Jung and Freud on Religion: The Numinous versus Neurosis

This is an excerpt from Adventure in Archetype: Depth Psychology and the Humanities (Essays in Archetype) by Mark Greene, Ph.D. More information about Mark and his book can be found at the end of this excerpt.

In understanding Jung's view of religion, one must take into account the religious milieu into which he was born. Jung's maternal grandfather, Samuel Preiswerk, was a "distinguished theologian and Hebraist...a pious and learned man." He was said to have visions and converse with the world of spirits. His second wife, Jung's maternal grandmother, was said to possess the gift of second sight (Ellenberger, 1970, p. 661). It would appear that Jung's maternal ancestors were well acquainted with a dimension beyond the scope of the ordinary five senses. Jung's father was a "modest country pastor" who married the daughter of his professor of Hebrew. It has been suggested that Jung's inability to engage his father in an intellectual examination of religion may have prompted him to "turn his inquiry to other problems beyond the scope of traditional religion" (Ellenberger, 1970, pp. 661-663). Esoteric approaches to celebrating a particular religion often involve the adoption of mysticism the practice of which often revolves around ecstatic experiences as evidenced by the offshoot mystery schools of Kabbalah within Judaism, Sufism within Islam and Tantra within Hinduism and Buddhism to name but a few examples.

During his medical studies, Jung also studied the philosophy of Kant and Schopenhauer. In an interview with Stephen Black of the BBC, Jung attributed his decision to become a psychiatrist to an intuitive flash of insight he experienced upon reading the author's (Krafft-Ebing) introduction to his psychiatry textbook. It was at that moment that Jung "suddenly understood the connection between psychology ... and medical science...it caused me tremendous emotion then...I was overwhelmed by a sudden sort of intuitive understanding" (Jung, 1977, p. 259). With hindsight, it is clear that Jung's subsequent career was spent expanding upon and unifying the connection he experienced existed between the material and spiritual worlds, what some would characterize as the realms of science vs. the existence of a soul.

Freud, on the other hand, made it clear that he was a stranger to religious experience (Scharfenberg, 1988, p. 108). He was forthright in criticizing religion as a "universal obsessional neurosis" and "obsession as an individualized religion" (Ellenberger, 1970, p. 525). By reducing religion to a pathological symptom, Freud distanced himself from the possibility of transcendent experience. Instead of viewing religion as a context for self-reflection and acknowledgment of the divine, he reduced the function of religious ritual to the "taming" of sexual strivings in that it offered "sublimation and solid mooring through the opening up of social relationships, and thus provided fellowship" (Scharfenberg, 1988, p. 111). Clearly, Freud's view of religion was that of a Post-Enlightenment social critic and not that of a participant.

Both Jung and Freud recognized a relation between religion and neurosis. Jung asserted that "among all his patients in the second half of life there is not one whose main problem is not related to his attitude towards religion" (Ellenberger, 1970, p. 714). Freud saw the increase of people fleeing into the "caricature of a private religion" (neurosis) as an indication that religion was no longer able to contribute to the socialization of humanity. He saw the "personal God as psychologically nothing more than an elevated father" figure (Scharfenberg, 1988, p. 111). In his work, Totem and Taboo, Freud investigated the possible psychological motives underpinning what he saw as humanity's need for the expression of repetitive religious ritual. Jung, however, lent broader psychological understanding to that which is implied by the word religion. In developing his theory of individuation, Jung proposed the existence of universal patterns of thought, or archetypes, which reside in the individual and collective unconscious. Of all the archetypes, that of the Self most closely approximates the divine. "It is at the same time the invisible, unconscious, innermost center of personality, and a psychic totality, as it results from the unification of the conscious and the unconscious" (Ellenberger, 1970, p. 710). For Jung, an inclination toward religious ritual was not pathological. Instead, he saw it as an archetypal expression of an individual's need for the conscious emergence and integration of manifestations of the archetype of the Self. In many rituals and hero myths, Jung saw the retelling of the psychological necessity of separating from 'the mother' where the individual eschews the fantasy temptation of reuniting with undifferentiated unconsciousness. Jung went as far as to say that for most of clients in midlife, adopting a religious attitude (not necessarily a religion) was warranted for a successful outcome in analysis.

Rudolf Otto invented and defined the term numinous to mean "a feeling...of the creature's nothingness in the face of its Creator...a mysterium tremendum...a feeling of awe and shuddering." Jung borrowed this term and "extended its meaning...by conferring a numinous quality upon the experience of the archetype" (Ellenberger, 1970, p. 724). Jung asserts that embedded within the psyche of each individual is the archetypal imprint of a power tantamount to a divine creator in the form of the Self. By bringing an experience of this archetype into consciousness, the individual can realize an authentic religious experience, one that is not necessarily produced by a misdirected father complex, as Freud suggested.

Freud viewed the present as a direct and unavoidable consequence of the past, one which humanity was compelled to repeat "as an ever new recurrence of the repressed" (Scharfenberg, 1988, p. 121). By basing his criticism of religion on a linear and deterministic model of history, Freud limited the individual's potential to an end-state characterized by the resolution of neurosis but not necessarily marked by psychological maturity. In this sense, Freud may have viewed himself as a sort of modern prophet whose mission it was to liberate humanity from its compulsion to repeat errors.

Jung, on the other hand, was inclined to believe in humanity's ongoing evolution and saw his model of individuation as both a microcosm and a catalyst to this greater, mass process. His transcendent function, inspired by Hegel's dialectic method, posits as a priori a force within each of us which lifts the convergence of two opposing forces to a higher level when opposition is resolved into a synthesis (Jung, 1958, CW 7, para. 365). To this inherent natural dynamic can easily be ascribed a system of self-guidance akin to a divine presence or numinous internal force.

Jung's analytical psychology embraces a religious point of view in the sense that both the theologian and the analytical psychologist acknowledge the potential for experiencing the mysterium tremendum as a motivating force in the psyche of every individual. Indeed, it can easily be argued that most of the world's big seven religions, those founded by an individual, arose from a particularly intense spiritual incident experienced by the respective founder: the Buddha attaining enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, Abraham hearing god tell him he will father the chosen race, Mohammed hearing god's voice in a cave in the desert, Mary being visited by an angel to announce her impregnation by the Holy Spirit, Jesus being baptized by St. John and Lao Tzu writing the Tao Te Jing in a secluded hut before riding off on a ox towards the mountains never to be seen or heard from again.

What intrigued Jung about religion was how its essence and manifestation across cultures was an apparent reflection of an interior psychic entity: the archetype of the Self. Freud, on the other hand, pointed vigorously to religion as evidence of pathology. He too adopted a micro/macro perspective where religion, as a sociological phenomenon, functioned in allegory to an individual's neurosis. For Freud, the essence of the religious experience was a neurotic symptom. For Jung, the motivation for religious experience and behavior pointed to either evidence of the divine or, more likely, a psychological component within all of us, the Self, capable of great insight and wisdom.

When asked if he believed in god in his 85th year, Jung responded, "Now? [Pause] Difficult to answer. I know. I don't need to believe. I know" (Jung, 1977, p. 428). Although his answer may appear to reveal his personal ideology, Jung's "I know" may actually be a screen upon which many project their own wish for the existence of a deity and cite Jung as corroboration of their own deeply held beliefs and wishes. For Jung, perhaps, his lifelong personal development may have been motivated by his own personal sense of the mysterium tremendum: the numinous experience available to all of us psychologically.


Ellenberger, Henri F. (1970). The discovery of the unconscious. New York: Basic Books.
Jung, C. G. (1958). The collected works of C. G. Jung (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Jung, C. G. (1977). Jung speaking: Interviews and encounters. Eds. William McGuire and R.F.C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Scharfenberg, Joachim. (1988). Sigmund Freud and his critique of religion. Philadelphia: Fortress.

About The Book

You've just read an excerpt from Mark Greene, Ph.D's Adventure in Archetype: Depth Psychology and the Humanities (Essays in Archetype).

This volume comprises a collection of essays written from an archetypal perspective. Intended for students of literature, the arts and psychology, this book was also written for the reader intent on self-discovery. Archetypal theory refers to one aspect of the work developed by the pioneering psychoanalyst C. G. Jung (1875-1961) and taken further by psychologist James Hillman (1926 - 2011). These theories, or their derivatives, may also appear under other headings such as analytical psychology, archetypal psychology, Jungian psychodynamic theory, depth psychology or, in general terms, a psychology of the unconscious.

About The Author

Mark Greene received his Ph.D. in mythological studies and depth psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute, USA in 1999. Passionate about psychology, mythology and the significance of symbols in dreams and consciousness, he teaches a range of subjects including the psychology of consciousness, analytical psychology, positive psychology, abnormal psychology and how to use mythology and psychology to better understand the archetypes present in our personal narratives and the media and arts around us. 

An Assistant Professor in the Department of Counselling and Psychology at Hong Kong Shue Yan University, he is also the OECD Project Coordinator and Senior Researcher at the Economic and Wellbeing Project. Besides conducting one of Hong Kong's best known subjective wellbeing surveys since 2007, other areas of interest and research include exploring the meaning of symbols and images in myths, legends and fairy tales. Mark Greene is also a registered counselor at the Dream Therapy Institute in Hong Kong www.dreamdecanter.net (http://www.dreamdecanter.net/)

Plans for further volumes in the Essays in Archetype series include books on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and an archetypal look at China and the west using modern and ancient myths to elucidate mutual understanding.

Book Review

"As a professor of the Psychology of Personality for many years I can attest to the fact that for beginning students of Jung's psychology, one of the more difficult concepts to grasp is that of the Archetype. Understanding the concept with examples has often proved elusive. But with Mark Greene's new book we have the solution to hand. He has written a most readable and accessible set of essays which illuminate archetypal experience in many areas of literature, art, religion and mythology with a view to helping us understand ourselves better. As he succinctly puts it: "Familiarizing oneself with the concept of archetypes and their myriad manifestations in myths, legends and fairy tales can provide a better understanding of how individual psychology functions". Dr Greene has done teachers and students of personality alike a great service by a writing a comprehensive and accessible book which should serve as a standard in archetypal psychology for years to come." - Prof. Geoffrey Blowers, University of Hong Kong.