For Freud, religious practices are akin to neurotic symptoms. He writes,
I am certainly not the first person to have been struck by the resemblance between what are called obsessive actions in suffers from nervous affections and the observances by means of which believers give expression to their piety. The term “ceremonial,” which has been applied to some of these obsessive actions, is evidence of this. The resemblance, however, seems to me to be more than a superficial one, so that an insight into the origin of neurotic ceremonial may embolden us to draw inferences by analogy about the psychological processes of religious life (Freud, The Complete Psychological Works, vol.9, p.117).
While neurotic ceremonials are private and individual in nature and sexual in origin, and religious ceremonials are public and communal and related to pride, they share an ‘underlying renunciation of the activation of instincts that are constitutionally present’ (vol.9, pp.126-127).
They share the dual function, therefore, of symbolic re-enactment and symbolic repudiation of forbidden desires (Merold Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, p.98). The intolerable wish seeking fulfilment is displaced, replaced by more bearable notions and the resulting symptoms of obsessive symbolic actions. Think, for example, of Lady Macbeth, whose concerns about moral purity (wish-fulfilment) become displaced by the idea of physical cleanliness (displaced wish-fulfilment) and who consequently experiences an abnormal compulsion to wash her hands (symptom).
Neurotic and religious ceremonials are richly meaningful, but those who perform such an action do so ‘without understanding its meaning – or at any rate its chief meaning’ (vol.9, p.22). This means that the conscious reasons we give for what we do are rationalisations of what we are doing, but not the real meanings of our actions.
According to Freud, ceremonials are ‘penitential measures,’ expressing repentance on the one hand and self-imposed punishment on the other. Self-reproach is therefore key to ceremonials of both kinds, since they function as a defence not only against our guilt in relation to the original desire or act, but also against the anxiety associated with our on-going temptation to fulfil the desire or to repeat the act.