Future of an Illusion, The

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The publication of a The Future of an Illusion followed The Question of Lay Analysis (1926e) and preceded Civilization and its Discontents (1930a [1929]). Die Zukunft einer Illusion soon reached a wide audience, and was translated into English in 1928 by W. D. Robson-Scott as The Future of an Illusion, and into French in 1932 by Marie Bonaparte as L'Avenir d'une illusion.

In a letter to the Swiss Calvinist pastor Oskar Pfister (November 25, 1928), Freud wrote: "I do not know if you have detected the secret link between Lay Analysis and the Illusion. In the former I wish to protect analysis from the doctors and in the latter from the priests." Freud keeps his distance from the two principal custodians of secrets protected by the law. Moreover, he considers priestly knowledge, or religious dogma, a "neurotic relic" that it is time to replace "with the results of rational mental labor."

The link between The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and its Discontents was made by Romain Rolland. Liluli, the title of a play he wrote, was a play on the word "illusion." In The Future of an Illusion Freud discusses the religious feelings then so essential to Rolland's thinking and which Freud refers to as "oceanic sensations"; these he considers both eternal and infinite. In Civilization and its Discontents Freud explicitly refers to this concept to differentiate himself from it: "I cannot discover this 'oceanic' feeling in myself."

Freud considered religion to be a phenomenon of culture or civilization, based, like all culture, on the "rejection of instincts" by means of "prohibitions." The gods retain "their threefold task: they must exorcize the terrors of nature," (especially death), "they must reconcile man to the cruelty of fate, particularly as is shown in death, and they must compensate them for the sufferings and privations which a civilized life in common has imposed on them." Religion thus constitutes a "treasure of ideas born of the need to make human misery supportable."

Freud used as an example one of the phases of religious evolution, "which roughly corresponds to the final form taken by our present-day, white, Christian civilization." Here he makes a clean break with Jung, who based many of his ideas on the religions of India (Hinduism and Buddhism primarily). Logically, he insists on an essential characteristic of Christian religion, "the father-son relationship." He asserts that "God is an exalted father, the nostalgia for the father is the root of religious need."

The entire work is marked by Freud's desire to placate his friend, Pastor Pfister, who responded the following year with the publication of a pamphlet titled The Illusion of a Future (1928). Freud distinguished illusion from error: an illusion, the product of desire, is not necessarily false. Moreover, he adds a condition to a claim present in his article on "Compulsive activities and religious exercise" (1907b): "Religion could thus be the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity." He even considers that "devout believers are safeguarded in a high degree against the risk of certain neurotic illnesses; their acceptance of the universal neurosis spares them the task of constructing a personal one."

Freud, who spent his life trying to destroy illusions and complete what Max Weber called the "disenchantment of the world," seems to hesitate when it comes to the future of religious phenomena. He says he is in favor of "retaining the religious doctrinal system as the basis of education and of man's communal life." Just as Charles Maurras at the time defended Catholicism as an element of political order in spite of his naturalist positivism, Freud, in spite of his atheism, defended Christian education (the teaching of religion was required in Austrian schools) "which is so important for the safeguarding of civilization."

He concludes his work with a case study of conversion, without confusing the beliefs of "inert and unintelligent" crowds with the more certain achievements of science. "No, our science is not an illusion."

Odon Vallet

See also: Belief; Civilization and its Discontents ; Ethics; Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego ; Magical thinking; Mysticism; Pfister, Oskar Robert; Religion and psychoanalysis; Rite and ritual; Science and psychoanalysis; Weltanschauung.

Source Citation

Freud, Sigmund. (1927c). Die Zukunft einer Illusion. Vienna; GW, XIV, p. 325-380; SE, 21: 5-56.


Freud, Sigmund. (1907b). Compulsive activities and the exercise of religion. SE, 9: 117-127.

. (1921c). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. SE, 18: 65-143.

. (1926e). The question of lay analysis. SE, 20: 177-250.

. (1927c). The future of an illusion. SE, 21: 1-56.

. (1930a). Civilization and its discontents. SE, 21: 57-145.

Freud, Sigmund and Pfister, Oskar. (1963). Psycho-analysis and faith; the letters of Sigmund Freud and Oskar Pfister. (Heinrich Meng and Ernst L. Freud, Eds., and Eric Mosbacher, Trans.). London: Hogarth Press.

Pfister, Oskar. (1928). The illusion of a future. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 74, 1993, 557-579.