Home > Psychology > Illusion in the Freudian Theory of Religion: Part One

Illusion in the Freudian Theory of Religion: Part One


Adapted from an essay submitted March 2012 to the the Department of Religion, Carleton University



Sigmund Freud, 1921

Sigmund Freud’s theory of religion, as outlined in his seminal works, Totem and Taboo, Moses and Monotheism,and The Future of an Illusion, undoubtedly contributed to numerous classical and contemporary scholars pointedly labelling him as an enemy of religion.  Despite identifying with a Jewish heritage, many have suggested that Freud was – for all intents – an atheist who viewed religion as merely another manifestation of his psychoanalytic concept of wish fulfillment.  Freud’s reductionist treatment of religion established his adherence to scientific principles, which he viewed as the only means in which to understand the world.  In fact, religion was just another stepping stone for humanity on its way to the scientific age, one in which illusions and fantasy played no part in reality or understanding the human condition. Ironically, in his attempt at developing a theory of religion, he cast aside doctrines of scientific principles and cast a blanket of suspicion over the validity of his claims.   His theory is intriguing, innovative and bold – especially given the time period in which he first advanced his ideas.  Yet, despite his tenacious pursuit of explaining the origination and purpose of religion in scientific and historical terms, he failed to develop a theory that could be described as such.

He staunchly advocated methods of rational inquiry and empirical methodology, and through case studies and observational techniques he developed theories to explain the human psyche and a greater understanding of cultural phenomenon.  Despite these ambitions, many of his theories have gone largely unproven; ironically because they lack universal application as a result of limiting research methods.  His theory of religion is based on several of his psychoanalytic concepts, and as such suggests inherent weaknesses in his approach; however, Freud may have been his own worst enemy due to his refusal to waver from the scientific paradigm in an attempt to explain external reality.  In fact, his critique of religion may actually provide a more positive explanation than the one he overtly claimed.  Far from the parallel of religion as neurosis, his theory suggests that religion works as a mechanism through using illusion and fantasy as a means to resolve reality and the uncertainty of the human condition.  In this view, Freud’s religion becomes a positive mechanism for the development of the human psyche, similar to other concepts such as creativity and imagination.  Thus, Freud – or at least his theory – can be understood as an advocate for religion rather than a dissident.

Freud’s work in religion began in 1907 with a short essay entitled, Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices.  This paper heralded the beginning of a tumultuous relationship between Freud’s psychoanalysis and religion.  In it he drew parallels between the expression of belief in the religious and acts of neurotic psychiatric patients, which he called “ritualistic”.  Both, he suggested, had a shared origin in repressed instincts and supressed childhood experiences.[1]  Specifically, Freud viewed religion as an illusion based on early childhood fantasies, which had been supressed.  Re-emerging in adulthood, these suppressed instincts would ultimately influence the way in which the adult viewed the world,[2] such that reality would become distorted.  Religion was thus realized as a coping mechanism for unrealized childhood wish fulfillment, which ultimately had harmful consequences for the adult human.

Totem and Taboo (1913) by Sigmund Freud

In Totem and Taboo, Freud introduced the concept of totem prohibitions and their relation to modern day religiosity.  In his introductory chapter, he defined totems and their role within the social organization of a tribe, as the first tribal ancestor – animal, plant or force in nature – which held a unique relationship with the tribe.  This relationship was such that a taboo against killing the animal emerged – except for the ritualized annual act of killing and devouring the totem.[3]  This totem meal was instituted in an effort to obtain the power and strength of the totem animal.  Additionally, a strong familial connection to the totem extended throughout the entire clan such that every member of the tribe was deemed blood related.  This led to the practice of exogamy which created a second taboo in the totem social system, namely the incest taboo.[4]  Freud believed that these original taboos signalled the start of morality and ultimately of a social structure[5], which later propagated into religion and other cultural phenomenon.

Freud created a narrative using these totem taboos that extended his thesis in Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices and integrated previously developed theories of psychosexual development, specifically the Oedipus complex.  Drawing heavily from Darwin’s work on primal hordes, Freud described the later manifestation of these primal hordes into totems and subsequently modern day religious traditions.  He postulated that a lone dominant male maintained his status and claim to all females in the tribe through driving out young males to find mates in different totems.  The outcast males then came together and conspired to kill their father.  Subsequently, the sons consumed the father in an effort to assume his power.  Despite their efforts to end the patriarchal horde, the sons became consumed with guilt.  A brother horde was created and soon the practice of exogamy was reinstated, in effect supressing the motivation for the original sinful act.[6] With guilt subsiding and longing for a father-ideal, of which none of them could obtain, the brothers conceived of a symbolic father-figure in the totem animal[7] and commemorated the killing of the father through the annual totem meal.  This ritual was created to relieve the brothers’ guilt through honouring the father and attempting to harness his power.[8] Freud theorized the ceremony and associated symbolic father-image were the precursors to the creation of gods and modern religion.

Additionally, he surmised that the ceremonial act of the totem meal was similar to the obsessive thinking and ritualistic act of the neurotic patient.  Fearing the negative consequences of acting against prohibitions and taboos, these rituals provided both patient and prehistoric man a way in which to supress forbidden impulses and unconscious desires[9] – specifically, the latent desire to kill the father and wed the mother (Oedipus complex).[10] Moreover, the rituals served as a way to reconcile the guilt stemming from these unconscious wishes.  Freud believed that this original sin of the brother horde and the subsequent guilt brought about the totemic religious system which would later become a base for all future religions.[11]  In this way, the totem feast became, “…the repetition and commemoration of this memorable, criminal act with which so many things began, social organization, moral restrictions and religion.”[12]

Freud extended this theory further by suggesting that religious gods were always modelled after an idealized father-figure which was greatly influenced by the individual’s relationship with their own father.[13] The paradoxical nature of this relationship was exemplified by the simultaneous disdain and love for the all-powerful father-figure.  Here, the unconscious wishes of the child, the repressed guilt in the neurotic adult due to those childhood wishes, and the religious person converge in the Oedipus complex, and manifest in various ways in which humans view the world.

In The Future of an Illusion, Freud bridged his postulations on religion as illusion with his work in Totem and Taboo.  In it, he discussed the nature of ambivalence toward the father figure through suggesting that children experienced jealousy and fear toward the father for his all-powerful role, but also looked to the father for protection and care.  As the child grew and experienced the harsh reality of life, the realization that he was destined to be helpless forever emerged.  In order to harness the protective feelings experienced from their own father as a child, the adult transferred the father-image into gods that were both feared and revered.[14]

Freud suggested that modern day monotheistic patriarchal religion developed from this idea of helplessness, particularly in reaction to the harsh and unknowable power of nature.  Mirroring the father-child relationship, the relationship between man and nature was such that man was ultimately at the mercy of natural forces, thus creating fear, helplessness, and awe.  In order to adequately resolve these feelings and to identify with nature, man projected his image into illusory beings with humanlike traits in an effort to establish a relationship with these unknown forces.[15]  Realizing that this helplessness would not cease during the course of the adult’s lifetime, the father-figure beings were created as more powerful than any individual to whom the adult could conceive – namely, the father.[16]

It is important to discuss what Freud meant by illusion.  He believed that illusion stemmed from wishes and fantasies and were similar to psychiatric delusions.  The differences between the two are that delusion suggested a struggle with reality while illusion wasn’t necessarily opposing reality.[17]  Essentially, illusion was motivated by repressed fantasies and the content of the illusory narrative was possible, although not always probable.  For Freud, the narratives of religions were certainly possible, but mostly improbable.  As such, he considered them neurotic fantasies.  Freud translated this hypothesis into the notion of religion as illusion, and ultimately called religion, “…the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity,” [18] rooted in the infantile Oedipal stage.  For him, religion was keeping humanity stuck in a childlike wonderment that abandoned reality for the safety and security of fantasies.  The only proper course of action was the turning away from religious proclivities holding humanity in a middle stage of development and adopting the scientific view of external reality, which more adequately explained the world than religious doctrine.[19]

Finally, further development of his critique of religion was put forth in Moses and Monotheism, in which he applied his theory to the development of firstly Judaism, and then Christianity.  Using the story of Moses from the Hebrew Bible, Freud reimagined the narrative through claiming that Moses was born to Egyptian nobility.  He further claimed that an early form of Judaism was founded on an ancient Egyptian Aton religion, prominent under Pharaoh Amenhotep IV and was known as the only form of monotheism in Ancient Egypt.[20]  Freud speculated that this was the precursor to the rise of the first of the great monotheistic religions, Judaism.  He drew comparisons to the Mosaic religion and the Aton religion highlighting such points as a strict adherence to monotheism, which was very uncommon in the time period.  He also suggested that Moses gave the Jewish people more than just a new religion, but also the law of circumcision which was believed to be widely practiced in ancient Egypt. [21]  Additionally, Freud suggested that the Jewish people revolted against Moses for imposing this new religion on them and subsequently killed him.  He pointed to narratives in the Bible which described these uprisings.[22] In what he described as a latent period in the history of the Jewish religion, Freud suggested that after revolting and killing Moses, that the people turned away from the new religion and returned to their polytheistic ways with a particular emphasis on the worship of the volcano-god Jahve.  A long period of denial followed in which both the killing and the religion given by Moses were supressed.  It was only through oral traditions, which were kept alive by a few loyal followers, that the story of Moses came to permeate the cultural consciousness of the Jews and counter the non-objective historical accounts that were given forth. [23]  Freud said, “[i]t was this tradition of a great past that continued to work in the background, until it slowly gained more and more power over the mind of the people and at last succeeded in transforming the God Jahve into the Mosaic God and in waking to a new life the religion which Moses had instituted centuries before and which had later been forsaken.”[24]   This reworked Mosaic mythology provided Freud with the opportunity to tie in his theory of religion introduced in his previous works – particularly his notions of guilt and fantasy as outlined in the Oedipal concept.

Here Freud demonstrated the restoration of the father as he previously discussed in Totem and Taboo through the growing feelings of guilt among the Jewish people and the resurfacing of suppressed memories of the original sin of killing the father as proclaimed by a Jewish rabble-rouser, Paul of Tarsus.  Redemption and salvation were brought to the Jewish people and indeed all of civilization through the sacrifice of the son of god, Jesus.[25]  It was the leader of the brother horde, Freud suggested, that would be most befitting as a potential sacrifice.  He further illustrated connections to his theory by pointing to the Holy Communion ritual, one in which the flesh and blood of Christ is symbolically ingested, as similar to that of the totem feast.[26]  This account showed how Christianity rose from Judaism, but more specifically how the father religion was replaced by the religion of the son through the transference of repressed guilt.  It is here that Freud attempted to connect totemism to monotheism.  Obviously this re-envisioned account created much public criticism of Freud, as he had essentially claimed that the Judaic religion was not founded on the word of God, but rather the edicts of the Egyptians.

In support of this reimagined historical account of the rise of Judaism and then Christianity, Freud offered up the concept of an archaic heritage which he suggested may involve inherited memory traces that could help to explain why individually different people respond in remarkably similar ways to the same experiences.[27]  Essentially, this concept put forth the notion that repressed memories were passed on from generation to generation and remained dormant during the latency periods of mankind.  This concept allowed Freud to connect how the memory of Moses’ murder survived for generations and the subsequent guilt that consumed the Jewish people.

 Read Part 2 of Illusion in the Freudian Theory of Religion here.

M. xo

Suggested Readings:

[1] Kirk A. Bingham, Freud and Faith: Living in Tension (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003), 31-32; Michael Palmer, Freud and Jung on Religion (New York: Routledge, 1997), 12-13.

[2] Beverley Clack, “After Freud: Phantasy and Imagination in the Philosophy of Religion,” Philosophy Compass 3, no. 1 (2008): 203-204.

[3] Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo, trans. A.A. Brill (New York: Vintage Books, 1946), 134. Freud suggested that animals and plants were most often adopted as the tribal totem.  Taboos against destruction of the totem led to a refusal to kill the animal and avoidance in harvesting the plant.  Although he didn’t specifically address the plant totem in his discussion on the annual totem meal, it is feasible to extend the hypothesis and suggest that the totem plant may have been eaten once a year.  Freud did not include a discussion of the tribal totems identifying with forces of nature.

[4] Ibid., 5-7.

[5] Ibid., 45-48.

[6] Freud, Totem and Taboo, 182-83; Palmer, Freud and Jung, 23.

[7] Palmer, Freud and Jung, 25.

[8] Freud, Totem and Taboo, 183.

[9] Bingham, Freud and Faith, 35.

[10] Palmer, Freud and Jung, 24.

[11] James DiCenso, “Totem & Taboo and the Constitutive Function of Symbolic Forms,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion  64, no. 3 (1996): 572; Palmer, Freud and Jung, 25.

[12] Freud, Totem and Taboo,183.

[13] Ibid., 190.

[14] Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, trans. W.D. Robson-Scott (Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Publishing, 2010), 41-42.

[15] Ibid., 29-30

[16] Ibid., 52

[17] Ibid., 54

[18] Ibid., 76.

[19] Ibid., 55.

[20] Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, trans. Katherine Jones (New York: Vintage Books, 1967), 7-26.

[21] Ibid., 28-29.

[22] Ibid., 58. Freud speculated that uprisings which were supressed by the God Jahve during the time of “wandering in the wilderness” may have been during Moses’ time, despite biblical texts failing to explicitly suggest such postulations.

[23] Ibid., 85-86.

[24] Ibid., 87.

[25] Ibid., 109-10.

[26] Ibid., 111.

[27] Ibid., 125.

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