Here are quotations from Freud about the sociological origins of religious and ethical behaviour:

Freud on the primal father and redemption

In Moses and Monotheism (1939), Freud revisits his theories about the origins of early religious and ethical practices, first articulated in Totem and Taboo (1913), and shows how they can be used to illuminate the origins of Christianity. All page references refer to Moses and Monotheism (1939).

In primaeval times primitive man lived in small hordes, each under the domination of a powerful male. No date can be assigned to this, nor has it been synchronized with the geographical epochs known to us: it is probable that these human creatures had not advanced far in the development of speech. An essential part of the construction is the hypothesis that the events I am about to describe occurred to all primitive men – that is, to all our ancestors. The story is told in an enormously condensed form, as though it had happened on a single occasion, while in fact it covered thousands of years and was repeated countless times during that long period. The strong male was lord and father of the entire horde and unrestricted in his power, which he exercised with violence. All the females were his property – wives and daughters of his own horde and some, perhaps, robbed from other hordes. The lot of his sons was a hard one: if they roused their father’s jealousy they were killed or castrated or driven out. Their only resource was to collect together in small communities, to get themselves wives by robbery, and, when one or other of them could succeed in it, to raise themselves into a position similar to their father’s in the primal horde. For natural reasons, youngest sons occupied an exceptional position. They were protected by their mother’s love, and were able to take advantage of their father’s increasing age and succeed him on his death. We seem to detect echoes in legends and fairy tales both of the expulsion of elder sons and of the favouring of youngest sons.
The first decisive step towards a change in this sort of ‘social’ organisation seems to have been that the expelled brothers, living in a community, united to overpower their father and, as was the custom in those days, devoured him raw. There is no need to balk at this cannibalism; it continued far into later times. The essential point, however, is that we attribute the same emotional attitudes to these primitive men that we are able to establish by analytic investigation in the primitives of the present day – in our children. We suppose, that is, that they not only hated and feared their father but also honoured him as a model, and that each of them wished to take his place in reality. We can, if so, understand the cannibalistic act as an attempt to ensure identification with him by incorporating a piece of him.
It must be supposed that after the parricide a considerable time elapsed during which the brothers disputed with one another for their father’s heritage, which each of them wanted for himself alone. A realisation of the dangers and uselessness of these struggles, a recollection of their act of liberation which they had accomplished together, and the emotional ties with one another which had arisen during the period of their expulsion, led at last to an agreement among them, a sort of social contract. The first form of social organisation came about with a renunciation of instinct, a recognition of mutual obligations, the introduction of definite institutions, pronounced inviolable (holy) – that is to say, the beginnings of morality and justice. Each individual renounced his ideal of acquiring his father’s position for himself and of possessing his mothers and sisters. Thus the taboo on incest and the injunction to exogamy [that relationships should be with someone outside one’s close family or group] came about. A fair amount of the absolute power liberated by the removal of the father passed over to the women; there came a period of matriarchy. Recollection of their father persisted at this period of the ‘fraternal alliance’. A powerful animal – at first, perhaps, always one that was feared as well – was chosen as a substitute for the father. A choice of this kind may seem strange, but the gulf which men established later between themselves and animals did not exist for primitive peoples… In relation to the totem animal the original dichotomy in the emotional relation to the father (ambivalence) was wholly retained. On the one hand the totem was regarded as the clan’s blood ancestor and protective spirit, who must be worshipped and protected, and on the other hand a festival was appointed at which the same fate was prepared form him that the primal father had met with. He was killed and devoured by all the tribesmen in common. This great festival was in fact a triumphant celebration of the combined sons’ victory over their father. (pp.81-83)

What is the place of religion in this connection? I think we are completely justified in regarding totemism, with its worship of a father-substitute, with its ambivalence as shown by the totem meal, with its institution of memorial festivals and of prohibitions whose infringement was punished by death – we are justified, I say, in regarding totemism as the first form in which religion was manifested in human history and in the confirming the fact of its having been linked from the first with social regulations and moral obligations. Here we can only give the most summary survey of the further developments of religion. They no doubt proceeded in parallel with the cultural advances of the human race and with the changes in the structure of human communities.
The first step away from totemism was the humanising of the being who was worshipped. In place of the animals, human gods appear, whose derivation from the totem is not concealed. The god is still represented either in the form of an animal or at least with an animal’s face, or the totem becomes the god’s favourite companion, inseparable from him, or legend tells us that the god slew this precise animal, which was after all only a preliminary stage of himself. At a point in this evolution which is not easily determined great mother-goddesses appeared, probably even before the male gods, and afterwards persisted for a long time beside them. In the meantime a great social revolution had occurred. Matriarchy was succeeded by the re-establishment of a patriarchal order. The new fathers, it is true, never achieved the omnipotence of the primal father; there were many of them, who lived together in associations larger than the horde had been. They were obliged to be on good terms with one another, and remained under the limitation of social ordinances. It is likely that the mother-goddesses originated at the time of the curtailment of the matriarchy, as a compensation for the slight upon the mothers. The male deities appear first as sons beside the great mothers and only later clearly assume the features of father-figures. These male gods of polytheism reflect the conditions during the patriarchal age. They are numerous, mutually restrictive, and are occasionally subordinated to a superior high god. The next step, however, leads us to the theme with which we were here concerned – to the return of a single father-god of unlimited dominion. (pp.83-84)

The world-empire of the Pharaohs was the determining cause of the emergence of the monotheist idea… The primal father, in a now deified form, was re-established in his historic position. (pp.85-86, paraphrased slightly)

From Darwin I borrowed the hypothesis that human beings originally lived in small hordes, each of which was under the despotic rule of an older male who appropriated all the females and castigated or disposed of the younger males, including his sons. From Atkinson I took, in continuation of this account, the idea that this patriarchal system ended in a rebellion by the sons, who banded together against their father, overcame him and devoured him in common. Basing myself on Robertson Smith’s totem theory, I assumed that subsequently the father-horde gave place to the totemic brother-clan. In order to be able to live in peace with one another, the victorious brothers renounced the women on whose account they had, after all, killed their father, and instituted exogamy. The power of fathers was broken and the families were organised as a matriarchy. The ambivalent emotional attitude of the sons to their father remained in force during the whole of later development. A particular animal was set up in the father’s place as a totem. It was regarded as ancestor and protective spirit and might not be injured or killed. But once a year the whole male community came together to a ceremonial meal at which the totem animal (worshipped at all other times) was torn to pieces and devoured in common. No one might absent himself from this meal: it was the ceremonial repetition of the killing o the father, with which social order, moral laws and religion had taken their start. (p.131)

Authorities have often been struck by the faithful way in which the sense and content of the old totem meal is repeated in the rite of Christian Communion, in which the believer incorporates the blood and flesh of his god in symbolic form. (p.84)

The Christian ceremony of Holy Communion, in which the believer incorporates the Saviour’s blood and flesh, repeats the content of the old totem meal – no doubt only in its affectionate meaning, expressive of veneration, and not in its aggressive meaning. (p.87)

Paul, a Roman Jew from Tarsus, seized upon this sense of guilt and traced it back correctly to its original source. He called this the ‘original sin’; it was a crime against God and could only be atoned for by death. With the original sin death came into the world. In fact this crime deserving death had been the murder of the primal father who was later deified. But this murder was not remembered: instead of it there was a fantasy of its atonement, and for that reason this fantasy could be hailed as a message of redemption. A son of God had allowed himself to be killed without guilt and had thus taken on himself the guilt of all men…
That the redeemer had sacrificed himself without guilt was evidently a tendentious distortion, which offered difficulties to logical understanding. For how could someone guiltless of the act of murder take on himself the guilt of the murderers by allowing himself to be killed? In the historical reality there was no such contradiction. The ‘redeemer’ could be none other than the most guilty person, the ringleader of the company of brothers who had overpowered their father… We must also bear in mind that each one of the company of brothers certainly had a wish to commit the deed by himself alone and so to create an exceptional position for himself… In any case the origin of the concept of a hero is to be found at this point – the hero who always rebels against his father and kills him in some shape or other…
The ambivalence that dominates the relation to the father was clearly shown, however, in the final outcome of the religious novelty… Judaism had been a religion of the father; Christianity became a religion of the son. The old God the Father fell back behind Christ; Christ, the Son, took his place, just as every son had hoped to do in primaeval times… [Paul] abandoned the ‘chosen’ character of his people and its visible mark – circumcision – so that the new religion could be a universal one, embracing all men…
It was no longer strictly monotheist [the possible lack of clarity in the Trinitarian concept of God], it took over numerous symbolic rituals from surrounding peoples, it re-established the great mother-goddess [veneration of Mary] and found room to introduce many of the divine figures of polytheism only lightly veiled, though in subordinate positions [the saints]. (pp.86-88)

It was after all a Jewish man, Saul of Tarsus (who, as a Roman citizen, called himself Paul), in whose spirit the realisation first emerged: ‘the reason we are so unhappy is that we have killed God the father.’ And it is entirely understandable that he could grasp this piece of truth in the delusional disguise of the glad tidings: ‘we are freed from all guilt since one of us has sacrificed his life to absolve us.’ In this formula the killing of God was of course not mentioned, but a crime that had to be atoned by the sacrifice of a victim could only have been a murder. And the intermediate step between the delusion and the historical truth was provided by the assurance that the victim of the sacrifice had been God’s son. With the strength which it derived from the source of historical truth, this new faith overthrew every obstacle. The blissful sense of being chosen was replaced by the liberating sense of redemption… The unnameable crime [the murder of the primal father] was replaced by the hypothesis of what must be described as a shadowy ‘original sin’.
Original sin and redemption by the sacrifice of a victim became the foundation stones of the new religion founded by Paul… It is worth noticing how the new religion dealt with the ancient ambivalence in relation to the father. Its main content was, it is true, reconciliation with God the Father, atonement for the crime committed against him; but the other side of the emotional relation showed itself in the fact that the son, who had taken the atonement on himself, became a god himself beside the father and, actually, in place of the father. (pp.135-136)

Freud tries to argue that people have unconscious memories of significant events like the murder of the Primal Father that happened many generations ago. His justification for this claim is that these memories could be inherited genetically, in the same way as physical characteristics. This is not desperately plausible and is akin to Lamarckian evolution (the theory that an animal’s desires and thoughts affect how their offspring develop – so the giraffe’s desire to reach the top branches means that baby giraffes have longer necks).
However, perhaps these ideas and memories do present themselves, in a subtle or subliminal sense, in the stories, myths and traditions passed down from generation to generation, and from the values and ideas that shape our upbringing. These affect how we are disposed to react in particular situations and so it may be as if we are responding to the original event.


Freud on the origins of monotheism

We understand how a primitive man is in need of a god as creator of the universe, as chief of his clan, as personal protector. This god takes his position behind the dead fathers [of the clan], about whom tradition still has something to say. A man of later days, of our own day, behaves in the same way. He, too, remains childish and in need of protection, even when he is grown up; he thinks that he cannot do without support from his god. That much is undisputed. But it is less easy to understand why there may only be a single god, why precisely the advance from henotheism [in which multiple gods are believed to exist, possibly in a hierarchy, but where individuals generally only worship one of them] to monotheism acquires an overwhelming significance. No doubt it is true, as we have explained, that the believer has a share in the greatness of his god; and the greater the god the more reliable is the protection which he can offer. But a god’s power does not necessarily presuppose that he is the only one. Many peoples regarded it only as a glorification of their chief god if he ruled over other deities who were inferior to him, and they did not think it diminished his greatness if there were other gods besides him. Moses and Monotheism, 1939, p.128

In Moses and Monotheism (1939), Freud gives an account of how monotheistic beliefs came to prevalence amongst the Jewish people, attempting to elucidate the historical truth on which the Old Testament is based. He argues that Jewish monotheism has its roots in Egyptian monotheism.

In ancient Egypt, there was a short-lived monotheistic religion adopted and promoted by the Pharaoh Akhenaten. The religion was unpopular with the former priesthood and common people, who preferred the better-known (to us) polytheistic Egyptian religion. After Akhenaten died, there was a period of social upheaval in which the new monotheism was rejected and much evidence of the monotheist Aten religion was destroyed.

“In Egypt… monotheism grew up as a by-product of imperialism: God was a reflection of the Pharaoh who was the absolute ruler of a great world-empire” (p.65). As the Egyptian empire spread and encompassed an ever wider area, it was felt that any deity worshipped should not be confined to a local area, or have a narrow domain of influence, as in polytheistic religions. Rather, a god should reign over everything. The greatness of Akhenaten’s Aten deity mirrored the greatness of the empire (and the Pharaoh’s power).

The Egyptian monotheism purportedly involved sun-worship. However, the sun was not worshipped as a material object, but as a symbol of the divine being, Aten. Aten was described as the only God, besides whom there was no other. It may have been the case that other deities were believed to exist, though they were subservient and much less powerful. Aten was described as the creator and preserver of all living things. He abhorred pompous ceremony and sacrifices (rejecting the rituals of the polytheistic religion) but required that his followers simply have faith and live in truth and justice. There was no mention of any afterlife or any kingdom of the dead (a renunciation of beliefs about immortality – in opposition to beliefs associated with Osiris). [Note the clear parallels with Judaism – not only in terms of the ideas about the nature of God and the way people should respond, but also in the absence of any mention of continued existence after death (at least in the oldest parts of the Old Testament.]

Freud argues that Moses was an Egyptian. His first reason for this claim is simply that his name, Moses, is Egyptian (e.g. as in Tuthmosis). Secondly: There are many mythical stories in antiquity (from Greece, Rome, Babylon) in which a hero of noble birth is found or comes from water, and is raised by humble people or animals, subsequently to reclaim the noble status that is rightfully his. The Moses story has a twist in that Moses is raised by Egyptian nobles (as a prince), but is supposedly the son of humble Israelites. This twist indicates that the purpose of the birth story is to make Moses a member of the Jewish people, rather than a foreigner – an objective only necessary if Moses was indeed a foreigner. Also, according to the Bible, Moses was ‘slow of speech’ and spoke through an interpreter: his ‘brother’ Aaron. This could be explained if Moses did not speak the same language as the Semitic (later Jewish) tribes he was leading.

Moses was an Egyptian noble, perhaps a relative of Akhenaten, a prince or priest or both, perhaps a governor of a province. He was a committed adherent of the Aten religion. When Akhenaten died and the temples started to be defaced and all memory of the ‘heretical’ religion was being erased, Moses chose some Semitic tribes and led them out of Egypt. Moses chose these tribes, hence, “Chosen people” (later, this choosing was re‑written as God choosing the people). Moses must have had power and authority to lead the people and to then force his Aten religion on them. The civil unrest and anarchy when Akhenaten fell (a period of maybe 20 years) provided ample opportunity for the Semitic tribes to leave Egypt without being pursued. So, the Exodus is based on historical fact. The Semitic tribes initially led by Moses combined with other tribes who worshipped Yahweh, a local volcano god, and the majority of the people adopted much of the religious practices associated with worshipping him.

Moses was short-tempered, angry, ruthless and jealous. These characteristics are demonstrated in Bible by him killing an Egyptian, smashing the stone tablets etc. These are likely to be genuine characteristics, rather than later additions, since they are rather unattractive qualities that ill-befit a hero. Later, these characteristics became attributed to God, which perhaps explains the references in the Old Testament to God being angry etc. It also became God who had led the people out of Egypt.

Moses introduced the practice of circumcision to the Semitic tribes. This was already an Egyptian practice, and by being circumcised the Semitic people could be at least the equals (not inferior) to the Egyptians of Moses’s past. This symbol would also provide unity and set them apart from foreigners in the lands they were invading. It would not, of course, set them apart from the Egyptians. Moses’s introduction of circumcision was then backdated by later Jewish commentators to God instructing Abraham.

Moses was eventually murdered. Freud argues that this event was preserved for a time in the oral tradition, although it was not admitted in the ‘official’ written account of the later Jewish scholars. The Messianic prophecies are seen as attempts to cope with the murder of Moses, in that the Jewish people would be absolved of this crime if he were not dead and if he ‘returned’.

The descendents of the Egyptians who came with Moses (he presumably did not undertake the Exodus alone) are the Levites, many of whom, in the Bible, have Egyptian names. They formed an influential minority amongst the Jewish people.

The Old Testament then details the conflicts between the two religious strands amongst the Jewish people: between the former ‘local’ Yahweh deity, whose worship involved graven images, offerings, sacrifice, rituals; and the Aten deity, whose worship involved no images, no ceremony or sacrifices, but was a single God who required his followers to live in truth and justice. The (Aten) monotheistic beliefs were held by a minority which infrequently came to prominence, perhaps under particular charismatic individuals who tried to convert all the people and reorientate them to the religion of Moses. These individuals are recorded as the prophets of the Old Testament.