dirty rag

Freud and Religion - The Unintentional Empowerment Spiel - Dan Dreifort

A reconstruction and critique of Sigmund Freud on religion

"Myth is not fiction: it consists of facts that are continually repeated and can be observed over and over again. It is something that happens to man, and men have mythical fates just as much as the Greek heroes do." - Carl Jung

Freud Religion Introduction

It's no challenge to portray Freud as the thorough vituperater of religion. Though more taxing, it's also possible to paint a more flattering picture of Freud's 'religion' after it has passed through the proverbial Freudian religion grinder. More difficult still, is the trial of providing fresh insights proving that Freud's analysis actually empowers religion. The reader should be familiar with both Freud's three major works concerning the subject of religion: Totem and Taboo, The Future of an Illusion, and Moses and Monotheism, and some canonical commentaries and snubs thereof. I'll briefly summarize these as we uncover a few original ideas.

Totem and Taboo

The gist of Totem and Taboo is the claim that religion and neuroses are similar enough to warrant dismissing religion as nothing more than a giant universal neurosis. Freud makes several comparisons between acts done in the name of religion and the actions of obsessive neurotics. He cites the work of many prominent anthropologists to back up several claims, outlining totemism largely consistently with recent popular research of Native American bestiaries. He makes a direct comparison between totemic practices and the events of the Oedipus complex. But Freud's hasty conclusions, ostensibly meant to erode religion, leave the door open for the empowerment of religion, or at least healthy criticism.

The first line of attack against Freud, a well-worn and thus well refuted path; "Freud had no business messing around with an area outside of his own expertise," holds no water because it is fairly well established that Freud did his homework on the subject of religion. Still, we can bludgeon Freud when he summarizes thousands of years of quirky, pre-religious animal worship as one word and one single concept... totemism. He then blindly leaps from totemism to modern religious practices, ignoring the tremendous gap and treating the two ideas as one and the same. In attempting to show a sense of continuity between the primitive and the contemporary, Freud fails. There is little connection save for his ideas regarding totemism and the Oedipus Complex.

Freud claimed that, "... children displace some of their feelings from their father on to an animal."[i] Then he implies that children are primitives as far as psychoanalysis is concerned. Freud cites his analysis of "Little Hans" to provide support for the unconscious natural connection between his pet complex and bizarre primitive behavior concerning animals, but fails to provide the support to make it stick. He succeeds in comparing the love/hate relationships of father/son and totemic animal/primitive man but these are trivial and by no means ought to be grounds for discounting totemism as a peculiar, innate act of the unconscious. Furthermore, though accepted by many to be fact, it seems silly to equate the totem animal with the father of the totemic tribe. Though there are father-like qualities given to a totem animal, calling it a father figure as Freud implies, is anthropologically and theologically missing the point. Another pitfall for Freud is the fact that totemism is not universal in religions' histories. Many ancient groups did not pass through a totemic phase, a fact that deteriorates already weak connections in Freud's attack.[ii]

In the fourth essay of Totem and Taboo Freud bestows the mother of all damning disclaimers. Not only does he acknowledge the vast task of tackling religion, he also boldly states that his 'science' is incapable of comprehensively reducing religion to what we might call a simple explanation. Moreover, in New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Freud summarizes his views on religion as, "the only significant rival to a scientific world view,"[iii] Insinuating that it provides knowledge to the true nature of things. So if the murky dualities and ambiguities of religion correspond closely to those of the science of psychoanalysis, then using Freudian logic, one could posit that religion and psychoanalysis are equally scientific.

The Future of an Illusion

Several years passed before Freud again put his mind to a project on religion. Though it is his most thorough and thoughtful publication concerning religion, The Future of an Illusion is a moth-eaten, foraminate statement at best. At the time of its publication Freud was 71 years old and fighting cancer and critics alike. The Future of an Illusion should be seen not as a chiding denunciation of religion, but as the pessimistic rationalizations of a crotchety, frustrated, old man, preoccupied with his own imminent mortality.[iv]

Freud again begins with a whopper of a disclaimer. He contends that his limited life experience and subjective expectations might prevent him from adequately assessing religion.[v] He then discusses the restrictions placed on a society by religion. It seems that religion, which he almost equates with a higher form of civilization, requires man to forego his physical desires in place of the security of a higher good. Thus Freud saw religion as the object of the ultimate sublimation. He also considered sublimation as man's most highly developed psychic capacity.[vi] Furthermore, he describes ideal religion as a sort of unattainable dream, or wish fulfillment. It would be impressive if Freud went on to prove religion nothing more than a wish fulfillment, but he doesn't. When libidinal energy is redirected away from direct fulfillment to religion, it seems that Freud is implying that this sublimation doesn't really satisfy the id. There are millions who would disagree, but I suppose Freud would dismiss them all as fanatic, obsessive neurotics.

In distinguishing between illusion and delusion Freud continues to unintentionally empower religion.[vii] Though Freud does differentiate between objective (or scientific) reality, and the unconscious reality of the mind that religion addresses, he classifies religion as illusion rather than delusion. I.e. by Freud's definition, religion is not necessarily in error regarding the nature of reality whereas a delusion is born of human wishes. There exist many religious maxims clearly stating that the physical world is full of deceptions and misgivings, which when taken as wrote further complicating Freud's attempts to criticize religion. Freud first claims that religion can tell us something about reality and then argues for just the opposite. If religion can tell us something about the mind and is a useful tool in psychoanalysis, then is this section of The Future of an Illusion really a decisive blow to religion? No. Nor does Freud gain ground in his final publication.

Moses and Monotheism

In Moses and Monotheism, Freud's delirious deathbed declaration, Freud presents a preposterous fantasy in an attempt to bastardize Judaism and Christianity. He performs a sketchy psychoanalysis of assumed past events leading to the spectacular conclusions that Moses was indeed not a Jew and that he was killed by the people of Israel in a fit of Oedipal rage! It seems obvious that Freud's line of thought here came from the implications of his own feelings toward his cowardly father.[viii] Freud probably would have benefited from seeing a therapist. Too bad they weren't around yet. A shrink might have at least tempered this strange tangent.

Though Freud concocts several interesting pieces of evidence to support his claims in this otherwise absurd (albeit entertaining) piece, his research reeks of bias. Moses and Monotheism is an ultimately misguided final work of speculation, totally unfounded in the reality that Freud so valiantly tried to ascertain in his work and does not aid in his effort to wear down the walls of religions.

Freud, Religion, Giambattista Vico and Buddah All Get on a Train with no Wheels

Several noted philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists and other scholars have also addressed the problem of religion. Some were directly commenting on Freud, and others were talking shop long before his birth. Giambattista Vico, one such pre-Freud thinker raised many points that Freud would later trumpet as his own. The two agreed that, "the language of myth [religion] was a profound source of truth about human life, even where direct evidence was wanting, if a proper hermeneutic could be developed to understand it."[ix] ...An agreement that clearly empowers religion as at least a pseudo-science. Vico however did not always fall in line with Freud. Vico calls religion, "necessary and... universal."[x] He discounts Freud's (or anybody's) ability to accurately discern the nature of religion through anthropological studies. He claimed that early religious people, "were poets who spoke in poetic characters," and that Freud, because of his civilized nature, "cannot at all imagine the poetic nature of these men."[xi] He also refers to religion as the, "never failing light of truth beyond all question."[xii] It's nice to have an eloquent guy like Vico on my side, but having an entire religious tradition to back Freud up isn't bad either. I.e. What if a religion often AGREED with Freud about the nature of the world and humanity? Would he continue his attack? Or would their common ground erode his anti-religion case?

Padmasiri De Silva's Buddhist and Freudian Psychology draws a clear set of correlations between early Buddhism and Freudian Psychoanalysis. Summarizing a few similarities might make Freud roll over in his grave with the posthumous realization that his narrow brand of psychology is nothing more than Buddhism glorified with a near-scientific frosting.

While Freud diagnoses us all with the neurosis of religion, Buddhism similarly claims, "All worldlings are deranged."[xiii] The Freudian libido is the equivalent to what the Buddhists call Kamatanha. [xiv] Both Freud and the Buddha agreed that the pleasure principle was a dominating force in life and said there were ways to abate the corresponding desires. There are powerful ego instincts in both traditions.[xv] Buddhism refers to the, "root ill will or hate," called dosa that closely corresponds with Freud's thanatos.[xvi] The ideas aren't identical, but they both express a certain sense of self annihilation. Finally and generally, both traditions are concerned with curing the ailments of humanity.

Though Freud claimed that he did not become a doctor out a, "craving to help suffering humanity," it is clear that his passion was directed to this end.[xvii] Even Dr. Alfred Alder admitted that he (Adler), "...could be tolerant of religion if it, like psychology has the goal of perfection of mankind."[xviii] Buddhism plays an integral role in both Adler's acceptance of religion and Freud's illogical anti-religion stance. How can Freud effectively defame religion when this new assessment would also have him razing tenents of his own Psychology? He can't, at least not effectively.

Part V - Conclusions

Freud noted that, "The very vehemence of our denials often affirms our unconscious acceptance."[xix] Is this proof that a lot of Freud's passionate views are actually representative of Freud's belief in just the opposite? That would account for his singular arguments regarding religion and similarly explain the different instances of Freud's unintentional empowerment of religion noted here. But alas, Freud doesn't provide a thorough discourse on religion; he's otherwise occupied with preconceived notions that religion is a complete crock. If Freud was so concerned with cures, how did he fail to recognize or even harness the ameliorating power of religion by dismissing it as a universal neurosis for which he had no cure?

Freud was nearly obsessed with being purely inductive in his work, and as religion did not fit into his ideal, objective, scientific world view, naturally, he stumbles. Both traditional and modern Hermeneutic schools provide ammunition against Freud here, asserting that scientific truths would not even be possible without religion. Freud failed in his attempt to create a verifiable, empirical science (psychoanalysis) and then proceeded to condemn religion primarily using concepts from his so-called science. Why wouldn't Freud debase religion's ability to really tell us anything about reality? His attempts to destroy the fibers of religion otherwise are but the futile gasps for air of a man drowning in the sea of false science. Religion was (and maybe still is) probably the single greatest threat to acceptance of Freudian psychoanalytic theory.

I'm not as critical of Freud as these words suggest. (I've no particular affinity toward any psychologist.) I'm also not typically an apologist for religion. (I'm an atheist-leaning agnostic.) Freud is the father of psychoanalysis; an inventor and early adopter, and therefore an easy target. Several of his ideas (even on religion) are fascinating and appealing. Some people think Freud had no business delving into theology. I don't necessarily agree, but for the sake of argument, I'll just say that he should have honed his fledgling 'science' of psychology before he presented psychoanalysis of antiquity as a science to chop away at the foundations of the spirit world.


Kung, Hans. Freud and the Problem of God. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

Preus, Samuel J, ed. Explaining Religion. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987.

Gay, Peter, ed. The Freud Reader. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1995.

Silva, Padmasiri De. Buddhist and Freudian Psychology. Singapore: Singapore UP, 1992.

Doniger O'flaherty, Wendy. Other People's Myths. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Yerushalmi, Yosef Hayim. Freud's Moses. New Haven: Yale UP, 1991.

Wulff, David M, ed. Psychology of Religion. Massachusetts: Wheaton College, 1994.


[i] Gay, p 493.

[ii] Kung, p 74.

[iii] Preus, p 181.

[iv]Freud supposedly still had his sharp wit and passion for objectivity, but for the sake of this argument, I don't buy it.

[v] Gay, p 686.

[vi]Multiple sources.

[vii]Discussion begins on page 704, Gay.

[viii] Wulff, page 255 leads me to this conclusion.

[ix] Preus, p 79. I have equated 'myth' with 'religion'. As far as Freud is concerned, I believe it is a safe correlation.

[x] Ibid. p 59.

[xi] ibid. p 67.

[xii] ibid. p 61.

[xiii] Silva, p 2.

[xiv] Ibid. p 105.

[xv] Ibid. p 127.

[xvi] Ibid. p 141.

[xvii] Kung, p 12.

[xviii] Ibid. p 62.

[xix] Doniger, p 147.