Philosophy of Religion

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The challenge to religious belief from psychology

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

  • For Freud religion is just wishful thinking to combat psychological turmoil.
  • This turmoil is due to pressures from society or fear of the natural world.
  • In order to fulfil basic needs and desires the mind creates images and beliefs.
  • For Freud religion is not necessarily false but illusionary – something which answers inner needs.
  • Freud focused on the function of religion in overcoming inner fears and turmoil.
  • Freud was interested in how the mind develops into adulthood.
  • During childhood there are experiences which are traumatic.
  • If these traumatic experiences are not resolved they are locked away in the subconscious mind.
  • Where the locking away is unsuccessful, the memory can re-emerge and lead to trauma.
While he practiced as a doctor in Vienna, Freud noted the attitudes some of his patients had towards hygiene. Parents take great pains to instil their children the importance of cleanliness. As an adult, the individual may still feel ‘unclean’ and washes, even though they are clean. Freud’s treatment for these neuroses was to allow the patient to investigate their repressed memories, and to see their obsessions for what they truly were.

Freud saw religion operating on a similar level – the ritualistic nature of religious activity is a compulsive obsessive neurosis – this he called the “universal obsessional neurosis”. Freud argued that religion arises from a fear of a chaotic an unordered world (The Future of an Illusion, 1927). A person’s resolution of this traumatic perception of the world is to project on to it their memory of their father, who provided a world of order and regularity while they were a child.

Religion and Sex

The best known aspect of Freud’s explanation of religion is the involvement of sexual trauma. Freud argued that premature sexual experience, often in infancy, is the source of ‘every case of hysteria’. This arises out of the body’s most basic urges. As the child develops, the parent becomes increasingly concerned about manifestations of their child’s sexual nature. As the child begins to explore their own sexuality, the parent tries to prevent them. This often results in instilling feelings of guilt. Religion and the Oedipus Complex

Freud noted more complicated emotions at work. He traced these conflicts back to when the child is being breast-fed. Once it is weaned, the child becomes more aware of the world beyond its mother. It sees its father apparently replacing it in its mother’s affections, and it experiences feelings of jealousy towards him. Freud calls this the Oedipus complex.

The child represses the conflict into its subconscious mind. Throughout its adult life, this repressed memory then takes the form of a neurotic obsession. In particular, the jealousy felt towards the father manifests itself in the apparent religious obsession with God as a father figure.

Religion and the primal horde

Looking at the work of various naturalists and anthropologists, Freud came up with the idea that in primitive human society there were hordes. In these hordes dominant males have ‘first pick’ of the breading females and become the natural leaders of these groups. Within the horde younger male members become resentful. This resentment and jealousy is coupled with their respect for the dominant male as head of the horde. Freud called their attitude to the father ambivalent. Eventually, they plot to kill him.

After his death, they begin to idolise the father figure, setting him up as a totem. The horde experiences a traumatic collective guilt which is transferred to some object or animal: the mind deflects the feelings of guilt onto the new totem.

The totem becomes a way of controlling guilt. This stage of the process is called animism. Freud then traced the process through to its second stage which he called religious, in which the reputation of the slaughtered father grows to divine proportions, through the ambivalence and respect remain. To illustrate this, Freud referred to the Catholic celebration of the eucharist – the mass.

In the mass, the slaughter of the God is recreated, and the representatives of the original horde eat the symbolic body. In this way, the guilt feelings are dealt with.

Freud was arguing that religion is a way of dealing with the inner guilt that is experienced as a result of the Oedipus complex (with its feeling of sexual repression), coupled with the natural fear of a disordered universe. Feelings of powerlessness are dealt with through the totemic projection of father figure and the ritualistic practices of religion.

Criticisms of Freud’s views of religion

Freud offered a critique of his own position in The Future of Illusions (1927). In it a protagonist argues that religion has done much that is good. For instance, religion offers people real consolation during difficult times. Religion provides certainty and order in an otherwise chaotic world.

Freud conceded that religion was of some use. However, religion is not simply a benign ‘security blanket’ - it has been the vehicle for social repression. In conclusion he argued that religion should be replaced by a more scientific view of the world.

Freud’s mythological handling of the father guilt complex (through his idea of the horde) has been criticised in particular.

Freud’s idea would only work if guilt could be passed down generationally. The ambivalence and guilt that lead to religious activity would need to be present in every generation. Even if the primal crime of patricide actually happened, guilt for the act cannot be passed on. While the Oedipus complex theory might account for some remarkable attitudes to sexulality and sexual activity in society, it creaks under the weight that Freud places on it. Therefore, Freud’s argument that religion arises out of repressed sexual guilt, appears to be bogus.

It was also pointed out that Freud’s argument that religion arises out of the worship of a father figure neglects to consider the religions in which the point of worship is a woman, or the religious systems that have no deity at all.

Ana-Maria Rizzuto, a practicing Freudian psychoanalyst, argues that religion is no more an illusion than science, since both involve the interpretation of data, and the subsequent imposition of an order onto the world.

Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961)

Jung worked with Freud from 1907 but eventually parted company with him over the Freud’s over emphasis of the role of sexuality in psychological problems. Instead Jung put forward the idea of archetypes – a set of images developed by a culture or society.

Generally, Jung was more positive about both religion and sexuality than Freud. He noted similarities between the imagery used by his patients. He concluded that there was a division between parts of the unconscious mind: the personal and the collective unconscious.

The collective unconscious involves the sharing of a series of images, or archetypes. Religion provides many of these images: the individual shares in the cultural life of their group, and personal identity is wrapped up in this sharing.

Jung argued that God is an archetype. Each of us is born with the tendency to generate religious images. We share in these archetypes through the collective unconscious. Individuals participate in their cultural heritage through these archetypes.

Jung argued that there is no way to prove the existence of God – all that can be asserted is that God exists as a psychic reality.

Freud saw religion as the product of neurosis. Jung argued that religion is a necessary safety feature, acting as a balance, preventing disparity, between different archetypes and thereby preventing neurosis. This process is called individuation.

However, Jung’s claim that all archetypes are religious has been criticised by atheists. Jung countered by suggesting that atheism is a form of religion. This is not necessarily so!

Conclusion to the challenge by psychology to religious belief

Hick argues that the verdict that religion can be explained away by psychology is ‘not proven’. While Freud and Jung offered valuable insights into the mechanisms that lead to religious belief, there is nothing compelling in either account to lead us to conclude that religion is a construct of mental activity.

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