Sigmund Freud once declared that one’s “personal relation to God depends on his relation to his father in the flesh and oscillates and changes along with that relation, and that at bottom God is nothing other than an exalted father” (1913, p.147). Such a comment makes one wonder what kind of relationship Freud might have had with his own father and in what ways that relationship might have colored Freud’s own ideas about the God he opines as being nothing more than a psychological projection of such relationships. Many people are unaware that Freud grew up with a moderately religious father whose impact on Freud’s life and work left a legacy regarding his thoughts on religion. What do we know of Freud’s early home environment and its influence on his work, especially his pronouncements about religion? This article explores questions like this, not only for Freud but for several other key figures in the field of psychology who also grew up in religious homes. It addresses this often-neglected dimension in the biographies of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Erik Erikson, B.F. Skinner, and Carl Rogers by outlining how aspects of these early religious environments influenced and lingered in their subsequent lives and work. In tracing this trajectory of religious influence on these pioneers and innovators in psychology, this essay explores both implicit socio-cultural influences of religion as well as its more explicit and personal impact in the lives of each of these key figures in psychology.
Although there were several implicit or indirect ways religion as a socio-cultural force influenced the lives and work of these psychologists, the focus here is upon two ways that this more indirect influence of religion occurred. The first indirect way that religion influenced these psychologists was by providing a certain framework for construing human experience. Susan Kirschner (1996) has argued that a chief legacy of a religious way of construing experience is to view history as unfolding linearly along a developmental trajectory. She sees this way of viewing history present in both Jewish and Christian sources, but as especially visible in the Christian understanding of “salvation history,” the idea that God’s plan of redemption unfolded in a linear progression. This developmental trajectory is probably best capsulized in the Christian understanding of their scriptures as containing an earlier, “older” testament to God’s redemptive plan followed by a “newer” testament to further dimensions of that plan. Kirschner argues that this religious way of construing history gives a developmental cast to the way most humans construe their experience, especially in the West. That is, most people in the West cannot conceive of human experience unfolding other than in a linear developmental fashion. To think of life unfolding non-developmentally sounds strange to our ears. Kirschner sees this way of construing human experience as linear progression as one of the chief legacies of the influence of the Jewish and Christian religious traditions on the West.
One can see the impact of this implicit religious way of construing human experience in each of the psychologists noted here, including those who became self-proclaimed atheists as adults. That is, they all assume a developmental trajectory to life. Moreover, two of them contribute to the furtherance of this developmental way of construing experience by offering elaborate developmental stages detailing some of the critical junctures in the unfolding of human growth. Freud has offered his stages of “psychosexual” development that outline how various experiences of one’s biological development in the first few years of life contribute to one’s psychological personality. For instance, one who had trouble negotiating the first year or so of life, where taking things in “orally” was necessary to survival might leave one always wondering what was worth taking in psychologically. Similarly, Erik Erikson offered more elaborate stages of “psychosocial” development that take in the whole of the lifespan. These stages include processes by which they emerge, a “crisis” to be resolved, and resultant ego qualities from their resolution (perhaps the best known of his stages is the one regarding the “identity crises” that occurs most often in adolescence). Although such developmental trajectories are more clearly obvious in Freud and Erikson, even the psychologists noted above who did not offer explicit stages for the unfolding of human development nevertheless assumed a developmental trajectory for life. For instance, Carl Jung (whose work on the collective unconscious and the archetypes lies behind much of the original Star Wars mythos) assumed it in his ideas about certain changes that can only occur after mid-life (e.g., his idea that one turns to deeper questions of existential meaning and purpose at this juncture in one’s life). B.F. Skinner (whose theory of reinforcement informs much of educational and consumer endeavors) and Carl Rogers (whose pioneering work regarding therapeutic encounters guides much of current counselor training) also assumed a developmental trajectory to life in their ideas that one gained the ability to respond differently to situations as an adult that one did as a child (though their thoughts on how one acquired such abilities differed). Thus, in their assumptions about a developmental progression to life, each of these psychologists was influenced by the implicit impact of this religious way of construing human experience.
The second main way that religion as a socio-cultural force influenced the lives and work of the psychologists noted above was in providing a framework for the way that life should be lived. This is seen in ideas regarding what is right and wrong, what is good and bad, and what one is obligated to do or not do. Such questions provide an ethical framework for life. And although religious traditions are not the only sources for ethical thinking, even in the West (think Plato and Aristotle), they are still very powerful sources that inform such thought, even in a more secularized West (Hauerwas, 1997; Neher, 2007). The religious traditions in which the psychologists mentioned here grew up provided powerful ethical frameworks for thinking about their lives and their work. For instance, one can see the ethical legacy of Freud’s Jewish tradition in his pursuit of the truth at all costs, both for himself and for his patients. Such pursuit without regard to consequences harks back to the ethical traditions of the Jewish prophets who confronted king and people sometimes at the cost of their lives. Freud even occasionally likened himself a new “Moses” (considered one of Israel’s greatest prophets). Similarly, one can see the ethical legacy of Skinner’s Christian tradition in his description of the utopian, behaviorally engineered community he imagines in his novel Walden Two as one that is characterized by beneficence and justice. That preferences for an ethic of benevolence and justice for this community is a legacy of his prior exposure to Christian ethics is belied in his omission in not identifying a behaviorally reinforced source for such preferences. Although his imagined community is ostensibly one that has come about through prior reinforcements alone, he offers no behavioral justification for why people should prefer such environments; he simply assumes such environments should be preferred. Where does such an assumption come from for Skinner? It is not hard to connect it to the Christian ethical tradition to which he was exposed growing up (see Browning, 1987).
In addition to these more implicit and indirect ways that religion has influenced the psychologists noted here, one also can point to more explicit and personal ways that their particular religious environments influenced their lives and work. For instance, one of the key ideas in the psychology of Rogers is his argument that in a psychotherapy or counseling context one of the key components of a truly helpful environment for client growth is what he termed “unconditional positive regard.” This term is meant to point to an attitude in the therapist or counselor that reserves judgment in hearing a client’s experience, an attitude that does not demand or imply that a client must feel a certain way about their experience, and that the client is valued as a person worth listening to and being with. Although such a short article cannot cover all the particulars of Rogers’s description of this quality nor can it note all the aspects of his own experiences growing up in a home with religious parents, what can be noted here in drawing some inferences from his early home environment and this key quality he tried to spell out for helpful therapeutic relationships is Rogers perception that his early home life was lacking in these qualities toward him (Kirschenbaum, 2009). Growing up in a religious Christian home he would have been acquainted with the notions of God’s love as a welcoming, embracing love; however, for him this seemed more an ideal than a reality in his interactions with his religious parents. It is not a big stretch to see a deep yearning in Rogers’s description of this ideal therapeutic environment that harks back to its absence earlier in his own life; he seeks to create for others the kinds of relationships he himself wanted but did not receive.
One can see another example of the more direct influence of the religious environments of these psychologists in Erikson’s early and later exposure to the Jewish and Christian ideas concerning loving one’s neighbor as oneself. The religious ideas associated with these traditions found their way into Erikson’s discussions of his stages of development especially in what he described as the process of “mutuality” that characterizes the earliest interactions between infant and caregiver. The mutuality between infant and caregiver points to a reliable attunement between caregiver and infant that gives rise to the quality of hope. This process of mutuality is the psychological well-source of a sense of the numinous or spiritual according to Erikson and he connects its ability to foster hope to similar religious concepts (such as faith). Erikson saw this process of mutuality (and its ability to foster hope) as characterizing not only the earliest stages of life but as the key to any movement toward maturity later in life. It is this process of mutuality that lies at the heart of attempting to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Although much of the detail of Erikson’s argument is omitted here, one notes that in Erikson’s arguments about mutuality, one can see how religious ideas become intermingled with psychological ones in his articulations regarding growth and maturity (Wright, 1982).
A final example returns to the questions raised at the beginning of this article. One can see a convergence between Freud’s ideas about religion and his early experiences with his own father. In Freud, one notes that he saw religion as weak and ineffectual, a cultural force soon to fade away under the appeal of more rational, scientific ways of engaging the world (Freud, 1927). By his own pronouncements from above, one would assume that a key personal source of Freud’s thoughts on the ineffectiveness of religion would come from encounters with his own father. When one looks for such encounters, one finds an autobiographical example in which Freud poignantly described his disappoint with his father’s lack of “heroism” in not standing up to some anti-Semitic ruffians (Freud, 1900). Should one then be surprised to find that this perceived weakness in his religious father is reflected in Freud’s later disappoint with religion as being too weak to comfort or shield humans from the various vicissitudes of life.
Concomitantly, for Freud, humans must learn to stoically face life on their own without aid or appeal to supernatural resources, much like he as a young boy had had to learn courage on his own rather than from his father. One can point to other correspondences between Freud’s early religious environment and later ideas (as one can for the other psychologists mentioned) but those cannot be detailed here. Hopefully enough has been said to make it clear that the early religious environments of these innovative psychologists influenced their lives and work in both direct and indirect ways. This insight thus adds to our understanding of these psychologists a layer often neglected when considering the sources and strength of certain of their ideas.