Freud on Religion: 

An Understanding and An Alternative

An essay by Ethan A. Bayer

While leaders like Jesus and Ghandi have shaped society's concept of religion in one way, Sigmund Freud has attempted to influence us towards the polar opposite. Through examination of varied aspects of both society and the individual, he formulates a psychological understanding of religion and a secular alternative.

To discover the origins of religion, Freud dates back to the practice of totemism. This system incorporates both religious and social aspects. A specific totem animal was assigned to each clan and family, and the boundaries that it created became very marked. Clan members showed great respect towards the animal through worship and by not killing it, and, in turn, they believed the totem would protect them from harm. On the other hand, clan members had a responsibility to the totem. Exogamy was the practice of not engaging in sexual behavior or marrying another from one's own tribe (Totem & Taboo, p.131-132).

There are several theories as to the beginnings of totemism. Totems were identities by which families could identify themselves, and by which they could easily distinguish between other families. This generates the belief that, initially at least, totemism arose from a need for efficiency and not for religion (T&T, p.137). To understand where the religious element came from, we must look at the relationship between man and totem. A prehistoric man surely would have felt an incredible connection with animal so that it was no longer a symbol assigned to him but related to him, or even a part of him. From this arose the blood taboo, which prohibited incest (T&T, p.139). If we expand this relation to encompass the whole family and community, then it becomes clear that the totem is a symbol for the community, which is the focal point of worship (T&T, p.141).

He introduces a story of a group of sons who murdered their father in order to gain control. After an extended period of time, the pangs of guilt and love for the father override the waning sense of hatred, and they defer their affection to this totem animal. Their subsequent actions and emotions draw the blueprint for religion's underlying focuses. 

While killing of the totem was strictly prohibited, at certain times its sacrifice called for a festive occasion. When a totem was sacrificed, it was mourned and cared for. They attempt to reconcile with their father through this catharsis and to repair their relationship. In consuming the totem's flesh, they inherit the strengths and identity of the great ancestor or father figure. They display a duality in attitude: on the one hand, there is the animosity that leads to the killing of the father, paired with a defiance that asserts that, had the father been as protective and good as the totem, they would never have felt a need to kill him. On the other hand, they show the subsequent longing, which reveals the love, trust, and respect for the father (T&T, p.175-79).

Obviously this patricide does not occur in every generation in every family, but Freud believes that even one incident affects everyone. He postulates that, since this occurred over and over throughout time, the resulting states of guilt and aggression reside in each of us through genetic inscription. Therefore, he can make use of the argument that it is these primal murders that instigate the formation of each religion, even in modern times. Not only religion, but society, depends on this "complicity in a common crime" (T&T, p.181).

Freud seeks to prove his point by examining Christianity. The Law of Talion states that sin can only be forgiven through sacrifice of another life. By offering himself on the cross, Jesus not only paid the ultimate debt, but also gained stature above God the father. He replaced the father, so that now, in communion, we eat and drink of the son, not the father (T&T, p.190-91). Christianity attracts us because it offers forgiveness for that primal deed which is imprinted in us, and a "totemic feast" by which we become one with God in his greatness and majesty.

Since one's god is formed in the likeness of his father, his relationship with his god fluctuates in correspondence to his relationship with his father (T&T, p.182). Freud witnesses this in a friend by the last name Viereck. In attempting to convert Freud to Christianity, Viereck relates a story of his own struggles, which basically revolves around his questioning God's existence because of a shocking sight, his stray from the church, and his eventual return. Again, everything can be traced back to the Oedipus Complex. Viereck feels betrayed by God in the way that one is betrayed by his father if he witnesses him abusing or seducing his mother. He disowns Christianity, but reconsiders after realizing that in competition with an all-powerful God he will most certainly lose. The love and fear he feels towards God overpowers the aggressive instincts. By trying to convert Freud, Viereck displaces his violent and jealous feelings from his father. To quell his owns doubts, he must ensure that his friend accompany him in his beliefs ("A Religious Experience," p.243-246).

This aggression towards the father and god hides from society in our unconscious, but does not lie dormant. It breathes through our art, and is satiated by religion, which gives us a sort of consolation for repressing our instincts through the apparatuses of heaven and hell. In dreams, our unconscious desires and fantasies escape, but in costume. Dream distortion ensures that repressed wishes appear so obscurely so that our dream thoughts remain unknown (On Dreams, p.57). And, since dreams show us our wishes fulfilled, they are believed as reality, and the wish is done away with; it no longer threatens to escape our unconscious (OD, p.66).

To Freud, this wish fulfillment serves as the basis to religion. He views religion as infantile and stagnant because we acknowledge a deity who, like the parents during the child's infantile stage, takes care of everything. This accelerates our own narcissism, since in praying we believe that we can influence the future's design, and that some higher power will tend to our every wish.

In his book Future of an Illusion, however, Freud maps out a much harsher picture of god's tasks. He declares that god must control the terrors inherent on this earth, let Fate run its course, and reimburse humanity for their struggles (p.22). But even this kind of god has not served its purpose. Religion has been allowed thousands of years to prove itself, and the tumultuous state of mankind as a whole at the present is a testament to its failure (p.47).

He also brings up the question of belief. He states that we believe the teachings of religion because not only have they been believed for ages, but we are strictly forbidden to question their validity (p.33). When we do start inquiring, however, what will become of religion then? The ignorant masses, who only obey the church's teachings out of fear, will create pure chaos. Therefore, they must be kept away from such knowledge, as a response would be detrimental to society (p.50). The "cultured elite," however, have internalized society's morals and have been able to distinguish religion from moral goodness. They have transformed their sexual and violent instincts into culturally valuable entities such as art and science. While religion is not necessary for them, though, they realize its necessity for the majority. It is civilization's most valuable weapon to defend itself against humanity. 

In his idealism, Freud suggests the grandiose idea of someday obliterating god from the values of society and its regulation. By giving people a psychoanalytic understanding of morality, they would soften up to society's commandments, which would become more flexible and less stagnant (FI, p.53). In our current state, however, we are stuck in a value system that has no relevance and no cooperation with reality. For example, the command to "Love your neighbor as yourself" can never really be followed; humans are endowed with aggressive instincts. We can love some, but our hostility must be balanced. We see it often being projected onto people of other religions. For this same reason, Communism will never work; we are innately self-serving. This psychoanalysis that Freud proposes would replace religion as a secular cure for the world, replacing those qualities of religion which are impossible to abide by and which cause riffs through different groups. 

Freud's arguments sound very convincing on the surface. In his beautiful plan, however, he overlooks some holes. Perhaps his biggest flaw is not accounting for females in the Oedipus Complex. When a theory that serves as the foundation for all of one's work ignores half of earth's population, those ideas must be looked at with skepticism. However, this is just the beginning of the suspicious nature of some of Freud's theories. For example, in Totem and Taboo, he seems to formulate his hypotheses beforehand, and then collects theorists whose works go in line with his. As an audience, we certainly cannot make informed judgments without hearing arguments from all sides. 

The Oedipus Complex stands on shaky ground in yet another way. Through psychoanalysis, Freud observed this phenomenon in his patients and made assumptions about the whole of society based on those few isolated cases. Even in those cases, he could have used an experimenter's bias to his advantage to interpret people's different situations as all fitting into the same phenomenon. But, for a second, let us overlook this possibility. Expanding such a local occurrence to the level that embodies all humanity is fatal; such a trend may be universally possible, but not necessarily universally occurring. 

We must also consider Freud's argument that religion has not been successful as a social tool as seen in the fact that people in general are not happy. Happiness is relative; a person never believes that he or she has achieved the state of ultimate joy. Instead, something within us causes our constant striving for a higher state of excitation and our restlessness in our current contentment. Therefore, to use people's forming new methods of transcendence as proof that religion has failed is not valid proof at all. They are simply participating in the never-ending search for a more complete state of happiness and awareness.

Rizzuto challenges Freud in yet another way. He claims that religion is not an illusion, but rather an imaginative way of relating to and adapting our environment. For Freud, religion is always Oedipal-that is, the god image is always transmitted through the father. Rizzuto points to the pre-Oedipal stage where the mother is the main source of sustenance, protection, and the "oceanic feeling" and concludes that she must be the baby's first portrayal of a deity. And, unlike Freud's picture of religion as purely infantile and stagnant, Rizzuto imagines religion as a collage-something that is molded and transformed throughout one's life.

Looking beyond his flaws, however, Freud presents a thoughtfully researched and extremely detailed explanation of religion. From this understanding he attempts to present us with an alternative-psychoanalysis-which will ultimately better serve society and the individual.