The Freud Museum


Religion as a way to hold groups together

Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921)

With his essay on Group Psychology written in 1921 Freud considers the structure of the renunciation of aggression towards other people and how these instinctual forces are dealt with in group formation. One of the groups he looks at is the church. In the same chapter he also looks at the army. He says that both groups are 'artificial' groups - that is, a certain external force is employed to prevent them from disintegratimg and to maintain their structure. He points out that highly organized and 'artificial' groups are often very stable.

"In a church (and we may with advantage take the Catholic Church as a type) as well as in an army...the same illusion holds good of there being a head - in the Catholic Church Christ, in an army its commander-in-chief - who loves all the individuals in the group with equal love. Everything depends on this illusion; if it were dropped, then both Church and army would dissolve, so far as the external force permitted them to. This equal love was expressely enunciated by Christ... A democratic strain runs through the Church, for the very reason that before Christ everyone is equal, and that everyone has an equal share in his love. It is not without a deep reason that the similarity between the Christian community and a family is invoked, and that believers call themselves brothers in Christ, that is, brothers through the love which Christ has for them. There is no doubt that the tie which unites each individual with Christ is also the cause of the tie which unites them to one another. The like holds good of an army."

That is why, when the authority of the leader is destroyed (he may be killed, or doubts may arise about him) the group can disintegrate in a fit of 'panic'.

Later in the book Freud gives a formula for the libidinal constitution of groups, or at least those groups with a leader. "A primary group of this kind is a number of individuals who have put one and the same object in the place of their ego ideal and have consequently identified themselves with one another in their ego". ie. they all admire and want the same thing, so they make themselves the same. In this way the aggression and competition in the group is mitigated (by 'love'), or directed outwards (as racism, religious intolerance, and other forms of group hatred). The example Freud gives to illustrate this structure is a group of young women around a famous and glamorous musician.

Civilization and Its Discontents (1931)

Reality shows us that civilization ... aims at binding the members of the community together in a libidinal way as well and employs every means to that end. It favours every path by which strong identifications can be established between the members of the community, and it summons up aim-inhibited libido on the largest scale so as to strengthen the communal bond by relations of friendship. In order for these aims to be fulfilled, a restriction on sexual life is unavoidable. But we are unable to understand what the necessity is which forces civilization along this path and which causes its antagonism to sexuality. There must be some disturbing factor which we have not yet discovered.

The clue may be supplied by one of the ideal demands, as we have called them, of civilized society. It runs: 'Though shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.' ...

[But] men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments must be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness.... Anyone who calls to mind the atrocities committed during the racial migrations or the invasions of the Huns, or by the people known as Mongols under Jenghiz Khan and Tamerlane, or at the capture of Jerusalem by the pious crusaders, or even, indeed, the horrors of the recent World War ó anyone who calls these things to mind will have to bow humbly before the truth of this view.

The existence of this inclination to aggression, which we can detect in ourselves and justly assume to be present in others, is the factor which disturbs our relationships with our neighbour and which forces civilization into such a high expenditure (of energy). In consequence of this primary mutual hostility of human beings, civilized society is perpetually threatened with disintegration. The interest of work in common would not hold it together; instinctual passions are stronger than reasonable interests. Civilization has to use its utmost efforts in order to set limits to man's aggressive instincts and to hold the manifestation of them in check by psychical reaction-formations. Hence, therefore, the use of methods intended to incite people into identifications and aim-inhibited relations of love, hence the restriction upon sexual life, and hence too the idealís commandment to love oneís neighbour as oneself - a commandment which is really justified by the fact that nothing else runs so strongly to the original nature of man....

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....

A Nuremburg rally in the 1930s

Scenes from the memorial service to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Britain

Scenes from the memorial service to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Britain

Scenes from the memorial service to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Britain

"Against the soul-destroying glorification of the instinctual life, for the nobility of the human soul! I consign to the flames the writings of the school of Sigmund Freud"
Nazi declaration at the burning of Freud's works 1933

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