Skip to main content

Religion and Psychoanalysis


Religion is a body of beliefs and practices shared by a given social group and connecting it to a higher agency, generally a divinity or divine human. Interestingly, the word religion is the same in most western languages, Latin or Germanic. However, the origin of the term has, for more than two thousand years, been the object of an intense debate that is of interest to psychoanalysis. According to the Latin authors Lactantius and Tertullian, the word is related to the Latin verb religare, "to reconnect, to bind again." Religion would, therefore, involve a twofold connectionamong humankind and between humankind and God. In Cicero, religion is associated with the verb relegere, "to gather." In this case religion is said to be a gathering together, an interiority, some scruple that prevents or delays action and entails the performance of certain rites. In this sense we agree with philosopher Michel Serres and the linguistÉmile Benveniste that the opposite of religion is negligence.

The topic of religion was initially examined by Freud and Breuer in the Studies on Hysteria (1895d), where hysteria could be considered a reaction to mental suffering associated with religious doubt. Freud's first detailed examination of religion, "Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices," appeared in 1907. The first book in which he discussed religious themes was Totem and Taboo (1912-1913a).

Freud saw religion in its collective and individual forms. On the one hand he viewed the church as the prototype of an artificial crowd (as the army), where each individual must love his leader (Christ, for example) as a father and other men as his brothers. Religion helped maintain the cohesion of a human group threatened with disintegration if there was a loss of faith (1921c). On the other hand, he also saw religion, with its ceremonies and detailed rites, as a universal neurosis, where scruples were transformed into obsessive acts. Religion would contribute to humankind's transition from a natural state to a cultured one through the sacrifice of human drives. But the progress of civilization also implied a return to the irrational and the maintenance of illusions that maintained the individual within the confines of his infantile neuroses (1927c).

The Freudian approach to religion has more to do with anthropology than with theology: Religion is a part of civilization and the discussion of its dogmas is less important than its hold on society and the individual. From this point of view Freud, who claimed to be an atheist, had to confront the criticisms of his friend, Pastor Pfister, along with those of his former student Carl Jung. Moreover, Freudian conceptions of religion relied on the knowledge available during the early twentieth century, which has since often been challenged by the findings of archeology and epigraphy. Thus the character of Moses leading the people of Israel through the desert and out of Egypt in Exodus, a figure magnified by Freud, seems in the early twenty-first century to have more to do with myth than with history. And, unlike Jung, Freud rarely made reference to the religions of the Far East, which are so unlike Hellenistic and Middle Eastern cultures.

Odon Vallet

See also: Beirnaert, Louis; Belief; Certeau, Michel de; Choisy, Maryse; "Claims of Psychoanalysis to Scientific Interest"; Future of an Illusion, The ; Ideology; Illusion; Judaism and psychoanalysis; Jung, Carl Gustav; Lacan, Jacques-MarieÉmile; Moses and Monotheism ; Mysticism; Oceanic feeling; Philippson Bible; Rite and ritual; "Seventeenth-Century Demonological Neurosis, A."


Freud, Sigmund. (1907b). Obsessive actions and religious practices. SE, 9: 115-127.

. (1912-1913a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.

. (1921c). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. SE, 18: 65-143.

. (1927c). The future of an illusion. SE, 21: 1-56.

. (1939 [1934-1938]). Moses and monotheism: Three essays. SE, 23: 1-137.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Religion and Psychoanalysis." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . 26 Apr. 2019 <>.

"Religion and Psychoanalysis." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . (April 26, 2019).

"Religion and Psychoanalysis." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . Retrieved April 26, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.