Applied Psychoanalysis > Religions

Psychoanalysis and Religion

By J.C. Popa

After Freud's example, psychoanalysis is well known to have adopted a critical, atheist position towards religion. The following fact is less known: the  atheism of psychoanalysis does not originate in some nihilistic, irrational opposition to religion. It springs from two important considerations that the present article is going to explain.

  • From obsessional neurosis to religion

First of all, experience acquired in psychoanalytic therapy - and we mean obsessional-fobic neuroses mainly - has revealed striking similarities between ritual-religious behavior and the conduct of obsessive neurotic persons. Hence, the widely spread assertion that religion is nothing but obsessional neurosis stretched to collective scale.

The overestimation of mental activity, of wish, more specifically the belief in the power of thoughts to materialize concrete realities can in fact be found in both the  obsessive neurotic person and in animist magic practices, expanded in the ritual of prayer.

Neurotic persons are obsessed with the materialization of their hostile wishes and defend themselves against such threats by  assuming defensive psychic positions, in fact truly extremely intricate rituals associating the weirdest of superstitions.

We can meet similar rituals in religious practices, with one amend though: with religious ideology, evil  is projected outside the individual and personified in satanic, demonic images.

The projection of the intrapsychic conflict (1) gives way to the illusion of a life and death struggle between the worshipper and the autonomised Evil. Biblical tales about demonized people and exorcising rituals also present in Christian Church are the practical consequences of this ideology.

It was then shown that belief in an  anthropomorphic, almighty God originates in impressions and feelings in the individuals' childhood that were initially related to their parents' images.

Children feel vulnerable confronted with surrounding nature and  therefore they look for refuge next to their parents, endowed with supernatural powers.

The fact that we can find belief in God with adults too should not come as a surprise. Adult life is no less exposed to real and  imaginary dangers! Adults' extended knowledge on nature and society does not shield them from anxiety; on the contrary: the more they know, the more they can realize the void of their knowledge. Hence the need for divine protection and the restoration of infantile relationships - endowed with religious significance - with parental imago.

The fact that, at the beginning, the child does not make clear distinction between maternal and paternal protection explain both the equal distribution of religions of the Mother and the ambivalent character of God - Father (He is merciful, forgiving but also rough, uncompromising, a tyrant and a destroyer).

Is it no surprise for us that in many religions God is even called "Father"? We could add: an idealized father mainly preserving His numinous qualities (2).

As already shown in short, experience psychoanalysis acquired in the therapeutic field can pretend some reevaluation of religious conduct. It is as true, at the same time, that it does not consume all deeds of religious life.

In this sense, Jungian psychoanalysis, seemingly going beyond the "limited" perspective of Freudian psychoanalysis, has identified the archetype of religious life in human soul. This archetype (= pattern of behavior) is the empirical basis C. G. Jung laid his entire conception of individuation on (3). 

We conclude that, from the perspective of psychoanalysis, the revision of religious experience has imposed an atheist attitude with regard to religion centered on the deification of parental image. This has to do with the same complex of ideas, representations and rituals related to the exacerbation of obsessional neurosis.

  • Scientific Exigency

Secondly, we have to demonstrate that psychoanalysis participates in the so-called scientific mentality. It lays stress on the investigation of phenomena, on the rational reflection on their nature. Rejecting the famous saying "Believe and don't search", scientific exigency focuses on what we call "research". In addition, it includes the possibility to reproduce similar phenomena, according to natural laws derived  from studied phenomena.

When the famous French doctor Charcot was able to hypnotically induce certain hysteria symptoms to his patients, he then scientifically proved that hysteria is no organic disturbance (even if it assumed a certain constitutional bias towards such manifestations).

The influence of this demonstration, quite amazing at the time, was also felt in the elaboration of psychoanalytic methods and theories.

Speculating things a little, we could say that psychoanalysis wouldn't have been born unless Freud the scientist had witnessed these demonstrations himself (4).

The psychiatry of the time had been engulfed in materialist conceptions maintaining that neurotic disturbances - that were to be studied by psychoanalysis later on - were due either to patients' simulations or to symptomatic effects of their "burdened" heredity or to somatic lesions as yet undiscovered. 

To conclude, let us formulate things as follows: psychoanalytic practice and experience and the scientific exigency are responsible for the atheist position of psychoanalysis.

But we then saw that the atheism of psychoanalysis is no parti pris once and forever. Psychoanalysis takes no glory in the unconditioned rejection of belief in God. The entire Jungian work in the field of religious phenomena, the emphasis placed on the individuation process show the extremely up-to-date and concrete way in which psychoanalysis understands to creatively approach the problem of religion.

1. The outward projection of Evil is a vivid phenomenon also present in neurotic disturbances, mainly in psychotic ones. In paranoid delirium, for instance, the patient has the sharp feeling of some prejudice, some evil made to him from the outside. The patient ascribes his own feelings to characters in his/her own social sphere.

In religious conduct, the outward projection of Evil spares the human subject an explanation with his/her own moral censorship. Even more, this procedure offers an ultimate solution towards humans' moral rehabilitation: if Evil is projected, then it can also be symbolically suppressed by means of the scapegoat practice, for  instance, or by exorcising and purification rites, so widely spread in religious communities.

Good too is sometimes projected, for example when we are told that the divine being is the expression of the highest perfection (it does not participate, in any way, or only transitorily, to our earthly condition).

Finally, the exigency of becoming morally perfect (as in the urge: "Be perfect as your Father in the  Heavens!"), imposes on the individual the illusion of some future rehabilitation depending on his/her efforts in belief and prayer.

2. The term "numinous" refers to those aspects inspiring paroxysmal feelings in the series terror - ecstasy.

3. The process of individuation refers to the accomplishment of the Self in Jungian understanding. A process of conjunction of the contraries, of union between consciousness and unconscious, in short of unification of the being. This process is not restricted to moral integration - it also involves emotional integration.

4. Between 1885-1886, Freud had a stage with Charcot in Paris. He presents the vivid memories from his scientific exploration in his later writings and autobiographical specifications

Translation by Mihaela Cristea.


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