From the archive: Psychoanalysing God – Sigmund Freud on Religion Ian Fairholm The Skeptic

This article originally appeared in The Skeptic, Volume 17, Issue 4, from 2006.

Sigmund Freud’s work on religion, a subject he seemed immensely fascinated with despite his distaste for it as a modern-day practice, has not fared well under close scrutiny. Here I offer a critical assessment of Freud’s ideas about religion, before concluding to what extent they have anything useful to say about religion in the 21st century.

Despite Freud’s early medical specialization in neuropathology, it was his later interest in neuroses – their causes and treatment – and his investigation of the unconscious through psychoanalysis that established his reputation.

The basic goal of psychoanalysis is to make the unconscious conscious. This is because Freud believed that the roots of all psychological problems were hidden within the unconscious. Once the unconscious has become conscious, or accessible to the patient, then the cause of his/her problem becomes apparent, enabling the patient to deal with it in a conscious and rational manner. Freud believed that by getting patients to talk freely and without inhibition about their problems, under the guidance of the analyst, they would have insight into their unconscious ideas and motives, enabling them to tackle the previously hidden causes of their problems.

In Freud’s view personality is a dynamic system that develops during childhood. During this time assorted goals must be reached and conflicts must be resolved, e.g. the Oedipus complex. This relates to Freud’s suggestion that a male child has an unconscious jealousy and fear of his father and a desire for his mother; this creates a conflict for the child, which must be resolved, not externally, but internally. These conflicts, and the consequences that Freud believed resulted from a failure to resolve them, are central to Freud’s position on religion.

It may seem difficult to imagine how psychoanalytic theory could have any applications for religion, particularly as Freud, though Jewish by birth and upbringing, did not have any religious faith. Although Freud could not be said to be at all ashamed of his Jewish background, he was in no sense a religious man.

However, although he was neither interested in nor needful of religion for his own sake, he was intensely interested in why other people should need it and why it should have played such a predominant role in human history. He thought he was beginning to find the answers to these questions from evidence provided by his neurotic patients. These patients had failed to resolve successfully their childhood conflicts leading to them being driven below the level of consciousness, into the unconscious. Although temporarily buried there they had appeared in later life, in the form of irrational, ‘neurotic’ symptoms.

Neuroticism and Religion

Freud saw a resemblance between the behaviour of his neurotic patients and what he believed was the behaviour of religious people. He observed religion as an outsider and used Austrian Roman Catholicism as a model for all religious practice. From this extremely limited approach to the study of religion he came to understand it largely as a matter of the believer performing certain specific practices, observances, ceremonies and rites. Freud believed that this behaviour was similar to the private ceremonials that several of his patients obsessively indulged in, and that the similarities between the two types of behaviour were too great to be accounted for by mere coincidence.

Following this line of reasoning, Freud found several similarities between the neurotic and the religious person, e.g. a guilty conscience resulting from any omission of the neurotic or religious person’s ceremonial; the treatment of the ceremonial as something isolated from everything else in life; necessary performance of acts of penance to maintain the subject’s peace of mind; and what Freud called the ‘mechanism of physical displacement’, by which he meant a mental value being given to the ceremonial out of all proportion to its intrinsic importance.

From his identification of these similarities Freud came to the conclusion that religion was best understood as a neurosis, and because of its place in the history of mankind, he called it a “universal obsessional neurosis” (Freud, 1962, p. 39).

Freud believed that religion could be treated and cured in the same way as any other neurosis: if the religious practitioner became aware of why s/he was indulging in neurotic behaviour s/he would be able to face reality without the need for that behaviour.

Totem, Taboo and Oedipus Rex

Freud was also interested in the reasons for the origin and persistence of religion as a universal obsessional neurosis. He looked for answers in primitive society and these ‘answers’ formed the basis for his book, Totem and Taboo. In it Freud argues that all primitive societies went through a stage of totemism. A totem is a symbolic emblem of a particular social group within a tribe. An object of reverence or worship, it is protected by taboos which generally forbid killing it, eating it, or even touching it.

Freud interpreted the totem as representing the father, because he knew of three cases in which boys with Oedipal conflicts had phobias of animals in which the animal seemed to be a substitute for the father. Freud believed that the fundamental taboos of totemism correspond to the two repressed wishes of the Oedipus complex.

These conclusions were based upon the ‘primal horde’ theory, originally proposed by Darwin and Robertson Smith, but taken up by Freud. The theory proposes a period of human prehistory in which the family unit consisted of father, mother, and offspring. The father, as the dominant male, retained the exclusive rights to the females and drove away or killed any of the sons who challenged his position.

The sons couldn’t defeat the father-leader individually so they banded together to kill him and, being cannibals, ate him. Hick (1973, p. 34) summarizes what Freud believed resulted from this unsavoury act:

This was the primal crime, the patricide that has set up tensions within the human psyche out of which have developed moral inhibitions, totemism, and the other phenomena of religion. For having slain their father, the brothers are struck with remorse. They also find that they cannot all succeed to his position and there is a continuing need for restraint. The dead father’s prohibition accordingly takes on a new (‘moral’) authority as a taboo against incest. This association of religion with the Oedipus complex, which is renewed in each male individual, is held to account for the mysterious authority of God in the human mind and the powerful guilt feelings which make people submit to such a fantasy.

Freud is claiming that the origins of religion and morality can be traced back to an actual historical event. Or to put it in Freud’s terms, religion is a ‘return of the repressed’. For Freud, God is, in every case, modelled after either the father or the need for a ‘father image’ (rising from the Oedipus complex), and an individual’s personal relationship with God is dependent upon their relationship with their physical father.

According to Freud, all religions are attempts to deal with the sense of guilt deriving from the primal crime. For example, Freud’s interpretation of Christianity would be that Christ took his own life to make amends for his brothers’ primal crime and at the same time took revenge on the father, on his brothers’ behalf, by becoming a god in place of the father.

Having diagnosed religion as a ‘universal obsessional neurosis’ and having accounted for its origins, he summed up his position, that religion is an illusion with no future, in his book, The Future of an Illusion. Religion is, Freud explained, merely humankind’s psychological defence against the forces of nature. Just as children find relief from the terrors of nature in the love of their parents, adults also feel terrified and helpless when facing the universe, and so seek protection from an all-powerful father figure, one who is capable of controlling nature, enforcing moral rules, and easing the fear of death.

When men and women through the ages thought that their worship and theology was responding to a reality other than themselves they were in actual fact simply using psychological defence mechanisms. Freud believed that if people could use psychoanalysis to enable them to understand that they were using these defence mechanisms then they would soon be equipped to face the cruel reality of the world without the need for the fraudulent aid of religion.

Validity, Falsifiability and Global Religions

There are some worthwhile elements to Freud’s interpretation of religion. It offers an explanation as to how it arose, what is going on when people believe in God, and it points the way forward to enable humans to stand on their own feet without the illusion which is, in Freud’s eyes, religion. It also seems to have some scientific backing as it is allegedly based on the observation of infant behaviour, of adult patients’ neurotic behaviour and recovery, and on the beliefs and practices of primitive tribes. Finally, some elements of his interpretation have a degree of plausibility to them. However, we can also criticise his position on religion on several grounds.

The validity of Freud’s procedures has been questioned and his theories are considered to be unfalsifiable, based on flawed research, and to have limited scientific objectivity. For example, his speculations about a primal horde, and indeed much of what he wrote about totem and taboo, appears to have little scientific basis. From anthropological studies there is no evidence that

a primal horde dominated by a single male ever existed, and Darwin derived his notion from hearsay reports about the organization of gorilla troops that have since been shown to be false. In addition, in 1943, following the Survey of Objective Studies of Psychoanalytic Concepts, Sears (cited by Clark, 1958, p. 88) reported that empirical studies are far from verifying all of Freud’s hypotheses, including those concerning parent-child relations (Freud emphasised the importance of the child’s relations with his/her parents for future religious development). Sixty years on, many of Freud’s hypotheses have yet to be verified.

Another problem with Freud’s view of religion is that in logical terms it commits what Shaw (1978) calls a “genetic fallacy”. Freud thought that he had discovered the psychological origin for belief and concluded from this that the belief must be illusory. This is an entirely illegitimate conclusion because the motive for a belief doesn’t affect its truth or falsehood.

Freud’s view of religion is exclusively paternal in basis. The importance of female goddesses is passed over entirely and Freud neglects any discussion of the possible importance of the mother in totemic religion. These omissions are characteristic of psychoanalytic theory, which until more recently habitually emphasized the father’s role at the expense of the mother’s.

Another critical point is that if religious behaviour is best understood as neurotic behaviour, we would expect its most serious and intense practitioners to exhibit the most severe neurotic symptoms. Although it is extremely difficult to judge the mental health of historical figures it is worth noting that most (though certainly not all) models of religious life throughout history have not been recorded as individuals crippled by disturbed behaviour. Instead they are seen to embody the qualities of selflessness and spiritual growth.

Finally, there appears to be some dissimilarity between the God that Freud describes and the God worshipped by Christians. For Freud, God’s main function seems to be as a father figure who offers protection both from punishment and from the harsh forces of nature, in return for loyalty and obedience. From Freud’s external view of Christianity, this may be how Christians appeared to talk about and worship God (in Wittgenstein’s terminology we might describe Freud as being outside the Christian language game). However, most Christians would find it difficult if not impossible to recognise their God from Freud’s description.

The description of ‘God as father’ shares some similarity with the definition of a human father, but it is not intended to reflect primarily his power and willingness to guarantee worshippers protection from natural disasters, the effects of guilt or from extinction, as Freud suggests; rather it is an attempt to describe a reciprocal relationship with him, defined more in terms of love than of protective power. This relationship, real or not, does not suggest a retreat into an illusory place of refuge.

In Freud’s favour, we can see his ideas not as a generalisation for all religion and religious people but as an explanation for the views of certain individuals. These people can be seen as having a false religious belief, one that they hold purely for the sense of security it provides. Psychoanalysis may actually help these people to realise that their belief is an illusory one, based more on internal conflict than faith. It is not the job of psychoanalysis to tell a person whether to believe in God or not, but instead to provide an insight into their concept of God – to identify whether it is a healthy one for them.

Similarly, Freud argued that all religious people use defence mechanisms, such as denial and rationalization. While this may be an exaggeration, it isn’t unreasonable to suggest that most believers use these defence mechanisms to some extent as part of their religious belief, but perhaps no more than anyone else.

Freud’s view of religion involved exaggeration and overestimation of its negative causes and consequences. This was no doubt driven by his own atheism and his lack of direct contact with modern religion. However, this does not diminish any insights that psychoanalysis might bring to individuals, whether they are religious or not, and whether the relationships they are trying to improve are with people or their gods.


Clark, W. H. (1958). The Psychology of Religion. Toronto: Macmillan.

Freud, S. (1983). Totem and Taboo. London: Ark Paperbacks.

Freud, S. (1962). The Future of an Illusion (Revised ed.). London: Hogarth.

Hick, J. (1973). Philosophy of Religion (2nd ed.). Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

Shaw, D. (1978). The Dissuaders, Three Explanations of Religion. London: SCM Press.

The post From the archive: Psychoanalysing God – Sigmund Freud on Religion appeared first on The Skeptic.

From the archives in 2006, Ian Fairholm discusses Freud, neuroticism and religion
The post From the archive: Psychoanalysing God – Sigmund Freud on Religion appeared first on The Skeptic.

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