Defender of the Faith? By MARK EDMUNDSON The New York Times: September 9, 2007
Late in life — he was in his 80s, in fact — Sigmund Freud got religion. No, Freud didn’t begin showing up at temple every Saturday, wrapping himself in a prayer shawl and reading from the Torah. To the end of his life, he maintained his stance as an uncompromising atheist, the stance he is best known for down to the present. In “The Future of an Illusion,” he described belief in God as a collective neurosis: he called it “longing for a father.” But in his last completed book, “Moses and Monotheism,” something new emerges. There Freud, without abandoning his atheism, begins to see the Jewish faith that he was born into as a source of cultural progress in the past and of personal inspiration in the present. Close to his own death, Freud starts to recognize the poetry and promise in religion.
A good deal of the antireligious polemic that has recently been abroad in our culture proceeds in the spirit of Freud’s earlier work. In his defense of atheism, “God Is Not Great,” Christopher Hitchens cites Freud as an ally who, he believes, exposed the weak-minded childishness of religion. Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins come out of the same Enlightenment spirit of hostile skepticism to faith that infuses “The Future of an Illusion.” All three contemporary writers want to get rid of religion immediately and with no remainder.
But there’s more to Freud’s take on religion than that. In his last book, written when he was old and ill, suffering badly from cancer of the jaw, Freud offers another perspective on faith. He argues that Judaism helped free humanity from bondage to the immediate empirical world, opening up fresh possibilities for human thought and action. He also suggests that faith in God facilitated a turn toward the life within, helping to make a rich life of introspection possible.
“Moses and Monotheism” was not an easy book for Freud to write or to publish. He began it in the 1930s while he was living in Vienna, and he was well aware that when and if he brought the book out he could expect trouble from the Austrian Catholic Church. The book, after all, insisted on some strange and disturbing things. Most startling, it argued that Moses himself was not a Jew. How did Freud know? First of all, he claimed that Moses is not a Jewish name but an Egyptian one; second, Freud’s study of dreams and fairy tales convinced him that the Bible had inverted things. In the Exodus story, Moses’ mother, fearing Pharaoh’s order to kill all Jewish boys, leaves the infant Moses in a basket on the river’s edge, where he is discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter. But Freud maintained that the Jews were the ones who had found him by the river. (In fairy tales and dreams, the child always begins with rich parents and is adopted by poor ones, yet his noble nature wins out — or so Freud insisted.) Freud also said that monotheism was not a Jewish but an Egyptian invention, descending from the cult of the Egyptian sun god Aton.
In March 1938, the Nazis invaded Austria and put Freud and his family in mortal danger. Freud managed to escape from Vienna with the help of the wealthy Princess Marie Bonaparte, whom he adored, and of the government of the United States of America, which he relentlessly disliked. President Roosevelt even took a measure of interest in Freud’s case, but that did not change Freud’s mind about the rogue republic at all. America is enormous, he liked to say, but it is an enormous mistake.
Before leaving Vienna, Freud gave the Nazis a parting gift. They had made it clear to him that his emigration was contingent on signing a statement saying that he had not been molested in any way and that he had been able to continue with his scientific work. Freud signed, but then added a coda of his own devising: “I can most highly recommend the Gestapo to everyone.”
In London, where Freud arrived in June 1938, he encountered another sort of resistance to finishing and publishing the Moses book. The first person who came to see him at his house on Elsworthy Road was his neighbor, a Jewish scholar named Abraham Yahuda. Yahuda had gotten wind of the contents of the volume and had come to beseech Freud not to publish. Didn’t the Jews have enough trouble in the world without one of their number saying that Moses was not Jewish and that — in contrast to the peaceful death depicted in the Bible — Moses had been murdered by the Jews themselves, who resented the harsh laws he had tried to impose on them? Did Freud actually intend to claim that over time guilt for the murder had enhanced Moses’ status and his legacy of monotheism, creating in the Jews what Freud liked to call a “reaction formation”? Yahuda was far from being the last of such petitioners. During his early days in London, Freud received no end of entreaties to let the project go. What did Freud do? He published of course — and not just in German but, as quickly and conspicuously as possible, in English. The reviews were terrible. The private response was often bitter. And Freud was delighted. He reveled in the strong sales figures, shrugged off the nasty reviews and sang his own praises. “Quite a worthy exit,” he called the Moses book. And it was, but not chiefly because of the strange speculations about Moses’ identity that worried Yahuda and scandalized the book’s first readers. There is a more subtle and original dimension to the book, and perhaps it was that dimension that made Freud so determined to complete and publish it, despite all the resistance. For in “Moses and Monotheism” Freud has something truly fresh to say about religion. 1 2 3 Next Page » Mark Edmundson teaches English at the University of Virginia. His book “The Death of Sigmund Freud: The Legacy of His Last Days” is being published this month.