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Critically discuss Freud's account of the origin of religion

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Samantha Whyte        Page         3/12/2009

Critically discuss Freud’s account of the origin of religion.

Freud’s account of the origins of religion is entirely reliant on the ‘possibility that there [can] be powerful mental processes which nevertheless remain hidden from the consciousness of men’[1]. The origins of religion are psychical and yet buried in the unconscious by man’s powers of repression. Thus religion is purely an illusory invention borne of his human desire, primitive guilt and anthropological history.

         A need to account for the origins of religion was borne of Freud’s lack of religious conviction despite his Jewish heritage that he embraced but regarded as cultural rather than metaphysical. It has been said that for Freud the emotional needs met by a belief in God or Immortality ‘found expression, first in rather vague philosophical cogitations and, and soon after in an earnest adherence to the principles of science’[2].

        As we shall see, it is the lack of ‘adherence to the principles of science’ in much Freud’s work that is possibly the most compelling criticism of Freud’s account of the origins of religion. Though Freud appears to remain convinced of the scientific basis for his work and always referred to himself as a reductionist. He viewed religion not as an a priori untruth but one which must be viewed with an extremely critical eye and judged solely on the basis of the evidence with which one is presented. The science of the mind and psyche was Freud’s chosen academic field and it was his firm belief that classical theism was nothing but ‘psychology projected into the eternal world…a supernatural reality, which is destined to be changed back once more by science into the psychology of the unconscious…and to transform metaphysics into metapsychology.[3]

        Freud does not provide one single, coherent account of the origins of religions as the subject arises in a plethora of his works. However the common thread in all such works is that religion is a neurosis, a maladaptive response to the repression of Oedipal guilt. Freud notes that obsessive behaviour, what might be termed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder today, resembles acts of religious ritual. Both are compulsive acts which resolve the anxiety of the individual; the compulsive hand washing of the obesessional neurotic is no less ‘sacred’ an act than repeated Rosary recital.

        This observance, detailed in ‘Obsessive Acts and Religious Practices’ is merely an observation that the two acts resemble each other. It is not until ‘Totem and Taboo’ that the root causes of both types of behaviour is explored. Firstly, it is important to note that non-religious obsessive rituals are often used as acts of self-absolution; acts which relieve feeling of guilt for past misdemeanors and provide the neurotic with a feeling of protection from punishment. So the question becomes where does the guilt arise from that plagues the wider consciousness and drives the wider community to act with obsessive piety?

        According to Freud this arises from the incest taboo, which when observed among many ‘primitive peoples’ is often so strong that it leads to ‘exogamy’ or seeking sexual partners from outside the immediate society. This is characteristic of totemistic society where it is deeply engrained that we are all born of one common ancestor, or totem. Thus, however exogamic relationship may appear the participants ma still be plagued by incestuous guilt. So the incest taboo is present and experienced in all totemistic society but may be repressed and emerge as ‘taboo sickness’[4]. Since unconsciously any sexual impulse is directed at sons or daughters of the totem, thus breaking the incest taboo, the unconscious requires one to perform obsessive ritual in order to absolve oneself.  This is only possible because of the human belief in the ‘Omnipotence of thoughts’.[5] The defiance of the natural order and almost complete faith in the omnipotence of the human mind, exemplified by beliefs such as ‘If I order my room in a particular way my house will not burn down’, or ‘if I say this rosary ten times I will not be subject to any divine retribution’. Such thoughts, albeit scaled down, are  present in the psyche of most people.

        Freud does not stop there. In the fourth essay in Totem and Taboo he discusses ‘The Return of Totemism’. This significantly contains a modification of Darwin’s primal horde theory. Darwin’s theory states that ‘the lives of primitive men mirror red those of higher apes: they lived in small groups or ‘hordes’ ruled over by a powerful father, who had many wives and many children. To maintain his position this dominant male drove the young males out of the tribe to find mates, and young females could expect to mate only with him…owing to the leaders jealousy, there was a prohibition on sexual intercourse which became a rigorously enforced totemic regulation...but part of the totemic system was the yearly “totem meal” at which the totem animal was ritually sacrificed   and consumed by the community[6]’.

     Freud uses this to construct a theory by which the community identify the totem with the father. He suggests that it was possible for members of the horde to conquer the dominant male and one day the sons killed and feasted on their father who had been both their enemy and ideal, and thereby not only identified themselves with him and acquired a portion of his strength, but in doing so made man and of the patriarchal horde. This was followed by massive guilt and a father-substitute was recreated in the form of the totem and the annual meal was a ‘solemn commemoration’ of the murder of the father. So in looking for a God we identify him with the father and the Oedipal guilt we feel towards him. The dead father becomes more powerful than the living father; ‘totemic religion arose from the filial sense of guilt, in an attempt to allay that feeling and to appease the father by deferred obedience to him’[7]. An obedience and longing which created a deep desire to create a paternal ideal; God.

        The ambivalence of the filial relation, oscillating between love and hate and which was first encountered within the primal horde, is projected anew onto the idealized object of religious worship, the father-God. ‘Submission to this object is the first characteristic of belief and it is this above all else which binds believers into a community of faith.[8]‘ If this is to be true then is requires some way in which we inherit the guilt of the original killing of the father. It is through the Oedipus complex that we recapitulate the stages of guilt of our distant ancestors. For Freud it is a self-evident truth that all humans pass through an Oedipal phase, which enables all men to re-experience the ambivalence towards the father and the ultimate guilt and desire for idealization originally felt by the boys in the primal horde.

        Freud concludes Totem and Taboo with an account of the evolution of religion and its likely future. He divides man’s worldview into three distinct stages and their relationship to the ‘omnipotence of thoughts’. To begin with man believes wholly in the omnipotence of thoughts and practices magic in order to control the external world. Then man assigns God great power but retains some belief in his psychic omnipotence in relation to God through acts of religious piety. The projection for the future is the submission to a scientific worldview where the thoughts of men no longer hold power, except for the obsessive neurotic, as science leaves no room for such power.  The ‘Scientific view of the universe no longer affords any room for human omnipotence; men have acknowledged their smallness and submitted resignedly to death and to the other necessities of nature.[9]’ It is almost as if Totem and Taboo is written in order that this collective neurosis might be exposed and we may all come to terms with it and progress towards the scientific view of the world where have no need of ‘omnipotent thought’.  

        The chief problem with most of Freud’s work, Totem and Taboo included, is the amount of it that has been discredited. In-fact this work was recently dismissed by eminent academic Evan-Pritchard as a ‘just-so story’.  The primal horde theory is nothing more than a hypothesis, even Darwin regarded it as mere speculation.  More recently anthropology has revealed that in primitive species there are wide variations amongst their social groupings. Although Gorillas have a social structure which may be likened to the ‘primal horde’ ‘The fact that apes live in family groups is in itself no proof that the first men did the same …there is no clear reason why the social behaviour of the “pre-humans” should be considered to have been like that of apes rather then like that of monkeys.[10]

        There is also the question of the sexual aggression required by Freud for the young of the horde to commit primal murder[11]. This kind of aggression is certainly exhibited among primates; it is neither constant nor pan-special. Extreme violence is indeed seen in primates but these examples tend to be isolated incidents rather than a general characteristic.

         Early man, once again seems to provide isolated examples of this kind of aggression seems to be isolated. ‘As to patricide, the authority of the father is firmly rooted, among the oldest peoples, in their social organization, their morals and their affectations; and the murder of anyone, especially within their own clan, is something so rare that the thought of murdering a father could simply never enter these people’s heads at all’[12].   The way most anthropologists view early man is not consistent with Freud’s theories, early man was not a ‘sex-saturated neurotic’ if indeed modern man is.

       Another significant criticism of Freud’s theory is that Totemism is certainly not necessarily the root of all monotheism. Totemism is generally considered to be a later stage of religious development, which not all peoples have passed through. Some reject Totemism as a foundation for religion at all, totems need not be in any sense deities or associated with prayer or sacrifice. The theory of recapitulation is also based on discredited theory, but Freud’s answer to all such criticism seem to be the same; that he is not concerned with ethnology or bio-genetics but only the parts of it that are useful for his studies in psychology. However, this seems like a glib justification for ignoring anything that does not fully accommodate psychoanalytic theory.

       Freud’s later works concerning the origins of religion include The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and its Discontents. A central claim of these works is that religion is primarily ‘an illusion’, which he views as a quite distinct from a ‘delusion’. An illusion is based on wishes or desires that are unlikely ever to occur whereas a delusional belief runs contrary to the facts of reality.  ‘A middle class girl may have the illusion that a prince will come and marry her. This is possible; and few such cases have occurred. That the Messiah will come and found a golden age is much less likely. Whether one classifies this belief as an illusion or as something analogous to delusion will depend on one’s personal attitude.[13]’  

        It seems unusual that rational human beings should embrace religious belief for which there is no obvious evidence. This suggests that the root causes of religion is psychical, that religion is essentially wish fulfillment, wishes so powerful that they leave no space for the rationality that we rely on in other areas of our lives. According to Freud these wishes are firstly to reconcile oneself with the hostile forces of nature, then the forces of human instinct and finally the wish for a father figure. People make an attempt to anthropomorphize the forces of nature in the   futile hope the may be able to harness their power and protect themselves from the violence of nature. The two latter wishes are examined above.

        But this leaves us with a significant question; what is society without religion? It seems cruel to deprive mankind of something in which they find such great comfort. It is also true that civilization is built upon religious doctrine and dogma, it may be no more than a way of controlling society but it has proved itself the basis for society as we know it. ‘If men are taught that there is no all-mighty and all-just God, no divine world order and no future life, they will feel exempt from all obligation to obey the precepts of civilization. Everyone will, without inhibition or fear, follow his asocial, egoistic instincts and seek to exercise his power; Chaos, which we have banished through many thousands of years of the work of civilization, will come again[14]

       Firstly, neither of these facts refute the theory that religion is indeed illusory, simply that to acknowledge and popularize the theory is unwise. Freud is not ignorant of either of these criticisms and seems to concur that religion has curbed some of the greatest and most damaging instinctual excesses of mankind and even suggests that for the few who find illusory happiness in religion it might indeed be cruel to shatter that illusion. However, the fact remains that the great majority of people are unhappy with civilization and spend great time postulating about how it could be transformed into something better. It is also true that religion, far from always being a way to advance the morality of civilization, has often been cynically employed as nothing more than a means of preserving the status quo in favour of those who champion religious belief or ‘by believers themselves to justify social immoralities of one kind or another’[15]. ‘One sinned, and then one made a sacrifice or did penance and then was free to sin once more…it is no secret that the priests could only keep the masses submissive to religion by making such large concessions as these to the instinctual nature of man. Thus it was agreed: God alone is strong and good, man is weak and sinful. In every age immorality has found no less support in religion than morality has.[16]

        Freud’s theories are not wholly original; he particularly draws on the likes of Hume and Feuerbach, but seems fully aware of it. He concedes that ‘I have said nothing which other and better men have not said before me in a much more complete, forcible and impressive manner[17], rather a significant concession for a man not noted for his self-deprication.. However most seem to concern themselves with the illusory nature of religion rather than its psychological underpinnings. Freud does provide many case study’s, the Wolf Man and Rat Man, as evidence for his theories but though he claims to be a reductionist such case study’s are largely anecdotal and a matter of interpretation and it is well-known that the psychoanalyst can be very persuasive in his analysis. There is no way of testing Freud’s theories regarding the omnipotence of thoughts or the Oedipus complex in a controlled, double blind way. In many ways Freud’s theories are in many cases vague philosophical cogitations’ rather then the expression of an ‘earnest adherence to the principles of science’.

        Freud was also deeply neurotic himself, despite claiming to adhere strongly to a scientific worldview Freud still found need of his own ‘omnipotent thoughts’, he performed many ritual acts daily mainly concerning stigma attached to certain numbers.  Many suggest that as a neurotic himself that he was best placed to judge what is indeed neurosis and what is not, but this clearly runs contrary to his claim that when the power of science is acknowledged we will reject the notion of the omnipotence of thought. It is also suggested that, although some case studies confirm that certain individuals experience a certain amount of Oedipal guilt, this is no reason to suppose it is a universal phenomena.  We know that Freud himself experienced such feelings but his attempt to project them on the common consciousness is not entirely successful. He theorizes about the Oedipus complex much more than he tests the theory. Freud’s theories on the origins of religion all rest on the existence of the unconscious, repression and the universality of the Oedipus complex; all three concepts are psychological events and very difficult to verify so at this point the weight of Freud’s analysis is difficult to assess.


  • Sigmund Freud, An Autobiographical Study, Trans. James Strachey, London, Penguin Books, 1985
  • Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, Ed. James Strachey, Penguin Books, 2001
  • Michael Palmer, Freud and Jung on Religion, London Routledge, 1999
  • Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, Ed. James Strachey, Penguin Books, 2001
  • Sigmund Freud, Notes Upon a Case of Obesessional Neurosis, Penguin Freud Library, 1990
  • The Origin and Growth of Religion, Trans. H.J. Rose, London, Methuen, 1931
  • S. Zuckerman, The Social Life of Monkeys and Apes, New York, Harcourt and Brace, 1932
  • Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo, Albert Dickinson Ed.Penguin Books, 1985

[1]An Autobiographical Study, Trans. James Strachey, London, Penguin Books, Pg. 200.

[2] Ernest Jones, Sigmund Freud: Life and Work, London, Hogarth Press, Pg. 22.

[3]The Future of an Illusion, Ed. James Strachey, Penguin Books, 2001, Pg 52.

[4]Totem and Taboo, Albert Dickinson Ed.Penguin Books, 1985,Pg. 79

[5]Totem and Taboo, Op cit. Essay Three.

[6]Michael Palmer, Freud and Jung on Religion, London Routledge, 1999, Pg. 23.

[7] Sigmund Freud, Notes Upon a Case of Obesessional Neurosis, Penguin Freud Library, 1990, Pg. 206

[8]Freud and Jung on Religion, Op cit. Pg. 31

[9]Totem and Taboo, Op. cit. Pg.

[10] S. Zuckerman, The Social Life of Monkeys and Apes, New York, Harcourt and Brace, 1932, and Pg. 24.

[11]Freud and Jung on Religion, Op cit. Pg 62.  

[12]The Origin and Growth of Religion, Trans. H.J. Rose, London, Methuen, 1931, Pg, 113.

[13] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, Ed. James Strachey, Penguin Books, 2001, Pg.195,

[14]The Future of an Illusion, Op. cit. Pg. 65

[15]Freud and Jung on Religion, Op cit. Pg. 47

[16]The Future of an Illusion, Op. Cit. Pg. 72

[17]Ibid, Pg. 93

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