The Utter Failure of the 19th/20th Century Atheistic Icons

SIGMUND FREUD (1856 - 1939)

The Dismal Failure of Freud's Theory of Psychoanalysis; Facing the Truth of a Failed "Science"

Freud's Background

During the 20th century a certain Sigmund Freud had several books published which made a major impact on the world. These books included The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), and the Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1915-1916).

Sigmund Freud was born in what is now Czechoslovakia. His Jewish family emigrated to Vienna when he was 4 years old. By the age of 11 years, Freud shared his home with a total of five other siblings.

After studying internal medicine, Freud decided to move into neurology. Although regarded as a painstaking researcher, Freud lived in Europe at a time when anti-Semitism was widespread. The prospects for an academic career, therefore, did not appear to be too promising, however, Freud proved single-minded in his determination to carve out a highly-individual path in life. His chosen path was the study of the complexities of the human mind.

Much of Freud's thinking seems to have grown out of his work with Joseph Breuer, who was an established Vienese physician who may have been something of a benefactor to the younger man. Breuer often used hypnotism on his patients, something which fascinated Freud, yet he went on to develop his own methods of delving into the unconscious mind by preferring to use free association rather than hypnosis.

Initially Freud was considered something of a radical but eventually his theory of psychoanalysis began to take off and finally to thrive, and by about 1928-30 it was being established around the world as a flourishing movement. Moreover he always picked up a lot of devotees who quickly became attracted to his ideas.

His Theories

Freud set out to show that the experiences, actions and thoughts of everyday life were determined not by our conscious rationality, but by irrational forces completely outside of our conscious life. - Freud believed that these forces could only be properly understood and controlled (where necessary) by an extensive treatment process which he called psychoanalysis.

He also largely devised a whole new vocabulary with which to describe the various perceived areas of one's subconscious life. He introduced the subjects of the 'id', 'phallic symbolism', the 'Oedipus complex', 'penis envy' and 'castration anxiety' as well, of course, as the 'superego'. Freud liked to focus on what one might call the 'explanation of the ambiguous.' It has also been claimed that this man layed the foundation of postmodern approaches to literary criticism such as deconstruction. There can be no doubting that Freud's influence on modern culture has been profound and long-lasting although certainly waning and increasingly questioned during the last few years, especially as we enter the 21st century.

Increasingly, Freud's theories are seen as being very much his own theories and no real basis for a deeper scientific understanding of the human mind. A. Grünbaum in the Précis of The Foundations of Psychoanalysis: A Philosophical Critique. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, (9, 217-284, 1986) plainly believes that the reasoning on which Freud based his entire psychoanalytic theory was "fundamentally flawed, even if the validity of his clinical evidence were not in question" but that "the clinical data are themselves suspect; more often than not, they may be the patient's responses to the suggestions and expectations of the analyst" (p. 220). So Grünbaum concludes that in order for psychoanalytic hypotheses to be validated in the future, data must be obtained from extraclinical studies rather than from data obtained in a clinical setting (p. 228). In other words, Grünbaum and other critics, including Colby, assert that Freud's psychoanalysis is seriously lacking in empirical data (Colby, K. M. An Introduction to Psychoanalytic Research. p 54, New York: Basic, 1960).

Wide areas of Freud's teaching are now questioned but perhaps few areas as strongly as his belief that sexual repression (of various sorts) is a prime reason for psychological problems later in one's life.

In An Outline of Psychoanalysis Freud contended that sexual life begins with manifestations which start to present themselves in early childhood (p. 22-25). He proposes four main phases in sexual development which are

a. The oral phase.

b. The sadistic-anal phase.

c. The phallic phase.

d.The genital phase.

Freud suggests that each phase is characterized by specific occurrences. During the oral phase, the individual places emphasis on providing satisfaction for the needs of the mouth, which emerges as the first erotogenic zone (p. 24). During the sadistic-anal phase, satisfaction is sought through aggression and in the excretory function. During the phallic phase, the young boy enters the Oedipus phase where he fears his father and castration while simultaneously fantasizing about sexual relations with his mother (p. 25). The young girl, in contrast, enters the Electra phase, where she experiences penis envy, which often culminates in her turning away from sexual life altogether.

Following the phallic phase is a period of latency, in which sexual development comes to a halt (p. 23).

Finally, in the genital phase, the sexual function is completely organized and the coordination of sexual urge towards pleasure is completed. Errors occurring in the development of the sexual function result in homosexuality and sexual perversions, according to Freud (p. 27).

Sigmund Freud

However, truthfully all of this is a mere theory which was not backed up with any exhaustive evidence. But more seriously these "phases" are not according to the experiences of thousands of people.

Freud tended to come to firm conclusions and his later devotees came to look upon some of his conclusions as "science" but - as is increasingly being realised - none of this is science of any real sort. Moreover, to take the whole bulk of his theories (even apart from his sexual repression theory), any significant or meaningful scientific data is rarely to be found,

As John F. Kihlstrom has so accurately pointed out,

'Freud's cultural influence is based, at least implicitly, on the premise that his theory is scientifically valid. But from a scientific point of view, classical Freudian psychoanalysis is dead as both a theory of the mind and a mode of therapy (Crews, 1998; Macmillan, 1996). No empirical evidence supports any specific proposition of psychoanalytic theory, such as the idea that development proceeds through oral, anal, phallic, and genital stages, or that little boys lust after their mothers and hate and fear their fathers. No empirical evidence indicates that psychoanalysis is more effective, or more efficient, than other forms of psychotherapy, such as systematic desensitization or assertiveness training. No empirical evidence indicates the mechanisms by which psychoanalysis achieves its effects, such as they are, are those specifically predicated on the theory, such as transference and catharsis.'

(See Kihlstrom's excellent online essay 'Is Freud Still Alive? No, Not Really' which is here:

Freud's Original Motivations: Scientific or Philosophical/Anti-Religious?

In his Freud, Biologist of the Mind which received the Pfizer Award of the History of Science Society for the best book published in the field in 1979, Frank J. Sulloway, Ph.D. has cast much further light on the original motivations of Sigmund Freud. He carefully builds up his case of how Freud was strongly influenced by the Darwinian biology of his time and by the bizarre researches of his intimate friend Wilhelm Fliess, in substituting an evolutionary for a physiological model of the mind. Maybe nobody had quite realised before how determined the 'Father of psychoanalysis' was to formulate a totally new way of looking at the human mind from a wholly Darwinist perspective. As Dr. Sulloway shows, this revolutionary reassessment of Freud and psychoanalysis runs directly counter to a complex myth that both Freud and his followers have sought to propagate--a mythology that pictures Freud as the lonely "psychoanalytic hero" who, all by himself and against a universally hostile outside world, "invented" a totally original psychology through analysis of his patients and (heroically) of himself. Dr. Sulloway not only unmasks the historical distortions behind this legend, but exposes the philosophical and political functions it has served in the history of psychoanalysis. So Freud (rather like the Darwin he so admired) drew on existing theories which were just emerging rather more than is generally realised. Therefore, the early belief that Freud was simply a brilliant and perceptive observer and analyzer of human behaviour who simply wanted to further scientific understanding has to be seriously questioned. As a strongly-convicted atheist Freud was a devotee of Darwin to a degree which has, perhaps, rarely been brought out before.

In fact, From 1876 to about 1883 he conducted research at the Physiological Institute under direction of one Ernst Brücke, an international authority who, with his colleagues, adhered to the idea that all physiological processes could ultimately be explained in terms of pure physics and chemistry without any recourse to any metaphysical influences. Thus, religious concepts were determinedly removed from basic biological research. Writing in a letter Freud exclaimed that "Neither in my private life nor in my writings have I ever made a secret of being an out-and-out unbeliever." Freud also wrote the following:

'In my 'Future of an Illusion' (1927) I was concerned much less with the deepest sources of religious feeling than with what the common man understands by his religion- with the system of doctrines and promises which on the one hand explains to him the riddles of the world with enviable completeness, and, on the other, assures him that a careful Providence will watch over his life and will compensate him in a future existence for any frustrations he suffers here. The common man cannot imagine this Providence otherwise than in the figure of an enormously exalted father. Only such a being can understand the needs of the children of men and be softened by their prayers and placated by the signs of their remorse. The whole thing is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life. It is still more humiliating to discover how large a number of people living today, who cannot but see that this religion is not tenable, nevertheless try to defend it piece by piece in a series of pitiful rearguard actions.' (Sigmund Freud, Society and its Discontents 1930)

Psychoanalysis to Replace Judaic/Christian Conceptions of Sin

So Freud was adamantly opposed to Christianity. He taught that religious doctrines are all illusions and that religion is "A universal obsessional neurosis of humanity."

One of Freud's Teachers

Picture of Jean-Martin Charcot, one of Freud's teachers

Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893) was a professor at the University of Paris for 33 years and an early influence on Freud. But Freud disagreed with his teaching that hypnosis was a neurological phenomenon. He considered the hypnotic state to be a purely psychological one. Freud wanted to separate the mental from the physical and saw religion as a rival for an explanation of the state of the human mind; He declared war on the concept that human beings were 'sinners in the sight of God' being determined to replace this with a wholly Darwinist view of the mind.

In fact along with sexual repression, he viewed religion as one of the main reasons for mental problems and thus formed all of his notions from a Darwinist/godless position. Yet Freud’s views have influenced our culture to the degree that even many Christians began to doubt the effectiveness of the Bible and the Church in dealing with life’s problems. All the while, Freud never deviated from his view that belief in God was not only delusionary but actually psychologically damaging. He negatively influenced the faith and affected the attitudes of many people concerning the role of the Church in healing troubled souls. Indeed, he thought it entirely preposterous that people with problems of the mind would be more likely to consult with a Christian minister rather than consult the conclusions of his psychoanalysis. There is strong evidence that he began to see that he could best further his intrinsic Darwinist motivations by replacing the position of a rabbi or Christian minister in European society with his scheme of psychoanalysis.

He worked for many years in attempting to undermine religion and to replace religious (Judaic or Christian) approaches to the human mind which saw people as sinners who needed God as a solution to their problems, with his concept of the autonomy of man as a product of evolution who had created a god in his own image. He claimed that he had developed a science of the mind to replace religion. The irony of this, however, is that it is now increasingly being accepted that his theories are not - and never were - science of any real kind, and his committment to them was really a religious kind of acceptance! He imposed his theories upon people who, perhaps somewhat naively, accepted them as a "new science" but society is now facing the truth of the abject failure of Freud and of his psychoanalysis.

As John F. Kihlstrom writes,

'While Freud had an enormous impact on 20th century culture, his influence on psychology has been that of a dead weight. The broad themes that Westen writes about were present in psychology before Freud, or arose more recently independent of his influence. At best, Freud is a figure of only historical interest for psychologists. He is better studied as a writer, in departments of language and literature, than as a scientist, in departments of psychology. Psychologists can get along without him.' (Taken from Kihlstrom's online essay 'Is Freud Still Alive? No, Not Really' which is here:

Robin A. Brace, 2006.

(Full Bibliography for this article appears under Suggested Further Articles)

More and related reading of interest:

Christian Counselling; Just Fine?

Do Hurting People Need Counsellors, Therapies and Psychologists?

Psychology; Science or Religion?

The Influence of the 'Frankfurt School' on Modern Liberal Thought

The Influence of Friedrich Nietzsche


(Go here for several hundred articles extending from general Christian teaching to theology and Christian Philosophy)

Article Bibliography:

Colby, K. M. (1960). An Introduction to Psychoanalytic Research. New York: Basic.
Crews, F.C. (Ed.). (1998). Unauthorized Freud: Doubters Confront a Legend. New York: Viking.
Edelson, M. (1986). The Evidential Value of the Psychoanalyst's Clinical Data. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 9, 232-234.
Erwin, E. (1986). Defending Freudianism. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 9, 235-236.
Eysenck, H. J. (1986). Failure of Treatment--Failure of Theory? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 9, 236.
Farrell, B. A. (1981). The Standing of Psychoanalysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Freud, S. (1949). An Outline of Psychoanalysis. New York: Norton
Greenberg, R. P. (1986). The Case Against Freud's Cases. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 9, 240-241
Grünbaum, A. (1986). Précis of The Foundations of Psychoanalysis: A Philosophical Critique. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 9, 217-284.
Kihlstrom, Richard. 'Is Freud Still Alive? No, Not Really' (online essay which is here:
Macmillan, M.B. (1996). Freud Evaluated. Cambridge, Ma.: MIT Press
Roth, M. (1998). Freud: Conflict and Culture. New York: Knopf
Sulloway, Ph.D .Frank J. (1992 reprint) Freud Biologist of the Mind Harvard University Press.
Webster, Richard. (1995) Why Freud Was Wrong; Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis. Harper/Collins (UK)
Westen, D. (1998). The Scientific Legacy of Sigmund Freud: Toward a Psychodynamically Informed Psychological Science. Psychological Bulletin, 124, 333-371