Religion as the echo of an infantile state of oneness
Civilization and its Discontents (1930)
There are a few men from whom their contemporaries do not withhold admiration, although their greatness rests on attributes and achievements which are completely foreign to the aims and ideals of the multitude... One of these exceptional few calls himself my friend in his letters to me. I had sent him my small book that treats religion as an illusion and he answered that he entirely agreed with my judgement upon religion, but that he was sorry I had not properly appreciated the true source of religious sentiments. This, he says, consists in a particular feeling which he himself is never without, which he finds confirmed by many others, and which he may suppose is present in millions of people. It is a feeling which he would like to call a sensation of 'eternity', a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded - as it were, 'oceanic'. This feeling, he adds, is a purely subjective fact, not an article of faith; it brings with it no assurance of personal immortality, but it is the source of religious energy which is seized upon by various Churches and religious systems, directed by them into particular channels, and doubtless also exhausted by them. One may, he thinks, rightly call oneself religious on the grounds of this oceanic feeling alone, even if one rejects every belief and every illusion.
The views expressed by the friend [Romain Rolland] whom I so much honour, and who himself once praised the magic of illusion in a poem, caused me no small difficulty. I cannot discover this ëoceanicí feeling in myself. It is not easy to deal scientifically with feelings. One can attempt to describe their physiological signs. Where this is not possible - and I am afraid that the oceanic feeling too will defy this kind of characterization - nothing remains but to fall back on the ideational content which is most readily associated with the feeling. If I have understood my friend rightly ... it is a feeling of an indissoluble bond, of being one with the eternal world as a whole. I may remark that to me this seems rather in the nature of an intellectual perception, which is not, it is true, without an accompanying feeling-tone, but only such as would be present with any other act of thought of equal range. From my own experience I could not convince myself of the primary nature of such a feeling. But this gives me no right to deny that it does in fact occur in other people. The only question is whether it is being correctly interpreted and whether it ought to be regarded as the fons et origo of the whole need for religion.
I have nothing to suggest which could have a decisive influence on the solution of this problem. The idea of menís receiving an intimation of their connection with the world around them through an immediate feeling which from the onset is directed to that purpose sounds so strange and fits in so badly with the fabric of our psychology that one is justified in attempting to discover a psychoanalytic - that is, a genetic - explanation of such a feeling. The following lines of thought suggests itself. Normally, there is nothing of which we are more certain than the feeling of ourselves, of our own ego. This ego appears to us as something autonomous and unitary, marked off distinctly from everything else. That such an appearance is deceptive, and that on the contrary the ego is continued inwards without any sharp delimitation, into an unconscious mental entity which we designate as the id and for which it serves as a kind of façade - this is a discovery first made by psychoanalytic research, which should still have much more to tell us about the relation of the ego to the id. But towards the outside, at an rate, the ego seems to maintain clear sharp lines of demarcation.
There is only one state - admittedly an unusual state, but not one that can be stigmatized as pathological - in which it does not do this. At the height of being in love the boundary between the ego and the object threatens to melt away. Against all the evidence of his senses, a man who is in love declares that 'I' and 'You' are one, and is prepared to behave as if it were a fact. What can be temporarily done away with by a physiological (ie. normal) function, must also, of course, be liable to be disturbed by pathological processes. Pathology has made us acquainted with a great number of states in which the boundary lines between the ego and the external world become uncertain, or in which they are actually drawn incorrectly. There are cases in which parts of a person's own body, even portions of his own mental life - his perceptions, thought and feelings - appear alien to him and as not belonging to his ego; there are other cases in which he ascribes to the external world things that clearly originate in his own ego and that ought to be acknowledged by it. Thus even the feeling of his own ego is subject to disturbances and the boundaries of the ego are not constant.
Further reflections tell us that the adult's ego-feeling can not have been the same from the beginning. It must have gone through a process of development, which cannot, of course, be demonstrated, but which admits of being constructed with a fair degree of probability. An infant at the breast does not as yet distinguish his ego from the external world as the source of the sensations flowing in upon him. He gradually learns to do so, in response to various promptings.
He must be very strongly impressed by the fact that some sources of excitation, which he will later recognize as his own bodily organs can provide him with sensations at any moment,whereas other sources evade him from time to time - among them what he desires most of all, his mother's breast - and only reappears as a result of his screaming for help. In this way there is for the first time set over against the ego an 'object', in the form of something which exists 'outside' and which is only forced to appear by a special action. A further incentive to a disengagement of the ego from the general mass of sensations - that is, to the recognition of an 'outside', an external world - is provided by the frequent, manifold and unavoidable sensations of pain and unpleasure the removal and avoidance of which is enjoined by the pleasure principle, in the exercise of its unrestricted domination. A tendency arises to separate from the ego everything that can become a source of such unpleasure, to throw it outside and to create a pure pleasure-ego which is confronted by a strange and threatening 'outside'. The boundaries of this primitive pleasure-ego cannot escape rectification through experience. Some of the things that one is unwilling to give up, because they give pleasure, are nevertheless not ego but object; and some sufferings that one seeks to expel turn out to be inseparable from the ego in virtue of their internal origin. One comes to learn a procedure by which, through a deliberate direction of ones sensory activities and through suitable muscular action, one can differentiate between what is internal - what belongs to the ego - and what is external - what emanates from the outer world. In this way one makes the first step towards the introduction of the reality principle which is to dominate future development (Cf. 'Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning' (1911) Standard Edition Vol 12) This differentiation, of course, serves the practical purpose of enabling one to defend oneself against sensations of unpleasure which one actually feels, or with which one is threatened. In order to fend off certain unpleasurable excitations arising from within, the ego can use no other methods than those which it uses against unpleasure coming from without, and this is the starting-point of important pathological disturbances.
In this way, then, the ego detaches itself from the external world. Or, to put it more correctly, originally the ego includes everything, later it separates off an external world from itself. Our present ego-feeling is, therefore, only a shrunken residue of a much more inclusive - indeed, all-embracing - feeling which corresponded to a more intimate bond between the ego and the world about it. If we may assume that there are many people in whose mental life this primary ego-feeling has persisted to a greater or less degree, it would exist in them side by side with the narrower and more sharply demarcated ego-feeling of maturity, like a kind of counterpart to it. In that case, the ideational contents appropriate to it would be precisely those of limitlessness and of a bond with the universe - the same ideas with which my friend elucidated the 'oceanic' feeling.
Boddhisattva's are beings who represent an aspect of the Buddha. Having forgone Nirvana thay return to earth because of their great love for mankind.
In This TopicFreud and Religion
- Religion as obsessional neurosis
- Religion as an attempt to master the oedipus complex
- Religion as the 'return of the repressed'
- Religion as a reaction to infantile helplessness
- Religion as the echo of an infantile state of oneness
- Religion as a mass delusion
- Religion as a way to hold groups together
- The Question of a Weltanschauung (World View)
- The Work of Religion in Development
- Religion and truth
- Is Psychoanalysis a religion?
- Short Bibliography
- Extended Bibliography
Guido Reni: Christ crowned with thorns
A photographic print from Freud's collection
A Boddhisattva from Freud's collection