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___ Essay __________________________________________________________________


Freud and Nietzsche on the Origins of Religion,

Moral Conscience, and the Notion of God(s).

by E. Alfred Knight - University of Sydney, Australia.



Synopsis of author: Currently completing PhD in theology. Based at the University of Sydney . BA (Hon), MA (Res), MEd (Syd); PG Cert (TESOL), M.A.C.E.


1. Introduction

Freud and Nietzsche have both presented reductionist theories on the origins of religion, moral conscience and the creation of ‘god' in modern society based on psycho-social ethnographic anthropological foundations, but are nevertheless still evaluated only philosophically. This essay will critically compare Freud's Totem and Taboo (1912-13) with Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals (1887) and the role of taboo and neuroses in the development of moral, social and religious values. It will show that while their theories are explicitly different, they are implicitly similar in that both attempted to establish the origin of moral systems on a historical and psychological basis – not principally a philosophical one. Freud saw guilt as the fundamental phenomenon involved in the origin of religion, while Nietzsche saw the need to transcend artificial fear in order to create a superior society.

Religion, the notion of god(s), along with culture and society are all within the realm of social anthropology and have been of significant interest for a long time. However, it was not until the late 19th and 20th centuries that the intrigue about the origins of religion, culture, and the notion of gods escalated, perhaps due to the influence of the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and the increasingly scientific approach in various fields. The advent of Darwinism ushered in a new contemporary worldview in the field of anthropology, and the notion of God was no longer considered a sufficient answer to questions of origin. Ontological metaphysics on the whole lost a lot of its influence. Freud's work on the origins of religion and Nietzsche's on the notion of god(s) respectively may be considered first and foremost socio-psycho anthropological and then philosophical. Both can be seen as attempts to establish the origin of moral systems.

The purpose then, is to analyse and critically compare what Nietzsche has to say concerning the origin of the notion of god(s) in On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), with Freud's views on the origins of religion in Totem and Taboo (1912-13). In order to fully benefit from a critical comparison of the two authors, it is important to understand fully the main thread of their respective theses. First Freud's theory on the origins of religion is looked at – as well as a short feminist critique of the Oedipus complex and the role of patriarchal prejudice in the development of his theory – then Nietzsche's theory on the origin of the notion of gods is given. Next a comparison is made of the two works interpreted as historical, followed by a comparison interpreted as psychical and philosophical works. The thesis that the historical evidence of both theories is undermined by an overvaluation of the psychological explanations is presented. Finally, very briefly the general difference between the motives and aims of Nietzsche and Freud in compiling their works is addressed.

2. Magic and Animism

In Totem and Taboo Freud employs psychoanalysis to explore certain characteristics of the cultural life of primitive races to hypothesise about the origins of culture and religion. Primeval culture is made contemporary in a sense, with the study of certain indigenous races which he considers the closest we can get to see a well preserved picture of an early stage of our own development. He associates the magical and animistic ideas of primitive culture with the ‘omnipotence of thought' in neurotics, claiming that both are characterised by the overvaluation of the psychical to the detriment of the real. He also explains the dual nature of taboo that is both holy and defiling, by comparing it with the emotional ambivalence found in obsessional neurosis.

Amongst tribes where religious and social institutions as we know them do not exist, there is a system of totemism. A totem according to Freud, is an object, animal or occasionally a plant or natural phenomenon that stands in relation to the whole clan as their ancestor, guardian, helper and spirit, which spares its own people. Most importantly, as we shall see, the totem is sacred and must not be killed or eaten if it is an animal except during festivals. Freud's theory takes an enterprising turn in the last part of his book, where he interprets the totemic festival in which the totem animal was eaten in ceremonial fashion as a remembrance feast; a repetition of an event which happened in the primordial era when a primitive group of sons slaughtered and ate their father because they were jealous of his sole access to the women in the group. However, the sons afterward were weighed down by guilt and remorse because their father was the object of their love as well as their hatred, so as a form of expiation, they renounced their actions by instituting the two fundamental laws of culture: the prohibition of murder (commemorated by the ban on killing the totem animal except during a festival when the original killing is remembered) and the prohibition of incest (because the sons relinquished any further claims on the women of the clan). Hence there developed a relation between totemism and exogamy, in the form of a law against any person of the same totem having sexual intercourse with one another.

3. Oedipus Complex

Freud suggests the killing of the primal father has permeated into the consciousness of Western culture, as the Jewish religion was founded on the killing of Moses their father-image, and later Christianity which had its own image of the Son – a filial revolt against the father, which is the ‘secret' meaning according to Freud's theory, behind the Eucharist. He is eventually more forthright at the conclusion of his book and states clearly that the beginnings of religion and culture converge in the Oedipus complex. The Oedipus complex is also considered to be at the heart of all neuroses according to Freudian psychology. This central thesis of Freud however, shows several difficulties and weaknesses when his arguments are examined. First, there is the assumption that the early organisation of tribes resembled that of the Darwinian higher apes and not monkeys which are primarily ‘troop' orientated and nomadic. Secondly, he assumes that all cultures were affected by ancient tribes where the blood sacrifice was central to their beliefs that is practised by ancient near-eastern cultures, whereas other cultures outside this blood sacrifice practice had no influence. Furthermore, he does not sufficiently establish that totemic sacrifice in fact was originally from ancient near-eastern primeval cultures.

If a man's relation to his father is the single most important discovery in the science of psychology and social anthropology (as Freud implies), then it is indeed a very useful one [1]. However, there is some doubt about the cogency of the theory of the Oedipus complex. More specifically, it is possible that such a theory is itself culturally influenced rather than influencing culture. A feminist critique of the Oedipus complex for example, argues that it is a patriarchal culture that becomes internalised in children at a very young age. Eva Figes [2] for example, points out that Freud's theory of the resolution of the Oedipus complex was a reaction to the feminist movement in an attempt to secure the social and economic dependency of women. She accuses Freud of being “...thoroughly bourgeois,” with his theories being based on a total acceptance of the status quo as a norm of civilised behaviour. Shulamith Firestone develops this idea and claims that the theory can only be seen in terms of power. Numerous inequalities in the patriarchal nuclear family create an oppressive climate in which the child grows up, and from an early age is aware of a hierarchy of power. Moreover, Firestone claims that the effects of the Oedipus complex decrease in societies where men have less power [3]. Considering this feminist critique, we may accuse Freud of placing the proverbial cart before the horse by thinking that the origins of religion and culture converge in the Oedipus complex, when the complex may well have been influenced by culture. However, it is then reduced to a case of “which came first, the chicken or the egg?”

It is nonetheless possible that the totemic ritual was based on an actual patricide (as Freud claimed) which led to the development of an Oedipus complex that served as the seed of modern day religion and culture. But if historical, when it comes to patriarchal contempt Freud is not sufficiently convincing by way of evidence that the sons would kill, let alone eat the father. It is possible to conjecture using psychoanalysis that an infant may displace its father-hatred upon a totemic object, but this is not enough to substantiate that the sons in the primeval tribe did so after slaying the father. If a father-totem-object was established after the murder, was the remorse strong enough to resolve never to kill the totem again? It also seems unlikely that this would have been enough to restrain their sexual desires for women of their own tribe. If it was possible, the women whom they resisted would probably have been accessed by strangers and the sons would be left with nothing except individual attachment to other tribes, thereby destroying the solidarity that was so anxiously needed to be preserved. However, historical or not, it seems an unsound hypothesis that this primeval tribal event or “Deed” as Freud puts it, was the archetypal phenomenon that has persisted into modern culture and religion. There is a great assumption of continuity of psychical behaviour through succeeding generations, and no indication as to how this continuity is established. In general, Freud's work appears to be filled with conjecture and unproven hypotheses, and in this instance looks like a fallacy of making evidence fit a theory.

4. Ancestral Fear

Nietzsche's thesis concerning the origin of the notion of god(s) is based on fear of the ancestor. In On the Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche considers fear and pain to be instrumental in the institution of creditor-debtor legal obligations, which led to the moral concepts of ‘guilt' and ‘bad conscience.' Promise-making was the right only of the free, independent noble persons who could fulfil their obligations, but to those who could not, compensation had to be sought in the form of the debtor's body, his spouse, his freedom or even his life. Furthermore, according to Nietzsche, the creditor could inflict pain, indignity, torture or mutilation upon the body of the debtor to receive compensation in the form of pleasure gained when doing such things, and this he believes is the true motive of all forms of punishment. It is from this that the moral concepts of ‘guilt' and ‘bad conscience' developed, that is, out of the sphere of unfulfilled legal creditor-debtor obligations. The desire for pleasure from cruelty is an important ingredient in the ‘normal' quality of humans, and this is true according to Nietzsche because primitive races and even the apes did not exercise pleasure without cruelty. Hence cruelty and the spilling of blood was a satisfactory form of compensation to the creditor. In view of this moral conceptualisation, the ‘Law', the ‘Tao' or even Kant's ‘categorical imperative' is soaked in blood and smells of cruelty [4]. Cruelty also served to enforce memory, literally carving it into the body causing the formation of a psychical as well as a corporeal person, because only by such means will a person remember five or six “Thou shalt nots.”

‘Bad conscience' or ‘guilt' originated from obligations demanded by the creditor-debtor relationship that has developed even further through history with the progressive repression and internalisation of our natural instincts of joy in cruelty and torture, which Nietzsche illustrates by personifying humanity as an imprisoned man who desperately wants to be free to exercise his natural instincts but cannot, and so invents the ‘bad conscience.' Religion accompanies the ‘illness' of guilty indebtedness or ‘bad conscience,' and because Christianity has the greatest god so far, it is accompanied by the greatest sense of guilt. The consequence of this according to Nietzsche is that humanity will run away from and despise its freedom. It is forcibly severed from its animal past into a new unnatural standard of existence [5]. This instinct for freedom is Nietzsche's ‘will to power,' and the desire to get joy out of pain has been revitalised as ‘bad conscience.'

Nietzsche interprets the litigal relationship between the debtor and creditor as being developed into a relationship between the present generation and its ancestors. Primeval tribal communities recognised an indebtedness to their ancestors based on the presupposition that without them their tribe would not exist. Therefore, they would appease their ancestral spirits by ‘paying them back' through feasts, honour, sacrifice and obedience, and so a fear of the ancestor and its power grew, and the ‘bad consciousness' of indebtedness increased as the power of the tribe increased until the ancestors of the most powerful tribes grew to such dimensions that it was transfigured into a god. This Nietzsche claims, is the origin of the notion of god(s). The Christian God is the apogean transfigured ancestor/god in the Western world so far, and hence conveys the maximum feeling of guilt or bad conscience. However, Nietzsche can be criticised for not substantiating his references to “the original tribal community” [6]. There is an assumption of continuity through succeeding generations of the civil-law relationship between the debtor and his creditor, with no indication of how this continuity is established. Furthermore, there is no indication of how the ‘indebted' psychical conscience grew in relation to the strength and power of a tribe.

5. Similarities of Freud and Nietzsche

Both Nietzsche and Freud depend on a historico-anthropological interpretation of tribal-cultural development to consolidate their respective theses. Freud for example, consistently makes anecdotal reference to studies of primitive tribes carried out by anthropologists like Frazer, Morgan, Baldwin, Durkheim, and McLennan, because he considered primitive races as the most well preserved direct representatives we have of a picture of the early stages of our own (Western) development. For Freud, his explanation of the origins of contemporary religion and culture would have been impossible without the strong historical criticism he provided, and evidently he considered events such as the development of taboo restrictions, the horror of incest and totemism as historical. Claims that psychical reality should over-ride factual reality when reading Totem and Taboo, are dispelled by Freud's own admission that “ the beginning was the Deed” [7]. Nietzsche similarly relies on human prehistory to establish the fundamental relation of the creditor to the debtor, which is vital in establishing his thesis of ‘bad conscience,' ancestral fear and the notion of the origin of gods. He refers to the cultural practices of ancient civilisations like Egypt , Rome and Greece to consolidate this. He also subscribes to the ancient practice of cruelty in celebration and festival to illustrate his notion of the free uninhibited pain-inflicting instinct of humans. Nietzsche even refers to the apes who devise “bizarre cruelties” and anticipate man because they are considered his “prelude” [8]. So we can see that both authors use a historico-anthropological method to trace the dawn of social history in a factual sense to establish their theses and provide reason for the notions of gods, and culture. The relationship between the present generation and its practices cannot be separated from its ancestral history and its factual practices. But, there is reason to reject a purely historical comprehension of their work, on the grounds that such an interpretation is extreme and arbitrary. The works of Freud and Nietzsche considered here, should be seen more as a dichotomy of the historical and the psychical.

Even so, we cannot be too hasty in concluding a straightforward dismissal of the historical, even for Freud. However much Totem and Taboo and On the Genealogy of Morals are interpreted in a psychical sense, both works are still born out of a historical foundation. Freud's origins of religion converge in the Oedipus complex, whose archetype was discovered through historical anthropology. Nietzsche's notion of the origins of the gods was attributed to ancestral fear, also discovered through historical anthropology. Though there is a definite psychical element in the interpretation of both works, both authors conceive society and culture as bound to the past, hence the historical element naturally has to take precedence (however unfounded it may seem), which is why both Freud and Nietzsche have to be seen as social anthropologists first in these particular works.

This is not to say that the psychical interpretation is not more important. To begin with, both Freud and Nietzsche postulate a psychical theory about the development of the unconscious and the reasons for its current principal constitution. Freud postulates that where totemism is practiced amongst primitive tribes, there is an unusually high horror of incest. This particular prohibition is of interest for psychoanalysis because it is an infantile feature born out of fear of punishment, and is strikingly similar to the mentality of neurotics. This of course is correlative with the Oedipus complex, where a child's relation to parents is dominated by incestuous desire, which forms the nucleus of adult neurosis. The fixation of incestuous desire is one of the dominant parts of the unconscious in modern society, but amongst primitive peoples it is a very real threat, and so the severe enforcement of the prohibition. For Nietzsche, the unconscious was a driving force or natural instinct to be oneself in joy through hostility, persecution and cruelty, until this was constricted and societies made aware of their instincts, thus it developed into a ‘conscience.' Like Freud, Nietzsche's unconscious is a natural instinct that is possibly, somehow innate within us. It can be traced back to even the primates who are our supposed to be our prelude, but the greatest travesty is that we have been made conscious to this instinct and subsequently forced to repress it, which henceforth led to the development of the ‘conscience' as he described it.

6. From the Subconscious to the Conscious

Animism in Totem and Taboo is described by Freud as a doctrine of souls that gives a will and living character to inanimate objects that are occupied by invisible spirits. Such a doctrine plays an important psychological role because of its relation to myths, which are part of the foundation that religions are built upon. A certain type of mentality developed in primitive society where the power of thought was unequivocally connected to physical reality. In other words, control over thoughts corresponded to control over external objects. Eventually, thought became overvalued and reality became less real, while an association grew between mental processes and external reality, hence the creation of spirits. A similar idea can be seen in Nietzsche where the reality of ancestral spirits led to fear which compelled ancient tribes to exercise various acts of expiation or ‘debt honouring.' They feared their ancestors as very present threats which eventually transfigured out of proportion into gods. Psychical reality was projected into external reality.

The most striking psychical readings of Freud and Nietzsche come to light when there is sufficient recognition of the importance that both authors place upon the role of emotional ambivalence, repression and the internalisation of desire, in the development of their respective theories. There is a similarity between Freud and Nietzsche's idea of the emotional consequences when the natural instinct or drive is forced to be repressed. Freud's two principle taboos are the desire to touch (or the desire for incest) and the desire to kill one's father or father-figure. The fulfilment of such desire is of sublime enjoyment, but a person is prohibited to perform it and so learns to despise it at the same time. For Nietzsche there is enjoyment to be gained from dominance and cruelty to others, but this also has been translated into a bad desire, so a prohibitive ‘bad conscience' or guilt developed in humans. In both cases there is the instinctive desire to gain pleasure from actions that are prohibited, hence the ambivalence or conflict of emotions that results when a person is torn between an enjoyment and a detestation of certain feelings.

This ambivalence of emotions leads to neurosis according to Freud, and requires an enlightened psyche or a Nietzschean “noble” quality to rise above the ‘categorical imperative' or Law or Tao (or whatever we may choose to call it) that constrains us. Our conscience or sense of guilt is therefore dominating and keeping in check an unconscious desire.

The similarity between taboo and neurosis (which Freud maintains throughout his work) point to the relation between neurosis and the development of contemporary culture. It is for this reason that Freud considers obsessional neurosis to be a caricature of religion [9]. When repression is prominent in a culture, the culture is alleged to be prevented from developing. The process of repression of vital instincts into the unconscious is forced through fear of punishment incurred as a result of socio-cultural demands. Nietzsche saw the need to transcend the fear of ancestors, spirits and the notion of gods in order to create a superior culture. Freud saw guilt as a psychological symptom of instinctual repression, and the love-hate ambivalence towards the father or father-image (totem) as the fundamental phenomenon involved in the origin of religion.


Totem and Taboo and The Genealogy of Morals can be given a very sound psychical interpretation, and indeed this is how the authors (especially Freud) are most commonly read in relation to social anthropology and the origins of culture, religion and gods. Their ideas however, imply a certain historical conception. But despite this evident historical-psychological dichotomy, it is questionable whether one can safely sit beside the other without consequence. The explanations provided for the origins of culture often vacillate between being historical and psychological in character, and Freud in particular often appears to confuse historical with psychological truth. In Nietzsche, although there are assumptions and conjectures which are similar in nature to Freud, the ramifications seem not as severe. It appears that Nietzsche is primarily attempting to undermine religion, whereas Freud is attempting to establish a credible thesis about the origin of religion and culture.

Finally, whatever inconsistencies or difficulties that may be found in their theories of cultural origins, clearly the theme behind Freud's views on religion is that the psychological needs served by religious beliefs, make such beliefs no longer believable. For Nietzsche, the theme behind his views was a conviction of awakening to the real or higher purpose of humanity that was being restrained by religion. To them (however they may have arrived there), ethics is embodied in the human instinct or unconscious and needs to be developed and realised.



[1] S. Freud, " Totem and Taboo" in The Pelican Freud Library, Penguin Books, vol. 13, 1986, p.219.

[2] E. Figes, Patriarchal Attitudes, London , 1981, p.135.

[3] S. Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex, London , 1970, p.50.

[4] F. Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, Essay 2, ch.6.

[5] Ibid. ch.16.

[6] F. Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals , Essay 2, ch.19.

[7] S. Freud, "Totem and Taboo", in The Pelican Freud Library, Penguin Books, vol.13, 1986, p.224.

[8] F. Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals , Essay 2, ch.6.

[9] Ibid . p.130.



Figes, E. 1981. Patriarchal Attitudes , London .

Firestone, S. 1970. The Dialectic of Sex, London .

Freud, S. 1986. " Totem and Taboo", in The Pelican Freud Library, Penguin Books, vol. 13.

Golomb, J. 1987. Nietzsche's Enticing Psychology of Power, Magnes Press.

Nietzsche, F. 1968. "On the Genealogy of Morals" , in Basic Writings of Nietzsche , Walter Kaufmann (ed. and trans.), Modern Library.

Vitz, Paul C. 1988. Sigmund Freud's Christian Unconscious , Guilford Press.