Freud- theory of religion

Revision- by Rachael

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  • Created by: Rachael
  • Created on: 12-12-11 12:49

Freud believed that religion is an illusion, a belief derived from human wishes. He thought it to be self created in the mind to help overcome certain aspects, the inner psychological conflict, the conflict between our natures and civilisation and the helplessness and fear of natural forces. However, he states that to describe religion as an illusion doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t true, but that it answers people’s inner needs. There is no reason why an illusion should not be true. Freud believed that religion was created to solve the three conflicts above.

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Freud’s theory of religion is largely based upon his idea of a collective neurosis, otherwise known as the Oedipus Complex. It came from the baby’s desires, the libido (human’s most basic urge), which centres on the mouth, and the desire to suckle from the mother. This changes as the child develops and is gradually transformed to the mature desire among adults to reproduce.   When the libido is transformed to the sexual organ, there is an already present rival in the form of the father. The acute feelings of jealousy and hatred lead to the desire to kill the father. These feelings mixed up with the great respect and fear they have for the child results in a strong sense of guilt. The desire to possess the mother and the ambivalence to the father is the Oedipus Compex. Unable to carry out the child’s wishes, the child represses the conflict and the guilt deep into the unconscious mind.

While the body and mind work hard in keeping the conflict buried in the unconscious mind, they are eventually channelled out in the form of neurotic symptoms. And one of these symptoms is Religion, which, for Freud, was the “universal obsessional neurosis of humanity” that “arose from the Oedipus Complex, out of the relation to the father”.

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Animism is the first stage of the development of religion coming from buried trauma. Freud believed that, when we suffer from guilt, we create idols as a defence mechanism in the form of stones, trees, animals with spirits. After doing this, the mind can redirect feelings of guilt on to the idol and can make amend by giving sacrifice and praying to them. The mind is therefore able to control the guilt. The idol is in fact put in place, recreating the fatherly like image to which we possess the guilt.


As time progressed, the animist emphasis on the totem proved unsatisfactory. As longing for the father grew, so did his reputation. Eventually he took on divine significance and became transformed into the gods of religions. Freud also states that the gods of religions are given the same ambivalence as the father figures, proving that there is a connection.

 Freud’s conclusion is therefore that religion is an illusion from the mind which helps us come to terms with the strong guilt we feel from the times suffered during sexual development. It is a means on resolving the inner pain.

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It’s safe to say that Freud’s strange and unique theory definitely lacks solid logical proof. However, as a hypothesis it is brilliant. It is set out in such a way, that it is believable and to an extent, fairly plausible. Moreover, Freud’s view of religion does not ignore that possibility of the existence of God; it merely criticises the manmade artificial idea of religion.


So why is it that this theory is seen by some as a strong argument which many people believe? Firstly, Freud’s background and reputation plays a massive part. Freud has made other claims and has discussed if views on other areas of the Psychology of Religion, for example in religious experience.  He was an Austrian-Neurologist and so he had a wide spread understanding (or belief) of how the mind works. He carried out many experiments and studied patients carefully which led him to this theory of religion. His reputation therefore carried him a long way. A sort of cult was built up that he’s a genius and so people are “brainwashed” into believing this is another outstanding argument.

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Another reason for his theory presenting a strong understanding for religious belief is that is takes human truths and applies his theories. Freud believed that in certain circumstances the human mind will create beliefs and images to satisfy its most basic longings and desires. Religion is created by the mind to help us overcome those conflicts already mentioned.

 It must be noted that there are certainly people (though surely not the majority) who will have or at least believe in the Oedipus Complex. Freud in fact had sexual desires towards the mother figure and so for many of these people it will present a convincing argument for the reasons behind religious belief. Therefore though this belief is clearly not universal people are still able to recognise and believe it.

My final point on Freud’s theory is that although his argument may be believed by some, if not many to be a argument which explains the reasons why religion exists, but it does not show any empirical evidence that God doesn’t exist. Therefore the possibility is still wide open.  

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his ideas:

 Religion protects against natural forces like death. We are scared of death because it is something which we have no control over. The creation of religion by the mind helps us to overcome this with the promise of eternal life or reincarnation. It makes us feel like we are not completely powerless.


Religious belief is a reaction against helplessness – adults are provided with a father figure who can protect. God is the ultimate ideal of a father, people have confidence that the future is safe in his hands.

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 What Oedipus Complex is:

A desire for sexual involvement with the parent of the opposite sex and a concomitant sense of rivalry with the parent of the same sex. Child represses conflict and guilt deep into the unconscious mind.

 How it results in religion:

Repression is only partly effective: desires and guilt are long forgotten but mind is struggling to contain them there. This results in neurotic symptoms being channelled out.


One of these symptoms is religion- ‘the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity’ that ‘arose out of the Oedipus Complex’.

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At the bottom of every case of hysteria there are one or more occurrences of premature sexual experience, occurrences which belong to the earliest years of childhood.



Freud established behavioural link between religion and neurosis with patients and their source of obsession and religious people in relation to their object of worship:

-Both involve specific rituals with symbolic meaning for those who follow

-Those who do not follow cannot understand

-Failure to perform results in severe guilt from follower

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Religion is therefore a neurotic illness afflicting all people. Physical symptoms (hysteria, obsessions e.g. OCD, anxieties and phobias) with no physical cause.


Religion provides a reason to submit to authority: explains our suffering because we have the need to obey an omnipotent God who promises reward for our suffering.

Religion provides motivation for sublimation – the libido is forced into other areas e.g. art, music, charity work.

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Animism and totems
Concerned with Oedipus Complex, used in Freud’s theory of religion

 When suffering from extreme guilt from a previous trauma, the mind creates totems where the feelings of guilt can be redirected towards – this is animism. Amends are made through prayer and sacrifice.

 The totem, often an animal, is the transformation of the father from Oedipus Complex – who is regarded with ambivalence (conflicting emotions).

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