JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review June 29, 2001 / 8 Tamuz, 5761

Freud and belief
in the Creator

By Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo -- SIGMUND FREUD (1856-1939), the originator of psychoanalysis and a figure comparable in importance to Galileo and Einstein devoted a good deal of attention to religion. His works such as Totem and Taboo (1913),The Future of an Illusion (1927) and Moses and Monotheism (1939) reveal his unusual interest in religion and specifically in the psychological reasons why people are religious.

Freud, however, had no good word for religion. He regarded religious beliefs as "…illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most insistent wishes of mankind." (The Future of an Illusion; the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. by James Strachey, NY, Liverlight Corporation and London: The Hogarth Press Ltd,1961, XXI,30) Religion, he believed, was a mental defense against the hardships of life. Threatening aspects of life such as earthquakes, floods, storms, diseases and inevitable death "are forces …(which) rise up against us, majestic, cruel and inexorable. (Ibid.,16)" As such, man looks for some kind of security through which he is able to escape many of these threatening issues. And if he is not able to, at least he should feel that such disasters have an exalted purpose. This requires the existence of an ultimate "Father Figure," an infinite Being who is able to stop any natural disaster or disease and in case He does not, has proper reason to cause these calamities to take place.

This, claims Freud, was the reason why millions of people, including highly intelligent ones, believed in G-d. It was not the result of an intelligent understanding of this world but "the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity" (Ibid., 44) which would be left behind if people would finally learn to face the world, relying no longer upon illusions but upon scientifically authenticated knowledge.

In Totem and Taboo, Freud introduced his famous Oedipus complex. (Oedipus is a famous figure in Greek mythology who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother; the Oedipus complex of Freudian theory is the child's unconscious jealousy of his father and longing for his mother.) Strangely enough, Freud uses this complex to explain the tremendous emotional intensity of religious life and the associated feelings of guilt and obligation to obey the behest of the deity. He postulates a stage of human pre-history in which the family or tribe unit was the "primal horde," consisting of father, mother and offspring.

The father as the head of the family or tribe retained exclusive rights over all the females and drove away or even killed his sons who challenged his authority. The sons, seeing that they could never challenge their father's authority, consequently decided to kill their father and (being cannibals) eat him! This, states Freud, is the "primal" crime out of which guilt was born and which is responsible for so much tension within the human psyche. (Freud saw the Oedipus complex to be universal.) It ultimately developed into moral inhibitions and other phenomena now found in religion since the sons, struck with remorse, could not succeed to their father's position.

This is the reason why the Father Figure, later developed into the god idea, became so powerful in the human mind and why people are religious. It is the result of a deep feeling of guilt and the need to rectify the killing or rejection of this god by way of total obedience.

A great amount of scholars have discussed and criticized Freud's theory. Clearly, Freud was influenced by Darwin and Robertson Smith, two dominating figures in the 19th century who initiated the "primal horde" theory. Modern anthropologists have rejected this theory. (See H.L. Phillip, Freud and Religious belief, London, Rocklif, 1956.) Also his Oedipus complex has been severely attacked, and few scholars today take it seriously.

While Freud considered himself to be an atheist and seemed to have misunderstood most of religion, this does not mean that he was entirely wrong when he proposed that many people are religious since they wish a G-d to exist to whom they can turn in case of great need. Surprising, however, is the fact that he concluded that since man wishes G-d to exist, one must conclude that His existence is a fantasy. This makes little sense. The fact that man wishes G-d to exist has, after all, no bearing at all on the question whether He really exists or not. He may quite well exist, and simultaneously man may have a great need for His existence.

Nowhere did Freud give any justification for his atheism, neither did he understand that he hit on one of the great foundations of Jewish thought.

Jewish tradition teaches that man was created in G-d's image. Whatever this may mean, it definitely includes the fact that G-d created man in such a way that he, in desperate need to discover himself, would constantly search for Him. Freud, we believe, gave a most original interpretation of this fact.

His discovery of the father-image may have uncovered the mechanism through which G-d created an idea of Himself as the ultimate Father in the human mind. The creation of the utter dependence of a child on his loving parents may very well have been the way through which G-d built the foundation for man's capacity to believe and trust in Him. It would probably not be incorrect to state that according to some rabbinical schools this was the very reason why G-d decided in favor of parenthood over other options such as the creation of human beings without the need for parents (see the creation of Adam and Eve).

Rabbinical tradition suggests that G-d first created the Torah as a primordial substance after which He created the world accordingly. In that case, He may very well have created the need for man to see Him as the great Father Figure and consequently decided to create the need for parents.

Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo is a world-renowned lecturer and ambassador for Judaism, the Jewish people, the State of Israel and Sephardic Heritage. Comment by clicking here.

06/21/01: Comprehending the Creator


© 2001, Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo