Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1856-1939) Creator of psychoanalysis. Born in Freiburg, Moravia, to Jewish parents who moved to Vienna when he was 4, Freud entered the University of Vienna in 1873, where he studied for a career in medical research, and worked in Paris in 1885-1886 with Jean-Marie Charcot. His ideas on the psychosexual etiology of neurosis appeared in Studies in Hysteria (with Josef Breuer) in 1895, while his full psychoanalytic theory of mental processes emerged in his masterpiece, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). His analysis of the unconscious dynamics behind dreams and his idea that the dream is the disguised expression of an unfulfilled wish laid the theoretical foundation for his later cultural studies.

Freud maintained a strong Jewish ethnic identity, yet from an early date he was also an atheist. He wrote psychoanalytic studies of religious topics, yet viewed religion with suspicion. His work on The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901) already contained illuminating discussions of popular superstitions. The essays collected in Totem and Taboo (1912) developed a fuller theory of religion and its origins. He argued that sacrifice emerged from the collective guilt of the primitive horde over the murder of its patriarchal leader. He also analyzed the relationships among religious rituals, obsessive neuroses, and childhood practices. The emphasis on the role of guilt in the gestation of religious and moral ideals (later called the superego ) remained central to his writings. These essays contain some of Freud's most suggestive, yet disputed, speculations and make for interesting comparison with Durkheim's contemporaneous treatment of religious beliefs and practices.

The circle around Freud evolved into the Vienna Psychoanalytical Society (1908) and soon the International Psychoanalytic Association (1910). Early associates included Alfred Adler, Hans Sachs, Otto Rank, Ernest Jones, and Carl Jung, although personal disagreements, and divisions over theory and practice, soon led Adler, Jung, and Freud to pursue separate paths. The latter two developed widely divergent views of religion. Freud emphasized the sublimation of libidinal energies into cultural forms, including religion, and tended to see religion as comparable to neurosis. For instance, his Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921) showed how libidinal identification with real or symbolic leaders helped to solidify organizations such as the church. By contrast, Jung wrote extensively on religion and rejected Freud's pansexualism, emphasized the role of spiritual quests in personal development, and focused on the autonomous significance of archetypes, symbols, and myths.

Freud attacked religion more generally in The Future of an Illusion (1927). This work exhibits Freud's Enlightenment rationalism and bears comparison with Feuerbach's humanistic theory of religion. Religion is an infantile wish projection and an illusion. It is rooted in the wish for immortality and the return to the guidance of a powerful father in an imagined primary family. It is a consolation for suffering. Science, creative work, and a stoic attitude toward suffering are superior to the false consolations of religion. In Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), Freud noted that the suffering caused us by external nature, our physical frailties, and the actions of fellow human beings helped gestate soteriological responses. He also examined mystical experiences in terms of intrapsychic dynamics, in particular, the recreation of the sense of undividedness experienced in infancy. While Freud was a rationalist, his own theories suggest mythical and religious parallels. His dualistic view of existence as a struggle between eros and thanatos , life and death instincts, first developed in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), as well as his revival of the Oedipus myth for the explanation of religion and society, are examples.

In his last book, Moses and Monotheism (1938), Freud psychoanalytically dissected the Moses story and argued that Moses had been an Egyptian who propagated a monotheistic cult. He had been killed by his own discontented followers, who, in a guilty reaction, set him up as a founding religious hero. The return of this repressed memory also helped account for the origins of Christianity, especially the work of Paul. Although severely criticized at the time, Freud's psychoanalytic theory of Judaism has recently been revived in modified form.

Freud's psychoanalytic approach, including his focus on primary family experiences, his analysis of unconscious mental dynamics, his emphasis on symbolisms, and his explorations of primitive society encouraged many valuable psychoanalytic investigations of religion and culture. Notable books ultimately indebted to Freud include Otto Rank's work on the myth of the birth of the hero, Erich Fromm's analysis of early Christian doctrine, Geza Roheim's studies of primitive religious symbolisms, Erik Erikson's psychoanalytic biography of Luther, Phillip Slater's analysis of Greek mythology, and others.

Freud left Nazi-occupied Vienna with difficulty in 1938 and emigrated to England, where in 1939 an overdose of morphine released him from the painful cancer with which he had suffered stoically for over 15 years. Although critics of varying persuasions have extensively deconstructed Freud's life and work, his theories, including his ideas about religion, continue to provoke fruitful discussion.

Donald A. Nielsen


J. Dittes, "Biographical/Theological Exegesis on Psychological Texts," in Religion and the Social Order 1 (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI, 1991): 37-51

S. Freud, Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (New York: Norton, 1955)

P. Gay, A Godless Jew (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987)

P. Pruyser, "Sigmund Freud and His Legacy," in Beyond the Classics? ed. C. Y. Glock and P. E. Hammond (New York: Harper, 1973): 243-290.

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