The Freud Museum


Religion as obsessional neurosis

Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices (1907)

"I am certainly not the first person to have been struck by the resemblance between what are called obsessive actions in sufferers from nervous affections and the observances by means of which believers give expression to their piety. The term 'ceremonial' which has been applied to some of these obsessive actions, is evidence of this."

The ceremonial can take over any everyday activity - dressing and undressing, going to bed [think of the way children are 'put to sleep' at night], or satisfying bodily needs.

"The performance of the ceremonial can be described by replacing it, as it were, by a series of unwritten laws...[I]n slight cases the ceremonial seems to be no more than an exaggeration of an orderly procedure that is customary and justified; but the special conscientiousness with which it is carried out and the anxiety which follows upon its neglect stamp the ceremonial as a 'sacred act'".

The structure of obsessive actions, for Freud, concerns compulsions and prohibitions. (Usually we think only of the compulsive character when we think about someone being 'obsessional'). Freud also observes that the ceremonials are usually done in private (proving conclusively that he never spent any time in a football team's changing room).

The main difference between obsessional actions and religious rituals is that the latter are full of meaning whereas obsessional actions seem to be meaningless. (ie. Freud prepares the ground for his view that "with the help of the psychoanalytic technique of investigation, one penetrates to the true meaning of obsessive actions")

"It is one of the conditions of the illness that the person who is obeying a compulsion carries it out without understanding its meaning..... the obsessive action serves to express unconscious motives and ideas."

Analysis has brought some insight into all this. "We may say that the sufferer from compulsions and prohibitions behaves as if he were dominated by a sense of guilt, of which, however, he knows nothing... This sense of guilt has its source in certain early mental events, but it is constantly being revived by renewed temptations which arise whenever there is a contemporary provocation. Moreover, it occasions a lurking sense of expectant anxiety, an expectation of misfortune, which is linked, through the idea of punishment, with the internal perception of the temptation."

That is to say, for Freud there is both an external and an internal component to this. There may be fear of something in the outside world, but it is linked to a fear of something inside. This is often the idea of being overwhelmed by some emotion, or feeling out of control. The obsessive action allows us to have (an illusory) control over the internal and external world.

"Thus a ceremonial starts as an action for defence or insurance, a protective measure."

Pious observances also seem to have the value of a defensive or protective measure.

"The formation of a religion, too, 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 view of these similarities and analogies one might venture to regard obsessional neurosis as the pathological counterpart of the formation of a religion, and to describe that neurosis as an individual religiosity and religion as a universal obsessional neurosis."

"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."

The ivory piece above, from Freud's collection, represents the most powerful and moving image in Buddhist iconography, and is perhaps the most significant image of all. Here Siddharta Gautama, also called Sakyamuni (the holy one of the Sakyas), after years of wandering in search of Enlightenment, is seated under a Bodhi tree. He vowed not to move until he had achieved Enlightenment. He was tempted by the god of death, Mara, who challenged his claim to enlightenment. Undeterred, Sakyamuni called to the earth to witness that throughout all his rebirths he had acted to deserve it. The earth shook in assent, and at that moment Sakyamuni attained enlightenment and became the Buddha.

Perhaps Freud related this story to his theories of obsessional neurosis. The image of the man surrounding himself with prohibitions, unable to move on pain of being cut off forever from the ultimate prize, is not unlike the symptoms of neurotic indecision that he found in some of his analytical cases. Perhaps Freud smiled at the thought that despite his dedication to achieving a life without desire, even the Buddha lives in a world of psychic conflict and a fear of death.


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