Freud and the Church

Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theories have influenced, not destroyed, American Christianity bringing to the church a deeper understanding of psychology and relationships. Since his one and only trip to the United States in 1909, many of Freud’s theories have been disputed, refined, and replaced with medical models. Yet his approach to psychiatry and development of psychoanalytic theory and method continue to inform medical and faith communities today. These innovations have overshadowed his somewhat negative and condescending analyses of the origin and purpose of religion. In his written works, Freud stated up front that he was an atheist. When he wrote The Future of an Illusion (1927), he equated religion with illusion. Analyzing religion as he would a patient, Freud claimed that man’s relationship to God is a reenactment of his relation with his father.

Now that God was a single person, man’s relations to him could recover the intimacy and intensity of the child’s relation to his father. But if one had done so much for one’s own father, one wanted to have a reward, or at least to be his only beloved child, his Chosen People. Very much later, pious America laid claim to being ‘God’s own Country’; and, as regards one of the shapes in which men worship the deity, the claim is undoubtedly valid. [1]

Furthermore, here he reduced America’s claim as “God’s Own Country” to the nation’s need to be the Chosen People, pious and therefore the only beloved child.

According to Freud, God represents and takes the place of our father. Religion stems from our need and desire to reclaim our infantile relationship with our protective and powerful biological father. Religion, according to Freud, represents the child’s wish that his father protect him. Mary Ellen Ross, Associate Professor of Religion at Trinity University, summarizes this Freudian analysis of our psychological need for God in the face of every day anxieties.

The anxieties that adult life brings … call to the surface the desire for protection that the individual first experiences as a helpless child. It is this anxiety that explains the deep emotional appeal of the idea of a protective divinity who, in some sense, benevolently oversees human life. [2]

Freud believed that religion fulfilled a psychological need, not a divine purpose or greater truth. He did, though, acknowledge religion’s social function.

Religion has clearly performed great services for human civilization. It has contributed much towards the taming of the asocial instincts. But not enough. It has ruled human society for many thousands of years and has had time to show what it can achieve. If it had succeeded in making the majority of mankind happy, in comforting them, in reconciling them to life and in making them into vehicles of civilization, no one would dream of attempting to alter the existing conditions. But what do we see instead? We see that an appallingly large number of people are dissatisfied with civilization and unhappy in it, and feel it a yoke which must be shaken off; and that these people either do everything in their power to change that civilization, or else go so far in their hostility to it that they will have nothing to do with civilization or with a restriction of instinct. [3]

Here he felt that religion fails for it does not make us happy. But that is not the goal of Christianity. The New Testament claims that Jesus died for man’s salvation, not for man’s happiness here on earth. Still, in his critique of religion, we can gain insight into why many leave their faith, reject God, and turn to secular belief systems. This understanding can enable Christians to combat secularization. Christians must understand psychological and scientific advances not fear them as threats to religious faith. Unfortunately, as Freud observed, many consider science a threat to their religious beliefs.

We believe that it is possible for scientific work to gain some knowledge about the reality of the world, by means of which we can increase our power and in accordance with which we can arrange our life. If this belief is an illusion, then we are in the same position as you are. But science has given us evidence by its numerous and important successes that it is no illusion. Science has many open enemies, and many more secret ones, among those who cannot forgive her for having weakened religious faith and for threatening to overthrow it. [4]

Many Christians in Freud’s day, and many still today, believe that science, including psychiatry, poses a threat to our faith. Some Christians found in Freud’s work a moral affront to their religious beliefs and values. William Newell (c. 1868-1956) expressed his disgust with Freud’s teachings, claiming that he and other scientists such as Darwin are evil and teach sin.

Verse 22: Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools— Rejecting the light of God’s knowledge in their consciences, men now arrogated to themselves wisdom, and became—what? Fools! “The fear of the Lord is the beginning” —of both knowledge and wisdom (Prov. 1:7; 9:10; 15:33; Ps. 111:10; Job 28:28).

The silliness of these “modern” shallow-pan days! How men are rushing back to the old pagan pit out of which God’s Word and His gospel would have delivered them! They suck up sin; they welter in wickedness; they profess to be wise! They sit at the feet of “professors” whose breath is spiritual cyanide. They idolize the hog-sty doctrines of a rotten Freud*: and count themselves “wise”! They say, “God is not a person; men evolved from monkeys; morals are mere old habits; self-enjoyment, self-expression, indulgence of all desires—this,” they say, “is the path of wisdom.” It is the path of those who go quickly down to the pit and on to judgment! The very morals of Sodom, as our Lord foretold, are rushing fast upon us, and God will bring again the awful doom of Sodom (Luke 17:28-31). [5]

In spite of this vituperative reaction, many Christians find no conflict between science and their faith in Jesus or in the Bible. Most modern day Christians agree with Freud’s belief that science increases our understanding of the world. Science has not weakened or overthrown religious faith.

Religion, in fact, has continued to play a large and meaningful role in many people’s lives in spite of Freud’s theories. Even Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) has not destroyed the Christian church. Here Freud again analyzed religious belief. He examined mystical religious encounters, relating them to the immature ego which at birth does not experience itself as a separate entity, but instead as in union with all else. He refuted the religious meaning claimed by those who have known this oceanic feeling. Here also he describes religious feelings and beliefs as delusion, going farther than his previous claim that religion is illusion.

[W]e are perfectly willing to acknowledge that the ‘oceanic’ feeling exists in many people, and we are inclined to trace it back to an early phase of ego-feeling…

The derivation of religious needs from the infant’s helplessness and the longing for the father aroused by it seems to me incontrovertible, especially since the feeling is not simply prolonged from childhood days, but is permanently sustained by fear of the superior power for a father’s protection. Thus the part played by the oceanic feeling, which might seek something like the restoration of limitless narcissism, is ousted from a place in the foreground. The origin of the religious attitude can be traced back in clear outlines as far as the feeling of infantile helplessness…

I can imagine that the oceanic feeling became connected with religion later on. The ‘oneness with the universe’ which constitutes its ideational content sounds like a first attempt at a religious consolation, as though it were another way of disclaiming the danger which the ego recognizes as threatening it from the external world. [6]

After dismissing the mystical religious experiences of many believers, Freud revisited his claims regarding man’s need for happiness and fulfillment in Civilization and Its Discontents. He argued that man’s primary drive is the pursuit of pleasure and therefore of becoming happy. Man cannot succeed in this goal, yet must continue trying. Here Freud offered his most scathing critique of religion, accusing it of mass delusion.

The programme of becoming happy, which the pleasure principle imposes on us, cannot be fulfilled; yet we must not – indeed, we cannot – give up our efforts to bring it nearer to fulfillment by some other means or other. Very different paths may be taken in that direction, and we may give priority either to the positive aspect of the aim, that of gaining pleasure, or to its negative one, that of avoiding unpleasure. By none of these paths can we attain all that we desire…

Religion restricts this play of choice and adaptation, since it imposes equally on everyone its own path to the acquisition of happiness and protection from suffering. Its technique consists in depressing the value of life and distorting the picture of the real world in a delusional manner – which presupposes an intimidation of the intelligence. At this price, by forcibly fixing them in a state of psychical infantilism and by drawing them into a mass-delusion, religion succeeds in sparing many people an individual neurosis. But hardly anything more. [7]

As we see here in Civilization and Its Discontents Freud claimed religion is a “delusion,” a far harsher description than the “illusion” of religion he used in The Future of an Illusion. Addressing this change of view, Mary Ellen Ross states:

By the time Freud came to publish “Civilization and Its Discontents” (1930), however, his views on religion had undergone an important modification. No longer satisfied with the word “illusion” to describe religion, Freud now termed it a “delusion.” That is, he no longer regarded religion as the attempt to fulfill an infantile wish; rather, he believed religion constituted an attempt to escape reality. [8]

Rather than escape reality, Christians must heed God’s call as Jesus instructs us in Luke 9:1-2 (NRSV):

1 Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, 2 and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.

Jesus calls us to heal, the same mandate that Freud followed. We could argue that without realizing it Freud responded to God’s call by devoting his life to psychiatry, to the healing of mental illness, of the demons that haunt us.

The psychiatric community, like the medical community as a whole, is now and was then devoted to healing. Likewise, the Christian community had an obligation to heal as written in Luke 9:1-2. In spite of this commonality, before Freud the Christian church had little contact or dialogue with the psychiatric community. According to Dan Blazer, author of Freud vs. God, the church basically did little to nothing to serve the mentally ill.

The care of the severely disturbed was not considered a responsibility of the church, either through individual pastoral care or as a social obligation. [9]

Furthermore, the mentally ill were seen as possessed and incapable of a meaningful relationship with God or with a Christian community.

The relationship of the severely mentally ill to God and others was not viewed as a special challenge to the church. Rather they were labeled as relating to the devil, at worse, or lacking a relationship with God, at best. [10]

The fact that Christians did, and some still do, consider mental illness a result of sin or as Satanic possession is disturbing, especially because today, if not in the early 20th century, we have effective treatments for such illnesses. Even in Freud’s day, the medical asylums had some useful medical technology, such as electroshock which is experiencing a resurgence in use for intransigent mental illness for which other means of treatment have failed.

Examining Freud’s innovations in the treatment of mental illness, when his ideas first came to the United States mainline Protestant theologians actively wrestled with his theories. Unlike these more liberal Protestants, evangelical fundamentalists distanced themselves from the new psychiatric theories.

During the early and mid-twentieth century, conversations did emerge between psychiatrists and Christian theologians comparing and integrating Freud’s theory of the origins of emotional suffering with the Christian explanations of sin and spiritual growth. These conversations, however, did not, for the most part, reach the more conservative, evangelical Christian in the pew. A vague but strong perception that psychiatry was to be avoided by believing evangelical Christians emerged, often framed as the “Freud versus God” debate. Evangelical Christians were fearful of Freudian psychiatry and expressed little interest in dialogue. Among psychiatrists, Christians who interpreted Scripture literally were belittled as emotionally immature, and their faith was dismissed rather than discussed in depth. So the conflict between psychiatry and conservative Christianity never gained momentum and has now largely disappeared. [11]

Considering Freud’s atheism and critical psychodynamic analysis of the origin and causes of religion as delineated in The Future of an Illusion and Civilization an Its Discontents, one could easily see why some Christians would have taken, and still do take, umbrage with his ideas. At face value, his theories, especially concerning religion, can be offensive to Christian believers. Freud made it clear in Future of an Illusion and Civilization and Its Discontents that he was an atheist with a strong anti-religious bent.

He was convinced that religion had no objective validity, that one could find no evidence of a transcendent reality, and therefore religious beliefs and experiences derived solely from human needs and desires. Freud challenged Christians to rethink the sacred Christian story and thereby shook the foundations of Christian beliefs. God, according to Freud, was the longed-for father toward whom humans had, at best ambivalent feelings… Christians grounded in the fundamentals of their faith could not tolerate such as interpretation. [12]

We tend to assume that the American Christian Church reacted negatively to Freud and his ideas. It is true that conservative and orthodox Christians felt threatened by Freud’s beliefs due to his atheism, his challenges to religion, and his psychodynamic explanations of the origin of religion and man’s psychological need for religion. This reaction, though, was not universal among Christians, and liberal or progressive Protestants found Freud’s theories useful in their pastoral work with their parishioners. Danilo J. Mena in his dissertation entitled Freud and American Liberal Protestantism: A study of the religion and health movement in the United States the twentieth century (Sigmund Freud) notes that our assumption that all Christians did not welcome Freud is not accurate.

It was assumed that the churches initially reacted to Freudian psychoanalysis with hostility and only later were receptive. Although there were strenuous objections particularly among fundamentalists, who thought (incorrectly) that Freud was an advocate of sexual libertinism and who took offense at his atheism, it is remarkable at the readiness with which many Protestant leaders accepted Freud’s teachings. [13]

Freud’s theories have broadly impacted American culture, influencing both Christian and Jewish religious culture, as well as atheists. This has been especially true as our culture has become increasingly individualistic.

Freudian ideas have made their way into Christian and Jewish culture through books, sermons, and new models of pastoral care. Finally, perhaps it was inevitable—as religious belief has grown increasingly personalistic or individualistic over the course of the twentieth century—that the psychology of religion would become a part of popular religious culture. In any case Freud has found a prominent place among both atheists and believers not only in the understanding but also in the making of the religious life in the latter half of the twentieth century. [14]

The fact that religion has become more individualistic poses perhaps the greatest threat to Christian communities today. As individualism pervades our culture, we must nurture our faith and value the community afforded by shared religious beliefs. As religion itself has become more individualistic, psychological understanding has played a greater role in religion.

Certainly religious belief remains communitarian in many settings, but, by and large, both Americans and Europeans have come to see faith in increasingly individualistic terms. Religion, therefore, has come to lend itself to increasingly psychological explanations, among which Freud’s own contribution has been, in my view, the most compelling. [15]

Perhaps we need analyze if this individuality is actually fostered by the pervasive influence of psychological thought and method with its focus on the individual. As we enter the psychotherapist’s office and shut the door, unless we integrate our psychological healing with the healing that comes from a loving community, we in part cut ourselves off from that community’s support and healing love.

As a result of attempting to integrate psychoanalytic theories with Christian care, the mainline Protestant pastoral care movement arose. Pastoral counseling became the primary Christian ministry where Freudian theory and practice were integrated with Christian values and healing. [16] His insight and method continue to influence psychotherapeutic methods used by pastoral counselors.

Mena’s research indicates that Freud’s work has had a positive influence on American Liberal Protestantism, especially in regards to the development of pastoral counseling.

The mainline liberal Protestant Churches had the vision to adopt Freudian theory for their day-to-day ministries. As a result, congregants and patients in hospitals have benefited from the healing ministries that were eventually developed. [17]

Without compromising their theological position, the liberal Protestant churches went forward and embraced Freud’s theory of the unconscious and … discovered that the use of depth psychology by trained clergy had enormous positive and productive results on congregants and patients in hospitals.[18]

Freud’s contribution that had the greatest influence on Christianity has been offering insight into the psychodynamics of human relationships.

Freud … introduced the importance of relationships, real and perceived, in the development of psychopathology… His theories had intuitive appeal, and therefore he opened the door for a conversation between theologians and psychiatrists about the nature, function and healing of he soul. [19]

Blazer, both psychiatrist and evangelical fundamentalist Christian, relates that his faith community has tried to, “combine biblical principles with psychological insight to help persons within the community who were experiencing emotional suffering.” [20] The New Testament bears witness to God’s healing powers through the miracles performed by His Son. Freud, although not close to a deity, has shown us another approach to healing and another way to understand human suffering.

The psychiatric and Christian communities share many common values and interests. The two communities bring healing – psychiatry, healing of the mind; religion, healing of the soul. Both bring hope, one the one hand, hope for cure, for relief of emotional suffering; for the other hope of eternal life. Many, yet not all, recognize the interplay of mind, body and soul.

The common interests of psychiatrists and Christians derived naturally from the recognition that psychiatric illness was at once brain dysfunction, psychological conflict and spiritual crisis. These common interests led initially to meaningful conversations and later heated debates between psychiatrists and Christians. [21]

Ministers and pastoral counselors have, with Freud’s insights, greater understanding of the human psyche and can therefore better minister to the mind, body and spirit.

With Freudian concepts, however, ministers today draw on dynamic psychology concepts of the unconscious, repression, transference, aggression, and projection for insight into the human psyche. [22]

At the same time, the Christian viewpoint and the psychiatric, psychological, or medical viewpoint have often been in conflict. Blazer notes this tension between faith and science:

The conversations between psychiatry and Christianity peaked less than fifty years ago and were often framed as the “Freud versus God debate.” “Freud versus God” has, from the beginning, been a metaphor for the tension between psychoanalytic theory and Christian theology, two different worldviews. [23]

As dissention and suspicion between the psychiatric and religious communities evaporates, their unquestioning cooperation threatens complacency should we not wrestle with the inherent strain between many psychiatric and religious beliefs. Otherwise, the relationship between psychiatry and Christianity becomes superficial with each accommodating the other over time, so that advances in understanding emotional pain which could have resulted from that tension, have been lost to a compartmentalization of body and soul. [24]

This separation of body and soul has been the result of specialization:

The existential pain and subjective experience of psychiatric illness are of little interest to modern psychiatrists. Meanwhile, the philosophical and theological implications of disorders of the brain and modern psychiatric therapies are of little interest to Christian theologians. As a result, in my opinion, psychiatry has lost its soul and Christianity has lost its mind. [25]

Instead of each community challenging the assumptions of the other, sharing insight and knowledge, the mental health field has taken too little interest in religious contributions to understanding human suffering and similarly the Christian community has failed to educate itself and wrestle adequately with advances in psychiatric diagnosis and treatment of mental illness and brain function.

Yet in many ways, Freud’s theories remain consonant with Christian beliefs:

Psychoanalytic theory was intuitive and attractive of Christians because of the ties between psychoanalysis and Christianity. These ties included the necessity of integrating one’s personal story; deliverance from guilt; and confessional exposure of one’s darkest thoughts and deeds… For the Christian the context was biblical narratives; for the psychoanalyst it was dominant myths of society… Both psychoanalysis and Christianity focused on guilt as the central problem of humankind and release from guilt was the key to healing. Confession to a sympathetic, understanding and confidential confessor was central to healing on the couch and in the church. [26]

Although, Freud believed that science would some day replace religion, his influence on the American Christian Church has enriched our understanding of mental illness, our pastoral counseling ministries, and our ability to heal.

The Freudian strategy of the American Liberal Protestant Church has had a permanent positive impact and effect. It is a continuing growth movement. The rupture between religion and medicine is being mended, but more importantly, the Church is becoming more successful in the healing of souls. [27]

As Christians increase their understanding and compassion for the mentally ill, and utilize the insights and methodology of the mental health profession, the community gains yet another tool for its healing ministry. Similarly, as the mental health profession educates itself as to the spiritual needs of its patients, they, too, become enriched, learning to respect the soul as they minister to the mind and to the body. Each community enriches the other, bringing strength and exposing weakness.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Blazer, Dan. Freud vs. God: How Psychiatry Lost Its Soul & Christianity Lost Its Mind. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1998.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. 1930. In The Freud Reader. Edited by Peter Gay. New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1989.

Freud, Sigmund. The Future of an Illusion. Vienna, June 1927. In The Freud Reader. Edited by Peter Gay. New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1989.

Mena, Danilo J. Freud and American Liberal Protestantism: A study of the religion and health movement in the United States the twentieth century (Sigmund Freud). Dissertation advised by John D. Kuentzel. Columbia University Teachers College. DAI-A 63/05 (Nov 2002): 1873-2121. http://wwwlib.umi.com/dissertations/fullcit/3052902.

Newell, William R. (c. 1868-1956). Romans Verse-by-Verse. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/newell/romans.ii.html.

Ross, Mary Ellen. “The Humanity of the Gods: The Past and Future of Freud’s Psychoanalytic Interpretation of Religion.” Annual of Psychoanalysis 29 (January 2001): 263-278. http://search.epnet.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=pph&an=AOP.029.0263.

FOOTNOTES

[1] Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion (Vienna, June 1927), in The Freud Reader, ed. Peter Gay (New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1989), 696.
[2] Mary Ellen Ross, “The Humanity of the Gods: The Past and Future of Freud’s Psychoanalytic Interpretation of Religion,” Annual of Psychoanalysis 29 (January 2001): 263-278, http://search.epnet.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=pph&an=AOP.029.0263.
[3] Freud, Future of an Illusion, 709.
[4] Freud, Future of an Illusion, 721.
[5] William R. Newell (1868-1956), Romans Verse-by-Verse (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library), http://www.ccel.org/ccel/newell/romans.ii.html.
[6] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), in The Freud Reader, ed. Peter Gay (New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1989), 727.
[7] Freud, Civilization, 733-35.
[8] Ross, “The Humanity of the Gods,” 263-278.
[9] Dan Blazer, Freud vs. God: How Psychiatry Lost Its Soul & Christianity Lost Its Mind (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 60.
[10] Blazer, Freud vs. God, 60.
[11] Blazer, Freud vs. God, 21.
[12] Blazer, Freud vs. God, 67.
[13] Danilo J. Mena, Freud and American Liberal Protestantism: A study of the religion and health movement in the United States the twentieth century (Sigmund Freud), dissertation advised by John D. Kuentzel, Columbia University Teachers College (DAI-A 63/05, Nov 2002, pp 1873-2121), preface 1.
[14] Ross, “The Humanity of the Gods,” 263-278.
[15] Ross, “The Humanity of the Gods,” 263-278.
[16] Blazer, Freud vs. God, 21-22.
[17] Mena, Freud and American Liberal Protestantism, abstract p. 2.
[18] Mena, Freud and American Liberal Protestantism, abstract 2-3.
[19] Blazer, Freud vs. God, 66.
[20] Blazer, Freud vs. God, 12.
[21] Blazer, Freud vs. God, 12.
[22] Mena, Freud and American Liberal Protestantism, preface 4.
[23] Blazer, Freud vs. God, 12.
[24] Blazer, Freud vs. God, 13.
[25] Blazer, Freud vs. God, 13.
[26] Blazer, Freud vs. God, 66-67.
[27] Mena, Freud and American Liberal Protestantism, abstract 3.

4 thoughts on “Freud and the Church

  1. Lauren Wants To Live August 14, 2014 / 6:27 pm

    Thank you for this wonderfully thought-provoking post. Freud has taken on an almost deific quality for me. I definitely don’t worship him or think he will provide me with eternal life but in many ways he has provided me with a new life. His work has had such a profound impact on the treatment of mental health conditions and our understanding of the mind. Having recently finished seven years of psychoanalytic psychotherapy I feel I owe him a great deal of thanks.
    Like you, I have had religious/spiritual experiences when unwell. I don’t practice any religion now and I don’t believe in any divine beings but my past beliefs still hold meaning to me even if I don’t believe they are objectively true.
    Thank you so much for this and for pointing me towards some interesting sources. I will definitely be checking out Freud vs. God and some of the articles.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Tobey July 6, 2014 / 7:58 pm

    I have a certain doctor who I know will find this very interesting. You really gave this a lot of thought and as one who has dismissed Freud, I may take another read. Really interesting!

    Like

    • Kitt O'Malley July 6, 2014 / 11:40 pm

      I obtained my Master’s in Psychology from a psychodynamically oriented program and originally wrote this paper while attending a multi-denominational Christian seminary. There is no need to completely dismiss any belief system, psychological or theological, nor to dismiss scientific knowledge. There is always something to be learned. Just as each blind man gained a different understanding of what an elephant is depending on what part he touched, we gain different insights into ourselves and our world depending on the filter through which look. 

      Like

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