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AQA Religious Studies Unit 03 - Philosophy of Religion - Psychology of Religion

Updated on March 28, 2014

Sigmund Freud's Beliefs (1856-1939)

  • The mind is split into three parts: id, ego, and superego.
  • The id is responsible for our primal urges: to eat, drink, sleep, have sex etc. The id is responsible for making us 'want' things but does not think about whether or not you should or even could get what you want. The id is present from birth.
  • The ego (develops at around age 3) is the realistic part of the mind and is responsible for identifying whether or not it is possible to acquire the wants of the Id. It is responsible for planning and rational judgement.
  • The superego is the moral part of the brain and uses the teachings you've learned about morality to decide whether or not the Id is right for wanting something. The superego can therefore stop a behaviour even if the ego decides that it is possible to get what you want. The superego develops at around the age of 5.

Applying the Above to Neurosis

  • When the id wants something but the superego decides that it's not moral there is an internal conflict that leads to repressing the memory of that conflict.
  • Freud believed that although we cannot remember these repressed memories, they are still in the unconscious and therefore have influence on our behaviour.
  • These unconscious internal issues manifest themselves in neurotic behaviours e.g. OCD.

Criteria of Neurotic Compulsions

Compulsions are behaviours that people feel compelled to perform, commonly seen in OCD - obsessive compulsive disorder.

Neurotic compulsions have the following characteristics:

  1. They are repeated, they do not just happen once
  2. They must be performed in certain ways only, variations bring discomfort to the performer
  3. After completing the behaviour, the sufferer loses his anxiety
  4. If the action is not completed or performed exactly anxiety will arise

Freud and Religion

  • Freud believed that religion and religious behaviour was a form of 'mass neurosis'
  • Everyone who believes and behaves accordingly in religion does so due to the repressed conflict they had as children when they had sexual desires for the parent of their opposite sex, and fear for the other parent finding out and punishing them for them.
  • Freud gives evidence for this by referencing humanity's past societal structure of primal hordes.
  • In these hordes, one alpha male would have dominance and thus create feelings of fear and envy in the beta males. These beta males would have desires to kill their alpha, but also respect and admiration. As a result, they repressed their conflict and acquired neurosis, leading them to create totems (usually animals) that would take the place of their alpha. These totems were used in repetitive rituals involving particular orders of execution.
  • Since many totem animals were slaughtered, Freud claimed that this was symbolisation for the slaughter of the alpha.
  • Freud then draws the comparison between the alpha male and totems in primal hordes and the symbols and figures in religions like Christianity. God is said to be the 'alpha male', having great power and instilling fear in people. In addition, bread and wine symbolising the body and blood of Jesus in Christianity, Freud says, is a clear example of totems being used in modern day society.
  • In addition, Freud states that many other religious behaviours such as Sunday Church and praying are clearly neurotic compulsions, fulfilling all of the characteristics of them (repetition, specific order, anxiety if not completed).
  • Lastly, Freud claims that religion is a likely answer for our neurosis because it provides a form of comfort for questions we cannot answer (such as natural forces and our own existence). Freud sees religion as a tool rather than a meaningful entity.

Check out this Jung gun and his radical views!
Check out this Jung gun and his radical views! | Source

Carl Jung's Views

  • The Collective Unconscious
    Jung thought that the collective unconscious was what collects and orders the life experiences we have had - what he called the personal unconscious. He thought that the way in which the collective unconscious works is universal to all humans, who have all inherited the same 'archetypes' (general ideas of certain things - the psychic counterparts to instincts) from our primitive ancestors.
  • Archetypes
    These archetypes cater for a variety of ideas ranging from sex, sleep, eating, self love, power, the desire to be cared for and God.
  • Innate
    Jung believed that we are all born and develop these ideas innately - there is no need to 'learn' them from external stimuli.
  • Anima & Animus
    The anima in an image of femininity in a man's mind whilst the animus is an image of masculinity. The anima and animus help us to understand the opposite sex and aid our relationships with them by communicating with us during our dreams.
  • Religion as a Natural Expression
    Jung believed that religion was a natural expression of the collective unconscious.
  • Positive About Religion
    Jung believed that religion was useful to society and should stay forever
  • Individuation
    Jung thought that religiousness was a way of aiding the process of individuation, where the collective unconscious comes together with the conscious mind through varying mediums: dreams, imagination and free association. This allows aspects of the collective unconscious to integrate into the personality of a person, and, if his conscious mind accepts what the unconscious mind is showing it (the 'archetype' of something') then a healthy mental state will be achieved. If not, then mental problems can arise (implying that atheists all have mental instability).
  • God Archetypal Image
    Much like he thought we are born with a collective unconscious, Jung thought we were all born with an 'archetype' of God, an image which we are all predisposed to having in our minds.
  • Similarities In Religion as Evidence
    He pointed to the fact that there are similarities in all religions existing today like powerful, infallible figures and rules to guide people, and that this meant we must all be either born with, or swiftly pick up from others, an archetype of God in our heads.
  • Belief in God
    Jung believed in God, quoted to say "I don't believe, I know [that he exists]"

The Collective Unconscious

  • Jung thought that the collective unconscious was what collects and orders the life experiences we have had - what he called the personal unconscious. He thought that the way in which the collective unconscious works is universal to all humans, who have all inherited the same 'archetypes' (general ideas of how to order the personal unconscious) from our primitive ancestors.
  • These archetypes cater for a variety of ideas ranging from sex, sleep, eating, self love, power and the desire to be cared for.
  • Jung believed that we are all born and develop these ideas innately - there is no need to 'learn' them from external stimuli.


  • Claimed that religion could either be good or bad for our mental health.

Full List of Essay Questions in the Psychology of Religion Section

  • January 2010:
    (a) Examine Jung's view of religion as an expression of the collective unconscious. (30 marks)
    (b) 'Jung's view of religion challenges religious belief.' Assess this claim (15 marks)
  • June 2010:
    (a) Examine Freud's view of religious belief. (30 marks)
    (b) 'There is a strong relationship between religion and unbalanced mental health.' To what extent do you agree with this view? (15 marks)
  • January 2011:
    (a) Explain how psychology has understood religion, with particular reference to:
    - The Oedipus complex
    - The theory of archetypes. (30 marks)
    (b) ‘Psychology has successfully explained “God” away.’ Assess this claim. (15 marks)
  • June 2011:
    (a) Explain why Jung’s understanding of religious belief may be seen as more positive than that of Freud. (30 marks)
    (b) ‘Religion has been successful in its response to psychology’s challenges to religious belief.’ Assess this claim. (15 marks)
    A Grade Answers
  • January 2012:
    (a) Examine ways in which Freud challenged belief in God (30 marks)
    (b) ‘Religious faith is necessary for good mental health.' How far do you agree? (15 marks)
  • June 2012
    (a) Examine Jung’s understanding of religion (30 marks)
    (b) ‘Jung’s understanding of religion has more strengths than weaknesses.’ How far do you agree? (15 marks)

Jung's View of Religion Focussing on the Collective Unconscious

Religion is an expression of the collective unconscious:

  • The animus or anima - our contrasexual archetypes - can be expressed through religion (and its key contrasexual figures) in a way that leads us to accept our anima or animus and integrate it into our selfs.
  • The God archetype - all religions around the world have the similarities with each other: strong infallible figures, caring female figures etc. which is evidence for the idea that we are born with an archetype of God or religion - a general inclination to believe in a higher figure or system. As a result, religion is a necessary part of our journey through archetypal stages to reach individuation and therefore a healthy psyche.


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    • Philanthropy2012 profile image

      DK 3 years ago from London

      An interesting observation indeed Joseph! The similarities across the different religions in the world are strikingly telling.

      The explanation for them though I feel is better explained by 1. The human's natural hierarchical 'pack' formation (common to the great apes) and 2. The human's historical grasp of stealing other human's ideas to then pass off as their own!

      Our natural and then necessary attachment to story telling (without any copy right laws) allowed for the key repetitions of religion (one key powerful god, prophets, virgin births etc.) to thrive in all the different societies we now read of in history class.

      Good spot on the questions, too! This page was designed as a summary-fact sheet for the others to use [=

    • profile image

      Josephine1929 3 years ago

      I seem to lean towards Jungs ideology of religious spectrum of the collective consciousness. That every being is created with a God-image or creator and all religions show similarities and brings community to thriving groups. This was an interesting article with a synopsis of Freud and Jungs beliefs and how they differ.

      The questions in this article are not conducive to the completion of the article. It seems like this was an assignment in a theology class or psychology class?

    • profile image

      Dr Un-Sweet 4 years ago

      Fantastic stuff!

      Just an extra not on individuation as I understand it…

      A nice wiki explanation:

      [Individuation is a process of transformation whereby the personal and collective unconscious is brought into consciousness (by means of dreams, active imagination or free association to take some examples) to be assimilated into the whole personality. It is a completely natural process necessary for the integration of the psyche to take place.]

      In addition, when the conscious accepts what the unconscious is ‘presenting it’ (in the form of archetype images), this is good and leads to a balanced mental health.

      When the conscious in unaccepting of these archetypal images or whatever the unconscious is ‘presenting’, this leads to an imbalance in the psyche and poor mental health.

      He thus says that accepting the God archetype is natural and good for mental health.