Freud, Jung and Fromm: Friend or Foe?

Would it be of any surprise to you that when Freud, Jung and Fromm approach religion, they isolate the topic in its entirety to the realm of the psyche? In doing so, they reduce the desired outcome of all religious teachings and practices to the psychologists’ interest in psychological wellbeing. It is a reading or interpretation of religion from within the confines and language of the psychologist. Viewed from this perspective, religion is then appraised in relation to what is presumed to be a healthy psychology and in this its purpose is served. The failure to achieve such then renders a religious system dysfunctional and perhaps better disregarded. Drawing inference from this it would indicate that in death, religion, which prepared so many for an afterlife is no more. In reality (psychology speaking) its fruits: a healthy mind should have been realised in life. Hence religion would have to be presumed as having foolishly forgotten its own purpose in believing that its strategy of wellbeing is the truth in itself.
All that was and is taught about Heaven, Brahman and Nirvana; the final abodes of eternal being or beings, where life exists in completeness or in loving relations with a supreme creator being ; has been confused with the truth that these lofty theological ideas are simply a motivational strategy to lift our worldly spirit. A lie has been served out for the welfare of mortal man, which became a truth that many suffered and died for. How forgetful of the religionist. But what a convincing lie, where the founders themselves taught that the world is an illusion, a place of inevitable suffering and loss, fit to be abandoned; or that in the unification of the soul with God through love, happiness could be found in this life and the next.
On all accounts, religion itself in its many forms is far more expansive in its teachings, with its ultimate goals of true existence beyond this meagre life, than to be limited to what may well be an important step of the journey: mans wellbeing on earth. If happiness on earth is important, though not the only or final outcome of a religious process; is there something the psychologist, whose subject concludes in this area, is trying say that has been forgotten or undermined in the rush for nirvana?
In this essay I will look at the views of three of the most eminent personalities in psychoanalysis: Freud, Jung and Fromm, who formed opinions and wrote about religion. In their insistence that we should either abandon religion as an illness, or open ourselves to it as a myth, or that we should attend to its true worldly purpose without isolating it to God worship; is there something for the religionist to consider about the quality of life for souls on earth? Perhaps something neglected by in their determined effort to share and protect their truth, while set upon their journey to heaven. This essay will consider what Freud, Jung and Fromm had to say about religion and how religion may be benefitted from the psycho-centric view of it.

Freud: Helplessness and Harmony
In the Future of an Illusion, Freud introduces us to the topic of religion by first framing the subject by his thoughts on what constitutes as the origins and purpose of culture. In essence he posits that culture includes all that is involved in the collective ‘conquest of nature and the production of wealth’. The greatest threat to culture, which Freud views as synonymous with society, is the individual complete with personal interest and ‘hostile impulses’. Such impulses may be ‘destructive’, ‘anti-social’ and ‘anti-cultural’. Therefore culture in itself exists to both facilitate and regulate, through ‘coercion’ and ‘suppression’, the humankind. The essence and success of a culture exists, when viewed from the psychological perspective, in what constitutes a level of sustainable individual sacrifice and compensation. Amongst what Freud refers to as the ‘psychical inventory’ of a culture, an inventory which includes internalised cultural rules (morals), ideals, and art; is its foremost asset: ‘religious ideas’ otherwise referred to as a culture’s ‘illusions’.
Such ideas, for Freud, are ‘illusions’ because they are beliefs derived from and sustained by ‘men’s wishes’: ‘Thus we call a belief an illusion when wish-fulfilment is a prominent factor in its motivation, while disregarding its relations to reality, just as the illusion itself does.’ (Freud, The Future of an Illusion, 1928, pp. 54- 55). Cleary Freud dismisses the idea that such beliefs have arisen from experience or reflection, for him they are the ‘oldest and insistent wishes of mankind’. Neither provable nor refutable; such wishes have possibility, but little probability. The wishes, which Freud posits, are summarised as follows:
We say to ourselves: it would be very nice if there were a God, who was both creator of the world and a benevolent providence, if there were a moral world order and a future life, but at the same time it is very odd that this is all just as we should wish it ourselves.’ (Freud, The Future of an Illusion, 1928, p. 58)
According to Freud religion, as such is an illusion, and its value exists in how it coerces, suppresses and compensates; or in a word ‘socialises’ human beings. Religion, the production of an illusion, is man’s foremost response to his common needs to survive nature’s onslaughts and live in harmony with oneself and others:
I have tried to show that religious ideas have sprung from the same need as all the other achievements of culture: from the necessity for defending itself against the crushing supremacy of nature. And there is a second motive: the eager desire to correct the so painfully felt imperfections of culture. (Freud, The Future of an Illusion, 1928, pp. 36- 37)
Beyond these ‘manifest motivations’, Freud considers that there is a ‘deeper’ motivation for religious ideas: the adoption of an ‘infantile prototype’. What is inferred by this is that an adult resumes a childlike state and turns to an imagined father figure (God, the exalted father) with fear, longing and admiration; for the purpose of protection. Referred to as the Oedipus complex; man relapses to a child like state of dependency. In Civilisation and Its Discontents Freud writes:
The derivation of religious needs from the infant’s helplessness and the longing for the father aroused by it seems to me incontrovertible, especially since the feeling is not simply prolonged from childhood days, but is permanently sustained by fear of the superior power of fate. I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection...The origin of religious attitude can be traced back to in clear outlines as far as the feeling of infantile helplessness. There may be something further behind that, but for the present it is wrapped in obscurity.’ (Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, 1961, p. 72)
It does seem more apparent from Freud’s writing that it is the ‘fear and helplessness’ that are the deeper motivations in all cases, and which thence forth take their various forms in religious constructions in which a childhood disposition may be appropriated. Thus for Freud religion is a cultural asset to motivate, regulate, and compensate people; it exists in a society which has arisen from their individual and collective need for wealth, harmony and protection, while feeling helpless in combating nature’s onslaughts.

Jung: mind altering ‘powers’
Quite the opposite of Freud, Jung does not see religion as a human construct, but rather something of an involuntary and altered state of consciousness arisen from a dynamic experience. Thus man is not the creator of religion but rather its victim:
Religion as the Latin word denotes, is a careful and scrupulous observation of what Rudolf Otto aptly termed the “numinosum,” that is, a dynamic existence or effect, not caused by an arbitrary act of will. On the contrary is seizes and controls the human subject, which is always rather its victim than its creator. (Jung, 1938, p. 4)
Jung leaves aside the question of ultimate origins and focuses on the experience itself, something Freud also denies the religionist. Jung considers every ‘confession’ to be founded on the experience of the numinosum or to be trust in a ‘definitely experienced numinous effect’. Therefore religion as defined by Jung—as a mind altering experience and attitude— is a reality and its sources are many. He posits that the numinosum may be the ‘quality of a visible object’ or the effects of an ‘invisible presence’, the effect of which is a ‘peculiar alteration of consciousness’. Religious experience is therefore an effect of and response to certain ‘powers’:
Religion appears to me to be a peculiar attitude of the human mind, which could be formulated in accordance with the original use of the term “religio” that is , a careful consideration and observation of certain dynamic factors, understood to be “powers,” spirits, demons, laws, ideas or whatever name man has given to such factors as he has found in his world powerful, dangerous or helpful enough to be taken into careful consideration, or grand, beautiful and meaningful enough to be devoutly adored and love. (Jung, 1938, p. 5)
As for religions in themselves, Jung views them as ‘creeds’ in which the religious experience has been ‘codified’ and ‘dogmatised’, as such, they are packaged, made sacred and repeated in the form of rituals which may inspire more religious experience. The experience itself is not therefore of a specific religion or confined to the realm of what goes necessarily as religion. Therefore Jung as a psychologist insists that such investigation must focus on the actual religious experience with disregard for ‘what creeds have made of it.’

Fromm: a system of unified being
In Psychoanalysis and Religion, Fromm presents a melancholic picture of humanity’s great accomplishments as they appear to be devoid of the humanity they seek to serve. Setting up the ultimate ideals and needs of everyone as love, truth and justice (which he finds in short supply); Fromm sees these as the common interests of both the religionist and psychoanalyst. For Fromm these are thus the presumed outcomes of any religion. However, he privileges the analyst with extended vision and reduces religion to a secondary status and mere system of symbols:
The psychoanalyst is in a position to study the human reality behind religion as well as behind nonreligious symbol systems. He finds that the question is not whether man returns to religion and believes in God but whether he lives love and thinks truth. If he does so the symbol system he uses are of secondary importance. If he does not they are of no importance. (Fromm, 1969, p. 9)
In this Fromm sets out the objectives of religion as love and honesty, in the absence of which society is melancholic. However he does struggle with term ‘religion’, he finds it restrictive as it infers a prototypical monotheism by which other religions may be evaluated. Therefore to avoid this interpretation he proposes his own definition: ‘any system of thought and action shared by a group which gives the individual a frame of orientation and an object of devotion’ (Fromm, 1969, p. 21). By this he means to be more inclusive in his approach as well as maintaining his standpoint as a psychoanalyst. Therefore in effect of Fromm’s definition, religion could mean anything from Christianity to the Hell’s Angels, the occult and more.
Fromm sees the ‘need’ for religion (as he defines it) arising from man’s precarious condition of life. However it is important to note that this precarious condition is not merely the struggle against nature’s harsh effects, as Freud suggests; it is rather man’s dichotomy of having a ‘split’ nature. In a crude summary of Fromm’s elaborate description of this condition, man’s ‘self-awareness, reason, and imagination’, has set him apart from all other creatures and nature itself. He feels part of the world but transcendent to it. In disharmony with natural existence, he views life as a problem that needs resolving; some solution and answers must be found and therefore he is unable to be at peace. Separated from nature’s harmony by his ceaseless reasoning, he craves for the ‘meaning of his existence’, and an answer to his questions that will address his being in its entirety. An ‘optimal solution’ is required which gives him the sense of oneness:
He is driven to overcome his inner split, tormented by a craving for ‘absoluteness,’ for another kind of harmony which can lift the curse by which he was separated from nature, from his fellow men, and from himself’ (Fromm, 1969, p. 23)
To achieve ‘absoluteness’ he constructs an ‘all-inclusive mental picture of the world’ which provides an entire context for his life and serves to assist him in understanding where he is and what he is supposed to do. Further to this mental and intellectual picture, his ‘feeling’ and ‘actions’ required to be addressed and therefore an object of devotion, as in, some aim, ideal, god or power is incorporated. Having a world view, sense of identity and purpose—a religion, is not optional for man, it is just a question of which one he chooses: ‘The question is not religion or not but which kind of religion, whether it is one furthering man’s development, the unfolding of his specifically human powers, or one paralyzing them.’ (Fromm, 1969, p. 26)

Freud: repression, regression and the collective neurosis
Although Freud viewed religion as an illusion, denied religionists their experience, and insisted that the future would be better without it; he did admit that as a motivational and harmonising system of culture, religion was society’s ‘foremost asset’. As a Weltanschaung, described by Freud as: ‘an intellectual construction which gives a unified solution of all the problems of our existence in virtue of a comprehensive hypothesis, a construction, therefore, in which no question is left open and in which everything in which we are interested finds a place’, he saw religion being of ‘incomparable consistency and coherence’ (Freud, New Intoductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis, 1933). Psychoanalysis had no intention of offering an alternative, but accepted science’s even though it never proclaimed to have one either.
Later in the work of Fromm and object-relations theory, the illusions that Freud so severely attacked, have been established as beneficial and unavoidable, the very substance of culture and the necessary vehicles of meaning and creativity (Palmer, 1977, pp. 75- 79). However several observations made by Freud in his scathing criticism of religion and where he felt it harmful to man, are worthy of consideration. By this I would be referring to repression, disempowerment, over dependence on institution and unquestionable notions or revelations.
In a paper entitled ‘Obsessive Acts and Religious Practices’ (1907), Freud draws upon the similarities he finds between ‘obsessive actions’ and repetitive religious rituals, to conclude that religious practice is in itself a form of neurosis. In either case, the neglect of such actions resulted in guilt and anxious concern. Because of the necessity of their performance, the distress at their disruption and their ‘increasing complexity’, Freud saw them as ‘sacred acts’. Underlying these ‘obsessive acts’ Freud saw a psychological response to temptation and the consequent punishment. Palmer summarises Freud’s hypothesis as follows: ‘As an obsessional neurosis, religion is formed through the suppression or renunciation of certain instinctual impulses, amongst which we must count the sexual instinct. Religion is thus an expression of the instincts it has suppressed.’ (Palmer, 1977, p. 13) When considered on the societal level, Freud viewed religion as the ‘universal obsessional neurosis of humanity’; as the ‘neurotic survivals’ of the past they could replace the requirement of ‘forming a personal neurosis’ (Freud, The Future of an Illusion, 1928, pp. 76- 77). From the inner conflict caused by guilt and repression in ‘painful’ suppression and by ‘shameless’ desires, a neurotic disorder emerges. The symptoms are the suppressed emotions seeking discharge.
Without tracing this further back to Freud’s ideas of the Oedipus complex, or the birth of taboos and rituals in the primal horde; the simple point of repressed desires finding their outlet in obsessive disorders is alarming. Such repressions in a religious context could result in intensified forms of religious practice as a neurotic condition; rather than an act of genuine content. For those in the business of renouncing general desires and sex in specific, this point is worthy of serious attention. Therefore as religions do prescribed measures of self abnegation, they would do well to estimate what may be the follower’s capacity to suppress their desires sustainably, before it all reaches an unhealthy level of repression. Perhaps further concerns should be alerted when spiritual practices are reduced to a level of being performed because of the guilt involved in there non-performance; or though when felt to be arduous their incompletion results in negative feelings. If a person’s wellbeing will only be felt upon their completion, it would appear highly likely that such act when repeated rigorously may we be no more than symptoms of neurosis.
Fromm also suggests that a danger Freud saw in religion was that it lent sanctity to the ‘bad human institution’ that it joined with, of which its own history is tangible proof. However a significant and related point of detriment that he also mentions is that by insisting that people believe in an illusion (a belief without empirical proof) and ‘prohibiting’ critical thinking, religion has provably ‘impoverished intelligence’ and thus affecting the power of reason (Fromm, 1969, pp. 12- 13). This all relates to Oedipus complex as mentioned before where the child forsakes desires and accepts the authority of the father in fear and exchange for protection. This unquestioned authority, as it may exist in the forms of the institution, the book, the message or the prophet, when it impedes in all respects human reasoning, it is a danger to all levels for humanity. It also encourages a lack in human responsibility, accountability and personal empowerment.

Jung: one truth in many forms
The problem that Fromm and later Palmer raise with regards to Jung, through which they feel he is not the friend of religion, is the fact that he reduces religion to a psychological phenomena. Though, as mentioned before, he rejected much of Freud’s views and accepted religion as a genuine experience, when we look to his theory of collective consciousness, it is there that Jung restricts the experience and the fact of religion to the psyche, while offering no support to the idea of an objective presence.
Differing from Freud’s separation of the mind into the conscious and unconscious, Jung proposed three divisions: consciousness, personal unconsciousness and collective consciousness. Consciousness is the part of the mind of which we are aware, personal unconsciousness is the part which contains all of the ‘psychic material’ relating to our life of which we are unaware, and collective consciousness is a shared universal substratum of unconscious psychological content. (Palmer, 1977, pp. 99- 100) The contents of the collective consciousness are irrepresentable archetypes, which though without form themselves are the cause of the many forms, images and ideas (contents) of experience. The archetypes are imperceptible and the contents are what we perceive. For Jung, God is an archetype, which means that God exists as a priori and autonomous, distinct from human creation. Therefore the proclivity toward religion or the ‘instinct for God’ exists within our deepest and shared psyche. The God concept is accordingly bipartite in that it has an unknowable and eternal aspect and a knowable and perceptible form in images, symbols and so forth. Therefore God and the experience of God are truths that exist, positively and indisputably, in the collective consciousness. Understood as such that is why Jung could state ‘Religious experience is absolute; it cannot be disputed.’ (Palmer, 1977, p. 127)
When the archetype God becomes perceptible, the forms, symbols and representations are made of the stuff of everyone’s world. If we can accept on the basis of Jung’s conclusions, that religious experience is an absolute psychological fact, that would certainly shape our thoughts to what exists out there in the multiplicity of religious traditions, new and old. To hold on to such a thought may well be a formula that assists respect and tolerance in our, what has become—‘global village’. In this I would suggest that in describing religious experience as an ‘absolute’ on psychological grounds is a positive contribution to the religious. Jung can be either viewed as someone who reduced God to the limitations of the psyche, or positively as someone who has explained God as a truth to the limits of psychological inference. Jung in the positive sense is a friend of all religions and not of one.

Fromm: authoritarian and humanitarian
What Fromm appears to offer us is Frued’s Weltanschaung complete with a pronounced object of devotion, as a new definition of religion. Where Freud rejected the religious Weltanschaung as a return to our ‘infantile nature’, Fromm serves up the same, only this time sanitized of all religious contents (God, the transcendent soul and an afterlife). Therefore the locus of Fromm’s Weltanschaung is the psyche or soul as he prefers to call it. Reclaiming the soul to the psychologist, Fromm proposes that the highest ethics of love, truth and justice (among others) to be ultimate aim of every soul and every religion. To be religious or not is a choice which Fromm in his broad definition of religion, considers we don’t have; the only question that remains is: which religion will invoke within in us the best of ethics?
Discussing types of religious experience (Fromm, 1969, pp. 21- 64), Fromm sees two distinct divisions: authoritarian and humanitarian. Authoritarian religion is characterised by the polarity of the powerful and the powerless. The deity or personality at the top, due to being all-powerful deserves to be worshipped and obeyed. There is no reason for worship other than the object in itself possesses power over others. As such the powerful has free right to enforce submission and reverence. In this type of religion, virtue is obedience and the cardinal sin is disobedience. In opposition to the deity, man is powerless and of no worth or significance. By mercy he feels strength, but by surrendering his independence and personal integrity he gains protection. Thus he feels at one with the deity. God is no more than a symbol of almighty power.
At the absolute opposite of authoritarian religion, humanitarian religion has the soul’s prosperity and empowerment at the centre of it. Fromm describes it as being centred on man, who must realise himself, and his relationship to all else through love and personal reasoning. As opposed to belief, understanding and experiencing truth is valued, and the eligibility and potential of the individual is of concern. Power in this case is love and love forms the bond between people, whereas personal morals and principles guide each individual. The religious experience is tangibly perceived in realising the ‘oneness in All’ through love and thought. Achieving strength (not power) and self realization are recognised achievements and not obedience. Faith is based on experience, and joy is felt as opposed to guilt and shame. God effectively is a symbol of the power that is within man and not the power that simply dominates him.
It is obviously the case that in these stark divisions of Fromm, which may ‘cut across various religions’ and also ‘exist in the same religion’; in the centre of one is a narcissistic God and in the other a narcissistic soul. What appears most obvious in Fromm’s divisions is what remains absent: the unlimited variations of possibilities. However, identifying the extreme positions certainly assists us with some clear concepts by which to critic religion. While recognising the need for religion, Fromm appears to be inventing one which ticks all the boxes of Freud’s criticism, thus he minimises the possibilities of believing in illusions, infantisization, potential repression, fear and guilt; basically the various elements that may result in some form of neurosis. Having said that, it remains evident that Fromm presents an excellent explanation of the underlying psychological dynamics of these religious types.
Relating the authoritarian religion to the dynamics masochism, he explains that a person projects all that is good and great in himself onto the deity, leaving him empty and impoverished. Fromm draws an important contrast to human cults: ‘It is the same mechanism that makes people endow the leaders of even the most inhuman systems with qualities of superwisdom and kindness’ (Fromm, 1969, p. 50). Lost for love, and devoid of reason and personal worth, the more powerful he presumes his God, the more empty he becomes and then slavishly begs morsel of what he has given away in totality. He is a condemned and isolated sinner, separated from himself by himself; and seeks his completeness in surrender. However, Fromm does not deny the limitations of man, it is just a question of how they are perceived: ‘To understand realistically and soberly how limited our power is is an essential part of wisdom and of maturity: to worship it is masochistic and self-destructive. The one is humility, the other humiliation.’ (Fromm, 1969, p. 53)
Underlying this scenario Fromm sees the ‘most irrational tendencies to be found in man’: the ‘unconscious desire to be weak and powerless’, which drives the person to escape freedom and personal responsibility. All that is opposite to this self inflicted bondage can be found in the structure of authoritarianism.
In this explanation Fromm clearly brings our attention to the dangerous dynamics of religions wherein surrender and the recognition of an unquestioned authority acting with supernatural certification (as in the guru is gods representative on earth), can lead to nothing short of the systematic abuse and exploitation of people.

As mentioned in the introduction, although Freud, Jang and Fromm may have stripped religion of its metaphysical contents, after-life aspirations and unique individual beliefs; do they have something to offer the religionist by their psycho-centric investigation of the phenomena? In answer to the question posed I would have to reply in the affirmative. It is clear that their approach to the topic is from the study of mental health and the examination of its disorders in profound and insightful ways. To then cast that professional gaze, rich with what constitutes psychological wellbeing upon varieties of religious experience, should obviously shed invaluable light upon the areas where even the most well meaning religions may be compromise.
In organised religion where leaders seek to mediate on behalf of God, the position assumed by them and toward which people project their very best, things can and do go very wrong. In the event in which they do, the lives of thousands can be damaged by the disillusionment. Feeling let down, personally hurt and exploited, the faith of such persons may be beyond recovery. Therefore as Freud has prudently pointed out: religion cannot be used as an excuse for a ‘bad human institution’ (to which I would also add: a bad leader), where reason and thoughtfulness is discourage, repression is promoted and regression to childhood makes it all possible. From Jung conclusions, the religious may well benefit by respecting the religious experience of others in its variant faiths forms or none. As he presented, religious experience regardless of the symbolism employed is an absolute reality. And finally from Fromm, religion is unquestioned need of humankind; it is required to resolve the dichotomy of separateness. As such the realisation of the full human potential can be possible if an eye is kept to the human. The individual soul should be prospering in ethics and personality and not reduce to a negative presence (or absence), and a warped state of mind as absolutism receives more than its fair share of the profits. Perhaps in the absence of such sensibilities, religion as the ‘opiate of the people’ will be the mass universal neurosis suggest by Freud.


Freud, S. (1961). Civilization and its Discontents. New York: W.W. Norton.
Freud, S. (1939). Moses and Monotheism. Letchworth: Hogarth Press.
Freud, S. (1933). New Intoductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis. Hogarth Press.
Freud, S. (1928). The Future of an Illusion. London: Horace Liveright and the Psychoanalytic Press.
Fromm, E. (1969). Psychoanalysis and Religion. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Jung, C. G. (1938). Psychology and Religion. New Haven: Yale Universiy Press.
Palmer, M. (1977). Freud and Jung on Religion. London: Routledge.
Stevens, A. (1994). Jung: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Storr, A. (1989). Freud: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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