Rebirth of Reason


Freud and the "Social Utility" of Objectivism
by Dennis C. Hardin

A brief excerpt from Sigmund Freud’s Future of an Illusion was recently posted here.  Freud’s analysis of the appeal and destructiveness of religion was first published in 1927.  It contains a wealth of insights, many of them thoroughly compatible with Objectivism.   He notes that a person whose mind was closed off by threats of hell-fire in childhood has learned to live with contradictions, and that we should not be surprised at the weakness of his intellect in adulthood.   After a young mind has been crippled by accepting all the absurdities of religious doctrines, he is ill-equipped to challenge those ideas when he reaches maturity.  Historically, however, Freud argues that religious belief systems served a practical purpose in communal life by helping to control human behavior and prevent rampant murder and mayhem. 

The founder of psychoanalysis argues vehemently that  society will be better off when it learns to survive without the consolation of the “religious illusion.”  But Freud is not quite a staunch defender of the cognitive supremacy of rationality—in fact, he is anything but.  He is willing to accept the criticism that his own anti-religious views may be equally illusory, but states that “my illusions are not, like religious ones, incapable of correction. They have not the character of delusion."  In other words, because his irrational notions do not derive from an underlying and self-perpetuating neurosis, they could potentially be corrected based on future experience.  Intelligence, he insists, is a far better way of controlling our “base instinctual drives” than fantasies born of pathological wish-fulfillment.

Freud was obviously not the first thinker to recognize the social utility of religion. "If God did not exist,” said Voltaire, “it would be necessary to invent him." And from ancient Rome, the words of Seneca offer a similar insight:  "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the ruler as useful."  
Today’s conservatives attribute all our contemporary social ills to the secularism and self-indulgence of the sixties, when American society began to break free of the social constraints and traditional mores imposed by Bible and The Ten Commandments.  They have a good deal of empirical evidence to support that argument and to oppose Freud’s proposals for removing religion from the educational curriculum.   But Objectivists know that it is not secularism that is destroying our world, but the more fundamental subjectivism that Freud shared with the same religious outlook he attacked so vociferously—the unbridled emotionalism, skepticism and moral relativism which Freud and all of his philosophical predecessors unleashed upon the world. 

But Freud’s psychological account of the social value of religious ethics suggests a major stumbling block for the widespread acceptance of Objectivism: Does an ethics which openly endorses individual selfishness offer a sufficiently strong sanction against the evils of human rapacity run amok?  We would assert that rationality, not selfishness, is the essential guiding principle—but will that sell in the halls of academia?  Consider the countless misconceptions and confusions regarding the nature of reason and rationality.  In that context, are the self-appointed intellectual guardians of human civilization likely to ever give serious attention to a creed of self-interest?  Would anyone?

Purely from the standpoint of ideological propaganda, we may well need to reorder our priorities.  Given the scarcity of respect for reason in our world, perhaps the major focus of our philosophical work should be in the field of epistemology, not ethics.  Skepticism and all its variants—particularly postmodernism—are the greatest enemies we face.  They are paving the way for religion to win by default--as the only moral code standing in the way of total social collapse.  Until we do a thorough job of reclaiming the efficacy of reason and demonstrating its proper role in human life, the world’s scholars-and most of their students--are simply not going to listen.  We may be wasting our breath.
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