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Religion, Psychological Explanations of


In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the chief impact of science on religion came from the revised picture of the cosmos that emerged from developments in astronomy and physics. In the nineteenth century the impact was from the changed view of the history of life on Earth that was presented by geology and evolutionary biology. In the twentieth century the social sciences had the greatest impact on religion, although of a different nature. Physics and biology worried theologians because they introduced theories about the cosmos, life, and man that were at variance with beliefs intimately bound up with the religious tradition, such as the special creation of man. The impact of the social sciences, on the other hand, comes not from theories that contradict basic religious doctrines but from explanations of religion itself that seem to rob it of its significance.

Since the nineteenth century numerous ideas have been put forward as to the psychological and sociological factors that are responsible for religion. The most important of these are (1) the Marxian theory that religion is one of the ideological reflections of the current state of economic interrelations in a society; (2) the similar, but more elaborately developed, theory of the sociologist Émile Durkheim that religious belief constitutes a projection of the structure of society; and (3) the Freudian theory that religious belief arises from projections designed to alleviate certain kinds of unconscious conflict. These are all scientific explanations in that they trace religion to factors wholly within the world of nature, and hence they are, at least in principle, subject to empirical test. Concentration on one of these, the Freudian, will enable us to illustrate the philosophical problems raised by such explanations.

The Freudian Explanation

The Freudian account begins with certain similarities between attributes of and attitudes toward a personal deity, on the one hand, and the small child's conception of and mode of relating to his father, on the other. In both cases the superior being is regarded as omnipotent, omniscient, inscrutable, and providential. In both cases the individual reacts to this superior being with utter dependence, awe, fear of punishment, and gratitude for mercy and protection. These parallels suggest, though they do not prove, that the original model for the conception of God is to be found in the infantile conception of one's parents, and that the almost universal inclination to believe in personal deities is to be traced to psychological remnants of the infantile situation. According to Sigmund Freud, these remnants are mostly the result of the Oedipal conflict. According to his theory, around the age of four the boy (restricting ourselves to the male for simplicity of exposition) comes to desire his mother sexually and to regard his father as a rival. Reacting more or less to actual indications, the boy becomes so afraid of the father's hostility, and also so afraid of losing his love, that he not only abandons his sexual aims but also represses the entire complex of desires, fears, and conceptions. This complex remains, in greater or lesser intensity, in the unconscious; and it is because a supernatural personal deity provides an external object on which to project it that men have as much inclination as they do to believe in such a being and to accept the attitudes and practices that go with this belief.

To understand what the projection does for the individual, we must recognize that the repressed material involves severe conflict between tendencies to rebel against the father and tendencies to submit to the father, and between the Oedipal desires and the standards that would be violated by satisfying those desires. Projection of this material onto an external deity reduces distress in several ways. First, the externalization of the problem provides some relief. Instead of being plagued by mysterious discomfort, the individual is faced with a clear-cut opposition between various desires of his own and a forbidding external person. Second, there is less conflict because the external figure is so powerful as to seriously weaken the rebellion, and he is so idealized as to render resentment and hostility less appropriate. Third, there are various mechanisms provided for dissipating the guilt over sexual desire for the mother and hostility toward the father. Confession, penance, and renunciations of various kinds afford socially approved means for relieving this guilt and counteracting its crippling influence.

People are more receptive to religious belief at some times than at others. Freud explains this in terms of the mechanism of regression. When a person encounters severe difficulties and frustrations at one stage of life, he tends to regress psychologically to an earlier stage at which these problems did not exist. Thus, when an adult is particularly hard pressed, there is generally some reinstatement of earlier modes of thinking, feeling, and relating to the environment. This means that the Oedipal material in the unconscious will become more intense and closer to the surface, while at the same time the person is more likely to engage in the childish practice of projection.

Thus, according to Freudian theory, an individual's tendency to accept belief in a supernatural personal deity (together with the other aspects of religious activity and involvement) is at least partly caused by a tendency to project a childhood father image existing in the unconscious, this projection normally following a regression set off by a current problem of adjustment and serving to alleviate unconscious conflicts and unconscious guilt. It is clear that, at best, this is only a partial explanation of religious belief. For one thing, it presupposes the prior existence of the religious ideas in the culture; at most, it is an explanation of the individual's readiness to accept these ideas when they are proffered.

Freud tried to supply this lack by developing a parallel theory of the development of religion in society. According to this theory, religion develops as a projection of a psychological complex that results from unconscious racial memories of a primal murder of the tyrannical father figure of a "primal horde." Cultural development is thus treated along the same lines as the development of the individual; something like a "collective unconscious" is posited in which psychic material can be transmitted in an unconscious form from one generation to another. However, these ideas have never won any considerable degree of acceptance, and in discussing Freud we can concentrate on his account of the psychological basis of religion in the individual.

Criticism of Freudian Explanation

With respect to any scientific explanation of religion, there are two questions to be raised. (1) What reason is there to accept it? (2) If it is true, what bearing does it have on the truth, value, or justifiability of religion? It is the second question that specially lies within the province of the philosophy of religion.

It is clear that the Freudian explanation does not imply that the beliefs of religion are false; Freud himself recognized this, though not all Freudians do. But it is often assumed that the success of any explanation of religion in terms of factors within the natural world would show that we do not need to bring anything supernatural into the explanation, and hence would seriously weaken religion's claims to credibility. However, this depends on how these claims were made. If religion is based solely on divine revelation, then the fact that we can give an adequate explanation of religion without bringing in divine activity, revelatory or otherwise, seriously affectsthough it does not conclusively disprovethe claim that certain beliefs are true because they are communicated to man by God. But if rational arguments are advanced in support of religious doctrine, such as the classical arguments for the existence of God, then whatever force these arguments have is in no degree lessened by the factif it be a factthat the psychological basis for religion is as Freud supposed. Of course, if the Freudian mechanisms constitute a necessary as well as sufficient condition of religious belief, then it follows that no one has any good reason for these beliefs. If anyone did have a good reason, that would itself be a sufficient condition of the belief, and this would show that it is possible to have the belief without needing to project an unconscious father image. However, it is almost inconceivable that we should show that projection is a necessary condition of belief. At most, we could hope to show that there is some correlation between degree of unconscious Oedipal conflict and firmness of religious belief. Showing that a certain set of natural factors is one of the things that can produce religious belief may well nullify certain ways of supporting the beliefs, but it could hardly show that no adequate rational grounds could be produced.

There is another way in which it has been thought that the Freudian theory of religion carries with it a negative evaluation of religion. The particular causal factors to which Freud traced religion are of a sort associated with undesirable patterns of organization. To regard religion as caused by these factors is to class it with neurotic and infantile modes of behavior, and as such it is hardly worthy of serious consideration. In this respect, too, the psychoanalytic explanation is typical. One can imagine an explanation that traces religious activity to evaluatively neutral natural factors, such as patterns of neural activity in the brain, but all the explanations in the field trace religion to states and activities that are more or less irrational, immature, or unworthy. Projection is involved in all the theories cited at the beginning of this article; the Marxist theory adds the point that religion is used by the dominant class to provide illusory consolations to those being exploited.

To be clear on this issue, we must distinguish the different forms these claims can take. Psychoanalytic literature is often simply an enumeration of similarities between religion and compulsion neuroses, such as firm attachment to rituals without having a rational explanation of the attachment. However, the similarity in itself proves nothing. A scientist "obsessed with an idea" also exhibits marked similarities to a compulsion neurotic, but this has no implications for the value of his work. The more important claim has to do with the causal factors said to underlie religion. Here, too, we must distinguish between (1) the claim that some neurotic condition is always or generally among the factors producing attachment to a religion, and (2) the claim that the causal basis of such attachment is markedly similar to the basis of recognized neuroses. There is no real evidence for the first claim. Controlled studies on the required scale have never been carried out. As for the second, we must ask how similar the causal basis is and what implications we are to draw from whatever degree of similarity exists. The mere fact that religion involves projection as a relief from unconscious conflict is not sufficient ground for labeling religion, in Freud's terms, "the universal obsessional neurosis of mankind." We must distinguish between pathological and healthy resolutions of unconscious conflict.

The anti-Freudian psychoanalyst Carl Jung, in terming religion an alternative to neurosis, expressed his belief that it is a healthy outcome. The basic issue involved here concerns the definition of "neurosis." If we define it in terms of a certain causal basis, then it may be that according to the Freudian theory, religion is, by its very nature, a form of neurosis. But then it remains an open question whether or not it is a desirable, justifiable, or realistic mode of activity. If neurosis is defined in this way, we may have to distinguish between good and bad neuroses. If, on the other hand, we accept common usage and build a negative evaluation into the definition of neurosis (by having as a necessary condition of neurosis that it make a satisfactory adjustment to one's environment difficult), then it would no longer be an open question whether religion, if neurotic, is a good thing. But with this concept of neurosis, we have a much stronger thesis, which calls for evidence that has not yet been provided. No one has shown that in general religious believers are less able to establish satisfying personal relations and less able to get ahead in their work than are nonbelievers. Even if this were shown, there would be further problems of a very sticky sort. The believer might complain that restricting "the environment" to the natural environment is question-begging. He would say that whatever the bearing of religious attachment on getting along in human society, it is essential to adequate adjustment to God and his demands. To ignore this aspect of "the environment" is to employ a criterion of adjustment that presupposes the falsity of religious beliefs.

Similar comments apply to the idea that the psychoanalytic theory implies that religion is infantile and hence unworthy of mature men. It is true that the way a religious man relates himself to God is in many ways similar to the way a small child relates himself to a father. But whether or not this is a mature, realistic mode of activity is wholly a function of whether there really is such a God. If there is, then this is the only reasonable stance to take. Hence, to condemn religion on these grounds is to presuppose the falsity of its beliefs.

Thus, there are many gaps in any line of reasoning that tries to derive a negative evaluation of religion from a causal explanation of religion in psychological or sociological terms. If a person does not feel that he has a firm basis for his religious beliefs, then looking at religion in a Freudian or Marxian light may well lead him to give up his beliefs. More generally, we can say that Freudian or Marxian theory does not provide an intellectual atmosphere in which one would expect religious belief to flourish; but it does not appear that these theories, as so far developed, are in any way logically incompatible with the truth, justifiability, and value of traditional religion.

See also Durkheim, Émile; Freud, Sigmund; Jung, Carl Gustav; Marxist Philosophy; Philosophy of Religion, Problems of; Popular Arguments for the Existence of God.


Important treatments of religion from a psychological point of view include Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo, translated by A. A. Brill (New York: Moffat, Yard, 1918), The Future of an Illusion, translated by W. D. Robson-Scott (New York: Liveright, 1928), and Moses and Monotheism, translated by Katherine Jones (New York: Knopf, 1939); Carl Jung, Psychology and Religion (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1938), and Modern Man in Search of a Soul, translated by W. S. Dell and C. F. Baynes (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1933); Erich Fromm, Psychoanalysis and Religion (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1950); A. T. Bosien, The Exploration of the Inner World (New York: Willett, Clark, 1952); and Theodor Reik, Dogma and Compulsion, translated by Bernard Miall (New York: International Universities Press, 1951). R. S. Lee, Freud and Christianity (New York: A. A. Wyn, 1949), and William P. Alston, "Psychoanalytic Theory and Theistic Belief," in Faith and the Philosophers, edited by John Hick (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1964), present discussions of the Freudian treatment of religion.

For a sociological point of view, see Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, translated by J. W. Swain (London: Allen and Unwin, 1915); Vilfredo Pareto, The Mind and Society, translated by Andrew Bongiorno and Arthur Livingston (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1935), Vol. III; V. F. Calverton, The Passing of the Gods (New York: Scribners, 1934); and G. E. Swanson, The Birth of the Gods (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960).

William P. Alston (1967)

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