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Understanding Freud & Marx : Religion VS Civilization

Understanding Freud & Marx : Religion VS Civilization

In his book, Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud argues that, when humans strive after happiness” (Freud, 42), they are aiming to maximize the  pleasure principle. The pleasure principle is the fulfillment of our natural drives and the avoidance of suffering. Freud proposes that civilization constrains happiness by putting bounds on our  natural drives. However, religion – an instrument of civilization – enhances happiness by creating delusions to avoid suffering. 

How does civilization impede but religion improve happiness? How does Marx believe religion improves happiness? 

According to Freud, the human body constantly strives for a homeostatic state. However, when  this homeostatic state is disturbed, our body reacts by forming appetitive internal forces, or  “drives” (Freud, 15). Freud postulates that all human beings have two basic drives: Eros, the libidinal drive for sexual pleasure, and Thanatos – from the Greek word for ‘death’ – the aggressive drive for destruction and violence. Freud then connects his drive theory to his pleasure principle – the driving force of the id that seeks to “become happy and stay happy” (Freud, 42) through the immediate gratification of our drives, and the avoidance of pain, or “suffering” (Freud, 44).  

The aggressive drive evidently poses a danger to human life if each is given the liberty to  exercise their “instinctual impulses” to exert “brute force” (Freud, 71) towards others. Individuals are constantly vulnerable to “the physically stronger man” (Freud, 71). For Freud, “human life in  common” is only possible when power is transferred from the individual to the community which  is “stronger than any separate individual” (Freud, 71). 

This transfer is “the decisive step of civilization” (Freud, 71) and is compulsory to avoid anarchy. Civilization compiles laws to restrain human drives: for example, criminalizing murder represses  the aggressive drive, and outlawing rape contains the libidinal drive to consensual sex. Civilization is “built upon a renunciation” (Freud, 75) of human drives. This renunciation hinders happiness, according to the pleasure principle. Civilization is “largely responsible for our misery” (Freud, 38) but necessary to provide “a portion of security” (Freud, 109) to human life. 

Religion and its laws, such as the Christian rule of “love thy neighbour as thyself” (Freud, 91) direct many people’s mutual relations. Religion therefore serves one of Freud’s purposes of  civilization – to “adjust our mutual relations" (Freud, 63) - which makes religion an instrument of civilization.relations” (Freud, 63). Therefore, religion is an instrument of civilization. In this paper, I argue that civilization imposes rules which constrains our happiness, but religion sets rules to live by which enhance its followers’ happiness by allowing them to avoid suffering. 

Freud, an atheist, determines religious beliefs to be false and rather a “delusionary  remoulding” of the “most unbearable features” (Freud, 51) of reality. One particular delusion of  religion involves the comforting belief that any occurring suffering is part of “God’s ‘inscrutable  decrees’” (Freud, 56). Freud uses this term to refer to the notion that everything, even the most unpleasant occurrences, is part of ‘God’s plan’, and thus people believe that ‘everything happens for a reason’.

Freud categorizes the “mass-delusion” (Freud, 51) of religion to be a method  of “substitutive satisfaction” (Freud, 41), where one holds steadfastly to delusions, to minimize the  “many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks” (Freud, 41) real life brings. These delusions  are “indispensable” for happiness because life is “too hard for us” (Freud, 41). A religious delusion  acts as a “palliative measure” (Freud, 41) to avoid suffering and enhance the pleasure principle’s definition of happiness. 

Marx determines religion to have a happiness-inducing capacity through a similar nature of  deluding its followers. In his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, he labels religion as  delusionary. For example, religion creates the delusion of a “heart” in a “heartless world” (Marx, 251). These delusions make religion the “opium of the people” (Marx, 251); religion reduces suffering and boosts happiness like opium does. 

For both Freud and Marx, religion creates delusions which allow us to avoid suffering.  However, I believe that the extent to which they believe religion reduces suffering differs because  of their differing definitions of ‘suffering’. In Freud’s eyes, “suffering only exists in so far as we feel it” (Freud, 45). Therefore, religion’s method of causing us to not feel any suffering by constructing a delusion is sufficient in curing actual suffering. Religion thus adequately contributes to genuine  happiness.  

Marx, on the other hand, declares that the “abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of  the people is the demand for their real happiness.” (Marx, 251). Marx believes that a delusion does not create actual happiness and remove actual suffering, but only does so on a surface level. For Marx, religion, like opium, is not a satisfactory method of improving happiness. 

Freud and Marx share the view that religion creates a delusion which allows us to avoid suffering. However, I believe that Marx’s and Freud’s views differ in terms of the degree to which  religion truly creates happiness by removing suffering. For Freud, religion’s ability to delude  followers of an absence of suffering equates to a sufficient avoidance of actual suffering. For Marx, however, a delusion only allows one to avoid suffering superficially. Any “condition that requires illusions” (Marx, 251) is unable to truly reduce suffering. Marx believes that religion’s delusion of  an absence of suffering is merely the “expression of” and “protest against” real suffering (Marx, 251), rather than a remedy for it. Consequently, I interpret Marx to deny and Freud to support the  argument that religion, and its associated delusion, can enhance “real happiness” (Marx, 251). 


Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Peterborough, Ontario, Broadview Press, 2016. 

Marx, Karl. Critique of Hegel’s “Philosophy of Right.” Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2009.


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