Jesus Envy: Freud’s Secret Religious Obsession… and Its Consequences

No doubt many people have had their faith shaken, or been dissuaded from exploring religion in the first place, after reading Sigmund Freud’s “The Future of an Illusion.” Freud argues in this famous essay that religion has its origins in primitive man’s helplessness before nature. The only way man could attempt to control nature was to anthropomorphize the elements and thus create a god with human characteristics who could be appeased with prayers and sacrifices. Every man relives roughly the same process in his early childhood. A child is totally dependent on his parents, particularly his father, for support against a hostile environment. The desire of an adult to believe in a supernatural Father is thus rooted in the very real need of the child to have faith in the strength and love of his natural father.

The key element in Freud’s critique of religion is that faith is always based on an ulterior motive. In his essay Freud did not challenge the truth of the existence of God; he merely pointed out that faith is usually based on the need to believe. In effect Freud offered an ad hominem argument against religion: because believers are ordinary human beings with all the attendant desires, contradictions, and inconsistencies therefore, religious faith must be an illusion. This argument was old even in Freud’s time, but it gained a new plausibility from Freud’s persuasive rhetoric and especially from the suggestion—never explicitly stated, but subtly hinted—that psychoanalysis somehow “proved” that religion was illusionary.

Considering that Freud’s critique of religion has had such a wide influence, it is surprising that few people have bothered to turn Freud’s argument around. Could Freud himself have had ulterior motives for rejecting religion? Was Freud’s atheism an illusion to which he needed to cling for psychological reasons? Could Freud have suffered from neurosis or trauma of some kind that contributed to his rejection of religion?

Paul Vitz has had the perspicuity to ask these questions in his new book Sigmund Freud’s Christian Unconscious. It is Vitz’s contention that through most of his life Freud was strongly attracted to Christianity, especially Catholicism; that Christian literature, art, symbolism, were a major preoccupation for Freud and such references can be found throughout Freud’s work; that at one point, Freud seriously contemplated converting to Christianity; that Freud, nonetheless, was deeply divided toward religion and often thought of himself as an enemy of Rome and Catholicism; that Freud thought there was a connection between his theories on the nature of hysteria and the medieval notion of demonic possession; and that Freud had a neurotic fantasy of making a pact with the Devil.

To both orthodox Freudians and anti-Freudians, these claims might sound unbelievable. However, Vitz draws together an impressive amount of information to back his case. The evidence Vitz provides for his contentions can be broken into two categories. First, there is what might be termed “hard” evidence based on documented biographical research and careful examination of Freud’s writings. Not all of this evidence is new. Vitz draws heavily on research done by other Freud scholars including Ernest Jones, Freud’s colleague and first biographer, E.M. Thronton, who has written on Freud’s involvement with cocaine, Emmanuel Velikovsky who analyzed Freud’s dreams, and Peter Swales, who has documented Freud’s interest in witchcraft and the occult. Indeed, Vitz’s book is impressive simply for the amount of information and scholarship he has been able to organize and condense to support his argument.

Vitz also presents “soft” evidence—that is, psychoanalytic interpretations of Freud’s dreams, writings, and behavior which suggest a strong interest in Christianity. In effect, Vitz psychoanalyzes Freud just as Freud attempted to psychoanalyze historical figures such as Leonardo da Vinci and Moses. I term this aspect of Vitz’s work “soft” because one must accept the validity of psychoanalytic technique in order to accept such evidence as true. Despite this reservation, one is impressed how often the subject of Christianity turns up in Freud’s work and the “overlap” of Christian symbolism from one topic of concern to Freud to the next. Orthodox Freudians cannot object to Vitz using dream interpretation, word associations, or “Freudian slips” in order to discover the hidden meaning behind Freud’s critique of religion.

Among the evidence Vitz presents is:

Up until the age of three, Freud lived in the small town of Freiberg in the countryside of what is now Czechoslovakia. During this time Freud had a Catholic nanny who used to take little Sigmund to Mass with her. Freud would return home to preach to his family about “the living God” in imitation of the sermons he heard from the priest. Freud writes of this woman: “she told me a great deal about God and Hell, and gave me a high opinion of my own capacities.” Freud’s son, Martin, remembers “my father described his own nurse as an old and ugly woman, a Catholic, who used to take him to her church services in Freiberg, possibly with the idea of laying the early foundations of a conversion.” Vitz speculates that Freud might have been secretly baptized by his Nanny.

Obviously, Freud remembered his early exposure to the Catholic Mass well into his adult years and the issue of conversion had its roots in Freud’s earliest childhood. The Nanny was abruptly dismissed from the Freud household after being accused of thievery. Vitz stresses Freud’s early exposure to Catholicism and the influence of the Nanny; in fact, this aspect of Freud’s early childhood is the foundation for Vitz’s entire analysis.

It might seem that Vitz puts too much emphasis on an early, isolated incident in Freud’s life. However, it must be remembered that Freud himself claimed the foundations of an individual’s personality are set by the age of three. Whether or not one accepts this theory as true, clearly Freud felt that his early childhood had been decisive for the development of his personality.

Vitz examines Freud’s voluminous correspondence and discovers frequent reference to Pentecost, Easter, Rome, God and other religious subjects. Particularly interesting are Freud’s letters to his fiancee, Martha Bernays. In a letter of 1884 Freud writes “Fond Pentecost greetings darling. What memories this season brings back—precious lovely ones—and some bitter ones as well.” This is Freud, a secular Jew, writing to a girl from an Orthodox family! References to Pentecost are by no means an isolated example, but a recurring subject in Freud’s letters of the time.

Freud’s interest in Pentecost and Easter also reveals itself in his letters to his colleague, Wilhelm Fliess. In a letter of 1899 Freud writes, “What would you think of 10 days in Rome at Easter… Learning the eternal laws of life in the Eternal City would be no bad combination.” (Preoccupation with Easter and Rome also turns up in Freud’s dreams and works.) Even as late as 1927, in his letters to Carl Jung, Freud repeatedly brought up the subject of Easter and Pentecost. Vitz feels that, for Freud the Easter season was associated with memories of his Nanny and the countryside of Freiberg.

Freud was fascinated with Christian literature. As anyone even moderately acquainted with Freud’s work knows, Freud drew heavily on literature and art both as subject matter and support for his theories. What most people have not noticed is that the majority of works that influenced Freud were Christian in the subject matter and temperament. Among the works that had the biggest influence on Freud were Goethe’s Faust, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, Flaubert’s The Temptation of St. Anthony, Heine’s Lazarus, Dante’s Inferno, and the poems and novels of the Swiss Protestant writer C.F. Meyer. By contrast Freud showed little interest in Jewish literature—there are no references to the Talmud in Freud’s work.

Freud was also interested in Christian art. Two works of art that were especially important to Freud are Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Virgin and Child with St. Anne,” which Vitz claims attracted Freud because it reminded him of his “two mothers,”—his Nanny and his natural mother, Amalia—and the frescos of Lucas Signorelli which depicted Hell and the Antichrist, two themes that eventually grew into obsessions for Freud.

Vitz discusses a famous article by Emmanuel Velikovsky which offers a psychoanalytic interpretation of Freud’s own dreams described in Freud’s first major work, The Interpretation of Dreams. Velikovsky argues that Freud’s dreams show that he was contemplating conversion to Catholicism in order to obtain his ambition of a professorship at the University of Vienna. Vitz quotes from Velikovsky’s synopsis and interpretations of Freud’s dreams and then adds his own comments.

For example, in one dream Freud imagines giving his son away to a nun; in another he sees a plant known as a “crucifiers”; churches appear in several dreams; and a whole series of dreams deal with a desire to travel to Rome. In one particularly interesting dream, of which Velikovsky was not aware, Freud dreamt of a “sheep’s head” or skull and that “she (the nanny) washed me in reddish water in which she had previously washed herself.” Vitz interprets this as a reference to “washed in the blood of the lamb”—that is, a memory of infant baptism. However, Freud never discussed the significance of the Christian symbolism in his dreams. Considering that Freud was willing to examine puns, double entendre, obscure allusions and sexual references in interpreting dreams, it is odd that he almost systematically ignored the obvious and recurring religious symbolism in his dreams.

Freud’s biographer, Ernest Jones, notes that Freud acknowledged an interest in converting to Christianity during a discussion Freuthad in 1884 with his colleague at the University of Vienna, Joseph Breuer. Jones tries to minimize this incident, but the fact remains that Freud did seriously think about converting to Christianity.

Clearly, Vitz has uncovered enough evidence to demonstrate that religion was a major concern for Freud. Yet, if Freud was strongly attracted to Christianity, why did he finally declare himself an atheist? Vitz answers that Freud’s response to religion was heavily colored by his own neuroses, obsessions, and traumas, and draws on research done by other Freud scholars to discuss some disturbing but largely ignored aspects of Freud’s life. Among the dramatic points Vitz brings up are:

Freud described his Nanny as “my primary originator of neurosis…. If I succeed in resolving my hysteria I shall have to thank the memory of the old woman who provided me at such an early age with the means of living and surviving.” Vitz argues that Freud suffered from “separation anxiety” at the loss of his Nanny. A sense of shock at having lost a loved one would explain why Freud thought of the Nanny both as the source of his neurosis and as the means of his survival. Whatever role the Nanny played in Freud’s life, it is important to note that Freud diagnosed himself as suffering from neurosis and hysteria, and that he felt the source of these problems was to be discovered in his very early childhood when he was being taken to Catholic Masses.

Vitz considers the possibility that Freud might have been sexually abused as a child. Early in his career Freud thought that hysteria was a direct result of seduction in childhood. Later, Freud modified this theory to claim that hysteria was accompanied by fantasies of seduction. The important point however, is that Freud considered himself to have suffered from hysteria, as noted in the quote previously cited. The letter in which Freud described himself as an hysteric was written to Fliess in 1897. In 1896 Freud had, published a paper in which he claimed that every case of hysteria was rooted in an instance of childhood sexual abuse. Following the logic of Freud’s theory of this time, the suggestion seems to be that Freud thought of himself as victim of sexual abuse. Alternately, perhaps Freud had fantasies of childhood seduction, or pushed memories of adolescent sexual encounters back into his childhood.

Freud mentioned childhood sexual experiences in several of his letters. In one he writes, “She was my instructress in sexual matters, and chided me for being clumsy”—although it is not clear whether Freud is talking about his nanny or a servant girl who was with the Freud family some years later. In another letter Freud even says “Unfortunately, my own father was one of these perverts and is responsible for the hysteria of my brother… and those of several younger sisters.” Although it is not clear exactly what happened, Freud’s discussion of his own sexual life suggests that he reacted badly to some early sexual experience which remained an obsession for him into early adulthood.

Freud experimented with cocaine on and off from about 1884 to 1986. Most of Freud’s admirers have downplayed this aspect of his career, but, a recent study by E.M. Thornton shows that Freud used the drug often and in heavy doses. At first, Freud was enthusiastic about the possible medical uses for cocaine. He thought it could be used as a cure for chronic depression and impotency. Freud also seems to have hoped that he would win acclaim and gain financial benefits for pioneering the use of cocaine. As it turned out, cocaine had almost no medical value and Freud was sharply criticized by a number of Viennese doctors for his overly enthusiastic claims on behalf of the drug.

Freud mentions in several of his letters that he used cocaine to lift himself out of his depressions. Thornton claims that Freud was addicted to cocaine for some time and that he suffered from withdrawal symptoms when he finally attempted to break the habit. Cocaine might have influenced Freud to put heavy emphasis on sex and fantasy in the formation of his psychological theories. The first time Freud used cocaine was on April 30, 1884, that is, on Walpurgishach, the night on which, according to legend, witches gather from all over Europe to celebrate a Black Mass and have sex with the Devil. Freud almost certainly knew the significance of this date because it is mentioned in Goethe’s Faust, his favorite literary work. Freud’s use of cocaine was not an isolated incident in an otherwise exemplary career but a prolonged involvement which brought together several themes of great importance to Freud: sex, career ambition, desire for superhuman knowledge, and the Occult.

Vitz brings up these matters not to discredit Freud, but rather to show that the essence of Freud’s achievement was that he struggled with his debilitating traumas and neurosis, overcame them, and thereby gained profound insight into the nature of psychopathology. Freud assumed that an understanding of his personal neurosis could be used as the basis for a comprehensive, scientific theory of human psychology. Vitz goes on to show that there is an overlap between Freud’s personal psychological conflicts and his reaction to religion.

Two important themes stand out in the literary works that influenced Freud: seduction and the desire for god-like knowledge. Eve is seduced by Satan; Faust is seduced by Mephistopheles; St. Anthony is subjected to a series of temptations. In each of these works men sell their soul to the Devil for Knowledge in the hope of attaining god-like power. Freud identified with works which were clearly Christian, yet contained an ambiguous element: God triumphs in the end but, here and now on Earth it is the Devil who seems most powerful. Vitz claims that Freud was attracted to these works because their Christian content brought back memories of his early childhood, while their emphasis on the power of demonic knowledge appealed to his adult intellectual ambitions.

Freud wrote quite a bit about the subjects of the Occult and Witchcraft. In “Studies in Hysteria” written in 1893-1895, Freud suggested that women accused of witchcraft in Medieval times were, in fact, suffering from hysteria. According to Freud, the hysteric’s sense of being possessed by the Devil was the result of a splitting in the personality brought about by an attempt to disassociate herself from some traumatic, sexual experience. The pain of the trauma comes to seem an outside force, a demon, “invading” the hysteric’s soul. Freud obtained a copy of the Malleus Maleficarum, a work written in the fifteenth century by two Dominicans describing the nature of witchcraft and demonic possession, in the hope of gaining clearer understanding of the psychology of hysteria. As noted in the quote above about his Nanny, Freud diagnosed himself as an hysteric.

Vitz suggests that Freud came to think of himself as “possessed,” and draws attention to one aspect of the Malleus Maleficarum which might have had special relevance for Freud; that is, a description of the Antichrist. According to tradition, the Antichrist is of Jewish descent and sells his soul to the Devil in return for worldly power and the ability to perform false miracles. Vitz claims that Freud came to fantasize himself as an Antichrist figure and think of psychoanalysis as a “false miracle” designed to compete with Christianity.

In 1923 Freud wrote “A Neurosis of Demoniacal Possession in the Seventeenth Century,” which dealt with Christopher Haitzmann, an Austrian painter who was said to have made two pacts with the Devil and then finally been redeemed by the Virgin Mary. Oddly, Freud spends most of this paper arguing that only one pact, the second written in blood, was real, and that the first, written only in ink, did not exist.

Why should Freud have been attracted to this legend and why should he have put so much emphasis on challenging a minor point of the story? Vitz argues that it was precisely because Freud had made some kind of “pact” with the Devil and was later anxious to deny it. Of course, Vitz does not mean that Freud was literally in league with Satan, but rather that Freud had a neurotic fantasy of entering into an alliance with the Devil and that he might have produced some kind of writing to this effect. Vitz is not the first Freud scholar to make this proposal. David Bakan and Peter Swales have also offered similar interpretations of Freud’s fascination with the Devil.

What emerges from Vitz’s examination is that Freud’s response to religion was highly personal and charged with his own neurosis. In an essay on Baudelaire, T.S. Eliot says of the French poet’s fascination with sin, decadence, and the Devil: “Genuine blasphemy… is the product of partial belief, and is as impossible to the complete atheist as the perfect Christian.” As presented by Vitz, much the same comment can be made about Freud. Freud’s obsession with the Devil, witchcraft, the Occult, and his very need to argue vehemently against Christianity are products of a “partial belief.” It would not have been necessary for Freud to have made such a long digression into these subjects if Christianity did not have a powerful, if contradictory, attraction for him.

Eliot goes on to say of Baudelaire, “He was one of those who have great strength, but strength merely to suffer… what he could do, with that immense passive strength, was to study his suffering.” Likewise, Freud made a strategy of studying—almost cultivating—his neuroses, traumas, and obsessions, and using the insights he gained into himself as the basis of his generalizations about human psychology.

However, Freud was not content to be a poet or critic; he wanted to be considered a scientist and his speculations of psychology to be accepted as scientific fact. Freud’s insistence that his atheism and his psychological theories were based on scientific reasoning helped to increase their prestige and acceptance. However, Freud’s use of a scientific vocabulary also had another purpose—to obscure his own personal weaknesses and neuroses. Freud chose not to flaunt the symptoms of his attitude that allowed him to distance himself from his obsessions. Finally the pain of, remaining suspended in “partial belief” proved too much for Freud and he brought his struggle to an end by decisively rejecting religion. Freud’s atheism had a therapeutic purpose—to end the spiritual ambiguity that had tormented him since his childhood. Even in rejecting religion Freud was still wrestling with the strong attraction Christianity had for him—a paradox today’s Freudians should appreciate rather than ignore.

  • William Main

    At the time this article was published, William Main was a free-lance writer living in New York.

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