Is Religion a Biologically Determined Neurosis?

Is Religion a Biologically Determined Neurosis? November 10, 2015

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Is religion a biologically determined neurosis? Yes and no. Before seeking to answer this question more fully, I will summarize some basic tenets of someone who viewed religion in this way—Sigmund Freud.

Freud has been called a ‘biologist of the mind.’ While there is a line of distinction between the brain and mind for Freud, the distinction does not pertain to reality, but concepts. There are not two independent substances—brain and mind. Thus, Freud was a materialist. He was also a determinist: all events have preceding causes. This is true of various brain states, including the unconscious realm.[1]

Freud viewed religion as a form of neurosis, like other infantile neuroses that children endure as the result of various forms of repression and that hold them back from healthy development.[2] As Freud writes in The Future of Illusion of the psychologist’s analysis of the subject, “… the idea forces itself upon him that religion is comparable to a childhood neurosis, and he is optimistic enough to suppose that mankind will surmount this neurotic phase, just as so many children grow out of their similar neurosis.”[3]

In view of this brief summary, we now ask: Is Freud right? Is religion a biologically determined neurosis? There are three parts to the latter question, one pertaining to materialism (biological), another pertaining to determinism, and the last pertaining to neurosis. We will take each in turn, beginning with materialism.

First, does biology play a part in shaping religion? Certainly, material reality matters and must be factored in to any account of what makes humans human, including our religious intuitions and perspectives. We do not experience or reason outside our bodies. My Judeo-Christian heritage does not discount matter, as if the body is merely a shell. We are embodied souls or soulish bodies, and not in my estimation, some Cartesian ghost in the machine. The body with the mind can shape the soul, and the soul can shape the body and mind (which is part of the natural order as consciousness, but not reduced to materialism). Someone might argue that the discussion of soul and non-materialistic consciousness is meaningless, but how meaningful is the discussion of matter? Do we really know what matter is? Is it blind, inert mass stripped of such secondary qualities bound up with the senses, or is there more to the objects of nature than materialism can account for?

Here it is worth noting that even a noted atheist philosopher, Thomas Nagel, has reasoned for the need for the development of a post-materialist naturalism that will be able to account for the appearance of the conscious mind as a constitutive part of the material whole. For Nagel, such a picture may involve a naturalist, teleological rather than mechanistic framework.[4] I reference Nagel’s work simply for the purpose of claiming that the jury is out, at least in some quarters, on what many take as a given—the nature of matter. I share Nagel’s suspicion of a purely materialistic explanation of nature, including what makes us human. I would add at this juncture that we cannot reduce consciousness to the way we experience brain activity; even this sentence reveals that there is more than brain activity at work—there is a “we” experiencing the activity.  I do not take it to be simply a matter of how we reference matters, as if it is simply a habit of ours to make certain word associations. Is it simply a nominalist issue, or is there something to be said for my mouth and vocal cords are moving, but they do not speak—I do? My hands are hitting a keyboard, but I am the one who is typing. Words involve more than utterances and symbols; they involve meanings that we associate with them, and it is “we” who do it—conscious subjects.[5]

To sum up this brief discussion, while biological or material reality does shape humans, including our approaches to religion, since it involves human experience and reason which involve bodily functions, a materialistic explanation does not exhaust what makes us human. A materialistic explanation does not sufficiently account for such phenomena as consciousness, and thus, cannot account fully for religion, which involves conscious dimensions.

Now we turn to the second issue: is humanity completely determined, including our religious drives and aspirations? If consciousness cannot be reduced to a purely materialistic framework, one would have reason to pause before answering in the affirmative and claim that we are simply a nexus of chemical reactions that propel us forward in our determinations, including matters pertaining to religion. In addition to the subject of consciousness, we must also account for a certain level of unpredictability in the natural world.[6] While there is some level of biological determination of our being, I believe there is more to us than matter. Matter does not operate in predictable patterns at every turn; nor do we as humans. We cannot analyze first-person consciousness in the same way that we can third-person accounts. We can no longer serve as independent observers when we engage other persons directly; direct engagement involves spontaneity in relationship, which should shape our findings.

As noted above, Freud was a determinist. For Freud, we can identify causes for our various mental states, which derive from biological drives such as sex as well as self-preservation, including eating and protection. There are the conscious and unconscious mental states; the latter includes the pre-conscious sphere, such as memories, which are close by, but of which we are not always aware, and the sub-conscious dimension, which does not readily or easily surface. He added to these states the related but distinct categories of id, ego, and superego. We are beset with internal and external societal challenges that lead us to repress certain urges. Such repression leads to neuroses. If diagnosed accurately, we can bring about personal and social transformation.[7]

While I do not share Freud’s view that we are strictly bodily determined creatures, I do find his discussion of various forms of mental states invaluable. There is more going on than meets the eye. Perhaps the same could be said for Freud’s own investigation regarding religion. How objective or scientific was he? Here we come to the third area.

Third, is religion by necessity, and at every turn, a neurosis? It all depends on what one means by biological determinism. From my vantage point, it must be qualified, just as religion as neurosis must be qualified, even according to Freud’s own method. Just as sexual intimacy that has its roots in infancy need not be neurotic, so, too, religion, which is marked by infancy, need not be neurotic either. As argued in Twelve Theories of Human Nature,

…the finding of infantile roots for something does not necessarily devalue the mature project. Freud himself, in postulating the role of sexuality in our infancy, did not think this undermined the value of mature, nonneurotic sexual love. So the fact (if it is a fact) that the roots of religious belief can be found in infancy does not automatically undermine all forms of mature religion. Freud was for his entire life a firm atheist, who thought that all of most forms of religion do more harm than good, but that view does not follow from his psychoanalytic theory.[8]

While religion can function in neurotic ways, it need not necessarily do so. Moreover, just as a religious orientation might prove neurotic, so a religionless orientation might prove neurotic, when we repress certain spiritual intuitions in view of a reductionistic, scientific orientation that views everything in mechanistic terms.

Certainly, science is critically important for the advance of humanity and culture. However, it cannot account fully and meaningfully for every dimension of our being, as noted earlier. With this point in mind, one scientist who is a colleague claimed that science is great at providing maps, but not good at providing directions in terms of how to live.

Now Freud himself readily acknowledges the power of religion. From his vantage point, it is the only “really serious enemy” to science, not art or philosophy. Religion performs three roles:

If one wishes to form a true estimate of the full grandeur of religion, one must keep in mind what it undertakes to do for men. It gives them information about the source and origin of the universe, it assures them of protection and final happiness amid the changing vicissitudes of life, and it guides their thoughts and actions by means of precepts which are backed by the whole force of its authority.[9]

It is like science in the first, most unlike it in the third, and most powerful in its second function. Regardless of the merits of Freud’s three points of comparison, one finds here acknowledgment of religion’s sway and significance in the lives of multitudes.

For Freud, the reason for religion’s ubiquity is because we created religion: “…it would be very nice if there were a God who created the world and was a benevolent providence, and if there were a moral order in the universe and an after-life; but it is a very striking fact that all this is exactly as we are bound to wish it to be.”[10] While I am open to considering Freud’s various arguments, I find that Freud has his own biases that he may not be conscious of and that drive him, such as the idea that we want God and so we create God. But perhaps it is the reverse—we want God because God created us.

Sarah Coakley brings this point home and turns Freud on his head:

Freud must be—as it were—turned on his head.  It is not that physical “sex” is basic and “God” ephemeral; rather it is God who is basic, and “desire” the precious clue that ever tugs at the heart, reminding the human soul—however dimly—of its created source.[11]

[Pseudo] Dionysius’ more ancient vision means that, in contemporary terms, Freud is turned on his head.  Instead of “God” language “really” being about sex, sex is really about God—the potent reminder woven into our earthly existence of the divine “unity”, “alliance”, and “commingling” that we seek.[12]

We started this post with the question: “Is religion a biologically determined neurosis?” We close the post with this question: Is Freud’s version of psychoanalysis a theologically determined illusion?  After all, he almost comes across like a biological Calvinist! Or, perhaps we could say he is the inversion of a dominant strand of Patristic thought, for which sex was all about God.  For Freud, God is all about sex, and other such drives that we repress.

Freud’s argument against God is more rhetoric than logic. Many assume Freud disproves God by his arguments, but it is more accurate to say he assumes the non-existence of God, and then tries to explain why religion exists.  Such a seemingly scientific move proves illusory. For all the merits of Freud’s account of nonconscious forces at work in the mind, we must also become conscious of the limits and possible damage of Freud’s anti-theology. If one were to play by Freudian logic and invert it—and assume God’s existence—those who repress their basic longing for God would be the true subjects of neurosis.


[1]See the summary of Freud’s position in Leslie Stevenson, David L. Haberman and Peter Matthews Wright, Twelve Theories of Human Nature (Oxford University Press, 2012), page 209.

[2]See Twelve Theories of Human Nature, pages 214-215.

[3]Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, The Standard Edition, with a biographical introduction by Peter Gay, translated and edited by James Strachey (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1961), page 68.

[4]See Thomas Nagel, Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pages 47, 53-54, 66-67.

[5]See the significant discussion of the brain and consciousness involving Raymond Tallis, author of Aping Mankind, and Robin Dunbar in Mark Vernon, “Human Consciousness Is Much More Than Mere Brain Activity,” in The Guardian (June 17, 2011);

[6]See Conor Cunningham’s discussion of material reality in Darwin’s Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2010), page 23.

[7]Twelve Theories of Human Nature, pages 209-215.

[8]Twelve Theories of Human Nature, page 224. See Freud, The Future of Illusion, page 68.

[9]See Lecture chapter XXXV, “A Philosophy of Life,” in Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis (Hogarth Press, 1933);

[10]Freud, The Future of an Illusion, page 42.

[11]Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay on the Trinity (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2010), page 10.

[12]Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self, page 284.

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