Freud and Jung on the religious practice of confession in the catholic tradition
This essay will discuss the religious practice of confession within the psychological framework of two key thinkers: Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. The paper is split into three parts. The first part of the essay will describe what confession is and provide a psychological account of the practice. The second part will attempt to explain the practice in light of a Freud’s theory of repressed sexual desire, while the third will contrast this with Jung’s account of archetypes.
Confession is a frequently exercised form of religious practice that occurs in a variety of forms across different cultures and religions worldwide. In the Catholic tradition for example, confession is usually undertaken through the medium of a priest who is believed to have the authorization to forgive and revoke sins of the penitent, and thus bridge them to a reconciliation to God. But in other traditions, such as Judaism for example, confessing ones sins is usually undertaken within the community, whereas in Islam it is generally regarded as a private affair between the penitent and God. Confession also occurs in eastern religions such as Buddhism, where the practice is not explicitly intended for requesting forgiveness from a higher power (God), but rather involves reciting a number of sutras with the aim of purifying any wrongness or negativity inside the self.
But the act of confession in the catholic tradition is a psychologically interesting area for a number of reasons. Firstly, the implication of confessing a sin, or sins, suggests that one has done a bad thing, either intentionally or otherwise, through the eyes of God. Doing wrong thus creates tension within the penitent in the sense that he believes that God is both aware and unsatisfied with his earthly behaviours. Such tension can therefore create anxiety which results in the perceived belief that if confession is not undertaken, then there is a permanent risk of rejection from God and entrance into his kingdom. This also suggests that the act of confessing one’s sins will bring them back to a reconciliation to God, which provides them with a sense of inner peace since the threat of any permanent detachment from him is eradicated. Therefore secondly, a whole range of psychological processes can be observed by this need to confess. Such as feelings of guilt and shame for doing what is believed to be wrong or bad. These emotions could arise either out of remorse for the sin committed and the subsequent emotional effects they had on the penitent or others, or because they feel they have let God down and have jeopardized their relationship with Him. Anxiety and apprehensiveness can therefore arise, as well as a sense of fear in God since his threat of eternal damnation is perceived as a consequence of straying away from his path.
How would Freud interpret this kind of religious behaviour? Since for Freud God is a reflection of 'our' harking back to a primeval exalted father, a domineering, violent and jealous male[i] who our ancestors, his own sons, killed in order to win the possession of their mother(s) (a process largely due to the Oedipus complex), Freud would claim that the subsequent ‘guilt’ and general ill feeling that arose from this crime influenced their need to seek his replacement through totemic symbols and rituals such as a the totem feast - a ritual in which the totem was killed and soon after mourned over – in commemoration of the murdered father. This lead on to the development of two fundamental prohibitions that reflect inner desires, i.e. the prohibition of killing the totem, and the prohibition of having sexual relations with members of the same totem clan. Thus, the Oedipus complex and the prohibitions outlined and set up by our early ancestors reveal hidden unconscious wishes and desires for doing what is generally accepted as something that should not have be done. These ambivalent, yet repressed, feelings are not only displayed in these early totemic rituals, but they are eventually inherited in the form of obsessive neurotic behaviour which are revealed also in religious behaviour.
Confession then, Freud would argue, is therefore a type of neurotic obsessive practice, which stems from our hidden desire to eliminate the father and posses the mother. Guilt experienced in confession and the subsequent development of religious do’s and don’ts are in fact residual feelings that stem back to the killing of the father and possession of the mother, or repressed sexual desires within the totemic group that therefore provided the groundwork for the practice of confession since guilt is a fundamental psychological response when one desires to confess their sins. But it is also a practice that reflects the ambivalent relationship our primordial ancestors had with their own father. On the one hand the penitent holds God the father in high-esteem and loves him, but on the other hand He is feared and loathed with his threats of eternal damnation, especially if one commits a prohibited act. However Freud would argue that since God reflects the exalted father, who exists out of our own guilt for killing Him in the first place, there becomes a deeper ambivalence between Him and the penitent in doing what is wished for and doing what is deemed prohibited which results in an obsessive need to constantly confess one’s perceived sins to Him. In confessing ones sins then, Freud would further contend that God, the father, is a man-made creation that is a reflection of the killing of our ancestor’s father. Thus through our guilt God is placed back on top of the hierarchy; a dominant figure who looks down at us and is aware of our deeds, whether good or bad. Consequently God serves like a father figure: we ask for forgiveness when we have done something bad, and is upset when we do so, deeds which will inevitably be committed due to our inner repressed desire to commit them. In which case Freud would say that confession is obsessive because we are always doing what we shouldn’t do and always asking for forgiveness for them. As a result the relationship between the penitent and God, the father, is essentially an infantile obsessive one.
Just as in the later totem rituals then, confession, Freud would maintain, is a form of wishful thinking that denies the essence of reality. God, the father, is still believed to exist and has the capability to influence our lives according to our behaviours and prayers to Him. Freud, would therefore, see that the belief in praying to God for forgiveness as a delusion, a belief that reflects what one his patients coined as ‘the omnipotence of thought’, where the mind constitutes a fantasy world of an indulgence in certain actions, such as counting compulsively between flashes of lightening[ii] has some affect on reality. In the case of confession then the act of constantly asking for forgiveness leads to the false believe that God will somehow accept you back into his family as one of his own.
While Freud’s account of confession is essentially reduced to infantile Oedipal conflicts with the father, Jung, on the other hand, does away with this interpretation and would take a more positive, yet enigmatic approach. For Jung, confession would be seen as a way of expressing our innate and indeed universal tendencies for spirituality, a tendency that is both normal as well as healthy. The practice subsequently reflects that this tendency toward 'religion' is connected to the primeval ideas of our ancestors, and that throughout the centuries we have inherited these unconscious ideas as from them formed the practise of confession. These basic religious ideas, or forms, for example, about reality or God, lack content, but are thus innate and universal across all stretches of time. These simple, yet unconscious principles, are passed down and inherited via people to people through what Jung calls the collective unconscious. Therefore, it is the collective unconscious which holds a priori religious ideas that are passed down and thus inherited from each generation. This is in contradistinction to what Jung calls our personal unconscious. A personal unconscious that is individual and unique to ourself. The collective unconscious, for Jung, provides us with the foundation for all religious content, known as archetypes, and enables such ideas to arise into our consciousness thus enabling us with the ability to create content. In short, confession then, Jung would argue, is an archetype of the collective unconscious, which has its origin in a priori religious ideas and thoughts of our primordial ancestors. Indeed, Jung would argue that this is not to say that our ancestors too practice confession in exactly the same way as some religious people do today, but instead he would see contemporary confession by way of expressing our innate desire for religion, spirituality and meaning in ones life. The upshot is that Freud would argue that the need for confessing to God is taken in the form of phantasy which has its origin in repressed sexual desires, Jung would maintain that such phantasy is normal and healthy since it corresponds to an antique mind-set that is not effected by our repressed desires or wishes.
Indeed, the central crux of confession is confession to God. For Jung, God is an archetype as well, but an archetype that can be dichotomized into what he called archetypal form and archetypal content. In terms of archetypal form, God is an in-built universal mechanism which has existed since the human race begun, and thus explains that belief in God - whatever that might entail - is a predisposition. God as archetypal content on the other hand the reflects this belief in symbols, such as the sun and/ or religious items. In terms of the symbol for God in confession, Jung, being in partial agreement with Freud, would see the father as the symbolic God-content[iii]. But the father does not displace God as a result of the Oedipus complex, but is instead a reactivation of the archetypal form God takes in the collective unconscious of our primordial ancestors and, perhaps, beyond.
It is important to note that Jung took an agnostic approach to the existence of God or the reality of supernatural experiences in themselves, even though there is a general feeling that he does actually believe in His existence. But in terms of his theory, the idea of God, as well as religious experiences and practices, are psychically real, healthy and completely normal. This would entail that although confession could be based on some level of neurosis of the personal unconscious, Jung on the other hand would claim that since it is more of a natural by product of archaic thinking, it thus serves as a positive practice and reveals the inner desire for spirituality.
In conclusion, Freud would take a more reductive and original approach to confession as stemming from repressed sexual desires in our personal unconscious minds, whereas Jung takes a less reductive approach and would simply indicate that confession, and the many symbols infatuated within it, are mere archetypes of earlier ideas in our ancestral past. Indeed, how these ideas came to serve in the collective unconscious in the first place is a great mystery – but perhaps this reflects Jung’s desire to keep religious beliefs and practices, contrary to Freud, as a normal and positive form of behaviour that is not sexualized.
© 2011 Roberto Nacci All Rights Reserved
 I mention the plural form of mother to reflect a primordial society in which the many women gave birth to sons who desired to take her.
[i] Freud, Sigmund., An autobiographical study, The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 20, (1925-1926): An autobiographical study; inhibitions, symptoms and anxiety; The question of lay analysis, and other works. London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis (1959). p. 67
[ii] This example is taken from one of Freud’s patients “The rat man”. Palmer, Michael., Freud and Jung on Religion, London: Routledge (1997). p. 20
[iii] Jung made this connection between the father acting as a symbol for God with one of his patients in C.G Jung, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology (1990), Routledge: London.
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If you would like to use this essay for academic or other purposes, please contact the author for permission first.