35 pages 1 hour read

Sigmund Freud

The Future of an Illusion

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1927

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Summary and Study Guide


The Future of an Illusion is a 1927 book by Sigmund Freud in which the Austrian neurologist investigates the origins of society and religion. Freud is well-known as the founder of psychoanalysis, a discipline that he developed in the late 1800s that seeks to use talk therapy to help patients cure their mental disorders. Freud wrote a number of influential books that popularized his psychoanalytic theories, such as The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) and The Ego and the Id (1923). In The Future of an Illusion, Freud uses his insights into psychology to analyze the origins of both civilization and religion. The Future of an Illusion takes the form of an extended essay, with Freud developing an argument throughout its chapters about the history of religion and the role it should play in society’s future. This study guide follows James Strachey’s translation of Freud’s text, originally published by W. W. Norton in 1961.

In Chapters 1 and 2 of The Future of an Illusion, Freud focuses on developing a general theory of human civilization. Freud believes that civilization first developed out of the various ways that humanity overcame its animal instincts. Civilization exists to help individuals repress their animalistic and often violent instincts, allowing them to live in a harmonious community. However, such repression is often accomplished through coercion and force, leading many individuals to develop a negative attitude towards civilization.

Chapter 3 analyzes the role that religion plays in furthering civilization. Freud believes that religion first arose as early man sought to explain nature’s forces by imagining that they were controlled by human-like gods. As religion developed, it transformed from polytheism to monotheism, with a single, father-like God who is believed to exist to protect his followers. Freud argues that religion’s purpose is to help individuals deal with their feelings of helplessness and insignificance. In Chapter 4, Freud imagines there to be an opponent who objects to his arguments, such as Freud’s contention that religion is a societally constructed belief.

In Chapters 5 and 6, Freud continues his investigations into the nature of what he calls “religious ideas.” Freud writes that religious ideas must be understood as a set of teachings that make claims about the workings of the external world and universe. However, religion’s teachings lack evidentiary support, and it is impossible for one to independently verify their claims. Freud concludes that religions must be understood as illusions, and that religion exists to fulfill humanity’s wishes to not feel insignificant in the scheme of the universe. In Chapter 7, Freud’s opponent returns, arguing that it is irresponsible for Freud to argue against religion when its teachings play a crucial role in the functioning of society.

The final chapters of The Future of an Illusion focus on whether religion will continue to play a role in society’s future. In Chapter 8, Freud argues that religion is akin to a psychological complex that humanity must overcome. Though religion has played a part in repressing humanity’s violent instincts, Freud believes it is now possible for individuals to achieve this repression without the coercion of religion. In Chapter 9, Freud proposes that scientific education must replace religious education to give individuals the tools of rational analysis to deal with their urges and sense of helplessness.

Freud’s opponent returns in the final chapter, where he argues that Freud’s proposal to replace religion with science is simply a substitution of one form of illusion for another. Freud contends that science is not an illusion in the same way as religion is, as science actively encourages criticism of its teachings and conclusions.