personal significance in the future he has done so much to envision and shape:


Surely infantilism is destined to be surmounted … The sole purpose of my book is to point out the necessity for this forward step (49)[16].




Working from markedly differing fulcrums, Mill and Freud agree that religion inevitably will become recognized as an unnecessary chimera and will become replaced by responsible faith in humanity itself. They concur this transformation greatly will advance every individual’s freedom and pleasure, and infinitely will accelerate social progress.


Insufficient time has passed since the publication of The Utility of Reason and The Future of an Illusion to permit us to assess the accuracy of these forecasts. We can comment, however, on the progress which to this point has ensued.


Certainly religion has not disappeared. Far from it. The universality of religion’s credence and feasance has ended; and the absoluteness of its authority has diminished in every western European culture. [The situation is more complex in the United States.] Yet by many criteria of measurement it is possible to argue that religious communion and the fervor with which it is experienced and enacted are increasing considerably. In many regions of the world religion continues to be state-sponsored, and is becoming ever more extremist.


Nothing is more alarming about the continuing vitality of religion than the fact that its ministers and adherents are growing ever more hostile to the historical changes Mill and Freud deemed crucial and irresistible.


Many religious leaders and communicants virulently distrust change, and abominate what they regard as its root causes: secularism and rationalism. In particular many people of faith deplore – they despise – scientism. They regard the tendencies Mill and Freud most hoped to promote – secularity, ratiocination, empiricism – as apostate to godly teaching, and grossly damaging to humanity’s nature, interests, and needs.


This is not a minor matter. The resistance contemporary religion mounts against “the primacy of intelligence” is one of every faith’s most characterizing energies, and one of its most significant sources of appeal for its faithful.


Another of Mill and Freud’s most important predictions has not yet proven correct. Both believed that enlightened moral imagination and principled ethicality were becoming engrained in civilization, were entirely independent of religion’s support and swiftly, peaceably, permanently would pervade the social order.


Nothing about neoteric experience confirms this excited expectation. Certainly there live everywhere among us many individuals who manifest extraordinary goodness and generosity. We cannot help but recognize, though, that goodness and grace are as rare as they are necessary and wonderful.


Materialism, solipsism, libertinage, bigotry, anger, violence, avarice, prevarication, malfeasance, perfidy, profligacy – the whole sad directory of human imperfection – persist unabated in every society. Perhaps in a later era an eon from now civilization will discover how to abate the pernicious instincts that religion characterizes as sin, and poets as human nature.


We can thrill to Mill and Freud’s faith in progressive reason. We can welcome and cherish their abiding love of our species. But we cannot say that any culture soon will accomplish the general accretion of earnest, ennobling moralism they predicted was imminent.



My disagreement with The Utility of Religion and The Future of An Illusion is with their fundament, not the due dates of their futurology.


I admire John Stuart Mill and Sigmund Freud above almost all other authors. Yet I ask myself: Good Lord, how can these brilliant essays be so unseeing, so unhearing, so unfeeling?


Scorn canon, dissent from church, bolt from priests. Fine. I understand that, and heartily concur. Eschatology? Who knows.


But how can Mill and Freud not see, hear, and feel everywhere about us the presence of the divine: presence palpable, abundant, loving, and jubilant?


How can men of such capacity and erudition be so oblivious? How can such genius with the telluric, genius unparalleled, be entirely insensible before the celestial? How can such mastery with the literal be utterly unaware – stupefied and stupid – before the spiritual?


It is famously impossible to dispute the science of psychoanalysis. Go ahead and try. You say: “I am not aware of the unconscious.” Freud replies: “Aha! This is the very substance of the subliminal: you are not aware of it. Postulate proven.”


Similar enclosure surrounds the metaphysics of mysticism. The rationalist says: “I am not cognizant of the spiritual. Show it to me. Make it sound a call. Exhibit the evidentiality of this essence you tremble before.” The spiritualist replies: “Ah, but essence is invisible to eye, intangible to hand, inaudible to ear. How is it thy soul cannot receive, rejoice, reply? Why hast thou shuttered thy corporeal self from the incorporeal world?”


The history of every civilization demonstrates there seldom can be concord or even meaningful dialogue between rationalism and revelation. This is a pity, because we are born with the need for both and the instinct for both.


Reasoned apostasy and intuitive faith – what Cardinal Newman called “The Illative Sense”[17] – should be allies, not antagonists. Soul mates, not adversaries. Do we not need the wisdoms of rationality and transcendence if we are to journey our way sanely, safely, sacredly through this world beset with ignorance, struggle, pathology, and pain?


Our separation of science from spirituality is as pointless as it is preventable. But we are not trying to prevent this tragic error. We foster it.


The separation is not merely a polarization. Nor is it a rift. It is a schism. We segregate proof from divining, certitude from wonder, doubt from assent. We promote angry ignorance about one another’s methodologies, percepts, and knowledge. We force the secular and the sacred into bellicose contention rather than celebrating their natural condition of joyful apposite union.


We have created a terribly damaging duality – an apartheid – between mind and soul, the two equally valid, equally wondrous foundations of consciousness and community. We behave as though we comprise two discrete, opposed, and combative species. The deductive versus the inductive. The reasonable versus the ecstatic[18].


This is not a trivial problem. At stake in the dichotomous contest we have invented between the scientific and the spiritual cultures are all of the most consequential issues of human epistemology, ethic, and endeavor.




James Atwell


Our bifurcation of science from spirituality is as nonsensical is it is calamitous. Surely we all are logicians and mystics: secular and sacral, rational and religious, pragmatic and reverent, technological and theological.


Certainly Mill and Freud were.


No one ever has been more proudly and more effectively scientistic than they. Neither was a religious person in any of the respects that are orthodox or ordinary. And yet, as Mill gently reminds us, many persons are “genuinely religious, in the best sense of the word religion” who refuse to receive communion into any faith’s doctrines, dogmas, and temples of worship[19].


As we read The Utility of Religion and The Future of an Illusion we cannot help but realize that Mill and Freud belong decisively to the culture of spirituality, despite the fact – in part because of the fact – they so severely criticize the origins, premises, and purposes of conventional religious belief.


Their essays help us understand that religion can be nondenominational. It can be devoid of an identified deity. It can be attitudinal rather than doctrinaire. Our moral imagination, our modes of engaging and responding to life, can be more genuinely expressive of our religiosity than the canons and credos to which we do or do not profess formal obeisance.


The Utility of Religion and The Future of an Illusion make us know that the terms upon which Mill and Freud met their existence were intensely moral. They were concerned profoundly with the principles of right and wrong thought and behavior, and the goodness or badness of human behavior.


How courageously and how creatively they undertook to comprehend, interpret, and reply to existence. How earnestly they tried to help us live sentiently, capaciously, honorably. Is this not an activity as spiritual as it is scientific? Is this not the very epiphany of the idea and the ideal of the holy?


Mill and Freud could not enter into communion with ecclesiastical belief. But their literature causes us to understand that, “in the best sense of the word,” they received and enacted religion.


This opinion would startle but not confound Mill. Throughout his heartrending Autobiography he tells us he deeply desired to remediate his radical reliance upon intellection. He desperately needed a pathway to what he often called “feeling,” and discovered gradually with the help of Wordsworth’s poetry and the love of his wife, Harriet Taylor. Instinct, emotion, veneration: the domains of the soul.


Freud did not ever suspect that he was a spiritual being. How odd that he did not. Has any man ever loved myth more passionately? Has any man – let alone the modern world’s preeminent scientist of thought – ever understood myth more consummately? Yearned for myth, cleaved to myth, found life and ontology in myth?


Neither of these magnificent thinkers ever realized they were also miraculous artists. And shamans. Spiritualists. Druids. Prophets. Acolytes of the divine they could not see, hear, scent, taste, or touch, and therefore believed they could not name.


The divine often works this way. It often is the case that the most transcendent, ethereal, worshipful women and men who walk the earth do not know they are religious and do not know we inhabit a realm that is spirited.


I have a dear friend, the upstate New York writer James Atwell, who calls such people, such souls, “The Un-Churched.” Jim is writing a book on this subject. He longs to help the hundreds of thousands of unconscious involuntary ambivalent believers who are filled with spirit life but cannot make communion with a denomination. This he will do if his God who has given him a dangerous illness grants him the grace of sufficient time and power to complete his temporal work.


Jim is a believer, and always he makes me wish that I knew how to be. Please look him up when you have time. You will find James Atwell prominently placed on Google, on Amazon, on all the technological marvels of our scientific age.




I believe John Stuart Mill and Sigmund Freud drastically overestimate the value, relevance, and sheer cogency of reason, sense, and science. I think they unconscionably underestimate the legitimacy and sheer necessity of revelation and reverence. The authenticity and authority of the sublime.


They wonderfully estimate the cerebral capabilities of humankind. Perhaps they based their limitless faith in our minds on the supernal might of their own.


The power of their minds was abundant. Abundance, though, often contains a correspondent paucity. Mill and Freud were given vastly abundant ability to think, know, and convey. But they were not given the ability to apprehend that most human beings do not want to live, perhaps cannot live, if our thought, knowledge, and emotions must be deprived of sanctity.


What Steven Marcus memorably describes as “the sad, stoic minimality of Freud’s late nineteenth-century humanism”[20] – and Mill’s – is insufficient for many modern people, and is incompletely representative of many modern people’s experience.


Neither of these magisterial philosophers intended to diminish life. Nor did they wish to desecrate our existence. It was Freud, after all, who once cried: “What sacrilege one commits against the splendid diversity of human life if one recognizes only those motives which arise from material needs”[21].


Mill and Freud were miracles of wisdom and goodness. But they often do commit this sacrilege. Especially when they assume, as almost always they do, that spirituality – however hysterically we may receive and assert it – is a function solely of our most deceived, delusional, and diseased psychical precipitates.


I believe Mill, Freud, and the divine they wanted to disestablish must in some substantive manner become unified if the contest between the combatting cultures of modernism is to produce a civilization that can exist in a pertinent and fulfilling relation with our actual consciousness and our persisting needs.


Regrettably Mill and Freud have done as much as any philosophers we can name to produce our awful and absurd struggle between science and spirituality. They believed themselves to have been militantly opposed to every motivation and modality by which we discover and worship the divine.


And yet. And yet.


No other scientists, and singularly few other artists, ever have been so committed to the ideals with which most people associate their deities, worship them, and seek to become worthy of their grace.


I believe The Utility of Religion and The Future of an Illusion unwittingly incarnate the principle their authors tried so powerfully to refute. These stunning essays unwittingly, unwillingly, embody the fact that we all, even the women and men of genius among us, live our lives and have our meaning in mind and in soul. Not one or the other. In reason and its antitheses. In science and spirituality.


To find the divine in their godlessness and to purge the godlessness from our God, if we have found a god, is the monumental task Mill and Freud set us. At issue in this imperative, exigent, and, in its essence, sacred search is the fate of everything either of the senselessly competing cultures of modernism can regard as human.


[1] Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972) pp. 116-17.


[2] The confluence between the consciousness of crisis and its authors of genius was corresponding and complementary. The influence of the great nineteenth-century philosophers and artists upon the course of historical change was linear and momentous. And the effect of historical transformations upon the development of the influencers’ sensibility, mentation, and art was reciprocally specific and significant. I believe that in no other age did there occur so manifest a union between individual imaginative invention and systemic cultural change.


[3] J.S. Mill, Autobiography, Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, v.i., Autobiography and Literary Essays, ed. J.M. Robson and J. Stillinger (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981), pp. 41; 43; 45. [All subsequent references to Mill’s Autobiography will be to this edition. Page references will be provided in parentheses following the passage cited.]

It is not entirely accurate that Mill grew up in an entirely “negative state with regard to” all forms of religious belief. Throughout his life he unconsciously transferred divine properties onto his father and, later, his wife. Upon these imposing persons Mill directed his enormous need and capacity for worship.

I discuss this situation and its consequence for his life, thought, and art in J.S. Mill: The Evolution of a Genius (University of Florida Presses, 1985.)


[4] It is a revealing indication of religion’s continuing authority even during its age of decline that Mill feels impelled to ascribe religious virtues to those apposite persons who are deconsecrating religion’s substance and subverting its sovereignty. He continues the passage cited above:

Of unbelievers (so called) as well as of believers, there are many species, including almost every variety of moral type. But the best among them … are more genuinely religious, in the best sense of the word religion, than those who exclusively arrogate to themselves the title… If religion stands for any graces of character and not for mere dogma, the assertion may equally be made of many whose belief is far short of Deism. Though they may think the proof incomplete that the universe is a work of design, and though they assuredly disbelieve that it can have an Author and Governor who is absolute in power as well as perfect in goodness, they have that which constitutes the principal worth of all religions whatever, an ideal conception of a Perfect Being, to which they habitually refer as the guide of their conscience; and this ideal of Good is usually far nearer to perfection than the objective Deity of those, who think themselves obliged to find absolute goodness in the author of a world so crowded with suffering and so deformed by injustice as ours” (Autobiography, 45, 47).

It is impossible to imagine discourse more sincerely and ardently felt than this. Yet it is evident that this passage also discharges a tactical intention. Clearly Mill is propagandizing on behalf of modern agnostic philosophy. He is attempting to legitimize contemporary religious skepticism by ascribing to skeptics and to the liberal imagination itself all the virtue and value civilization once located in prophets, saints, priests, and orthodox religiosity.

Evidently Mill felt “obliged” to transfer ascriptions of rectitude and worth in this manner. He seems to have believed humanity could accept the dismantling of its religious superstitions and structures only if we could retain the core elements of that system’s anachronistic hagiography.

As I remarked in the previous footnote, the need to deify and the compulsion to worship were important lifelong components of Mill’s own sensibility.


[5] J.S. Mill, The Utility of Religion, Collected Works, v.10, Essays on Ethics, Religion, and Society, ed. J.M. Robson (Toronto, 1969), p.403. All subsequent references to The Utility of Religion will be to this edition. Page references will be provided in parentheses following the passage cited.


[6] Mill believed the efficacy of religious schooling we receive during our childhood is particularly profound: “It is especially characteristic of the impressions of early education, that they possess what it is so much more difficult for later convictions to obtain – command over the feelings…. The power of education is almost boundless” (408-9). His certitude was fueled by abundant personal experience.


[7] Mill rejects the sacred status accorded to religion in part because he fears and detests any scheme of absolute authority: “There is a very real evil consequent on ascribing a supernatural origin to the received maxims of morality. That origin consecrates the whole of them, and protects them from being discussed or criticized” (417). Before all else, Mill distrusts and disbelieves in religion because he trusts and believes in “the life of the human species” and its “indefinite capability of improvement” (420).


[8] Mill discusses “The Religion of Humanity” in detail and at length in “Auguste Comte and Positivism” (Collected Works, v. 10, pp.261-368). Interested readers also should consult “Nature” and “Theism” (Collected Works, v.10, pp. 373-402; 429-489). Mill comments extensively about religion throughout his correspondence (Collected Works, v.12-17.)


[9] Sigmund Freud, “Psycho-Analysis and Religious Origins” (Collected Papers, vol. v., Miscellaneous Papers, 1888-1938 [London, 1953], p.94. With the astonishing sense of responsibleness and liberality that defined his character, Freud conceived that psychoanalysis cannot be valid solely for individuals’ psychoneurotic mental order:

If [psychoanalysis] has hit upon a truth, it must apply equally to normal mental events … There was a scientific duty to apply the research methods of psycho-analysis, in regions far remote from its native soil, to the various mental sciences. And indeed psycho-analytic work upon patients pointed persistently in the direction of this new task, for it was obvious that the forms assumed by the different neuroses echoed the most highly admired productions of our culture (“Psycho-analysis and Religious Origins,” p.94).

Freud returned repeatedly to the theory that there exists an absolute “analogy between neurotic processes and religious events” (Freud, Moses and Monotheism, The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition, vol. xxiii [London, 1953-1974, p.92. On one occasion he observes: “Our work leads us to a conclusion which reduced religion to a neurosis of humanity and explains its enormous power in the same way as a neurotic compulsion in our individual patients” (Moses and Monotheism, p. 55). At a later point he goes so far as to state:

In view of these similarities and analogies one might venture to regard obsessional neurosis as a pathological counterpart of the formation of a religion, and to describe that neurosis as an individual religiosity and religion as a universal obsessional neurosis. The most essential similarity would reside in the underlying renunciation of the activation of instincts that are constitutionally present; and the chief difference would lie in the nature of those instincts, which in the neuroses are exclusively sexual in their origin, while in religion they spring from egoistic sources … A progressive renunciation of constitutional instincts, whose activation might afford the ego primary pleasure, appears to be one of the foundations of the development of human civilization (Freud, “Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices, The Standard Edition, vol. ix., pp. 126-7).

He believes the syndromic association of obsessional neuroses with religion ultimately will prove salubrious: we can heal our illnesses only if we correctly diagnose them.


[10] In chapter 4 of chapter of Totem and Taboo, Freud explains with fearsome lucidity the postulates upon which he bases this foundational theory. In summary of his findings, he declares (he employs the phrase “I should like to insist”):

The beginnings of religion, morals, society, and art converge in the Oedipus complex. This is in complete agreement with the psychoanalytic finding that the same complex constitutes the nucleus of all neuroses, so far as our present knowledge goes. It seems to me a most surprising discovery that the problems of social psychology, too, could prove soluble on the basis of one single concrete point – man’s relation to his father (Freud, Totem and Taboo, The Standard Edition, vol. xiii., pp.156-7).


[11] Freud, The Future of an Illusion, The Standard Edition, vol. xxi., p.6. All future references to The Future of an Illusion will be to this edition. Page references will be provided in parentheses following the passage cited.


[12] It is one of Freud’s principal and most influential discoveries that civilization insidiously cedes a considerable portion of its colossal coercive authority to the individual:

It is in keeping with the course of human development that external coercion gradually becomes internalized; for a special mental agency, man’s super-ego, takes it over and includes it among its commandments. Every child presents this process of transformation to us; only by this means does it become a moral and social being. Such strengthening of the super-ego is a most precious cultural asset in the psychological field. Those in whom it has taken place are turned from being opponents of civilization into being its vehicles. The greater their number in a cultural unit the more secure is its culture and the more it can dispense with external means of coercion (11).


[13] In a moving passage, Freud specifies the content “of the most urgent wishes of mankind” and describes the mechanisms by which religion engages and satiates them:

The terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood aroused the need for protection – for protection through love – which was provided by the father; and the recognition that this helplessness lasts through life made it necessary to cling to the existence of a father, but this time a more powerful one. Thus the benevolent rule of a divine father allays our fear of the dangers of life; the establishment of a moral world-order ensures the fulfillment of the demands of justice, which have so often remained unfulfilled in human civilization; and the prolongation of earthly existence in a future life provides the local and temporal framework in which these wish-fulfillments shall take place. Answers to the riddles that tempt the curiosity of man, such as how the universe began or what the relation is between body and mind, are developed in conformity with the underlying assumptions of this system.

With his unique ability to unite summary with insight, Freud closes the discussion by defining the most important balm and boon we receive from our religious illusions: “It is an enormous relief to the individual psyche if the conflicts of its childhood arising from the father-complex – conflicts which it has never wholly overcome – are removed from it and brought to a solution which is universally accepted”(30).


[14] There exists another, even more invidious unhappiness he wishes to ally: “Countless other people have been tormented by [apostate] doubts, and have striven to suppress them, because they thought it was their duty to believe; many brilliant intellects have broken down over this conflict, and many characters have been impaired by the compromises with which they have tried to find a way out of it” (27).


[15] Freud, “Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices,” Collected Works [1959], vol. ix., p.117.


[16] In an access of confidence Freud, like Mill, invokes the prospect of an infinite improvability – indeed, an intrinsic perfectibility – in our circumstances and condition. “By withdrawing their expectations from the other world and concentrating all their liberated energies onto their life on earth, [humankind] will probably succeed in achieving a state of things in which life will become tolerable for everyone and civilization is no longer oppressive to anyone” (50). In Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) Freud radically revises this sanguine expectation.


[17] John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 210), p. 343 f.


[18] This is not a new phenomenon. More than one hundred years ago Benjamin Disraeli lamented that England – that the entire industrializing world – was evolving into a society populated by two distinct, increasingly separated, antagonistic populations: the very rich and the very poor. Drawing upon Disraeli’s construct, C.P. Snow In the 1950’s called upon the western peoples to become aware of what he regarded as an even more dangerous development. Lord Snow suggested we now live under two sets of imaginative circumstances which are so unlike one another as to constitute differing and often oppositional civilizations. He identified the binary surrounds of modern life as the scientific and the humanistic cultures. Disraeli and Snow believed passionately that these seemingly distinctive constructs must be unified.


[19] Cf. footnote 4. Although Mill is too courteous to say so, it is equally true that not at all persons who define themselves as religious are ideally or even sincerely religious in all their values, beliefs, and practices.


[20] Steven Marcus, Freud and the Culture of Psychoanalysis (London: Allen & Unwin, 1984), p. 243.


[21] Freud, Moses and Monotheism, p. 52.