Freud exemplified the products of the revolution in nineteenth century science and the accompanying Enlightenment period in European history. This was also the era of Charles Darwin and the philosophers of the Enlightenment. Freud’s contribution to this revolution was his initiating an irreversible shift of focus of study from the physical realm of the brain to the mental realm of the mind. Thoughts, feelings, motivation, behavior were all now subjected to minute, scientific, rather than philosophic, scrutiny.
It did not take Freud long for him to apply his new found knowledge to the understanding of religion. Psychiatry prior to Freud was basically a sub-specialty of neurology in that severe mental illness and its assumed organic basis, rather than everyday thought and behavior, was the major subject of enquiry. The development of a psychoanalytic mode of thought inevitably resulted in its application to the understanding of one of the most important aspects of western civilization, and that is religion in all of its diverse and manifold expression.
Sigmund Freud reacted against religion in its formal expression (E. g. Church, liturgy, the belief that God lives in the heavens etc. ), but at the same time he sought to internalise key religious concepts and then relate them to the human psyche. Unlike modern non-realists who see value in religion as a means for promoting certain social and moral values in society, Freud is more akin with the likes of Karl Marx who saw religion as an immediate expression of some deeper human problem which needed to be ‘cured’.
Although Freud was Jewish he never practiced his religion and in fact he believed that all religion was an illusion which had developed to suppress certain neurotic symptoms in humans. He writes: ‘[Religion] must exorcise the terrors of nature, [Religion] must reconcile men to the cruelty of fate, particularly as it is shown in death, and [Religion] must compensate them for the sufferings which a civilised life in common has imposed on them’ (Freud quoted by Storr p. 89) Freud took a psychological perspective of religion, looking at the emotional construction of religious beliefs (i. . , the underlying motivations for religious behaviour).
He primarily focused upon the individual psyche, not on group phenomenon (i. e. sociology or anthropology) or on artifacts and/or religious writings (anthropology, theology, history). For his all-encompassing theory of the human psyche to be complete, Freud was compelled to give an explanation for the seeming irrationality of religious behaviour. As a typical product of European rationalism and science, Sigmund Freud personally rejected religious belief, but found in that rejection an apt object for study.
The idea of men’s receiving an intimation of their connection with the world around them through an immediate feeling which is from the outset directed towards this purpose [revelation] sounds so strange and fits in so badly with the fabric of our psychology that one is justified in attempting to find a psychological explanation of such a feeling (Freud, p. 12). Freud saw religious behaviour as the final product of internal (unconscious) processes, which he sought to understand and explain.
He came to the general conclusion in his study of religion that religion consists primarily of the projection of an all-knowing, all-powerful father figure onto the coldly impersonal universe, as the infantile fulfillment of the desire to be acknowledged individually and protected against death. “[The common man] cannot imagine this providence except in the figure of an enormously exalted father” (Freud, p. 22). Religion is the expression of this desire to remain in the state of childhood — free of the ultimate consciousness and acceptance of reality (i. e. life is meaningless) that is every man’s responsibility.
Thus, it is a cop-out “solution” to the problem of trying to understand the universe, as it offers blind faith as a blanket approach, pre-empting intelligent, critical thought. Religion is merely the neurotic by-product of the repression of sexuality and aggression necessary for the civilization of mankind. Several assumptions underlie Freud writing that are illuminative when made explicit. Freud’s study of the human psyche led him to the conclusion that people are primarily motivated through drives of which the individual is usually unaware.
Freud identified the two primary drives as eros and thanatos (sex and death). These drives are inimicable to each other, yet function as the compelling unconscious force behind individual action. Relating religion and spirituality to these basic drives, Freud believed that religion originated with the dawn of mankind, and still reflects that primitive understanding of the universe. This primitive religiosity is a longing for the return to an idyllic state. From Freud ‘sperspective, this desire is unrealistic and it is psychologically healthier to abandon this illusion and accept the necessary misery of one’s life.
Ultimately, Freud believed that religion seeks answers that rationalism provides, but that people refuse to accept those answers out of a childish inability to accept unpleasant truths. Though Freud was interested primarily in the individual mind, he attempted to explore and explain religion on a social level. He examined civilization/socialization in terms of the general repression of libido and aggression, and the role that religion plays as a helpful/harmful illusion. He also looked at religion in terms of the human desire to achieve happiness and avoid suffering.
Freud found it necessary to “question… what men themselves show by their behaviour to be the purpose and intention of their lives. What do they demand of life and wish to achieve in it? They strive after happiness; they want to become happy and remain so” (Freud, p. 25). For Freud, legitimate happiness came from understanding and acceptance of the knowledge gained through rational or empirical approaches. Freud made another foray into the study of religion in primitive sociey in his essay, Totem and Taboo (1912).
Freud hypothesized that people lived in small hordes which were led by a tyrannical primal father who claimed exclusive possession of all the females. This father went so far as to eliminate all of his male sons. Eventually these sons rebelled, slew and cannabilized him. They then instituted a novel system, that of exogamy, which permitted marriage only outside of the same kinship group. Guilt over the murder of the father led to the substitution of the totem animal as an object of worship. This totem was thought to be an ancestor and protective spirit.
Once a year, this revered animal became the object of a totem feast for all of the males. The animal was torn to pieces and eaten raw. This event served as a commemoration of the primal event of parricide. By devouring this symbol of the primal father, the participant is enabled to identify with him and orally incorporate his strength and power. The origins of social order, morality and religion can be traced to this ritual. The resemblance to the rite of Holy Communion in which the believer incorporateds the flesh and blood of God is apparent.
In fact, Freud felt that the primal murder surfaced again in the crucifixion of Jesus. Freud’s major study on religion in European Christian civilization is his book which is entitled, The Future of An Illusion (1927). He reiterated his feeling that religion arose out of the conflictual relationship to the father and that it was a universal obsessional neurosis. Man’s fear of death, his feelings of utter insecurity in the face of the powerful forces of nature, the deprivations that are inevitable in the course of living – all lead man to create objects and institutions which will help him master his anxieties.
Wishes thus become realities. We create an omnipotent and omniscient Deity who has the ultimate power of control. The Deity will not only control the forces of nature but He will see to it that they operate on our benefical behalf. However, like a parent, He will require unending love, obedience, devotion and worship. Death is denied by the positing of the existence of an hereafter. There is a purpose in nature that operates under Divine guidance. In the face of such a powerful Father figure we stand in awe and tremble.
Any misdeed will result in withdrawal of love and the initiation of punishment. Religion is wish fulfillment pure and simple. The omnipotence of thought, the idea that thought can control nature, which was the hallmark of primitive societies and exemplified in the thinking of every child, is now a central feature of religion. Organized religion is an expression of the immaturity of mankind. True, our civilization is based on instinctual renunciation but when religion adds to this burden then the resultant cost is a neurosis.
Freud felt that religion has outlived its usefulness and that we should, post-haste, enter fully and unencumbered into the scientific age. Like a neurosis, religion should be psychoanalyzed so that its demise can be hastened. We should aim at achieving the primacy of the intellect. Giving children religious instruction will only enfeeble their intellect. We must rely on science and not on the illusory nature of religion to provide the answers to the seemingly unanswerable. Freud concludes: No, our science is no illusion.
But an illusion it would be to suppose that what science cannot give us we can get elsewhere. (Freud 1927:56) Happiness is the aim of humanity, yet it is tempered by the awareness (instilled through the maturation and socialization process) that one is not alone in the universe. “Three sources from which our suffering comes; the superiority of nature, the feebleness of our own bodies, and the inadequacy of the regulations which adjust the mutual relationships of human beings in the family, the state and society” (Freud p. 7) The awareness of these mores constrains our attempts at happiness and produces suffering. “Another technique for fending off suffering is the employment of the displacement of libido… The task is that of shifting the instinctual aims in such a way that they cannot come against frustration from the external world” (Freud, p. 29). The assumption is that there are natural drives that propel one into action, yet that action is constrained by the needs and desires of other people (expressed in general as the artifice of civilization).
For Freud, one is then only “free” over and against civilization; “The urge for freedom, therefore, is directed against particular forms and demands of civilization or against civilization altogether” (Freud, p. 50). This sets up a paradox whereby one can never be free, in that the social restrictions are integrated into the individual psyche, and perpetuated internally through repression of the instinctual drives (in the absence of any external compelling force).
Freud saw the struggle against external social forces as ultimately futile, and sought instead to liberate the individual from his self-imposed double-bind. The aim of Freudian psychology is to take the energy that a patient is putting into neurotic behavior, and transfer it into a more socially acceptable venue. This change is produced by a gradual awareness on the part of the patient of the underlying causes of his or her psychological difficulties.
It is assumed that we cannot change the conditions in the world which constrain our happiness, but that we can come to accept them, by-pass them, or change our attitudes towards them. In Freud’s estimation, religion does not serve to liberate man from his suffering, but rather provides yet another fetter, this one self-imposed. ” Religion restricts this play of choice and adaptation, since it imposes equally on everyone its own path to the acquisition of happiness and protection from suffering” (Freud, p. 36).
Here religion provides another agenda, another code of behavior against which the believer must find him or herself accountable. Freud finds the impulse towards religious belief infantile, and the choice to enslave oneself to a religion in hopes of an illusory ultimate salvation as a neurotic delusion, practiced on a wide scale. “This attempt to procure a certainty of happiness and a protection against suffering through a delusional remolding of reality is made by a considerable number of people in common.
The religions of mankind must be classed among the mass-delusions of this kind” (Freud, p. 32). Whether or not western psychology can address eastern philosophy is a moot point; both offer an organizing structure to give meaning to perceived reality – therefore Buddhism can be “explained” in terms of psychological jargon, and psychology can be explained in terms of Buddhist jargon. The issue isn’t the “incommensurability of cultures,” but rather the perspective of the person making the comparison.
The larger question is whether or not these mutual investigations provide any greater insight or understanding into both our own culture and that of our subject. In the words of Pals, ” Freud found no reason to believe in God and therefore saw no value and purpose in the rituals of religious life” (Pals, p. 65). If this is the case, then what is Freud trying to achieve through his analysis of religion? It would appear that Freud has already passed judgment on religion, dismissing it as unsophisticated superstition, easily explained by reference to the unsophisticated temperaments of the vast majority of people.
Freud claimed to be interested in the religious beliefs of the “common man,” yet his valuation of higher civilization and scientific abstraction would seem to curtail any empathy he might bring to that examination. Freud defined civilization in terms of the consumption typical of Western industrialized nations; “We recognize that countries have gained a high level of civilization if we find that in them everything which can assist in the exploitation of the earth by man and in his protection against the forces of nature… is attended to and effectively carried out” (Freud, p. 5).
Freud also noted that one of the hallmarks of civilization is the amount of energy going into works of art that have no practical value. This attitude, mirrored by the majority of Europeans of his day, sets up a paradigm whereby people that are “like us” are recognized as possessing culture and civilization, and people in whom we cannot see ourselves are uncivilized (hence primitive, unsophisticated, naive, etc. ). In addition to the possible cultural bias, Freud may have staged his inquiry with a “science and rationalism vs. superstition and irrationality” slant.
As is evidenced by his many references to his scientific and objectivity study of the psyche, Freud valued the ability to reason abstractly, and to amass empirical data using a logical approach. “Mature people, Freud maintains, allow their lives to be guided by reason and by science, not by superstition and faith” (Pals, p. 73). By inference, he did not value intuition, “personal” experience, or concrete identification with the object of study. “He [Freud] noted that great poets and philosophers had suggested such an entity [the unconscious] long before him, but their writings were intuitive, not scientific ” (Pals, p. 58).
The paradigm that Freud sets up in analysis is that seeing the underlying truth behind action and emotion helps to liberate us from our neuroses, i. e. , that knowledge is redemptive in and of itself. However, from reading the above it has illustrated that Freud may have been fundamentally incapable of grasping the “Other” perspective offered by Buddhism. His contemptuous attitude towards religion in general, his European inability to see signs of “culture” in other peoples, and his hostility to the irrational, all reflect the desire not to find an underlying “truth” behind the actions and emotions of religious people.
It is evident that Freud did not make an investigation into “what the common man understands by his religion”, but rather that Freud’s vision of ” religion ” is limited to what he has already dismissed, and he does not appear to recognize the metaphysical leanings of various philosophical systems as having any religious content. Freud was convinced that a successful psychoanalysis would lead to an atheistic position. For Freud there was absolutely no way in which there could be a reconciliation between science and religion. They are antithetical to the very core.
Religion was considered to be offensive to scientific intelligencs and worthy of discard into the dustbin of human irrationality and primitive behavior. Though Freud would have opted for the elimination of religion and its theological propositions, he did not take due notice of the need to believe. As has become clear from millenia of religious experience, man will always have to have a religion of some sort, be it paganism, polytheism, monotheism, politics, or science. It is in the nature of man that some object or set of ideas, even psychoanalysis, will be sacralized.
Yet, despite this overwhelming negativism toward religion by Freud, one could view his final work on the subject, Moses and Monotheism (1939), from a perspective that might illuminate an appreciation of one of the positive aspects of religion and that is its ethical dimension. At first glance, the entire content of this book appears as a devastating evaluation of the origins not only of the Israelite relgion in particular but of all religions. Further scrutiny, however, may reveal its latent positive position.
Freud used his understanding of the soft sciences of anthropology and archeology as well as the social science of history to show that in its earliest origins Judaism was a distinctly ethical and humanisitic religion. Prophetic religion, that is, ethical monotheism, with its emphasis on the importance of the individual responsibility and social justice, was the primary contribution of the Egyptian Moses and which was further elaborated upon centuries later by the Hebrew prophets. Freud felt that this element was lost in the theological and ritual trappings of organized religion
Although there have been many unjustified attacks on Freud’s work, there are also many reasonable criticisms. Despite the fact that he framed his ideas about religion in a general way, the fact remains what he did say can only apply really to traditional monotheistic religions like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Polytheistic religions, pantheistic religions, panentheistic religions, atheistic religions, and even religions which focus on a mother goddess simply are not susceptible to his commentaries. Another serious problem is the validity of one of Freud’s general methods, which is reasoning by analogy.
In both Totem and Taboo and Moses and Monotheism, two of Freud’s critical works on religion, much of what Freud writes relies upon forming analogies between the psychological development of individuals and the development of social groups. Thus, even if we accept that his theories about the psychological development of individuals are correct (and many people dispute this), it’s not clear that his theories of religion are accurate. Finally, there is the issue of Freud’s science – and whether his work even qualifies as properly scientific.
This premise has come under increasing attack in recent years and researchers have combed through the historical record, discovering all sorts of errors, problems, and even apparent falsifications in Freud’s writings. Why? Because when we make a critical examination of Freud’s early cases, cited so often as the clues which led him to develop his ideas about how the mind works, we find that they totally fail to give the information claimed. The people whom he claimed to cure often ended just as badly off as they began, if not worse.
An excellent example of this is the famous case of Anna O. a woman who was allegedly cured of hysteria in the 1880s by Freud’s mentor Josef Breuer when he used hypnosis to retrieve her repressed traumatic memories. Freud reported that her symptoms had “immediately and permanently disappeared,” but he was lying. Both he and Breuer knew that she had only gotten worse under Breuer’s care. Over the course of six years following her treatment, Anna was committed at least three times – once by Breuer himself. It can be concluded that Freud does not have a “theory of religion ” but merely a convincing dismissal of religion, cloaked in scientific objectivity.
This suggests that the psychological (Freudian or otherwise) content of religious motivation and experience is an open field for inquiry. In the end Freud believed, as did Marx, that the religious instinct in people was curable (even childish), and so at some point in the future could be abandoned. This would happen once people left behind their psychological illusions and live as restored people in a world of scientifically authenticated knowledge. Yet despite this negative assessment of religion Freud’s theory can open up other possibilities for explaining why humans have the religious instinct.
As John Hick notes: ‘If the relation of a human father to his children is, as the Judaic-Christian tradition teaches, analogous to God’s relationship to humanity, it is not surprising that human beings should think of God as their heavenly Father and should come to know God through the infant’s experience of utter dependence and the growing child’s experience of utter dependence and the growing child’s experience of being loved, cared for, and disciplined within a family. ‘ (Hick p. 35)