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Freudian Dictionary

The derivation of a need for religion from the child's feeling of helplessness and the longing it evokes for a father seems to me incontrovertible, especially since this feeling is not simply carried on from childhood days but is kept alive perpetually by the fear of what the superior power of fate will bring.[1]

Religion is an attempt to get control over the sensory world, in which we are placed, by means of the wish-world which we have developed inside us as a result of biological and psychological necessities. But it cannot achieve its end. Its doctrines carry with them the stamp of the times in which they originated the ignorant childhood days of the human race. Its con~olations deserve no trust. ... If one attempts to assign to religion its place in man's evolution, it seems not so much to be a lasting acquisition, as a parallel to the neurosis which the civilized individual must pass through on his way from childhood to maturity.[2]

Religion and Neurosis

Religious phenomena are to be understood only on the model of the neurotic symptoms of the individual, which are so familiar to us, as a return of longforgotten important happenings in the primeval history of the human family, that they owe their obsessive character to that very origin and therefore derive their effect on mankind from the historical truth they contain. [3]

One might venture to regard the obsessional neurosis as a pathological counterpart to the formation of a religion, to describe this neurosis as a private religious system, and religion lS a universal obsessional neurosis.[4]

It is easy to see wherein lies the resemblance between neurotic ceremonial and religious rites; it is in the fear of pangs of conscience after their omission, in the complete isolation of hem from all other activities (the feeling that one must not be listurbed), and in the conscientiousness with which the details are carried out.[5]



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.

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.

Religion would, therefore, involve a twofold connection—among humankind and between humankind and God.

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.

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.

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.

See Also

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;


  1. Freud, Sigmund. (1907b). Obsessive actions and religious practices. SE, 9: 115-127.
  2. ——. (1912-1913a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.
  3. ——. (1921c). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. SE, 18: 65-143.
  4. ——. (1927c). The future of an illusion. SE, 21: 1-56.
  5. ——. (1939 [1934-1938]). Moses and monotheism: Three essays. SE, 23: 1-137.
  • 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.