The problem of childhood is a central issue defining psychoanalysis. The infant's unrealistic drive for wish fulfillment is supposed to be left behind by the adult, but childhood is always alive behind the adulthood facade. The legacy of childhood is far from marginal, and it is coexistent with adult functioning. We can observe it on both the individual and the cultural levels. Freud's ideas about development focus on what has come to be called psychosexual development, that is, the transformation, molding, and sometimes perversion of biologically determined erotic drives in early childhood. The focal point of psychosexual development is the Oedipus complex, woven around the child's attachment to its parents as love objects or identification models occurring between the ages of 3 and 6. Early childhood experiences serve as historical precedents in every individual's life and in the life of every human culture.
The psychoanalytic view of maladaptive behavior emphasizes its continuity with adaptive behavior and leads to viewing pathology as a useful analogy of cultural structures. Moreover, maladaptive behavior is analyzed through the detailed recognition of defensive sequences, that is, not only the final outcome- symptoms-but also the internal sequences leading to it are carefully outlined.
The theory presents us with an ideal of flexibility and moderation, as opposed to rigidity, which is pathological but inevitable. Rigidity in the form of rituals and ritualized defenses become one of the sources of analogies for religion. The analytic starting point of symptom and syndrome, and their unconscious background, serves as the model for looking at religion. Psychoanalysis assumes the psychic unity of mankind, which is significant when we deal with cultural traditions. Universality is found at the most basic level of body, birth, sex, and death. This working assumption has a particular relevance to the phenomenon of religion. Universal themes in religious mythology are the result and reflection of the psychic unity of mankind, which in turn is the consequence of common psychological structures and common early experiences shared by all mankind. The same basic psychological processes and complexes are expressed in individual products (dreams, stories, daydreams) and in cultural products (art, literature, folklore, wit, religion, law, science), because these complexes are basic and central to human experience.
Psychoanalysis has had more to say about religious actions than any of the various traditions in academic psychology. It is the one psychological approach to the understanding of religion that has had a major effect on both religion as an institution and on the study of religion. Psychoanalytic approaches to the question of culture and religion, and to the question of individual integration in society, have affected all social science disciplines. The psychoanalytic study of religious beliefs and institutions has drawn considerable attention on the part of scholars in the fields of religion, history, sociology, and anthropology. Psychoanalysis is the only major psychological theory that offers an explanation of religion as part of a comprehensive theory of human behavior, in which religion is presented as an instance of general psychological forces in action.
In this area, as in many others, Sigmund Freud's writings offer a rich variety of hypotheses regarding various religious beliefs and practices. Some of the better known hypotheses derived from psychoanalytic theory are the father-projection hypotheses, i.e., the idea that the images of the gods are derived from childhood experiences with paternal (and maternal) figures, and the superego projection hypothesis, i.e., the idea that the gods are a reflection and echo of the unconscious and severe conscience that all humans share.
Judging by their immense influence in all the academic fields that study religion, psychoanalytic ideas seem to be of truly enduring value for the psychological understanding of religion. We really have no other theory that matches the scope of psychoanalytic interpretations of culture and religion. Enlightening-that is the greatest compliment we can pay psychoanalytic ideas and that is exactly what psychoanalytic approaches wish to be. They represent the continuation of enlightenment tradition in regard to human activities around ideas of spirituality and the sacred.