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The Question of God

The Life of Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud (1856 — 1939)

The man who would become an atheist was raised in a world steeped in religious belief. Born in 1856 to a devout Jewish father, Freud spent his early years in Freiberg, Austria, where both his father's lessons in reading Hebrew scripture, and church excursions with his beloved Catholic nanny were a part of everyday life. When bankruptcy forced the family to move to a Vienna ghetto, however, religious education was set aside in favor of preparing Freud for a prestigious university and high-paying job that would help the family out of poverty.

Through his studies and professional preparation in the 1870s and 1880s, Freud decided he much preferred science to religion. Influenced by Darwin's 1859 Origin of Species, lab work with physiologist Ernst Brucke, and a study of hysterics with Jean-Martin Charcot in Paris, Freud became convinced that the human body, including the mind, could be rationally explained through the scientific method of observation and analysis. This idea was bolstered by his continued experiments with patients who were suffering from hysterias, or physical symptoms that had no ostensible physical cause. Freud let his patients speak freely in hopes of unlocking their previously repressed thoughts, a process which led him to conclude that stifled sexual feelings were at the root of these illnesses.

To this day, Freud's ideas continue to "agitate the sleep of mankind," permeating our vocabulary as well as our consciousness.

Freud's claim of a link between the physical and the psychological was a controversial one, and most of his colleagues at the time rejected it. However, Freud continued to probe deeper into the observable facets of the subconscious, such as dreams, memories and emotions. Many of his discoveries were based on self-analysis, catalyzed by a period of deep introspection after his father's death in 1896. "I now feel quite uprooted," Freud wrote of that time. "There is still very little happening to me externally, but internally something very interesting — I am led to my own dreams."

Following four years of analyzing his and others' dreams, Freud published his first major work, The Interpretation of Dreams, in 1900. This work gave rise to his idea that children feel sexual attraction toward their opposite-sex parents, and rivalry toward their same-sex parents, a theory now commonly known as the Oedipus Complex. This idea then laid the foundation for two of Freud's best-known claims — that the sex drive is the main catalyst of all human behavior, and that beliefs in paternalistic religious figures are merely projections of human fears and desires.

In 1905 Freud wrote a series of essays on sexuality, stating that our libido, or sex drive, is formed early in childhood and propels all our desires and impulses. Though commonly misunderstood, it does not always find its fulfillment in sex itself but rather is what pushes people into relationships. Left unchecked, the drive can be self-destructive, but when brought to the conscious mind through analysis, it can be mastered, as Freud had demonstrated with hysterical patients.

Religion, in Freud's view, was simply a poor attempt to resolve the needs that often go unmet in human relationships. He developed this idea over 30 years in his enormous body of work, making it the main focus of his 1927 book, The Future of an Illusion, and extending his arguments from individual to society in his long 1930 essay, Civilization and Its Discontents. "Religion may be altogether disregarded," he wrote in the latter work, "Its doctrines carry with them the stamp of the times in which they originated, the ignorant childhood days of this human race." To be truly civilized, he believed, humanity had to be set free of its delusions and construct a better order than religion could give it.

Freud's atheism was not shaken by personal tragedy, though he experienced plenty of it. The proud father of six children, Freud saw two of his sons sent to fight in World War I and lost his daughter Sophie to the flu epidemic shortly thereafter. Cancer of the mouth plagued him for most of his adult life, and led to over 30 operations, through which he never stopped smoking. Freud's Jewish heritage made him a target of the rising anti-Semitism under Hitler's regime, and ultimately forced him to flee with his family to London in 1938. In response, Freud worked all the more fervently on what was to be his final work, Moses and Monotheism. This 1939 book was a retelling of the Hebrew Scriptures that casts Moses as a secular Egyptian hero whom the Israelites reject because his beliefs are too radical, paralleling the psychologist's feelings about his own work in the world.

Though Freud committed suicide in 1939 by a lethal dose of morphine, his influence continued to spread as the field of psychology evolved. By the time of his death, there were dozens of psychoanalytic societies throughout the world, modeled after one formed in Vienna by early supporters such as Alfred Adler, Carl Jung, and Otto Rank.

To this day, Freud's ideas continue to "agitate the sleep of mankind," permeating our vocabulary as well as our consciousness.