Deeply and ineffably religious, on the couch

September 19, 2010 | By | 4 Replies More

One of the biggest mistakes one can make when trying to figure out people, in my opinion, is to assume that conscious thoughts in the form of words do most of the work of cognition.  I believe this has it upside down, and that 90% of the engine our cognitive engine is not available to consciousness–it is subconscious and not available for introspection. It is a huge foundational mistake to ignore Freud’s recognition that a large and powerful portion of the mind is not conscious.  This is an especially important thing to note for those who cling to the notion that they can explain human behavior on the basis that it is generally rational.  This mistake is compounded by the fact that humans are exquisitely good at confabulating, both consciously and unconsciously.  We drum up ex-temporary reasons for our decisions post factoWe don’t really know why we do the things we do but we brashly claim that we do know why we do the things we do.

I’ve repeatedly referred to Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of the human person as a small lawyer writing a big elephant as an eminently useful one. The lawyer on top works hard to distract or guide the elephant by manipulating the elephant’s limited attention, but there are deep and powerful instincts that inexorably move the elephant in its own direction, and in the end, the lawyer is often no match for the elephant. In those cases, the disoriented and demoralized lawyer ends up feeling compelled to explain why the elephant did what it did, even though the lawyer really doesn’t often have much of a clue.

I was thinking about the importance of the vast subconscious recently, while reading various works by Sigmund Freud collected in a volume titled Character and Culture (appears to be out of print). Many people have good sport shooting down Freud’s less successful attempts to explain the human psyche, but I prefer to keep in mind that Freud was born well before the Civil War and he simply did not have access to many of the things that we now know about human cognition. I admire Freud for many of his important contributions to understanding human beings, including his theories of the subconscious, reaction formation and sublimation. Many of Freud’s most thought-provoking ideas can be found in some of his lesser-known writings–they are often light on formal theory but rich with observations and platforms for future psychological (and now biological) research.

One of Freud’s lesser-known writings writings is titled “Obsessive Acts and Religious Practices,” and it was written in 1907. Today I reread that article in my personal attempt to understand why churchgoing people actually go to church. If you ask them why they go, they tend to tell you that “God” requires it (even though they do not live their lives as though they actually believe in God), or that they “like” it (even though it is clear in many cases that they would like nothing more than sleeping in on Sunday, or at least hanging around the house.

Image by Shootalot at (with permission)

So why do people really spend significant time and energy participating in religious rituals? Freud’s answer will be irritating to churchgoers; it can be captured by the idea that neuroses function as private religions, and that there is a psychological continuum running from private religions to public religions. What follows are Freud’s own words on this topic (starting at page 17 of Character and Culture):

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. The name “ceremonial,” which has been given to certain of these obsessive acts, is evidence of this. The resemblance, however, seems to me to be something more than superficial, so that an insight into the origin of neurotic ceremonial may embolden us to draw by analogy inferences about the psychological processes of religious life.

Persons who are addicted to obsessive acts or ceremonials belong to the same class as those who suffer from obsessive thoughts and ideas, obsessive impulses and the like, and form with them a definite clinical group, the customary term for which is obsessional neurosis.… (p.17)

The neurotic ceremonial consists of little prescriptions, performances, restrictions and arrangements and certain activities of everyday life which have to be carried out always in the same or in a methodically varied way. These performances make the impression that they are mere “formalities”; they appear quite meaningless to us. Nor do they appear otherwise to the patient himself; yet he is quite incapable of renouncing them, for every neglect of the ceremonial is punished with the most intolerable anxiety, which forces him to perform it instantly. Just as trivial as the ceremonial performances themselves or the occasions which give rise to them, and the kind of actions which are thereby caricatured, hindered, and invariably also delayed, e.g., dressing and undressing, going to bed, and the satisfaction of bodily needs.… For example, in the bed ceremonial the chair must stand in a particular place by the bed, and the clothes must be folded and laid upon it in a particular order; the coverlet must be tucked in at the bottom, and the bedclothes evenly spread; the pillows must be arranged in such and such a manner, and the body must lie in a particular position-only when all is correct is it permissible to go to sleep. In slight cases, the ceremonial appears to be only an exaggeration of an ordinary and justifiable orderliness, but the remarkable conscientiousness with which it is carried out, and the anxiety which follows is neglect is a ceremonial the character of a sacred rite. Any disturbance of it is tolerated with difficulty, and the presence of other persons during the performance of it is almost always out of the question.…

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. But equally obvious are the differences, some of which are so startling that they make the comparison into a sacrilege: the greater individual variability of neurotic ceremonial in contrast with the stereotype character of rites (prayer, orientation, etc.); its private nature as opposed to the public and communal character of religious observances; especially, however the distinction that the little details of religious surmise are full of meaning and are understood symbolically, or those of neurotics seems silly and meaningless.… In this respect an obsessional neurosis furnishes a tragi-comic travesty of a private religion. But this, the sharpest distinction between neurotic and religious or more meals, disappears as soon as one penetrates by means of psychoanalytic investigation to insight into obsessive actions. (p.19).

By this process the outward appearance of being foolish and meaningless, which is characteristic of obsessive acts, is completely demolished, and the fact of their having this appearance is explained. It is found that obsessive acts are throughout and in all their details full of meaning, that they serve important interests of the personality, and that they give expression both to persisting impressions of previous experiences and to thoughts about them which are strongly charged with affect. This they do in two ways, either by direct or by symbolic representation, so that they are to be interpreted either historically or symbolically.…

It is one of the features of the disease that the person who is infected with a compulsion submits to it without understanding its meaning-or at any rate its chief meaning.… As a rule the ordinary religious observer carries out a ceremonial without concerning himself with its significance, although priests and investigators may be familiar with its meaning, which is usually symbolic. In all believers, however, the motives impelling them to religious practices are unknown, or are replaced in consciousness by others which are advanced in their stead. (p.22).

The protestations of the pious that they know they are miserable sinners in their hearts corresponds to the sense of guilt of the obsessional neurotic; while the pious observances (prayers, invocations, etc.) with which they began every act of the day, and especially every unusual undertaking, seems to have the significance of defensive and protective measures.… The ceremonial and obsessive acts arise partly as a defense against temptation and partly as a protection against the misfortune expected. Against the temptation the protective measures seem to become rapidly ineffective; then the provisions come into play, for these are intended to keep a distance situations which give rise to temptation. We thus the that prohibitions replace obsessive acts just as a phobia serves to hold off and hysterical attack..…(p.23) From another point of view a ceremonial represents the sum of all the conditions under which something not yet absolutely forbidden becomes permissible, just as the marriage ceremony of the church signifies a sanction of sexual enjoyment, which is otherwise simple.… Thus they always reproduce something of the identical pleasure they were designed to prevent… The structure of a religion seems also to be founded on the suppression or renunciation of certain instinctual trends; these trends are not, however, as in the neurosis, exclusively components of the sexual instinct, but are egoistic, and the social instincts, though even these for the most part are not without a sexual element. The sense of guilt in consequence of continual temptation, and the anxious expectation in the guise of fear of divine punishment, have indeed been familiar to us in religion longer than in neurosis.

Is this tendency to displacement which progressively changes the clinical picture of the symptoms, and eventually succeeds in turning apparently trivial matters into those of great and urgent importance. It cannot be denied that in the religious sphere also there is a similar tendency to a displacement of psychical values, and indeed in the same direction, so that petty ceremonials gradually become the essence of religious practices, and replace the ideas underlying them.

The element of compromise in those obsessive acts which we find as neurotic symptoms is the feature least easy to find reproduced in corresponding religious observances. Yet here, too, one is reminded of this trait in the neurosis when one recalls how commonly all those acts which religion forbids–expressions of the instincts it represses–are yet committed precisely in the name of, and sensibly in the cause of, religion.…

A progressive renunciation of inherent instincts, the satisfaction of which is capable of giving direct pleasure to the ego, appears to be one of the foundations of human civilization.

[The final sentence of the above excerpt serves as a perfect segue into Freud’s suggestion (in Civilization and Its Discontents) that societies that take steps to stifle raw expression of sexual instincts thereby force that immense energy to sprout in more productive, and thus more acceptable ways. Hence, restraining the free expression of sexuality tends to result in a re-channeling of that energy in ways that are less directly sexual (but which constitute formidable challenges in the arena of Darwinian sexual selection), which then tend to give birth to such things as libraries, hospitals and airplanes.

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Category: Evolution, Human animals, Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (4)

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  1. Tony Coyle says:


    Great post. I remember being ridiculed for reading Freud in college (part of my insatiable 'word in a line' addiction) when studying psychology (I was seriously into studying AI and cognitive psych when younger).

    I found him as enlightening as I did Socrates, Plato, and others through Darwin, Voltaire, Adams, Russell, and all the way to modern day scientists, thinkers, and theorists.

    Just because the evidence has proven some of his 'ideas for causation' invalid, does not invalidate his observations, nor does it invalidate all of his findings.

    Reading the past for inspiration is a wonderful way to remind oneself of the 'hubris of every age' – that today we stand at the pinnacle of knowledge and understand, and everything else is just details.

    We don't know everything. We continue to learn. We continue to chip away at our uncertainties, and even more importantly, at our presumed certanties.

    Anyone who says otherwise is a fool or a charlatan. That alone is a good enough reason to dismiss the 'absolute truths' espoused by every religion, and by extension the religions themselves.

    BTW – many of his works are available as 'free e-books' on Project Gutenberg – a project to which I occasionally contribute some proof-reading time! Unfortunately most are still in German (and Google Translate* isn't quite up to translating technical Hochdeutsch, accurately!)

    * I have this switched on by default in Chrome, so I can read foreign HTML right in my browser – but sometimes the 'english' is harder to read than the original!..

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Tony: We have both seen, then, that there is a lot of gold to be mined in the writings of wise people from the past, even those who have made some big mistakes. Often, there is more wisdom in the errors of wise thinkers than in the "correct" writings of others.

      Good for you, volunteering with Project Gutenberg.

  2. Tony Coyle says:


    Some of the things that 'people from the past' can teach us is how to construct valid arguments, how not to be swayed by irrelevancies, and how to be rigorous in defense of one's thesis, while clearly delineating the evidence that does not yet fit, or might require additional thought.

    In other words – how to think clearly. Fred Pohl's blog had a great, and apposite, Niels Bohr quotation the other day – You should never express more clearly than you can think.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Tony: I sometimes wonder how it would be if you transported some of the best scientists of the past to the present, where they would be shown where they went wrong based on facts we now know. The good scientists would be delighted to be shown the errors of their ways, and they would have the intellectual discipline to pick up where they left off, assimilating the new information and forging ahead. It would certainly be a joy to have this thought experiment occur in reality. I assume that there have been more than a few stories written along this line.

      In particular, I would think that Freud would a field day with the newest findings of cognitive neuroscience.

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