Sigmund Freud was a humanist

Sigmund Freud's criticism of religionThe god complex

The father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, once told with smug irony how an excellent man who boasted that he was his friend wanted to convert him to religion. The Viennese psychoanalyst was surprised because he had previously sent him his religion-critical pamphlet The Future of Illusion. In his letter, the acquaintance told him that in religion he had a feeling of "eternity", of something "unlimited". He even feels an "oceanic feeling". Freud replied in his familiar dry manner: He had never discovered this "oceanic feeling" in himself. However, as a psychoanalyst, he could very well imagine that this feeling can be found in sexuality. In the essay Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, published in 1930, he wrote:

"At the height of infatuation, the line between self and object threatens to blur." (Vol. XIV, 423)

Sigmund Freud sticks to the human psyche to explore this feeling. He discovers it in the infant, who cannot yet separate their ego from the outside world. A sense of self only arises - according to Freud - through the separation of the inner and outer world. The original feeling of unity felt by the toddler is retained in the deep layers of soul life. As a psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud saw only two ways to fathom this feeling: Either to reveal his "traces" deposited in the mental household in therapeutic practice. Or: to project the mysterious, all-encompassing feeling into an afterlife. Just as Freud's acquaintance made it and discovered religion in the process.

The Düsseldorf psychoanalyst Bernd Nitzschke describes Freud's achievement as a radical and sober demystification:

"Freud did not say whether there was God or not. He asked why people believe in God."

Deliverance from the evil of the world

If there was no reason to ask about the meaning of life, then there would be no religion either. Ever since people have discovered that suffering and war, illness and death cannot be eliminated from the world, they have been looking for a higher authority in the hereafter that will redeem them from the evil of the world. Bernd Nitzschke:

"If you take the scripture 'Discomfort in Culture', it puts religion in the group of measures that people have invented to alleviate life's hardships."

In the polemic "The future of an illusion", published in 1927, the 70-year-old Sigmund Freud sums up the core of the religion with the following words: God alone is strong and good, but man is weak and sinful.

"A benevolent, only apparently strict providence watches over each of us, which does not allow us to become the plaything of the overly strong and relentless forces of nature: death itself is not annihilation, not a return to the inorganically lifeless, but the beginning of a new kind of existence "(Vol. XIV, 340).

Opium of the people

Religion as universal consolation that helps helpless beings in need refers to another 19th century philosopher who - unlike Freud - wrote his writings critical of religion as a young revolutionary. In 1844, the 26-year-old Karl Marx wrote in his new home in Paris:

"Religion is the general theory of this world, its general reason for consolation and justification. Religious misery is one of the expressions of real misery. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the mind of a heartless world as it is the spirit of mindless conditions is. It is the opium of the people. "

The young Marx diagnosed religion, just like the aged Sigmund Freud later, as an illusion:

"The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the requirement of their real happiness. The requirement to give up the illusions about one's condition is the requirement to give up a condition that needs illusions."

Bernd Nitzschke says that Freud read only a little about Karl Marx, but as a young student he eagerly devoured the writings critical of religion by Ludwig Feuerbach, which also inspired the young philosopher Marx:

"We know from his letters that as a student he read Feuerbach very intensely and eagerly. He had a time as a student when he said that this is the most important philosopher he has read. Like Marx and Feuerbach, he goes by." the projection thesis: God is a human being that we have projected into the sky - our wishes, our wish fulfillment, which we expect in the hereafter. These are Feuerbach's thoughts "

Heaven Father's projection

The Munich psychoanalyst Herbert Will comments that Sigmund Freud formulated the philosophical criticism of religion by Feuerbach and Marx for the first time in a psychoanalytical way: We project - said Freud - not only a human being into the sky: it is the father, with his strengths and weaknesses, who is raised to the almighty and protective God-Father:

"The important thing is the argument of longing for a father: that people who follow a religion basically follow a psychological infantilism, that is, they remained children and did not become adults because they - like a child were attached to their father - then followed to hang on to God. "

Basic psychoanalytic concepts exhibited in the Jewish Museum Berlin on the occasion of Freud's 150th birthday in 2006 (picture-alliance / dpa / Steffen Kugler)

Religion and the longing for a father remained a sensitive chapter in Freud's biography throughout his life. With his father Jacob, a poor Jewish trader from a Moravian shtetl, the young Sigmund regularly read the Hebrew Bible. Until the death of the father, the rules of Orthodox Judaism were faithfully observed in the Freud family. For Bernd Nitzschke, the relationship with his father is the linchpin in Freud's understanding of religion.

Apparently the father was not a strict family patriarch, because the Viennese medical student once confessed that he grew up in a "reasonably pious family". Freud said that his family was surprisingly tolerant when measured against the origins of the father. There were several signs of this: the son's German first name, the close contact with his religion teacher Samuel Hammerschlag, who represented an enlightened Judaism, and finally the Catholic nanny who constantly attended mass with little Sigmund.

Break with Judaism

Despite all religious influences: As an adult, Sigmund Freud made a radical break with the family's Jewish tradition. It didn't always go off without conflict. Because the wife Martha, who remained a devout Jew throughout her life, had to accept to live with an avowed atheist. Herbert's Wills Düsseldorf colleague Bernd Nitzschke adds another anecdote from the life of the Freuds:

"He professes to Judaism, but not to the Jewish religion. It goes into everyday life that he no longer continues all Jewish rites in the family while his wife suffers from them, her grandfather was a rabbi. He also lets his own Don't circumcise sons, so he has a decidedly anti-religious attitude in everyday life. "

While the father had lived in the world of Jewish rites, the son committed parricide in his own way. After the death of Jacob Freud, the Jewish festivals were discontinued with the tolerance of the mother. And Sigmund Freud's own family only adhered to the tradition of Christian and secular celebrations.

Herbert Will understands this decision of the budding medical doctor and psychoanalyst as an act of self-assertion: The son wanted to free himself from the Jewish milieu of his father Jacob, his grandfather Schlomo and his great-grandfather, the rabbi Ephraim. Liberation from the poor, uneducated shtetl, the cosmos of Torah and Talmudic studies that shaped his father for life. Sigmund, who consciously identified himself with his secular first name, chose the heroic worldview of the enlightened scientist:

"In my book on Freud's atheism I spoke of a heroic-stoic worldview and attitude. One should recognize what life has to offer heroically and stoically."

Heroic worldview

The founder of psychoanalysis does not deal "heroically" with eternal life, but with the problems that people tend to suppress: death, illness and the finiteness of life. Bernd Nitzschke comments:

"He has a heroic view of the world: man must be able to recognize this finitude, and under this condition he can then do something completely different with his earthly existence, then he can recognize and try the meaning of life in the earthly world to live humanely here. "

In the last years of his life, the Viennese psychoanalyst repeatedly expressed himself critically about the state of culture. In the revolutionary and crisis-ridden 1920s, such critical statements were the order of the day among intellectuals. But in Freud's writings, the following passage from The Future of an Illusion is an exception. It is a passionate plea for a humanistic policy, derived from the recognition of the reality principle:

"It is an undoubted advantage to leave God out of it at all and to honestly admit the purely human origin of all cultural institutions and regulations. With the claimed holiness, the rigidity and immutability of these commandments and laws would also fall. People could understand that these are created, not so much to dominate them, but rather to serve their interests, they would gain a friendly relationship with them, instead of abolishing them, only aim to improve them. This would be an important step forward "(Vol. XIV , 365). "

Miniature scene from the life of the psychoanalyst on his 150th birthday - Jewish Museum Berlin-Kreuzberg (imago stock & people)

Freud's self-image as a "completely godless Jew" illustrates the contradiction that he consciously wanted to endure. He had broken with the religious rites of his fathers and forefathers. The Jewish rules of faith had become worthless to him.And yet he confessed in his work "The Man Moses and the Monotheistic Religion", which he published shortly before his death in exile in London in 1939: Judaism was the most progressive of all monotheistic religions.

Criticism of Christianity

His reproach against Christianity is surprising: he held "cultural regression" against the new religion because it took back the Jewish ban on images and - under the sign of the cult of Mary and the Trinity - fell back to the stage of polytheism. From the sensual to the spiritual religion - for Sigmund Freud that is the sign of progress.

Bernd Nitzschke comments on the superiority of Judaism claimed by Freud:

"He wants to say yes, it is difficult for people to renounce certain primitive forms of wish fulfillment, as they were presented by the original polytheistic religions with their orgiastic festivals. This renunciation of instincts, that is what he sees in Judaism as the progress of Spirituality propagated. He is committed to this tradition, to Judaism as an enlightened, progressive stage in human development. For him, Christianity is again a relapse in development. "

If Sigmund Freud rejected the Jewish religious practice, then not Judaism in its cultural appearance. Freud used a fairly traditional view when he spoke of the Jewish "race". He understood Judaism as a special cultural status that he wanted to maintain. That is why he actively helped found a Jewish lodge called "Sons of the Covenant" in reference to the Mosaic Covenant. Herbert Will says:

"In his private life he has always surrounded himself with Jews and the Jewish culture. That was very important, central to him. He was surrounded by Jewish friends and families, he was a member of a B'nai B'rith lodge in Vienna, well for him that was the medium in which he lived in his private life. "

Self-creation in the Jewish milieu

Since his studies in Vienna, Freud felt that he belonged to the Western Jews, that is, in the understanding of the time, to the higher-ranking and assimilated Jews. In doing so, the psychoanalyst quite obviously suppressed the fact that he came from the Eastern Jewish milieu, which was generally perceived as uneducated. The youthful Sigmund repeatedly defied the language and behavior of his former compatriots.

The University of Vienna, on the other hand, meant entering another world: only here did the young student learn the German language, and here he acquired the science with which he could finally distance himself from his original milieu and his religion. In other words, the university made it possible for the scientist to perform an act of self-creation.

But still: the university also became a place of narcissistic insult. Because when Freud began his studies, Vienna was the most anti-Semitic city in Europe. Respected doctors spread the opinion that Jews were unsuitable to practice as doctors. Theodor Billroth, one of the most renowned members of the medical faculty, publicly incited against the admission of Jews in 1876, two years after Freud's matriculation. The American medical historian Sander Gilman writes:

"On December 10, 1876, violent anti-Semitic riots broke out in the medical faculty. Fights broke out between Jewish and non-Jewish students, and groups of Jewish students were physically evicted from the faculty" (Sander L. Gilman: Freud, Identity and gender, p. 42).

The consequence of the rampant anti-Semitism: Despite his extraordinary qualifications, Sigmund Freud was denied the academic career he was aiming for. There was no ordinariate for Jewish scholars. Which is why Freud, as Herbert Will reports, decided on an unusual detour:

"You have to bear in mind that he started out as a scientist. He wanted to start a university career as a scientist, which he was prevented as a Jew. And then he had the smart idea of ​​developing his kind of science in the practice of a neurologist . "

Followers of "militant Judaism"

In the period that followed, anti-Semitism became a physical threat to large parts of the Viennese population. In 1897, the politician Karl Lueger, who skilfully used and fueled the anti-Semitic mood, was elected mayor. Lueger, whom Hitler described as his role model, directed the fortunes of Vienna until 1910. The anti-Semitic hostility worried Sigmund Freud increasingly, because most psychoanalysts were Jews and psychoanalysis was considered a "Jewish science". In Lueger's last year in office, Freud admonished his Viennese colleagues at the second psychoanalytic congress:

"You are for the most part Jews and therefore not suitable to make friends with the new teaching. Jews have to be modest about being cultural fertilizers" (quoted in Sander L. Gilman: Freud, Identity and Gender, p. 42).

Anti-Semitism accompanied Freud like an overpowering shadow throughout his life. In 1939, when anti-Semitism gradually turned to the physical extermination of the Jews, Freud wondered how the "intensity and persistence of the people's hatred of Jews" (vol. XVI, 196) had come about. He never distanced himself from Judaism. Not even when he saw SS men burn his books. No, until his death, as Bernd Nitzschke reports, Sigmund Freud remained connected to militant Judaism:

"That is the famous passage from the dream interpretation, there Freud tells how he went for a walk with his father when he was 10 years old. The father now tells him how he went for a walk and then met an anti-Semite who pulled the cap off his head punches and says: 'Jud down from the sidewalk!' Then for Freud the image of the perfect hero, father collapses. Freud then says: From that moment on he has replaced the figure of the father, not by a religious leader, but by a general, namely Hannibal. Since my high school days, he says , Hannibal, a warlike hero, is his new role model. So he does not go on the religious track, but in the direction of enlightenment and reason. And this warlike temperament to fight against prejudice, to be in the minority, he counts in Judaism The Jews always had to fight for their existence. In that sense, he is proud of the Jewish tradition. "