Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the father of psychoanalysis and a figure as important as Galileo and Einstein, devoted a great deal of attention to religion. His works, such as Totem and Taboo (1913), The Future of an Illusion (1927) and Moses and Monotheism (1939), reveal his unusual interest in religion, specifically in the psychology behind religious belief.
Freud had no good word for religion. He regarded religious beliefs as “…illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most insistent wishes of mankind.” (The Future of an Illusion; the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. by James Strachey, NY, Liveright Corporation and London: The Hogarth Press Ltd, 1961, XXI, 30) Religion, he believed, was a mental defense against the hardships of life. Threatening aspects of life, such as earthquakes, floods, storms, diseases and inevitable death, “are forces… (which) rise up against us, majestic, cruel and inexorable”. (Ibid.16) Man looks for some kind of security by which he is able to escape many of these threatening misfortunes. And if he cannot avoid them, he needs to at least feel that such disasters have an exalted purpose. This requires the existence of an ultimate father figure, an infinite being who can stop any natural disaster or disease, and if not, has proper reason for causing these calamities to take place. This, claims Freud, is the reason why millions of people, including highly intelligent ones, believe in God. It is not the result of having a high mental capacity to understand this world, but “the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity” (Ibid. 44) which would be left behind once people would finally learn to face the world, relying no longer on illusions but upon scientifically authenticated knowledge.
In Totem and Taboo, Freud introduced his famous Oedipus complex. (Oedipus is a prominent figure in Greek mythology that unknowingly killed his father and married his mother; the Oedipus complex of Freudian theory is the child’s unconscious jealousy of his father and longing for his mother.) Strangely enough, Freud uses this complex to explain the tremendous emotional intensity of religious life and the associated feelings of guilt and obligation to obey the behest of the deity. He postulates a stage of human pre-history in which the family or tribe unit was the “primal horde,” consisting of father, mother and offspring. The father, as head of the family or tribe, retained exclusive rights over all the females and drove away or even killed his sons who challenged his authority. The sons, seeing that they could never challenge their father’s authority, consequently decided to kill their father and (being cannibals) eat him! This, states Freud, is the primal crime out of which guilt was born and which is responsible for so much tension within the human psyche. (Freud saw the Oedipus complex to be universal.) It ultimately developed into moral inhibitions and other phenomena now found in religion, since the sons, struck with remorse, could not succeed their father as head of the tribe.
This is the reason why the father figure, which later developed into the god idea, became so powerful in the human mind, and why people are religious. It is the result of a deep feeling of guilt and the need to rectify the killing or rejection of this god by way of total obedience.
Many scholars have discussed and criticized Freud’s theory. Clearly, Freud was influenced by Darwin and Robertson Smith, two dominating figures in the 19th century who initiated the “primal horde” theory. Modern anthropologists have rejected this theory (see H.L. Philp, Freud and Religious Belief, London: Rockliff, 1956). His Oedipus complex has also been vigorously attacked, and few scholars today take it seriously.
While Freud considered himself an atheist and seemed to have misunderstood most of religion, he was not entirely wrong when he proposed that many people are religious because they wish a God to exist to whom they can turn when in great need. Surprising, however, is his conclusion that because man wishes God to exist, one must conclude that His existence is a fantasy. This makes little sense. The fact that man wishes God to exist has, after all, no bearing at all on the question whether He really exists or not. He may quite well exist, and man may simultaneously have a great need for His existence.
Nowhere did Freud give any justification for his atheism, nor did he understand that he had in fact hit on one of the great foundations of Jewish thought.
Jewish tradition teaches that man was created in God’s image. Whatever this may mean, it definitely includes the fact that God created man in such a way that man, in desperate need to discover himself, would constantly search for Him. Freud, we believe, gave a most original interpretation of this fact. With his discovery of the father figure he may have uncovered the mechanism through which God created an idea of Himself as the ultimate Father in the human mind. The utter dependence of a child on his loving parents may very well have been the way through which God built the foundation for man’s capacity to believe and trust in Him. It would even be correct to state that according to some rabbinical schools this was the very reason why God decided in favor of parenthood over other options such as creating human beings without the need for parents (see the creation of Adam and Chava). Rabbinical tradition suggests that God first created the Torah as a primordial substance after which He created the world accordingly. In that case, He may very well have created the need for man to see Him as the great Father Figure and consequently decided to create the need for parents (*)
As such, Freud may have been motivated, subconsciously and against his better knowledge, by a deep Jewish need to explain the foundation of Jewish belief, and in this way he contributed substantially to the great tradition of Torah commentary.
The object of psychology is to give us a totally different idea of what we thought we know best about ourselves. The Jew, Schlomo Freud, proved the point.
* See also John H. Hick, Philosophy of Religion, third edition, Prentice-Hall, Inc, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey 07632, pp. 34-36.
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