Saturday, March 12, 2011

Religion as Wish-Fulfilment: Freud (5)

Freud further highlights the connection between neurotic ceremonials and religious practices in his study of the totemic cultures of tribal societies, Totem and Taboo.

He suggests that cultural taboos against touching or harming the totem (the tribe’s sacred animal) are so strong since they correspond to a repressed desire to do precisely what is prohibited.

This ambiguity results because, for Freud, the totem represents the father:

On the one hand, the totemic taboos against killing the totem and having sexual relations with women of the same totem (tribe) are designed to defend against the Oedipal guilt of wanting to kill the father and sleep with the mother.

On the other hand, however,

[t]otemic religion not only comprised expressions of remorse and attempts at atonement [in the form of ethical obedience], it also served as a remembrance of the triumph over the father. Satisfaction over that triumph led to the institution of the memorial festival of the totem meal, in which the restrictions of deferred obedience no longer held. Thus it became a duty to repeat the crime of parricide again and again in the sacrifice of the totem animal (Freud, The Complete
Psychological Works
, vol.13, p.145).
Together, these religious ceremonials (the taboo against killing the totem and the festival at which the totem is killed and eaten) form the symbolic renunciation and symbolic re-enactment of aggression, hostility and rebellion directed towards powerful figures, such as parents – and ‘at bottom God is nothing other than an exalted father’ (vol.13, pp.147-148).

Thus, for Freud, all religious ceremonials share with neurotic ceremonials this defensive character, since a symbolic re-enactment of wish-fulfilment (eating the totem) replaces such an action in reality, and therefore allows us to "cancel out" our guilt. The purpose of participating in religious rites is to circumvent the punishment that would be meted out were the taboo(s) in question to actually be breached. The renunciation involved – of various kinds, depending on the ritual; for example, sacrifice of some possession, or atonement through abstention from certain activities and behaviours for a period of time – replaces the renunciation that would be involved in the punishment for any violation of the prohibition.

But whilst renunciation ostensibly expresses remorse, it actually repeats the offence, since through the self-imposed substitution of one renunciation (of “some thing” in ritual sacrifice) for another (of “some freedom” in ethical abstention) it is possible to both “cancel” our guilt and renew the rebellion by offering sacrifices as a bribe in exchange for continued disobedience and defiant freedom.

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