An Evaluation of Sigmund Freud’s Theory of Religion in ‘Totem and Taboo’ and ‘Future of an Illusion’

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We previously produced a shorter version of Sigmund Freud’s (1856-1939) theory of religion as it is of use to Religious Studies as an academic discipline. There we concluded that his theory holds little value as a theory of religion given Freud’s own clear philosophical convictions and his goal to explain religion away rather than explain religion itself. Our purpose in this entry is similar. We return to these criticisms and limitations, as well as to Freud’s theories on religion presented in two important works: Totem and Taboo (1913) and The Future of an Illusion (1927). Freud’s engagement with religion was not limited to these two books. There is a third: Moses and Monotheism (1939). Moses and Monotheism will not feature in this post and will be explored in a subsequent entry.

Once Freud had developed the basic ideas of psychoanalysis he found religion a promising subject of study. It is likely that during his childhood he had a basic acquaintance with the teachings of Judaism and Christianity. It also seems that religious ideas and imagery featured prominently in the neuroses of some of his patients. However, Freud’s personal view of religion and God was complete rejection; as one biographer states, Freud “went through life from beginning to end a natural atheist… One who saw no reason for believing in the existence of any supernatural Being and who felt no emotional need for such belief” (1). Freud found no reason to believe in God and saw no value or purpose in the ritual of religious life. Instead, religious beliefs are superstitions, which were nonetheless interesting because they raised questions concerning human nature and the mind. For example, why if religious beliefs are so obviously false do so many people still hold to them and often with deep conviction? Freud thought that the answer to this question would be found in psychoanalysis.

In an early paper on religion, Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices (1907), Freud observes what to him is a close resemblance between the activities of religious people and the behaviours of his neurotic patients. He claims that both emphasize doing things in a patterned, ceremonial fashion. They also both feel guilty unless they follow the rules of their rituals to perfection. Further, the ceremonies require the repression of basic instincts. For example, psychological neuroses typically surface due to the repression of the sex drive while religions demand repression of selfishness and control of the ego instinct. Just as sexual repression results in an obsessional neurosis in a patient, religion, which is embraced and practiced widely across the human race, seems to be “a universal obsessional neurosis” (2). According to Freud, religious behaviour always resembles mental illness.

Totem and Taboo (1913)

One of Freud’s preferred books, Totem and Taboo, presents a psychological interpretation of the lives of ‘primitive’ peoples through the use of psychoanalysis and evolutionary thinking. This includes not only biological evolution (Charles Darwin), but also intellectual and social evolution. Freud believes that it is not only human bodies that have evolved but also the intellect. Social organization also appears to have had an unsteady yet upward line of progress, and Freud claims that should one look back into history he will discover clues about the way modern civilization functions. This includes the ancient civilizations of the Greeks and Romans as well as prehistorical tribes, in particular the first humans to have descended from their animal ancestors.

As Freud puts forward in Totem and Taboo, the origin of religion is found in the Oedipus complex. This is inspired by a myth that goes back to ancient Greece and tells of a son who unknowingly murders his father and marries his father’s wife, an idea Freud will use in his theory of religion. Freud turns to examine the use of “totems” and the custom of “taboo” in prehistorical clans and tribes. He wasn’t the first to examine totems given that others such as E. B. Tylor (1832-1917) and James Frazer (1854-1941) already showed interests in sacred objects among “primitive” peoples and tribes. Freud was also interested in taboos, which are acts that early societies strictly prohibited, two of which he believed could be found (3). First, there is to be no incest and marriage is to always fall outside of the immediate family or clan. Freud calls this phenomenon the “horror of incest.” Second there could be no killing or eating of the totem animal except on rare ceremonial occasions. Freud states that the acts which became taboos demonstrate that, at some point, people actually wanted to do them. But Freud wonders why this was the case. Why did the behaviours of incest and murder become taboos, which are rules that would have made clan members unhappy if they wanted to engage in them at some point?

Freud believes he can explain this through the unconscious. Both neurotic patients and normal people alike are strongly marked by an ambivalence through powerful opposing desires: they want to do certain things, yet at the same time they do not. Totems and taboos are primitive practices that demonstrate this psychological ambivalence, which, in a sense, opens a window on the power of human emotions in the very earliest age of humanity. This took place within “primal-hordes,” namely the first human beings who lived like their animal ancestors, and that would have included extended families of women and children dominated by one powerful male. These groups were characterized by a number of conflicting emotions such as loyalty and affection, and, particularly for the young males, frustration and envy. The young males, says Freud, feared and respected their father but they also sexually desired the females, all of whom were the father’s wives. Conflicted over the desire for the security of the horde and for sex, they suppressed their sexual urges but later banded together to murder the father. Because they were also cannibals, they consumed the father’s body, and then took possession of his wives. This was followed by great joy, but soon feelings of intense guilt and remorse emerged. Overcome with guilt, the sons wished to restore the father they had killed, and found a “father substitute” in a totem animal. The sons agreed to worship the totem, and then ushered in the oldest taboo: “Thou shalt not kill the totem animal.” This taboo became a rule that was generalized to the entire horde. It also became the universal commandment against murder and the first moral rule of the human race. Moreover, the feelings of guilt and remorse led to a taboo against incest. The sons realized that taking possession of their father’s wives led to new conflicts between them, and thus emerged the second commandment: “Though shalt not take thy father’s wives.” In order to live together, the sons agreed to find wives outside of the horde.

Freud then also wanted to find an answer to why at certain times the taboo to not kill the totem animal was reversed, such as on ceremonial occasions. On occasion, the totem animal would be killed and eaten by all members of the horde in a ritual feast. Freud claims that this behaviour is a ritualistic, emotional, and ceremonial re-enactment of the primeval murder of the first father who, through his death at the hands of the sons, became a god. The ritual functioned as a means for the sons to publicly affirm their love for the father and to unconsciously release the hate caused by the sexual renunciation they endure. On the level of conscious activity, the members of the horde identify the animal in the totem sacrifice with their dead father and, by projection, give him the status of divinity. They offer the dead father worship by eating the flesh of the totem animal and by suppressing their sexual desires. On the unconscious level, the opposite emotions are being expressed, as the sons release the frustration and hate arising from the ongoing denial of their Oedipal urges. According to Totem and Taboo, the origin of religion is a result of deep psychological tension, namely in the Oedipus complex’s powerful emotions that led humanity to commit its first crime, then to turn the murdered father into a god, and finally to promise sexual renunciation as a way to serve and honour him (4). Freud concludes that,

“Totemic religion arose from the filial sense of guilt, in attempt to allay that feeling and appease the father by deferred obedience to him. All later religions are seen to be attempts at solving the same problem” (5).

The Future of an Illusion (1927)

Freud returned to the topic of religion just fourteen or so years after he had completed his Totem and Taboo. In The Future of an Illusion, Freud begins by acknowledging that although human life evolved out of the natural world, the natural world is not necessarily friendly to human beings. Although it created us it still threatens to destroy us through environmental threats such as natural disasters, disease, or predators. In order to safeguard themselves and find protection, human beings joined together into clans and communities, and this in turn created civilization.

Although civilization afforded human beings a level of safety and security, it also came at a cost. Society could only survive if human beings subjected their personal desires to society’s rules and the restraints. For instance, one cannot just take the belongings of others if she desires them, kill whoever angers her, or have sex with whoever she wants. In short, human beings have to restrain their instincts and compensate themselves with other satisfactions that bring them joy, such as art, leisure, family, community, and so on. At the same time, human beings have to face the prospect of death and the fact that ominous realities such as disease and disaster render them helpless. These are unhappy truths that no-one wants to accept. People, says Freud, would rather return to childhood where they experienced the greatest assurance and protection. There was always a father to reassure them against their fears, and they had a voice of strength who would promise them that all would be well in the end. Adults, Freud believes, crave this childhood security although in reality they can never have it. But there is an exception, and this is religion. Religion provides human beings with the illusion of security they crave. Freud claims that religious belief projects onto the external world a God, and that this God, through his power, dispels the terrors of nature, gives humans comfort in the face of death, and rewards them for accepting the moral restrictions imposed by civilization. According to Freud,

“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 over mighty and pitiless forces of nature” (6).

For such a religious believer, one need not fear death because he believes that his eternal spirit will one day be released from his body to live with God. But Freud describes these beliefs as “illusions, fulfillment of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind” (7). They are beliefs people very much hope and want to be true as “their strength lies in the strength of those wishes.” Freud is not claiming that belief in God is a delusion. The terms ‘illusion’ and ‘delusion’ do not mean the same thing. A delusion is something one believes is true when everyone knows that it is not. An illusion, however, could be true, which makes it unlike a delusion. But despite this distinction, Freud seems to think that religious beliefs are delusions. Such beliefs in his view possess no rational or epistemic warrant, and are nothing more than an individual’s personal intuitions, feelings, and emotions that are known to often be mistaken.

Freud admits that despite their status as illusions, religious beliefs have indeed provided humanity with much needed assistance during the growth of civilization. For instance, he thinks that the early totems and taboos played a role in denouncing murder and incest, and that later religions not only prohibited these same crimes but also others, and often presented them as offenses deserving of punishment in hell. But Freud believes that civilization has since matured and progressed beyond religion. Religious teachings and beliefs were only suitable during the childhood phase of the human race, which undergirds Freud’s perception of religion as a disorder and sign of illness. For example, when the psychoanalyst is treating a patient but discovers that the patient has failed to overcome trauma and repressions of earlier life, then he knows that the neurosis has continued to persist into the patient’s adulthood. It is clear that the disorder remains in the patient. Freud explains it this way,

“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” (8).

Religious teachings are best viewed as “neurotic relics, and we may now argue that the time has probably come, as it does in an analytic treatment, for replacing the effects of repression by the results of the rational operation of the intellect” (9). Essentially, as humanity progresses into adulthood from its childhood, it must discard religion with thinking that evidences maturity.

Critical Evaluation of Freud’s Theory of Religion

One can appreciate Freud’s theory because it appears to be a passionate attempt to look through the lens of psychoanalysis into the question of the human mind and its relationship to religion. His ideas have motivated many, including theologians and clergy, to look beneath the surface of doctrine into the way the unconscious shapes religion and faith. However, Freud’s theories presented in his two works, Totem and Taboo and The Future of an Illusion, have their critics and limitations. What can we say about these?

First, it is important to acknowledge that although Freud possessed a negative view of religion, other psychoanalysts do not necessarily share this. Many have used Freud’s insights and adapted them into a more sympathetic view of religion. A figure within this camp would be Carl Jung (d. 1961) who did not think that religion is a neurosis. Jung believed that religion draws on images and ideas that belong collectively to the human being and that find expression in philosophy, folklore, mythology, literature, and religion. Religion is, on this view, not an unhealthy phenomenon but something representative of true humanity.

Perhaps the greatest limitation to Freud’s theory is that these two books (and, as we will see in our next entry, Moses and Monotheism) focus strictly on a monotheistic (belief in one God), specifically Judaeo-Christian, concept of God. Freud was perhaps most familiar with the monotheistic religious traditions and likely had very limited knowledge beyond these. The challenge is that monotheism is not the only concept of God, and it is not at all clear how Freud’s idea of the origin of religion in the Oedipus complex, which emphasizes the need for a father figure, can be applied to other religious beliefs that are not monotheistic. It unclear how Freud’s theory applies to polytheism (the belief in many gods), goddesses, or religions that are not personal.

One challenge to Freud’s ideas presented in The Future of an Illusion is his use of analogy. He claims that religion is very similar to a neurosis, and that therefore religious persons engage in irrational behaviours. Neurosis in patients afflicts individuals but in religions it afflicts entire communities and cultures. The former affliction is individualistic whereas the latter is universal, but it is not clear whether one can make such a leap from the individual to the universal.

Further, there is circularity involved in Feud’s thought because he always starts with the assumption that religious behaviour is a neurosis. He begins with the conviction that religious behaviour is irrational and located within the unconscious, and he seeks out to prove exactly that. Freud’s work can not therefore be regarded as a neutral, objective, and scientific project but one motivated by what he wishes to affirm. His theory is no doubt influenced by his negative views of religion. This approach lacks neutrality and has struck many academics as unsound and unacceptable. In fact, some academics have noted how Freud bent evidence in his favour, ignored valid criticisms, and misused people within his studies (10).

Fourth, Freud’s theory of projection in Totem and Taboo has been questioned. Just because human beings project things from their minds out into the world does not itself constitute proof that they are engaging in neurotic wish fulfillment. Projection does not necessarily imply irrationality and neurosis. Things like mathematics and the symbols of science belong to conceptual and numerical frameworks that humans project onto the world, and rather successfully so. These are not irrational as they reflect a very real aspect to the world, and as such it is not inconceivable that religious projection itself could be a reasonable and appropriate understanding of the world.

From a historical perspective, Freud’s ideas have failed to find consensus among historians and anthropologists because of some of his speculative ideas (11). For example, it is fanciful to state that within prehistorical tribes the sons would kill and devour their fathers, and it is also speculative to say that that the taboos of murder and incest are the oldest of all taboos (12). In the early 20th century, anthropologist A. L. Kroeber (d. 1960) stated that we do not even know if these events occurred on a single occasion within prehistoric tribes let alone for it to have been a common practice. According to Kroeber, as history, Freud’s idea of sons killing and devouring their fathers remains “wholly unfounded” although they may prove to contain elements “contributing to understanding of the generic human psychology underlying the history of human culture, especially its recurrent or repetitive features.”

With regards to psychology, many have expressed skepticism concerning Freud’s psychoanalysis as a science. Since its beginning, psychoanalysis has always postured itself as a science (its inferences based upon patient observations, included testing hypotheses, and presented its ideas in journals), at least a science of the mind, but this has been increasingly challenged. Critics, such as Adolf Grünbaum (d. 2018), do not think that psychoanalysis is a science (13). Grünbaum argues that psychoanalysts have frequently assumed what they wish to prove, thus making their approach circular. This is evident in how they have approached their patients, while their techniques and methods of obtaining data have also been unsound. Further, the usable evidence brought forward has not supported the elaborate Freudian conclusions drawn from it. Grünbaum further states that psychoanalysis has not established for itself scientific methods for testing its claims, with which some others agree (14).

In conclusion, it should be clear why Freud’s theory of religion is not broadly accepted in the study of religion. As it stands, it remains speculative, has its limitations and challenges, and is not based upon neutral premises but one with a clear ideological premises. This is not to say that Freud hasn’t contributed to the academic study of religion. Indeed he has. However, further exploration into psychology and religion is required to produce more appropriate explanations and theories accounting for religious behaviour.

References

1. Jones, Ernest. 1957. The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud. p. 351.

2. Freud, Sigmund. 1927. The Future of an Illusion. p. 43.

3. Freud, Sigmund. 1913. Totem and Taboo. p. 53, p. 236.

4. Freud, Sigmund. 1913. Ibid. p. 258.

5. Freud, Sigmund. 1913. Ibid. p. 145.

6. Freud, Sigmund. 1927. Ibid. p. 19.

7. Freud, Sigmund. 1927. Ibid. p. 31.

8. Freud, Sigmund. 1927. Ibid. p. 43.

9. Freud, Sigmund. 1927. Ibid. p. 44

10. See Sulloway, Frank. 1979. Freud Biologist of the Mind: Beyond the Psychoanalytic Legend; Masson, Jeffrey. The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory; Crews, Frederick. 1986. Skeptical Engagements; Robinson, Paul. 1993. Freud and His Critics.

11. Kroeber, A. L. 1939. “Totem and Taboo in Retrospect.” In American Journal of Sociology. p. 446.

12. Kroeber, A. L. 1920. “Totem and Taboo: An Ethnologic Psychoanalysis.” In American Anthropologist New Series. p. 50.

13. Grünbaum, Adolf. 1984. The Foundations of Psychoanalysis.

14. Macmillan, Malcolm. 1990. Freud Evaluated: The Complete Arc.

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