Religion has been a very controversial issue of discussion for many centuries. Some people say that religious laws regulate the relationships between people and restrain them from doing certain things which might bring harm. At the same time, others state that it is unnecessary and only slows down the development of the society as well interferes with discoveries in the field of science. There are the scholars, who have gone so far as to claim that believing in God is a disorder. One of them is Sigmund Freud.

Freud is the creator of psychoanalysis. He was born on 6 May 1856 in Freiburg, Moravia. He entered the University of Vienna in 1873. He studied medical research there. As a scholar he had a very big influence on Western culture. He touched upon the questions of religion, education, art, literature, psychiatry, philosophy and other fields in his works. Having read the books by this scholar one cannot see his or her feeling transparently anymore. Any issues concerning our dreams, imagination, perception of the world, and feelings are now the object of psychoanalysis.  

His family was a Catholic one. The scholar maintained a Jewish ethnic identity, although he was an atheist.  He was an atheist in the double sense: Freud neither believed in God nor had any mystical experience. The scholar hated religions so much that when he was made to escape from Nazism, he stated that his true enemy was Roman Catholic Church. He also made his wife give up Jewish Orthodoxy soon after they got married. Freud saw religion as the reflection of a human psychology on the external world. 

According to the definition by Pascal Boyer, religion deals with the life and powers of the entities and agencies which cannot be seen. There may be one God or many different spirits and gods. 

Freud often ridiculed religious people maintaining that they believed in God only because they were unable or did not want to grow up. Thus, many critics find Freud’s ideas offensive. However, the scholar recognized that rational and educated people can also be superstitious. The scholar did not associate religiousness with stupidity. He also stated that religion does not only damage the society. It can bring relief to those, who suffer. 

The works of the scholar are focused upon the following issues: why and how people believe in the existence of superhuman beings from another world, who help or harm them. Freud maintained that spirits, gods and demons are the reflections of suppressed fantasies and mental states. As for the God in particular, for the scholar, He arises from helplessness, that is why He is often associated with the father. The real father who used to protect his children is recreated in the image of God, who protects adults and constantly watches them. Freud also tried to explain the unconscious motivations that are the basis for the creation of religion and its integration into the culture. Among the religions he regarded are Christianity and Judaism. However, he was interested in religion as a general phenomenon rather than in certain beliefs, doctrines or rituals. 

The author of works on human psychology maintained, that, taking into consideration the fact, that religion is the product of human creativity, it is necessary to learn more about human beings. He maintained that religion is focused upon the relationships between people and imagined supernatural creatures. Apart from that, it is the counterpart of science. He stated that religious beliefs contradict rational inquiry. 

Freud believed that the religious people have the symptoms of neurosis and tried to prove the latter by the following statements:

  1. Psychoanalysis has shown that Xs are the symptoms of neurosis;
  2. Religion is connected with Xs;
  3. Religion is a neurosis.

For the scholar religion is a universal neurosis and he does not deny this idea in any of his works. He wrote that if one introduces religion to children too early, it would lead to serious problems through repression. Freud maintains that people should be cured from religion just like from neurosis. When people get rid of this health issue, they become better, the best they could be had they lived in better conditions. The same can happen to an individual, as well as to the whole society when they give up their beliefs. Since the scholar considered religion to be a neurosis, he maintained that psychoanalytical procedures should be applied in such a case. The unconscious is gradually replaced with the rational mental activity.

Unlike the commonly accepted view, according to which religion is the basis for everything which is the best, Freud’s studies show that it cannot be the center of morality of knowledge, since it prevents the development of human autonomy. Besides, the psychoanalyst claimed that libidinal energy was expressed in religions. 

According to the scholar’s ideas, the main feature of any religion is that people suppress their instincts and limit sensual feelings in order to get peace and blessing. 

His works which touch upon the question of religion are the following ones: The psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), Obsessive Acts and Religious Practices (1907), Totem and Taboo (1912), Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921), The Future of an Illusion (1927), Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), Moses and Monotheism (1938).  Donald Capps states that the issue which cannot be separated from Freud’s work as a whole.

In The psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901) the author writes that religion might influence dreams. The point is that there are many states and desires that people suppress, which later become manifested in dreams. Religions impose numerous restrictions, the breaking of which might be seen in dreams. 

Obsessive Acts and Religious Practices (1907) is the first important essay dedicated to the connection between religion and human psychology. The ideas described here were later developed in Totem and Taboo (1912). In the essay, the scholar calls religion a universal obsessional neurosis. He compared the actions of the one who suffers affections connected with nervous issues with worshiping of those who believe stating that there is much resemblance between them. For example, both believers and the obsessed spend much time on different rituals. And if they do not obey a certain pattern of actions, guilt and anxiety arise in both cases, since they expect punishment.  Thus sacrifice emerged out of the feeling of guilt.

Totem and Taboo (1913) is considered to be the best of Freud’s literary works. The book starts from drawing a parallel between the psychological development of the earliest human societies and the contemporary ones, which lag behind the modern culture , and the patients who suffer neurotic disorders (children in particular). 

In the ancient society each tribe was associated with a certain animal (a totem). The totem was a protector of the tribe and anybody could kill or eat the animal. Freud considered to be interesting the rule to avoid unions between a man and his mother or sisters. He stated that real relationships among people related by blood were replaced by totem kinship.

As for the notion of taboo, the author defines it a something that goes beyond the boundaries of common activity and thus is forbidden. Primitive and ‘old-fashioned’ societies have created certain ceremonies, where some of the taboos set by the culture are allowed, so that the punishment might be avoided. Freud compares the taboos of the mentioned societies with the actions of neurotics who suffer from obsessions, who are afraid to touch certain objects fearing that they may ‘pollute’ them. The scholar states that at some point patients wanted such objects but then restrain from having or using them for no substantial reason. The prohibitions, according to the author, must have  concerned the activities which had become very common. Since the first taboos were about killing totem animals and incest, there must have been a strong tendency towards doing such things. The community had to punish those who broke the rules so that others would fear to do the forbidden things and would not bring harm to the tribe. So people had to suppress their unconscious desires.

However, the author claims that the connection between actions and consequences does not exist. According to his ideas, if a person does something which is considered to be bad, it will not necessarily result in a disastrous situation. The same can be said about doing good things. 

The psychoanalyst writes that there is a big similarity between the prohibitions in totemic societies and the individual taboos of the people who suffer from neurosis. Any object or person connected with the taboo becomes the taboo as well, because they can tempt others to follow their example. However, the scholar notes that there is always a desire to do something forbidden. 

Freud also writes of people’s believe that thoughts can be materialized. He states that thoughts lead to actions, so there is no magic indeed. In animism the thoughts should be combined with certain rituals in order to be implemented, whereas Christianity refers the connection between thoughts and events to God, who listens to the prayers. 

However, the scholar did not deny the possibility of thought transference and the capacity of non-verbal unconscious communication. But he considered such phenomena to be the mental products, so they should have been studied psychoanalytically, not like a supernatural ability.

As for religion in general, the author states that the basis for it are developed feelings of sons to their fathers. The father was represented both as a god and as a totem during the sacrificial meal.

Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921) discusses how the psychological mechanisms work within masses (non-permanent groups consisting of similar elements that have joined together). It is stated in the paper that belonging to a group brings the feeling of security, but, at the same time, an individual might lose his/her conscious personality and act unconsciously. 

Religious groups belong to enduring masses, which are well-organized. As well as in any other masses, the leader here is admired and idealized. The rules are the same for everyone and all members of the group long for perfection, at the same time identifying themselves with the rest of the group members. 


The Future of an Illusion (1927) is one of the works more closely connected with the issue of religion. Here he studies this phenomenon from the point of view of civilization. According to the ideas expressed in the work, religion originated from the wish of being immortal. According to another point of view of the psychoanalyst, religious beliefs arouse out of the necessity of protecting oneself from the forces of nature. The human being cannot comprehend the forces of nature. That is why people make attempts to ascribe the features of humans to it, so that they can treat it in the same way they treat other people: they worship the elements of nature to cooperate with them. 

The image of God is based upon the image of father. On the example of a seventeen-century painter the scholar shows human need for closeness with a parental protector, even if he is harmful.

In this book the scholar again states that religion is linked to neurosis and that with the passing of time it will be eliminated by the development of science and education. He writes that the science is the only path towards the truthful knowledge. Besides, it is mentioned that science and our ability to control nature are constantly advancing, whereas there are no advances in culture. Apart from that, the author emphasizes that natural science denies some facts described in religious documents.  

For Freud, the existence of the being who is the oldest, strongest and wisest one is the biggest wish of mankind. The illusion is not a mistake, but it does not correspond to reality. The scholar claims, that if people fully relied on science, they would be free, civilization will stop being oppressive. People have stuck between animal instincts and regulations. They build society and, at the same time, rebel against it. Freud states that people need gods because they need relationships with other people. 

Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) shows the basic tensions between civilization and individual. The most important of them is that an individual longs for freedom and civilization demands conformity. So this book develops the ideas elaborated in the previous one. In this work the author describes how civilization restricts actions of a person and thus limits his/her happiness. Religion is one of the means to set prohibitions. 

Apart from that, Freud expresses his theory that religion arises from the need to separate oneself from the suffering that exists in the world. From this perspective, believing in God is adaptation used to secure happiness. The issue of neurosis is also touched upon here: it appears because people do not want to be the reason of frustration due to their violation of the cultural or moral ideals.

Moses and Monotheism (1938) is the last of Freud’s completed books. Here the scholar studies the origin of monotheism as well as Judaism and tries to interpret the story of Exodus (the most important one in Judaic religions; tells f how Moses frees the Israelites from slavery) from the point of view of psychology. Freud starts expressing his ideas by stating that Moses was not a Hebrew, he was an Egyptian, proving his statement by describing the origin of his name. This idea was considered to be very offensive, taking into consideration that the author himself was a Jew, and thus was unsupported. 

Having changed his views as for religion in his last days of life (though not to a great extent), the psychoanalyst here recognizes that Judaism helped the society develop in the past and is the source of inspiration at present. Although Freud was a rationalist, religious and mythical parallels can be found in his works.

The researcher noticed that, despite being controversial, religious dogmas have very strong effect upon people. He considered that it was due to the unconscious desires. As Freud puts it, it is necessary to discover the psychological nature of religious illusions in order to be able to resist religion successfully. 

However, some critics argue that Freud saw religion as neurosis, because he himself could not think in the other way. It is known that the scholar himself suffered from some symptoms of neurosis he could observe in his patients, thus it is doubtful whether his theories can be trusted. Thus there are many scholars who disagree with Freud’s theories.

First of all, Lee Siegel states that Freud’s theories are based on the arguments which cannot be either proved or denied: the development of a civilization restricts the development of an individual; the main purpose of civilization is to suppress aggressive instincts; the individual is bewildered between the desires to live and the wish to die. 

Paul Vitz wrote that Freud was an unconscious Christian. As a child, Freud loved attending church and when he came back home after messes, he told his parents of God. As an adult, he also encouraged his daughter to bring flowers to Our Lady and he also write about his desire to go to Rome for Easter. 

Gregory Zilboorg explains that the contradiction between the scholar’s words and his actions is based upon the inner conflict. Freud once even said that if he could live a life again, he would rather deal with physics than psychoanalysis. 

Although Freud’s theories have been widely recognized, they are often controversial. So can religion be called a universal neurosis?

The main purpose of each religion is to unite people and to regulate their activities. When all people in society or any other group live according to the same set of rules there are no misunderstandings, since everybody knows what others expect them to behave like, so that offences might be avoided. Apart from that, the representatives of a certain religion cherish certain moral values they learn of from the early childhood, so they learn to control their behavior from the early days of life, and the certain attitude towards different things and other people becomes a habit.

Apart from that, religions are not just based on a certain set of rules – there also are the stories which prove that breaking the rules can lead to bad consequences thus showing how they work. Some of such stories are even taken from the real life. Thus people understand why some things should be done and others should not, rather than act unconsciously as Freud puts it.

It is possible to argue whether there is God or not, but the dominating religions have existed for many centuries and their basic rules have not changed throughout this whole time. This is the proof that they help societies live better. But it is only in case when people obey and do not misinterpret them. Wrong understanding of certain rules arising from beliefs can impose additional restrictions on some groups of society. The example might be the place of women in some Muslim countries which is not indeed demanded by Quran. 

Apart from that, the pseudo-religions should not be taken into consideration, since they often do lead to serious psychiatric and psychological disorders of those, who follow them. Such communities are created in order to turn a group of people into the thoughtless mass which can be used for different purposes, usually to be the source of enrichment of the leaders of such groups.

The idea than Freud is wrong as for this issue might also be proved on the following: those who kill, rape, and commit other crimes are considered as those having mental disorders, but not those who do not offend anybody. If we did not control our behavior and did only what we want to, we would destroy everything and there would be no advances in science which the scholar considers to be so important.

As for another idea by the psychoanalyst (people made up God because of the longing for Father), it may be regarded from two perspectives. On the one hand, in the Bible God is often described as a father, because he cares about his sons and punishes them, when they do something wrong. But, on the other hand, according to Christian beliefs, God was the first to appear, and then were fathers.

Apart from that, the Bible teaches that people must love God more than they love their parents or anybody else. This shows that His role is not only that of a father, He is something higher in importance. Besides, there are the stories describing how God punishes people cruelly (sends a big flood that kills everybody), the way a loving human father would not punish his children.

It is also worth mentioning that the belief in God’s existence cannot be explained by inability to grow up and make decisions, since, according to the Bible, He does not make anybody behave in a certain way, He only teaches them what to do to live better through the mediation of prophets. People are free to do anything, at least those, who are Christians. The person is the only one, who determines his/her destiny. 

The last question under consideration is whether religion is the illusion that fulfills instinctual desire. This idea contradicts the theory in which Freud claims that religion restricts people’s desires. Thus, it cannot be the reflection of what one’s instincts tell him/her to do. 

Human instincts are based on surviving, namely nutrition and procreation. Religions tell people to restrict their natural desires to some extent in order to be happy. For example, Christianity forbids eating too much, and people keep Ramadan in Islamic countries. Also, both religions do not support pre-marital sexual relationships or being unfaithful to one’s spouse.

To conclude with, religions influence the mind of a person, as well as the thoughts of people influence religions. The works by Freud are very interesting, since they show how and why certain religions arouse along with their basic roles. But the scholar does not provide any proofs that religion ruins society in the same way that neurosis destroys a personality. He himself recognized that religion is rather a positive phenomenon, thus leaving the space for contemplations for modern scholars. 


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