Freud’s View of Religion

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

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.[32]

He knows that a sufficient explanation for the phenomenon of spirituality and belief is not possible within his drive-theoretical framework. The reasons he finds for the sense of uniqueness in the Jewish people are, as he states himself, not strongly convincing.

By declaring that monotheism is already a symptom, Freud shifts the problem of the origin into a mythical dimension, but the parricide hypothesis does not solve it either. The murder could only have been repressed based on a sense of guilt, a censorship of some sort, but he uses the murder hypothesis to explain the origin of the guilt. Freud tries to demonstrate how instinctual conflicts lead to the creation of intra-psychic agencies. What he wants to establish is a psychic causality that would explain the acceptance of the law. This is based on his conclusion that the principles of psychic functioning alone, the drives and their regulation through the pleasure principle and the reality principle, are not sufficient to explain the split that occurs with the emergence of the superego: he also needs a real event that sets the wheel of repression and guilt into motion. In his attempt to explain the origin of religious myths, he himself resorts to a mythical explanation.


4. Religion and the Discontent in Civilization.


Freud’s paper “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” (1920), marks the beginning of the last phase in the development of drive theory. Here he introduces the antagonism between sexual drive and death drive, understood as inertia: the tendency within organic matter to return to an earlier, less evolved, state.[33]

The major reason for this shift is his difficulty to explain repetition compulsion with the pleasure principle. Another reason is the difficulty to understand the extent of human (self-) destruction simply with inverted sexual drives, or as variations of sado-masochism. The experience of the First World War may have induced him further to accept an independent drive in order to explain the unleashed madness.

What is the connection between aggression and the death drive? In part six of “Discontent in Civilization” Freud reflects on the drive-theoretical foundation of his disillusioned theory of culture. He states that drive theory is one of the most difficult pieces of psychoanalytic  theory and seizes the opportunity to review its development.  He describes a series of three dualistic constellations through which the drive theory evolved:

The dual motives hunger and love characterize the first level. Ego-drives complement those directed towards the object. In this view, neurosis is the conflict between the interest in self-preservation and the desire to love somebody else. Self-preservation prevails, and the neurotic symptom emerges as the compromise formation that results from the attempt to combine both goals.

In the second stage, his analysis moves from the repressed to the repressing agency and he introduces the theory of narcissism. This shift is possible due to the realization that the ego itself is a libidinal object.

Freud is not satisfied with the lack of differentiation between narcissism and libido. He finally avoids the postulation of a unified nature of the drive[34] by introducing another dualism, one between Eros and Thanatos. Repetition compulsion and the generally conservative nature of the drive are the first clinical clues for the existence of an independent death drive. The question why the death-drive does not simply lead towards a suicidal tendency is resolved with the argument that a portion of it gets deflected under the influence of the libido, turns against the external world and manifests itself as aggression. Both types of drive occur only in a mixture; and different clinical structures are simply different combinations of both drive types.

Freud acknowledges that this idea has encountered the resistance of many of his followers. He speculates that the reason for the resistance is the difficulty in accepting that human nature might be aggressive to the point of being called “evil.” The introduction of the death drive has some fundamental implications not only for drive theory, but also for the psychoanalytic view of culture and religion.  The Christians invented the devil as a way to account for evil; the problem with this explanation is that God would also be responsible for the devil’s existence. By assuming the existence of an independent death drive, Freud is now in a position to explain not only the fundamental corruptness that he observes in human nature, but also the development of the ego and of culture in general, as defenses against these abysmal possibilities in the human soul. The basic idea inDiscontent in Civilization is the understanding of culture as a tool to neutralize aggression.  This is achieved by turning aggression back against the ego, and the instrument for this inversion is the superego. Freud writes:

Aggressiveness is introjected, internalized, it is, in point of fact, sent back to where it came from, that is, it is directed against his own ego. There it is taken over by a portion of the ego, which sets itself over against the rest of the ego as super-ego, and which now, in the form of conscience, is ready to put into action against the ego the same harsh aggressiveness that the ego would have liked to satisfy upon other, extraneous individuals. The tension between the harsh super-ego and the ego that is subjected to it, is called by us the sense of guilt; it expresses itself as a need for punishment. Civilization therefore obtains mastery over the individuals dangerous desire for aggression by weakening and disarming it and by setting up an agency within him to watch over it, like a garrison in a conquered city.[35]

The garrison is the superego, the conquered city is the ego, and the attacking army is civilization insofar as it provokes the ego’s aggression through the demand for drive renunciation. Human nature itself is under attack because it is now seen as dangerous. The conflict that characterizes the human being is the clash between the pursuit of happiness and aggressiveness, and this creates a barely civilized, ferocious animal, endowed with reason. For Freud, civilization is a means of protection against the human being’s very own nature; and sometimes this mechanism can fail.

The argument in Discontent in Civilization leads, essentially, to a position of cultural conservatism: the existing social and political organizations are the products of a given society’s efforts to domesticate this fundamental aggression, but sometimes the struggle is lost, and the resulting madness in the name of a state or an ideology can become unimaginable. Freud knows from his own experience what political repression and discrimination is, but he does not endorse Marxism or any other philosophies of liberation, although he strongly sympathizes with the critique of capitalism and of the poverty that results from it.

As a clinician, Freud wants to explore the mechanism behind the superego as precisely as possible. For him, guilt has two sources: the fear of external authority and the fear in relation to one’s own superego. The second source is crueler, because one cannot hide the intentions to do bad things from it. This impossibility heightens the fear in relation to the superego and produces the consciousness of being a sinner. Occasionally, such a person wishes to be punished as a way to discharge the feelings of guilt, even if no crime or violation of the law is committed. From the standpoint of the superego, no actual wrongdoing has to be committed in order to judge the subject as bad: the actual deed and the intention to commit it are not very different for an intra-psychic agency.

External authority can be satisfied through an act of drive renunciation, but, since drive renunciation in most cases does not eliminate the wish, the superego will continue to cause a sense of guilt, which leads to the need for punishment. At this point, the direction of causation changes. Initially, the superego is conceived of as the continuation of external authority through an act of identification and internalization, and therefore it causes drive renunciation.  At some point, however, the process becomes inverted. The presence of the superego causes even more guilt, and this leads to drive renunciation beyond the originally necessary amount. The superego has now gained a certain independence and feeds itself on the inhibition that it effects in the operation of the drives.[36] The reversal is best understood from an economical viewpoint: drive energy that is not released due to drive renunciation is taken over by the superego and turned against the ego.

Freud explains this process in the following passage, which contains some remarkable statements.

By means of identification he takes the unattackable authority (of the father, JB) into himself. The authority now turns into his super-ego and enters into possession of all the aggressiveness which a child would have liked to exercise against it. The child’s ego has to content itself with the unhappy role of the authority – the father – who has been thus degraded. Here, as so often, the real situation is reversed: ‘If I were the father and you were the child, I should treat you badly.’ The relationship between the super-ego and the ego is a return, distorted by a wish, of the real relationships between the ego, as yet undivided, and an external object. That is typical, too. But the essential difference is that the original severity of the super-ego does not – or does not so much – represent the severity which one has experienced from him (the father), or which one attributes to him; it represents rather one’s own aggressiveness towards him. If this is correct, we may assert truly that in the beginning conscience arises through the suppression of an aggressive impulse, and that it is subsequently reinforced by fresh suppressions of the same kind.[37]

The identification with the external authority leads to a split within the subject. The ego itself remains identified with the real father, who appears now, after the creation of the superego, as degraded authority. The creation of the superego reverses the direction of the original aggression back against the subject. An external threat becomes internalized; this process enhances the subject’s primary aggression and distorts the perception of the threat: What the subject experiences in relation to the external threat is not so much the real situation but the strength of its own aggression against it. Conscience arises thus from the suppression of an aggressive impulse and increases in strength with each successive repression.

Freud views this process as the root of civilization and culture. The sense of guilt itself has its origin in the oedipal conflict: the sons want to kill the father, but they also love him. The product of this ambivalence is guilt. The same process repeats itself in an intensified way in relation to the group.

So long as the community assumes no other form than that of the family, the conflict is bound to express itself in the Oedipus complex, to establish the conscience and to create the first sense of guilt. When an attempt is made to widen the community, the same conflict is continued in forms which are dependent on the past; and it is strengthened and results in a further intensification of the sense of guilt. Since civilization obeys an internal erotic impulsion which causes human beings to unite in a closely-knit group, it can only achieve this aim through an ever-increasing reinforcement of the sense of guilt. What began in relation to the father is completed in relation to the group. If civilization is a necessary course of development from the family to humanity as a whole, then— as a result of the inborn conflict arising from ambivalence, of the eternal struggle between the trends of love and death— there is inextricably bound up with it an increase of the sense of guilt, which will perhaps reach heights that the individual finds hard to tolerate.[38]

The erotic drive leads to an ever-increasing expansion of community. This cultural progress, however, is accompanied, due to the increase in the sense of guilt, by a loss of happiness (understood as drive fulfillment) and by increased anxiety. The final conclusion of “Discontent in Civilization” is therefore the statement that the sense of guilt is the “most important problem in the development of civilization.[39]  He writes (and we should keep in mind that this was published in 1930, nine years before the outbreak of the Second World War): “The fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction.” [40]

Within this framework, the cultural value of the Western religions becomes obvious because religion is the symptom “par excellence” that discharges aggression and guilt: it acknowledges those feelings and urges, and provides ways to accept and forgive one’s own sinfulness. The centerpiece of the Christian belief holds that redemption has already taken place through the sacrificial, substitutive death of one person; it remains the believer’s task to accept it.

With this analysis, Freud modifies his view of religion. What is important is not the “material truth” of religion, but the fact that it functions well as a symptom. Religion rationalizes the underlying drive conflict, and offers a remedy which works by offering ways to discharge the sense of guilt, but for the wrong reasons.

The symptom religion, on the other hand, adds to the problem of humankind. By encouraging the internalization of the laws of an external authority (God), it enforces the superego and takes its side.  Religious belief enhances the production of guilt first, then sets out to offer ways of submission and acceptance which promise an absolution from guilt for the individual. This circle obviously has one function: it strengthens the religious hold over the subject, and thus secures the future of this illusion in a very powerful way.

From a Freudian psychoanalytic view, religion is a symptom of extraordinary creativeness and intricacy. It offers a solution to what Freud sees as the real problem, the opposition between culture and the death drive.

The assumption of a death drive is a theoretical construct that is very difficult to defend. The manifestation of the death drive is much less observable than the manifestation of the libidinal drive. Freud’s suggestion in “Discontent in Civilization” is it that both drives always appear in conjunction. He has to make this assumption because there is confusion in his theory about the direction of the death drive: If it is originally self-destructive, why does it appear as “aggressive drive”? The answer, that the death drive comes under the control of the libidinal drive which turns its direction outward, requires that the two drive types, although opposites, are interacting on a very basic level; Freud speaks of a mutual penetration of Eros and Thanatos. This mutuality also explains why so many neurotic symptoms are accompanied by guilt feelings: the repression of a libidinal wish produces a neurotic symptom, but it also produces an aggression against the obstacle that forces the repression. This aggression gets repressed and turns against the ego; it manifests itself as a feeling of guilt.

What is the link between death drive and guilt? Freud’s answer is that guilt emerges from the conflict between erotic and aggressive drives. The death drive gets reflected outward and becomes aggressive, and then this original projection is re-internalized and leads to the construction of the superego. This process is in psychoanalytic terminology called the “identification with the aggressor,” and Discontent in Civilization adds to this observable phenomenon the consideration that the aggressor is not so much an external force, but rather the internalization of somebody whose image is enhanced by the subject’s own aggression. This characterizes the relations to the father as deeply ambivalent, split between love and hate.  He becomes the internalized authority that regulates and restrains the child’s aggression. The emotional trace of this repression of aggression is guilt, which is the anxiety experienced by the ego in relation to the superego.

In this account, the question still remains open why the psyche splits into ego and superego. In Discontent in Civilization, Freud explains the splitting as the result of an internalization of the father figure, because he represents a danger for the child’s drive fulfillment. But why does this occur? In a paper from 1938, entitled “The Splitting of the  Subject in the Process of Defense” Freud examines this process of the splitting of the ego more closely:

Let us suppose, then, that a child’s ego is under the sway of a powerful instinctual demand which it is accustomed to satisfy and that it is suddenly frightened by an experience which teaches it that the continuance of this satisfaction will result in an almost intolerable danger. It must now decide either to recognize the real danger, give way to it and do without the instinctual satisfaction, or to repudiate reality and persuade itself that there is no reason for fear, so that it may be able to retain the satisfaction. Thus there is a conflict between the demand of the instinct and the command of reality. But in fact the child takes neither course, or rather he takes both simultaneously, which comes to the same thing. He replies to the conflict with two contrary reactions, both of which are valid and effective. On the one hand; with the help of certain mechanisms he rejects reality and refuses to accept any prohibition; on the other hand, in the same breath he recognizes the danger of reality, takes over the fear of that danger as a symptom and tries subsequently to divest himself of the fear. It must be confessed that this is a very ingenious solution of the difficulty. Both of the parties to the dispute obtain their share: the instinct is allowed to retain its satisfaction and proper respect is shown to reality. But everything has to be paid for in one way or another, and this success is achieved at the price of a rift in the ego which never heals but which increases as time goes on. The two contrary reactions to the conflict persist as the center-point of a split in the ego. The whole process seems so strange to us because we take for granted the synthetic nature of the workings of the ego. But we are clearly at fault in this. The synthetic function of the ego, though it is of such extraordinary importance, is subject to particular conditions and is liable to a whole series of disturbances.[41]

What is remarkable about this fragment of a paper is the implication that if drive fulfillment is preserved through a splitting of the subject, then the reality principle is functioning in the service of the ego, and not vice versa. Reality affects the psyche only in the form of a trauma – causing the split within the subject. There is no mediation between reality and the insistence on drive fulfillment; both sides coexist without adaptation. It is the symptom, i.e. a fetish, that ties them together. The rejected reality is replaced by a fetish or, more generally, by a delusion. This operation isolates the pursuit of drive satisfaction from the reality principle; it comes with the price of a split within the ego. This splitting, “which never heals but which increases as time goes on,” highlights the breaches in the synthetic functioning of the ego. For Freud, the ego mostly fulfills the task of self-preservation.[42] It is seen as the agency that balances and integrates the demands from the unconscious, the superego and from reality. For this reason it needs to gain control over the demands of the drives, and this implies that it is a somewhat independent function. But what Freud finds now, after reflecting on certain clinical observations, is the possibility that the ego’s function is not synthetic, that it splits in the attempt to fulfill its task, much like the splitting between perception and reality that we can observe in a psychosis. The emergence of the symptom can be interpreted as an attempt to hold the two sides together: the construction of the symptom replaces the synthetic function of the ego. In this last constellation of his drive theory, the main opposition shifts from the conflict between the pleasure principle and reality principle to the conflict between erotic drives and the death drive. The pleasure principle and the reality principle now function together to produce the subject’s reality, and this process is equal to a symptom formation.

Is there an autonomous ego-function, which is capable of adequately representing reality, or is the ego nothing but a narcissistic formation, itself only a production of the unconscious? Freud leaves the question undecided, but the direction of his thinking is clear. It becomes one of the fault-lines of psychoanalytic thinking after Freud. The question is of extraordinary importance, because its outcome determines the status of the unconscious in relation to consciousness, and therefore also the way in which a psychoanalytic treatment is conducted. Although Freud raises the question whether the ego is a synthetic function or simply the result of a split in the psyche, he never considers its existence itself as unimportant. The ego poses a mystery that remains unsolvable, because it concerns the nature of consciousness itself. In 1938 he writes:

But none of this implies that the quality of being conscious has lost its importance for us. It remains the one light which illuminates our path and leads us through the darkness of mental life. In consequence of the special character of our discoveries, our scientific work in psychology will consist in translating unconscious processes into conscious ones, and thus filling in the gaps in conscious perception….[43]

Freud rejects the equation: psychical = conscious and compares consciousness to the nature of electricity. “Consciousness is only a quality or attribute of what is psychical, and moreover an inconstant one.”[44] In a similar way that scientists take the phenomenon of electricity (or magnetism, gravity, etc.) into account without knowing anything about its nature, psychoanalysts develop a theory of the psyche, without being able to explicate the nature of consciousness itself.

Freud gives us some bold answers in regards to religion, and leaves behind many open questions. His entire theory is very much a work in progress, and at the time of his death he just begins to suggest unique interpretations for some of the basic questions of humankind. He is criticized from many different directions, for his 19th century materialism, lack of scientific rigor, refusal of giving operational definitions for the basic psychoanalytic concepts, his focus on early childhood sexual development, etc. Academic psychology generally kept a careful distance to psychoanalytic thinking, and more or less decided to stay within a scientific paradigm oriented on natural sciences. Freud himself is an interactive, not a dogmatic thinker. He respects the opinions of others; at the same time he is focused on the questions that interest him most. He always tries to explain all the arguments that influence him to undertake a theoretical renovation, and this openness allows other people to participate equally in the development of psychoanalytic theory.

5. Conclusion

We can draw the following conclusions from the psychoanalytic response to religion outlined thus far:

The rejection of the material truth of religion is justified through a scientific orientation that is seen as the only acceptable basis for psychoanalysis. The argument that religion could be complementary to the scientific orientation gets rejected through the reference to the theodicy problem. The hypothesis of God’s existence is simply incompatible with human experience; it is explainable only through the wish to overcome the fragility of the human condition.

The analysis of religious faith as a psychological phenomenon faces the question of why large numbers of human beings choose the belief in a fantasy over reality. Freud sees it as a transference phenomenon on a collective level. The faith in the existence of an absolute Other, a transcendent and benevolent God, is resistant to counter-arguments because it stabilizes and immunizes the ego and its belief-system against a reality that is mostly experienced as traumatic. This conclusion introduces the epistemological shift that reaches far beyond the question of religion. If transference relations are so stabile that they determine the view of reality, and if furthermore the recourse to an ego that represents an autonomous and reliable sense of reality comes under serious doubt, then all our knowledge has to be seen as a construction whose primary function is to secure the stability of the ego and its dominance over nature, and not to represent reality.

The resulting crisis in thinking cannot be resolved through thinking alone. Whereas the religious belief strengthens the stability of the transference, psychoanalysis suggests that transference relations can be enacted and analyzed in a particular type of environment, and sees the resolution of these transference relations as the major task of the treatment. [45]



[1] Spirituality in this context means cognition or intellectuality, and not religiosity.

[2] Schleiermacher’s theology exemplifies this point. The experience of “utter dependency” that expresses itself in piety is the starting point of his theology. “The common element in all the quite diverse expressions of piety by which these are at the same time distinguished from all other feelings – thus the self-identical essence of piety – is this: that we are conscious of ourselves as utterly dependent, or, which is to say the same thing, as being in relation to God.” (Schleiermacher, On Religion, in:  Claude Welch: Protestant Thought in the 19th Century. Volume 1, p. 65.) To consider  the feeling of utter dependence as a manifestation of the relation to God, or the infinite, is from the Freudian perspective the rationalization that becomes the starting point for theology. For Freud, theology falsely re-interprets the consequence (the relation to God) as the cause for the feeling of utter dependency. This inversion of cause and effect determines theologies like Schleiermachers’ from the beginning as a fictitious discourse.

[3] Consider this passage from Future of an Illusion, where Freud describes these “joys of religion” with his characteristic irony:  And thus a store of ideas is created, born from man‘s need to make his helplessness tolerable and built up from the material of memories of the helplessness of his own childhood and the childhood of the human race. It can clearly be seen that the possession of these ideas protects him in two directions—against the dangers of nature and fate, and against the injuries that threaten him from human society itself. Here is the gist of the matter. Life in this world serves a higher purpose; no doubt it is not easy to guess what that purpose is, but it certainly signifies a perfecting of man‘s nature. It is probably the spiritual part of man, the soul, which in the course of time has so slowly and unwillingly detached itself from the body, that is the object of this elevation and exaltation. Everything that happens in this world is an expression of the intentions of an intelligence superior to us, which in the end, though its ways and byways are difficult to follow, orders everything for the best—that is, to make it enjoyable for us. Over each one of us there watches a benevolent Providence which is only seemingly stern and which will not suffer us to become a plaything of the over­mighty and pitiless forces of nature. Death itself is not extinction, is not a return to inorganic lifelessness, but the beginning of a new kind of existence which lies on the path of development to something higher. And, looking in the other direction, this view announces that the same moral laws which our civiliza­tions have set up govern the whole universe as well, except that they are maintained by a supreme court of justice with in­comparably more power and consistency. In the end all good is rewarded and all evil punished, if not actually in this form of life then in the later existences that begin after death. In this way all the terrors, the sufferings and the hardships of life are destined to be obliterated. Life after death, which continues life on earth just as the invisible part of the spectrum joins on to the visible part, brings us all the perfection that we may perhaps have missed here. And the superior wisdom which directs this course of things, the infinite goodness that expresses itself in it, the justice that achieves its aim in it — these are the attributes of the divine beings who also created us and the world as a whole, or rather, of the one divine being into which, in our civilization, all the gods of antiquity have been condensed. Freud, Future of an Illusion, SE XXI, p. 18f

[4] Freud, Future of an Illusion, SE XXI, p. 42f

[5] Freud, Future of an Illusion, SE XXI, p. 49.

[6] Freud, Discontent in Civilization, SE XXI, p. 75. The “palliative measures” are drugs, and religion is a drug for the mind for Freud.

[7] Freud, Studienausgabe, Bd IX, p. 206

[8] Freud, Discontent in Civilization, SE XXI, p. 81

[9] Freud, SE IX, page 238

[10] Freud: Moses and Monotheism. SE XXIII, p. 122.

[11] Genesis 15:12-21

[12] Exodus 24:7

[13] The circularity of this argument is obvious: the existence of the monotheistic belief is a proof for its truth. This difficulty does not hinder its propagation. See “The Catholic Encyclopedia”, article Monotheism.

[14] Interpretations that aimed at Freud’s role and his identification with Moses did not take long: He was accused of reenacting his own fate and the fate of psychoanalysis through Moses. It was read as a sign that he never came to terms with his Jewish identity in an anti-semitic environment, and that he finally chose an exodus for himself. See Gay, Peter: A Godless Jew. Yale 1987, p. 150.

[15] Gay, Peter: A Godless Jew. Yale 1987, p. 152.

[16] Episode of the Golden Calf, Exodus 32.

[17] Episode of the Golden Calve, Exodus 32. The extreme brutality of the episode is striking. Moses initiates a mass killing among the Jews, which gets justified as a preemptive maneuver to soften God’s punishment (which comes nevertheless according to the biblical account in the form of a contagious disease). Guilt gets relieved through the construction of God’s existence; this construction in turn allows and justifies a cathartic and bloody release of violence against those who don’t share the monotheistic view.

[18] Freud, Moses and Monotheism, SE  XXIII, p. 113.

[19] Freud, Moses and Monotheism, SE  XXIII, p. 113.

[20] Freud, Moses and Monotheism, SE  XXIII, p. 115. Undoubtedly, Freud was thinking of the Germans and their national-socialistic cult of the body.

[21] Freud, Moses and Monotheism, SE  XXIII, p. 134

[22] Freud, Moses and Monotheism, SE  XXIII, p. 135

[23] Freud, Moses and Monotheism, SE  XXIII, p. 113.

[24] Sigmund Freud: “Instincts and their Vicissitudes”, 1915, in: General Psychological Theory, New York, Collier Books, 1963. Page 87. The Standard Edition translates “Trieb” as instinct, not drive, which is misleading. I have therefore replaced “instinct” with “drive”.

[25] Freud, The Unconscious, part III, in: Freud, Sigmund, Collected Papers, London 1949, Vol IV, p. 109.

[26] Freud, Gesammelte Werke, Bd. XV, p. 101. In Wyss, Dieter: Die tiefenpsychologischen Schulen von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart. Göttingen: Vandenhoek, 1972. p. 98. My translation.

[27] Lacan, Seminar 2, p. 75

[28] In his famous poem “The Panther”:  „…und hört im Herzen auf zu sein.”

[29] The question how the subject can be an agency, or act through itself, is a very serious problem for all mechanistic or reductionistic philosophies, see for instance Descartes.

[30] “Objects” as opposed to the “subject”. These “objects” can therefore be other subjects.  The terminology is awkward, and it exemplifies the transposition of a 19th century materialist thinking to the field of psychology. If “objects” are other subjects, what theoretical status has the object in the physical sense?

[31] On Narcissism, in: Freud, SE Vol XII, p. 95. In German: SA, S.62

[32] Freud: Moses and Monotheism, in: SE XXIII, p. 118.

[33] The postulation of a drive that reduces everything to dust prompted Karl Kraus, one of the most skillful early critics of Freud, to comment: “God made man out of dust. The analyst reduces him to it.”  In: Szasz, Thomas: Anti-Freud. Karl; Kraus’s Criticism of Psychoanalysis and Psychiatry. Syracuse University Press, 1990, p. 105

[34] This is his argument against Jung; Freud, SE Vol XII, p.246

[35] Freud, SE IX, p. 250.

[36] The process is similar to the problem with bureaucratization: at some point a bureaucracy’s self-preservation becomes its primary goal, surpassing the task for which it was created.

[37] Civilization and its discontent, p. 76. Freud, SE IX, p. 255 (German)

[38] Freud, SE IX, p. 258.

[39] Civilization and its discontent, p. 81. SE  IX, p. 260

[40] Civilization and its discontent, p. 92

[41] Freud, Sigmund, Collected Papers, translated by James Strachey, New York, 1959, Vol V, p. 372.

[42] See the “Outline of Psychoanalysis, in: SE XXIII, p. 145f

[43] Some Elementary Lessons in Psychoanalysis (the original title is in English) 1938. GW 17, ii.  SE XXIII, p.286.

[44] SE XXIII, p. 285

[45] See S.E.12, p. 118

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