Freud begins this lecture by asking whether psychoanalysis can provide a Weltanschauung. Though the specifically German concept of a Weltanschauung does not translate directly or easily into English, Freud defines it as “an intellectual construction which solves all the problems of our existence uniformly on the basis of one overriding hypothesis” (195). It is basically a 'meaning of life' that manages to answer all life's questions and put everything in the universe into its proper place.
Freud insists that psychoanalysis is a science, and therefore cannot provide its own Weltanschauung – instead, it must accept the one provided by science itself. However, science itself does not quite fit the model of a Weltanschauung because it is based solely in empirical observation of the world. Of course, psychoanalysis complicates this understanding since it investigates the mental life, which is not always empirically observable. Therefore, he believes a properly scientific Weltanschauung must account for human instincts and desires as well as for the outside world, but must do so in a critical way that does not allow religious, artistic, or philosophical prejudices to unduly influence the objectivity. He then undertakes an examination of how these perspectives can be understood as similar to or distinct from science.
Of these three “threats” to science, Freud claims that religion is the most immediate and powerful (198). Art is relatively harmless, since it never attempts to be anything more than an illusion. Philosophy operates somewhat like a science, but overemphasizes “the epistemological value of our logical operations” - in other words, it overvalues the objective value of human intuition (198). However, philosophy is ultimately harmless because it only affects a small portion of humanity, the most intellectual ones.
Religion, however, presents a widely encompassing Weltanschauung that affects a massive number of individuals. To understand its hold on people, we must comprehend what it offers them: it provides knowledge, it assuages fear, and it lays down precepts and rules for behavior. Freud claims that it only resembles science in the first respect, since science also satisfies the desire for knowledge. Together, these three aspects of religion allow Freud to understand it through a “genetic analysis” (200). The image of the father is key to this approach: the father gives life, the father protects and assuages fear, and the father instructs by laying out moral codes. As these are also the three cornerstones of religion, Freud considers religion as a transference of sorts. The protection afforded by a paternal being is transferred onto a God who is an omnipotent creator, protector, and guide.
Freud next considers the time before human beings had no gods, and were not ruled by religion. Instead, people operated under the belief system of animism, in which the world was believed to be populated by spiritual beings akin to demons. In struggling with these entities, people used magic as a tool to protect themselves, and appealed directly to Nature to achieve their desired results - rainfall, light, a fruitful harvest, and so forth.
Freud observes vestiges of this animistic worldview in certain forms of knowledge. As an example, philosophy overvalues the power of language, which parallels the use of words to conduct magic under animism, and assumes that events in the world takes the shape that “our thinking seeks to impose on them” (205).
Though we do not know what brought the shift from animism to religion, Freud finds the idea worth speculating upon. He refers to his earlier work Totem and Taboo (1912-13), in which he argued that a revolutionary change in family structure led to the worship of animals as totems. In the same way, religion is most useful for having made these external demons "psychical" - that is, religion allowed man to internalize these demons, seeing them as reflections of ourselves and our humanity as opposed to entities out to get us (205). Of course, Freud qualifies this point by acknowledging that the idea of the evil spirit does persist in modern religion.
Freud then returns to present times, noting that the scientific approach to religion has damaged its reputation by revealing its limitations. For instance, science has shown miracles to often be mere fabrications, and revealed that the universe was created in a much more complex fashion than many faiths teach. In the face of this “scientific spirit,” humans began critically evaluating the emotional aspects of a religious Weltanschauung. Further, upon discovering that the ethical precepts of religion do not ensure happiness or harmony, people have grown even more skeptical.
Freud next argues that psychoanalysis has further compromised religion's power, by illustrating how religion is derived from the helplessness of early childhood. As this has revealed that religion is created by man and not by a divine origin, humans must now find a new grounding for the ethical rules that are so central to a healthy, functioning society.
Freud then addresses some common arguments that religious people make against his own claims. First, some claim that religion exists in a different sphere than science, and hence does the scientific method not apply to it. Since religion is of a divine origin, the argument goes, science cannot definitively prove the existence of a supreme deity. Freud argues that this approach evades the question entirely, and relates such an approach to that of a patient who rejects a logical suggestion for purely emotional reasons.
A second argument religion supporters make is that because religion makes the world tolerable by providing a sublime, transcendent experience, it should not be challenged. Freud acknowledges the point, but counters that this point merely requires a restriction of scientific inquiry, while refusing a restriction of religion. Therefore, it must be dismissed.
Because scientific thinking is based upon our natural form of thinking and our desire to understand the external world, it can be considered a type of "truth" (211). Human civilization must therefore ensure that scientific investigation is not artificially limited by religion, since the intellect – or “scientific spirit, reason” – is the best hope for a new basis of society (212). Further, science is relatively new compared to the history of the human species, and thus must be afforded time to fully integrate. Nevertheless, the scientific method provides a “solid groundwork” for improving both the world and itself (212). Overall, Freud insists that science is infinitely more indispensable than religion is, since it measures and assesses our connection to external reality, whereas religion derives its power simply by satisfying our instinctual wishful impulses.
Freud next considers arguments made against science by other, non-religious Weltanschauungen. The first of these are philosophical nihilism, anarchism, or a naïve belief in the absolute relativity of all things. He quickly dismisses these approaches by noting that they ignore the powerful objective results science has achieved - such as building bridges, curing diseases, and so forth.
The next argument Freud addresses is that provided by Marxism. While Freud admits an imperfect understanding of Marx's ideas on history and class struggle, he argues that technological progress has merged with human passion and ingenuity to drive great historical achievements. He credits Marx for revealing how economic circumstances have had a “decisive influence” on our lives, but argues that psychological factors of instinct are at least as equally important to human development as economic factors are (220). He then suggests that psychoanalysis and Marxism could actually work together to provide a more complete social science.
In the lecture's final section, Freud briefly addresses “theoretical Marxism,” by which he means the Russian Bolshevism spearheaded by Vladimir Lenin (222). While he believes this approach was originally based in science and technology, he contends that it has created a prohibition of thought that can be compared to the religions of old in its ruthlessness. The writings of Marx have been taken as revelatory truth, a type of sacred text with its own quasi-religious “illusions” about achieving a perfect society (223). In the end, Freud leaves the question of Bolshevism open for history to decide.
Freud’s discussion of religion is remarkably thorough in its dismissal. He offers as stipulation that psychoanalysis has discovered religion's origin (childhood fear), and God's power (as based in the father). This approach reinforces one of psychoanalytic theory's core elements – that the experiences of our early life has a formative and continuing influence on our desires throughout our entire lives. Religion is, for Freud, effectively a repetition-compulsion that allows humans to assuage their fears and to take comfort in its supposed power.
It is important to recognize that there is a story-like quality to Freud's assessment of the situation. When we are young, we tell ourselves that our fathers will protect us, provide us with important knowledge, and guarantee our safety. Later, we realize that our fathers are imperfect, incapable of guaranteeing these things. However, this adjustment to reality does not mean that our psychic needs for security go away; rather, they linger on, and (in Freud's estimation) are transferred to an imagined greater power.
However, this 'story' carries a serious psychoanalytic threat. In terms of analysis, this situation means that humanity lives in a state of regression. If Freud's analysis is correct, then the stakes are extremely high - civilization will remain repressed, and not progress. These stakes explain why Freud is so insistent on the superiority of the “scientific spirit,” which is grounded in a rational assessment of the external world. It embraces reality in its attempt to better mankind, rather than ignoring it for illusions.
This opposition to religion because of its potential for harm is hardly new. Freud himself explored it in his work The Future of an Illusion, and his arguments recall Marx's formulation in the Communist Manifesto that “religion is the opiate of the masses.” This latter connection is particularly interesting given the lecture's significant focus on Marxism. Like Marx, Freud is highly suspicious of religion. When he praises the results of scientific investigation and emphasizes its crucial role for the future, he even makes a joke about Russian Marxism that foreshadows his later discussion of the Bolshevist revolution. Freud says that “Our best hope for the future is that intellect – the scientific spirit, reason – may in process of time establish a dictatorship in the mental life of man.” This is an underhanded allusion to the famous Bolshevik position, which called for a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” By this, Marx meant complete political control of society by the class of the proletariat. Freud suggests with his joke that the scientific spirit of reason is a prerequisite to reaching this political goal.
This idea reemerges in Freud’s discussion of Bolshevism at the end of his lecture. He points out that the Bolshevist Marxists have made prohibitions on thought that are just as heinous and extreme as those made by any religion of the past. In other words, it has extinguished the scientific spirit from which it originally developed, in order to secure political power. But Freud also acknowledges that this may in fact be necessary – compulsion in education, as Freud notes elsewhere, is an inevitable aspect of maturing and living in a more civilized manner. Likewise, Freud suggests some truth to the Bolshevist position that certain political and social fictions may be necessary in order to gain the support of a population. When asked how he would manage such things differently, Freud says, “I could think of no advice to give.” As he is in many places in the collection, he is ever aware of his limitations.
In the end, however, Freud also wittily implies that psychoanalysis must play a role in all of these questions, and in their political consequences. When he describes the policies of Bolshevist Marxism as diverting “aggressive tendencies,” shifting “instinctual restrictions,” and redirecting “hostility” on the part of the poor toward the rich, Freud is using terms that define the psychic processes by which humans move through stages of development, sublimate certain desires into others, and even experience the dream-work that seeks to fulfill repressed instinctual urges. In other words, Freud figures the Marxists in terms that suggest the continued relevance of his psychoanalytic theories. No matter how we seek to change ourselves or the world, we must acknowledge the centrality of psychoanalytic discoveries if we are progress. Taken this way, the end of this lecture is a perfect end to the entire collection.