I am usually one for detailed introductions, but for once, and with accordance to my topic, I’ll dive right in: The Future of an Illusion by Sigmund Freud is a lesser known book than his other hits, but it really is an excellent text which reads like it was written yesterday. In his book Freud presents a psychoanalytical interpretation of religion. Freud was openly atheistic and this text is perhaps the clearest example of that – his most straight-forward attack on the very concept of religion and god. Many points made here are the same points made still today: that religious belief is a tool in the hands of the powerful few; that science can provide evidence where religion fails. But what I really like about Freud’s text is the way he explains religion itself. Richard Dawkins and co. would say god doesn’t exist because the scientific theory of the world makes him redundant; Freud would say god doesn’t exist because the psychoanalytical theory of organized religion makes him redundant.
As usual in psychoanalysis, the answer lies with the father. Freud claims that humanity as a whole has one big daddy-issue in the shape of an all-seeing-all-knowing god. Earlier polytheistic gods were “built up from the material of memories of the helplessness of his own childhood”. And monotheism? “Now that god was a single person, man’s relations to him could recover the intimacy and intensity of the child’s relation to his father” (Chapter IV). Freud compares human evolution to child development: in both cases we start out needing a strong, comforting parent to guide us through, one which we ought eventually to outgrow. “Men cannot remain children for ever; they must in the end go out into ‘hostile life’” (Chapter IX). This brilliant insight explains the transitional stage in which humanity now finds itself. We’ve been through a lot since some thousand years ago when nature was scary and unforeseeable. Science can now explain a great deal of nature to us, and we are finally ready to move past superstition and into rationality. The pessimistic claim that people could never fully let go of religion is one I disagree with. True, the past couple of decades saw a strong regression in each of the big three monotheistic religions. But this is only a short drawback on the overall right path. In the bigger picture there is far more freedom to exercise atheism and rationality than ever before.
The Future of an Illusion discusses religion as a social necessity. Rather than want of archaic moral guidance, the real reason for needing god – beyond heaven to look forward to – is the sense of being part of something bigger. This is an important point: though the western world has grown secular, people still need that sense of community. This accounts for the substitutes we’ve come up with: sports teams, political parties, social cliques. Think for example about The Church of Apple – those owners of iPads, iPods, iPhones, Macbooks (usually all of the above) who are emotionally involved in the products beyond normal amount. I should clarify: there’s nothing wrong with Apple products nor with owning them (I myself have a shiny white iPod). It is the exaggeration of the experience which I am uncomfortable with. I call it a church for a reason: it has all the characteristics of religion. Being a Machead means being a part of a community, being devoted to one brand and being outspoken against others (how often do you see a heated argument about iPhone 5 VS Galaxy S III? Android people usually give up earlier but are just as fanatic sometimes). It is about keeping up with the technology as it comes out, even though no one really needs a new smartphone every year, and about sticking to the product’s values, always. Have you ever tried pointing out flaws to a Machead? Point made.
Apple itself does a lot to make this church possible. For example, making it hard for iPhone users to be creative with their ringtone. What with iTunes you would expect it to be easy as pie to upload songs you like as ringtones. Apparently it required apps and patches and quite a bit of effort. Most ringtones are from a selected list. Why? So that when someone calls you, everyone around will know which phone you are using without even looking. Obviously the real reason behind this is to do with money etc; but there are other consequences.
Lastly and perhaps most obviously is the unprecedented cult of personality around Steve Jobs. This is not to be disrespectful in any way – the man was indeed innovative and brilliant at marketing and technology. But the amount of heartbreak and celebration of his work after his death was disproportional, to put it mildly. Not even leaders and artists get this kind of respect usually. It reminded me of the cult of personality around John Lennon’s assassination, or around Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Not that that’s any better – let’s all just try to steer clear from idolization all the time – but there is still a distinction to be made between creative artists and CEOs. To wrap up: my original point, in case I lost it along the way, was that in the absence of actual religion to help us feel united we easily find replacements. Today it’s Apple; tomorrow… well, let’s just wait and see.