A study of the psychology of belief with reference to the influence of Freud
For many people, religion has been a pillar of our society for as long as we can trace back. A psychologist however, would argue that religion developed from the day that the people of our society started questioning their existence. As Sigmund Freud, physiologist, doctor, psychologist and the father of psychoanalysis, is generally recognised as one of the most influential and authoritative thinkers of the twentieth century, we need to consider his analysis of religion when approaching this topic.
However as some of Freud’s theories were developed over a century ago is it really possible to apply them to our society today, especially as our society is so multicultural and faith still holds a key role within many people’s lives? According to Sigmund Freud religion is an “illusion” we as a society or as individuals, conjure up for ourselves, for a number of key reasons. The first and most essential reason Freud claims we turn to religion is as a way of expressing psychological anguish from our childhood.
The second is we turn to religion as a way of overcoming and preventing dangers from the natural world, in hoping to gain control “the necessity of defending oneself against the crushingly superior force of nature. ” The third is that religion is used as a stress relief, stress that has developed from living in a suppressive society that condones the expression of sexual desire.
A final key reason Freud developed is that we follow religion to prevent the feeling of helplessness we can get when we no longer have the protection of our parents or guardians: “And thus a store of ideas is created, born from man’s need to make his helplessness tolerable and built up from the memories of the helplessness of his own childhood and the childhood of the human race” I shall address Freud’s key idea to begin with: religion is a way of expressing psychological anguish. All of Freud’s work is focused around the idea of our unconscious or our subconscious.
Freud claimed that as children, any emotional torment we may suffer, instead of dealing with it directly at the time, we suppress it in our unconscious mind, only to channel it into another outlet later in life as an obsession or repulsion of any particular aspect of life. This is referred to as sublimation. One of the ways in which a person may choose to “channel” their negative experiences is through religion. This link was brought to Freud’s attention as he began to notice similarities in his patients’ obsessions in relation to the source of their compulsive behaviour as to that of a religious person and their faith.
Both have a symbolic meaning to the follower and have a set ritual – failure to complete this ritual (however regular it may be) leads to guilty feelings of regret. Seeing this comparison Freud came to the conclusion that religion is another form of neurotic illness that stems from our unconscious. Freud then began to address the matter of what suppressed feelings from childhood actually were. It is through this thinking he developed the concept of the “Oedipus Complex “.
This suggests that as children, young boys hold loving feelings of a sexual nature for their mothers. Through this they develop feelings of envy and hatred for their fathers. Due to the society we live in the Oedipus complex has to be suppressed as it is not acceptable behaviour but the sexual urges, Freud claims, are still there. It is these urges that are pushed to our unconscious that later come out in obsession or infatuation with something – obviously in this case – religion. “Thus religion would be a universal obsessive neurosis of humankind.
Just like the obsessive neurosis in children it springs from the Oedipus complex, the relationship with the Father” As mentioned before Freud made a direct link between psychological anguish and guilt and religion and guilt. Freud put forward a process that humans use to channel their guilt, particularly that of a sexual nature from the Oedipus/Electra complex. In an attempt to rid themselves of these feelings of guilt the person develops idols or Gods. By doing this they feel they can repent for their guilt by worship or sacrifice to these idols.
Initially the idol may be a representation of the child’s Father yet later on, in the same way the Father is rejected through Oedipus, the God is changed to an animal of a primal sort. The animal becomes sacred and inflicting harm upon the animal becomes a sin. Sacrifices are made to and worship becomes a ritual. This first stage of sublimation Freud labelled as animism. The second stage is, however, called religion. During this stage, the animal develops the status of a God and once again takes the form of the father figure thus completing the cycle from Oedipus to religion.
As Freud said “I put forward a suggestion that mankind as a whole may have acquired its sense of guilt of its history, in connection with the Oedipus complex” Closely linked to this is the theory that religion is used as a “stress” relief, stress that is placed on us by the society we live in. The stress that is caused by the suppression of our natural urges as children. This stress forces us to channel our libido into other areas of thinking and working, areas in life that are more socially acceptable.
As I explained previously it is common for this area to be religion and worship. Freud’s second theory for religion is that we use religion as a way of protecting ourselves or overcoming fears from the natural world. The problem of evil and suffering and religion has long being a conflict for many philosophers and psychologists. It is through this conflict that “St. Augustine’s Theodicy” was developed. St. Augustine based his arguments on the Bible and his theodicy suggests that God is perfect and created the world perfectly.
Created things are susceptible to change and evil comes from angels and human beings that chose to turn away from God. Augustine concluded that God cannot be blamed for creating evil since evil is not a substance rather than a deprivation (a lack of good) and it is not logical to say God created that deprivation. Despite this theory and many others that have been presented to us since the problem of evil and suffering is what gives science a higher appeal than religion to many people living today but it is also, according to Freud why we invent religion in the first place.
Religion offers us a “reward” for any suffering we may have inflicted upon us during our lifetime and adds meaning to life and its purpose. Otherwise we would be suffering unnecessarily and there would be no point to continue with life. Also through prayer and worship we feel we can control naturally occurring events that can cause us suffering such as death, illness, natural disasters etc. We do this in an attempt to abolish our fears of things we cannot control or change and hope to have some power over them through religion.
Freud’s next point is not dissimilar to the ideas of Karl Marx. Marxists would claim that religion is encouraged by the state to enforce order in society. Freud suggested a purpose for religion is that it is developed to give us a reason to obey authority. Regardless whether it is state authority or religious authority according to Freud people develop an attitude that “Everything in our world is an expression of the intentions of intelligence superior to us, which in the end, though its ways and byways are difficult to follow, orders everything for the best. We feel that if we disobey we shall not be rewarded, or worse punished for our crime or sin and we, by consequence, do not disobey. Freud came to the conclusion that religion must be overthrown for society to develop and progress. A final key reason Freud presents for humans fabricating religion is to prevent the feeling of helplessness we can get when we no longer have the protection of our parents or our guardians. This is simply that we develop “Gods” in order to protect ourselves, so we have someone to care for us and someone to look up to in the same way that we as children looked up to our parents.
When Freud’s theories were first published they were considered deeply controversial, interestingly though people took interest in what he said and took his psychoanalytical theory very seriously because at the time science was starting to make it’s breakthrough and Freud’s explanations were fresh and appealing to many. However whether theories that were developed over a century ago can still be relevant today is a different consideration.
For Freud’s work to still be relevant today, when science has developed further than psychology, which in comparison is considered the “soft science,” there would have to be some evidence to support the basics of Freud’s theory. Freud based his “Oedipus Complex” on the ideas of Darwinism, a stage of life in prehistoric men when the family unit was the “primal horde”. It consisted of a mother a father and offspring. As the dominant male the father would scare off any male threat to the female. This continued until all the male offspring joined together and turned on the father and eventually killed him.
The idea of religion stemming from guilt is not such a controversial one, particularly linking to sexual guilt and religion. Religious figures have often condemned sexual activity for the use of anything other than reproduction. Figures such as St. Augustine (who was greatly influenced by Plato) viewed sex and sexual desire as “having been implanted by the Devil at the time of the fall” as Peter Vardy explains Augustine claimed that it was best to avoid all sexual activity even within wedlock.
If the situation should occur when sex was needed for reproduction then the man “should descend to his task with a certain regret. ” Peter Vardy also outlines the common Catholic teaching which even today, in what we like to consider a sexually liberated society is still very traditional in it’s approach, namely: – – Masturbation is sinful since this means using genitalia for a purpose for which they are not intended – Sex can never have pleasure or the expression of love as its main object since, again, this means using genitalia for a purpose for which they were not intended Homosexuality, if it is practised, is deeply sinful as this means using genitalia for a purpose for which they were not intended since procreation cannot result and it is “against nature” So considering people are still raised to believe sex for any other reason other than reproduction is sinful, it is easy to see why sexual feelings may lead to feelings of guilt.
Particularly as sexual feelings are present throughout all stages of childhood that Freud identifies in the following ways: from birth to the age of eighteen months the child goes through what Freud named the “Oral Stage. This is to say all gratification of learning is gained through the mouth (feeding, chewing, sucking fingers etc. ) From eighteen months to three years the child progresses into the “Anal Stage” this normally happens when the child goes through potty training and often as a result develops fascination in anus and faeces. The period of time between three and six years of age was coined as the “Phallic Stage” and it’s during this stage that the child develops features of the Oedipus complex (if male) or the Electra complex (if female).
After the initial rush of feelings from the phallic stage have passed the child falls into the “Latent Stage” during which Freud claims there is no sexual development but this could be due to a suppression of the sexual feelings from the “Phallic stage. ” The final stage of childhood according to Freud is the “Genital Stage” and depending on how the child’s feelings from their younger years were dealt with, this is the time when sexual desire develops and is explored deeper.
So if a child is raised to deny themselves the sexual feelings their body releases then they may begin to feel sinful or guilty for having these feelings in the first place. Therefore for Freud to find a link between sex, guilt and religion is not entirely controversial. This all acts as evidence towards Freud’s theories and the relevance they hold in our society today. However, that said, there is plenty of reason why Freud’s theories are not at all relevant to us in such a developed society.
Freud has been criticised for focusing on the link between a father figure and a “God” in religions such as Judaism and, of course, Christianity. He fails to address eastern cultures and religions, which are based on worship of female idols or Goddesses,” such as the Egyptian Isis cult and Buddhism who have no one single object of worship. One of Freud’s major critics, Bronislaw Malinowski, who went on to write a book called “Sex and Repression” disputed Freud’s theory that religion develops from sexual guilt caused from the Oedipus complex.
He points out for Oedipus to be a complex it needs to be universal. You cannot apply a complex such as Oedipus to matriarchal tribes in which the male is not dominant and takes the role of a nurse. Malinowski also brings to our attention the lack of evidence for “Oedipus” within the animal kingdom, as Darwinism only applies to early mankind. Also there is less evidence of “Oedipus” leading to religion in our society today as it is becoming increasingly secular and fewer people are turning to religion.
This could suggest that the Oedipus complex does not occur, or if it does it does not have a link to religion. It is more likely, however, that all children still do go through the Oedipus complex but as our society is more sexually liberated people are allowed to express sexual desire in other ways rather than it becoming sublimated and channelled into religion. Another key criticism of the “Oedipus Complex” is the suggestion that religion is a cause of the complex rather than a result of it.
If it was not for religion then, it is possible, these sexual urges would not have been suppressed at an early stage and a complex would not begin to develop. It could be just a possible that a child was made to feel guilty about the loving feelings towards his Mother and as a consequence developed a complex (Oedipus. ) Rather than the “Oedipus Complex” leading to religion. Another more general criticism is that even if religion is a cause or result of guilt, or fear it still works as a “Buffer” between the soul and reality.
It is essential to society, as, music, art or literature as it is an expression of self and belief. Therefore it is not sound to suggest, as Freud did that religion must be overthrown. ” Donald Winnicott essentially presented this criticism of Freud’s work but is the popular feeling of many today. Psychology self – help book “Love is the Answer” presents the argument that some none – religious responses to misfortune of frustration e. g. Cynicism has actually been shown to be bad for physical health.
So a “religious” view (of forgiving and repenting) might actually be health giving to us, and to dismiss it from our society would be to dismiss this positive outlook on life. So Freud’s theory may have been apt for his society, a society built on religious structure, and some of his points may appear to justify the behaviour of people today. But I feel that in the twenty-first century when we are all encouraged to express our beliefs, ideas, sexuality and “bare our souls”, a theory based on suppression (even if it is unconscious) seems radical.
I think religion itself has become more liberal and has resulted in many “branches” of Christianity all with a different strand of tradition. Some “branches” base their morals on the word of the Bible where as others feel that we have to “update” the word of God and adapt it to how we live today. To apply a theory from a century ago is to digress, in the same way technology has evolved, and our knowledge of our universe and surroundings have developed, we have to advance spiritually. We have to question what we already know, even if this means abandoning Freud’s theories and all its implications.