atheism, Book Reviews, Religions, Religious Diversity

Sigmund Freud, Totemism, and the origin of religion- Who cares about facts?

ibg-wcIt is amazing, even before Freud’s psychoanalyticial theories were discredited as such, that this idea was ever accepted as anything but an utterly groundless fabrication. (134, cited below)

Oddly, a challenge I still sometimes see to Christianity (and indeed religion in general), is the notion that somehow it is merely cosmic project of some strange psychological phenomena. Although the idea didn’t originate with Freud, his theories seem to be the most popular. Freud’s idea for how religion came to be was essentially a wish-fulfillment of his own: he turned humanity’s religion into a kind of Oedipus complex.

For Freud, religion clearly often involved a father figure. Thus, he reasoned, religion must have come about over some conflict with a father figure which later caused guilt and the lifting up of a kind of father in the sky- God. The conflict, he proposed, came about due to the notion that the dominant male was the only one allowed sexual access to the women in the primitive family (I’m not making this up!). Winfried Corduan’s latest book, In the Beginning God: A Fresh Look at the Case for Original Monotheism, analyzed a number of aspects of origin of religion theories which are relevant to this thesis. Freud’s theory does not survive empirical analysis.

First, Freud’s notion of shared sexuality and group sex among alleged primitive societies was a popular theory at the time, but one utterly unfounded and based upon essentially no observable evidence. Corduan noted the notion of group marriage was largely derived from presuppositions about how the origin of religion and social institutions “must have happened” (114-115). The theory itself was put forth by L.H. Morgan and not based upon observation but rather “his support of evolution and Marxist-like social theories in which he construed ordinary social conventions… as late inventions in human history” (116). Some anthropologists in the field bought into the theory and thus allowed their observations to be directed by the theory, rather than using their contradictory observations to revise the theory. In fact, their theory-driven research resulted in confusion over the actual social constructs which they were observing (116ff).

Second, Freud’s analysis of the way religion developed is itself mistaken. The climax of Freud’s story is the cannibalistic totem feast upon the Father figure as a way to honor the Father and begin the worship thereof. But Freud’s story is again bereft of observational evidence. Freud acutally used the concept of the totem feast to try to discredit Christianity with its teachings on the Lord’s Supper (communion/Eucharist). However, totem feasts are, themselves, extremely rare in totemistic societies (133-134). Totem feasts were observed in  only a few societies, but then–as Corduan noted was often the case–the irregular was applied generally and so reporting on the various societies began to rely upon the rarity rather than the norm (if indeed a “norm” can ever be said to apply to wildly diverse practices). Moreover, there is simply no record whatsoever of a cannibalistic totem feast. The very notion was invented by Freud to discredit Christianity.

Freud’s generalized application of an extremely rare and unusual practice to a theory made up through psychoanalysis of peoples who left no record and no longer exist is unfounded. His use of his theory to attempt to discredit Christianity seems to actually teach us more about Freud’s psyche than the actual origins of Christian practice.

Anyway, I’m finding this book highly informative. I highly recommend it. I have found it to be extremely thought-provoking. It is interesting to see how many things we have simply assumed to be true about the origins of religion stem from unchallenged (and unsupported) theories proposed around a hundred years ago. Perhaps it is time to revisit these theories. So far as Freud goes, it seems his bell has tolled.


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Winfried Corduan, In the Beginning God: A Fresh Look at the Case for Original Monotheism (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2013).


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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.

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