ChChristianity according to Sigmund Freud according to Sigmund Freud

by Dr. Pravin Thevathasan

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Christianity according to Sigmund Freud

The aim of this article is to examine the false foundations of Freudian belief especially with regard to its interpretation of religion. In order to understand Freud’s psychology, we need to appreciate his complex personality and we will therefore begin with a biographical sketch.

Sigmund Freud was born in Moravia in 1856. His early childhood was, to say the least, somewhat unorthodox.His mother was his father’s third wife and was younger than the elder son from the first marriage. His stepbrother Philip was apparently attracted to Freud’s mother. Freud was also later to recall a famous event when he felt disgust towards his father and he was also to admit to feelings of guilt after wishing that a younger brother would die- an event which actually occurred. So, his bizarre notions of childhood sexuality may be related to his own childhood experiences. Ernest Jones, his biographer and friend, maintained that these odd family circumstances together with Freud’s misconstruing of them facilitated Freud’s greatest discovery, the Oedipus complex. There are even suggestions that Freud himself had been sexually abused.

There is little doubt that Freud was an exceptional student. However, there was no place for religion. His early interest in philosophy culminated in a study of Darwin’s theory of Evolution which led him, in turn, to study medicine. He continued with his philosophical studies, taking a particular interest in the works of Ludwig Feurbach who in his Essence of Christianity wrote that men have created God and heaven as a means of fulfilling their own wishes. God is merely a projection of all that is excellent in human nature.

Freud is now best known for his psychoanalytical method. It has been recognised that there are similarities between psychoanalysis and the occult doctrines of the Kabbala. They both share an emphasis on male and female elements, in a fixation with numbers and in the exploration of a variety of symbols. Some fundamental themes can be found in the Zohar or Book of splendour such as bisexuality, malevolent childhood impulses and dream interpretation.

Freud was also deeply interested in witchcraft and other occult phenomena. On Saturday evenings, he would frequently play tarock - a card game associated with the Kabbala. However, he appeared to have a conscious hatred of religion - both Orthodox Judaism and Christianity. In 1937, when he was urged to flee Nazism, he responded that his real enemy was the Roman Catholic Church. Interesting enough, his childhood hero was Hanibal, the Carthaginian besieger of Rome.

Freud was also to make sure that his wife rejected Jewish Orthodoxy soon after they were married. Religion was for him nothing but psychology projected into the external world. Biologically speaking, religion is to be traced back to the small child’s long drawn out helplessness. The longing for the Father which constitutes the root of every form of religion inevitably calls up the entanglement of the Oedipus complex, including feelings of fear and guilt.

By 1907, Freud was writing papers that were deeply hostile to religion, claiming that there were similarities between neurotic behaviour and religious rituals. This observation was based on his study of a handful of disturbed patients.

In 1913, he wrote Totem and Taboo. According to this work, primitive societies had established certain taboos including prohibitions designed to prevent sexual relations between members of the same clan. As with neurosis, this gives rise to ceremonial acts of expiation, penance and purification. Freud based his whole theory of Totemism on the controversial beliefs of W.Robertson Smith. According to this theory, brothers got together to kill their dictatorial father who kept them away from women. They were then filled with guilt and revoked their deed by forbidding the killing of the Totem-typically an animal, the substitute for their father. This Totem religion preserves the ambivalence implicit in the Oedipus complex. The Christian doctrine of Atonement represents an acknowledgement of the guilty primeval deed. Christ’s sacrifice leads to reconciliation with God the Father. The crime to be atoned for is parricide and the revival of the ancient totemic meal is to be found in the Eucharist.

Of course, it goes without saying that not one shred of evidence is offered for these conjectures.

His book Moses and Monotheism is a truly extraordinary work of fantasy. Moses was really an Egyptian-probably from an aristocratic family. He believed in worshipping the one God, the Sun God Atern. When the Egyptians denounced him, he turned to the Jews whom he chose as his people. They left Egypt but the people were not able to tolerate this highly spiritual religion and they therefore murdered Moses. Several generations later, the Jews came under a new religion devoted to the worship of Yahweh, a blood thirsty and demonic volcano God. A new Moses, this time a Jewish one, became a substitute for the Egyptian one and the new God Yahweh is given credit for having liberated his people from Egypt. Just to show that Yahweh had been with his people all along, the legends of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are introduced. Remorse for having killed the Egyptian Moses creates a longing for a Messiah.

Again, where is the evidence for any of this? When Freud was told that there was no replacement Moses, he responded: “And yet, it might be true for it fits so well into the frame of my thesis!”

In 1927 came his most famous attack on religion - The future of an illusion. The question asked is : can we one day do without the consoling illusions of religious beliefs? Religious beliefs are based on desires that cannot be challenged and they lie in the infantile past of the individual when he sought protection from the mother and the father. Later on, our fear of death will bring back the old anxieties and the longing to be protected by the father. This irrational origin of religion gives it the odour of sanctity but it has proved unhelpful to most people: “The question cannot but arise whether we are not overrating its necessity for mankind.”

Freud thought that if you introduce religion to children before the age of reason, it would lead to a prohibition of thought and neurotic control of impulses through repression: “Religion is patently infantile, so foreign to reality. It is painful to think that the great majority of men will never be able to rise above this view of life.” Religion needs to be replaced by science.

What does this preoccupation with themes such as wanting the death of the father and childhood sexuality tell us about the human condition? Very little. What does it tell us about Freud?

Some years ago, Paul Vitz wrote a fascinating book entitled Sigmund Freud’s Christian unconscious in which he argued that Freud had a largely unconscious attraction towards Catholicism. His mother related how as a child, after he was taken by his nanny to church, “you came home and you used to preach to us about God.” Freud described himself later like a monk in his cell offering secular pastoral counselling, he encouraged his daughter to pick flowers for Our Lady and he wrote of his longing to be in Rome for Easter. He once blurted out: “Only Catholicism protects us against Nazism.” In all sincerity, he said: “I don’t think our cures can compare to those at Lourdes.”

These comments are hardly typical of an atheist. The Catholic Psychiatrist Gregory Zilboorg concluded: “Religion was for Freud a field of which he knew very little and which moreover seems to have been the very centre of his inner conflicts, conflicts that were never resolved.”

Vitz also deals with Freud’s self-identification with the person of the Anti-Christ and with Velikovsky’s thesis made in 1941 that Freud had made a Faustian pact. Freud himself wrote that if he had his life to live again, “I would devote myself to psychical research rather than psychoanalysis.”

Freud’s own followers were largely unaware of his own inner conflicts and they further refined his anti-religious sentiments. For example, with regard to what they perceived as the creation myth: the serpent in the Garden of Eden tempting Eve is to be regarded merely as a symbol of the maturing sex drive. For the psychoanalyst Ludwig Levy, the Genesis story is deliberately anti-sexual so that religion can be freed from the fertility rites and pagan traditions where the serpent was revered as divine. For the psychoanalyst Theodore Reik, the paradise story consists of the murder of Yahweh, a tree God, the totem substitute for the murdered father. Reik also claimed that Cain did not really kill Abel. In fact, he committed incest with his mother and murdered his father.

For the traditional psychoanalyst, the great fish in the story of Jonah is a symbol of his mother and command to rest on the Sabbath equates with avoiding any action effecting Mother Earth and is thus a defence against Incestuous tendencies. There is thus a constant reduction of sacred tradition to sexual and aggressive impulses.

How does psychoanalysis relate to morality? For psychoanalysts, there are no absolute moral principles since one’s moral actions are determined by unconscious motives. If I want to give to the poor, my conscious intentions is to do good. But unconsciously I may have evil intentions such as desiring to be famous. A believer in Freudian morality would thereby justify not giving to the poor as the unconscious motives may be sinful.

Psychoanalyst believe in psychic determinism. If the ex-president of the United States chooses to commit adultery, this is not really his fault. It has been brought on by certain childhood experiences and he is therefore sick, not vicious. Freud held a Hobbesian view of man whose dangerous instincts must be restrained through therapy.

Psychoanalysis had a disastrous effect on the 20th century. Men undergoing therapy were told that they were unconsciously homosexual, husbands were advised to divorce and wives were told to find lovers. But how reliable are these so-called unconscious activities? Freud, for example, read that Leonardo was attacked by a bird mistranslated as a vulture. From this, and by dwelling on Egyptian mythology, Freud concluded that Leonardo was homosexual. The bird was, in fact, a kite.

In the early 1960’s academics under Freud’s influence sought to change sexual morality in order to prevent, as they thought, a breakdown in civilisation. They encouraged therapeutic adultery and sex education with no deviations excluded. Freud’s theory of the death instinct was popularised in films and plays because it was thought that the enactment of cruelty and aggression would lead to a catharsis and to a less violent society.

There are remarkable similarities between Karl Marx and Freud. They both held religion to be an illusion and neither believed in the existence of a immortal soul. They both shared assumptions about man and the world which are grounded in the philosophy of the Enlightenment. They were also completely under the influence of the theories of Charles Darwin. Freud wrote: “Just as the body in its developmental stages shows traces of earlier phases in the evolution of mankind, so may the unconscious be regarded as in some respects a repository of past experiences in the early mental development of mankind.”

In an interesting work entitled The Freudian Fallacy, E M Thornton wrote: “ Freud’s concept of the unconscious must be attributed to his cocaine usage. Death wishes, infantile incestuous desires and perversion are not the pre-occupations of the normal mind. Constantly recurring throughout the drug literature are the same words and phrases used by Freud and his followers to describe his concept of the unconscious mind. In both psychoanalysis and this literature the same metaphors of looking down into an abyss occur.”

After all, in The future of an illusion, Freud wrote: “Among the instinctive wishes of mankind are those of incest, cannibalism and lust for killing.” And in his famous Interpretation of dreams he wrote: “I was making frequent use of cocaine to reduce some troublesome nasal swellings.”

If he had nasal swellings, he was almost certainly using cocaine regularly. Whatever one’s view of the cocaine hypothesis, it would appear that in accepting his theories without due discernment, we have plunged Christianity and culture into chaos. If Rogerian man, innocent of original sin and naturally good, is capable of salvation without grace, Freudian man is, in contrast, utterly depraved, riddled with guilt feelings from childhood and incapable of making a good moral act. We move from Pelagianism to Jansenism.

The church has surely been wise to treat certain aspects of psychotherapy with great caution.


The Freudian Fallacy: Freud and cocaine by E M Thornton (Grafton Books, 1986)

Sigmund Freud’s Christian Unconscious by Paul Vitz (Gracewing, 1993)

The Complete Psychological works of Sigmund Freud edited by James Strachey (Vintage Paperbacks, 2001)

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