Who We Are, Where We Are Going
In The Future of an Illusion, first published in 1927, Sigmund Freud wrote skeptically about the true nature of religion and suggested that humanity was ready to outgrow it. But even Freud recognized how important the investigation of religion's role in human history was. He wrote, "the less a man knows about the past and the present the more insecure must prove to be his judgment of the future."
Freud was certainly right about one thing: religion plays a significant role in our past, and thus it tells us about who we are now. Indeed, our investigation of religion guides us in making better judgments about where we are headed.
The history of religions leads back to the most ancient monuments of human experience. Some scholars think that early humans were entirely absorbed with a religious sense of the "sacred," or what is holy and powerful. Even today we talk about things being "taboo," or off-limits. Societies have always set aside things, places, and people as special because they were believed to be in touch with an otherworldly power. The form of the sacred has shifted and changed, and societies have related to it in different ways, but perhaps it has always been there, across the globe, in so many times and cultures, up to the present day.
But in looking back at the role of religion in human history, and then glancing at more recent times, we might conclude that Freud was right. The world has seemingly "uncharged" of its sacredness. Is anything off-limits any more? Are we outgrowing religion? Is the world becoming more secular? Maybe the need to understand religion will gradually decrease and eventually disappear.
Scholars debate these questions intensely. It is safe to say, however, that in many parts of the world non-religious values have not been accepted wholeheartedly. Sometimes they have not been accepted at all. Freud was right: religion has played a vital role in making us who we are. But the wise doctor was wrong about his predictions for the immediate future (remember, he was writing in 1927). Religion continues to occupy us in the present day, and for the foreseeable future, religion is here to stay, in "secular" societies—and beyond.