What is the relationship between religion and neurosis?

“War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength” [Orwell (1981) p.7] George Orwell’s newspeak is indicative of the problem in examining the relationship between religion and neurosis as the terms themselves are subject to the similar linguistic rules as newspeak. That is to say that familiar terms, like religion and neurosis, in psychology are reconstructed to give an exact and very subtle meaning which a psychologist uses to convey his/her theory. Though psychological terms are increasingly becoming standardised when examining the relationship between religion and neurosis it is apparent that the terms change with each psychologist and over time. This is problematic for attempting to examine the relationship between religion and neurosis because the use of these terms by psychologists contemporary to Jung and Freud differ from each other and to the modern usage of the terms. Indeed, it is possible that psychologists have defined the two terms in such a way that each psychologist contradicts the other creating a situation where a word has two meanings opposite to each other creating a similar oxymoron to George Orwell’s assertion that “war is peace” [Orwell (1981) p.7]. Therefore, to examine the relationship between religion and neurosis requires a clarification of how the terms religion and neurosis are defined by each of the examined psychological theories. A clarification of the definitions of neurosis and religion reveal that the terms are defined in such a way to lend support to, and play an integral role in, the psychological theories propounded and thereby determine the relationship between religion and neurosis. Thus, the relationship between religion and neurosis is a subjective matter for it is dependent on how the terms religion and neurosis are defined. For instance, if religion was defined as the belief system of a neurotic people then it may be construed that there is an inherent positive relationship between religion and neurosis.

Due to the “newspeak” nature of the definitions of neurosis and religion it is important to distinguish the Jungian and Freudian usages of the terms, for example, from how modern psychologists may understand these terms this provides a theoretical neutral standpoint from which to examine the relationship between neurosis and religion, and how it has been portrayed by various psychological theories. By doing so this indicates how the judgements on the relationship between neurosis and religion are determined by the perception of neurosis and religion.

However, providing a modern psychological definition of neurosis and religion is problematic as definitions of neurosis are vague and a conclusive definition of religion does not exist and arguably such a definition would not be the prerogative of a psychologist. Nonetheless, psychologists have propagated definitions of religion crafted to be congruous with their area of study. This essay will offer a general definition of religion which conveys a little of its function and importance as a phenomenon. Thus a suitable definition may be to posit that religion is to God as maths is to the universe. Religion addresses the existential questions that life raises, it attempts to understand and experience humanity’s place within creation through an understanding about the nature of God; just as maths enables an understanding of the universe through an understanding of the laws which govern it. Religion, according to Fontana, is indicative of an innate need to search for a higher meaning in life [Fontana (2003) p.85]. Though this definition may be criticised for presenting religion in too positive terms it conveys religion as a phenomenon which affects behaviour, the prerogative area of study for psychology. Furthermore, it is a definition which does not determine whether religion has a positive or negative relationship with neurosis.

Defining neurosis is a problematic process due to its changing nature. The Oxford English dictionary defines Neurosis as a “mental disorder producing depression or abnormal behaviour, sometimes with physical symptoms but with no evidence of disease” [OED (1991) p.434]. This is a vague definition but it gives some indication of the varying nature of the term. Historically, the term was attributed to William Cullen, a Scottish doctor in the 18th century, who claimed that neurosis is a disorder of sense and motion caused by a general affection of the nervous system [McGirr (1991) p.6]. This term was used quite generally among doctors upto the time of Freud and Jung since then the term has fallen out of use outside pyscho-analytical circles, indeed the DSM-III-R (Third Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association) has eliminated neurosis as a psychological category [Atkinson, Atkinson, Smith, Bem & Hilgard (1990) p.596].  Indeed, under a psycho-analytical definition of neurosis does not define neurosis as a pyschological condition in itself but as a category of pyschological disorders distinguished from pyschosic disorders [Statt (1998) “Neurosis”]. Therefore, a modern defintion of neurosis would adhere to a definition similar to that conveyed by the Student’s dictionary of Psychology “Neuroris is a broad category of psychological disturbances believed not to have an organic origin and are not psychoses. The major neuroses are depression, anxiety, hysteria, obession and phobias. Usually the sufferer maintains contact with reality, recognises that the sympton is irrational but is still unable to modify it…the usuage indicates a belief about the source of the problem and today neuroses are expected to have psychological causes, whether in the remote past or in the present”  [Stratton and Hayes (1993) “Neurosis”]. Neurosis is thus a general term is not precisely defined which leaves it open to individual psychological theories which treat neurosis differently. However, at this point it is possible to argue that the relationship between religion and neurosis is not determined by a biological condition but pyschological causes. Indeed, even if there is a positive relationship between neurosis and religion this is not to argue that those who hold religious beliefs lack a sense of reality.

Due to the indefinate nature of the terms neurosis and religion a single description of the relationship between neurosis and religion is not possible. Therefore, this essay will argue that the relationship between neurosis and religion is interchangeable according to the theory which propagates the nature of that relationship, which defines the terms neurosis and religion in accordance with that theory. It will do so by presenting three theories which argue differing relationships between neurosis and religion. First, it will consider the argument that neurosis and religion are inherently linked and that neurosis has a postive relationship with religion (i.e. that as religion increases neurosis increases) as propogated by Freud. Second, the essay will consider that religion is integral to overcoming neurosis and thus neurosis has a negative relationship to religion (i.e. that as religion increases neurosis decreases), this was the position taken by Carl Jung. However, these theories are based on a series of assumptions which leaves the relationship between neurosis and religion undetermined.

1. Neurosis and religion are linked inherently and that neurosis has a postive relationship to religion.    

This position was held by Sigmund Freud who with Carl Jung founded the pyscho-analytic movement in psychology and whose views on religion have been influential in the popular imagination in addition to subsequent psychologists. The relationship between neurosis and religion according his theory was that relgion was a universal neurosis of mankind and the relationship between neurosis and religion is therefore positive. Freud’s assessment of the nature of the relationship between neurosis and religion is determined by Freud’s theoretical framework which defines neurosis and religion according to this theoretical framework. Therefore, Freud’s definition of religion and neurosis determine how neurosis and religion are inherently linked. Indeed, Freud develops his notion of the self so that by the 1920’s it is possible to detect a shift in Freud’s thought on the relationship between neurosis and religion for an individual towards a more dymanic relationship on a collective basis within civilisation. Nonetheless, despite this change in his theoretical framework his notions on religion remained virtually unchanged and therefore the relationship between neurosis and religion remained the same. How Freud defined the terms of neurosis and religion within his theoretical framework necessarly lead to his regard that religion is inherently neurotic and his definitions of neurosis and religion must be expounded.

In his early thought Freud held that a person’s psyche was comprised of the unconscious and the conscious, the consciousness was the realm of the rational and therefore was the desired mental state for a person whereas the unconscious was the realm of the irrational a state which Freud regarded as “abnormal and pathological” [White (1952) p.68]. It is within this framework of a dipolar pysche which Freud’s initial thought on neurosis must be understood as neurosis entails a two way dynamic between the conscious and the unconscious. This dynamic with regard to neurosis is marked characteristically by repression. Repression is a healthy physic mechanism which prevents a past traumatic experience residing in the unconscious from entering into the conscious thereby allowing a person to live in a mentally healthy condition. Neurosis occurs when the repression mechanism is supressed and a past traumatic experience enters into the conscious if this past traumatic experience is not dealt with rationally then it manifests itself in neurotic symptoms. For instance, a person’s repressed memory may manifest itself within an obsessional neurosis wherein a person becomes obsessed with performing a routine, such as reading a book before going to sleep, if this “ritual” is deprived from the person then that person may become apprehensious. There are degrees of neurosis and most people have a neurosis to some degree and it is upon this level that a relatively mentally healthy person may hold religious beliefs, which Freud argues are neurotic. Indeed, this mechanical process behind neurosis indicates how religion may be deemed to be neurotic. However, the accuracy of this assertion may be tested by Freud’s claim on the nature of neurosis. Indeed, Freud claimed in Totem and Taboo that “at the bottom of every case of hysteria there are one or more occurances of premature sexual experience, occurances which belong to the earliest years of childhood…” [Palmer (1997) p.15] in short the Oedipus complex. Though, Freud may be criticised for his lack of insight in arguing that relgion is neurotic as the result of all neuroses being caused by the Oedipus complex as the Oedipus complex does not account for neurosis in women. Freud contended that when all boys reach the phallic phase his libido, innate sexual instincts, is directed at his mother. However, this libido must be repressed as the boy competes with his father for his father as the father must win this competition. For the boy the father is a figure of authority an aspiration for the boy but the boy also has ambivalent feelings for the father as the father is also a competitor this creates, in addition to the failure of the boy to secure the mother, a traumatic emotional experience. Thus, the libido and the traumatic experience is repressed. If this experience is not fully repressed it re-emerges as a neurosis.  It was upon this theory of neurosis that in Totem and Taboo that he argued that religion is a neurosis. Freud developed this defintion of neurosis when he formulated a tripartite division of the psyche. In which the ego is roughly acquainted with the conscious dealing with rational reality as Freud defines it, the id is the unconscious and the superego is the self which is formed by social relations such as heritage and morality. Neurosis under this new model of the psyche is when the ego, reacting to a supressing superego, fails to fully repress the instinctual impulses of the id. With this new definition of neurosis Freud develops the theory in Civilisation and its Discontents that religion is a super collective neurosis in civilisation.

Though Freud may be criticised for failing to empirically verify his notion of neurosis being rooted in the Oedipus complex it is possible to argue that it is his definition of religion which fails to substantiate his assertion of a positive relationship between neurosis and religion. Freud bases his definition of religion upon his theoretical framework rather than attempting to define religion as an objective phenomenon. Freud defines religion as a phenomenon which “consists of certain dogmas, assertions about facts or conditions of…reality, which tell one something that one has not oneself discovered, and which claim that one should give them credence” [White (1952) p.65]. However, Freud’s definition of religion may be criticised for being too broad it is a definition which could equally be applied to music. Freud’s definition may be refined by expounding Freud’s notion of the characteristics of religion. First, Freud believed that religion is in essence unverifiable. Freud maintained that the assertions of relgion are not based on observations but on inner convictions which do not need to be rationally justified. Reality for Freud consisted of rationally verifiable facts indeed his pscyhological theory reflects this as a mentally healthy person’s pysche is controlled by the conscious, the ego. Second, Freud believe that religion is an illusion. Again with this term the problem of definitions arises the Oxford English Dictionary defines illusion as something that somebody wrongly supposes to exist, indeed this term derives from the Latin illudere meaning to mock and so the term has a derogative connotation. However, Freud redefines this term he claims that an illusion is not an error in judgement. An illusion according to Freud is a deep heart fealt belief in something a person yearns to be true. Freud goes further in distinguishing an illusion from a delusion. A delusion is a contradiction to reality and Freud’s illusion is not necessarly false. Freud’s definition of an illusion is found wanting because religion does not always entail a comfortable belief on the contrary religious beliefs are often unpleasant. Thus, for Freud religion is little more than a psychological projection into the external world creating a fantasy world.

Because Freud defined religion as an illusion it is something which does not reside in the conscious but in the unconscious and thus is psychological and irrational. Freud does not regard religion as a reality but something psychological and attributes it to neurosis. Freud regards religion to be a neurosis with its roots in the Oedipus complex. Take for example his famous case concerning Judge Schreber. Judge Schreber’s religious neurosis found its roots in his relationship with his father during the phallic stage [Palmer (1997) p.53]. Instead of his libido being directed towards his mother it was directed at his father, thus due to the unacceptability of his sexual impulses they were repressed. This repressed impulse re-emerged as a religious neurosis wherein a mystical God occupies and penetrates his body gradually transforming him into a women. Freud argued that this transformation is a desire for his father transferred onto an acceptable object of desire i.e. God. This case study is indicative of the general neuroses Freud associates with religion in one way or another God forms a replacement for a person’s relationship with their father. Thus, for Freud each religious belief has its roots in the Oedipus complex and so religion is inherently linked to neurosis. However, Freud’s assesment of the relationship between religion and neurosis is flawed because Freud makes the assumption that religion is an illusion. Fontana defined religion as indicative of an innate need to search for higher meaning [Fontana (2003) p. 85] thus religion is not defined in terms of irrationality nor anything which is exclusively associated with neurosis. In Freud’s definition of religion it is possible to argue that his definition of religion adheres too much to his own theory and is based upon the general “popular tracts of Victorian rationalism” [White (1952) p.66] which dismissed religion as irrational. Because Freud’s theory concerning the relationship between neurosis and religion is based upon an assumption that religion is nothing more than an illusion Freud fails to determine the nature of that relationship.

2. Religion is integral to overcoming neurosis and thus neurosis has a negative relationship to religion,

Psychologists do not universally regard that religion has a postive relationship with neurosis, indeed when examining Jung it is possible to argue that religion is inseparable to overcoming neurosis. However, how Jung demonstrates the relationship between neurosis and religion is dependent on how he defines neurosis and religion.  Jung’s definition of neurosis is linked inherently with his religious ideas. Thus, to understand his definition of neurosis requires an understanding of his religious ideas.

Within Jung’s definition of religion it is apparent that Jung was drawing upon an eclectic mix of religious traditions. Though Jung based his theory on religion from his patients experiences thereby creating a universal theory of religion his theory does not reflect a person’s belief in God despite that person’s religious tradition. Therefore, Jung’s definition of religion can be criticised for being unwieldy. Rather, Jung’s definition of religion reflects his model of the psyche.  Jung’s model of the pysche was similar to that of Freud’s model in which there exists a conscious and an unconscious. However, Jung went further than Freud  in developing a more complex understanding of the unconscious. For Freud the unconscious was the dumping ground of the conscious’ traumatic experiences for Jung the unconscious was not only the true nature of the self but also held a central position in his metaphysical conceptualisation. For Jung the nature of religion lies in the unconscious. Religion was a purely unconscious activity wherein the revelations come through the unconscious in archetypes from God who resides in the unconscious. Thus, unlike the monotheistic religions Jung does not portray God as an external reality but an internal reality and so revelation comes from within. Revelation comes through archetypes, which are deposits of a shared spiritual heritage, and manifests itself through religious symbols and dogma. However, the nature of these manifestations is determined by the evolution of civilisation, for instance in “primitive man the contents of the archetypes appear as myths, myth is a process of the unconscious” [Moreno (1974) p.76] but as society develops achetypes become manifested in the dogma and symbols of religion. In this sense Jung’s definition of religion bears a resemblance to the general definition of religion in this essay in that religion is conveyed as a means of understanding a higher reality. Because religion is derived from these archetypes it allows a person’s true nature to express itself fully. Freud argued that a person’s true self resides in the rational conscience and advocates science to understand a person, because Jung’s theory claims that the true self is to be found in the unconscious Jung regarded science a means of supressing the development of personality. Therefore, as opposed to religion being a manifestation of neurosis as in Freud Jung argues that religion is integral to overcoming neurosis. However, Jung cannot be criticised for painting an attractive picture of religion. For Jung the unconscious is irrational and a powerful boundless energy whose exploration results in suffering, a fact which lead Christ, the ultimate personality, to be crucified upon a cross [Moreno (1974) p.91]. Dogma and symbols are chanels for this energy containing it safely. If these dogmas and symbols are stripped away then the unconscious is unleashed and a person becomes unbalanced resulting in neurosis.

Neurosis for Jung is a complex idea. Jung’s ideal of the self was a balance within an person in their entirity for a person to be healthy a person must exist within a hierarchy of a person’s component parts. The soul, attributed to the unconscious, must reign but it must be in unity with the mind, the conscious, which in turn controls the body. Any unhealthy condition is the result of a disunity within a person. Therefore in Jung’s thought neurosis is something which affects a person holistically. As opposed to Freud’s conception of neurosis  Jung’s concept of neurosis cannot be attributed to a single factor such as sexuality exclusively but remains a psychological condition. Because of this holistic approach Jung’s concept of the relationship between neurosis and religion may be argued to be more accurate than Freud’s as religion and neurosis are phenomenon which involve a person holistically. Indeed, Jung’s concept of neurosis is linked inherently with the original sin, though Jung gives this his own theorectical spin differing to that of orthodox theology. For Jung the original sin was turning away from God by doing so this created a disunity within a person breaking down a protective venire opening a person up to physical and mental disease. Thus, sin is the cause of neurosis. Under this theoretical framework neurosis is a feeling of incompleteness resulting in anxiety. Therefore, a loss of faith results in neurosis.

Religion is a thearpy for overcoming this neurosis.  Jung claimed “many hundreds of my patients felt ill because he had lost what the living religions of every age have given to their followers, and none of them was really cured who did not regain his religious outlook” [Moreno (1974) p.211]. Religion is therapeutic because it involves a whole person’s being and restores the unity within a person in which the conscious and unconscious are unified. Religion draws a person’s focus upon the real meaningful values represented by the archetypes drawing a person towards the “first source of life” [Moreno (1974) p.211] rather than relative values propogated by rational reality.  Thus, for Jung neurosis, religion and thearpy are interwoven and are inseparable.     However, Jung’s thinking on the relationship between religion and neurosis is flawed because Jung defines God too narrowly without being founded on sound theological grounds. Despite Jung attempting to base his notions of God upon his patient’s experiences Jung fails to articulate their experiences and their belief in God. Indeed, the experiences of those patients which do bear a resemblance to Jung’s archetypes and thus his conceptualisation of God cannot be relied upon because they are given in circumstances in which a person’s psyche is in crisis. Mircea Eliade argues that religious symbols can only be understood in the context of the history of religions [Moreno (1974) p.107]. Thus, because Jung’s definition and conceptualisation of religion is thrown into question caution must be excercised in considering his theory on the relationship between neurosis and religion. However, his thoughts on the relationship between neurosis and religion take seriously the importance of religion as a human phenomenon.


This essay has examined the relationship between neurosis and religion from the psychological perspectives of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. It has found that because the terms religion and neurosis are relative and largely undefined terms the relationship between neurosis and religion is dependent upon the theorist. Thus, this essay has presented a definition of neurosis as used by modern psychologists generally and a definition of religion as phenomenon in relatively objective terms in order to provide a backdrop against which Freud’s and Jung’s definitions of religion and neurosis may be measured. Doing this has demonstrated that both Freud and Jung define religion in their own terms to adhere to their psychological theories therefore determining the relationship between neurosis and religion in relation to their theories is problematic. Because of a lack of an objective definition of both neurosis and religion theorists such as Freud and Jung propagate a contradictory relationship between neurosis and religion. Jung suggesting that religion is a therapeutic mechanism which can overcome neurosis and Freud arguing that religion is the result of a neurosis and is little more than an illusion. Due to the lack of an objective definition of both religion and neurosis it is possible to argue that the relationship between neurosis and religion remains undetermined until such time as a sound definition, or an agreed definition, may be reached. Until then psychologists examining the relationship between neurosis and religion may argue that “War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength” [Orwell (1981) p.7] especially when ignorance allows them to define religion and neurosis according to their theories.



Orwell, George. (1981). Nineteen Eighty Four. Harmondsworth, Middlesex; Penguin Books.

McGirr, E M (1991), William Cullen MD (1710-1790., Scottish medical journal 36 (1).


Fontana, D. (2003). Psychology, Religion and Spirituality. Oxford; Blackwell Publishers.

Statt, D. (1998). The Concise Dictionary of Psychology. London; Routledge.

Stratton, P & Hayes, N. (1993). A student’s dictionary of psychology. London; Routledge.

Atkinson, R.L. Atikinson, R.C. Smith, E.E. Bem, D.J. Hilgard, E.R. (1990) Introduction to Psychology. Orlando, Florida; Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Palmer, M. (1997). Freud and Jung on Religion. London: Routledge.

White, V. (1952). God and the Unconscious. London: Harvill Press.

Moreno, A. (1974). Jung, Gods and Modern Man. London; Sheldon Press.

Meissner, W.W (1984). Psychology and Religious Experience. Yale; YaleUniversity Press.

Tacey, David. (2007). Spirituality and Mental Health: the Mystery of Healing.


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