Freud And Religion Essay

Essay about Freud Suggest Religion is an Illusion

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Freud in his writing suggests that religion is an “illusion.” Not your typical deception of something, rather misapprehension of religion. Additionally, Freud provides brand new eyes to look at religion and its construct of civilization. He further provides evidence of his own, as well as suggesting a psychoanalytical approach to religion. Countless times Freud referred to his own psychological ideas of development including the transition of a child to an adult development. Freud heeds, a successful transition of developing from a child to a functioning adult in “reality” is necessary otherwise it leads to anxiety. This level of anxiety stems from “instinctual prohibitions” shaping into a state repression, caused by religion. Freud…show more content…

Freud in his writing suggests that religion is an “illusion.” Not your typical deception of something, rather misapprehension of religion. Additionally, Freud provides brand new eyes to look at religion and its construct of civilization. He further provides evidence of his own, as well as suggesting a psychoanalytical approach to religion. Countless times Freud referred to his own psychological ideas of development including the transition of a child to an adult development. Freud heeds, a successful transition of developing from a child to a functioning adult in “reality” is necessary otherwise it leads to anxiety. This level of anxiety stems from “instinctual prohibitions” shaping into a state repression, caused by religion. Freud mentions, “This is because so many instinctual demands which will later be unserviceable can not be suppressed by the rational operation of the child's intellect,” implying that we are tamed by acts of repression, behind which lies the motive of anxiety. Taking the commandment “thou shall not kill” as an example, Freud explains if the sole reason you must not kill your neighbor is because God has “forbidden” it and will severely punish you for it…when you learn that there is no God and that you need not fear His punishment, you will certainly kill your neighbor without hesitation (Freud, 1972, p. 39). Moreover, people with these “infantile neuroses” can be overcome as they grow up, and what is not overcome can be cleared up through

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This paper was written in 1998/1999, as part of my research into the relationship between psychoanalysis and religion.

1. An Outline of Freud’s Critique of Religion


Freud’s notion of the Oedipal conflict attempts to conceptualize the triangulation between the child’s desire for the mother (the real origin for the child) and the intervening father who also has a libidinal investment in the mother and thus becomes the figure which represents conflict and prohibition for the child. This conflict exemplifies a basic structure: the prohibition that creates the limit of the enjoyment of the mother represents the “reality principle”; it enlists reason and becomes the principle that regulates desire. Due to its origin in the individual history of the subject, this principle is always merged with the figure of the father, and to uphold it has been a major interest of the powers that represent civilization. All major Western religions glorify the submission to the father by creating a Father-God. In this way they mediate the acceptance of prohibition and of the reality principle. Their function is to bridge desire and the law.

Freud’s basic question in relation to religion circulates around the nature of prohibition. What leads to drive renunciation? Why does it occur originally? What is the origin of the father’s authority? If access to enjoyment is limited, shouldn’t it be limited for all? If so, does this not apply to the father himself, who comes to represent the law?

Freud repeatedly observes that guilt plays a fundamental role in the psyche, and that it mainly operates unconsciously. It is the main force in the psychic causality that leads to drive renunciation and towards the development of intellectuality.[1] Guilt, in Freud’s thinking, must have had an original reason: at one point there must have been a violation of a law, which created the sense of guilt. In his answer, Freud takes recourse in an anthropological theory of his time, which claims that at the origin there was a murder of the primal father. This murder, according to Freud, is the missing link that explains the functioning of prohibition in the economy of the drives. It is the father’s death that initiates the law and therefore functions as the origin of all father-religions.

Freud believed, more so towards the end of his life, that there is a truth in religion: not the “material truth”, or the truth of the believers, but the “historical truth”, the truth that “exists” in the unconscious as a repressed memory and manifests itself in repetition. This implies, however, that for him, the murder of the primal father really happened – there must have been a corpse at some time. The parricide is forgotten (repressed), and religion is the symptom formation that preserves the memory of it in an encoded form. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have the same “truth” (understood as “historical” truth), but differ in their respective symptom formations.

In the development of Freud’s thought about religion there is a decisive shift from The Future of an Illusion (1927), where he categorically rejects religion as an illusion, to his attempt to explain the emergence of the idea of a monotheistic God in Moses and Monotheism (1939). During the last fifteen years of his life, he devoted considerable effort to the attempt to analyze religion and culture from a psychoanalytic point of view. A series of important essays are created: The Future of an Illusion (1927), Discontent in Civilization (1930), and finally Moses and Monotheism. It seems, at times, as if Freud’s theoretical development is driven by his attempt to understand the religious phenomenon. Convinced of the truth of his psychoanalytic discoveries, he proceeds to test and apply them to questions that are of central concern to the philosophers and theologians in the Western World.

Freud’s philosophical background for the explanation of culture and religion is an empiricist materialism, for which God is an untenable hypothesis. The history of civilization is a struggle to control nature, internal as well as external. The belief in God is seen as an attempt to reconcile humankind with its embeddedness into nature that is mostly experienced as traumatic. Freud interprets the formation of religions in terms of their function in this conflict between nature and culture, or between the ego and the drive. Religions are remarkable compromise formations: they allow the human being to admit its extraordinary vulnerability and at the same time, to retain a sense of superiority in relation to the surrounding reality. The price for the compromise is the submission to an “illusion”. Religious dogmas are not the results of experience or thinking, but they are refined fantasies, wish-fulfillments in response to the most basic needs of humankind. The strength of the illusion is therefore reciprocal to the strength of the need. The central religious fantasy, a Father-God, draws its material from the childhood experience of the human being: the child’s helplessness creates the need for protection; this need motivates its love and expectations towards the father and forces it to suppress the hostility towards him insofar as he is also a rival in relation to the mother. But since the real father cannot remedy the fragility of human life, and since it does not end with childhood, a stronger and more powerful father is needed. In this way the father becomes idealized and projected into the image of God. The wish for protection, powered by the actually felt need, explains the strength of the religious belief. Although this is an inadequate response because it hides from the believer her or his real loneliness and the extent of the vulnerability, Freud can come to understand religion in general as a useful neurotic and even psychotic symptom. Religion is a defense, a response to the experience of utter helplessness or dependency.[2] It is a fantasy that makes life tolerable despite the hardships, and it even negates death as the final end of human life.[3]

The question can be raised how does this conversion from the experience of helplessness to the believer’s certainty of an ultimate protection occur? The mechanism is driven by a fundamental dialectic. The conversion of dependency into the feeling of protection repeats a childhood experience, namely the replacement of the real father with a fantasy product. The direction of the movement is a progressive de-realization. Dependency turns into its opposite based on the (delusional) construction of a second, divine reality, which de-realizes the concrete materiality of human life. The process is familiar to Freud from his reflection on psychosis, but now he encounters it in a different environment.

In Future of an Illusion Freud still regards religion as a compulsive neurosis; something which we can outgrow. Subsequently, his position is sharply critical towards religion, yet optimistic about the possibility to overcome it.

We know that a human child cannot successfully complete its development to the civilized stage without passing through a phase of neurosis sometimes of greater and sometimes of less distinctness. This is because so many instinctual demands which will later be unserviceable cannot be suppressed by the rational operation of the child‘s intellect but have to be tamed by acts of repression, behind which, as a rule, lies the motive of anxiety. Most of these infantile neuroses are overcome spontaneously in the cause of growing up, and this is especially true of the obsessional neuroses of childhood. The remainder can be cleared up later still by psycho-analytic treatment. In just the same way, one might assume, humanity as a whole, in its development through the ages, fell into states analogous to the neuroses,‘ and for the same reasons – namely because in the times of its ignorance and intellectual weakness the instinctual renuncia­tions indispensable for man‘s communal existence had only been achieved by it by means of purely affective forces. The precipitates of these processes resembling repression which took place in prehistoric times still remained attached to civilization for long periods. Religion would thus be the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity; like the obsessional neurosis of children, it arose out of the Oedipus complex, out of the relation to the father. If this view is right, it is to be supposed that a turning-away from religion is bound to occur with the fatal inevitability of a process of growth, and that we find our­selves at this very juncture in the middle of that phase of development.[4]

It is obvious from this quote that Freud envisions that one could analytically dissolve religious belief because it is infantile, and replace it with a rational approach to the challenges of life. In this perspective, the secularization movement is simply the sign that societies mature; they outgrow and overcome the need for religions.  Optimism and faith would be rooted in a realistic commitment to the ethical rules that facilitate the social life of human beings. He writes:

Thus I must contradict you when you go on to argue that men are completely unable to do without the consolation of the religious illusion, that without it they could not bear the troubles of life and the cruelties of reality. That is true, certainly, of the men into whom you have instilled the sweet—or bitter-sweet— passion from childhood onwards. But what of the other men, who have been sensibly brought up? Perhaps those who do not suffer from the neurosis will need no intoxicant to deaden it. They will, it is true, find themselves in a difficult situation. They will have to admit to themselves the full extent of their helplessness and their insignificance in the machinery of the universe; they can no longer be the centre of creation, no longer the object of tender care on the part of a beneficent Providence. They will be in the same position as a child who has left the parental house where he was so warm and comfortable. But surely infantilism is destined to be surmounted. Men cannot remain children for ever; they must in the end go out into ‘hostile life‘. We may call this ‘education to reality‘. Need I confess to you that the sole purpose of my book is to paint out the necessity for this forward step? You are afraid, probably, that they will not stand up to the hard test? Well, let us at least hope they will. It is something, at any rate, to know that one is thrown upon one‘s own resources. One learns then to make a proper use of them.[5]

The vision of an overcoming of religion that Freud proposes here implies that there is a dichotomy of religion and reason. It is remarkable that Freud does not mention his hypothesis of a death drive in the Future of an Illusion from the year 1927. Once he integrates the discovery from Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) in his analysis, his view of religion as a compulsive neurosis that can be overcome shifts to the view of religion as a phenomenon similar to a psychotic process.

As if he is not satisfied with his analysis of religion as an illusion, Freud continues to think about the question. The next essay he produces widens the analysis of religion to the analysis of culture and takes the death drive into account. In Discontent in Civilization (1930) Freud focuses on the question of the origin of the guilt which seems to accompany our constitutive dependency and fragility. Gone is the optimism from Future of an Illusion, that religion could be superseded by a rational and scientific attitude. “Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks. In order to bear it we cannot dispense with palliative measures.”[6] Freud’s acceptance of religion as a symptom is born from resignation, but it opens the possibility for a shift in his view of religion. He begins to realize that he might have underestimated the cultural value of religion, if the possibility to outgrow it doesn’t really exist. This also changes his analysis of religion as a compulsive neurosis. He admits that he did not consider the content and the sources of religious experience, but merely the functioning of the symptom in the psychic economy and as a cultural system.[7]

Discontent in Civilization begins with an examination of the idea that religion is based on an “oceanic feeling of connectedness.” He suggests that the narcissism that underlies this feeling is originally independent from religion, but gets retroactively utilized and interpreted by religious belief. Freud begins to examine the so-called religious experience more closely and finds that it may have traits similar to an obsessive neurosis, but in its essential features it is more akin to a psychotic structure.

Another procedure operates more energetically and more thoroughly. It regards reality as the sole enemy and as the source of all suffering, with which it is impossible to live, so that one must break off all relations with it if one is to be in any way happy. The hermit turns his back on the world and will have no truck with it. But one can do more than that; one can try to re-create the world, to build up in its stead another world in which its most unbearable features are eliminated and replaced by others that are in conformity with one‘s own wishes. But whoever, in desperate defiance, sets out upon this path to happi­ness will as a rule attain nothing. Reality is too strong for him. He becomes a madman, who for the most part finds no one to help him in carrying through his delusion. It is asserted, how­ever, that each one of us behaves in some respect like a paranoiac, corrects some aspect of the world which is unbear­able to him by the construction of a wish and introduces this delusion into reality. A special importance attaches to the case in which this attempt to procure a certainty of happiness and a protection against suffering through a delusional remoulding 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. No one, needless to say, who shares a delusion ever recognizes it as such.[8]

The frightening perspective that Freud opens within the above train of thought, is the generalization of psychotic structures: He discovers them underneath what we would call normal behavior and thinking, and as being far more pervasive than commonly thought. We create a delusional view of reality by introducing a wish into the real, and the mechanism of this alteration of reality remains unconscious.

Why, the question can be asked, does humankind feel so dissatisfied with the world that it needs to turn away from reality altogether and embrace a delusional system of belief? This question leads Freud to advance a very audacious hypothesis: culture was invented as a defense against the death drive.

He discovers this idea through the analysis of the origin of the Christian demand that you should love your neighbor as yourself.[9] At the first impression, this demand is counterintuitive, because there are many reasons to be afraid of one’s neighbor. The demand makes sense, however, if one takes into consideration the fundamentally aggressive nature of the human being. This aggression has to be contained so that culture can emerge. The basic idea of Discontent in Civilization is that Culture is not so much based on the repression of sexual energy, but rather on the repression of aggression. The nature of the human being is not a basic goodness, for instance as the Communists originally believed, but a fundamental aggression, and Culture as a whole functions like a defense against it. This eliminates the hope for a pre- or post-cultural state of happiness for humankind. If the containment of aggression is a basic condition for the possibility of human relations and for the emergence of society, then we can never hope to have a harmonious social state where human beings can be completely open with each other, where there is no repression, and where the barrier between the public and the private sphere is overcome.

One could ask why Freud, given this state of affairs, never seriously considers the other possibility, that religion may really be based on the existence of an absolute God. His argument against such an assumption is simple: the world with which we are confronted and our experience of life cannot be reconciled with the belief that this world is created by a Supreme Power. The state of the world and the dogma of the existence of God are incompatible with each other. The problem is one of the burning questions for any attempt to defend a religion that claims to be congruent with rationality, and since the Enlightenment period this so-called theodicy problem, or the problem of evil, was always used as a major argument against religious belief. Freud states his position clearly in Moses and Monotheism:

How enviable, to those of us who are poor in faith, do those enquirers seem who are convinced of the existence of a Supreme Being! To that great Spirit the world offers no problems, for he himself created all its institutions! How comprehensive, how exhaustive and how definitive are the doctrines of believers compared with the laborious, paltry and fragmentary attempts at explanation which are the most we are able to achieve! The divine Spirit, which is itself the ideal of ethical perfection, has planted in men the knowledge of that ideal and, at the same time, the urge to assimilate their own nature to it. They perceive directly what is higher and nobler and what lower and more base. Their affective life is regulated in accordance with their distance from the ideal at any moment. When they approach to it – at their perihelion, as it were – they are brought high satisfaction; when – at their aphelion – they have become remote from it, the punishment is severe unpleasure. All of this is laid down so simply and unshakably. We can only regret that certain experiences in life and observations in the world make it impossible for us to accept the premises of the existence of such a Supreme Being. As though the world had not riddles enough, we are set the new problem of understanding how these other people have been able to acquire their belief in the Divine Being and whence that belief obtained its immense power, which overwhelms reason and science.[10]

In this passage, which also demonstrates Freud’s biting irony, he defines the psychoanalytic task in relation to religion: How could  “…those who have faith in a Divine Being … have acquired it?” With this turn in the flow of thought, Freud essentially replaces theology with anthropology and psychology. The interesting question is no longer whether or not God exists, but why religious belief has such an “immense power”? How does it function psychologically, and what can we learn from the existence of concepts like God about the psyche?

2. Freud’s explanation for the concept of “God.”


The religious symptom has fundamental implications for the history of humankind: It constitutes the identity of the Jewish people. In his book, Moses and Monotheism, written between 1934 and 1938 and first published in 1939, Freud explores in a historical and psychoanalytic study the character of his own, the Jewish, people. In the last section of this book he outlines a general theory of religion. There is a remarkable shift from Future of an Illusion to Moses and Monotheism. Whereas in his earlier writings he dismisses religion as an illusion, which basically amounts to an atheism à la Feuerbach, he now realizes that religion and the idea of God is one of the strangest thoughts in human thinking. He takes a closer look at the origins of Judaism and Christianity and examines the nature of certain religious doctrines.

In Moses and Monotheism, he searches for an answer to these questions by examining the history and beliefs of the Jewish people. While other people derive their identity from factors like geographic location, common history and language, the Jews derive it from the belief that a covenant was established between them and God. It explains their sense of being the “chosen” people. This uniqueness elevates them, but is also bound to cause deep jealousy among other people. Despite those hostilities and persecutions, the Jews defend their identity throughout history with an enormous tenacity. Their religious belief constitutes their identity.

According to Jewish belief, the first covenant occurred when God pledged himself unilaterally to grant the land of Palestine to Abraham’s descendants.[11] The second covenant, mediated by Moses, contains the promise of obedience to God’s law (the Ten Commandments) in return for God’s blessing and protection.[12]

Within the Jewish belief, the idea of the covenant is the interpretive frame for their history and destiny. Israel’s well-being depends on obedience to God’s commandments. Both natural and historical events that befall Israel are interpreted as emanating from God and as influenced by Israel’s religious behavior. This perspective creates a dimension of meaning for the experience of suffering, both for the individual as well as for the people as a whole. Adverse events can now be understood as the result of disobedience. A direct causal connection is thus made between human behavior and human destiny; the responsibility for seemingly unintended or random events returns to the inflicted people. This also explains the strong Jewish interest in justice.

A covenant can only work when either both parties are real or when one party believes that the other party really exists. It becomes Freud’s task to explain why the second option occurred in the history of the Jewish people.  In order to do this he examines the notion of “God” and its roots in the Jewish history. The core of the Jewish identity is the belief in Yahweh; it unifies them as a people. But this belief did not come without struggles. Freud’s argument, in summary, claims that there are two leaders who become unified into the figure of Moses: The tribal, Midianite Moses, who encounters God in the burning bush, and Moses the Egyptian. According to Freud’s hypothesis, this second Moses brought the originally Egyptian idea of Monotheism to the Jewish slaves. This idea has its origin in the 14th century B.C. religion of the Pharaoh Akhenaton (about 1350-1334 B.C.). He believes that there is only one God, Athon, whom he identifies with the sun itself.  With Akhenaton’s death all the religious reforms are undone, and the old polytheism is reinstated. It is seven or eight hundred years later that the idea of monotheism resurfaces again in Israel.

It is Freud’s speculative thesis that somebody from Akhenaton’s court, an Egyptian Moses, brought the religion to the Jews and led them out of Egypt, but they did not follow him for long: they murdered the great man. The message, monotheism, is linked to the murder, and therefore it slowly works its way through the testimony of the prophets, that no other gods should be worshipped, that the one God does not need blood sacrifices, etc., back into the consciousness of the Jewish people and becomes their unique religion. The link itself, and with it the return of the message, works only because it echoes the inaugural event of humankind, the murder of the primitive father, the father of the primal hoard. The monotheism of Moses is not, as the Jews and the Christians believe, an extraordinary phenomenon whose existence can only be explained through an act of self-revelation of the divine origin of the world, and is thus a strong proof for the existence of the one and only transcendent God.[13] It is rather a “symptom,” a return of something that has been repressed.  It is the result of a crime that is itself forgotten, but whose memory returns in an alienated form in the symptom formation, driven by an unconscious guilt. The crime consists in the murder of the primal father. The dead father returns, but now he has become the Other: untouchable, and without representation.

Freud bases his argument on the historical evidence and the biblical scholarship available to him, and concedes that it remains speculative. He waits with the publication until he arrives in London in 1938, but it still causes a storm of indignation, anger and rage in the Jewish communities against Freud. After all, in a time of extraordinary hardship for the Jewish people, he claims that the founder of their religion was not a Jew, and that they had murdered him![14] But Freud remains undeterred: “I have filled my whole life with standing up for what I considered to be the scientific truth, even when it was uncomfortable, and disagreeable to my fellowmen. I cannot close it with an act of disavowal.”[15]

One major change occurs in the transition from the Egyptian to the Jewish monotheism: according to the legend, Moses also institutes the prohibition of making an image of God.[16] To remove God from the realm of the image, to transform him into a God without representation, indicates that something completely new occurs with the emergence of monotheism. This God is located in a completely symbolic dimension, the dimension of the law and its authority. He introduces himself to Moses as an essentially hidden God. The “I am what I am” is a formula that simply indicates the presence of a subject, without any further qualification. With the belief in the monotheistic God, the Jews transcend the tribal deities: their God becomes the expression of the discovery of a fundamentally different dimension, which contains the possibility for the emergence of something that is radically new. They believe that they have encountered the only truly existing God, whom they also call “El Shaddai”, the All-Mighty. The name is a program: God’s power is not based on physical strength, but on the authority that derives its strength from the belief in an absolute Otherness that can only be expressed through a pure symbol which has no correlate in experienced reality.

In relation to this hidden God, the Jews become the chosen people, because they discover the authority of God, which is expressed in the authority of the Law in the “Ten Commandments.” The uniqueness of their God mirrors the sense of their own uniqueness; the identification between God and his people is the driving force in Jewish history. The myth makes Moses into the founder of Judaism as a religion, because he knew how to convince the Jews to trust this God and to accept the covenant, which brings them freedom and their own country. And once they believe in the reasons for their own specialness, according to Freud, they begin to trust their intellectual capabilities and they bring the  libidinal sacrifices that are necessary for intellectual work.


2.1 Analysis of Monotheism


Freud’s argument hinges on the transposing of the individual level to the collective. He sees religion as a collective neurosis. The emergence of religion in the history of humankind is a parallel process to the psychological development of an individual. On the individual level, an infantile trauma in early childhood leads to some sort of compromise formation. During the period of latency, defense mechanisms get established which help to stabilize the child’s relation to both parents. This stability gets lost in puberty; the adult neurosis emerges. The neurotic symptom is the encrypted form in which the repressed, the infantile trauma, returns.

Applying this to religion, Freud locates the infantile trauma in the murder of the primal father. He explains this in detail in Totem and Taboo, using as primary sources anthropological writings of his time. Freud views totemism and polytheism as defense mechanisms against this murder, similar to the latency period in an individual development. Monotheistic religion, then, is equivalent to the adult neurosis: the repressed dead father resurfaces again. The feelings of guilt, which are so inextricably linked to the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic religious consciousness, lead to a reconstruction and preservation of his memory in the form of an “absolute Other.” He becomes a jealous God:  He demands a single allegiance to himself, the rejection of all other deities[17] and the dissolution of the polytheistic “compromise formation.” Monotheism is a consequence of the repressed guilt; it repeats what the people want to forget and returns to them the repressed memory of the dead father in the form of the demand for a single God who becomes the author of the law of the Ten Commandments.

The authority of God and of the law he gave to Moses is based on a transference generalization. The love towards the father turned into hatred because in the eyes of the sons he had all the women. Jealousy produced the crime, which was committed collectively, because only as group could the sons muster the strength for it. The ensuing guilt gets warded off through the construction of a law, which is the law of the father. Acceptance of the law is therefore in the final analysis based on the original love for the father. But now a transformation has taken place: the father’s law is no longer justified through the love towards one individual but reflects the acceptance of a general principle, applicable to all human beings. This transformation has achieved three things: it has unified the children under one law, it has effectively nullified the father’s exceptional position as an individual, and it has at the same time preserved his memory by immortalizing him into something which is beyond all possible historical change and cannot be forgotten. Only the father’s death could have accomplished this. What remains from the father is his “will,” that the law should be respected. The emotional reality of the individual is transcended; culture as a whole, the principle of spirituality, becomes the new body of the father.

For Freud, there remains a mystery at the heart of the process. To analyze it, shifts Freud’s position towards religion. It doesn’t convert him to a believer, but he begins to acknowledge the extraordinary creativity in religion as a “symptom.” From the atheistic point of view, religion is something to be abolished. With the perspective on religion as a symptom of immense cultural value, the symptom that generates culture, one begins to hesitate in the wish to abolish it quickly.

The psychoanalytic account of the phenomenology of Religion may seem convincing, but the explanatory hypothesis for it, the murder of the primal father, raises some very serious questions. In the second introduction to the third part of Moses and Monotheism, he says that he is convinced of the validity of the basis of his analysis. He wonders, however, whether his analysis of Jewish monotheism, based on the premise of the murder of the primal father, is a sufficient explanation for the emergence of monotheism. In the last part of this book, Freud examines how the existence of the monotheistic belief with its concentration on the symbol alone fits into the psychoanalytic tenet that the human being is wholly determined by drives which are always anchored in the biological realm.

The hidden God reveals himself through laws that civilize human life, but they demand the renunciation of instinctual impulses. What, Freud wonders, causes the subordination of sense perception to an abstract idea, the “triumph of intellectuality over sensuality”[18] when God is really only the name for a human idea? How can this idea gain such a power within the psyche? Or in purely psychoanalytic terminology: within the economy of drives, what permits the drive renunciation, if the goal of the drive is always gratification? Why is the acceptance of prohibition possible? In order to answer this question, Freud recounts three similarprocesses that all seem to point into the same direction:[19]

1)      At a certain stage in the development of individuals or social groups, one finds the belief in the omnipotence of thought. This may represent something akin to the child’s pride in the development of language, when reasoning, remembering, and representations gradually become possible. The over-estimation of the influence of mental functions over the physical world is the characteristic feature of all magical forms of belief.

2)      The implementation of fatherhood in the history of humankind indicates the acceptance of a criterion for lineage that is not physical. Motherhood can be observed, but fatherhood is based on an acknowledgment and on the testimony of the mother. The patriarchal system rests on an act of recognition of the father as co-creator and as authority, and not merely on a biological function.

3)      The root of all religion is for Freud the discovery of forces that have effects in the physical world, but since they cannot be apprehended by the senses, the conclusion is close that they are not physical in nature. The image for spirituality itself is the movement of the air: it is mostly invisible, but we feel it as wind. When the body stops to breathe, it is no longer alive. With this observation, the idea of the soul as something that inhabits the body and is the essence of the human being is born.  The person itself can now be understood as such a spiritual, “meta”-physical being.


The prohibition against making an image of God protects this principle of spirituality that seems to be at work in all these three phenomena. If it defies the concept that all drives aim for gratification, so Freud’s groping thought, it must be of extraordinary value in the composition of the drives that make up our psychic life. The principle of spirituality serves “to check the brutality and the tendency to violence which are apt to appear where the development of muscular strength is the popular ideal.”[20] Monotheism becomes such an interesting phenomenon for Freud because it seems to be the key for his understanding of the dynamic in the development of psychoanalytic drive theory as well as of the connection between biology and the psyche.


2.2 Psychoanalytic Interpretation of Christianity


The principle of spirituality, negatively understood as drive renunciation, is explicitly operative in the prohibition of making an image of God. This creates a serious philosophical problem that doesn’t exist in polytheistic environments with their anthropomorphistic gods. For the monotheistic belief, God’s transcendence is a pure difference when viewed from within the world. If God is believed to be omnipotent, ever-present, and absolute, then God has nothing whatsoever in common with the world except the fact that he must have been, and continues to be, the reason for its existence. Does not the fact that God created something imperfect make him imperfect? Or is our impression of the imperfection of the world simply an illusion? In order to avoid these conclusions, theology is forced to maintain a strict separation between God and the world and yet allow the possibility for the ongoing act of creation.

The difference between an infinite God and a finite world calls for a speculative answer. We cannot comprehend this difference from within the finiteness of the world unless God creates a bridge for our understanding. For this reason, theology always begins with the belief in the self-revelation of God to the point that Christians declare that he has become completely human. In this line of argument, where theology justifies its existence through the act of God’s self-revelation, it understands itself as the speculative attempt to overcome the split between the finite and the infinite, and it is guided in its attempt through the various forms of God’s revelation, which has come to us primarily in the form of inspired writings.

Freud’s interpretation of monotheism returns, in a certain way, to a more naturalistic answer. The Christian kerygma, that Christ died for the sins of humankind, and in this way he became the bridge between God and the world, is, in Freud’s explanation, a theological rationalization that corresponds to the original murder. This second murder, the murder of Christ, translates and brings to light the original murder, and in this regard Christianity brings the monotheistic message to its completion.

Although Freud frequently admits his amazement about the religious phenomenon and the weakness of his effort in relationship to the task, his analysis of religion explains, with amazing simplicity, several traits in religious systems. We begin to understand the complexity behind the evolution of religious systems into the direction of authority and superego development. Once established as a symptom, the religious system feeds on itself. Submission to God nourishes a narcissistic pride; this in turn supports the trust in God’s glory and omnipotence. The system of reciprocal support between God and believer seals itself off from reality. Whatever happens can now be understood in relation to the “covenant.” Humankind has gained an Archimedean point, and although it may be virtual, it is undoubtedly an enormously useful illusion. Experienced reality can now be re-interpreted as a screen, a stage on which the believer’s relationship to her or to his God is played out: reality becomes de-realized, what is essential lies behind it.

The Freudian analysis also illuminates the nature of the “sacred.”  The notion of sanctity is already based on a prohibition: It is that which must not be touched. The incest taboo is an example of a prohibition that has deeper reasons than can be found in the dysfunctionality that results from the violation of a rule – it violates the will of the father. To act against it is an act of disregard against the dead father. Freud is confident that a closer examination will show that sacredness is another way in which the memory of the primal father gets preserved.

He traces the emergence of the social order from the murder of the primal father. The criminal act leads to the father’s replacement with a totem, from which the sphere of the sacred emerges. It also leads to the exogamy that results from the prohibition not to sleep with one’s own sisters and mothers and to the establishment of the same rights for the sons or brothers. This is the beginning of a social and ethical order and of the differentiation between social and religious rules. The new religious system as well as the incest taboo perpetuates the father’s will. The codification of the rules of human interaction into laws establishes the stability of the newfound order.

The memory of the father returns slowly, through totemism and polytheism. The newly found omnipotent God causes a transformation in the subject’s psychological economy. The ambivalence which was still possible toward the real father, the feelings of hostility which led to his murder, are not acceptable any more toward an omnipotent God, from whom there is no escape. The consciousness of guilt becomes all-pervasive, and the rejection and repression of the hostile feelings is a result of the internalized conflict. On a theoretical, theological level the concept of “original sin” becomes necessary in order to explain why humankind continues to sin against God. These types of theological explanations function as rationalizations, as symptoms for the underlying structure. The structure itself finds an explanation through the conflict between guilt and aggression that gets repressed and internalized and becomes constitutive in the emergence of the superego.

The feeling of guilt, becoming itself omnipotent because it is tied to the presence of God, needs outlets: it leads to an ever-stricter interpretation and application of the law. This, in turn, causes a variety of symptom formations. Everything can now be understood as punishment for man’s sinfulness.[21]

The sense of guilt manifests itself as a discontent that erupts towards the end of antiquity in the formation of a new religion, Christianity. St. Paul sees the killing of God in Jesus Christ as the cause for a profound sense of unhappiness. The Christian Gospel consists in the message that the believer is delivered from all guilt because one man has sacrificed his life in order to expiate our guilt. The original murder is implied in the notion of an original sin. The “crime” we committed and for which Jesus died is not mentioned, but it seems clear to Freud that only a murder calls for a punishment through death.

Freud interprets the Christian message as a delusion that veils the historical truth while at the same time pronouncing it clearer than Judaism. God’s death in Jesus, committed by man, comes close to the murder of the primal father, but now the redemption is an integral part of the act, as if the causation of guilt is reversed. Now the death causes a forgiveness of guilt, because it is a sacrifice. For Christian theologians, God’s salvific activity runs counter to man’s violent deeds. Jesus’ death can thus be seen as a repetition through which an undoing of the original deed is intended: one of the sons pays for the guilt of all of them. “With the strength which it derived from the source of historical truth, this new faith overthrew every obstacle. The blissful sense of being chosen was replaced by the liberating sense of redemption.[22] The Jewish sense of being chosen is replaced by the Christian sense of a liberating salvation; a deliveration from sin. Original sin and salvation through the sacrificial death are the pillars of the new religion, which bursts the confines of Judaism by declaring that it is the way to overcome human guilt. The strength of the Christian movement stems from its groundedness in the “historical truth” of the murder of the primal father, as well as from the promise to liberate us from the ensuing guilt.

Christianity is not purely monotheistic (Trinity, Mary). The concept of Trinity becomes a necessity for Christian theology, because a speculative frame for the claim that Jesus is the Son of God is required. Jesus is seen as an incarnation of God; this indicates that Christianity is born from a religion of the father, but becomes a religion of the Son. Father and Son are reconciled, the actuality of their union is the central doctrine of the Christian belief. The belief of God’s embodiment in human form, incarnation, is expressed in scriptural statements such as John 1:14: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.


3. Theoretical underpinnings of Freud’s critique of religion.

 3.1 The Concept of Drive


The central question in Freud’s search to explain the “triumph of intellectuality over sensuality”[23] concerns the relationship between biology and the psyche. His concept of the drive connects both dimensions, and we have seen that his interpretation of religion leads him to some of the core questions in his drive theory. The existence of religion poses a problem for Freud, and since he is convinced of the validity of his basic approach to the question, the answer for it can only be found in the conflicts or mechanisms that regulate the interplay of the drives.  In order to better understand the complex dynamic in the relationship between psychoanalysis and theology, we have to take a closer look at Freud’s drive theory.

In Freud’s terminology, “drive” has a biological origin. He analyzes it as if it were a physical force and distinguishes the source (somatic origin), the aim (the experience of satisfaction), the impetus (the force or degree of tension), and the object of the drive (what allows drive satisfaction). Since Freud looks at the psychic life as regulated by the pleasure principle, which is itself a derivative of the notion of the drive, he needs concepts that translate between the biological and the mental. “Drive” is such a concept at the border between these two realms.

If we now apply ourselves to considering mental life from a biological point of view, a ‘drive’ appears to us as a borderline concept between the mental and the physical, being both the mental representative of the stimuli emanating from within the organism and penetrating to the mind, and at the same time a measure of the demand made upon the energy of the latter in consequence of its connection with the body. [24]

He elaborates this borderline character of the drive further by introducing notions like “representative of the drive” (“Triebrepräsentanz”), and “representation of the representative of the drive,” or “ideational representative” (“Vorstellungsrepräsentanz”).

I am indeed of opinion that the antithesis of conscious and unconscious does not hold for drives. A drive can never be an object of consciousness – only the idea that represents the drive. Even in the unconscious, moreover, it can only be represented by the idea. If the drive did not attach itself to an idea or manifest itself as an affective state, we could know nothing about it.[25]

Since Freud conceptualizes the drive as biological in origin, it can appear in consciousness only through a representative (in Lacan’s terminology: only through a signifier). The drive is first represented in the unconscious (“Triebrepräsentanz”), and this representative of the drive is again represented in consciousness (“Vorstellungsrepräsentanz”). The dual translation is necessary to overcome the mind-body distinction, and what creates this possibility is the existence of representation, or signification, before consciousness arises.

The relation between the drive as biological force – or pure instinct – and its representation (which leads directly to Lacan’s theory of the signifier) also constitutes the emergence of the unconscious. Neither Freud nor his epigones elaborate on the condition for the possibility of such a representation. As a result, drive theory remains in a constant flux throughout Freud’s work, and gradually looses its groundedness in biology. He reformulates it several times, and remains undecided between a monistic and a dualistic approach. Freud is aware of the uncertainties that accompany the construction of his drive theory: “Drive theory is our mythology. Drives are mythological beings, splendid in their indeterminacy.”[26] The question of the nature of the drives is also central to his theoretical differences with Jung and Adler.

Although the notion is borrowed from the biological realm, it has little to do with biology. It is an ingenious invention, or rather a radical construction, the most fundamental psychoanalytic notion that links mind and body. Lacan expresses this paradox when he says: “Freudian biology has nothing to do with biology.”[27] Lacan’s reformulation of Freudian theory offers a much more satisfying way to overcome this conceptual vulnerability in Freud’s position.

The background for the question of the nature of the drive is the mind-body problem: mental states and objects are categorically different from physical objects and properties, and yet both seem to interact in the human being. How is the connection possible? Although there is a long history to this philosophical problem, Freud hardly ever mentions it and never discusses the implications of his theory for this fundamental question. His notion of the drive simply turns the problem into a new concept without suggesting any solution, or without taking sides in the various philosophical controversies.

The aspect that allows Freud to use the concept of the drive for the differentiation between the physical and the psychical is the fact that the concept of the drive produces an inside/outside distinction. This goes back to the Cartesian distinction between res extensa (body) and res cogitans (mind). All physical entities, Descartes says, take a space, whereas the psyche is pure intensity, the inside of self-consciousness. Mind and body are different dimensions, and Descartes’ goal is it to explain their interaction.

It seems that the opposite of the drive is perception. A physical event makes its way through sensual perception into consciousness, and, as the poet Rilke says, “seizes to exist in the heart.”[28] Although we understand perception and experience mostly as receptiveness, it requires a basic intentionality or activity prior to it. We must first want something in order to experience the world in relation to this “drive.” Traditionally, the idea that there is a basic dynamic and a natural orientation in everything that exists has been discussed under the heading of “teleology.” In the past, many philosophers accepted that reality has a teleological structure. At the first glance, one could argue that the Freudian notion of a drive applies this teleological structure to the human being. However, Freud disables the teleological functioning of the drive by separating the aim and the object: it is not an instinct. The usefulness of the concept lies in the fact that it restores the subject as an agency,[29] but it also separates the agency from self-consciousness. Psychoanalysis wants to be a science, and it therefore does not assume much about the structure of reality. The drive concept alone for instance is strong enough to generate a dual difference: Firstly, the distinction between inside and outside and thus the ability to perceive space, and secondly, the difference between anticipation and fulfillment, which leads to our ability to perceive time.

For Freud, the drive is the notion that denotes the most basic layer of the psyche; our mental processes consist entirely of the workings of drives. Freud applies the richness of this concept without much philosophical reflection, but he never gives up his basic premise, that the drive is “anchored” in the human body. It is the psychical representation of a continuously flowing somatic source of excitation, its aim is it to satisfy or extinguish the organic stimulation.  Drives have no qualities in themselves, they are simply the energy that sets the psychical processes in motion. What distinguishes the drives from each other is the difference in the somatic origin; in this context Freud also speaks about “partial drives.”    From the point of view of the psyche, the drive represents an internalization of the energy emerging from the organs within the body; the psyche is formed in the unification of these different energy sources. Since the drives produce a distinction between inside and outside, their representations are always linked to the openings in the body – the “erogenous zones.”

Most natural things don’t need to reflect on what they want – it is given with their nature, their instinctual configuration, and so on. However, this is not so for the human being; the object and the aim of the drive have no fixed relationship. We don’t necessarily know what we want, and this uncertainty is intricately linked to the existence of the unconscious. If drives have mental representatives, and if certain ideas, memories, and experiences can become substitutes for these representatives, then the notion of the unconscious becomes a theoretical necessity. The unconscious creates the link between the aim and the object of the drive; and it is characterized by repression: the process of repression can only function if a substitution for the drive representative is possible.


3.2 The Creation of the Superego


Freud’s view of religion as a symptom that evolves into the direction of the authority of the superego is based on his observation that there is also a pleasure that is derived from the interplay between the ego and the superego. Freud calls this “narcissistic pleasure.” The superego is the agency that demands drive renunciation in the name of the reality principle; the demand is acceptable because the superego also represents the parental authority, and  submission brings the reward of having pleased one’s parents. In this view, the superego is itself rooted in the primordial unity between the child and the mother.

We find the ideas that motivated Freud to introduce the concept of the superego first in the famous paper “On Narcissism,” published in 1914. The theory of narcissism marks the transition from Freud’s first drive theory to his second theory in which he accepts, as the root of intra-psychic conflicts, the opposition of drives. The theory of narcissism opens the door to a psychology of the ego, but it was originally developed as a result of his attempt to apply psychoanalysis to psychosis. Psychosis could not be explained simply with a distortion in the relationship between the patient and the surrounding reality as a result of traumatic events in the past. In cases of psychosis something seems to be ruptured in the patient’s relation to reality. Freud, attempting to distinguish himself from Jung’s much more generalized formulation of a libido theory, suggests in this paper that there is a difference between sexual drives and ego- or self-preservative drives. He correlates these two drive types with the duality of the motives: self-preservation of the individual and preservation of the species. The sexual drives (libido) aim for a fulfillment through “objects.”[30] they orient the person towards other human beings. The ego-drives are a form of self-love. He calls this self-love narcissism. Narcissism can also find fulfillment in other persons, if they are seen as parts of the self, as between mother and child. Freud then distinguishes two phases of narcissism: a primary phase, where the love-object remains the own self, and the secondary narcissism, where an investment in a love-object other than oneself is reversed for reasons of self-preservation, i.e. sickness.

Another conversion of primary narcissism can be found in the creation of the Ego-ideal (“Ich-ideal”). The narcissistic grandiosity of the child is transferred to the projection of the ideal that the adult person has for her- or himself. In this way, the original enjoyment is somewhat preserved.

Freud distinguishes between sublimation and idealization. Sublimation is the process of the displacement of the aim of a sexual drive. In idealization, the object itself gets transformed, i.e. the idealization of somebody with whom we fall in love. Here we find the root of Freud’s concept of the superego. He speculates that there might be a psychic agency that compares between the ego and the ideal-ego, and he uses the word “conscience” (“Gewissen”) for it. The description we find in the “Narcissism” paper of this psychic agency that judges the ego is Freud’s first formulation of the superego:

It would not surprise us if we were to find a special psychical agency which performs this task of seeing that narcissistic satisfaction from the ego ideal is ensured and which, with this end in view, constantly watches the actual ego and measures it by that ideal….Recognition of this agency enables us to understand the so-called ‘delusions of being noticed’ or more correctly, of being watched, which are such striking symptoms in the paranoid diseases. …Patients of this sort complain that all their thoughts are known and their actions watched and supervised; they are informed of the functioning of this agency by voices which characteristically speak to them in the third person. …This complaint is justified; it describes the truth. A power of this kind, watching, discovering and criticizing all our intentions, does really exist. Indeed, it exists in every one of us in normal life.[31]

The conclusions from this clinical observation are the cornerstone for Freud’s analysis of religious experiences and belief systems. The structure becomes manifest in the paranoid psychotic; but it is essentially the same for the person who believes in God. Religions rationalize this structure; the creation of a religious meaning-system allows some form of exchange between the subject and the observing agency with the intention to civilize and collectivize it.

The narcissism paper from 1914 leaves a vagueness in relation to the distinction between primary and secondary narcissism, in relation to the distinction between sexual libido and narcissistic libido (oppositional or complementary, or both), and in relation to the function of the ideal-ego. (Later he differentiates between ego-ideal, ideal-ego, and superego.) His explanatory theory of psychic energy is still derived from nineteenth-century theories of physics and biology, and is basically a hydraulic model of energy moving through a system of mental representations. This aspect, however, also serves a purpose: it prepares the ground for a topological model of the psyche. Topology will become the means to formulate the relationship between subject and drive.

The theory of narcissism is crucial for the development of psychoanalysis, as well as for the psychoanalytic interpretation of the religious phenomenon, because it begins to break down the notion of the ego as a naturally evolving entity. The observation that the ego has an internally differentiated structure gives Freud more options to explain why drive renunciation can occur; other possibilities would be to start with the hypothesis of an original opposition of the drives, or with an opposition of principles that regulate psychic life. The basic problem that Freud has to address in his attempt to offer a naturalistic explanation for the religious phenomenon is the split of the subject in relation to itself. If the satisfaction of a drive is experienced as pleasure, and the lack of satisfaction as displeasure, then how is it possible that drive renunciation can occur? If the sexual drive determines an organism’s reality, then how can this organism inhibit itself? Self-inhibition is a form of self-negation: the organism must identify with something other than itself. For this reason, Freud introduces the concept of the superego.

He assumes that drive satisfaction is limited by the reality principle: it gets suspended if there are external obstacles. These external obstacles (i.e. absent, withholding or forbidding parents) become internalized and lead to the creation of the superego. The internalization transforms what is in itself purely unpleasurable (lack of drive fulfillment due to circumstances) into a pleasurable act: The lack of satisfaction can now be appropriated and transformed into the “act” of renunciation. The net result of this operation is a narcissistic pride, which functions as the substitute satisfaction of having obeyed the superego, successor and heir of the parents. Drive renunciation, which is originally necessitated by the functioning of the reality principle, becomes (via the mediating internalization superego) a gift to the parents. The subject expects to be rewarded for it. Only after the internalization of the authoritative instance can the substitutive satisfaction become possible.

This theory seems to explain why a progress in intellectuality, a subordination of sensuality, can lead to a rise in the self-confidence of a person as well as of a nation. But Freud recognizes the problem in his theory: he presupposes what he wants to explain. The occurrence of Jewish monotheism was explained with the mechanism in which a drive satisfaction gets first suspended and then replaced by a narcissistic pleasure. This substitution requires the internalization of authority. Freud cannot give a satisfactory reason for the emergence of the superego, unless he presupposes a primordial splitting of the ego; and he draws this conclusion only in the very last paper of his life. What Freud observes is that the representation of the primary object, which also causes the lack of drive fulfillment, takes on an authoritative function and becomes via identification the part of the ego that imposes the rule of the reality principle on it. This authoritative function, however, is possible only through an act of recognition and acceptance that does not occur automatically in the development of the human being, as we can see in the case of psychosis. Without the creation and the recognition of the superego, the outside world would simply remain an obstacle; authority would be based on fear alone and could not be generalized into a law, and we would simply continue to kill the fathers. What causes the initial recognition of authority that is the basis for the functioning of the superego? Why does the principle of intellectuality, which is operative in the constitutive function of fatherhood as well as in the move towards monotheistic religions, seem to be an autonomous function that requires not only recognition, but adoration? Freud admits his perplexity about this question:

Thus we are faced by the phenomenon that in the course of the development of humanity sensuality is gradually overpowered by intellectuality and that men feel proud and exalted by every such advance. But we are unable to say why this should be so. It further happens later on that intellectuality itself is overpowered by the very puzzling emotional phenomenon of faith. Here we have the celebrated ‘credo quia absurdum,’ and, once more, anyone who has succeeded in this regards it as a supreme achievement.

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