"The whole thing is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this [religious] view of life"
Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents 1930
When I had originally begun to research and write this paper I focused on analyzing Carl Jung's perspective on religion and religious rituals. I was struck by the fact that Sigmund Freud's theories were totally devoid of any mention of religion or religious rituals. I was more intrigued by Freud's rejection of all religious belief than Jung's analysis of religions.
There are many perspectives of the psychology of religion; in fact these perspectives have often been criticized and praised by religious adherents. Most psychological research has rightly avoided the question of the existence of a deity. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychology viewed religion as little more than a form of mental illness. Freud utilized three clinical tools that seem to border on the superstitious/spiritual: hypnotism, free association and dream analysis. It is somewhat amusing to me that Freud is willing to readily accept dream analysis and hypnotism but is instinctively dismissive of all religious experiences. Instead of recognizing the beneficial qualities of religion as Jung does, Freud posited that religion could be “cured” through psychoanalysis. Jung would readily accept the symbolic positive qualities of religion and utilize this possibly to help a patient. While Freud rarely made use of hypnotism, he did not advise against its use on an individual basis as a means of self-analysis. Although hypnotism did not become a central approach in Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, he did recommend it as a way resolving neuroses, such as religion. Limited use of hypnotism is not the only clinical implication of Freud’s psychology of religion; the expressive therapy known as free association is also a key method in curing the religion “neurosis” according to Freud. From my perspective hypnotism is itself yet another mystical substitute for religion and spirituality. While Freud was adamant about not using suggestive commentary, he still supported the use of a form of pressure in psychoanalytic therapy, as he explains “ although the patient can rid himself of an hysterical symptom only after reproducing and uttering under emotion its casual pathogenic impressions, yet the therapeutic task merely consists in inducing him to do it” (“Selected Papers on Hysteria” 72). By pressuring a patient in this manner, Freud was able to find the “true” repressed problems, such as the Oedipal issue which he felt resulted in religion, and supposedly treat the disorders. Although Freud strongly defended the success of psychoanalytic therapy, current perspectives of his writings have revealed the problems with the use of free association. Needless to say Freud's other theories such as penis envy, the oedipal complex the Electra complex have all come under fierce criticism from feminists and others. There is a minimal amount of analysis and intervention involved in free association-- and what analysis does exist is whatever the psychotherapist decides does exist.
Psychology has mostly shunned the use of hypnotism and free association, but dream analysis remains a widespread theory produced by Freud. Unlike the hidden hand of the therapist guiding free association – in The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud maintained “there is a psychological technique which makes it possible to interpret dreams, and that on the application of this technique every dream will reveal itself as a psychological structure, full of significance, and one which may be assigned to a specific place in the psychic activities of the waking state” (137). When a patient unknowingly exhibits resistance to exposing unconscious sources of grief, such