Religion in Freud and Lacan

Published February 9, 2014-Updated May 9, 2020

A Short Summary of the Arguments.

In the struggle to find what sustains the psychological reality of religious belief as well as its deep rootedness, psychoanalysis loses its initial hostility against the phenomenon. Religion becomes a fascinating field to study from the psychoanalytic point of view. The development of the psychoanalytic interpretation of religion from Freud to Lacan shows how psychoanalytic theory itself was transformed through this task. Analysis of the religious phenomenon leads to the core of Lacanian theory, which is the constitutive function of the signifier in relation to the subject.

Freud’s psychoanalytic study of Moses and Monotheism is the endpoint in a line of thinking in which Freud tries to sum up the development of his drive theory and to apply it to the process of civilization and to the emergence of Western religion. In this line of inquiry, Freud’s question becomes: What is the origin of the superego? Originally, he had explained it with the murder of the primal father. This is an explanation in purely psychological terms, which furthermore has the problem that it equalizes the individual psychogenesis with the psychology of the group. His fascination with monotheism has several reasons; one of which is the failure of his explanation for the origin of the superego. Is there another principle of intellectuality at work in the emergence of the law, which is inherent in the psyche and which cannot be reduced to a psychological process, but which determines this process? Since Freud is an atheist, he cannot take recourse in the belief that the ethical imperative, or the Ten Commandments, comes from God. He furthermore realizes that civilization spreads on the basis of the law. It builds a dam against the fundamentally destructive character of human drives. The question of the origin of the law and the nature of the drives is deeply intertwined. The principle of intellectuality, as it manifests itself in religious belief, functions as the limiting principle for the drives, and can also be seen as the origin of the superego. But what is it?

Lacan’s argument begins with the observation that the Freudian myth not only fails to explain why there is a prohibition of pleasure, but it seems to reinforce this prohibition. [1] The prohibition persists after the elimination of the obstacle in the form of the father. Lacan resolves the impasse by declaring that the parricide myth functions as an explanation for the inherent loss of the real. Therefore, the murder hypothesis was not necessary. The fundamental law of culture is the prohibition of the mother insofar as she occupies the place of this lost real. The human being then necessarily tries to find again what cannot be attained. For this reason, our notion of reality is inseparable from a tendency towards hallucination. The prohibition of the mother creates desire, and since it can be signified, the subject receives its consistency (as well as its alienation) from the identification with the signifier. The law is therefore originally the law of speech; in its existence, it is derived from the prohibition of incest (which is itself not contained in the Ten Commandments). It becomes so tyrannical because it protects from the void in relation to the real what we would otherwise try to overcome by seeking a form of satisfaction that is deadly.[2] The subject can also turn the unfathomable aggressivity that gets unleashed in relation to the lost real against itself if the prohibition that is instituted through the law is not respected.

What is at stake in the history of Western religion is the recognition of the function of the father as a principle of prohibition that represents a step forward in the apprehension of reality as such, because it opens the possibility for the discovery of the symbolic order. If God does not exist, then the concept of “God” must be a pure signifier. It does not point to a reality beyond the word; it only signifies itself. This is the secret for the overwhelming success of the God of Moses, who is beyond the image and who identifies himself with I am who I am. Therefore, according to Lacan, it is impossible to explain the origin of the super-ego without the structure of the signifier and the laws of discourse, which are as such neither psychological laws nor the products of a historical development. They are structural, but they can only be initiated and manifested through the psychological or the historical process.

Once Lacan discovered the constitutive function of the signifier in relation to the subject, he could reformulate Freud’s theory into a comprehensive theory of the subject that unites anthropology and epistemology. A theory of the subject’s determination through the signifier, the statement that the ego is entirely a product of discourse, can only be philosophically consistent if it assumes that there is a negative dialectic between the subject and the real. This theory avoids the performative contradiction that the content of the theory conflicts with the position of the subject of theory (a question that arises for all philosophies of the negative – dialectical type) because it takes the signifier as the starting point that generates meaning, and therefore it reverses the relation between the signifier and the signified. What constitutes the person and its identity can now be read as a text, and the author is not the subject, but the trajectory of the signifiers that represent the desire of those who occupy the place of the Other for the subject.

This, in summary, is the epistemological shift that occurs in the psychoanalytic theory of Freud and Lacan. It is encapsulated in the two formulas that the signifier determines the signified, and not vice versa, and that the signifier represents the subject for another signifier. The relation between the “speaking being” and the signifier is the axis for the meaning-systems that determine our social reality.

The slightest alteration in the relation between man and the signifier …changes the whole course of history by modifying the moorings that anchor his being. It is precisely in this that Freudianism …is seen to have founded an intangible but radical revolution…everything involving not just the human sciences, but the destiny of man, politics, metaphysics, literature, the arts, advertising, propaganda, and through these even economics, everything has been affected.[3]

The dependency of the truth of the ego and its meaning-system on the relation to the Other, who is the “threshold of the signifier,” gets uncovered through a procedure that allows the analysis of the transference. The ego can now be understood as an effect of primary repression, as a construction that exists only through the insistence of the signifier. The analytic process shows that transference relations essentially determine human reality, and psychoanalysis is the attempt to undo some of them. Most human relations are characterized by the interference of ancient images or figures, mostly parental ones, with the actual relationships, for instance to the analyst. However, the attempt to resolve the transference through psychoanalysis encounters the resistance of the client. The analysis of transference is a formidable task because what is at stake in the transference is not just the interference of ancient images, but the subject’s love for the person to whom the transference is attached. The goal of analysis is the dissolution of transference love and not the identification with the analyst.[4] The observation that transference is imaginary prompted Freud to think about the nature of love, and on this path, he discovered the phenomenon of narcissism. The proposition that all love is a form of self-love (one either substitutes oneself for the beloved or the beloved for oneself) explains why transference is such a persistent phenomenon. The analysis of transference can sometimes take many years, and it can only function if the analyst is able to recognize the seductions of this kind of love due to her own analysis. If the subject receives its definition through the Other, and if this phenomenon is idealized through the feelings of love, then a natural self-preservation of the ego seems not to be a primary goal. Lacan concludes that the ego is a response to the “desire of the Other,” and that it is deeply split and alienated in relation to itself. And since a subject can only be represented through a signifier, he directly links the split in the subject to the signifier’s impact on the psyche. The split first occurs through the subject’s entry into language.

The analysis of the transformation of the psychoanalytic response to religion from Freud to Lacan has shown that psychoanalysis does not directly intervene in the philosophical struggles between atheism and religious belief, because it is a different type of discourse, and the question becomes, different in what respect? Due to its scientific neutrality, psychoanalytic theory confines itself to examining the function of truth-claims, without judging their content as such. (This does not mean that the content should not be considered carefully.) Whereas it is the methodical principle of modern science to exclude the subject, psychoanalysis is the discipline whose object is the excluded subject of science. Psychoanalysis, as the interrogation of the field of subjectivity, is the unavoidable correlate to modern science, but its dynamic becomes itself a factor in the transformation of subjectivity. If access to the real is intrinsically lost for the subject, it is lost for all disciplines. This realization frees psychoanalysis from its subservient role in relation to science and restores to it a critical function in relation to the ruling positivistic and scientific ideologies. It becomes the discipline that traces the effects of the loss of the real for the subject.

The focus on the signifier prevents Lacanian theory from getting entangled in the contradictions on the level of meaning, e.g. God exists / there is no God, or I am lying. It is a theory of the generation of meaning vis-à-vis the primordial lack, and for this reason, Lacan must introduce the difference between the subject of the statement and the subject of the enunciation, which also supersedes the traditional categorical distinction between thought and emotion. At the same time, in order to offer a generative theory of meaning, he resists the claim that there is innate knowledge, and states that the signifier, which is in itself simply given through the difference inherent in the semiotic relation, already carries a lack because it is as such meaningless in relation to the real.

The lack of being becomes signifying, or enables the functioning of the signifier, because the signifier gives presence to something that is absent. The question then becomes: what is the status of the real thing in relation to the signifier that is supposed to represent it? The next step in this line of thinking is the reversal of the signifying relationship: the signifier determines the signification entirely. This is especially evident for words whose reference is empty, (e.g. “Pegasus” – it does not exist, but we can imagine it) or where the signification is abstract or unknown, like “reality,” “virtue,” “justice,” or “God.” Traditional epistemology, philosophy and theology run into all kinds of problems in the attempt to better understand the nature of the reference for these signifiers, and hard intellectual work is necessary to undo this fallacy of objectification.[5]

As a result of Lacan’s epistemological shift, philosophy and theology become fields of inquiry for psychoanalysis. They can be read as symptom-formations in which an unconscious structure tries to comprehend itself. Emotion and intellect are not seen as categorically different, with the result that even notions like “God,” “reality,” “being,” “world,” etc., appear as comforting illusions.[6] The identity and the unity in our perceptions and our thinking is a consequence of the workings of the pleasure/reality principle.

While the idea that the signifier determines the signification has been articulated before,[7] Lacan is the first to merge this idea with Freud’s psychoanalytic account of the constitution of the subject. It allows him to differentiate the function of the father in Freud, and to suggest an explanation for the emergence of the super-ego as well as the role of religion in the economy of the psyche.

The father’s intervention in the mother-child relationship leads to a metaphoric substitution in which the Name-of-the-father (a signifier) comes to replace the desire of the mother, and thus institutes the primary repression that causes desire. In Lacan’s explanation, the signifier fills the void left by the real, and then its built-in ideality gets exploited in order to differentiate between the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real father. The signifier is normative insofar as it carries the implicit idea of perfection by instituting the idea of the thing, i.e. the idea of a car, which allows us to judge a real car, and it is evocative by inviting the fantasies of a perfect car. But at the same time, the signifier also institutes the lack of being, because no real car will ever incorporate the ideal.

The child responds to the ideal of the father with an acceptance of the symbolic identification through which it internalizes the Name-of-the-Father. The symbolic function of the father and the imaginary identification with him coincide; this creates the impression that the real father should be perfect and not marked by any kind of lack. As a result, the subject negates his imperfections. But it is only through the identification with this idealized father that the child accepts the symbolic order.

The function of the father introduces the child to the symbolic order. His image becomes elevated into the image of a Father-God, and the symbolic order begins to manifest itself as such in the monotheistic suppression of the image. The belief in the ultimate reality of God is an attempt to give weight to the existence of the symbolic Other. Whereas Freud claimed that God does not exist, Lacan takes the next step and says that the Other does not exist: There is no real Other who could guarantee the truth of the subject.

This absence of any kind of guarantee for truth creates the tension between belief and reason that drives the development of religious belief-systems; it is present in the dialectic between faith and its systematic theological reflection throughout the centuries. The emancipation of philosophy from theology and the trajectory of philosophical thinking eventually produces the atheistic message at the core of Christianity, that God is dead. The Lacanian point of view not only accepts the basic tenets of negative theology, but widens them to the subject’s relation to the real as such, which includes its own being. The belief in the true reality of God functions according to Lacan as a veil for the lack in the subject. The more somebody believes in God, the more he will become deprived of his own reality. The symptom religion continues to function in spite of all the critique against it because the experience of loss is everywhere, and to be free of illusions does not mean that one experiences the fullness of life. The gap between immanence and transcendence originates from this elementary lack; it becomes a major philosophical and theological problem to speculatively close it again.

Later in his life, Lacan explains the consistency that is produced through the various ways in which we make the Other exist, with the unity of a topological structure like the Borromean knot. Freud rejects the God-hypothesis but leaves the integrative function of the dead father, (the Other), which he relocates (via an identification based on guilt) into the super-ego, intact. Lacan generalizes Freud’s rejection of God into the statement that there is no Other, and views the various forms in which the Other exists for the subject as (hysterical, obsessive, psychotic, or perverse) symptom-formations. He replaces the Other with the consistency of the “symptom.” Unconscious fantasy is not constrained by the Other, but by the logic of the symptom, which is itself a constellation of signifiers, an unconscious process whose functioning we extract best through the methods of mathematical formalization. Symptoms are stable because they guarantee the supplementary jouissance that makes the lack of being bearable for the subject. Religion is the symptom that invents the existence of the Other and tries to make him indestructible, but it never rises above the level of wishful thinking.

With the theory of jouissance in Encore, Lacan has reached the final stage of his theory. Jouissance is characterized by a structure of double negativity. Lacan’s origin is the void, a state of non-being. The jouissance of the real gets terminated (negated) through language, which enables the subject to be represented through signifiers. In this operation of the self-negation of non-being, the signifier creates the subject as lacking with the consequence that the subject has, on the one hand, a desire to overcome the lack, and on the other, it carries a fantasy of fulfillment or jouissance. Jouissance is the effect of the symbolic insofar as it works through the imaginary, or through a fiction of wholeness. It determines the sexual drives, and it causes the repetition-compulsion that is characteristic for all drives. Since the real is intrinsically lost for the subject, Lacan drops the distinction between the pleasure principle and the reality principle and adopts a dualism between the pleasure/reality principle and jouissance. The human subject is determined by the fantasy of re-finding the lost real. It will shape its reality around this fantasy. The remnants of this real, in the form of the mother’s breast, the gaze of the father, etc, form in conjunction with the signifier the roots of the superego.

We have seen that at this stage Lacan’s theory becomes an inverted theological argument. Access to jouissance (paradise) is forbidden; our attempts to return to it constitute the repetitions in which the subject desperately tries to access some archaic pleasures, and the compensation for this lack through desire becomes the only ethical imperative.


[1] Lacan, Sem 7, p. 176

[2]Man tries to satisfy his need for aggression at the expense of his neighbor, to exploit his work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to appropriate his goods, to humiliate him, to inflict suffering on him, to torture and kill him..” Freud, Civilisation and its Discontent, S.E. XXI, p.3

[3] Ecrits, p. 174

[4] This was Balint’s idea.

[5] In this regard the mind functions like the dog who continues to look at the finger , when one tries to show him the moon.

[6] “Consolation….at bottom this is what they are demanding…the wildest revolutionaries no less passionately than the most virtuous believers.” Freud, Civilisation and its Discontents.

[7] See for instance Richards, Ivor Armstrong: The Meaning of Meaning, 1923.