Religion and Psychoanalysis

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Religion is a body of beliefs and practices shared by a given social group and connecting it to a higher agency, generally a divinity or divine human. Interestingly, the word religion is the same in most western languages, Latin or Germanic. However, the origin of the term has, for more than two thousand years, been the object of an intense debate that is of interest to psychoanalysis. According to the Latin authors Lactantius and Tertullian, the word is related to the Latin verb religare, "to reconnect, to bind again." Religion would, therefore, involve a twofold connection—among humankind and between humankind and God. In Cicero, religion is associated with the verb relegere, "to gather." In this case religion is said to be a gathering together, an interiority, some scruple that prevents or delays action and entails the performance of certain rites. In this sense we agree with philosopher Michel Serres and the linguistÉmile Benveniste that the opposite of religion is negligence.

The topic of religion was initially examined by Freud and Breuer in the Studies on Hysteria (1895d), where hysteria could be considered a reaction to mental suffering associated with religious doubt. Freud's first detailed examination of religion, "Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices," appeared in 1907. The first book in which he discussed religious themes was Totem and Taboo (1912-1913a).

Freud saw religion in its collective and individual forms. On the one hand he viewed the church as the prototype of an artificial crowd (as the army), where each individual must love his leader (Christ, for example) as a father and other men as his brothers. Religion helped maintain the cohesion of a human group threatened with disintegration if there was a loss of faith (1921c). On the other hand, he also saw religion, with its ceremonies and detailed rites, as a universal neurosis, where scruples were transformed into obsessive acts. Religion would contribute to humankind's transition from a natural state to a cultured one through the sacrifice of human drives. But the progress of civilization also implied a return to the irrational and the maintenance of illusions that maintained the individual within the confines of his infantile neuroses (1927c).

The Freudian approach to religion has more to do with anthropology than with theology: Religion is a part of civilization and the discussion of its dogmas is less important than its hold on society and the individual. From this point of view Freud, who claimed to be an atheist, had to confront the criticisms of his friend, Pastor Pfister, along with those of his former student Carl Jung. Moreover, Freudian conceptions of religion relied on the knowledge available during the early twentieth century, which has since often been challenged by the findings of archeology and epigraphy. Thus the character of Moses leading the people of Israel through the desert and out of Egypt in Exodus, a figure magnified by Freud, seems in the early twenty-first century to have more to do with myth than with history. And, unlike Jung, Freud rarely made reference to the religions of the Far East, which are so unlike Hellenistic and Middle Eastern cultures.


See also: Beirnaert, Louis; Belief; Certeau, Michel de; Choisy, Maryse; "Claims of Psychoanalysis to Scientific Interest"; Future of an Illusion, The; Ideology; Illusion; Judaism and psychoanalysis; Jung, Carl Gustav; Lacan, Jacques-MarieÉmile; Moses and Monotheism; Mysticism; Oceanic feeling; Philippson Bible; Rite and ritual; "Seventeenth-Century Demonological Neurosis, A." Bibliography

   * Freud, Sigmund. (1907b). Obsessive actions and religious practices. SE, 9: 115-127.
   * ——. (1912-1913a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.
   * ——. (1921c). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. SE, 18: 65-143.
   * ——. (1927c). The future of an illusion. SE, 21: 1-56.
   * ——. (1939 [1934-1938]). Moses and monotheism: Three essays. SE, 23: 1-137.