Columns General story Martin Marty: Sightings Opinion

Freud and other ‘god-killers’ are here to stay

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Austrian psychoanalyst, in his office in Vienna, ca. 1930

EDITOR’S NOTE: This column originally appeared in Sightings, a publication of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Sign up here to receive Sightings in your inbox on Mondays and Thursdays. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Darwin-Marx-Nietzsche-Freud—dubbable, and sometimes dubbed, “the four bearded god-killers”—who framed now-classic, career-long attacks on God and gods and religion and religions, enjoy and suffer successions of varying critical fates. We will save Nietzsche and his “death of God” for some future column. What prompts this week’s look at these titans is the headline—typical of many in recent weeks—“Why the Freud Wars Will Never End” in The Wall Street Journal. In a recommendable review by Adam Kirsch, Frederick Crews’s Freud: The Making of an Illusion (Metropolitan, 2017) and its subject’s ever-changing fate get full attention.

Kirsch quotes poet W. H. Auden on Freud after Freud’s death in 1939: “to us he is no more a person / now but a whole climate of opinion.” Yet Auden on the same page wrote of Freud that “often he was wrong and, at times, absurd.” Kirsch cites an absurd, even bizarre, theory of Freud’s but goes on to ask why, despite such, “we” have to take him seriously still. He quotes Crews’s new book, along with others by the same author, as the latest installment in the “Freud wars,” waged mainly in the 1980s and 1990s. The book is intended not just to debunk and defame Freud, but to banish him from serious discussion.

Kirsch cites index references in Crews: “Freud, Sigmund … abandoned by patients; alcohol, recourse to; bribery on behalf of; impotence of; vindictiveness of,” and more, including references in the book to Freud as a liar who was guilty of incest and adultery, etc. The author correctly notes that Freud does not belong in the company of scientists, where generations of Freudian counsellors once located him. Instead, “he resembles Karl Marx more than, say, Charles Darwin, to name two figures who dominated the intellectual world of his youth.” So it was because he “was a kind of prophet that he was so hostile to all forms of traditional religion … If there is one constant in Freud’s intellectual life, it is his adamant opposition to religion, especially the Judaism that was his family’s tradition.”

Kirsch sees Crews’s Freud as liar and cheat and hoax, “a false prophet.” Yet, “like other exploded belief systems, psychoanalysis is so deeply embedded in our cultural self-understanding that it may be impossible to think our way entirely free from it.” He “cannot be ignored, only argued with and about—which suggests that the Freud wars may be with us to stay.” The same might be said of those myths that began as, but went beyond, economic science. Take Karl Marx, whose Communist myths suffer after having fortified, and fortifying, murderous political and military expressions.

We also listed in the company of the god-killers Charles Darwin, who like the others mixed science and myth, and became controversial in the religion he left behind, Christianity, which had very different accounts of human origins and destiny. He, too, “cannot be ignored, only argued with and about,” and so the Darwin wars “may be with us to stay.” Many people of faith, including theologians, pick and choose elements in some of these rivals, considering that they cannot be ignored, but can be argued with across the spectrum of alternatives. They do not ignore the god-killers, but learn to be selective and to transform features of them, without themselves becoming “prophets” of such belief systems, however much these seem to be here to stay.

About the author

Martin E. Marty

"Marty" is one of the most prominent interpreters of religion and culture today. Author of more than 50 books, he is also a speaker, columnist, pastor, and teacher, having been a professor of religious history for 35 years at the University of Chicago.


Click here to post a comment

  • Darwin-Marx-Nietzsche-Freud aren’t the god killers.
    Clerical religion did it all by themselves….

  • “God-killers”? Hardly. The more accurate term is, “Failed cult-leaders.”

    Those four names are mere punching bags to help committed, biblical Christians to develop speed, stamina, and power in the cultural boxing match for today’s minds and hearts.

    So grab yourself a no-good “god-killer” (especially that snake-oil con-man Darwin), and knock him out today!

  • I killed god via science (and an objective study of the Bible). No need for philosophy or Marxism.

  • Darwin didn’t kill god. He made important discoveries regarding life that showed the Bible book of Genesis to be wrong and it all fell apart since it was built on a foundation of sand.

  • and the God killers have created a society of man killers. What a fine job these men have done. God killers do not kill God, except in your mind; they do kill mankind.

  • Freud’s central thesis is that everything has meaning and doey not need defending. There are different ideas about the meanings but not about meaning itself. As a species, we are driven to seek it and some find it in God wialhile others don’t. All I know is its part as an element of me.

  • God killers? exactly what planet are you from?

    23 of the world thinks the story of the Christian god is nonsense. Half of those who don’t think it is nonsense think that the other half of those who don’t think it is nonsense are full of nonsense; that runs both directions.

    As far as I can tell, the god killers are the god addled.

  • There is no such thing as ‘god-killers’, there is the progress made by a humanity, struggling to complete the Enlightenment, that brings religion into question, and rightly so, But while many may default to atheism in the process, the question remains what does religion have to do with God? And is a true revelation from God the same as the all too human theological interpretation of such a revelation offered by tradition?

  • Darwin is being chased from pillar to post these days, (somebody even chopped down Darwin’s famous “Tree of Life” not long ago, and left it there to rot), while Genesis continues to get people’s attention as the way the real world (and humanity) works.

  • Oh please. Modern science is indeed your friend (and mine), but NOWHERE is modern science the friend of atheism.

    Atheism is graveyard fodder, if you have to rely on science & biology to keep it alive.

  • Modern science and biology has allowed me to live a somewhat peaceful existence. I wouldn’t have choices of Immunosuppressant drugs. What’s limiting my choices are corporate greed wrapped up in Christian hegemony.

  • No, a literal interpretation of Genesis is no longer tenable because the creation stories are inconsistent.

  • The problem with Freud isn’t that he’s a ‘god-killer’ but that that he was a pseudo-scientist who made his living by peddling bogus psychological theories which, to the extent that the were falsifiable, were falsified. And people loved him, and paid him handsomely, because he prescribed exactly what they wanted: more sex and less religion. And, of course, same old same old sexist stuff about women.

    Nothing wrong with ‘god-killing’ as such. It’s a delight to read Russell or Ayer. And certainly Darwin was an excellent scientist. But Freud made his living by theft rather than honest toil: tell the Folk what they want to hear, and they’ll pay. Make adverse comments about religion and you automatically count as an intellectual and be immune from criticism—because anyone who objects to your cockamamy theories will be trashed as a religious bigot who REALLY objects to your enlightened anti-religious views.

  • I’d have to disagree here.

    Freud was wrong about a lot of things, but he was also right about a lot of things. He gave us a way to think about human behavior that steps outside of religion.

    He had a great mind, but he was a product of his time, not having someone like Sigmund Freud in the generation behind his to guide him. His views on homosexuality were both extremely enlightened in some cases, and totally absurd in others. But at least he gave us a different way to think about it.

  • Freud wasn’t the first to give us a way to think about human behavior outside of religion. There was Mill, for example. There was Hume (a god-killer if ever there was one). There was Kant, and all the secularizing secularists of the Enlightenment. For that matter there was Aristotle. Freud didn’t give us a different way of thinking about things.

  • Corporate greed, humans being what they are, will function with or without the existence of Christian hegemony. Given that my daughter is a survivor of childhood leukemia, I can identify, at least from the 2nd hand perspective, with your gratitude for the availability of such drugs…though profit is a painful but powerful motive for investing in the science that brings such therapeutic nostrums to us.

  • A question of long standing that has been resolved in the minds of many, and in the minds of others, not so much. That is why the question will remain unanswered for the foreseeable future for the greater balance of humanity.

  • The immediate reality is that the bulk of humanity believes in God, in one form or another. To paraphrase Mark Twain; The rumors of His demise are greatly exaggerated.

  • NOT EVEN CLOSE. As a cognitive scientist, (which in essence he was not; rather he was a philosopher) Darwin was somewhat pathetic.

  • That statement is no more accurate than the one which claims the more people have been killed on the name of atheism than of religion. No one has been killed in the name of theism or secularlism, but in the name of ideologies, beliefs, and ideas that are inimical to health and happiness.

    But Edward, here’s the real problem with your statement. Atheists don’t claim to speak for god, to be god’s representatives. Atheists have no morals, according to the religious.

    So it’s hardly a compliment to religious people to say, “well, oh yeah? At least we’re not as bad as the atheists.”

    Aside from the probable fact that it’s not true.

  • ‘Questions’ are only ever temporarily resolved, for all knowledge is incomplete and that is especially true of the God question, until that is, mankind discovers a way to progress further up that great unknown learning curve of history.

  • No, Methuselah, you are most emphatically NOT free from religion, because you never shut up about it. In one of the many ironies of atheism, religion takes up more space in your mind than it does the minds of religious folk.

    Atheists talk about religion a thousand times more often than religious people talk about atheism.

    Face it, you’re the prisoners of what you hate. Sad little angry things.

  • I enjoy discussing religion, politics, science and philosophy. Fundamentalist christianity was a major force in my teenage years until I extracted myself from its influence. I especially enjoy sparring with fundamentalists. This is the only site I frequent.

  • Freud was simultaneously a genius–for his understanding of ideas re motivation, and other things–and a crackpot. He was no scientist, and even though that’s been appreciated for at least 70 years, unfortunately, his ideas are still given credibility.

    It’s been said that Freud is not/will no longer be taught in the psychology department, but in the *English* department. And, interestingly, lots of media folk (for example) are still unaware that Freud was a “crackpot scientist”.

    And as a general matter, science is of course a serious threat to religion. There are many reasons for that, but one key one is that science does not respect authority.

  • In assessing how many people have been killed or damaged by religion, the obvious starting place is the Inquisition. Religion has helped lots of people, but it has also murdered and damaged lots of people, in a wide variety of ways.

  • Not quite accurate, Edward.

    The bulk of humanity has in the past, and will for the foreseeable future, believed in A God or Some Gods or Many Gods, often simultaneously.

    That doesn’t mean they believe in capital G God, much less a single God, and even less so the three-in-one Christian god.

  • Christians have been flinging accusations of “heretic” at each other since the at least the council of Nicaea.

  • Never, ever a mirror when you need one.

    We’re most emphatically not the people screaming godgodgodgodgod at everyone. That’s all you, whether fundelibangelsists christian, Hyper Muslim, Hindu with temples and gods, everywhere, or anyone else.

    If you people– and gawdamighty, I do like writing that phrase every once else in a while– would keep your religion to yourselves, you would probably be extremely disappointed that no one is paying any attention to you.

  • Not nearly as pathetic as you are, Windy Edward Cooper B-S Boswell. Now get that chin DOWN and get those beans in. Even your spouse Jimmie Shortbeard has you beat there.

  • I encompassed that reality in my statement as I did not specify God in my usage as the God of Judeo/Christian theology, but rather “in God, in one form or another.” The greater point is that humanity has a deep seated and intrinsic need (in general terms) to worship something or Somebody. That in itself is good evidence for God philosophically speaking. My own instincts and experiences confirm for me that the best, most rational, and well balanced narrative regarding God and His Nature is to be found in the pages of the Two Testaments.

  • I make no claims to the amorality of atheists as a class, but in your argument, if I can put this without offence to you, you are engaging in semantical hair splitting. Atheism/secularism, Theism/Religion, Ideologies/Ideas. If we’re going to lump all classes of monumental homicide together, then it is unfair to single out religionists as you did in your previous statement if we’re confining the argument to the numbers of victims attributable to each side; but then I was the one that made that suggestion. Still, however we define the terms, Humanity’s Inhumanity is well documented in any case, in fact Inhumanity is the natural stock in trade of the human race. Which is precisely why I need a God I can believe in, to fulfill my hope and dream that someday the race will be delivered from itself. I find the God of the Bible both convenient and convincing.

  • Which is why we too often default to our own created illusions rather then confront a reality that fails to confirm the view of ourselves that we want to believe. And we then unknowingly slide back down the curve.

  • There is a difference, Edward.

    Atheism is simply the lack of belief in god’s. Secularism is the belief that the government must stay neutral in matter osreligion vs. religion, or religion vs. no religion.

  • And the situation you describe has potential for all of us, at least in temporal terms. But if an objective unassailable Truth exists to be revealed in its own season, it would be wise to seek that Truth with as much dispatch as is possible.

  • The only reason “an objective unassailable Truth” hasn’t been forthcoming from existing religious tradition is that tradition is an all too human theological construct, not revealed and they never bothered looking! But someone might have discovered one? You might wish to examine the material at this link. I’m studying this myself very carefully at the moment.

  • factually inaccurate….Darwin saw micro-evolution (genetic variation within a kind, which is pre-programed) and came up with his myth of macro-evolution. this is why you guys came up with Neo-Darwinism after cracking the dna code…’cause Charles was WRONG (and so is the face saving Neo-Darwinism)