Freud on Religion; in the beginning was the murder


The Second Coming of Sigmund Freud | Discover Magazine


Sigmund Freud is widely considered as the father of psychoanalysis. Freud passionately probed the role of religion and its place in the production of culture. His theory of psychoanalysis has had an immense impact on modern Western culture. Acknowledging Freud’s enormous influence, Paul Ricoeur considers him as “one of the great atheists of the contemporary culture.”[1] Like Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzsche, Freud’s greatness, According to Ricoeur, lies in his originality and his immense impact on modern Western culture.

From psychotherapy to psychiatry, literature to religion, philosophy to art, and several other fields have felt the deep impact of his thoughts. He influenced, not only how we think, but also as Pamela Thurschwell points out “how we think about how we think.[2] The twentieth century, Thurschwell claims, has been called the Freudian century, “and whatever the twenty-first century chooses to believe about the workings of the human mind, she suggests, “it will be, on some level, indebted to Freud.


Freud’s legacy remains intact as far as human psychology is concerned. Many of his theories are incorporated into modern therapies. Whether one agrees with Freud or not, it is an “incontrovertible fact,” notes Marsha Hewitt, that he has decisively shaped and influenced the way we think about, amongst other things, religion[3]. His views on religion have generated enormous debates and controversies. He believed that religion is a psychological disorder. Therefore, it could be cured away by employing the methods of psychoanalysis. His psychoanalytical account of religion as a “universal obsessional neurosis” has been particularly influential mainly because of his importance as the founder and shaper of psychoanalysis and his unique account of the unconscious psychological dynamics at work in religion. To unpack Freud’s take on religion is to unpack Freud’s understanding neurosis and its unconscious underpinnings as it relates to religion.



Freud’s engagement with religion started with his essay, Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices. In this essay, he drew similarities between the expressions of belief in religious actions and acts of neurotic patients. He noticed that the neurotic patients believed and did things much like those believed and done by the religious believers. Despite their surface dissimilarities, both, he argued, serve to express motives and ideas repressed in the realm of the unconscious[4].  In The Future of an Illusion, Freud considers religion as “the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity”.  Accordingly, religion much like obsessional neurotic acts, is based on, and express features of the unconscious conflicts.


By Formulating the religious problem in terms of psychological disorder, Freud saw an analogical relationship between religious belief and neurosis. Neurosis is a pathological disorder, stemming out of the “pattern of thought, feeling and behaviour which develop during the life of the individual, and tend progressively to limit and disable the individual’s capacity for normal existence.[5] Drawing on his experience of working in a clinical setting with neurotic patients, Freud believed that neurosis could be cured through psychoanalysis. He maintained that in psychoanalysis the analyst aims to unmask the underlying causes of the neurosis, often concealed and cannot be seen in plain sight.  In his earlier book, Studies on Hysteria, co-authored with Josef Breuer, Freud deals with the topic of neurosis in great detail[6]. According to the two authors, neurosis can be understood in terms of a process of repression, “by which troubled people seem to force themselves to forget painful experiences in their lives.[7]  In other words, the troubled subject suffering from neurosis can repress down unpleasant experiences in the psyche which ceases it from being recalled.


Freud elaborates on it more, in his most esteemed book, Interpretation of Dreams, by demarcating the unconscious from the conscious. Comparing the domain of conscious with an iceberg, Freud suggests that what is conscious is merely a minor observable part of the self. What is not visible, on the other hand, for Freud is the underside of the iceberg.


This hidden underside is what the unconscious is made up of, and as Freud puts, it is the “true psychical reality”[8] out of which emerge other realities. For Freud, there is no escaping from this true psychical reality because it contains instinctual desires that continue to play a determinative role in forming feelings and thoughts of the human subject. In this sense, the unconscious becomes the underside of neurosis. The traumatic events faced by the neurotic subject seeps through the conscious domain into the unconscious one, residing there on a permanent basis. Ina way the unconscious functions similar to a prison guarding traumatic experiences and emotions through the mechanism of repression.

However, just because the emotions and experiences are in the unconscious does not mean that they do not ever surface, or they disappear. On the contrary, as Freud argues, repressed contents stored in unconscious often return in forms and activities that don’t seem rational, and as such, they manifest in “pointless movements, unfounded fears, irrational attachments, obsessive personal rituals, and other strange behaviours.[9]

Along these qualities, present in a neurotic subject, Freud also noted the most fundamental human instinct which impacts the course of an individual; it is to do with the instinctual sexual drive that “carves the structure of the personality just like a river carves the structure of its own banks.[10] This instinctual drive or libido, according to Freud, is present from the infantile period and becomes the source of anxiety which leads to a state of neurosis. As Freud puts it: “Being in love with the one parent and hating the other belong to the indispensable stock of physical impulses being formed at the time which are so important for the later neurosis.[11]


The most significant manifestation of the instinctual drive, according to Freud, is present in the Oedipus complex which constitutes “the nucleus of all neuroses[12].  In this well-known ancient Greek myth, King Oedipus unknowingly killed his father and married his mother.[13] Drawing on this ancient myth, Freud argued that all male child between the age three and six experiences conflicting feelings with regards to the two parents. The feeling emerges out of the instinctual desire to have sexual intercourse with the mother. The male child, in this case, wants to have the mother solely to himself which causes him to develop immense contempt towards the father for having the mother. On the other hand, however, the child also admires the father for providing protection and security from the external threats. The feelings of jealousy and competitiveness towards the father continue to linger because it is the father who stands between himself and the mother.

Ultimately, the question arises as to how would a child deal with such a complex? Desires of such a disturbing magnitude cannot be endured consciously, so must be repressed in the unconscious realm[14].


The unconscious in this sense becomes a site of repression where forbidden desires remain in a repressed form. These desires, “nevertheless break out and find discharge in the symptoms of neurosis.[15].  The breaking out of infantile (sexual or other) desires is manifested in neurotic behaviour: “a neurotic….invariably exhibits some degree of physical infantilism. He has either failed to get free from the psycho-sexual conditions that prevailed in his childhood or he has returned to them – two possibilities which may summed up as developmental inhibition and regression[16].  Freud’s point is that while an individual might vary in dealing with the infantile desires, the desire nonetheless stays on in adulthood. Consequently, ambivalence with regards to the paternal authority remains intact in the unconscious. Sooner or later that desire breaks out, and the father (symbol of paternal authority and security) is celebrated as a Deity in a socially accepted manner. In Freud’s words: “it is an enormous relief to the individual psyche if the conflicts of its childhood arising from the father-complex – conflicts which it has never wholly overcome – are removed from it and brought to a solution which is universally accepted[17].


In the same vein, a reconciliation between father-child is achieved when polytheism is overtaken by monotheism after man “creates for himself the gods whom he dreads, whom he seeks to propitiate, and whom he nevertheless entrusts with his own protection .[18] Thus, psychoanalytically understood, religion simultaneously originates from and responds to infantile experiences by externalizing the deep-seated unconscious conflicts. The outcome of this conflict is the belief in the omnipotent deity, who loves us despite being all-powerful, even fearful.


In Freudian terms , then, religion as an obsessional neurosis is rooted in the unconscious conflicts where the instinctual desires, although repressed, are very much alive and often break out in the form of neurosis. Religion, like neurosis, emerges in response to this instinctual drive characterised in the Oedipus complex. Both religious beliefs and obsessional neurosis are rooted in the unconscious psychodynamics that goes back to the primal stages of psychological development; a case well made by Freud in Totem and Taboo.



While Freud wrote various texts on religion, it is Totem and Taboo that forms his main approach to religion, a book he considered as one of his most significant writings[19]. The book focusses on the Australian Aborigines religious practices which is an intricate part of their daily life.


In Freud’s view, modern individuals have evolved both biologically and psychologically, and for such reasons, a glance at the character of past cultures offer significant clues to the nature of civilization in its present state[20]. For Freud, as for other contemporary scholars – namely Durkheim, the Aborigines of Australia were the most primitive people. Hence they offered a distinct perspective regarding culture and religion. Freud considered the religion of the Aborigines, totemism, as the primal phase of religion. He highlights the psychological dimension, noticing that it is the unconscious that constitutes a religion.


Freud’s investigation begins by looking at the religious and social order of the Aborigines people. Drawing on the ethnographic studies of his time, Freud notices that the Aborigines adhere to a totemic religious system. As an emblem, a totem could include an animal, a natural phenomenon or in some cases an ancestor.[21] Each clan has a totem which solely belongs to that particular group.

No one totem can be part of the other clans, and if two clans happen to have the same totem, then their bound to be the subdivisions of the same clan. The totem forms a kinship among the members of the clan. The members who worship the totem, are one family bound together in the name of the clan.

As a result, the member of the clan is to follow the law of exogamy, to have sexual intercourse with the members of other clans. Hence, they are prohibited from having sexual intercourse with the other members of the same clan.[22]

Further to this, there is one more prohibition, that is, not killing and eating the totem. If broken, this prohibition will lead to death. There are, then, two taboos that constitute totemism: the prohibition against killing and eating the totem and the law of exogamy.[23]


However, Freud notes, that there are times when the members of the clan are permitted to transgress the two taboos. That is, they are allowed to indulge in incest and kill and eat the totem. As per the societal norms, the incest would mean to engage in sexual activity, not only with a family member but also with the members of the clan since they share a common belief in the totem.


The totemic meals, on the other hand, is a ceremonial activity with a set of laws and rituals. Freud notes that the members of the clan are slaughtering and consuming the animal totem, attired “in the likeness of the totem and imitating it in sound and movement, as though they are seeking to stress their identity with it….when the deed is done the slaughtered animal is lamented and bewailed. The mourning is obligatory….followed by a demonstration of festive rejoicing.[24] However, questions arise at this point as to why the taboos that sustain the laws of the clan are broken? Secondly, why do the members mourn the killing of the totem, especially when it permits them to indulge in incest they so long for?


To answer these questions, Freud turns to the unconscious and Oedipus complex. He posits that totem stands for the father, who is killed, but at the same time, his death invokes the feelings of mourning among the murderers. These contradictory emotions, according to Freud, exemplify the Oedipus complex present in all male individuals. The totem animal represents  for clan what the father represents for a young child.[25]


To explain this theory further, Freud looks into the past when there was no religion. He notes that initially there was a primal horde. The leader of the horde was the father, admired as a strong and dominant figure by the rest of the group. As a sign of power, the father held all the females for himself and drove away the rest of the males.



But, eventually, the males in the horde, or as Freud calls them the band of brothers, murdered the father and devoured him to get the females: “One day the brothers who had been driven out came together, killed and devoured their father and so made an end of the patriarchal horde.”[26] Freud argues that in the beginning, at the first stage, there was no taboo, no religion, and no sexual relations only the dominant male, the father.


At the second stage, there still the absence of religion but sexual relations are permitted following the murder of the father by the band of brothers. The murder, however, created a collective unconscious guilt among the brothers because the figure of the father was both hated and loved, very similar to the feeling any male child experiences as Freud had noted.


To deal with the guilt, the brothers created the concept of the totem and abandoned the very object of their desire, to engage in sexual activity with the females, they committed the patricide for. The underlying cause of the prohibition was rooted in the guilt and inevitable urge the group of brothers felt about repeating the act of the murdered father by keeping the females for himself.[27] Drawing from this, Freud reinforces the case that religion is a response to the feeling of guilt – the guilt that the group of brothers felt after they had murdered their father. Totemism or religion is the outcome of an act that took place in the prehistoric times and the two taboos are inextricably related to the “two repressed wishes of the Oedipus complex”.[28]


One of the critical features of Freud’s theory is his explanation as to why people, even though they are not part of the same generation that killed the primal father horde, continue to practice totemism or religion. For example, if modern believers have no link with the primal horde and the band of brothers who killed the father then why they should feel the guilt? How is the primal murder is inherited by the people of all generations?



Freud’s answer is the collective mind is the realm where all “mental process occur just as they do in the mind of an individual”.[29] In other words, the feeling of guilt felt by the group of brothers has continued and has “remained operative in generations which have had no knowledge of the action”.[30] Thus, Freud is arguing that the murderous act to attain the female (property?) is part the of the human psyche and is experienced afresh in every generation. The Oedipus complex, therefore, becomes an individual repetition “of something that is embedded in the unconscious”.[31]


All religion, in Freud’s theory, try to rectify this Oedipus complex, the feeling of guilt, repressed into the unconscious.  As a result, religion becomes the externalisation of the internal unconscious conflicts.


As a matter of fact, in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud contends that “a large portion of the mythological conception of the world which reaches far into the most modern religions is nothing but psychology projected into the outer world.”[32] For this reason, to truly understand the origins and functions of religion, one must shift her gaze from metaphysics to meta-psychology. It is in the unconscious motivation of psyche we discover the root of all forms of religion.[33]  Religion survives because of the inherent antagonism so imbibed within human psyche. It survives because of the unconscious wishes and conflicts, namely the repressed guilt, projected externally in a symptomatic fashion.

For Freud, it is only by tracing religion to its unconscious roots, only by moving beyond the conscious realm to its underlying causes, that one can start to grasp the inherent need for religion in human civilization.


[1] Ricoeur, Paul, and David Pellauer. On psychoanalysis. Cambridge: Polity, 2012. Pg. 147

[2] Thurschwell, Pamela. Sigmund Freud. Londres: Routledege, 2000. Pg. 1

[3] Hewitt, Marsha Aileen. Freud on religion. Durham: Acumen, 2014. Pg. viii

[4] Strachey, J. (1907). Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume IX (1906-1908): Jensen’s ‘Gradiva’ and Other Works, 115-128. Pg. 119

[5] Stafford-Clark, David. What Freud really said. London: Pelican, 1969. Pg. 118

[6] Freud, Sigmund, and Josef Breuer. Studies in hysteria. New York: Basic Books, 2000. translated by J. Strachey.

[7] Pals, Daniel L. Seven Theories of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pg.56

[8] Freud, Sigmund. The interpretation of dreams. New York: Basic Books, 2010. Translated by James Strachey. Pg. 607


[9] Pals, Daniel L. Seven Theories of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pg. 59.

[10] Stafford-Clark, David. What Freud really said. London: Pelican, 1969. Pg. 122.

[11] Freud, Sigmund. The interpretation of dreams. New York: Basic Books, 2010. Translated by James Strachey. Pg. 278.

[12] Freud, Sigmund. Totem And Taboo. London: Routledge, 2001. Translated by James Strachey. Pg. 182

[13]Freud, Sigmund. The interpretation of dreams. New York: Basic Books, 2010. Translated by James Strachey. Pg.  278-280.

[14] Stafford-Clark, David. What Freud really said. London: Pelican, 1969. Pg. 94.

[15] Palmer, Michael. Freud and Jung on religion. London: Routledge, 1997. Pg. 16.

[16]Freud, Sigmund. Totem And Taboo. London: Routledge, 2001. Translated by James Strachey. Pg.20

[17] Freud, Sigmund. The Future of an Illusion. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1975. Translated by James Strachey. Pg. 30.

[18] Ibid. Pg. 24.

[19] For an extended treatment of this view, see Freud: The Mind of the Moralist by Philip Rieff. Pg. 258-299.

[20] Pals, Daniel L. Seven Theories of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pg.66.

[21] Freud, Sigmund. Totem And Taboo. London: Routledge, 2001. Translated by James Strachey. Pg.2-4

[22] Freud, Sigmund. Totem And Taboo. London: Routledge, 2001. Translated by James Strachey. Pg.3 -8

[23] Ibid. Pg.5-6.

[24] Ibid. Pg. 163.

[25] Ibid. Pg. 163.

[26] Ibid. Pg. 164

[27] Ibid. Pg. 166-167

[28] Ibid. Pg. 167

[29] Ibid. Pg. 183

[30] Ibid. Pg. 183

[31] Palmer, Michael. Freud and Jung on religion. London: Routledge, 1997. Pg. 81

[32] Freud, Sigmund, and A. A. Brill. Psychopathology of everyday life. New York, 1914. Pg. 91.

[33] Ibid. Pg. 91

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