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Emotion and Spirit

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Psychoanalysis, with Freud as its founder, has vehemently denied the value of religious belief. In this radical book, re-issued with a new preface by the author and a foreword by Jon Stokes, Neville Symington makes the case that both traditional religion and psychoanalysis are failing because they exist apart and do not incorporate each other's values. The controversial conclusion of this fascinating study is that psychoanalysis is a spirituality-in-the-world, or a mature religion, and inseparable from acts of virtue.

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1. The Nature of Primitive Religion


If a stone falls and crushes a passer-by, it was an evil spirit that dislodged it: there is no chance about it. If a man is dragged out of his canoe by an alligator, it is because he was bewitched: there is no chance about it. If a warrior is killed or wounded by lance-thrust, it is because he was not in a state to parry the blow, a spell has been cast upon him: there is no chance about it.

(Bergson, 1935)

The primitive mind endows its world with agents. It makes a god or gods the cause of those events which affect man, which may exist in a living individual, or in the ghost of a dead one; they may exist in animals, plants, the sun, or the moon. The idea of spirits inhabiting the natural world of primitive man is familiar to most of us, but what I wish to emphasize is the source of such a belief, and how it contributes to the idea of primitive religion.

Animism can only occur when there is a concept of the individual as agent. The animistic world is a projection of the self as agent – the representational self – into the natural world or the imagined natural world.


2. Mature Religion


In what Karl Jaspers has identified as the Achsenzeit, from very approximately 800 to very approximately 200 BC, significant human individuals appeared through whose insights – though always within the existing setting of their own culture – human awareness was immensely enlarged and developed, and a movement began from archaic religion to the religions of salvation or liberation.

(Hick, 1989)

During the Axial Era (800–200 BC) there arose outstanding religious teachers who changed radically the religious outlook of mankind. Those who flourished included Confucius and Lao-tzu in China; the Buddha and Mahavira in India; Zarathustra in Persia; the Hebrew prophets Amos, Hosea, the Isaiahs, Jeremiah, Ezekiel; and Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in Greece.

While these people were the founders of the great religions which still hold sway today after two millennia, it would be a mistake to assume they have necessarily been the most spiritual. For instance, to the unprejudiced mind it would be difficult not to assert that Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali had reached greater spiritual depths than Muhammad. It seems probable also that mystics like St Francis of Assisi, Meister Eckhardt or St John of the Cross were more spiritual men than Jesus, the founder of the religion to which they belonged. I think it likely that the only religious founder who remained unsurpassed in spiritual achievement by his followers was Siddhartha, the Buddha.


3. The Judaeo–Christian Tradition


With what gift shall I come into Yahweh's presence
and bow down before God on high?
Shall I come with holocausts,
with calves one year old?
Will he be pleased with rams by the thousand,
with libations of oil in torrents?
Must I give my first-born for what I have done
the fruit of my body for my own sin?
– What is good has been explained to you, man;
this is what Yahweh asks of you:
only this, to act justly,
to love tenderly
and to walk humbly with your God

(Micah 6:6–8)

In your prayers do not babble as the pagans do, for they think that by using many words they will make themselves heard. Do not be like them; your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

(Matthew 6:7–8)

Our civilization is so permeated with the ideals of Judaism, Christianity and Islam that it is extremely difficult to observe this tradition with an outsider's detachment. The conflict between mature and primitive religion stands out most clearly in the entreaties of the prophets who had two key messages: forsake the worship of false gods and return to Yahweh; and righteousness is found not in sacrifices and religious ceremonies but in behaving justly towards those whose predicament demands our attention.


4. Religious Wisdom from the East


At that moment, when the world around him melted away, when he stood alone like a star in the heavens, he was overwhelmed by a feeling of icy despair, but he was more firmly himself than ever. That was the last shudder of his awakening, the last pains of birth.

(Hesse, 1974)

It was in India during the Axial Era that spiritual wisdom reached its pinnacle in the Upanishads. There arose in the same Era in the Far East four giants of the spiritual life: Confucius, Lao-Tzu, Mahavira and the Buddha. We shall examine only the Upanishads and the teachings of the Buddha, as in them mature religion reached its highest expression.

Through intuitive wisdom the seers of the Upanishads pierced through the veil of sensuality to a knowledge of atman, a knowledge of the self which is at one with Brahma. The closest translation we can get to these two terms is the Self and Ultimate Reality respectively. This deep spirituality is embedded in the midst of a pantheon of gods, goddesses, rites, sacrifices and ceremonial of the most sensual kind. ‘Hinduism’ is a word coined by Europeans to refer to the religious practices of India and is therefore an umbrella word covering everything from the village cult of Ganesh to the Vedanta, the philosophy of the Upanishads. The outsider may feel lost in this disparate array but if its spiritual centre is grasped the rest falls into place with relative ease.


5. Socrates – Religious Teacher in Classical Greece


The founder of every new religion possessed at first no greater authority than the founder of a new school of philosophy. Many of them were scorned, persecuted, and even put to death, and their last appeal was always, what it ought to be – an appeal to the spirit of truth with us, and not to twelve legions of angels, nor, as in later times, to the decrees of Councils, to Papal Bulls, or to the written letter of a sacred book.

(Max Müller, 1985)

Socrates was one of the great religious teachers of the Axial Era, although he is not usually recognized as such because he did not found a religious dynasty, or at least he is the only such teacher who remains well known to posterity.

The Socrates I refer to is the one we meet in the dialogues of Plato. Most scholars are agreed that in the Republic and the Laws the Socrates we meet is merely Plato's puppet, mustered to portray Plato's philosophical arguments and probably somewhat distant from the historical Socrates. The man we are studying here is the Socrates of the early dialogues, which are much more faithful to the historical Socrates as he was.


6. The Relation between the Moral and the Spiritual


Now I would say that the experience of choosing imparts to a man's nature a solemnity, a quiet dignity, which never is entirely lost. There are many who set great store upon having seen one or another distinguished world-historical personality face to face. This impression they never forget, it has given to their souls an ideal picture which ennobles their nature; and yet such an instant, however significant, is nothing in comparison with the instant of choice. So when all has become still around one, as solemn as a starlit night, when the soul is alone in the whole world, then there appears before one, not a distinguished man, but the eternal Power itself. The heavens part, as it were, and I chooses itself – or rather, receives itself. Then has the soul beheld the loftiest sight that mortal eye can see and which never can be forgotten, then the personality receives the accolade of knighthood which ennobles it for an eternity. He does not become another man than he was before, but he becomes himself, consciousness is unified, and he is himself. As an heir, even though he were heir to the treasure of all the world, nevertheless does not possess his property before he has come of age, so even the richest personality is nothing before he has chosen himself, and on the other hand even what one might call the poorest personality is everything when he has chosen himself; for the great thing is not to be this or that but to be oneself, and this everyone can be if he wills it.


7. Towards a Definition of Religion


Religion is the opium of the people.

(Karl Marx)

Primitive religion began at that point when humans started to bury their dead and mature religion began with those great spiritual masters who arose in the Axial Era. These are two phylogenetic milestones in the history of human consciousness. We are equating religion, then, with consciousness of selfhood.

What had humans become conscious of that led them to bury their dead? The burial of the dead was a sign of an inner change and realization. Until then, a member of the tribe was just a unit in an organization – there was no autonomous determining part. Using the analogy of the body for the tribal group, the individual member was equivalent to a limb. Guy de Maupassant has a short story where a sailor loses an arm in a naval accident and they bring the arm to shore and give it a burial. This gives the reader a weird feeling: we do not bury an arm because it has no selfhood. In a similar way, at an early stage in hominization the human tribe did not bury an individual member.


8. Freud's Diagnosis of Religion


Impersonal forces and destinies cannot be approached; they remain eternally remote. But if the elements have passions that rage as they do in our own souls, if death itself is not something spontaneous but the violent act of an evil will, if everywhere in nature there are Beings around us of a kind that we know in our own society, then we can breathe freely, can feel at home in the uncanny and deal by psychical means with our senseless anxiety.

(Freud, 1927)

In this chapter, I shall examine The Future of an Illusion, which attends principally to the psychological origins of primitive religion, and Moses and Monotheism, which is concerned with the development of mature religion. I shall use hypotheses from Totem and Taboo for the elucidation of Freud's theories in both of these works. The origin of religion is inextricably linked with the origin of civilization and therefore the theme of religion runs through many other of Freud's writings, especially Civilization and Its Discontents.

According to Freud, the origin of primitive religion lies in man's helplessness in the face of the forces of impersonal nature; the origin of mature religion lies in man's guilt which derives from parricide. In Freud's interpretation of religion parricide is a thread which runs through both the primitive and the mature. At the beginning of The Future of an Illusion, Freud states that, ‘Every individual is virtually an enemy of civilization.’ It derives from Freud's conviction that we are trapped between our voracious drives and a civilization that forbids their expression. The point to be noted here is that the drives continue to exist in their uncivilized state, and must be kept in subjection within. Without external coercion, Freud states, human beings would indulge their rapacious passions:


9. Meissner's Critique of Freud


Quite by the way, why did none of the devout create psychoanalysis? Why did one have to wait for a completely godless Jew?

(Freud, 1963)

The most comprehensive assessment of Freud's attitude to religion is to be found in W. W. Meissner's book Psychoanalysis and Religious Experience. Meissner examines Freud's arguments in his main texts on religion, and then in particular discusses the great debate on religion that took place between Freud and Oskar Pfister, a friend and colleague. In this chapter I shall look at this debate, and Meissner's perceptive commentary on it.


Freud published The Future of an Illusion in Imago in 1927, and Pfister published a reply the following year entitled The Illusion of a Future. Pfister, a Lutheran pastor working in a parish in Zurich, discovered Freud's writings in 1908 and from that moment became an enthusiastic disciple. Despite being a firm believer in the Christian faith, he and Freud remained firm friends. It was probably Pfister's unbounded respect for Freud's genius that enabled Freud to tolerate his friend's disagreement with his own religious position. Freud was thus pleased that it was Pfister who replied to his article against religion (the subtitle of Pfister's article is ‘A friendly dispute with Prof. Dr. Sigm. Freud’). He knew his article would call forth replies from defenders of religious faith, and this being the case, a reply from Pfister was more welcome than from some other quarter, which would probably be more hostile.


10. The Challenge of Jung


Among all my patients in the second half of life…there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life. It is safe to say that every one of them fell ill because he had lost that which the living religions of every age have given to their followers, and none of them has been really healed who did not regain his religious outlook.

(Jung, 1984)

There are so many contradictions in Jung that it is difficult to present his views in a coherent way. I shall try to lay bare the contradictions as they appear.

Jung outlines his approach to religion in his long article ‘Psychology and Religion’. The foremost contradiction is his conceptualization of the relation of the human subject to the object world. On the one hand, Jung says that facts are facts, and they impress themselves on the mind as they are; on the other hand, facts are the product of imaginary construction. One moment he is a strict empiricist in the tradition of Locke, and the next moment he is a constructionist in the school of Kant. It is the empiricist view, however, that predominates in Jung's analysis of religion, and his definition is consistent with this viewpoint:


11. From Causal to Moral in Psychoanalysis


Freud's mechanistic and causal language stands in the way of a proper appreciation of his aims and achievements.

(Dilman, 1984)

It is the Judaeo-Christian view that God created man, and that this act was the goal of creation in order that man might share in the beneficent goodness of God's life. The universe is subordinate to this purpose, and is to be understood in relation to it. When Darwin proposed that man had evolved from lower forms of life there was an uproar. However, over time Christian apologists argued that God had created man by means of evolution, thus preserving the Judaeo-Christian view that all is to be explained in terms of God's foreordained purpose. The present, then, is to be explained in terms of the future. Such a schema is called in scientific discussion a teleological cause, contrasted with efficient causation.

Survival is the principal motivating evolutionary development in Darwin's schema: one species develops into another over geological time because those variations in offspring which survive best persevere whereas others fall by the wayside. But survival is not the same as heading towards a goal. Homo sapiens has emerged because the series of variations that differentiate us from the chimpanzee were those that survived best. Also, Homo sapiens is not the end-point of evolution – in another 200,000 years a new creature may have emerged. What brings about this present state of affairs is a prior event, the efficient cause.


12. The Current Relation between Psychoanalysis and Religion


Freud talks about the ‘future of an illusion’ as if he thought that religion itself was an illusion; it may be, but I think it is a basic illusion. Any particular religion changes with the prevalent fashion, but the fundamental thing, religion itself, does not.

(Bion, 1992)

Only a few psychoanalysts since Freud have directed their interest to religion. With some notable exceptions those few have confined themselves to the Judaeo-Christian religion. Some valuable work has been done in undoing the bias of Freud's The Future of an Illusion. In this work, as we have seen, Freud expressed the belief that the origin of religion lay in man's sense of helplessness in the face of the impersonal forces of nature. In order to fashion this implacable world into a more homely place, we invested these anarchic forces with human emotions so the mountains, streams, sunlight, and thunder became ‘humanized’. If thunder was the anger of Zeus, it was comforting because we could then placate Zeus through sacrificial offerings and so exercise control. We were then no longer the helpless victims of fate.


13. Erich Fromm's Assessment of Religion


Love and do what you will.

(St Augustine)

I have stressed that all psychoanalysts writing on psychoanalysis and religion have kept the two disciplines in watertight compartments, not allowing either to penetrate or influence the other. The result of this has been that the author's religion remains unmodified by psychoanalysis, and vice versa. There is a polite dialogue, but there is no intention that their version of religion should alter one iota, and psychoanalysis must also not be affected in any radical way. The only person who stands out as an exception to this is Eric Fromm, and I have therefore devoted a whole chapter to his book Psychoanalysis and Religion. It is a very short book, but its value is in inverse ratio to its length.

Fromm begins by saying that although the modern world has developed an amazing technology which should greatly enhance our happiness, this has not been the case. That ancient ideal, ‘the perfection of man’ has not moved forward one inch; all this technology has done nothing to bring us closer to achieving our purpose in living.


14. The Human Condition


‘Did you say the stars were worlds, Tess?’
‘All like ours?’
‘I don't know; but I think so…Most of them are splendid and sound – a few blighted.’
‘Which do we live on – a splendid or blighted one?’
‘A blighted one.’
‘’Tis very unlucky that we didn't pitch on a sound one, when there were so many more of ’em!’

(Hardy, 1984)

The message of those great masters of spiritual living, the masters who arose in the Axial and post-Axial Eras, was that the human purpose is not to survive bodily at all costs. To offer sacrifice may bring rain, may bring a richer harvest, but there is more to life than this – there is an inwardness, the fulfilment of which gives life its purpose. Attention to this inner life and its development brings a serenity that surpasses the more transitory pleasures of existence. The fruit of attentiveness to our inner life is compassion for our fellow human beings, for all living things, and for our world. This was the message of the masters: cultivate the good, attend to what is inner, and have compassion for your fellow man and woman. It was a message which was spoken with disarming simplicity; to achieve the goal they put before their followers, however, was a task of supreme difficulty.


15. Narcissism and the Human Condition


Egoism consists in this: absolute opposition, an impassable gulf is fixed between one's own self and other beings. I am everything to myself and must be everything to others, but others are nothing in themselves and become something only as a means for me. My life and welfare is an end in itself, the life and welfare of others are only a means for my ends, the necessary environment for my self-assertion. I am the centre and the world only a circumference.

(Soloviev, 1918)

In the development of object relations theory, psychoanalysis changed from being a natural science into an ethical signifier in the sphere of emotional relations. Winnicott said that when the child is born he is in a stage of ruthlessness, and that in favourable circumstances this changes into the stage of concern. Many an adult, said Winnicott, is emotionally deficient and still stuck at the stage of ruthlessness, and it became a goal of treatment to assist such a patient into the stage of concern. Similarly, Melanie Klein had the view that the infant is born into the paranoid–schizoid stage of emotional development and an adult may become fixed at this stage of emotional development, unable to progress to what she named the depressive position.


16. The Transformation of Narcissism through Psychoanalysis


What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valour, rage – who can tell? – but truth – truth stripped of its cloak of time. Let the fool gape and shudder – the man knows, and can look on without a wink. But he must at least be as much of a man as these on the shore. He must meet that truth with his own true stuff – with his own inborn strength.

(Conrad, 1973)

The core of psychoanalytic method is the use of the transference, a phenomenon whereby the patient expects the analyst to behave in preset ways. These are determined by the patient's inner mental states, which affect how the analyst is perceived. It is frequently stated in the analytic literature that these inner mental states are ‘caused’ by the ways in which people, especially parents, have behaved towards the patient in the infantile environment. What the analyst then experiences in the transference is a projection onto him of this parental imago but what becomes clear in the infantile situation is that the patient is identified with this imago. In other words what is transferred on to the analyst is a hated part of the patient's own self. This identification becomes known when the analyst can see that the patient is behaving in precisely the way that the parent is claimed to have behaved towards the patient.


17. The Domain of Psychoanalysis


Religion is about an aspect of this world to which we are usually blind.

(Macmurray, 1936)

The domain of psychoanalysis is built upon three poles: an activity, an object and a subject. Knowledge of these three poles is essential to an understanding of psychoanalysis. Equally important are the manifestations of transference and counter-transference. We start with activity.


A patient comes for psychoanalysis because he suspects he is responsible in part for the problems which are hampering his life. Responsibility refers to those activities which find their origin in him but of which he is unaware. Psychoanalysis is the elucidation of those activities of which the patient (and probably the analyst) is unaware. What are these activities?

Freud made a distinction between those things which we are able to be aware of but are not, and those things which we actively oppose being aware of. I may not at this moment be aware of my breathing in and out because I am intent on typing, but there is no activity forbidding such an awareness. The breathing of which I am unaware is morally neutral. In a similar way, as I am typing a plane flies overhead, but I am unaware of it until my son comes into my room and draws my attention to it. Again, the plane flying overhead has no moral category attached to it. It is a fact of which I am unaware. The plane and the breathing are morally neutral. Activities of which I am unaware Freud named preconscious. Activities whose awareness I actively oppose Freud named the unconscious.


18. Conscience and the Super-Ego


Dorothea's voice gave loud emphatic iteration to those muffled suggestions of consciousness which it was possible to explain as mere fancy, the illusion of exaggerated sensitiveness: always when such suggestions are unmistakably repeated from without, they are resisted as cruel and unjust. We are angered even by the full acceptance of our humiliating confessions – how much more by hearing in hard distinct syllables from the lips of a near observer, those confused murmurs which we try to call morbid, and strive against as if they were the oncoming of numbness! And this cruel outward accuser was there in the shape of a wife – nay, of a young bride, who, instead of observing his abundant pen scratches and amplitude of paper with the uncritical awe of an elegant-minded canary-bird, seemed to present herself as a spy watching everything with a malign power of inference.

(George Eliot, 1973)

I was once told the following story:

Mother was sitting at her desk and could see the dining-room table on which there was a bowl of fruit. She saw her six-year-old son tip-toe in and take an apple from the bowl and then slip out again. Mother had asked her children not to take food between meals without asking her, so she made a mental note to speak to her son afterwards. Five minutes later, her son crept back and returned the apple to the bowl. As he did so, she heard him say, ‘I've tricked the devil again.’


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