Did Sigmund Freud ever get close to the notion of urban religion? Put differently: is it possible to somehow disentangle the father of psychoanalysis from the rank of the early 20th-century cultural and social theorists who prophesized the mutual incompatibility between urban modern and religious life? I found myself pondering over this possibility while walking down the Viennese Berggasse to reach the legendary address of Freud’s home and office.
The answer rests on Freud’s evaluation of the role played by both religion and the city in taming what he called human ‘anti-social drives’ (Freud 2004 , 46), whose eventually humane treatment was the ultimate purpose of psychoanalysis. Popular appropriations of Freud would maintain that religion and the city are completely at odds when it comes to the management of the ‘libidinal economy’ (Lyotard 1974): while the former had long contributed to achieve ‘drive renunciations’ via ‘solemn transfiguration of cultural precepts’ (Freud 2004 , 54) and repression, the latter is a ‘sexually charged’ place where ‘people could free themselves of the repressions and inhibitions that were doing them such physical and emotional harm’ (Orsi 1999, 9). Given the global trend of urbanization, psychoanalysis would then be the urban religion of the future, a non-narcotic and cathartic way of coping with traumas and neuroses resulting from the sacrifices of civilization. The fate of religion will be, at best, that of a rural relic.
Yet Freud’s twofold recognition that (a) religion’s merits in pursuing human morality are dubious and (b) city life’s licentiousness is a hyperbolic story that reflects the bourgeoisie’s legitimate fear of the democratization of libidinal releases might help strengthen our idea that urban religion is neither a contradiction in terms nor, Freud-wise, an item sharing the same illusionary character of its proximate genus, i.e. religion. A ‘most important item in the psychic inventory’ (Freud 2004 , 13) of human culture, religion in/of the city has been persuasively disentangled from its scholarly Freudian understanding as a mistaken set of beliefs which are motivated by wish-fulfillment and operate by curbing drive demands through manic acts of repressions; by the same token, research moving beyond Freud’s contribution to the secularization discourse has disproven the structural irreligiosity of modern cities. An updated psychological take on urban religion must abandon the ‘religion-as-illusion’ paradigm and rather place both religion and urbanity in the pan-human field of culturally nurtured aspirations as ‘forward-looking hopes of achievement’ that inspire individual and collective agency and aim at overcoming issues (Goh and van der Veer 2016, 370).
Dialectically intertwined with urban drives and motivations, the religious aspirations of city dwellers are no illusions in the Freudian sense, since their relation with reality is far from being disregarded (see Freud 2004 , 38). Quite the contrary, it is regularly checked out. Just as Freud’s hopes in the secular replacement of religious motivations to act underwent substantial revisions over the last decades, urban religion can be altered, even disposable, when practitioners recognize that it does not pass the test of urban reality. I was about to fail such a test myself. For several minutes had passed before I realized that the Sigmund Freud Museum was currently under renovation and the exhibition relocated from Freud’s former apartment at Berggasse 19 to the anonymous number 13 on the same street.
— Emiliano Rubens Urciuoli
Freud, Sigmund. 2004 (1927). The Future of an Illusion. London: Penguin Books.
Lyotard, Jean-François. 1974. Économie libidinale. Paris: Minuit.
Orsi, Robert. 1999. Gods of the City : Religion and the American Urban Landscape. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Goh, Daniel P.S., van der Veer, Peter. 2016. ‘Introduction: The Sacred and the Urban in Asia’. International Sociology 31, 367-374.