Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) has not been welcomed by Christians. I want to explain why, but also show that he should be taken more seriously by Christians than he currently is.
Why Freud has not been welcomed by Christians
(1) Freud attributed too much human behavior to sexuality.
This critique is justified. Humans have other drives as well, such as the drive for power (Alfred Adler) or death denial (Ernest Becker) or benevolence (David Hume).
However, three points need to be made:
(a) Although Freud sometimes appears to adopt “pansexualism” and often uses the sexual instinct, including the Oedipus complex, to interpret human behavior, he also at times mentions other drives, such as the death instinct. This instinct, if it exists, is worth exploring.
(b) It may be that sexuality drives humans more than Christians are willing to admit. In their efforts to give sexuality a proper place in human affairs, Christians sometimes seem to deny that people are sexual beings.
(c) Just because Freud was mistaken about what drives humans does not mean that other features of his psychology are not correct.
(2) Freud was an atheist. And he denied God’s existence for a faulty reason. His reason was that belief in God is a product of wish fulfillment. “Religious ideas,” Freud wrote, “are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind” (The Future of an Illusion, Ch. VI). These wishes are the need to feel secure: “And thus a store of ideas is created, born from man’s need to make his helplessness tolerable” (The Future of an Illusion, Ch. III). Because religious ideas rose in this way, Freud seems to say, they are not true. (In The Future of an Illusion Freud is careful to say that he is not arguing in this way [though he still seems to]: Religious beliefs are illusions but not for this reason delusions. But in Civilization and Its Discontents Freud classifies religious beliefs as delusions. In an illusion “we disregard its relations to reality” [it may or may not be true], but a delusion consists of false beliefs.)
Freud can be critiqued in four ways:
(a) One’s religious beliefs make a difference to one’s psychological well-being. Freud’s atheism means that he unjustifiably disregards the importance of patients’ Christian beliefs.
(b) Freud’s reason for rejecting belief in God is mistaken. Even if belief in God were due to wish fulfillment, that would not mean that God does not exist. God could exist even if humans have come to believe in God through an illegitimate means. Or God might have designed humans to come to believe in God as a result of realizing their need for God.
(c) Belief in God is not due just to wish fulfillment. It is due to revelation.
(d) If religious beliefs are due to wish fulfillment, then atheism might be as well.
These critiques are justified. However, two points need to be made:
(a) Even though Freud does not admit the importance of religious ideas to psychological well-being, there may be other features of experience that contribute to psychological well-being, features about which Freud has good insights. One of these may be the need to bring to full consciousness the painful memories that one repressed as a child. Another might be the extent to which fear motivates one, as revealed by one’s dreams.
(b) It may be that believing in God is due to need more than one realizes. And it may be that some of the needs that motivate belief in God are not the right needs, e.g., the “need” to be admired by others in one’s religious group, or the “need” to acquire power. What Freud’s wish fulfillment theory should do is to prompt us to ask where we really have acquired our belief in God and why we keep it.
Three Freudian ideas that connect to Christian faith
The unconscious: Freud believed that there is a subterranean region of the mind that motivates most (perhaps all) of what we do. He called it the “unconscious mind.” It differs from the “preconscious mind,” which contains memories and the like that can fairly readily be brought to consciousness. What resides in the unconscious, however, cannot easily be brought to consciousness. This is because it is formed largely by repression. “The essence of repression lies simply in turning something away, and keeping it at a distance, from the conscious” (“Repression”). A person represses ideas and feelings when they are painful, such as a devastating criticism from a parent.
An important issue for Christians (on the assumption that there is an unconscious): Are our motives what we think they are? Is our love uncontaminated with distasteful unconscious motivation? Have we become Christians solely so as to deal with a repressed memory? Freud is in the tradition of Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, who want us to be suspicious of ourselves—not so that we can think of ourselves as unsavory characters or find fuel for self-hate, but so that our conscious motives become our real motives and so that we can know that we are who we think we are.
Resistance: Freud asserted that patients who are undergoing psychoanalysis resist treatment. This means that they resist emotional healing. Freud also asserted that people resist knowing their repressed emotions, desires, and ideas. Their ignorance of what is submerged in their character is due to resistance. They defend their neuroses. In addition, Freud said that resistance and a sense of guilt are connected: “This sense of guilt expresses itself only as a resistance to recovery which it is extremely difficult to overcome. It is also particularly difficult to convince the patient that this motive lies behind his continuing to be ill” (The Ego and the Id, Section V).
Ambivalence: “the simultaneous existence of love and hate towards the same object” (Totem and Taboo, Section 7). Freud states that we are ambivalent toward our fathers, toward those we love, toward our therapists, and in religion. “The ambivalence implicit in the father-complex persists in totemism and in religions generally” (Totem and Taboo, Section 5).
Freud as being like an Old Testament prophet
In his book Suspicion and Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism (Eerdmans, 1993), Merold Westphal asserts that there is a “profound parallel between the critique of religion in Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud and the critique of religion found in the Bible” (10). “All our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth” (Isaiah 64:6). “You are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth” (Matt. 23:27). “The prophets of ancient Israel were perhaps the first ‘masters of suspicion’” (110). Isaiah and Jesus were doing what amounts to “religious psychoanalysis”—uncovering what lies underneath conscious religiosity. Their aim was to bring their listeners to genuine faith. Psychoanalysis for Freud consists of bringing what is hidden in the unconscious to consciousness so that it will no longer control a person. Westphal points out two themes that are pertinent here:
Reason and passion: “The ego represents what may be called reason and common sense, in contrast to the id, which contains the passions. . . . In its relation to the id it [the ego] is like a man on horseback, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse” (The Ego and the Id, Ch. II). We may not be in control of our lives through reason as much as we think, or like to think. What we think are rational elements in the Christian life may in reality be driven by passions, e.g., commitment, purpose.
Guilt management: If painful memories can be repressed and become unconscious, so can guilt. And if the unconscious influences conscious behavior, then an unconscious sense of guilt can influence what we do, including religious behavior. Our religious activities may be more a way of managing guilt than we suppose. Managing guilt is to be distinguished from forgiveness. Freud: “In all believers, however, the motives which impel them to religious practices are unknown to them or are represented in consciousness by others which are advanced in their place. . . . We may say that the sufferer from compulsions and prohibitions behaves as if he were dominated by a consciousness of guilt, of which, however, he knows nothing, so that we must call it an unconscious consciousness of guilt, in spite of the apparent contradiction of terms” (“Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices”).
All quotations from Freud are taken from The Freud Reader, edited by Peter Gay (W.W. Norton & Co., 1989).