Sigmund Freud was born in Příbor, Moravia in what was then the Austrian Empire, but grew up mostly in Vienna, Austria. He died of a physician’s assisted suicide in 1939 at the age of 83 while suffering from cancer.

Freud was one of the most influential modern atheists. Although he grew up Jewish, and continued to find identity in his Jewish heritage throughout his life,1 he treated religion mostly with complete disdain.

Religion was the focus of four books by the father of psychoanalysis, and his words were not gentle. He viewed religion as “the universal neurosis,”2 a fulfillment of the “longing for a father,”3 and an “illusion” that fulfills an “instinctual desire.”4 In his 1930 book, Civilization and Its Discontents, he described religion as an embarrassing product of humanity:

The whole thing is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life.5

But with all his criticisms of religion, he wasn’t quite so harsh towards the religion of his childhood. In his last book, Moses and Monotheism, he says that Judaism, as opposed to other religions, through of its focus on an invisible God, could be a path to introspection and self-knowledge–the ultimate goal of his own theory of psychoanalysis.6

But that late-life sympathy toward Judaism shouldn’t serve to de-emphasize his position as a staunch and defiant atheist.

Wolves and Sheep

Freud’s experience of totalitarian government was intimate. At the end of Freud’s life, the Nazis rolled through Vienna and forced the frail old man out of his home and out of the country. His view of Hitler and other tyrants fit snugly with his theory of the human psyche. He argued that absolute rulers take the place of the super-ego, or the moral authority, in the subconscious which allows for a brutal group mentality, e.g. Nazi Germany.

You might think that would endear Freud to the U.S. where rugged individuality reigns, but he found the country unbearable. He despised Americans’ lack of manners, prudity, and inhibitions. He said it was a “gigantic mistake”:

America is the most grandiose experiment the world has seen, but, I am afraid, it is not going to be a success.7

Freud was potentially a “political pessimist” who believed that politics was only a road to suppression of a healthy internal debate–possibly an anarchist? Or he could have been promoting a view that the only positive political path was an uncomfortable one rife with disagreement, conflict, and debate–pro-Democracy? Libertarian?8 Either way, to Freud, governments were dangerous business.

And ironically, his own theories of the mind helped proved his theory of government true. His nephew, Edward Bernays, used Freud’s concept of the subconscious to develop a theory of public relations that relied not on trying to persuade through rational argument, but rather through appeal to our subconscious desires. His Freud-inspired theories were (and still are) employed by countless politicians and political machines–most disturbingly by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.9 A sad irony indeed.

  1. Freud and Religion- Freud’s Views on Religion. About. []
  2. Religiosity as Neurosis. Godless Geeks. []
  3. Religion and Faith – Sigmund Freud – Atheism. New York Times. []
  4. Freud and Religion – Freud’s Views on Religion. About. []
  5. Freud and Religion – Freud’s Views on Religion. About. []
  6. Religion and Faith – Sigmund Freud – Atheism. New York Times. []
  7. Trivia on Freud in America Part 5: Feelings About America. Trivia Library. []
  8. Freud and the Fundamentalist Urge. New York Times. []
  9. Freud’s Nephew and the Origins of Public Relations. NPR. []