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Psychology and Religion’ and Freud’s ‘The Future of an Illusion

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The purpose of this essay is to compare and contrast Carl Jung’s theory of religion and the effect it produces on society and Sigmund Freud’s theory of religion and the way it impacts society. The comparison is done based on Jung’s ‘Psychology and Religion’ and Freud’s ‘The Future of an Illusion.

It is widely known that Sigmund Freud views religion as an illusion, yet little analysis has been done of the role Freud ascribed to religion, especially in the wider social context.

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Starting with the basic Freud’s argument concerning the origins of religion, the psychiatrist believes that human belief in God stems from childhood fear of the unknown and a feeling of being unprotected and defenseless against the unfamiliar world. When a human is faced with a phenomenon that lacks rational explanation, human psyche needs to explicate it anyway, and here religion gains ground.

Since God is the central figure in the majority of world religions, Freud offers another perspective one the relationship between belief and early childhood experience.

God, in this regard, can be seen as another manifestation of ‘father complex,’ or Oedipal conflict. This complex arises when infant’s desire for the mother and the prohibition on such desire, which is represented by the figure of the father, are in conflict. Therefore, religion glorifies the power of God and mandates unconditional submission to this power.

Another psychic mechanism that contributes to the equation between father and God in the context of religion is the sense of guilt. This feeling makes humans submit to the authority of religion and stay obedient. As for the nature of this guilt, Freud takes the explanation from anthropology, which speaks of human guilt for the murder of the primal father. The memory of this murder id repressed, yet religion is a reflection of this guilt in a latent form.

A different side of the equation has to do with wish fulfillment. The benevolence and omnipotence of God gives humans the impression that every their wish is susceptible of being translated into life; Freud argues that this approach is very infantile since it prevents humans from differentiating between realistic and unrealistic wishes.

Love to father is projected on the figure of God, therefore believers often speak of ‘love’ when describing their religious feelings. Freud actually writes about religion as a neurotic symptom, yet this compulsive neurosis is a defense mechanism used for the purposes of coming to terms with reality. The psychic mechanism involved into the projection of the image of father on the image of God is derealization of the figure of real father and substitution of this figure with the belief in more powerful God.

Since the power of God is unlimited, religion can even negate death and finite nature of human life. Many religions are founded on the profound faith in afterlife, which is the only thing that makes the earthy existent of some believers tolerable.

Yet Freud is convinced that religion is not completely illusory, and there is a truth in religion. However, it is not the factual truth but the historical truth, which stems from repressed experiences lying in the realm of unconscious. The manifestation of these repressed memories happens through repetition, and the experience repressed is the killing of the primal father. Thus, religions of the world – Judaism, Christianity or Islam – are grounded on similar historical truth, but the divergence between them occurs as the stage of symptom formations.

Freud’s views on religious feeling as neurotic and infantile lead to a conclusion that human race can outgrow it. If this thesis is correct, it is to be supposed that a process of abandoning religion is bound to happen with the unconditional inevitability of a process of maturity, and that the humankind is in the middle of that period of growth.

The development of humanity is compared to child development. Children have to outgrow a variety of compulsive neuroses in the course of their development. Before these neuroses are overcome, they are usually restrained by means of outside repressive action, e.g. by the parents. If the civilization is viewed as a child, during the early stages of history the humankind suffered similar repression to tame its obsessions. Upon achieving a more advanced stage of development, the society will be capable of reconsidering its need for religion, just like a mature personality can challenge the rationality of religion:

‘Thus I must contradict you when you go on to argue that men are completely unable to do without the consolation of the religious illusion, that without it they could not bear the troubles of life and the cruelties of reality. That is true, certainly, of the men into whom you have instilled the sweet – or bitter-sweet – passion from childhood onwards. But what of the other men, who have been sensibly brought up? Perhaps those who do not suffer from the neurosis will need no intoxicant to deaden it’ (Freud 1989, p.49)

However, Freud recognizes the importance of religion, both for an individual and at the level of society. He deems that wish fulfillment the religion has to offer can ensure happiness and comfort, especially for certain strata of the society. Freud refers to these strata as ‘masses’ meaning the poor and disadvantages circles of society with little access to education and decision-making.

Religion is also among the institutions that ensure the maintenance of social order – together with state, morals or ethics. Religion fulfills this function by constraining man’s destructive instincts and allows us to coexist in relative peace and security in the framework of social organization. The illusion of religion is necessary to solve the conflict between the nature and culture as well as another one, namely the contradiction between man’s vulnerability and prevalence. Referring once more to the childhood origins of religion, humans unconsciously acknowledge their helplessness and need for outside help; at the same time, human race perceives itself as superior compared to other living beings. Submission to the illusion is traded for the perceived resolution of these conflicts offered by religion. Religion is ‘born from man’s need to make his helplessness tolerable and built up from the material of memories of the helplessness of his own childhood and the childhood of the human race. It can clearly be seen that the possession of these ideas protects him in two directions – against the dangers of nature and fate, and against the injuries that threaten him from human society itself’ (Freud 1989, p.18).

On the level of society, religion helps to solve another conflict – the one between human instincts and the prohibition imposed by the civilization. Frustration arises as the wish to free oneself and undermine civilization contradicts with the need for order and security civilization brings.

Therefore, Freud perceives religion as a necessary evil, although the psychiatrist himself is believed to be a committed atheist. However, Freud calls upon the society to reconsider its views on religion and its place in social life. This should not be interpreted as a slogan in favor of abolition of religious tradition or related institution. Cautiously enough, Freud admits that atheism can destabilize social order by undermining the role of religion as a powerful constraint on man’s darkest instincts.

Contrary to Freud, Jung views religion more in a more indulgent manner. Although Jung admitted the illusionary nature of religion by calling it a collective mythology, he believed that it plays a real and significant role in the life of society. His explanation of religion ties in with his theory of the unconscious. He describes religion as belonging to the collective unconscious, which is, simultaneously, is a part of personal unconscious. Personal unconscious is centered on complexes, and here the mechanism of complex formation suggested by Freud is applicable.

However, Jung attached paramount importance to the collective unconscious, which is rooted more deeply and entrenched more solidly in the human psyche. The collective unconscious builds around archetypes, and many religious symbols are, in fact, archetypes. The archetype has a psychoid nature, which stems from the fundamental characteristics of psyche, such as autonomy, need for personification, and tendency to exist in real and imaginary world simultaneously. The latest characteristic of the psyche was also pointed out by Freud and was also believed to exist for the benefit of humans who need to find escape from the complexity of life.

Coming back to the discussion of the connection between archetypes and religious symbolism, we can be guided by the definition of archetypes as preconscious psychic disposition that allows responding in a human manner. All the main archetypes can be used in the analysis of religion. For example, the shadow archetype in constantly present in all religious writings, which describe the encounters with God as happening in some marginal places or psychic states. The Child Archetype is a symbol of hope and promise for new beginnings. It offers the illusion that Paradise can be rediscovered. The image of the Christ Child who connects Heaven and Earth, Man and God, is a well-entrenched archetype. The Self archetype, probably the most important fir Jung, is connected with the Spirit, or, in other world, God. Jung introduces the concept of a world clock, or the presupposition about the state of ideal harmony, and this presupposition is expressed through the image of Christ, or the archetype of Child. Uncovering such mental assumptions may be necessary for therapeutic purposes:

‘As the reconciliation of God and man is expressed in the symbol of Christ or of the cross, we could expect the patient’s world clock to have some similar reconciling significance’ (Jung 1960, p.96).

Here, Jung speaks of the collective unconscious as reconciling God and man, empowering and guiding humans in such a peculiar way. Therefore, Jung equates human self with spirituality and religious symbolism. More importantly, the value of religion is that it may aide in uncovering the unconscious. In fact, deeper understanding of religion and its symbols may be useful for therapeutic purposes. The absence of religion, not the submission to it, leads to neuroses. While Freud views the suppression of religious feelings by ration as a positive development, Jung believes this is a dangerous process that leads to the loss of spiritual support and pervasive feeling of loneliness.

Jung believes that religion is a method of self individuation. Since the development of personality leads to a full self individuation which mandates the unconscious mind to sustain a balance between numerous inconsistencies it encounters. Jung thinks that a person fights with opposing feelings and assumptions. Self individuation happens when the unconscious mind succeeds in making sense of these inconsistencies by viewing them on a higher level of comprehension, a level where the unconscious strives to reassess these obvious personality paradoxes as concurrent harmonies. Jung supports his arguments with arguing that this collection of paradoxes lies in the personal unconscious. A person has to start scrutinizing this repository of seemingly opposite assumptions using the introspective potential of the collective unconscious.

Upon deeper analysis, the difference in the approach to religion in Freud’s and Jung’s writing can be attributed to the difference inn their views on the theory of psyche and personality. Jung believes that the psyche consists of three elements, namely the ego, the personal unconscious, and the collective unconscious. Freud perceived psyche as not having the element of the collective unconscious but rather a moral super-ego. The function of this super-ego is to restrain psyche in compliance with the acquired sense of morality. However, the two psychoanalysts conclude that the collective unconscious and super-ego serve the same cause, but in a different manner. Jung views the self-actualizing function of Freud’s super ego as pre-existing in the psyche just like the collective unconscious which is to be uncovered through introspection instead of experience.

Concluding this paper, it is necessary to mention that both Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud made a considerable contribution in the study of psychological origins of religion. They agree on several points, such as the illusionary nature of religion, but their theories are at variance with one another when in comes to the role of religion in human life and society, viewed as predominantly negative in Freud’s ‘The Future of an Illusion’ and mainly positive in Jung’s ‘Psychology and Religion.’


Jung, C.G. 1960. Psychology and Religion. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Freud, S. 1989. The Future of an Illusion. New York: Norton.

Cite this Psychology and Religion’ and Freud’s ‘The Future of an Illusion

Psychology and Religion’ and Freud’s ‘The Future of an Illusion. (2016, Sep 06). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/psychology-and-religion-and-freuds-the-future-of-an-illusion/

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