Civilization and Its Discontents

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Religion, Delusion, and Belief Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious Theme Icon
Individuality vs. Social Bonds Theme Icon
Love, Sex, and Happiness Theme Icon
Suffering, Aggression, and Death Theme Icon
Religion, Delusion, and Belief Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Civilization and Its Discontents, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Religion, Delusion, and Belief Theme Icon

Freud believes that religion, belief, and delusion (or misplaced belief) play an important role in individual and social regulation. In essence, religion helps individuals to feel guilty about certain things, and codifies this guilt in different ways as a means of regulating human actions for the good of larger social groups. The ultimate example of this, as Freud sees it, is the Christian “Golden Rule,” which is found in similar form in many other cultures and religions. Freud believes that the Golden Rule is fundamentally illogical, because humans have little reason to “love a stranger as oneself,” and even less reason to “love an enemy as oneself.”

This Rule has become a part of individual and social moral codes because it is a socially-advantageous formulation, however—it allows individuals and societies to regulate human aggression, and to direct that aggression inward, into a sense of guilt for failing to live up to an impossible moral ideal—rather than outward, against another person or group of people. Freud argues that all religions channel human aggression inward, into the position of the super-ego, which mimics the kind of control the state wishes to have over people—in order to manage individual wants and prevent people from killing each other, having sex with each other indiscriminately, or otherwise destroying society.

Thus civilization and its development are utterly bound up in the development of the super-ego, and the guilt that the super-ego wields over the ego. Without these psychological forces, there can be no society, and without society, there can be no psychological forces. Freud argues that the two arenas, individual and social, are entirely intertwined. In summation, it would make no sense to say that religion—or civil society—is “good” or “bad.” Instead, one can only describe these phenomena as outgrowths of the forces of regulation at play within the human mind—forces Freud believes to be natural, “built in” to humans at the biological level.

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Religion, Delusion, and Belief ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Religion, Delusion, and Belief appears in each chapter of Civilization and Its Discontents. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Religion, Delusion, and Belief Quotes in Civilization and Its Discontents

Below you will find the important quotes in Civilization and Its Discontents related to the theme of Religion, Delusion, and Belief.
Chapter 1 Quotes

The origin of the religious attitude can be traced back in clear outlines as far as the feeling of infantile helplessness.

Related Characters: Sigmund Freud (speaker)
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

Freud has no problem arguing that religion is a remnant of an earlier, less advanced form of human engagement with the world. Freud believes that all organized religions are at least partly concerned with magic and superstitions. These are methods of explaining the world when scientific rationalism is not available to the mind.

But, interestingly and provocatively, Freud argues that the religious feeling, and the irrational desires and beliefs attached to it, are not merely existent in societies without science—as modern society attests. Instead, religious feeling transfers from traditional realms (the church) to internal patterns of thought, and to behaviors having to do with interpersonal relationships. Thus love, religion, and "infantile feeling" are all related in the consciousness of modern people. 


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Chapter 2 Quotes

The question of the purpose of human life has been raised countless times; it has never yet received a satisfactory answer and perhaps does not admit of one.

Related Characters: Sigmund Freud (speaker)
Page Number: 41-42
Explanation and Analysis:

Freud does not shy away from tackling large topics. This, indeed, might be the largest of them all—the problem of what it means to be alive, and what human beings ought to do during their time on earth. Freud acknowledges that perhaps it is an unsolvable question, but this does not keep him from attempting to address it, in a way, throughout the remainder of the essay.

For Freud, human life does have a purpose, or series of purposes. This is important to note. That purpose is not necessarily derived from a religious feeling, nor from a relation of the individual to a social tradition, either ethical or theological. But Freud does believe that human life is oriented toward a set of ends. And he believes, too, that psychoanalytic theory can help to tease out and understand those ends. 

Another procedure [to avoid pain] operates more energetically and thoroughly. It regards reality as the sole enemy and as the source of all suffering, with which it is impossible to live, so that one must break off all relations with it if one is to be in any way happy. The hermit turns his back on the world . . .

Related Characters: Sigmund Freud (speaker)
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

Freud attempts to understand the different methods by which humans make their lives easier. Being a hermit, ignoring society, removing oneself from the world—this is, for Freud, similar to taking drugs, drinking, or otherwise smothering one's consciousness for long periods of time. Freud argues that this form of "numbness" to the world is a way of preventing suffering, of possibly extending happiness, and of allowing the individual to function in a society that is largely indifferent to his or her individual desires.

But Freud does not believe that a society can be constructed entirely of hermits. Indeed, if this were true, there would be no society at all. Thus Freud looks to other methods by which people ease the pain of social life without removing themselves from it entirely. 

Chapter 4 Quotes

Perhaps St. Francis of Assisi went furthest in exploiting love for the benefit of an inner feeling of happiness.

Related Characters: Sigmund Freud (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Golden Rule
Page Number: 81
Explanation and Analysis:

Freud makes a controversial claim here, arguing that St. Francis, a famously benevolent, humble figure from history, was in fact "exploiting" the very idea of love for his own happiness (although Freud doesn't argue that this was intentional on Francis's part). Freud does not expand on just what he means by St. Francis as an individual, however. Does Francis represent an impossible ideal, attainable only by a vanishingly small number of true believers? Or is Francis instead an example to humans who wish to exert, through sheer force of will, a desire to love everything radically?

The latter does seem more likely for Freud, and so he regards Francis as an anomaly, as a marginal case that proves his point. Humans, for Freud, do not really wish to live their lives with such radical concern for the betterment of other people. That is why "saints" are "saints"—they are social exceptions, people whose libidinal economies are calibrated in such a way as to allow significant and long-standing love and support for others, and to allow them to achieve happiness from such a state. 

Chapter 5 Quotes

Not merely is this stranger in general unworthy of my love; I must honestly confess that he has more claim to my hostility and even my hatred. He seems not have the least trace of love for me and shows me not the slightest consideration.

Related Characters: Sigmund Freud (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Golden Rule
Page Number: 92
Explanation and Analysis:

Freud here counters what he believes to be the inherent falsehood of the Golden Rule—the idea of "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Freud argues that strangers have no reason to care for the wellbeing of people outside their social circles; similarly, we have no reason to care for strangers. The Golden Rule therefore breaks down because it is not an economical principle—for Freud, it flies in the face of all logic.

Freud points out that hatred or mistrust of other people is a far more common and natural human emotion than disinterested love. Most people respond to new experiences and new people with a mixture of fear and apprehension. This anxiety about the unknown makes for a more sensible foundation of a moral and interpersonal system, as it guards against potential pain or danger. 

Chapter 8 Quotes

If the development of civilization has such a far-reaching similarity to the development of the individual . . . may we not be justified in reaching the diagnosis that, under the influence of cultural urges, some civilizations, or some epochs of civilization—possibly the whole of mankind—have become neurotic?

Related Characters: Sigmund Freud (speaker)
Page Number: 147
Explanation and Analysis:

Freud makes a crucial point here, arguing that societies might be subject to the same psychological laws as individuals. As a consequence, a society might become psychologically "sick," might want what it cannot have and not want what it does have. Entire civilizations could suffer as individuals do—could exist in a constant interior war between what is wanted and what is feared, between pleasure and chaos, between constructive behavior and destruction. A neurotic society, like a neurotic patient, can possibly be cured, but Freud's ideas of treatment, of the "talking cure" and the processes of psychoanalytic therapy, were not, at the time of this writing, available to entire groups of people.

And now it is to be expected that the other of the two “Heavenly Powers,” eternal Eros, will make an effort to assert himself in the struggle with his equally immortal adversary [Thanatos]. But who can see with what success and with what result?

Related Characters: Sigmund Freud (speaker)
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:

This final quotation in the book is of great historical importance, as Freud, and many thinkers of his time, wondered the extent to which Europe might collapse under the weight of a Second World War. Freud sensed that European society had not been righted by the First World War—and indeed, felt that the previous conflict and its aftermath might merely have stoked the flames of a neurotic society.

Freud believes, however, that one way to combat the fears of the unknown, of a civilization whose future is not assured, is to attempt to understand that society rationally and scientifically. One must do this even though society itself might not be rational, and might not want scientific answers to every question. It is this paradox that makes Freud's inquiry so complex and so useful, even in the many decades since this text's first publication.