Is Your Shrink Anti-Religion? Here’s Why

In order to give the reader a sense of the environment that I faced in the early 1980s when I was just beginning to explore the relationship between religion and health, it will help to have a little background on the influence that Sigmund Freud had on the health field’s attitude toward religion.

We have to go even further back before Freud, though, to fully understand the influences that affected Freud’s views toward religion. Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893), a professor of anatomy at the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, is considered to be the founder of modern neurology. He was the first to describe neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis, the Charcot joint, Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, and Tourette syndrome. His greatest contribution, however, was his dicovery of hysteria. Charcot induced hysterical conditions (paralyzed arm or crooked neck, for example) in patients by hypnotizing them.

Charcot was not friendly toward religion. Overt conflict broke out when religious groups in Paris claimed that Charcot was trying to secular the nursing profession in psychiatric hospitals of the region. Soon, Charcot began arguing that various religious manifestations were hysterical in nature. St. Augustine was often used as an example of hysteria, with Charcot pointing to his devout posture in paintings from the Middle Ages through the seventeenth century. He did not stop with Augustine, however, referring to a number of Catholic saints as cases of hysteria, mania, or psychotic ecstasy, just like patients found in the psychiatric hospitals of Paris. Charcot also attributed all miracles and instances of faith healing to hysterical suggestibility.

One of Charcot’s adoring pupils was none other than Sigmund Freud, who spent nineteen weeks with Charcot between 1885 and 1886. Freud would become a neurologist and psychiatrist and founder of the psychoanalytic school of psychology, which would form the field of psychiatry over the next century. Taking on the attitude of his teacher, Charcot, Freud became a strident critic of religion. He viewed religious beliefs and practices as a form of neurosis, something he would emphasize in writing that would span over three decades. I describe some of these works here.


In 1907, Freud wrote a paper titled, Obsessive Acts and Religious Practices in which he compared prayer and other religious rituals to the obsessive acts performed by patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Here is a quote from this paper:

“I am certainly not the first to be struck by the resemblance between what are called obsessive acts in neurotics and those religious observances by means of which the faithful give expression to their piety… It is easy to see wherein lies the resemblance between neurotic ceremonial and religious rites; it is in the fear of pangs of conscience after their omission, in the complete isolation of them from all other activities (the feeling that one must not be disturbed), and in the conscientiousness with which the details are carried out…”

In 1913, Freud wrote Totem and Taboo, and in 1919, penned Psychoanalysis and Religious Origins. In these volumes he developed his famous psychoanalytic theory of religion:

“…God the Father once walked upon earth in bodily form and exercised his sovereignty as chieftain of the primal human horde until his sons united to slay him [“Oedipus complex”]. It emerges further that this crime of liberation and the reactions to it had as their result the appearance of the first social ties, the basic moral restrictions and the oldest form of religion, totemism. But the later religions too have the same content, and on the one hand they are concerned with obliterating the traces of that crime or with expiating it by bringing forward other solutions of the struggle between the father and son, while on the other hand they cannot avoid repeating once more the elimination of the father.”

In 1927, at the age of 70, Freud wrote his most famous treatise on religion, Future of an Illusion. He predicts here that religion will gradually fade away in society as human civilization progresses, comparing the religious person to someone with mental retardation:

“Religion would thus be the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity; like the obsessional neurosis of children, it arose out of the Oedipus complex, out of the relation to the father. If this view is right, it is to be supposed that a turning-away from religion is bound to occur with the fatal inevitability of a process of growth, and that we find ourselves at this very juncture in the middle of that phase of development… If, on the one hand, religion brings with it obsessional restrictions, exactly as an individual obsessional neurosis does, on the other hand it comprises a system of wishful illusions together with a disavowal of reality, such as we find in an isolated form nowhere else but amentia, in a state of blissful hallucinatory confusion…”

In 1939, in his last year of life at the age of 82, Freud wrote Moses and Monotheism, in which he used psychoanalytic explanations to dismiss his own religion, Judaism. Despite long correspondences with a Christian minister over such matters, Oskar Pfister, and fierce debates with Carl Jung, Freud to his dying day would not change his attitude toward religion. Indeed, this attitude had roots that lay beyond the academic or the intellectual. The Jesuit priest and psychoanalyst, William Meissner describes the early life experiences and disappointments that Freud faced as a child and young boy growing up as a Jew in a largely Christian community. He would never come to grips with any of these experiences.

Freud’s views, however, would have a tremendous influence on the practice of psychiatry and the attitudes of psychiatrists and all mental health professionals toward religion, which in the 1980s was seen as a neurotic crutch used only by the weak and mentally infirm. My academic and clinical colleagues did not welcome my interests in the healing power of faith.

Harold G. Koenig, MD


Harold G. Koenig, MD, MHSc., completed his undergraduate education at Stanford University, his medical school training at the University of California at San Francisco, and his geriatric medicine, psychiatry, and biostatistics training at Duke University Medical Center. He is board certified in general psychiatry, geriatric psychiatry and geriatric medicine, and is on the faculty at Duke as Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and Associate Professor of Medicine, and is on the faculty at King Abdulaziz University, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, as a Distinguished Adjunct Professor. He is also a registered nurse. Dr. Koenig is Director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University Medical Center, and is considered by biomedical scientists as one of the world's top experts on religion and health.

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