Sigmund Freud, 1907
Freud begins by observing that, like others before him, he has long been struck by the similarities between the obsessive actions of those suffering from nervous afflictions and the ritualistic expressions of piety. However, he thinks that the resemblance is more than superficial and can teach us something about the psychological processes of religious life. Obsessive actions are also grouped with obsessive thoughts, ideas, impulses, and the like. Nonetheless, we have no coherent understanding of the root illness and can provide, at best, a phenomenology.
An obsessive act may be a totally quotidian one; what marks it as obsessive is the compulsion to do it in a certain manner/order, the anxiety that attends if it is neglected, and the development of certain prohibitions or hindrances around the act. Any activity may become obsessive if given a certain rhythm with repetition and pauses. There is no sharp distinction between ceremonial and obsessive actions; obsessive actions often develop out of the former.
The greatest difference between the obsessive action and religious ceremony is the private nature of the obsessional neurosis. Such rituals are highly idiosyncratic and can continue for years without anyone knowing, surrounded as they are by an aura of shame and absurdity, while the religious ritual tends to be much more stereotyped (as in prayer), and involves a broad community that legitimates it. However, psychoanalysis reveals the distinction to be largely specious. All private obsessive behaviors turn out to be totally significant, giving, “expression to experiences that are still operative and to thoughts that are cathected with affect,” either through direct or symbolic representation.
Freud gives a few examples: the woman who refuses the best parts of food, directly after refusing sex to her husband (the best part); the woman who always arranges a tablecloth so a maid can see the stain, when the stain is representative of the red ink that her husband spilled on their bed after he proved impotent on their wedding night, etc.
Like the ordinary, pious individual, the neurotic performs these actions without necessarily being conscious of their significance. They may become conscious through analysis, just as there may be clergy members who understand the significance of the religious rituals.
As Freud writes, neatly summing his theory up:
“We may say that the sufferer from compulsions and prohibitions behaves as if he were dominated by a sense of guilt, of which, however, he knows nothing, so that we must call it an unconscious sense of guilt, in spite of the apparent contradiction in terms. This sense of guilt has its source in certain early mental events, but it is constantly being revived by renewed temptations which arise whenever there is a contemporary provocation. Moreover, it occasions a lurking sense of expectant anxiety, an expectation of misfortune, which is linked, through the idea of punishment, with the internal perception of the temptation.”
The ritual is a defensive measure. At its start, the patient may know why he or she performs the ritual and that it is to prevent some misfortune, but never understands the sort of retribution expected. This is parallel to the protestations of the pious that they are miserable sinners, and their consequent turn toward prayers or rituals to forestall divine retribution.
At the bottom of the obsessive action is a repressed instinct, which was given free play in childhood, but then suppressed in later life. In repressing this instinct, a certain “conscientiousness” is created, but it always feels threatened. Thus, it experiences the repressed instinct as a temptation. Anxiety arises in the process of repression and turns into “expectant anxiety,” about the possibility of succumbing to the temptation and/or suffering retribution. Thus, the ritual is a defense against the temptation of the instinct and an effort to ward off retribution. Ultimately, though, it’s an endless battle, and the protective measures of rituals come to seem inadequate. Prohibitions come to replace them, as phobias meant to forestall hysterical attacks.
Rituals, then, represent the conditions in which something that would otherwise be forbidden is permitted. Marriage, for example, represents the conditions in which sex is still allowed. These actions, then, serve as a compromise, allowing some outlet for the repressed instinct, while continuing to deny it full freedom.
Religious rituals work similarly, in that religions form through the denial of specific instincts, often mixed with a sexual component. Freud suggests that the sexual component might be one reason why backsliding into sin is so common in religion. These absurd rituals become central because they are dominated by displacement. The desire is realized through this tiny action; thus, the action comes to be the main thing, pushing everything else aside. Essentially, though, the main difference between private obsessive actions and religion is that neuroses tend to be strictly sexual, while religion aims at the repression of more egoistic instincts generally.