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Who was the very first advocate of a psychological approach to religion?


Ludwig Feurbach


What did Feuerbach argue?

  • reality of God can be reduced to a human projection
  • “God did not make man in his own image…man has made God in his image”
  • argued religion is actually the study of man- “theology is anthropology”
  • god is essentially an idealist version of a human being. Humans are not capable of achieving perfection so project it onto the idea of God all those qualities which they would like to have
  • humans are driven by their imperfect nature
  • “divine being is nothing else than…the human nature purified”

What did Sigmund Freud argue in general?

  • “at bottom God is nothing other than an exalted father” “God is an infantile projection of the human need for protection.”
  • belief in god needs to be cured- a neurosis
  • religion is an illusion
  • he was an atheist
  • religion is created by the mind to help overcome inner psychological conflict, stress which stems from the structure of society and fear of the dangers of the natural world
  • saw link between the behaviour of his patients in relation to the source of their obsession and religious people in relation to their object of worship. Both involve highly specific ritual behaviour.

Religion as an aid to over come inner psychological conflict

  • terrors of the natural world- religion offers stability in dealing with helplessness, eg. in the face of death- fulfils our wish to feel safe and secure in the world
  • conflict of society/instinct- society stops us following the id’s desires, but religion (the need to obey God) acts as human conscience, promising that controlling the instincts will be rewarded for in the afterlife
  • the longing for a father figure- believers turn to God for protection from the evils of the world; Freud says that this is simply a form of wish fulfilment, an illusion

Oedipus Complex and Freud’s opinion

  • Freud- “at the bottom of every case of hysteria there are one or more occurrences of premature sexual experience…earliest childhood”
  • idea of libido in babies and repressed sexual desire
  • mind cannot fully repress memories in the unconscious mind so they surface in neurotic symptoms
  • unconscious mind creates God as a projection of the early father figure
  • all human beings long for an unconditional father figure who can accept them as they are and forgive all the dark sides of their character

Libido and repression

  • sexual drive is the body’s most basic urge and capable of causing most psychological problems within the development of the individual, not just about desire for sex, represents the bodies general subconscious desire for satisfaction from the unconscious mind
  • in babies it centres around the mouth- desire to suckle, wants sole attention of the mother which leads to jealousy, hatred, respect and fear for the father, unable to carry out wishes so it is suppressed in the unconscious mind which later surface as neurotic symptoms e.g. religion

What is the key question?


Did God create us or have we created God?


Religious as a collective neurosis

  • Freud’s work on hysteria patients
  • work on hypnosis and study of dreams
  • ego- reality principle, secondary process thinking
  • superego- moral imperative
  • id, pleasure principle, primary process thinking

Support for the Oedipus Complex


primal horde theory

  • Freud used Darwin’s work to speculate that in primitive societies, the social unit was the primal horde- people arranged around a single, dominant male who had total authority over the group and claim over all the females
  • resentment of the younger males grows leading them to feel AMBIVALENT towards the dominant male- hatred, jealousy and respect. They group together and kill him. Their veneration and respect makes them feel very guilty so they idolise the deceased dominant male and make him into a totem of worship.
  • Freud gave 5 major case studies to illustrate the Oedipus complex- one was Wolf Man- Sergei Pankejeff who had a fear of animals, Freud traced it back to when Pankejeff was a child he witnessed sexual acts of his parents. Over time the repressed trauma surfaced as God and a fear of wolves.


  • first stage of development of religion
  • when suffering from extreme guilt, mind’s defence mechanism is to create idols
  • involves investing stones, trees or animals with spirits
  • mind is therefore able to control feelings of guilt
  • idol is transformation of the father, so it is treated with ambivalence like original father
  • Freud’s case studies demonstrate that patients with Oedipus complex often transfer fear onto animals
  • took it further onto primal horde, totems were often animals
  • generally the ambivalence remained so that the animal was forbidden to be harmed at all, except for ritual killings

Religion as wish fulfilment

  • in ‘the future of illusion (1927)’, Freud outlined his view that religious belief is reaction against helplessness, providing adults with a father figure who can protect as the father protected the child
  • Christian religion fulfils wishes for someone to look after us in a harsh world. God is ultimate ideal of a father, being all loving, all powerful and totally dependable, giving people reassurance that the future is in safe hands in an unstable and uncertain world
  • “it would be very nice if there were a God who created the world and was a benevolent providence and there were a moral order and an afterlife…all this is exactly as we wish it to be”
  • religious belief is “an adolescent stage in the development of the human race from which humanity should free itself”
  • “at bottom god is nothing other than an exalted father” or God is an invention of the superego

Freud’s conclusion about the value of religion

  • Freud admitted that he could not prove god didn’t exist, god could exist objectively
  • but he pointed out that beliefs that are derived from basic psychological needs e.g. the beliefs of obsessional neurotics which are invariably false
  • Freud argued that absence of evidence for religion means that we can justify it as false
  • supports a complete rejection of all things religious
  • at the end of the book he creates a conversation with an opponent which raises two important points on religion- without it civilisation turned into anarchy without fear of divine judgement, depriving people of religion is needlessly cruel as many people find comfort
  • Freud admitted that religion has performed some ‘great services for civilisation’ and accepted that if religion were entirely positive it would be cruel to deprive people, illusion it may be
  • but religion is not beneficial we it does not prevent people from rebelling and people have abused religion to justify social immortalities, also used as a tool of repression, religion doesn’t always stop people from sinning

What was Freud’s alternative to religion?

  • scientific rational understanding of the world
  • this would make people more willing to obey the demands of civilisation, see them as for their own personal good
  • believe it was possible for humans to be educated to make unruly passions subservient to their wills
  • Freud argued that the pain of removing religion would be more than justified by the benefits

Critical evaluation of Freud


Michael Palmer- “almost all the evidence that Freud presents has been discredited in one way or another”
E.E Evans-Pritchard- no evidence for primal horde
Bronislaw Malinowski- no evidence for Oedipus complex
-Freud’s dependence on a narrow selection of evidence
-unjustifiable negative view of religion- Donald Winnicott- religion helps people to adapt to their environment,,,, Ana Maria Rizzuto- religion is no more of an illusion than science, both involve human interpretation


How has Freud’s work on the Oedipus Complex been disputed?

  • anthropological evidence for the primal horde
  • psychological evidence- Trobriand Race where father is the primary carer
  • narrow selection of evidence
  • unjustifiably negative view of religion

On what grounds has Freud’s primal horde theory been criticised?

  • not accepted now that all people lived in hordes and no evidence for ambivalent attitude towards totems, which they didn’t all have
  • guilt inheritance is discredited in same way
  • weakens Oedipus complex because primal horde was important illustration of its affects on society

Give examples of situation where Freud’s theory would not fit. How does this affect the strength of his theory of religion?

  • Trobriand Race- father is primary carer of the child
  • Isis Egyptian Cult worships women. Hinduism worships female Gods and more than one, as does Buddhism

He is narrow in where he finds evidence, not considering different cultures, sot be theory does not fit universally.


Do you agree that Freud’s view of religion is unjustifiably negative?


Doesn’t focus on hope, comfort and help with adaption to situations in society although it can be argued music and art have the same effect
Freud focuses too closely on all the negative things in religion


Outline Carl Jung’s Life


Influenced by Freud but had his own ideas
Spent part of his life as Freud’s prodigy
Accepted religion was a psychological phenomenon but objected to Freud’s negative conclusions
Only surviving child of 4, mother was depressed and often absent
At 12, lost consciousness and began fainting every time he was supposed to study
Worked in Zurich Uni Asylum, met Freud in 1907
Jung rejected Freud’s emphasis on sex as the sole source of behaviour motivation


What did Carl Jung specifically believe?


Religion is a natural process that comes from the archetypes in the unconscious mind
Harmonises the psyche, so is a beneficial phenomenon
Removal of religion could lead to psychological problems


How did Jung believe the human mind was structured?


Ego (unconscious mind), the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious


The unconscious and the collective unconscious


Collective- oldest part of the mind
Fantasy of Miss Miller, schizophrenic who had a dream in which her desire for God was compared with desire for light, you can inherit the tendency to conceive the image




Part of the psyche that creates these shared images and ideas. ‘Identical psychic structures common to all’
Persona- give a good false impression to cover our true nature for the benefit of society
Shadow- disposition to portray the darker sides of our character, so we hate it and and pick up on them in others
Anima- female side of the masculine e.g. goddesses, heroines
Animus- male side of the feminine e.g. heroes or wise men

Jung believed that God was an archetype and all he was associated with was too e.g. Angels. Archetypes help to integrate the psyche and make us understand who we really are.


Test card no answer




Key archetypes to do with religion


God archetype- we are all born with the innate tendency to create images of God based on our own experience e.g. Light
Self archetype- symbolises the unification of the conscious and unconscious mind. Unlike the ego it is the unity of the whole psyche.


What is individuation and why was it important to Jung?


Spontaneous process to balance the personality of a human through the integration of the conscious and unconscious minds. Represented by the self archetype and might involve reflecting on messages in dreams, art and poetry. Benefits mental health but is hard because it involves revealing darker sides of the personality.


Religion responds to Jung’s challenges


Geza Roheim- similar images are because of experience
Many people don’t believe- if we are pre-disposed to believe why doesn’t everyone
Some say experiences from the mind are not religious because they are not external
Jung fails to understand the distinctness of religion by combining all archetypal experiences
Jung fails to understand the true meaning of Christ, it is more than an image for Christians


How did Jung explain neuroses?


Libido is the source of psychic energy, neuroses come from a psychic imbalance
Mental health issues happen when the conscious and unconscious minds are not balanced or integrated


Jung’s conclusions about individuation and mental health


Religious images help to integrate the psyche, non believers are rejecting a large part of the individuation process
They are less likely to individuate, therefore the imbalance or psychological tension can cause neurosis


Relationship between religion and mental illness


Freud said it leads to obsessive neurotic behaviour, can’t let go of guilt or turmoil
Prevents maturing and developing, so is destructive for mental health
Unhealthy amount of guilt and self-worth is reduced


Views that refute a relationship between religion and mental illness


It can help with dealing with a difficult situation and make you a happier person
Individuation means less likely to have neurosis
Religious communities offer somewhere safe and comforting to be
Not all religious people are mentally ill or have excessive guilt