The Freud Museum


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

<p>Images from the Phillipson Bible <br />
Freud Museum</p>

Images from the Phillipson Bible
Freud Museum


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 through 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 (1939). 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 (1930).

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 (1901). 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 (1920) 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 as a Weltanschauung (World View)
The work of religion in development
Religion and truth
Is psychoanalysis a religion?
Religion worksheet




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