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Sigmund Freud - Is Religious Behaviour Neurotic?

Updated on January 22, 2013

Is it Neurosis?

Is prayer a neurotic behaviour?
Is prayer a neurotic behaviour? | Source

What is Neurotic Behaviour?

Neurotic behaviours by definition stem from neurosis, a mental illness which is acquired through changes to our mind and not a result of damage to our physiology. The symptoms revolve around stress and repetitive behaviours: all of the behaviours of OCD are defined as being neurotic.

Sigmund Freud was the strongest propagator of the idea that religious behaviours are neurotic because they are no different from other OCD compulsions.

Neurotic Compulsions

  • Repeated
  • Must be performed exactly
  • Provide relief when completed
  • Cause anxiety if not completely or performed what is deemed to be 'correctly'

Religious Rituals and Activities:

  • Repeated
  • Must be performed exactly
  • Provide relief when completed
  • Cause anxiety when not completed or when done improperly

Specifically, neurotic behaviours include those behaviours that affect our lives negatively but do not make us lose touch with reality. This is also quite similar to religious behaviour since, although it may not make sense to many people, religious people still seem to be sane and healthy in all other respects.

As the famous American playwright Jerome Lawrence said:
"A neurotic man builds a castle in the air. A psychotic man lives in it. A psychiatrist collects the rent."

According to Freud, Why Did Religious Behaviour Arise?

Freud claimed that religious behaviour, although completely irrational, served us as a way of being neurotic without being socially unacceptable. In other words, you could say it was a way for us to be crazy, but, since everyone else was doing it, be acceptable at the same time.

Freud based this idea on a premise he could at most only weakly defend: he claimed that everyone has some sort of general need to be neurotic and that once we have this need we could end up doing almost any neurotic behaviour at all. He assumed that neurotic behaviours were random and so although one person might wash his hands incessantly and another go to Sunday church every week, they could both have exactly the same root to their neurosis.

Why did Freud Think Everyone was Neurotic?

Freud presents many arguments for why everyone was neurotic and how this links back to religious behaviour. The following are outlines of his arguments:

  1. Protection
    When we are children we feel helpless and seek protection. Usually we find this in our biological father, but as we grow older and start to see that he is fallible and potentially weak we seek something more powerful: God (or some form of spiritual deity). This fear and dependency results in neurosis that subsequently channels our neurosis into the religious behaviour associated whichever religion we choose. Note also that in both Judaism and Christianity God is referred to as a 'father' or 'our heavenly father'.
  2. Diversion
    Freud also states that religions are used as a method of diverting our attention away from conflicts or guilt. For example, he cites tribes that have used spiritual rituals in order to combat their tribesmen’s desires to murder the alpha male (who is both respectable and enviable) of the tribe, using totems in order to represent the alpha male and killing the totem animals instead of challenging the authority and causing conflict. Thus, such religious neurotic behaviours are a way of distracting or relieving ourselves of conflicts we have in our lives.
  3. Oedipus Complex
    Freud also uses this theory of the Oedipus complex to explain how religious behaviours are simply methods of coping with anxieties that we all face as children – a ‘mass neurosis’ as he calls it to help us get over the conflict of our internal sexual desires for our mothers and following hatred for our fathers.
  4. God of the Gaps
    Freud's work 'The Future of an Illusion (1927)' also includes the idea that gods and religion are merely tools we as humans have used in order to calm our concerns about our own existence – giving at least some sort of answer to questions such as “why do we exist?” and “how did we get here?” On top of this point, religions, he argues, have been used to help us cope with the lack of knowledge for many things: natural disasters and other poorly understood concepts like life and death. At least some form of answers for these questions were easily available via the doctrines and spiritual teachings we see today.


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    • Philanthropy2012 profile image

      DK 5 years ago from London


      Indeed, religions have largely been based on the 'God of gaps' argument.

      I'll be sure to check out your hub! :)

      Though having had a quick look, I'd say add in a photo so it will be noticed on the featured board! :)

      Also, if you want it to get more views then publish more hubs - hubs are the best way of attracting more views to all of your other hubs! Writing comments and following others will only get you so far, but having 50+ hubs will work best.

      Thanks for your time,

      Philanthropy :)

    • profile image

      Davidwork 5 years ago

      Since I began to take an interest in evolution in 1977, I have believed that religions are based on myths that we humans created when we did not have the knowledge to explain phenomena that we could not understand.

      The polytheistic religions of many early human civilisations gave way to the major monotheistic religions, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, etc.

      I believe that all religions will eventually die away as growing human knowledge replaces myths with scientific understanding, and religious based morals with empathy and compassion. If you have time, see my hub, "The Future of Humankind".

    • Philanthropy2012 profile image

      DK 5 years ago from London

      Thanks a lot Leah,

      I hoped this to be a succinct and informative hub!

      Have a great evening,


    • thebiologyofleah profile image

      Leah Kennedy-Jangraw 5 years ago from Massachusetts

      This is really interesting stuff- I no longer follow an organized religion and that has caused me to reflect on the whole concept of religion- including why others do follow it. Freud has some really great ideas of explaining why it is so many chose organized religion. Thanks for sharing.