04/10/2012 12:15 pm ET Updated Jun 10, 2012

Confession: Is Dr. Freud at War with Religious Beliefs?

When Sigmund Freud discovered a new path to unburdening ourselves of both daily, nagging human mistakes and debilitating, corrosive habits, it seemed to set him in direct opposition to the tenets of religious belief. .

But doing research for my book, "The Art of Confession: Renewing Yourself Through the Practice of Personal Honesty," I found myself at once standing in our therapy-intensive 21st century but going back to the 19th century and Freud's search for a deeper understanding of why people acted as they did, how underlying influences could alter our decisions and how our intent interacted with those influences -- an understanding we take for granted today.

And I discovered more synergy between Freud's therapeutics and those of our mainstream religions than I had realized.

Freud's theories of unconscious human motivation and his "talking cure" (certainly a kind of confession, certainly Catholic Confession) were both revolutionary and immediately suspect. All the major Western religious traditions -- mainline Protestantism, Judaism, and the Catholic church -- fought him and his approach, steadfastly maintaining that only their rules, not the individual judgments informed by a conscience, had true merit. The 1832 decree of Pope Gregory XVI, who pronounced it "false and absurd, or rather mad, that we must secure and guarantee to each one liberty of conscience" still held sway.

Slowly at first and then in the 1960s like a rushing wind, a time when venerable institutions became automatically suspect, religious leaders and theologians took a fresh look at beliefs and practices that had been unquestionably followed. The strict moral codes of all the major faiths began to be looked upon as unduly legalistic, inflexible, and impractical in helping one navigate an increasingly complex world.

Meanwhile, the golden age of therapy was at hand. Therapy would become the way, the truth, and the life of many people who had once turned to religion for guidance. The approaches were clearly at odds with one another: Were the real answers within, graspable through self-reflection, or without, uniformly mandated by religious authority?

Freud -- whose deep influence on nearly every strand of psychological discourse cannot be overstated -- maintained that there were many elements outside humans' control that caused them to act as they did. And if those actions were aberrant or harmful, either to the person or to others, it was not as important to judge the action and punish the person as it was to free him from whatever it was that caused him to act that way.

Each person was the sum of early admonishments received from parents or authority figures,
healthy or unhealthy childhood and adolescent experiences, hereditary traits and physiological development. Therefore, human acts must always be viewed in context. The same action by two people was not the same action at all.

Christian teaching was more absolute: Although all human beings are given free will to choose what is good and avoid what is evil, the choices are clear and the circumstances largely irrelevant. In Judaism, the Torah likewise provides a strict code of right and wrong.

While religious authorities resisted the notion of subliminal forces controlling human actions, and Freud and company railed against the mailed fist of eternal damnation wielded by those religious authorities, the demarcations between the two conflicting camps blurred in interesting
ways over time.

Mainstream religions slowly began to understand -- and then teach -- conscience as not merely a shifting fog to hide the wily sinner, but as a divinely inspired and brilliant light to guide a truly moral life. Rather than be held to an absolute standard, individuals were continually required to make judgments on their actions.

Circumstances did matter, but moral theologians would grant that argument only so much credence. Regardless of a mother who weaned them too early, a punitive father who withheld approval, or any of the deep-seated shaping influences identified by the psychoanalytic community, ultimately the individual would have to accept responsibility for his actions. An "informed" conscience was the goal, one that could make sound judgments, even within a culture where shades of gray were clouding what was once considered black and white.

We can now see the synergy between Freud's approach to human wholeness and that of the religions he abhorred; we can easily view priest as therapist and therapist as priest.

Psychoanalysis seeks to unearth the disorder caused by layers of repression. Confession seeks another truth -- the truth of our inherent worth and goodness, our basic purity of soul, which has been not so much repressed as wasted, compromised, rationalized away with what we might call sin -- acts and attitudes that are out of keeping with what is best in us.

Each is at the service of humankind, but in different ways.