Sigmund Freud, the founding father of psychoanalysis, is well known for his strange and controversial theories on such topics as personality development, sexuality, and the unconscious. His theory about the basis of all religion, as presented in the book “Totem and Taboo,” is no less contentious. In this book Freud presents the idea that all religion stems from a primordial murder.
Freud begins his discussion in “Totem and Taboo” by considering a primal, savage tribe. In this tribe there existed a violent and cruel father who drove his sons away from the hoard so that he could keep all of the females for himself. The banished brothers joined forces and worked together to kill the father. To celebrate the accomplishment of their task the brothers threw a feast and ate their murdered father.
According to Freud, this cannibalism was an attempt by the sons to identify with a father who they feared and yet envied. They were ambivalent to the father. They hated him for being jealous and cruel but they also respected him for his strength and power. Upon eating the father, the brothers were able to symbolically take his strength and power for themselves. This feast, said Freud, marked the beginning of religion.
Once the brothers completed their identification with the father and satisfied their hatred of him, the tender impulses that they had previously suppressed began to surface. Now they felt a sense of remorse and created a father substitute, a totem. To assuage their guilt they forbade the killing of this totem. By treating the father substitute in this way they attempted to bring about reconciliation him.
Freud argues that the primal murder went on to determine the character of every religion. To him, all religion is an attempt to alleviate the feelings of guilt. As time went on, humans created the various gods of the various faiths in the world today. All of these gods remained at their core an exalted image of the father. It was to this image that one could offer conciliations as apology for the long forgotten but psychologically embedded murder.
Freud, in his usual fashion, throws the reader for a loop by admitting that this hypothetical primordial murder may have actually never happened. He contends that all that was necessary for the creation of religion was simply the longing to kill the father, but not the act itself. Just the thought of patricide may have been enough to create what he saw as the hallmark of religion – an exalted father figure.
Most people are not likely to agree with Freud in this day and age. Still, it is sometimes said that once you read Freud you begin to see him everywhere. An exalted father figure does seem to be present in many religions, as does an attitude of ambivalence towards a god who is feared and yet loved. Whether this really came from the murder and cannibalization of a primordial father is speculative at best. Freud himself backed away from the literal truth of this idea. His main purpose seems to have been to show that the unconscious psychological conflicts which influence everything else in our lives have also influenced and maybe even created religion.