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Psychoanalysis and Faith

Civilization and its symptoms

Published on: Saturday 29 January 2005

Author : Christophe BORMANS Language for this article: français > Croyance et Psychanalyse

Keywords :

«Do not think for one minute that your mind could rise and grow until it could know God» (Master Eckhart, On Eternal Birth).

At the end of a letter dated October 9 1918, Freud asks the letters addressee, Pastor Oskar Pfister, a riddle, as difficult as the one the Sphinx asked Oedipus, the Theban hero :

«By the way, why is it that psychoanalysis was not discovered by one of those pious people, but rather, by a jewish, absolutely non-religious person?» [1].

Why is this question a riddle ? Simply because, from an ambiguous statement, Freud expects something to be guessed. That is the definition of a riddle. The ambiguity is clear : Freud is stating as a fundamental fact his belonging to the founding tradition of the monotheistic religions, while, at the same time, claiming he is a non-believer.

Freud’s riddle, however, was not to remain long unanswered. Two weeks later, on October 29 1918, Pastor Oskar Pfister writes back to the Master in Vienna :

«Firstly, you are not Jewish, which my extreme admiration for Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah and the people who wrote the Book of Job and the Prophets, makes me deeply regret; secondly, you are not such an atheist as you pretend to be, since the man who fights for the truth, for the freeing of love, “lives within God” (John’s first Epistle, IV, 16). If you would let your own work melt into the great harmony of the Universe, in the same way that the notes of a symphony by Beethoven are melting into a musical whole, I could say about you : “There was never a better Christian”» [2].

This is a skilful answer. It seems to go against the whole of Freud’s works, which can be understood, at first, as a questioning of all beliefs and as a sharp criticism of the obsessional and neurotic aspects of any religion. One can refer to : «Obsessional and religious acts» (1907), « Totem and Taboo» (1912), «The Future of an Illusion» (1927), “Civilization and its discontents” (1929), and last but not least, his last piece of work and his true legacy, “Moses and monotheism” (1938).

Is that really so ? Is Freud’s work a sharp criticism of religion, or, as the Swiss pastor puts it, was there never a better Christian than Freud ? In other words, which new light could psychoanalysis shed on the difficult and sometimes obscure matter of belief ?

Belief and Awareness

«Mankind’s religions must be regarded as collective deliria» [3]. So will claim Freud through his work, especially his two main books on the subject, Civilization and its discontents and the Future of an illusion. The words «collective deliria» should not be taken lightly here. In «the Future of an illusion», which he wrote two years before, Freud choose to talk about «fictions», which he defines as «an unsound, possibly absurd, assumption», and whose archetype is the corpus of «religious doctrines» (pp. 40-41). Again, such illusions are compared to delirium. Trying to characterise illusion, Freud says that it is close, in its very structure, to the «delirious idea in psychiatry» (p. 44).

It seems that from the start, Freud is equating religion with illusion. With that big difference, however, that Freud clearly states the origin of religious illusions : they are derived from «human desires» (The Future, p 44).

«Therefore, we call a belief an illusion, when desire is prevalent as its origin, and by doing this, we disregard the possible link between such belief and reality, as well as illusion itself does not need to be confirmed by reality.» (p. 45).

In order to make himself understood, Freud promptly gives the example of «the alchemists’ illusion of being able to transmute all metals into gold», which simply derives from their «desire to have plenty of gold, as much gold as possible». But which desire is it that makes itself heard in religious beliefs ?

Freud does not need to dwell upon that, as it is commonly admitted that the joyful promise of paradise is much more fulfilling to us than the perspective of the cold reality of death.

However, the question quickly arises : how do such illusions last ? All the more so that «the threat of hells’ pains» (The Future, p. 67), seriously tarnishes the associated perspective of blessed life eternal. It is as if the whole religious construction was based on the simple principle of «forgoing instincts» (Civilization, p. 46), without any other reward than the hope of a remission in the upper world. That should not fool anybody. In the beginning of the XXIst century, the question pertains : how can it be that science and reason have not overcome belief and religion ?

This is when Freud chooses to make a surprising answer and invoke psychoanalysis :

«This is the place to introduce at last a concept which is entirely specific to psychoanalysis, and entirely excluded from classical human thought.»

The idea is simply that consciousness itself, that is, our reasoning mind, originates from that same forgoing of instincts. In other words, instinct comes first, although after a first degree of repression, the apparent order is reverse.

«With the history of the evolution of consciousness, as we know it already, we are tempted to rally the following paradox : awareness originates from the repression if instincts. Or : repressing instincts, which is imposed upon us from the outside, creates awareness, which in turn, requires for itself more repression.» (Civilization, pp. 85-86).

In other words, reason can do nothing again illusion, since it is, together with religion, part of the repression of, or forgoing of, instincts. Reason and illusion have the same origin, belief and consciousness share the same roots.

This assumption may seem paradoxical to the layman, but it stems directly from Freud’s empirical work. In order to understand it, we have to dive into the development of the child’s psyche and into the dynamics of the Freudian unconscious.

Indeed if we admit with Freud that instinct comes first, then the rest follows. The forgoing of the instinct and its fulfilment must be imposed on the child from the outside, that is, from, a superior authority. We do not care much for the time being about which kind of instinct or fulfilment that authority forbids access to, or which kind of authority it is that forbids. The matter is that if instinct comes first, forgoing fulfilment will necessarily generate a new push of instinct, an aggressive one, which Freud calls «vindictive», against that same authority. We are taken here into a seemingly non-ending vicious circle. The problem would be inextricable if the child did not resort to a specific psychic mechanism, identification.

In order to resolve such dilemma, the child has no other option that to identify with the authority which forbids access to the fulfilment of instincts. That specific identification gives rise to a new psychic layer which Freud calls the Superego, which comes, in a way, above the older layers of self identification.

Thus, the child is able to repeat unconsciously, and make his own, the whole play between authority and submission, in a psychic work that borders upon the imaginary, the symbolic and the fantasmatic. The Superego will for instance play the part of the Father, and the Self, that of the child. The play can have many scenarii, in which alternatively the Self unites with the Id in order to annihilate the Superego, or with the Superego in order to punish the Id.

The aggression instinct is therefore made innocuous and compatible with the outside reality, at the cost of an internalization, a real introjection of conflict and aggressiveness, which then can be called a psychic conflict. «Aggression from awareness follows aggression from authority», says Freud (Civilization, p. 86).

This is, according to Freud, the way forgoing instincts, when imposed from an outside authority, generates awareness, which, in turn, will demand more forgoing (Civilization, p. 86).

Along these lines, one easily understands why science cannot exhaust the delusion and illusion of religious belief. It can’t, because awareness, as well as belief, come directly from the forgoing of instincts.

Two questions remain open : if reason and science, on the one hand, and religion and belief, on the other, have the same psychic origin, why did they separate ?

From the imaginary to the symbolic

More precisely, if science and religion can be equated from a psychic point of view, then it is important to be able to, under that same assumption, account for the huge number of existing religions and the wars they wage on each other.

If one has grasped the psychic dynamics that Freud uncovers, one will easily understand that the main conflict inside the psyche, the conflict between the Id and the Superego, rules the whole of our psychic activity. It is therefore no surprise that it also appears on the political scene. Wars between religions, or conflicts between science and religion, are only externalized versions of the internal conflict between the Id and the Superego, as though it was projected on the theatre of daily life, according to the mechanism of projection, i.e. the reverse mechanism to introjection.

“Instincts theory is, so to speak, our mythology”, writes Freud in 1932, in his “New introductory lessons on psychoanalysis”. “Instincts are mythical beings, huge in their imprecision, which we are never certain to see clearly” [4]. What did Freud mean, if not that polytheistic beliefs are highly instinctual, beliefs in multiple Gods, like the id instincts are themselves multiple and partial, while monotheism is the religion of the superego ?

“Yes, I am coming inside your temple in order to adore the Eternal”, says Abner to Joad in the very first verse of Jean Racine’s play, Athalia (Act 1, scene 1). What is the subject of this messianic tragedy, which, according to its very subtitle, is taken from the Holy Scripture ? It condenses the second Book of Kings and the Book of Esther. In the 11th chapter of the Book of Kings, Athalia, in order to avenge her son’s death, kills the whole royal race of David. At least so she thinks ; since without her knowing, Jasabet managed to rescue from slaughter one of the King’s son, Joas. Then she will hide him from Athalia’s view, for six years during which the former will rule without sharing power.

The seventh year however, Grand Priest Joad resolves to renew the alliance by exhibiting the so far hidden king’s heir. Into the Temple, he places the tiara and the Book of Laws on Joas’ head, thereby declaring him king. On that same day, he orders that Athalia be arrested and killed :

“And all the people in the country entered Baal’s temple, and they knocked down his altars, tore his pictures, and killed Mathan, his priest, before the altar “(Second Book of Kings, 11,18).

As for the Book of Esther, it says how she foiled Aman’s plot against the chosen people. In her prayer to God in order to do so, she confesses her sins :

“We have sinned before you, and that is why you have given us up into the hands of our enemies ; because we worshipped their Gods. You are fair, o Lord ; and now it is not enough for them to oppress us into hard servitude ; more, as they want their hands as strong as their idols, they want to knock down your promises, destroy your inheritance, mute those who glorify you, extinguish your temple’s and altars’ glory, in order to let nations speak, to glorify idols and to celebrate for ever a king made of flesh.” (Esther, 14, 6 to 10).

In the background of Racine’s tragedy is the schism, the split of Salomon’s kingdom and its twelve original tribes : Benjamin’s and Juda’s on the one hand, on the other, the ten tribes that will soon establish their capital city in Samaria.

So well painted in Racine’s verses is the move from the imaginary to the symbolic, within faith itself. Baals’ cult is a purely imaginary creed, involving a multitude of local gods, the Baals. During the six first years of her reign, Athalia will provide support to such idolatric worships, which we already encounter in the Genesis as the Golden Calf. They may sometime still involve human sacrifice, and the whole point for monotheism is to impose, via Joas as a king, a more symbolic kind of worship (that of the monotheistic God of the Old Testament), that God who himself stopped the sacrifice he had required from Abraham.

Racine’s first verses are a perfect description of the transition between impulsive polytheism the Baals’ way, and the monotheistic superegoistic religion, which can happen only as a result of an internalization of authority which produces renunciation to the satisfaction of instincts, i.e., out of fear : “I fear God, dear Abner, and have no other fear” (Joad, Act 1, scene 1).

Freud will describe this more than three hundred years after Racine, in the book that serves as his testament, “Moses and the monotheistic religion”. The transition from “henotheism “ to monotheism is similar, in the unconscious, to the move from the imaginary to the symbolic.

Of course, clear evidence of the forgoing of the imaginary is found in the ban on picturing God. More broadly, says Freud, the transition between idolatric polytheism to monotheism is an expression of the forgoing of the imaginary as the motherly, in favour of the symbolic, the Name-of-the-Father :

“Direct sensorial perception is neglected for memory, deduction, thought, all so called superior intellectual processes ; this is equivalent to saying that fatherhood, although it cannot be detected by the senses, matters more than motherhood. That is why the son is named after his father and inherits his name.” (Moses, p. 111).

This is a decisive step for mankind, signified by the move from polytheism to monotheism. This step will have heavy consequences, as it initiates not an evolution, but a “cultural renunciation “ as Freud puts it, a renunciation that will be the foundation for all human societies:

“It is impossible not to realize how largely the building of civilization is based on the principle of forgoing instincts” (Civilization, p 48).

Science and monotheism are once again allied and must satisfy themselves with a common “feeling of pride and self contentment”, which may always have to be paid one day in terms of anxiety and discontent, at a cost which rises and rises with the growing narcissistic requirements of civilization :

“All those psychological positions may have one more common feature, man may be putting a higher price tag on that which is the most difficult for him to reach, may be his pride is laying with the increased narcissism in overcoming difficulty.”(Moses, p. 111)

The theoretical results obtained by Freud stem from his daily practice of psychoanalysis. From this fifty years study of the dynamics of the unconscious psyche, he learnt that all psychological constructions, be they scientific or religious, may be classified as deliria. Isn’t there, nevertheless, a clear dividing line between reason and delirium ? Any delirium is a distorted, but real, memory, says Freud :

“Since it is distorted, it may be called delusion ; but, as it sheds some light on the past, it must be called truth” (Moises, p 121).

The reason why the dividing line between science and religion is not clear-cut, is that the line between desire and delusion is itself fantasmatic. Therefore, in the psyche, a delirium may be reasonable, and reason may be delirious :

“The psychopaths’ madness conceals a fragment of truth, and the patient’s belief is based on that fragment, and then expands to the whole mad construction.” (Moses, p. 121).


Freud’s ideas as presented above, which he advocated in the late twenties, were by far nothing new. Already in 1911, in his “Formulating the two principles of psychic becoming”, a more technical article, was he elaborating this argument in his so-called “economics theory”, involving the famous pleasure principle. The emergence of the Superego, i.e. exchanging the reality principle for the pleasure one, was already presented not as a total destruction of the pleasure principle, but as a way to ensure its continuity in a more spiritual and symbolic way, i.e. less impulsive and less imaginary :

“Instant pleasure, with its uncertain consequences, is abandoned, but it’s only to gain a certain pleasure in the future”. [5].

Again, an archetype for this substitution was to be found in the religious myth of an earth paradise:

“The doctrine of reward in the next world, in exchange for renunciation - voluntary or under constraint - to earthy pleasures, is nothing but the mythical projection of this revolution into the psyche. By elaborating on this model and all its consequences, religions have been able to impose absolute renunciation in this life in exchange for the promise for compensation in a future life.” (Freud, ibid.).

However, Freud was already aware of the risk that the spiritual ideal promoted by the monotheistic religion, would deepen the gap between this ideal and reality. In other words, how difficult it was to overcome once and for all the pleasure principle. Along these lines, he admitted that science had so far been better at it, by promising a new ideal pleasure within renunciation itself:

“Science is better at this renunciation, as it provides intellectual pleasure during work and promises eventually material benefits” [6].

In 1968 however, i.e. thirty years only after Freud’s death, science itself seems to find it somewhat difficult to overcome the backfiring of repressed instincts. It is actually the doctrine of reward here and now, and not in the next world, which is challenged by the “song in the air”, as JA Miller puts it in 1974 :

“There is a song in the air: if there is little joy, it is because of sexual repression, and first family, second society, and third capitalism, are to blame. The question is raised.” [7].

To this question on scientific delusion and capitalist illusion, Jacques Lacan answers :
“Freud did not say that the repression of instincts comes from a ban, an interdiction to do something; that, for example, castration is due to the father shouting at his kid who is fingering his willie : “We shall cut it off you, that’s for sure, if you do it again”.
It is only natural however that Freud should have started from there, from the experience, as defined in analytical terms. Let us say that as he was moving ahead, he was more and more inclined to think that repression was first. This is globally the turning point of the second topics. The superego’s greediness is a structural feature, is not a by-product of civilization, and is the “discontent” (symptom) within civilization” [8].


Translated from french by Mireille MARTINI.
 This text is a translation of a first version of an article which was published in the joint publication «La Croyance» (Studyrama, Principles - general knowledge / Jeunes Editions, Paris, September 2003, pp 127-135).


[1E. Jones, La vie et l’œuvre de Sigmund Freud, vol. 2 : 1901-1919, PUF, Paris, 1961, p. 479.

[2O. Pfister, in E. Jones, La vie et l’œuvre de Sigmund Freud, vol. 2 : 1901-1919, PUF, Paris, 1961, p. 479.

[3Civilization and its discontents, p 27

[4S. Freud, Nouvelles conférences d’introduction à la psychanalyse, " Angoisse et vie pulsionnelle ", [1932], Gallimard, Paris, 1984, p. 129.

[5S. Freud, “Formulations sur les deux principes de l’advenir psychique” [1911], Œuvres complètes, PUF, 1998, vol. XI, p. 18.

[6S. Freud, Œuvre complètes, PUF, 1998, vol. XI, p. 18.

[7J.-A. Miller, Télévision, Seuil, Paris, 1974, p. 47.

[8J. Lacan, Télévision, Seuil, Paris, 1974, p. 48.

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