Freud would not have been surprised that the most horrendous barbarities can be committed in the name of high religious ideals.
In his paper ‘Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices’ he suggests that religious rituals enact and control certain anti-social tendencies in the mind.
“The formation of a religion seems to be based on the suppression, the renunciation, of certain instinctual impulses. These impulses, however, are not, as in the neuroses, exclusively components of the sexual instinct; they are the self-seeking, socially harmful instincts, though even so, they are usually not without a sexual component.”
In most situations these tendencies are held in check by the activation of a sense of guilt. Originally dependent on the fear of punishment by, or loss of love from, the parents, the sense of guilt is internalised with the development of the superego. Now we punish ourselves when we do something ‘wrong’.
But the true believer can circumvent such a burden by
- justifying his actions in the name of a higher authority (an all-loving and all-punishing parent figure, feared and loved in equal measure), and
- projecting his hate outside his own community of believers.
In Civilization and its Discontents Freud writes:
“It is clearly not easy for men to give up the satisfaction of this inclination to aggression. They do not feel comfortable without it … In this respect the Jewish people, scattered everywhere, have rendered most useful services to the civilizations of the countries that have been their hosts; but unfortunately all the massacres of the Jews in the Middle Ages did not suffice to make that period more peaceful and secure for their Christian fellows. When once the Apostle Paul had posited universal love between men as the foundation of his Christian community, extreme intolerance on the part of Christendom towards those who remained outside it became the inevitable consequence….”
While in his earlier ‘Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices’:
“In the development of the ancient religions one seems to discern that many things which mankind had renounced as ‘iniquities’ had been surrendered to the Deity and were still permitted in his name, so that the handing over to him of bad and socially harmful instincts was the means by which man freed himself from their domination.”
Thus for the sake of a higher purpose one is allowed to express (‘symbolically’ but with terrible consequences) all the murderous hate and self-hate that cannot be expressed elsewhere.
Where does the hate come from? To whom is it originally directed?
Freud says it is ‘constitutional’ – an ‘instinct for destruction’ that needs little further examination. But in his later work (his more mature work), he argues that it is forged in the Oedipal situation and especially the ineluctably ambivalent relation to the father.
Interested readers may like to consult some of the references in the extended bibliography on the Freud and Religion pages.