Mormonism and Theories of Religion II: Freud

This is the second installment in this series, begun here. Freud has had a huge impact on thought in the 20th century. He was a truly revolutionary thinker, to such an extent that the statement “We are all Freudians now” certainly rings true. Among the many subjects he treated, religion was a particular interest for him. He dealt with it in three books, Totem and Taboo, Future of an Illusion, and Moses and Monotheism.

Freud’s theory of religion was, like Tylor and Frazer, reductionistic. He sought to explain the entire phenomenon of religion through a single observation. While Tylor and Frazer sought to explain religion as a pre-scientific understanding of the world, Freud appealed to individual psychology, deeply hidden images, needs, and desires in the human brain. His explanation solved the puzzle created by Tylor and Frazer’s evolutionary view of human society, namely, why does religion persist after it has been discredited by science?

Freud theorized that religion is a neurosis that develops in early childhood. He argued that the idea of God was simply a projection of an ideal Father-figure, one who is loving and just. This particular idea seems to have a lot to do with Mormonism, and the literal belief that God is our Father. We seem to take this traditional Christian notion of God as Father to its logical extreme, and believe that we are of the same species as God. Thus, we are able to return to the days of the security of childhood where our father protects us, tells us what to do, and explains the world around us. Freud calls such beliefs an “illusion” that we allow ourselves to believe to escape reality. He suggests that religion must be discarded and replaced with more rational forms of thought.

Does Freud’s assessment of the Father-God have any merit? Is there any use in reconciling Freud with a legitimate form of belief? Is this possible or even desirable?

25 comments for “Mormonism and Theories of Religion II: Freud

  1. July 29, 2004 at 1:50 pm

    Taylor: There are (at least) two levels at which one might answer the question of Freud’s usefulness for Mormonism.

    1. One might use it to understand why individual Mormons react positively to Mormon theology. We are all just working out subconscious father issues. In order for this line of reasoning to work, however, one would need to subscribe to the coherence of Freudian psychology as an account of human thought, emotion, etc. I can’t claim to know anything about psychology, but I am skeptical of the usefulness of Freud as an actual theory of human action. (Rather than say studying him as a souce of intellectual influence, moral theorist, font of literary ideas, etc.)

    2. One might try to use Freud as a way of understanding the origins of Mormon theology itself (as opposed to simply individual reactions to that theology.) This, as I take it, was what Freud himself thought he was doing. I suspect that most religious believers are going to find Freud’s reductionism unsatisfying and ultimately not particularlly useful. This is my reaction. Indeed, even among reductionists I find Freud uninteresting. At least someone like Taylor or Fraizer gives us a vision of religion as a reaction to fairly complex phenomena (e.g. understanding the natural world), where as Freud reduces it to a simple pyschological drama. Hence, Freud is not only reductionist, but one-dimensionally so. Poly-vocal naturalisms are more likely to be fun.

  2. Geoff B
    July 29, 2004 at 2:13 pm

    Freud’s theories of religion are becoming increasingly discredited, even among atheist psychiatrists. He — and other atheist psychiatrists — have had an extremely difficult time explaining why patients who go through conversion experiences seem to get better. They become happier, drop bad habits, get along with their friends and family better, etc. It can’t simply be an internal neurosis — that wouldn’t explain the long-lasting effects and sometimes irreversible nature of the change. At the same time, psychiatrists have noted that Freud had horrible relations with those around him, expressed most notably with his feud with his onetime friend Jung. And, as the kicker, Freud seemed to be absolutely obsessed with religion. He wrote about it, thought about it and pondered it endlessly. Not quite the cool, calculated position of a solely scientific, analytical mind.

    With this in mind, I don’t think he has much to add at all to Mormon self-analysis. It may be worth pointing out that people who have bad relationships with their fathers are statistically much more likely to have bad relationships with God — but beyond that, I’m not sure what he could add to the conversation.

  3. Sheldon Lawrence
    July 29, 2004 at 2:27 pm

    Who is explaining who here? Maybe Mormonism better explains Freud that Freud explains Mormonism (I know he was explaining religion in general, but for this discussion…) Freud says that we have a deep psychological need for a just and loving father figure based on past relationships. In light of the doctrine of preexistence, we Mormons should have no problem with this since we believe we had a long, preexisting father/child relationship with God before this life. We also believe that desires for this relationship linger with us. Its seems to be a kind of chicken and egg question. Does our pychology create God, or does God (and our previous relationship with Him) create our psychology?

  4. July 29, 2004 at 3:18 pm

    I think Freud can help us think about religion and other matters, though it seems fairly obvious that we can’t be doctrinaire Freudians, whether we are thinking about mental illness, religion, or something else. There aren’t a lot of true-believers out there any more, not even among the French psychoanalysts, who have been among the last to give up on Freud literally construed.

    I see Freud’s usefulness to thinking about religion in a different area than those mentioned. I think the idea of the unconscious, as Freud formulated it, makes no sense because it requires too many entities and then always one more entity to regulate the first ones postulated. However, I think he makes an important contribution to our thinking by getting us to begin thinking about the self without identifying “self” and “explicit consciousness.”

    Modern philosophy and the psychologies it gave rise to assumed that we are essentially consciousness and that, as a result, we are essentially active. They tried to explain human psychology in terms of activity. Freud’s work (based on Nietzsche’s via Lou Salomé) makes us understand that affectivity/passivity is an important part of who we are. Not only are we passive with respect to other beings, we are also passive with respect to our own bodies and even our minds. In fact, passivity and activity intersect each other completely, and the point of that intersection is the body. So, though Freud didn’t think of either the body or history as the unconscious, he helped us begin to think about them as essential to consciousness.

    It would be interesting to see an LDS reinterpretation of Freud that focused on embodiment (broadly construed and, so, including spirit) and history (being part of a spatio-temporal context), as essential to being human.

  5. Amy
    July 29, 2004 at 4:44 pm

    “It would be interesting to see an LDS reinterpretation of Freud that focused on embodiment (broadly construed and, so, including spirit) and history (being part of a spatio-temporal context), as essential to being human”

    You can look to Jung for a reinterpretation of embodiment and history as essential to being human, albiet not an LDS one. Jung was much more interested in spiritual and transcendent phenomena, as well as a shared historical context from which archetypes arise.

    My problem with Freud is his reductionistic, deterministic view of human nature. According to Freud, everything I do is based on satisfying biologically based drives. I only engage in relating to other people, religion, creativity etc. because of my neuroses. If I were a perfect person I would have no need or desire for these things. What a dismal view of humanity!

  6. July 29, 2004 at 5:55 pm

    My problem with Jung–and I must confess that I do not know his work except indirectly–is what seems to be a reification of cultural patterns into atemporal entities called archetypes. In spite of that, it seems to me that a reinterpretation of his work might be useful in the same way that Eliade’s work can be useful it you don’t take it as an objective description of things.

  7. July 29, 2004 at 6:59 pm

    Aren’t Jung, Eliadi, and Campbell basically Freudians though? Certainly Jung, while moving on from Freud is deeply influenced both by method and his contact with Freud.

  8. July 29, 2004 at 7:12 pm

    Clark: Of course, but they are different enough to warrant talking about them separately.

  9. Keith Lane
    July 29, 2004 at 8:48 pm


    I was going to make a recommendation when I read your first post, but ran out of time. Seeing that you’ve posted a second, I think I’ll write it up now.

    For someone headed to religious studies, I would recommend picking up a copy of D.Z Phillips’ _Religion and the Hermeneutics of Contemplation_. Phillips is a Wittgensteinian and his book takes a look at the major thinkers you’ve been mentioning (Tylor, Frazier, Freud and so on) and tries to show where or how these thinkers don’t do philosophical justice to religion and religious belief. Phillips doesn’t object to philosophy about, or thinking about religion, but rather works against thought that confuses categories, is reductionistic and so on. (There’s a strong leaning against a theory or theories of religion in this.) You might find it helpful in thinking through, and in some cases, thinking past, many of the assumptions and arguments of most religious studies programs.

  10. July 29, 2004 at 8:58 pm

    Jim, while they are different, it seems that the flaws of Freud apply equally to all the “myth” analysis.

    I find Freud interesting as a kind of semiotic or literary analysis of people. I don’t find him that interesting as anything “real” per se. (Not that everything he said is wrong, of course – and I’m no psychologist)

    I admit that I’ve not read the attempt to “post-modernize” Freud too closely. (i.e. Lacan, Ricouer, and even Derrida) So if you could perhaps expand on your comments a little (here or on LDS-Phil) I’d be interested. I admit a deep a abiding distrust of most psychology as literary analysis dressed up as science. So perhaps my biases have the best of me.

  11. July 29, 2004 at 10:23 pm

    Whoa, whoa, whoa!

    First off, Jim, what’s the problem with “a reification of cultural patterns into atemporal entities called archetypes”? I assume you’re talking about the collective unconscious idea of Jung’s, of which archetypes are a part. It may not explain everything, but I can’t see how you can dismiss the concept so casually; there do seem to be patterns (that is, archetypes) that emerge among different communities that are quite similar, even in the face of the varieties and uniqueness among them.

    Next, Jung is NOT a Freudian. They both fit more or less into the depth force of psychology which is sometimes lazily all referred to as ‘Freudian’ because of the shared idea of the unconscious. But Jung, while of course influenced by Freud, was certainly no disciple — no ‘Freudian’. One main distinction is that Jung anticipated the whole transpersonal movement in psychology, recognizing the confluence of mind, body and spirit, something Freud never considered and didn’t have any room for in his own mechanistic view of human nature.

    Clark, what do you mean by, “the flaws of Freud apply equally to all the ‘myth’ analysis”. Freud had nothing to do with “myth” analysis. What “flaws of Freud” do you mean?

    Freud obviously has serious flaws, such as incorporating now-obsolete notions of biology and physics into his theories and trying to analyze people in a vacuum, that is, without taking into consideration their circumstances. On the other hand, he provided deep insights into psychology that have been largely refined and updated as much as rejected.

    I guess I just feel like we’re being overly reductionist and dismissing as straw men these profoundly influential (and unique) thinkers.

    As far as Taylor’s main point, how does the idea of an “ideal Father-figure” jive with Freud’s Oedipal Complex? Didn’t he say that a man’s sense of morality begins with this experience in which he finds himself fearful and antagonistic toward his father? I guess I haven’t read much about Freud’s theories of religion, but that idea seems weird to me.

  12. Taylor
    July 30, 2004 at 11:01 am

    Keith, thanks for the recommendation!

  13. July 30, 2004 at 1:58 pm


    Read Phillips with a grain of salt. Proudfoot has discredited Phillips’ _Religion Without Explanation_ and Phillips is pretty widely regarded as an “apologist” in RS.

    You might look at Proudfoot’s _Religious Experience_ just to get a sense of the debate.

  14. July 30, 2004 at 2:26 pm

    Logan: “What’s the problem with “a reification of cultural patterns into atemporal entities called archetypes”?

    For a philosopher, that’s a bit like asking, “What’s wrong with murder?” Reification means turning something conceptual into something real. It is always a philosophical mistake to reify because it begs the question of whether one’s ideas are ideas of real things.

    I’ve already said I’m not well-read in Jung. The same goes for Campbell. I’ve read four or five books by Eliade, but I’d hardly claim to be an expert on him. So I’m not claiming any expertise regarding them nor should anyone take what I say as anything more than a relatively uninformed opinion. But my impression in all three cases has not been that good. Each seems to me to have to strain to find the universals they see in patterns of behavior.

  15. July 30, 2004 at 2:30 pm

    What’s wrong with murder??

  16. July 30, 2004 at 2:49 pm

    Steve, I thought you did business law, but your question makes you sound much more like a criminal defense attorney.

  17. July 30, 2004 at 3:02 pm

    “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I ask you: what’s wrong with murder?”

    OK, jokes aside — what’s the difference between notions of the ‘self’ as Freud incorporated, and mormon notions of our Spirits? How about mormon notions of the soul?

  18. July 30, 2004 at 3:05 pm

    “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I ask you: what’s wrong with murder?”

    OK, jokes aside — what’s the difference between notions of the ‘self’ as Freud incorporated, and mormon notions of our Spirits? How about mormon notions of the soul?

  19. July 30, 2004 at 3:08 pm

    I PROMISE that I am not hitting that button twice!!!

  20. July 30, 2004 at 3:46 pm

    Logan, I fully admit I’m speaking broadly. However one need not read Freud much to see that his analysis of dreams is much like mythic analysis. I fully admit the rebirth of the old neoPlatonic conception of a worldmind in Jung. Whether one ought to take this in psychic terms of social/linguistic terms is always interesting. For instance Searle and others allow for corporate meaning that parallels in certain ways a worldmind. But it is the “unconsciousness” of a community *through* its language practices. While I’ve only read limited amounts of Jung I believe he accepts something stronger.

    However I’ve always read Jung and Eliadi as believing that this universal mind could be explained in terms of the brain and its structures. Sort of a primitive version of what modern neuropsychologists claim about brain structure providing innate concepts and structing to our thinking. (i.e. a part of the brain ‘designed’ to handle nouns) That’s certainly the view of say Plinker, although its obviously not widespread yet. Yet I also confess that with Jung and perhaps to a lesser extent with Eliadi, that I’m never sure if they think through the naturalism of their position that far. Some times Jung truly seems a mystic and more in line with the classic neoPlatonists. So I’m loath to trust my views too much as I’ve only read a few analysis of him and I’m not sure they represent the “accepted” view.

  21. July 30, 2004 at 5:51 pm

    Steve, the first problem it seems to me is that we don’t have a clear notion of spirit, but whatever notion we do have has to include the idea that it is, qua spirit, material. Freud does have a fairly clear notion of mind and it is a complicated version of the Cartesian ego, which is not, qua ego, material. Though we often assume that the Cartesian ego and the LDS notion of spirit are the same, there is no reason to do so and there are plenty of reasons not to do so.

    In addition, there are lots of theoretical problems with Freud’s model of the mind. For example, because he understands consciousness in a Cartesian way, Freud attributes the intentional structure of consciousness to unconsciousness, with the paradoxical result that the unconscious could be described as “unthought thought.” There is the additional problem of continually multiplying entities: the ego and the id require another entity, the superego, to keep them in relation. But then that ends up requiring other entities to establish the relation of the superego to the other two, ad infinitum (in principle).

  22. July 30, 2004 at 7:07 pm

    Jim, was Freud really a Cartesian-like dualist? (I ask, as I honestly don’t know) I thought that he was more of an empiricist with faith that it would ultimately be reduced to the brain in some way. The empiricists, in various ways, certainly inherented many aspects of a Cartesian mind, but seems different ontologically. Perhaps that’s what you meant by “in a Cartesian way.”

    My apologies if I misunderstood.

  23. Keith
    July 30, 2004 at 8:59 pm


    Melissa writes: “read Phillips with a grain of salt” and adds that his _Religion without Explanation_ has been discredited by Proudfoot. I guess it’s a matter of being discredited for whom.

    Fine, read Phillips with a grain of salt. But do read him. Read where he responds to Proudfoot. Phillips is not so much considered an apologist as he is a Wittgensteinian fideist (a term he rejects and shows why the term doesn’t make sense, especially when applied to Wittgenstein, who wasn’t a believer). It’s also interesting that some apply the term apologist (I’d never seen that Melissa–who says this?) to Phillips who really isn’t a believer either.

    In short, Taylor, welcome to the interesting and challenging world of PhD work in Religious Studies.


  24. August 1, 2004 at 12:04 am

    Clark, I agree that Freud was probably an empiricist with faith that everything would eventually reduce to the brain, but he thought in Cartesian terms anyway. Many empiricists have found it difficult to give up their Cartesian inheritance.

  25. August 2, 2004 at 10:43 am

    Okay, sorry to make shrill comments then run away for the weekend on an anniversary trip. But you’ve all been very polite and gracious in responding (avoiding the fire coming out of my ears quite well).

    Let me say that I probably think I know more about Freud and Jung than I do, so it’s not as though I can claim to be much (if any) more authoritative than anyone else here. Further, my familiarity with them has been from the psychology angle, and you all seem to be talking about their philosophy, which seems to have a different sort of relevance. But with that in mind. . .

    Jim: I guess I didn’t understand that you meant that you felt Jung so literally reified his archetypes. I’m sorry if this seems a little ‘Philosophy 101’, but as a practical matter, does it really matter what the nature of these archetypes are? I mean, if they seem to exist empirically, does it matter if they’re concrete or conceptual? From my understanding, Jung formulated his theories based on what he saw in wide and varied cultures. Whether it’s just natural human reaction to their environment (like aversion to pain, perhaps) or an innate quality of human nature or physiology that these archetypes are what they are, couldn’t they be accurate observations whether or not they are concrete things? I guess I’m just saying that it seems like taking issue with the nature of these archetypes seems to miss the point, at least from a practical or psychological point of view. But I’d love to hear more.

    Clark: if I admit that you’re way better-read than I am on an overall level, would you mind repeating that in less technical language? I do have some familiarity with Jung and Freud, but not so much with neoPlatonism, Plinker, or Searle, so throwing their names out doesn’t really mean much to me. But my main issue is that I’m not quite sure what your concept of “mythic analysis” is. That, and I still think that while Freud and Jung did have similarities, it feels to me like you’re overstating those simliarites by lumping them together so easily

    Taylor: I promise I didn’t really mean to hijack this thread. I really am interested in any more you can tell me about how Father-God might be related to (or different from) the idea of the Oedipal Complex. To me, Freud seems to describe the father-son relationship as having some important elements of antagonism. I haven’t read Freud on religion, but I’d be interested in why there isn’t the same competition with God if he’s seen as a father figure.

    But whatever the details of Frued’s view, I think there may be a lot to the notion of seeing God as a father figure. But I’m not sure if it’s necessarily as an “ideal” father to most of us. Perhaps I’m betraying my preference for Jung again, but I think many of us tend to see God as an “archetypal” father — that is, whatever we think a father “really” is seems to be the way we often view God. I’ve found that people who think fathers should be real disciplinarians often view God as very vengeful and strict, while those who view the essence of fatherhood to be gentle and forgiving often view their relationship with God that way.

    So I guess that’s similar to what you’ve said Freud believes, but my slight distinction is that instead of the “ideal” father, I think we often view God as the “archetypal” father as we perceive it. Of course, the closer we get to the heart of Jung’s views on archetypes, that may not be a very big distinction at all (which I guess goes against what I’ve been saying to Clark — that Jung and Freud are not necessarily as close as some say — but that’s why I’m interested in hearing more about this thinking of Freud’s, becuase it seems more Jungian to my mind than Freudian. I guess I could look into it myself. Maybe I will. . .).

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