Freud on religion and ethics – a (very brief) summary

Moral awareness
  • superego – created due to repeated praise/ punishment from parents and authority figures – internalised – (projection mechanism: I desire boundaries, security, praise and punishment) Þ internal source of authority to which I defer. = conscience – I feel guilt if I do not ‘obey’ super-ego and pride when I obey
  • initial response to murder of primal father – first primitive morality (murder and incest/exogamy taboos) and ritual practices – these then propagated and developed over generations through our culture and religious rituals, practices, stories, myths – this has shaped us, and we too now have similar moral awareness

Religious experiences
  • my desire for a religious experience induces the experience (projection)
  • illusions – projection, wish-fulfilment e.g. NDEs – Heaven, peace, continued existence; experience is of God (because I really want it); I want my traumatic experience to have meant something; I impose my preferred religious interpretation (or an interpretation I have heard, power of suggestion, copying others e.g. “it’s not your time”, alien abduction) so that it supports my belief system and makes it meaningful; I really want to experience the Holy Spirit Þ I feel I do
  • primal father story starts with us feeling guilt, then later through Jesus or other more recent religious movements, we get the possibility of no longer feeling guilty – the intensity of realising no longer guilty (overcoming your attachment to “primal father” guilt) Þ radical conversion experiences e.g. Paul

Explanation and assessment of religious belief
  • projection of our desires; wish-fulfilment (so subsequent beliefs are illusions – technical sense) – I don’t want to feel insignificant, that my life is meaningless; I don’t want to die; I don’t want to be alone, unloved; I want boundaries, direction, guidance
  • super-ego – desires and wishes internalised Þ conscience or super-ego, substitute parent, father, authority-figure – make us feel secure (know where we stand), loved
  • similarities between religious practice/ritual and neurotic illnesses e.g. paranoid schizophrenia and, especially, obsessive-compulsive disorder; omnipotence of thoughts – projecting my desire for control (over things that are not in my control), doing my rituals/prayers so God will look favourably on me and act for my ends
  • primal father murder in various communities Þ basic morality and rituals, to ingrain memory of guilt and new basic morality; propagated and developed over successive generations in rituals and practices Þ alternative (anthropological as well as psychological) mechanism for belief in God and wider religious practice and belief

Evaluation of Freud
  • based on evidence from his own psychological clinical practice and experimental observations, plus anthropological research carried out by leading anthropologists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries
    • difficult for us to judge the reliability of this empirical evidence base
    • perhaps we should be suspicious of Freud cherry-picking evidence that suits his purposes and indeed finding so much, while omitting evidence that counters his position
    • perhaps we should be wary of his enthusiasm for favourite hypotheses involving sexual trauma during childhood
  • Freud hasn’t proved there is no God, conscience etc. – believers can still believe in God
    • Freud has identified some bad reasons people have for believing in God, but I have better reasons for believing so I’m OK(!)
    • perhaps God has made us such that we get to the right answer (God) albeit by a funny mechanism?
  • but Freud undermines reasons for belief – people can still believe (you can do what you like!) but you have no reason to any more.
    • Freud offers several different mechanisms which account for religious belief, religious experience and conscience – it is no longer the case that the only possible explanation is ‘God’.