Sigmund Freud and his Psychoanalytical views on Religion

The Psychology of Religion is a fascinating topic. I find it interesting how psychologists of the past have used psychology to either explain religion or explain it away. To me, there is no-one more interesting in the field of psychology and religion and Sigmund Freud. With a deep rooted psychology based on the super ego, sex and the Oedipus complex, Freud’s views on Christianity and religion will intrigue any philosopher.

At this point, I should say that although I enjoy studying Freud, I do disagree with his views. I will let you know the reasons why in my future blogs!

Background on Sigmund Freud

Freud was born into a large Jewish family in Freiburg (now Pribor, Czechoslovakia). At the age of four, his family moved to Vienna, with his father who was a wool merchant. Freud graduated from medical school in 1881 and later married Martha Bernays. Under the persecution of the Nazis, Freud fled his home and left for London, where he died on the eve of World War 2.

Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud
Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Freud and Religion

We know two things about Sigmund Freud and his religious upbringing. First of all, he had a Catholic nanny up to the age of three, he took him to church regularly. Secondly, although he was born into a large Jewish family of modest means, the atmosphere was almost entirely secular. Freud confessed that he did not have any supernatural belief or religious belief. However, he was interested in religion more so than any other cultural manifestation.

Totem and Taboo (1913)

To put it simply, Freud believed that religion was the projection of the child’s physical relationship with its father. He recorded his first thoughts on the nature of religion in total and Taboo published in 1913. In Totem and Taboo Freud attributed the origins of religion to the psychological connection between the Oedipus complex and totemism.

Freud Totem and Taboo
Sigmund Freud
Totem and Taboo

This stems from the primitive hold mentality in which the tribe leader would have many wives and many children. Young males were forced to leave the tribe in order to find a mate and young females would only mate with the horde leader. This prompted young man to have a murderous mentality against the father in order to gain possession of women. Yet after they had killed their father, they would be overcome with a sense of guilt.

From this arose their endowment of the Totem, with the qualities of the previous father leader of the tribal hoarde. The function of the totem was to remind the tribe that although the single authority of the father had gone at a human level, it must be preserved at a religious level.

Eventually, the taboo of desiring their mothers and wishing to kill their fathers entered the individual consciousness and is known as the Oedipus complex. In the Oedipus complex, the child desire is the mother and wishes to kill the father. The Oedipus complex is the basis of Freud’s view on the origins of religion.

The Future of an Illusion

In Freud’s next book, the Future of an Illusion (1927), Freud stated that religion was an illusion and had no future. It is essentially an attempt at escapism. Religion exists in order to avoid the hard facts of life and retreat into wishful thinking. Freud stated that modern man should grow up, use reason, and consign religion to the place where it belongs -childhood.

Civilisation and its Discontents (1930)

If you are interested in Freud and would like to read more of his original works, I highly recommend civilisation and its discontents (1930). In this essay, Freud wrote that…

“…the ordinary man cannot imagine providence in any other form but that of a greatly exalted father, for only such a one could understand the needs of the sons of men, or be softened by their prayers and placated by the signs of their remorse.” Sigmund Freud

Basically, Civilisation and its Discontents generalises Freud’s psycho-sexual theories on the Oedipus complex, relating it to the neurotic aspects of society itself.

Moses and Monotheism (1939)

Freud’s last book on Psychology and Religion was ‘Moses and Monotheism’. Freud was skeptical about the name Moses referred to in Judeao-Christian teachings. He believed that Moses was an Egyptian name, meaning ‘child’.

Freud quoted evidence of the pattern of the career of heroes – particular that of Kings. Bad associations of the child’s birth and content to death and exposure meant that the baby was put into the water to be set ‘free’ in a basket. Afterwards, the hero is rescued by animals or humble people and eventually rediscovered by his aristocratic parents. The hero takes revenge on his father.

The aristocratic and humble families are actually reversed in the case of Moses. Moses had to be Jewish to serve the Jewish purposes, but in fact, it was an Egyptian and the legend was designed to turn him into a Jew.

Freud asks – why should an Egyptian like Moses wants to be the head of a crowd of immigrant foreigners and leave his country with them? Is it really possible for such a man to give up his own religion and be the founder of a new one?

Freud considers the possibility of Moses giving the Jews his own Egyptian religion. Moses, says Freud, introduced circumcision into Jewish life, which had long been indigenous in Egypt. Circumcision’s purpose was to make people feel ‘enobled’.

The event above all others, which was suppressed, was the murder of Moses.  Moses met the same fate as Akhenaton – the difference being that the Egyptians waited for the course of time to remove the Pharaoh, whereas the Semites (Jews) took fate into their own hands to get rid of their tyrant.

Freud says that Jesus Christ’s Resurrection is the resurrected Moses – the return of the primal father. This happened, according to Freud, so the Jews could be faced with the charge of ‘killing God’.

Circumcision and therefore is a symbolic substitute for the castration which the primal father once inflicted upon his sons in his absolute power. Whoever excepted that symbol was showing that he was prepared to submit to the fathers will.

What are your views of the Writings of Freud on Religion?

Interesting? I think so! A pleasure to study? Oh yes! A little far fetched? Absolutely!

What are your views on Freud on Religion?

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