In what does the peculiar value of religious ideas lie?

We have spoken of the hostility to civilization which is produced by
the pressure that civilization exercises, the renunciations of instinct which
it demands. If one imagines its prohibitions lifted-if, then, one may take
any woman one pleases as a sexual object, if one may without hesitation
kill one's rival for her love or anyone else who stands in one's way, if, too,
one can carry off any of the other man's belongings without asking leave-how
splendid, what a string of satisfactions one's life would be! True, one
soon comes across the first difficulty: everyone else has exactly the same
wishes as I have and will treat me with no more consideration than I treat
him. And so in reality only one person could be made unrestrictedly happy
by such a removal of the restrictions of civilization, and he would be a
tyrant, a dictator, who had seized all the means to power. And even he
would have every reason to wish that the others would observe at least one
cultural commandment: "thou shalt not kill."

But how ungrateful, how short-sighted after all, to strive for the abolition
of civilization! What would then remain would be a state of nature, and
that would be far harder to bear. It is true that nature would not demand
any restrictions of instinct from us, she would let us do as we liked; but she
has her own particularly effective method of restricting us. She destroys
us-coldly, cruelly, relentlessly, as it seems to us, and possibly through the
very things that occasioned our satisfaction. It was precisely because of
these dangers with which nature threatens us that we came together and
created civilization, which is also, among other things, intended to make
our communal life possible. For the principal task of civilization, its actual
raison d'etre, is to defend us against nature.

We all know that in many ways civilization does this fairly well
already, and clearly as time goes on it will do it much better. But no one is
under the illusion that nature has already been vanquished; and few dare
hope that she will ever be entirely subjected to man. There are the ele-

The Future of an Illusion 145

ments, which seem to mock at all human control: the earth, which quakes
and is tom apart and buries all human life and its works; water, which
deluges and drowns everything in a turmoil; storms, which blow everything
before them; there are diseases, which we have only recently recognized
as attacks by other organisms; and finally there is the painful riddle
of death, against which no medicine has yet been found, nor probably will
be. With these forces nature rises up against us, majestic, cruel and inexorable;
she brings to our mind once more our weakness and helplessness,
which we thought to escape through the work of civilization. One of the
few gratifying and exalting impressions which mankind can offer is when,
in the face of an elemental catastrophe, it forgets the discordancies of its
civilization and all its internal difficulties and animosities, and recalls the
great common task of preserving itself against the superior power of

For the individual, too, life is hard to bear, just as it is for mankind
in general. The civilization in which he participates imposes some amount
of privation on him, and other men bring him a measure of suffering,
either in spite of the precepts of his civilization or because of its imperfections.
To this are added the injuries which untamed nature-he calls it
fate-inflicts on him. One might suppose that this condition of things
would result in a permanent state of anxious expectation in him and a
severe injury to his natural narcissism. We know already how the individual
reacts to the injuries which civilization and other men inflict on him:
he develops a corresponding degree of resistance to the regulations of
civilization and of hostility to it. But how does he defend himself against
the superior powers of nature, of fate, which threaten him as they threaten
all the rest?

Civilization relieves him of this task; it performs it in the same way for
all alike; and it is noteworthy that in this almost all civilizations act alike.
Civilization does not call a halt in the task of defending man against
nature, it merely pursues it by other means. The task is a manifold one.
Man's self-regard, seriously menaced, calls for consolation; life and the
universe must be robbed of their terrors; moreover his curiosity, moved, it
is true, by the strongest practical interest, demands an answer.
A great deal is already gained with the first step: the humanization of
nature. Impersonal forces and destinies cannot be approached; they remain
eternally remote. But if the elements have passions that rage as they
do in our own souls, if death itself is not something spontaneous but the
violent act of an evil will, if everywhere in nature there are beings around


us of a kind that we know in our own society, then we can breathe freely,
can feel at home in the uncanny and can deal by psychical means with our
senseless anxiety. We are still defenseless, perhaps, but we are no longer
helplessly paralyzed; we can at least react. Perhaps, indeed, we are not
even defenseless. We can apply the same methods against these violent
supermen outside that we employ in our own society; we can try to adjure
them, to appease them, to bribe them, and, by so influencing them, we
may rob them of a part of their power. A replacement like this of natural
science by psychology not only provides immediate relief, but also points
the way to a further mastering of the situation.

For this situation is nothing new. It has an infantile prototype, of
which it is in fact only the continuation. For 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. Here, too, wishing played its
part, as it does in dream life. The sleeper may be seized with a presentiment
of death, which threatens to place him in the grave. But the dreamwork
knows how to select a condition that will turn even that dreaded
event into a wish-fulfillment: the dreamer sees himself in an ancient Etruscan
grave which he has climbed down into, happy to find his archaeological
interests satisfied.[1] In the same way, a man makes the forces of nature
not simply into persons with whom he can associate as he would with his
equals-that would not do justice to the overpowering impression which
those forces make on him-but he gives them the character of a father. He
turns them into gods, following in this, as I have tried to show,[2] not only
an infantile prototype but a phylogenetic one.

In the course of time the first observations were made of regularity
and conformity to law in natural phenomena, and with this the forces of
nature lost their human traits. But man's helplessness remains and along
with it his longing for his father, and the gods. The gods retain their threefold
task: they must exorcize the terrors of nature, they must reconcile
men to the cruelty of fate, particularly as it is shown in death, and they
must compensate them for the sufferings and privations which a civilized
life in common has imposed on them.

But within these functions there is a gradual displacement of accent.
It was observed that the phenomena of nature developed automatically
according to internal necessities. Without doubt the gods were the lords of
nature; they had arranged it to be as it was and now they could leave it to

The Future of an Illusion 147

itself. Only occasionally, in what are known as miracles, did they intervene
in its course, as though to make it plain that they had relinquished nothing
of their original sphere of power. As regards the apportioning of destinies,
an unpleasant suspicion persisted that the perplexity and helplessness of
the human race could not be remedied. It was here that the gods were
most apt to fail. If they themselves created fate, then their counsels must
be deemed inscrutable. The notion dawned on the most gifted people of
antiquity that Moira [Fate] stood above the gods and that the gods themselves
had their own destinies. And the more autonomous nature became
and the more the gods withdrew from it, the more earnestly were all expectations
directed to the third function of the gods-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. Those precepts
themselves were credited with a divine origin; they were elevated
beyond human society and were extended to nature and the universe.

And thus a store of ideas is created, born from man's need to make
his helplessness tolerable and built up from the material of memories of
the helplessness of his own childhood and the childhood of the human
race. It can clearly be seen that the possession of these ideas protects him
in two directions-against the dangers of nature and fate, and against the
injuries that threaten him from human society itself. Here is the gist of the
matter. Life in this world serves a higher purpose; no doubt it is not easy to
guess what the purpose is, but it certainly signifies a perfecting of man's
nature. It is probably the spiritual part of man, the soul, which in the
course of time has so slowly and unwillingly detached itself from the body,
that is the object of this elevation and exaltation. Everything that happens
in this world is an expression of the intentions of an intelligence superior
to us, which in the end, though its ways and byways are difficult to follow,
orders everything for the best-that is, to make it enjoyable for us. Over
each one of us there watches a benevolent Providence, which is only seemingly
stern and which will not suffer us to become a plaything of the overmighty
and pitiless forces of nature. Death itself is not extinction, is not
a return to inorganic lifelessness, but the beginning of a new kind of existence
which lies on the path of development to something higher. And,
looking in the other direction, this view announces that the same moral
laws which our civilizations have set up govern the whole universe as well,
except that they are maintained by a supreme court of justice with incom-


parably more power and consistency. In the end all good is rewarded and
all evil punished, if not actually in this form of life then in the later existences
that begin after death. In this way all the terrors, the sufferings and
the hardships of life are destined to be obliterated. Life after death, which
continues life on earth, just as the invisible part of the spectrum joins onto
the visible part, brings us all the perfection that we may perhaps have
missed here. And the superior wisdom which directs this course of things,
the infinite goodness that expresses itself in it, the justice that achieves its
aim in it-these are the attributes of the divine beings who also created us
and the world as a whole, or rather, of the one divine being into which, in
our civilization, all the gods of antiquity have been condensed. The people
which first succeeded in thus concentrating the divine attributes was not a
little proud of the advance. It had laid open to view the father who had all
along been hidden behind every divine figure as its nucleus. Fundamentally
this was a return to the historical beginnings of the idea of God. Now
that God was a single person, man's relations to him could recover the
intimacy and intensity of the child's relation to his father. But if one had
done so much for one's father, one wanted to have a reward, or at least to
be his only beloved child, his Chosen People. Very much later, pious
America laid claim to being "God's own Country"; and, as regards one of
the shapes in which men worship the deity, the claim is undoubtedly valid.

The religious ideas that have been summarized above have of course
passed through a long process of development and have been adhered to in
various phases by various civilizations. I have singled out one such phase,
which roughly corresponds to the final form taken by our present-day,
white, Christian civilization. It is easy to see that not all the parts of this
picture tally equally well with one another, that not all the questions that
press for an answer receive one, and that it is difficult to dismiss the contradiction
of daily experience. Nevertheless, such as they are, those ideasideas
which are religious in the widest sense-are prized as the most precious
possession of civilization, as the most precious thing it has to offer its
participants. It is far more highly prized than all the devict;s for winning
treasures from the earth or providing men with sustenance or preventing
their illnesses, and so forth. People feel that life would not be tolerable if
they did not attach to these ideas the value that is claimed for them. And
now the question arises: What are these ideas in the light of psychology?
Whence do they derive the esteem in which they are held? And, to take a
further timid step, what is their real worth?

The Future of an Illusion 149


Let us now take up the thread of our inquiry. What, then, is the psychological
significance of religious ideas and under what heading are
we to classify them? The question is not at all easy to answer immediately.
After rejecting a number of formulations, we will take our stand on the
following one. Religious ideas are teachings and assertions about facts and
conditions of external (or internal) reality which tell one something one has
not discovered for oneself and which lay claim to one's belief. Since they
give us information about what is most important and interesting to us in
life, they are particularly highly prized. Anyone who knows nothing of
them is very ignorant; and anyone who has added them to his knowledge
may consider himself much the richer.

There are, of course, many such teachings about the most various
things in the world. Every school lesson is full of them. Let us take geography.
We are told that the town of Constance lies on the Bodensee.[3] A
student song adds: "If you don't believe it, go and see." I happen to have
been there and can confirm the fact that that lovely town lies on the shore
of a wide stretch of water which all those who live round it call the Bodensee;
and I am now completely convinced of the correctness of this geographical
assertion. In this connection I am reminded of another, very
remarkable, experience. I was already a man of mature years when I stood'
for the first time on the hill of the Acropolis in Athens, between the temple
ruins, looking out over the blue sea. A feeling of astonishment mingled
with my joy. It seemed to say: "So it really is true, just as we learnt at
school!" How shallow and weak must have been the belief I then acquired
in the real truth of what I heard, if I could be so astonished now! But
I will not lay too much stress on the significance of this experience; for my
astonishment could have had another explanation, which did not occur to
me at the time and which is of a wholly subjective nature and has to do
with the special character of the place.[4]

All teachings like these, then, demand belief in their contents, but not
without producing grounds for their claim. They are put forward as the
epitomized result of a longer process of thought based on observation and
certainly also on inferences. If anyone wants to go through this process
himself instead of accepting its result, they show him how to set about it.
Moreover, we are always in addition given the source of the knowledge
conveyed by them, where that source is not self-evident, as it is in the case


of geographical assertions. For instance, the earth is shaped like a sphere;
the proofs adduced for this are Foucault's pendulum experiment,[5] the
behavior of the horizon and the possibility of circumnavigating the earth.
Since it is impracticable, as everyone concerned realizes, to send every
schoolchild on a voyage round the world, we are satisfied with letting what
is taught at school be taken on trust; but we know that the path to acquiring
a personal conviction remains open.

Let us try to apply the same test to the teachings of religion. When we
ask on what their claim to be believed is founded, we are met with three
answers, which harmonize remarkably badly with one another. Firstly,
these teachings deserve to be believed because they were already believed
by our primal ancestors; secondly, we possess proofs which have been
handed down to us from those same primaeval times; and thirdly, it is
forbidden to raise the question of their authentication at all. In former
days anything so presumptuous was visited with the severest penalties, and
even today society looks askance at any attempt to raise the question

This third point is bound to rouse our strongest suspicions. After all,
a prohibition like this can only be for one reason-that society is very well
aware of the insecurity of the claim it makes on behalf of its religious doctrines.
Otherwise it would certainly be very ready to put the necessary data
at the disposal of anyone who wanted to arrive at a conviction. This being'
so, it is with a feeling of mistrust which is hard to allay that we pass on to
an examination of the other two grounds of proof. We ought to believe
because our forefathers believed. But these ancestors of ours were far more
ignorant than we are. They believed in things we could not possibly accept
today; and the possibility occurs to us that the doctrines of religion may
belong to that class too. The proofs they have left us are set down in
writings which themselves bear every mark of untrustworthiness. They are
full of contradictions, revisions and falsifications, and where they speak of
factual confirmations they are themselves unconfirmed. It does not help
much to have it asserted that their wording, or even their content only,
originates from divine revelation; for this assertion is itself one of the
doctrines whose authenticity is under examination, and no proposition can
be a proof of itself.

Thus we arrive at the singular conclusion that of all the information
provided by our cultural assets it is precisely the elements which might be
of the greatest importance to us and which have the task of solving the
riddles of the universe and of reconciling us to the sufferings of life-it is

The Future of an Illusion 151

precisely those elements that are the least well authenticated of any. We
should not be able to bring ourselves to accept anything of so little concern
to us as the fact that whales bear young instead of laying eggs, if it were
not capable of better proof than this.

This state of affairs is in itself a very remarkable psychological problem.
And let no one suppose that what I have said about the impossibility
of proving the truth of religious doctrines contains anything new. It has
been felt at all times-undoubtedly, too, by the ancestors who bequeathed
us this legacy. Many of them probably nourished the same doubts as ours,
but the pressure imposed on them was too strong for them to have dared
to utter them. And since then, countless people have been tormented by
similar 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.

If all the evidence put forward for the authenticity of religious teachings
originates in the past, it is natural to look round and see whether the
present, about which it is easier to form judgments, may not also be able to
furnish evidence of the sort. If by this means we could succeed in clearing
even a single portion of the religious system from doubt, the whole of it
would gain enormously in credibility. The proceedings of the spiritualists
meet us at this point; they are convinced of the survival of the individual
soul, and they seek to demonstrate to us, beyond doubt, the truth of this
one religious doctrine. Unfortunately they cannot succeed in refuting the
fact that the appearance and utterances of their spirits are merely the products
of their own mental activity. They have called up the spirits of the
greatest men and of the most eminent thinkers, but all the pronouncements
and information which they have received from them have been so
foolish and so wretchedly meaningless that one can find nothing credible
in them but the capacity of the spirits to adapt themselves to the circle of
people who have conjured them up.

I must now mention two attempts that have been made-both of
which convey the impression of being desperate efforts-to evade the
problem. One, of a violent nature, is ancient; the other is subtle and
modern. The first is the "Credo quia absurdum" of an early Father of the
Church.[6] It maintains that religious doctrines are outside the jurisdiction
of reason-are above reason. Their truth must be felt inwardly, and they
need not be comprehended. But this Credo is only of interest as a selfconfession.
As an authoritative statement it has no binding force. Am I to


be obliged to believe every absurdity? And if not, why this one in particular?
There is no appeal to a court above that of reason. If the truth of
religious doctrines is dependent on an inner experience which bears
witness to that truth, what is one to do about the many people who do not
have this rare experience? One may require every man to use the gift of
reason which he possesses, but one cannot erect, on the basis of a motive ~
that exists only for a very few, an obligation that shall apply to everyone. If
one man has gained an unshakable conviction of the true reality of
religious doctrines from a state of ecstasy which has deeply moved him, of
what significance is that to others?

The second attempt is the one made by the philosophy of" As if." This
asserts that our thought-activity includes a great number of hypotheses
whose groundlessness and even absurdity we fully realize. They are called
"fictions," but for a variety of practical reasons we have to behave ''as if"
we believed in these fictions. This is the case with religious doctrines because
of their incomparable importance for the maintenance of human
society.[7] This line of argument is not far removed from the "Credo quia
absurdum." But I think the demand made by the "As if" argument is one
that only a philosopher could put forward. A man whose thinking is not
influenced by the artifices of philosophy will never be able to accept it; in
such a man's view, the admission that something is absurd or contrary to
reason leaves no more to be said. It cannot be expected of him that precisely
in treating his most important interests he shall forgo the guarantees
he requires for all his ordinary activities. I am reminded of one of my children
who was distinguished at an early age by a peculiarly marked matter of-
factness. When the children were being told a fairy story and were listening
to it with rapt attention, he would come up and ask: "Is that a true
story?" When he was told it was not, he would turn away with a look of
disdain. We may expect that people will soon behave in the same way
towards the fairy tales of religion, in spite of the advocacy of "As if."

But at present they still behave quite differently; and in past times
religious ideas, in spite of their incontrovertible lack of authentication,
have exercised the strongest possible influence on mankind. This is a fresh
psychological problem. We must ask where the inner force of those doctrines
lies and to what it is that they owe their efficacy, independent as it is
of recognition by reason.

The Future of an Illusion 153

1. This was an actual dream of Freud's, reported in Chapter VI (G) of The
Interpretation of Dreams (19OOa), Standard Ed., 5, 454-5.
2. See Section 6 of the fourth essay in Totem and Taboo (1912-13), Standard
Ed., 13, 146 ff.
3. The German name for what we call the Lake of Constance.
4. This had happened in 1904, when Freud was almost fifty. He wrote a full
account of the episode in an open letter to Romain Rolland some ten years after
the present essay.
5. J. B. L. Foucault (1819-68) demonstrated the diurnal motion of the earth by
means of a pendulum in 1851.
6. "I believe because it is absurd." This is attributed to Tertullian.
7. I hope I am not doing him an injustice if I take the philosopher of "As if" as
the representative of a view which is not foreign to other thinkers: "We include as
fictions not merely indifferent theoretical operations but ideational constructs
emanating from the noblest minds, to which the noblest part of mankind cling and
of which they will not allow themselves to be deprived. Nor is it our object so to
deprive them-for as practical fictions we leave them all intact; they perish only as
theoretical truths" (Hans Vaihinger, 1922.68 [C. K. Ogden's translation,1924, pp.