• Maria R. de Almeida

Psychoanalysis of Religion

In “Moses and monotheism” Freud explains that the humankind, based on his psychic structure, comes up with creations to his image and resemblance.Civilisation and culture, broadly speaking, are based on the coercion of the instincts. Mankind has to renounce to his instincts and… he doesn’t want to. There are several ways through which he renounces:

- Morality: it is a cultural production related to the super ego. It is a mechanism in the human being to incorporate ideas, also prohibitions. Whenever there is a prohibition is because there was a strong wish. In order to reach a level of organisation, an agreement was needed.

- Art: Offers important substitute satisfactions.

- Religion: We will focus on this one. Using Judaism as and example, we will see how religion is a cultural production and why it is so powerful.

First, it is remarkable how religion prevails against rationality. How is it possible that being that absurd remains against all logic and criticism? Because religion contains a historical truth. Which is this “historical truth”? In “Totem and taboo” Freud introduces Darwin’s myth to explain the origen of the civilisation and the foundation of the law: In a primitive horde, the totipotent father has access to all the females. He subdues the sons who have to look for females out of the horde. At some point, the brothers decide to kill the father. One of them, takes the place of the father. The story repeats over and over again until they decide to come to an agreement: “we won’t kill the father anymore, instead each of us will be the boss of our own family. The mother and sisters are forbidden”. Once the father is dead, the law is founded. Then is symbolised. Law of interdiction of incest. What religion brings up is the parricide. WHY is this a historical truth[i]?Because the human being is also founded by the parricide. There is a parallelism: all the phases in the psychical constitution of the human being also have taken place in the history of humanity. Parricide is the separation between the thing and the word[ii]: the symbolisation. Parricide in the sense of symbolisation: even when my father is not present (I cant see him), I have a father. Accepting that I have a father implies the sexual difference and hence… mortality[iii]. The signifier “father” is key in the constitution of the human being.

In “Moses and monotheism” Freud mentions that human creations are more related to our needs and desires than to truth. Freud didn’t believe in the existence of god because he was a scientist. God exists because it is a creation of the human being, it is a creation of the human wish, the need of a protector father watching over us: God father.

In order to understand this, let’s have a look at the history of the Judaism[iv]. Freud asked himself, how is it possible that only one man (Moses) was so impactful and managed to create the chosen people out of scattered families? An only man chose some people, stamped his distinguishing characteristics and gave them a god. Which characteristics does a man must have to be considered a super man? Physical beauty, strength and intelligence are not enough… apart from exceptions such as Beethoven, L. da Vinci… “super men” are most of the times men of action like Napoleon… close to the idea of hero and linked to the idea of leader who can pull masses together. “A man is great as far as the idea he bears is great”[v]. The real leader is the idea. Moses is the tool so that the idea could be bore but what leads is the idea: the monotheist religion. The mass needs a leader[vi]. This need of a leader is related to the need of a father —> A super man is that one who accomplish the function of father. The attributions that the child confers to the father, are the characteristics of the super man. Moses gave a father to the Jews. Mosaic god has those characteristics of the super man. He is very severe. In the Christian religion, god becomes a bit more indulgent with the introduction of Christ (the son of god on the Earth).

The Judaism is the first religion in which the Jews call themselves “chosen people”. The guilt is specially intense. Why the Jews after considered themselves the chosen people suffered that many misfortunes? Because the sense of guilt is reinforced. In the Christian religion the sense of guilt is strong but at least, Christ was dead[vii]to redeem the sins of humanity. Christians admit their guilt and are redeemed. However, Jews know they killed the father and no one has came to redeem them.

Jews have high self- esteem. They tend to consider themselves superiors, they are very confident. Where is this high view of themselves is coming from?

- They are the chosen people.

⁃ The progress of intellectuality. Jews were great intellectuals: K. Marx, S. Freud…many other philosophers. Intellectuality is also a source of self - esteem. Why? Because the progress of intellectuality implies a renounce to the instincts. In order to become a human being, the subject has to renounce. Drives and insticints are repressed by love. What causes satisfaction to the child is to receive the love of the parents. Same happens with religions (and with the Jewish religion in this case). God demands for renounces (and sacrifices) and the Jews renounce more and more every time. Religion(s) are restrictive: You are not allowed to do this, you are not allowed to do that… this is a sin… In the Judaism, god is very strict. That leads the Jewish to have a high self - esteem, because all those renounces. They think they are better people than the rest because they renounce to all those satisfactions (same happens to the neurotic individual[viii]). It is important to remark, that the progress of the intellectuality is related to the fact that the Jewish god (Yahweh) could not be represented so he had to be symbolised. They had to believe in something they could not see (progress of the intellect over the senses). The first symbol is god, thats why maths are that important: they are the second symbol after god.

Remember that there is a parallelism between the history of humanity (in this case in the history of religion) and the phases in the psychical constitution of the human being. The renounce to our instincts and drives reinforces our self - esteem because it ensures the love from the super ego. Religious precepts are related with the prohibition of strong wishes. The two conditions for the totemism[ix]are: Prohibition of incest and prohibition of parricide. They both derive from the Oedipus complex. Totemism arises after the death of the father ,the sons have to come to an agreement. Dead the father, the law is installed: Then in each individual, the name of the father is related to the parricide in the sense of separation. Separating the father from the word “father”. Ley of the language.

The main function of civilisation (and culture) is to protect ourselves from nature. In that process of civilisation, the language has a key role. What makes the human being completely different from the other animals is that we TALK.

Religious ideas are set as dogmas. No logical reasoning is involved: they are illusions.They are the fulfillment of the most ancient and strong human wishes. Are religions necessary? At the moment they seem to be unavoidable.

Freud set out that religion is the obsessive neurosis of humanity. It has the same characteristics as the neurotic symptons[x]. If we analyse neurosis and religion, there is an analogy: In both of them we can observe a latency period and repetition compulsion [xi] Neurosis are related to traumas precociously lived and forgotten. Human sexuality consists in two phases separated by a latency period. Child sexuality finishes with castration and repression leads to forget. Same in the history of religion[xii]: monotheism arose in Egypt and returned in the Judaism after being repressed.

Having a god is a way to elaborate castration [xiii]. When we cant accept that we can not have the other, nor ourselves neither immortality, we become obsessive neurotics. We can also say that neurotic individuals have a particular religion, because they have a lot of symptoms, rituals he have to accomplish, “I can’t sleep if I don’t fold the pillow in that way and count 11 ”. It prevails over any rational logic.

Religious ideas are answers to the main human questions: where are children coming from? Is there another life after death?... It is very different living with the idea of another never ending life “after death” or… living knowing that one day… we will die. It implies a different attitude towards life. We live in sentences. There is no need to delete everything we once learnt. We need to learn to add.

Religions create the ILLUSION that the answer they give to certain questions, it is the truth[xiv]. No room for questioning. It relieves the anxiety upon those questions but impedes the progress than science would allow: being open to further and new questions and dealing with uncertainty. Sometimes religion could be like a narcotic: relieves anxiety and fulfill expectations. And… exactly the same you can not take away all of a sudden narcotics from people who are used to take them… you can not remove religion from believers. A support is needed along that process. A different way of thinking, psychoanalytic thinking could help overcome that dependency.

The secret of the power of religion is the strength of the human unconscious wish behind them: we want to think there is a protector father[xv]caring for us, we strongly want to believe we are will live for ever. Religious dogmas are indemonstrable illusions.

However, despite all these criticisms, we need to also realise that at the time, religion meant progress in the process of intellectualisation in human history. If we analyse the evolution of thought:

- Omnipotence of the ideas: Primitive man (the child and the neurotic individuals) believe that only because they wish something —> it will happen[xvi]. Without any work to achieve it. This is the origin of magic.

- Religious thought: God is the first symbol: we believe in something we can not see.

- Scientific thought: We work to prove rational logic.

- Psychoanalytical thought: Introduces the concept of UNCONCIOUS.

It is also truth that the bond which holds together the believers under a god is love[xvii]. However, that love is only addressed to the believers of that religion. There is strong intolerance and hostility against those who do not follow that religion. The fact that this hostility have not been that visible lately is not due to a process of civilisation but to the relaxation of the religious ideas. Unfortunately, we can see the increasing hostility, even insane cruelty with the Islamic fundamentalism and Talibans: Those people who are very religious are very intolerant (even violent) with those who are not.

All in all, religion as any other human production, is a reflection of the human being. If we are going to have an illusion… at least… let´s have a scientific one!

[i]“Historical truth” means that the human being is involved, its is part of his constitution

[ii]The word “father” is not my father, there are fathers.

[iii]The first loved object for the child (no matter if he is male or female) is the mother. At some point the father interferes in the relationship with the mother. The mother and the child are no longer “one”. Accepting that we have a father implies that the mother “could not alone”. We were born from sexual reproduction and hence one day, we will die. We are mortals.

[iv]For further details read “Moses and the monotheism”.

[v]“Psychology of the masses and analysis of the ego”.

[vi]“Psychology of the masses and analysis of the ego”.

[vii]Which crime would be punished with death sentence? Murder. That is what Christian religion does “right”: it redeems the guilt. However, how is it possible that being Christ innocent Christians accept without no remorse that he is punished with death sentence? Because of the historical truth: hero is the one who stirs up and kills the father.

[viii]First the child renounces for the love of the parents, later he renounce for the demands of the super ego. We cant achieve “happiness” through this path. Every time we cede, the super ego becomes more demanding.

[ix]Totemism is the first form of religion. The totem is an animal which represents the father, gives the name to the tribe. As religion evolves, instead of animals, there are female goddesses, after male gods and finally, the monoteism.

[x]Neurosis gives place to a doble effect: in all symptoms there is the forbidden wish and the reaction against it. Symptoms prevail on the individual.

[xi]After being repressed, it reappears and prevails in the psychic apparatus against any logic.

[xii]This happens all the time in the history of humanity also in science:

[xiii] " Castration" in Psychoanalysis refers to when the child realises that her mother is not totipotent and he initially thought. The mother is divested of the attributes the child once gave her

[xiv]For more info read “ The future of an illusion”

[xv]Funny enough God has the characteristics the child attributes a father: severe but caring. Loved but also feared.


[xvi]They think that wishing the father was dead, can kill them. That is why they feel so much guilt

[xvii]“Psychology of the masses and analysis of the ego”

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