In Totem and Taboo, Freud traced the evolution of attitudes toward death in human civilization -- toward individual death and death in general -- to death as the ultimate expression of human helplessness. (Shur, Freud Living and Dying, p. 280)
Freud not only compared the magic thinking of primi tive man with the thought processes of neurotics; he also investigated the evolution of man's views of the universe and the ontogenetic development of such views.
The animistic phase is followed in both cases first by a religious and then by a scientific one."At the animistic stage men ascribe omnipotence to themselves. At the religous stage they transfer it to the gods...the scientific view of the universe no longer affords any room for human omnipotence; men have acknowledged their smallness and submitted resignedly to death and to the other necessities of nature. None the less some of the primitive belief in omnipotence still survives in men's faith in the power of the human mind, which grapples with the laws of reality." (p.88)
For Freud, primitive man's belief in the omnipotence of thought (psychic reality or primary process) seemed to have a parallel in narcissism, which permits both primitive man and small children to disregard their basic helplessness. In addition, the unconscious does not believe in its own death; it behaves as if it were immortal. (p. 296)
Lucien LÚvy-Bruhappears to follow the Freudian progression from animistic to religious to scientific when he claims that the distinctive achievement of the modern mind was to invent the idea of natural death and actually believe it. After millenia in which dangers were said to be caused by witchcraft and taboo-breaking, the concepts of accident rate and of normal chances of incurring disease no longer required an answer to "why me?" Death from natural causes was explanation enough. For LÚvy-Bruhl, the defining feature of primitive mentality is to try to nail a cause to every misfortune; and the defining feature of modernity, to forbear to ask. (Douglas and Wildavsky, Risk and Culture, p.31)
"We appear to attribute an 'uncanny' quality to impressions that seek to confirm the omnipotence of thought and the animistic mode of thinking in general, after we have reached a stage at which, in our judgement, we have abandoned such beliefs."