In the last two centuries, we have witnessed the rise of many new theories concerning the origins of religion which continue the debate started by the ancients. There seems to be little agreement among scholars as to how or why religions first originated.
Herbert Spencer identified the origin of religion in what he perceives to be the universal practice among primitive peoples of worshiping the ghosts of their ancestors. He then goes on to trace the further evolution of religious consciousness through polytheism and ultimately, monotheism. Other thinkers like anthropologist E. B. Tylor, conceived religion as evolving out of animism which saw the world as inhabited by souls which are present in all things, from the souls of animals, to the souls of human beings, the souls of trees and plants follow in some vague partial way; and the souls of inanimate objects expand the general category to its most extreme boundary.
Freud considered religion to be rooted in humanity’s experience of childhood helplessness. The belief in gods in particular and religion in general, was to Freud nothing more than the attempt to gain control over the sensory world, in which we are situated, by means of the wish-world, which we have developed inside us as a result of biological and psychological necessities. The gods were a necessary antidote for man to survive in what appeared as a nonsensical and hostile world. Since religion was nothing more than wishful thinking, it cannot achieve its end. The sundry doctrines of faith carry with them the stamp of the times in which they originated, the ignorant childhood days of the human race. Freud felt that human experience has long taught us that man needs to grow up and leave the nursery world of religious beliefs behind.
While we may take exception to Freud’s dim view of religion, nevertheless, his insights can help us better grasp the mind-set that may have inspired idolatry and even monotheism when it is practiced in the spirit of superstition, arrogant self-righteousness and petty narrow-mindedness. But this does not necessarily apply to religious minded people who embrace a compassionate and unitive view of God and the world. Healthy religion can teach us much about the broadest and deepest arenas of human experience, the meaning of spirit, of the numinous regions of the soul, of area creativity, as well as the relationship between psyche and soma.
Indeed the pathology of religious behavior can better be appreciated if we apply Freud’s insights. Freud reminds us that we must become aware of the dark, disruptive, shadow aspects of the human psyche that creates the God that we are suppose to worship, into a caricature patterned after the depravity of human beings.