The Psychological Critique of Religion

A lot of the psychological critique of religion is reminiscent of an argument put forward by Feuerbach: “Religion is human nature reflected, mirrored in itself… there also is it already exalted to that stage in which it can mirror and reflect itself, in which it can project its own image as God. God is the mirror of man. That which has essential value for man, which he esteems the perfect, the excellent, in which he has the true delight,- that alone is God to him” (Feuerbach, 1989: 63).


FreudSigmund Freud

Key Person: Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

Austrian psychologist who founded the school of psychoanalysis. Focussed very much on the unconscious mind and the repressed memory as a basis for adult neuroses.


“Religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires.” — New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis,1933. “Religion is comparable to a childhood neurosis.” The Future of an Illusion, 1927

“Religion is an attempt to get control over the sensory world, in which we are placed, by means of the wish-world, which we have developed inside us as a result of biological and psychological necessities. […] If one attempts to assign to religion its place in man’s evolution, it seems not so much to be a lasting acquisition, as a parallel to the neurosis which the civilized individual must pass through on his way from childhood to maturity.” Moses and Monotheism, 1939



Freud had a number of criticisms of religion not least of which is that religion is “wishful-thinking”. In this he builds on the work of Feuerbach that religion provides an escape or an ideal that helps the individual to escape the various turmoils that are evident in society and a person’s life. Religion is therefore an illusion created by the mind to answer the needs that a person finds within themselves.

He did go further in describing religion as a neurosis (a mild psychiatric disorder characterized by anxiety, depression Encarta). In his 1927 book The Future of an Illusion Freud suggested that the religious neurosis was embedded in the fear of a chaotic world. In recognising their childhood as a secure and ordered environment (as a result of their father) they overcome the chaos of their adult life by projecting this father figure onto a Heavenly Father who affords them the same protection as the father of their childhood.

Freud is the principal psychodynamic theorist and is perhaps best known for his discussion of sexual repression and the Oedipus complex. These do have their application in his critique of religion.

As a child develops they begin to explore their own sexuality. Realising that this is happening parents seek to prevent them and thus instil feelings of guilt in the child with regard to sexual feelings and experiences. This guilt is built upon through the Oedipus complex. Once a child has stopped feeding from its mother it becomes aware that the father has “replaced” them in their mother’s affection and becomes jealous.

This is often caricatured as the child wanting to sleep with their mother and thus becoming jealous- this is not necessarily what Freud was arguing.

This jealousy results in a neurotic obsession full of guilt with God as a father figure.

In Totem and Taboo Freud took his critique of religion further in relating religion to primitive human societies. Where the younger male members of the hordes became jealous and resentful of the dominant male (father) resulting a plot to kill him. Once dead these hordes totemise their father- that is set him up as an idol of worship (a totem) which in turn becomes the recipient of their guilt. This totem assuages their guilt (this process is called animism) and becomes a divine figure in the minds of the hordes.

Freud suggested that the mass the killing of the father is recreated and through the eating of the symbolic flesh and blood guilt is taken away.

To summarise Freud felt that religion was a result of a number of fear and neuroses:

  • Disorder and chaos
  • Sexual repression/ Oedipus complex
  • Guilt

This produced a Father to:

  • Bring order
  • Take away the guilt of repression and jealousy
  • Manifest in religion and religious ritual.

Freud only seems to deal with a patriarchal religion and especially the God of classical theism- what about those religions with female deities and no deity?

What of those people who grow up without a father to replace them in their mother’s affections?

If religion is a neurosis how can it have many positive results?

Freud’s subject base was limited- much of his research was based on his work with middle class, middle aged Viennese women- these could have been sexually repressed but this does not mean it has application to all sections of society.



Behaviourism is the school of psychology that suggests that all behaviour is learnt. Exponents of this type of psychology include Pavlov; Watson and Rayner; Skinner; and Bandura, Ross and Ross. For these psychologists people are born as blank slates and their behaviour is taught to them by their experiences or models. Free will is seen as an illusion and therefore religion is the product of conditioning through rewards and punishment. In some ways Freud could be seen to be a behaviourist in that he sees childhood experiences as forming the basis for the neurosis of religion.

Latterly, and maybe without realising it Richard Dawkins has joined the behaviourist school of psychology. In his book The God Delusion he argues that a child is not religious, in fact it is “always a form of child abuse to label children as possessors of beliefs that they are too young to have thought about” (2006: 315). Parents indoctrinate their children with religion, and just because a person has been taught these beliefs since childhood does not make them right.

Perhaps the fact that people can “escape” religion through systematic desensitisation proves that religion is nothing more than a phobia. Dawkins shares an excerpt from Julia Sweeney’s show Letting Go of God::

. . . . . . as I was walking from my office in my backyard into my house, I realized there was this little teeny-weenie voice whispering in my head. I’m not sure how long it had been there, but it suddenly got just one decibel louder. It whispered, ‘There is no god.’ And I tried to ignore it. But it got a teeny bit louder. ‘There is no god. There is no god. Oh my god, there is no god:… And I shuddered. I felt I was slipping off the raft. And then I thought, ‘But I can’t. I don’t know if I can not believe in God. I need God. I mean, we have a history’ . . . ‘But I don’t know how to not believe in God. I don’t know how you do it. How do you get up, how do you get through the day?’ I felt unbalanced . . . I thought, ‘Okay, calm down. Let’s just try on the not-believing-in-God glasses for a moment, just for a second. Just put on the no-God glasses and take a quick look around and then immediately throw them off.’ And I put them on and I looked around. I’m embarrassed to report that I initially felt dizzy. I actually had the thought, ‘Well, how does the Earth stay up in the sky? You mean, we’re just hurtling through space? That’s so vulnerable!’ I wanted to run out and catch the Earth as it fell out of space into my hands. And then I remembered, ‘Oh yeah, gravity and angular momentum is gonna keep us revolving around the sun for probably a long, long time.’ (quoted in Dawkins, 2006: 323-4).


Religion and Behaviourism

Islam teaches that all people are born Muslim- and that through teaching we forget- thus when someone converts to Islam they actually revert.

Elements of Christianity teach that there is a spark of God within each of us. Justin Martyr called it the logos spermatikos; other suggest a light of Christ. It means that we have inherent knowledge of God which is enhanced (but not dictated by teaching).


Jung’s Contradiction

Key Person: Carl Jung (1875-1961)

A swiss psychologis whose most notable contributions included his concept of the psychological archetype and the collective unconscious. He taught the need to maintain balance through the process of individuation.

Carl Jung is a psychologist of the psychodynamic school with the essential belief that there is an innate force that drives individuals through stages. He worked with Freud until 1907 when they split mainly due to Jung’s disagreement with sexuality causing psychological problems. Jung argued that we are born with a tendency to generate religious images. Through the collective unconscious we share in these archetypes. Whilst being a believer in God he saw that there was no way to prove the existence of God, but that God as a psychic reality was a balance between different archetypes- which actually prevented neurosis. He called this process individuation.

Key Words:


These images reflect universal themes common all of us which are present in the unconscious and exist outside space and time. Examples: Shadow, animus, anima, the old wise person, the innocent child.

Collective Unconscious

The aspect of the unconscious that manifests inherited universal themes which run through all human life. Inside of us the whole history of the human race lives on in us.


The goal of life is individuation, the process of knowing, expressing, and harmonising the various parts of the psyche.