Freud and the Origins of Religion

Where does religion come from? This is a question I had never thought about before reading Freud. I’ve always assumed religion has been a part of society for ages to the point where we wouldn’t characterize as human or society without having had it at one point. Freud however, speculates on the origins of religion and is convinced it began in childhood. He states it derives from “the infant’s helplessness and the longing for a father” (Civilization 35). This explanation makes sense since many religions such as Christianity focus on paternalism and a sense of protection. However, what stood out to me in his reasoning was the fact that he goes back to childhood and infancy. Freud seems to be kind of obsessed with childhood and seeks answers in it for all his questions, like for example people’s source of natural aggressiveness and libido. So when it comes to religion, I am not surprised Freud goes back to childhood once again.

When I think about the origins of religion, I think more about how we function as a society. How maybe having a religion is useful in promoting peace and morality within a community, or how it gives comfort, hope, and reassurance in difficult times such as war, disease or death. So the logical explanation for me is that religion originated when societies began to grow and become populous enough that measures such as religion became very practical and beneficial. This is a historical approach to the question, very different from Freud’s psycho-analytical explanation based on childhood. What works so well with Freud’s explanation is that it is separate from any historical context or sense of time. No matter when, humans have always had fathers and mothers from where to draw that sense of “helplessness and longing”. Freud’s references to childhood, not only with regards to religion, are great in this way because they are universal and detached from time. Everyone was once an infant, no matter the place or time when they existed. Thus, following Freud’s explanation, religion cannot be pin-pointed to a certain type of society or place in time, but rather it becomes an organic, almost essential part of being human and a child. In my opinion, a much more satisfying and thought-provoking answer.

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