The turn of the twentieth century was a time of seeming contradictions. Evolutionary theory had captured the imagination of the Western world, electricity was just beginning to be utilized, and several academic disciplines—like psychology, sociology and anthropology—were beginning to break away from their philosophical origins to become scientific disciplines in their own right. In this age of hopeful progress, science was hailed a savior, able to solve all the woes of society. T.H. Huxley, who coined the word ‘agnostic’, exclaimed that “whenever science and orthodoxy have been fairly opposed, the latter has been forced to retire from the lists, bleeding and crushed if not annihilated.”[i] So, then, science was now expected to take over religious orthodoxy’s role, answering the questions raised by being in the world—a world increasingly considered to be solely materialistic.

However, this period also witnessed sweeping evangelical Christian revival, particularly in the United States. In England, mystics, psychics, and supernatural speculation enthralled Victorian society. Table tilting, automatic writing, and other popular methods of communing with spirits were common parlor games. Spiritualism promised to heal both body and soul, claiming that—despite the advances of science—there was still room in the world for the supernatural.


Would psychologists end up arguing that religion was a primarily material, natural phenomena, and could be dismissed? Or was religion something that science could not explain away?


It is no wonder that the fledgling field of psychology could not resist being caught up in these discussions. If psychology was to objectively study the nature of subjective experience—was to be “the science of mental life” [ii]—then it was up to psychology to make pronouncements on the nature of religious experiences: a hefty task for such a young field. Would psychologists end up arguing that religion was a primarily material, natural phenomena, and could be dismissed? Or was religion something that science could not explain away?

William James and Sigmund Freud were two of the most notable psychologists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. James, father of American psychology, and Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, represented these competing viewpoints between materialism and religion. James, philosopher and psychologist, argued that humanity could not be fully understood through materialist explanations. He believed that, although psychology might be able to give a materialistic explanation for religious experiences, this did not render religion meaningless. Freud, on the other hand—a neurologist, psychologist, and atheist—argued that psychology revealed religion’s true character as an infantile neurosis, rooted in basic instinctual urges, and nothing more than an illusion. These two figures, while both revolutionizing the field of psychology, somehow managed to come to two drastically different conclusions on the meaning of psychological insights into the religious tendencies of humanity.

William James was one of the first American lecturers in psychology; his best-known work, Principles of Psychology, became one of the most well-known and widely used textbooks on the subject. One of James’ primary interests was studying religious and psychic experiences, but James did not believe that explaining the psychology of religious belief told us the value of religion itself. In the opening chapters of James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, he argues that we cannot understand religion only by studying the biology of religious experiences. For James, giving the reasons for religion did not tell us what religion actually was. He rails against psychology’s argument that biological accounts of religion explain it away:

“Modern psychology, finding definite psycho-physical connections to hold good, assumes as a convenient hypothesis that the dependence of mental states upon bodily conditions must be thoroughgoing and complete… But now, I ask you, how can such an existential account of facts of mental history decide in one way or another upon their spiritual significance? According to the general postulate of psychology just referred to, there is not a single one of our states of mind, high or low, healthy or morbid, that has not some organic process as its condition.”[iii]

Instead of evaluating religion via its psychological origins, James believes that we must instead understand the value of religion by looking at the services it performs for the person, reflecting his commitment to the philosophical school of pragmatism, which asserted that ‘truth’ was whatever functioned pragmatically in an individual’s life.[iv] The only way to preserve the human experience in one’s pursuit for truth, argues James, is to argue that “ideas (which themselves are but parts of our experience) become true just in so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience.”[v] In this sense then, religion must not be judged according to its metaphysical validity, but rather on the basis of its usefulness for the individual.

According to James we develop our relation to the divine, and understand our place(s) in the cosmos, via our worldviews. If we feel the world—and people—to be naturally good and beautiful, then we will have what James calls a ‘healthy minded’ religion; such a religion is one in which “God loves me and the world is a good place.”[vi] But if we believe that the world is evil and ugly, we will have a “sick soul,” and will believe, accordingly, that humanity is innately sick, or sinful. For the “sick soul” God offers the only possible redemption.


For James, religion offers relief from the most difficult trial humankind faces: the problem of evil. And it is in the relief from this suffering that religion has its ultimate value.


This is the crucial point. No matter which view we take of religion, James believes that religion enables us to cope with the problems of evil and suffering. For those with a healthy religion, it lets us overlook and ignore evil; for the sick soul, religion offers a glimmer of hope for the future deliverance from suffering and evil. For James, then, religion offers relief from the most difficult trial humankind faces: the problem of evil. And it is in the relief from this suffering that religion has its ultimate value.

Sigmund Freud, on the other hand, was the developer and most famous proponent of of psychoanalysis, a theory claiming that most of human thought-behavior occurs due to unconscious biological drives. Freud argued that although religion did help humanity cope with suffering, it caused more harm than good. And, indeed, its value can be dismissed through proper psychological understanding of our innate drives. For Freud, religion arises as an extension of the Oedipus complex: as an infant grows and develops, he finds that the mother, who was not only a love object, but a symbol of safety and protection against suffering, eventually is supplanted by the image of the father as protector.[vii] The father, though, is not just the protector—he is also to be feared. The child learns in infancy that the father is a competitor for the mother’s time, attention and love.

For Freud, life is inevitably filled with suffering. We are powerless against it. Whether suffering comes from our bodies, the environmental, or relationships, we cannot escape it. What is worse, we know that we cannot escape suffering, and are thus perpetually threatened by feelings of helplessness and impotence. In order to escape from this impotence, we develop skills and coping mechanisms. All civilization, Freud argues, can be reduced to one massive attempt to gain mastery of nature and to reduce suffering and feelings of helplessness. Religion, then, is just one more attempt to lessen the impotence man feels in the face of suffering.

Thus religion is nothing more than “a universal obsessional neurosis of humanity, stemming from the Oedipus complex.” It is a childish, immature illusion, originating from our desire to have a cosmic father figure who will protect us from life’s suffering, and thus make us feel less helpless. “As a person grows older, he realizes that he is destined to remain a child forever, that he can never manage without protection against alien superior powers, [so] he invests those powers with the traits of the father-figure, creating for himself gods of whom he is afraid, whom he seeks to win over, and to whom he nevertheless assigns his protection.”[ix] When one experiences suffering, it is no longer meaningless, but it is now ‘the will of God.’ The suffering has a purpose behind it and becomes more bearable.

This is the reason why Freud calls religion a neurosis. Religious people understand their suffering not as the result of chance or luck, but because they have “sinned.” They then internalize that suffering as evidence for their own guilt; it is much easier to blame ourselves than it is to admit that suffering occurred for no reason. But Freud urges that we must abandon the infantile illusion of the cosmic father in order to advance as individuals and as a civilization. It is only by abandoning our neuroses that we can grow as a person, and dismissing religion is the first step.

The divide that existed at the birth of psychology still permeates the framework in which psychology conducts its investigation of religion. The arguments that James expounded upon still exist in existential and humanistic psychologists such as Viktor Frankl, Carl Rogers, and Irvin Yalom. Freud and the biological and psychological dismissals of religion still exist as well. Famous psychoanalysts like Eric Fromm have been highly critical toward religion due to what they see as its physical, material origins. While not Freudian, other psychologists like Ivan Pavlov and Albert Ellis have attacked religion on materialistic grounds. Such divides remind us that the very nature of psychological knowledge depends on the philosophical and metaphysical beliefs of the psychologist. As James articulated early on, psychology cannot be metaphysically neutral. It is impossible to undertake any psychological investigation without “some true and suitable philosophical doctrine” [x], and—depending on what the psychologist takes to be ‘true and suitable’—religion can either work hand in hand with psychology, or be condemned as nothing more than an illusion. Until psychology as a whole is able to admit that it cannot be metaphysically neutral, this philosophical conflict will continue to pervade the discipline and, perhaps, prevent psychology from ever coming to a comprehensive understanding of the nature of religious experience.

Griffin Thayer is a graduate student in Clinical Psychology at Saint Michael’s College. His academic interests include the history and theory of psychology, the interplay between psychology and religion, and the philosophy of psychotherapy.


[i] Thomas Henry Huxley: Collected Essays (1893-1894).

[ii] Quoted in William James, Principles of Psychology (Encyclopedia Brittanica, 1952), 1.

[iii] William James, Varieties of Religious Experience.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] William James, quoted in Patrick Dooley: Pragmatism as Humanism: The Philosophy of William James (Littlefield Adams & Co. 1975), 94.

[vii] I say he because Freud talked almost exclusively in terms of the male child.

[viii] Quoted in Susan Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 228.

[ix] Quoted in Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, found in Mass Psychology and Other Writings. (London: Penguin Publishing; 2004), 130.

[x] Ralph Barton Perry, The Thought and Character of William James, quoted in Dooley’s Pragmatism as a Humanism: The Philosophy of William James (Littlefield Adams & Co. 1975), 18.

Image from Flickr via Internet Archive Book Image.


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