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Freud and Religion

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Freud and Religion


"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 majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life" 

Civilization and its Discontents 1930



"My deep engrossment in the Bible story (almost as soon as I had learnt the art of reading) had, as I recognised much later, an enduring effect upon the direction of my interest..." 

An Autobiographical Study 1925

Throughout his life Freud grappled with the problem of mythology, spiritual feeling, religious institutions and the basis of morality. His writing on the subject is only half the story. Many of the antiquities he collected are religious objects of one sort or another, intended to pacify the gods with which men have surrounded their lives, or to ensure immortality in another life. His collection of Rennaissance prints and photographs brought back from  'pilgrimages' to Italy, are testament to a deep and abiding fascination with the Catholic faith he often denounced as 'the enemy'. The Leonardo cartoon 'Madonna and Child with St Anne' hangs in his study downstairs.
Freud must have been impressed by the universal nature of religious phenomena, being on the interface between the biolgical and social realms. No doubt he suspected that religion, like literature, articulated in a disguised way some of the psychological truths he discovered in his own work. It could even be argued that the confrontation with religion was a spur to the development of psychoanalysis itself:
"In point of fact I believe that a large part of the mythological view of the world, which extends a long way into the most modern religions, is nothing but psychology projected into the external world. The obscure recognition... of psychical factors and relations in the unconscious is mirrored - it is difficult to express it in other terms, and here the analogy with paranoia must come to our aid - in the construction of a supernatural reality, which is destined to be changed back once more by science into the psychology of the unconscious. One could venture to explain in this way the myths of paradise and the fall of man, of God, of good and evil, of immortality, and so on, and to transform metaphysics into metapsychology." 
The Psychopathology of Everyday Life(1901) 

illustrations from the Philippson Bible

Freud's theories on religion

In his numerous works on religion, written over a span of nearly forty years, Freud produced a number of different but in many ways interconnected theories.

  • Religion is a 'universal obsessional ritual' designed to avert imaginary misfortunes and control the unconscious impulses which lead us to feel we are causing them. The rituals attempt to control the outside world and our egoistic and aggressive wishes as well.
  • Religion is an attempt to master the Oedipus complex. According to this theory, everyone has to deal with the problems caused by the fact that we have complex childhood relationships to a mother and father. Love and hate, rivalry and dependence mark our relationships and can cause intense emotional turmoil. Religion is a way of working though these problems in a socially acceptable manner so they become easier for each individual to bear. Religion protects people from individual neurosis by being a kind of social neurosis, and so sharing the problem. For instance, in the unconscious we might want our mothers to be virgins and our fathers to be all-powerful. These ideas might be 'mad' if expressed by an individual, but are allowed expression in religion.
  • Religion is the return of the repressed. This is similar to the theory above but in this case religion is repeating or working through traumatic events from the distant evolutionary past. Repressed traumas return like the symptoms or character traits of individuals as described in Moses and Monotheism. The important events for Freud are associated with his theory of the primal horde.
  • Religion is a reaction to infantile helplessness. In this theory we try to recreate in religion a feeling of being protected by unbounded 'love' which we yearned for in our state of infantile helplessness. Religious belief protects us from 'the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' (ultimately from the acknowledgment of death) and therefore protects our narcissism. Religion keeps us in the illusion of being at the centre of the universe once more.
  • Religion echoes infantile states of 'bliss'. This theory is similar to the one above. Instead of a reaction to infantile helplessness, religion tunes into the sense of 'oneness' which the baby is thought to experience with the mother. The early loss of ego boundaries is reproduced in a feeling of the 'transcendent' in adult life. This theory implies a state of blissful fusion with an all-loving, and all-forgiving parent. Freud also looked at this 'oceanic' or 'spiritual' feeling in Civilization and its Discontents.
  • Religion is a mass delusion or paranoid wish-fulfilment. Freud had already analysed the 'private religions' of Daniel Schreber (Psychoanalytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia, 1911) and Christopher Haizman ('A Seventeenth Century Demonological Neurosis', 1923) and such delusions are typical of schizophrenia in general. In turning away from reality and putting a wishful reality in its place the person makes use of magical thinking as described in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. In some ways this brings religion closer to science. Freud had often said that paranoid delusions are like philosophical systems or scientific theories - they are all trying to make sense of the world, and our place in it.
  • Religion is a way to hold groups together. This is implied in the first view above, dealing with egoistic or 'anti-social' impulses. In his Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego Freud tries to describe the actual structure of groups as he sees it from the point of view of the emotional ties that bind them together. He returns to the theme in Civilization and its Discontents.

Each of these theories has been criticized for being over-simple. The main objection seems to be directed at the implication that religion is a neurosis. I am not sure this criticism carries much weight. Freud says explicitly that religion can save people from neurosis. He also asserts on more than one occassion that science - the highest achievement of human beings in his eyes - can also be described by using terms from psychopathology. That is to say, as a 'neurosis' in a dynamic sense. For Freud 'neurosis' is not necessarily a pejorative term, it is more or less a shorthand description for the human condition!

Religion and truth
"While the different religions wrangle with one another as to which of them is in possession of the truth, our view is that the question of the truth of religious beliefs may be left altogether on one side. Religion is an attempt to master the sensory world in which we are situated by means of the wishful world which we have developed within us as a result of biological and psychological necessities." 

The Question of a Weltanschauung (1931)

Moses and Monotheism (1937)

What is true in religion?

"How enviable, to those of us who are poor in faith, do those enquirers seem who are convinced of the existence of a Supreme Being!  To that great Spirit the world offers no problems, for he himself created all its institutions. How comprehensive, how exhaustive and how definitive are the doctrines of believers compared with the laborious, paltry and fragmentary attempts at explanation which are the most we are able to achieve!  The divine Spirit, which is itself the idea of ethical perfection, has planted in men the knowledge of that ideal and, at the same time, the urge to assimilate their own nature to it. They perceive directly what is higher and nobler and what is lower and more base. Their affective life is regulated in accordance with their distance from the ideal at any moment. When they approach to it - at their perihelion, as it were - they are brought high satisfaction; when, at their aphelion, they have become remote from it, the punishment is severe unpleasure. All of this is laid down so simply and unshakably. We can only regret that certain experiences in life and observations in the world make it impossible for us to accept the premiss of the existence of such a Supreme Being. As though the world had not riddles enough, we have set the problem of understanding how these people have been able to acquire their belief in the Divine Being and whence that belief obtained its immense power, which overwhelms 'reason and science'.....

Historical Truth

[But] there is an element of grandeur about everything to do with the origin of religion, certainly including the Jewish one, and this is not matched by the explanations we have hitherto given. Some other factor must be involved to which there is little that is analogous and nothing that is of the same kind, something unique and something of the same order of magnitude as what has come out of it, as religion itself....

Pious believers, however, know how to fill this obvious gap in motivation adequately. They say that the idea of a single god produced such an overwhelming effect on men because it is a portion of the eternal truth which, long concealed, came to light at last and was bound to carry everyone along with it. We must admit that a factor of this kind is at last something that matches the magnitude both of the subject and of its effect.

We too would like to accept this solution. But we are brought up by a doubt. The pious argument rests on an optimistic and idealistic premiss. It has not been possible to demonstrate in other connections that the human intellect has a particularly fine flair for the truth or that the human mind shows any special inclination for recognizing the truth. We have rather found, on the contrary, that our intellect very easily goes astray without any warning, and that nothing is more easily believed by us than what, without reference to the truth, comes to meet our wishful illusions. We must for that reason add a reservation to our agreement. We too believe that the pious solution contains the truth - but the historical truth and not the material truth. And we assume the right to correct a certain distortion to which this truth has been subjected on its return. That is to say, we do not believe that there is a single great god to-day, but that in primæval times there was a single person who was bound to appear huge at that time and who afterwards returned in men's memory elevated to divinity.

We had assumed that the religion of Moses was to begin with rejected and half-forgotten and that afterwards broke through as a tradition. We are now assuming that this process was being repeated then for the second time. When Moses brought the people the idea of a single god, it was not a novelty but signified the revival of an experience in the primæval ages of the human family which had long vanished from men's conscious memory. But it had been so important and had produced or paved the way for such deeply penetrating changes in men's life that we cannot avoid believing that it had left behind it in the human mind some permanent traces, which can be compared to a tradition.

We have learnt from the psychoanalysis of individuals that their earliest impressions, received at a time when the child was scarcely yet capable of speaking, produced at some time or another effects of a compulsive character without themselves being consciously remembered. We believe we have a right to make the same assumption about the earliest experiences of the whole of humanity ... The return of the repressed took place slowly and certainly not spontaneously but under the influence of all the changes in conditions of life which fill the history of human civilization... One of these effects would be the emergence of the idea of a single great god - an idea which must be recognized as a completely justified memory, though, it is true, one that has been distorted. An idea such as this has a compulsive character: it must be believed. To the extent to which it is distorted, it may be described as a delusion; in so far as it brings a return of the past, it must be called the truth."

Is Psychoanalysis a religion?

Many critics see psychoanalysis as a kind of religion, with its holy texts, its hierarchies and churches, disciples spreading the good news, promises of salvation, and claims to truth.  Or they believe it is a bit like the Moonies, only worse. Even trainee psychotherapists may feel they are being initiated into a cult and imagine they are acquiring secret knowledge that will give them power over other people. To 'know everything' is surely one of our most cherished childhood wishes. Similarly, people outside the field might picture a group of adherents using magical procedures to read people's minds and take away their free will.


A Daoist immortal. 
The figure represents a philosopher-sage who has become immortal through acquiring wisdom.

Other people think that psychoanalysis is not like a religion, but it ought to be. On the one side they see religion as a domain of caring,  love, and the spiritual and moral aspects of life; on the other side they see psychoanalysis as a hard science and medical procedure that is unconcerned with these higher things. Psychoanalysis is not religion, they say, and it is all the poorer for it. We do not always want the 'higher' realms of life explained. It takes something away from us. As if knowing the recipe destroys the pleasure of eating.

A psychoanalyst might point out that there is a sharp opposition between psychoanalysis and any kind of fundamentalist religion, based on the literal reading of religious texts. Psychoanalysis is defined by the questioning of the literal meanings of things, and its own 'sacred texts' are continually modified and re-assessed.

Psychoanalysis and shamanism

But might psychoanalysis be akin to faith healing or shamanic ritual? In his paper 'The Effectivesness of Symbols' the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss examines a shamanic healing ritual from the Cuna population in Panama, and draws parallels with psychoanalysis. The purpose of the ritual is to facilitate difficult childbirth. It involves the elaborate rendition of a myth by the shaman, enlisting spirit forces onto the side of the woman in her struggle to restore her purba, or soul.

"The cure would consist, therefore, in making explicit a situation orginally existing on the emotional level and in redering acceptable to the mind pains which the body refuses to tolerate... The shaman provides the sick woman with a language, by means of which unexpressed, and otherwise inexpressible, psychic states can be immediately expressed" (Structural Anthroplogy p197-8)

The shaman's words - his rendition and enactment of the myth - reintegrate the woman's suffering within a whole cosmology where everything is meaningful, and in doing so, real changes occur. Does psychoanalysis, too, anchor people's lives in a new kind of individual mythology - of good and bad objects, Oedipal struggles, internal worlds, trauma and repression, which the patient uses to put together a fragmented psyche?

A psychoanalyst might smile at this description of her practice. Without wishing to disparage the shaman's art, or the efficacy of his interventions, she might nevertheless point out some crucial differences. The shaman speaks for his patient; the psychoanalyst tries to help the patient speak for himself. The shaman's work depends on the patient believing the myth and knowing the story; whereas belief and knowledge may function as an obstacle to change in the case of psychoanalysis. The shaman tries to guide the patient through a process which is predetermined and known beforehand; the psychoanalyst does not know where her work will lead.

A substitute for religion?

But could psychoanalysis be a substitute for religion? Did the changes which affected 19th century life - material, technological, social, cultural, scientific, ideological - result in a breakdown of traditional social bonds, social fragmentation and a loss of certainty, which was replaced by psychoanalysis? Urbanisation, changing family structures, feminism, the rise of consumerism and new kinds of work, industrialisation, railways, telephones, leisure, penny dreadfuls, prostitution, the working class, Darwin, Queen Victoria, 'Darkest England', the Eiffel Tower, science and sexology, the savage within. When Nietzsche declared 'God is dead' did psychoanalysis come in to fill the gap and declare 'God is unconscious'?

The ideas of psychoanalysis are used to offer a kind of religious consolation to the man who has lost his faith. A new kind of community of believers; new certainty about self and identity; a new kind of morality about sin and redemption; a new kind of God.

It has been said that the psychoanalyst has taken the place of the priest and that the process of analysis has taken the place of  confession. However the person who comes to analysis does not know his 'sins' and in that respect the process is unlike a confession. The patient is not judged by the psychoanayst and relieved of his sins by performing a penitent ritual. He is relieved of them (say, guilt) by becoming a different person. That's why it takes a very long time! Nevertheless, psychoanalysis may have something in common with a spiritual quest. It leads to an acknowledgement of our dependence on an 'Other' outside ourselves, however that knowledge is reached, and however uniquely defined by different individuals. It leads to a greater tolerance of the inner demons of the unconscious - a process not unlike redemption for past 'sins'. It embodies a kind of moral pursuit for 'truth'. In recent years psychoanalysts and others have taken up Freud's enduring interest and suggested new approaches. No longer simply an object of study, they have turned to religion as a potential source of knowledge. What is spirituality? What is faith? What do we mean by 'God'? How do we achieve a sense of connection to a world beyond the self? What are the bases of our moral values and sense of community? And what can theological and psychoanalytic thinkers learn from each other about human nature, our needs and desires?

adapted from Introducing Psychoanalysis by Ivan Ward and Oscar Zarate

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