Commentary Magazine


God and the Psychoanalysts:
Can Freud and Religion Be Reconciled?

Perhaps nothing is more characteristic of our times than the way that ideas usually thought to be contrary to each other are often enthusiastically upheld by one person in one breath; so it is with our democratic political thinkers who have rediscovered the virtues of conservatism, and with our avant-garde intellectuals who are most vocally concerned with tradition. And so it is, Irving Kristol asserts here, with our religious leaders who are embracing psychoanalysis—or their version of it—as an apparently indispensable support for the good American life.

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My courage fails me, therefore, at the thought of rising up as a prophet before my fellow-men, and I bow to the reproach that I have no consolation to offer them; for at bottom that is what they all demand—the frenzied revolutionary as passionately as the most pious believer.

                                                                                                                                                    —Sigmund Freud

Psychoanalysis was from its very beginnings disrespectful, when not positively hostile, towards all existing religious creeds and institutions. Naturally, the religious rhetoricians replied with heat, though, it must be said, with unequal light. The contest was not exactly an exciting one, if only because few people could get enthusiastic about God, one way or the other. The psychoanalysts found it sufficient to explain with supreme objectivity just how it was that this mountain of nonsense and error came to rest on human shoulders. The preachers retorted with anathemas or plaints of misrepresentation. The general conviction of the century was that the analysts were going to unnecessary extremes of detail to dissect a patient ripe for the grave, and that the patient was showing a lack of taste in hanging on so grimly to a life that held no future for him.

But then the contest was transplanted to the melting pot of America, with astonishing consequences. In America all races and creeds live and work peacefully side by side—why should not ideas do likewise? For the ancient habit of supposing that an idea was true or false, there was substituted the more “democratic” way of regarding all ideas as aspects of a universal Truth which, if all of it were known, would offend no one and satisfy all. It is under such favorable circumstances, and in such a benign climate of opinion, that the current love affair between psychoanalysis and religion has been, time and again, consummated. There have been bickerings and quarrels, of course, and the Catholic Church has shown itself to be a rather frigid partner. But, all in all, things have gone well, and the occasional Catholic reserve has been more than made up for by Protestant acquiescence and Jewish ardor.

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Where once a Judaism liberated from the ghetto fled into the arms of a universal Pure Reason (which did, after all, proclaim honorable intentions), now a Judaism liberated from just about everything religious embraces psychoanalysis without a first thought as to the propriety of the liaison. So we read of a speech by the dean of Hebrew Union Schools, calling for a re-examination of religious teachings to determine whether “they strengthen or weaken the mental and emotional health of the common man”—the assumption obviously being that God is a fiction anyhow and He may as well make Him-self useful. Another distinguished professor at Hebrew Union College is on record with this “tip” for alert investors: “The person who will contribute money for religion-psychoanalytic inquiry will have entered upon the way of all ways in which religion can be furthered by money.” And two bright young rabbis have proposed to a conference of Jewish chaplains that the prayer books for hospitalized Jewish veterans be “screened” by psychiatrists to eliminate “many mystic elements from religion.” Everyone knows how toxic mysticism is.

The monument to this tendency is, of course, the late Joshua Loth Liebman’s Peace of Mind. This book informs us quite simply that “psychological discoveries about conduct and motive are really the most recent syllables of the divine”; that “men who are inwardly tormented and emotionally unhappy can never be good partners of God”; that the Decalogue was, for its time, rather sensible: “in the stages of human development from infancy to adolescence, it is quite proper to present rules of moral behavior as categorical commandments”; that atheism is the result of a child’s being rejected by its parents; that “businessmen attacking the administration, grumbling about taxes, or worrying about our relations with Russia” ignore the fact that “the true root of their anxiety lies deep with-in themselves”; that “a wise religion” [no mention is made of a true one] “is indispensable to peace of mind”; that self-confident Americans who regard themselves as “responsible co-workers with God” can have no use for all those religious notions which arose out of the “helpless, poverty-stricken, powerless motifs in European culture.” The book closes with a list of “commandments of a new morality,” the first of which is: ‘Thou shalt not be afraid of thy hidden impulses.”

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In an attempt to dispel the impression that Peace of Mind made upon many—that today no one is so sick as our spiritual healers-Fulton J. Sheen has written a Catholic Peace of Soul. Monsig nor Sheen makes it clear that it is only with the greatest of distaste that he has written this book, and that if is to be taken as a concession to modem man’s moral disorder. He is repelled by the “scum and sediment” of the unconscious and feels sure that ecclesiastical dogma would prefer that the unconscious not exist. But since it reputedly does, Monsignor Sheen sets out to purge psychoanalysis of its impurities, absorb it into the Catholic intellectual hierarchy, and leave it to perish there of boredom. These impurities are attributed to a mis-emphasis on “sex analysis” (Freudianism), which Monsignor Sheen accuses of undermining the moral order and defying the prerogatives of religion and church. Specifically, he dislikes the fact that psychoanalytical patients spend so much time on their backs, a posture which invites the devil; he wishes to save “sin” as a reality born of a defective will and not let it be dismissed as a neurotic fancy; and he would like to mark out the boundaries between the confessional and psychoanalysis, leaving for the latter only those situations where the emotional derangement could have had no moral (or immoral) antecedents—which would leave it with very little at all. He is especially friendly to self-analysis because the intimacy between patient and analyst is a sore temptation as well as a trespass on the clerical province.

All this indicates that Monsignor Sheen is considerably more zealous than was Rabbi Liebman in asserting the priority of morality and the church over psychoanalysis. Yet they have more in common than would appear at first sight, even more than their literary ties to the fraternity of vulgar journalism (Mon-signor Sheen writes: “Nine months later the Eternal established its beachhead in Bethlehem. . . . ”). Both would like to be of assistance to those modern psychoanalysts who would “revise” or emasculate Freud to make him palatable, or even useful, to the ecclesia. Though Monsignor Sheen, unlike Rabbi Liebman, gives a positive religious status to anxiety—as a necessary quality of man who is a fallen creature, and as a spur to seeking God—he is just as eager for this anxiety not to be taken too much to heart: Monsignor Sheen promises peace of soul inside the Catholic Church as glibly as Rabbi Liebman promises peace of mind outside it. Where for Rabbi Liebman an excess of anxiety is “unhealthy,” for Monsignor Sheen it is—unless it is quickly dissolved into Catholic “peace of soul”—a possible prelude to heresy and a certain sign of deficient faith. For neither of these two clerics is the existence of God, and man’s relation with Him, a problem which should worry men to morbid excess. And both join their voices in eagerly quoting from psychiatrists’ testimonials concerning the beneficent influence of religion on mental health.

But, most of all, what Monsignor Sheen and Rabbi Liebman and their numerous Protestant counterparts share is a disinclination, or inability, to take Freud seriously, to take his challenge to religion seriously, and in the end, to take religion itself seriously.

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What is remarkable in all current demonstrations of how well religion and psychoanalysis supplement each other, is that the question of truth—whether we live under God or entirely in the realm of nature—is ignored. Most clerics and analysts blithely agree that religion and psychoanalysis have at heart the same intention: to help men “adjust,” to cure them of their vexatious and wasteful psychic habits (lasting despair and anxiety), to make them happy or virtuous or productive. In so far as religion and psycho-analysis succeed in this aim, they are “true.” But against this stands the overwhelming objection of Nietzsche: “Nobody will very readily regard a doctrine as true merely be-cause it makes people happy or virtuous. . . . A thing could be true, although it were in the highest degree injurious and dangerous; indeed the fundamental constitution of existence might be such that one succumbed by a full knowledge of it.”

And Moses and Freud are in agreement with at least the first part of Nietzsche’s statement; they came to speak the truth about the fundamental constitution of existence and not to sow propaganda which would lead men to feel themselves happy or virtuous. Moses did not promise the Jews “happiness,” nor did he say they should walk in the path of the Law because he thought it a virtuous law. The Law was true because it was divine—it was God’s Law, a revelation of man’s place in the fundamental constitution of existence. Though men suffer and die in the following of it, yet it is the truth, and men’s true happiness and virtue are in adhering to this truth—because it is true; any other kind of pretended happiness is but mere euphoria. Freud, in turn, did not assert that religion made men “unhappy,”1 but that it was based on an illusion about the fundamental constitution of existence. Freud, like Moses, could not conceive of authentic happiness as some-thing separate from truth. In his eyes, religion was a mass obsessional neurosis, and all attempts to enlist psychoanalysis in its sup-port were dementedly clever stratagems whereby the neurotic incorporated a new experience into a larger obsessional pattern. Even if it could be proved that men could not live without religion, that “they succumbed by a full knowledge” of reality, this showed only that man was a creature who could not live in the truth.

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The truths of religion and psychoanalysis, it should be clear, lay mutually exclusive claims upon the individual; their understanding of “the fundamental constitution of existence” is antithetical.

For religion, we live under the jurisdiction of the past. The truth is in the revelation on Sinai, and in Scripture, which fully comprehends us while we are powerless to fully comprehend it. God’s word, spoken in the remote past and now hardly audible, is ever more true than the persistent chatter of men. Religion informs us that our ancestors were wiser and holier than we; that they were therefore more normal because they lived by divine Law, while our laws are driftwood in the stream of time; that no matter how mightily we strive we shall probably never see with their clarity into the fundamental constitution of existence and shall always be of little worth compared with them; and that, indeed, the virtue we inherit by reason of being descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is far greater than any we can hope to claim to have merited. “What are we? What is our life? What is our piety? . . . Nevertheless we are Thy people, the children of Thy covenant, the children of Abraham. . . . ”

Psychoanalysis, on the other hand, must repeat Freud’s words: “But these ancestors of ours were far more ignorant than we.” Psychoanalysis insists that it understands the past better than the past understood itself. Since all men have been driven by unconscious motivations which only we moderns really understand, and of which past generations were for the most part ignorant, a Freud of the 20th century, or, presumably, one of his competent pupils, equipped with the tools of psychoanalysis, can know Moses, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Dostoevsky better than they knew themselves. At most we can say of certain great minds of the past that they had an intuitive and premature inkling of the true constitution of human nature and existence which is now known (or will soon be known) in its fullness. The history of the human race is a tale of growth from primitive times—when men were as children—to the present age of adulthood, when man finally understands himself and his history.

There is a crucial disagreement here, which can never be mediated, as to what is the true and the real. Psychoanalysis explains religion; it describes how and why religion came into being, how and why what we clearly see to be irrational was accepted as super-rationally true, and how and why that which we know to be a product of the human fancy came to be regarded as an existing, supernatural being.2 To this, religion answers that the understanding of psychoanalysis is only a dismal, sophisticated misunderstanding, that human reason is inferior to divine reason, that the very existence of psychoanalysis is a symptom of gross spiritual distress, and that religion understands the psychoanalyst better than the psychoanalyst understands himself.

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In this dialogue between psychoanalysis and religion, it is to be expected that psychoanalysis would try to establish its position behind the starched apron of science. What is surprising is that the religionists should be so eager to assist it—until we remember that in the long, grueling warfare between science and organized religion, the latter received valuable instruction in tactics. Abandoning the frontal attack, the pastors were successfully able to persuade the scientists that science was not at all atheistic, as some brash people claimed, but that its sphere of activity was quite a different one from that of religion, that it dealt with an “abstract” reality and not the “real” reality, that its arid language was inadequate to religious statement, that it operated on another “level of meaning,” and so on. In the same way today, pacific priests and analysts are eager that psychoanalysis should renounce its wild and Freudian past and become a medical science; for the more medicinal it is, the smaller is the danger that it will seem to say anything about the fundamental constitution of existence, the less does it encroach upon religion, and the greater is the mutual security of religious and psychoanalytic institutions; psychoanalysis would deal only with “health” and never with “truth.” The result is a revision and “correction” of Freud—especially in America—which tends to make of psychoanalysts mental counsellors, in no necessary conflict with religion, “adjusting” patients to their infirmities, their limitations of talent, their jobs (or else the analyst serves as a vocational guide), their bad luck, their wives, their children, and, in the armed forces, to their officers. Some analysts even send their patients to church, as a therapy.

Psychoanalysis, then, would seem to be on its way to becoming simply the medical treatment of the psyche, cohabiting with religion in all amiability. But on this way it stumbles and falls. For if psychoanalysis is disloyal to the implications of its method—to what this method assumes as the fundamental constitution of existence, as enunciated by Freud—it sinks into a realm of relativism in which the human intellect circles upon itself like a dog chasing its tail.

Psychoanalysis is unlike traditional medicine in that nature does not so readily supply us with a working definition of the psychically “normal.” Our definition of physical normality (“health”) is not something we have strenuously to imagine or blindly to postulate, and there are obvious and sharp limits to possible disagreement; it is simply given to us because we are what we are. But psychoanalysis is in a more ambiguous position. Its definition of mental health has to be in good measure “thought up,” and it must be done by men whose ideas are influenced by their lives and times. Psychoanalysis is always open to the accusation that its criteria of “neurosis” and “mental health” and “adjustment” have a cultural bias, and are influenced by political ideologies, national prejudices, and personal whims. To take the accusation in its most general form: any psychoanalytical approach which, out of diplomatic cordiality toward religion, renounces its claim to an objective knowledge of human nature or to a lasting, true insight into the fundamental constitution of existence, must admit that it is historically and socially conditioned. And once there is no objectively true human nature which is taken as the norm, there is no possibility of general agreement on what it means to be “sick” and what it means to be “cured.” We can then have Communist analysts, Nazi analysts, democratic analysts, anarchist analysts, all with irreconcilable criteria of mental health.

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Actually, the dilemma of the “revisionist’* schools of psychoanalysis arises from their reluctance to abandon—at the same time that they drop all Freudian “metaphysics”—either of the two branches of psychoanalysis joined by Freud: the pathological and the general psychological. (This distinction is very lucidly made by Theodore Reik in Listening With the Third Ear.)Pathological psychology seems to have some intimate relation with the organic, intimate enough, in any case, for it to be a (still largely unexplored) sub-branch of medicine. But in this field, psychoanalysis has to compete with formal psychiatry and neurology, both of which are closer to what is universally deemed medical science: psychoanalysis can “explain” more than psychiatry only because it is less rigorously scientific. To be sure, psychoanalysis has effected cures of pathological cases. But cures have also been reached by treatments which have nothing to do with psychoanalysis, nor can psychoanalysis claim greater efficiency, greater rapidity, or any other advantage. Moreover, psychoanalysis is splintered into various schools, all of which claim to cure, and no way exists of deciding for or against any one of them, or of finding out whether they may work for reasons quite different from those given by all of them. In pathology, psychoanalysis stands to the ideal of medical science as the herb-doctor (whose herbs work too sometimes, and not entirely by chance) to a diagnostician.

Yet when psychoanalysis turns to nonpathological cases, and tries to fall back upon general psychology, upon its theory of human nature, for a warrant of competence, then it has to say what human nature rightfully is; it has to be explicit as to whether man prays to God or is trapped in an obsessional neurosis, it has to decide the question of truth before it dares raise the question of therapy. And this would involve it in those discussions about man and his place in the universe which would be fatal to its ambitions to live at peace with religion.

Freud, too, was faced with the problem that before one could aim at healing human nature it was necessary to decide what human nature in its undamaged state is, and in his analysis of dreams he stepped unhesitatingly from pathology to depth (general) psychology. The pathological and the abnormal were points of departure for the determination of the “really” normal, and Freud ceased to be a doctor and became a thinker. Truth precedes healing—Freud’s own italicized definition of the task of psychoanalysis was “education to reality.” Where in all of his past history man had achieved only a self-deceptive self-consciousness, riddled with mythical projections of the unconscious, now man has acquired the ability to see the human situation as it really is.

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Perhaps because of the verbal resonance of such terms as the “unconscious” and the “libido,” and certainly because of his own harsh comments on various facile and optimistic beliefs, Freud is often viewed as a reaction to the 19th century’s certainty that man was master of his fate and to its adoration of the goddess Reason. Freud himself, in certain passages, seemed to encourage this interpretation, as when he noted the three wounds inflicted by science on humanity’s self-love: the cosmological blow of the Copernican revolution, the biological blow of Darwinian evolution, and the psychological blow of Freudianism. But such an interpretation of Freud would be erroneous, and Freud’s remarks seeming to support it must be understood mainly as a not unflattering explanation of the hostility which his contemporaries directed at him.

Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud did not attack man’s self-love, but only the religious man’s self-respect. They diminished God (though, except for Freud, without intention) and aggrandized man as the rational animal. They did not undermine man’s reason, but enthroned it, at the expense of the religious authority. Freud did not come to proclaim the law of Reason at an end—he came to fulfil it, at the same time explaining how previous efforts at fulfilment had been overly glib and superficial. Man, by virtue of Freud’s work, was not less than he had been; he was infinitely more, facing for the first time the prospect of an authentic selfconsciousness and self-control which would make him the true measure of all things. Though Freud, in comparison with his contemporaries, complicated human nature, it was the kind of theoretical complication (like Einsteinian physics) which makes possible the lucid solution of hitherto baffling problems; it is a gain for Reason, not a loss.

Freudianism was a legitimate son of 19thcentury philosophy (Marxism was another) which declared that in all previous world history the human mind had not been free but had been enslaved to nature or society, and that now life according to true Reason (not ideological or neurotic rationalization) was within men’s reach. The epoch of human history in which man’s mind had been “alienated” from reality was approaching its end. And Freud was supremely a man of the 19th century in his idea of history as the development of the human race from infancy to adulthood, in his conceiving of the biography of humanity as entirely analogous to the biography of the individual, with religion as a childlike obsessional neurosis which the child had failed to outgrow and which the doctor was now hurrying to cure, so as to secure, in his own words, “the psychological ideal, the primacy of the intelligence.”

Freud is of one mind with Spinoza, that to have a rational understanding of what our instincts (Spinoza called them passions) are up to, is to make us master of them. The purpose of psychoanalysis is to redeem the ego from compulsive irrationality (neurosis) and to place the instinctual libido in the service of a rational ego, for it is not the instinctual unconscious itself which resists psychoanalytical treatment—its goal is to be discharged, into consciousness or action—but the irrational ego, the ego that has “solved” its problems by a non-rational adjustment (neurosis) and that desperately defends its precarious “solution.” This redemption of the rational ego is achieved in the three steps of the psychoanalytical treatment: (1) the “recall” of the repressed—a conscious awareness of what is behind the particular neurosis; (2) transference, or re-direction of the libidinal force to the analyst, which gives the ego a chance to wrestle openly, through a transference-neurosis, with the material raised from the unconscious; (3) mastery of the instinctual urges by the rational ego.

It is clear from this how absurd is the charge against Freud of being the high priest of the irrational, goading the instincts, especially the sexual instincts, into a coup d’état. (Monsignor Sheen seems to be of this opinion.) It would be more accurate to say that Freud was a supreme puritan. The tenor of Freud’s writings is that the present sexual standards of respectability are maliciously provocative of nervous disorder. His plea for greater sexual freedom is the plea of a wise and experienced statesman, not the appeal of an irresponsible radical. For Freud, sex is the blind, powerful, and eternally rebellious subject of the legitimate despot Reason. Revolt means calamity: at the least, the established order is forced to share power with new tribunes, in an uneasy compromise; at the most, sheer anarchy prevails. It is because of his fear of the herd of sexual instincts that Freud would concede so much to them, would abrogate the existing sexual morality in favor of a less provocative one, would assure a free genital sexuality in order to provide protection to all those other zones threatened with erotic invasion. The localization in the genitals of the sexual urge is the necessary condition for the natural reign of Reason. The greater the liberty of the genitalia in satisfying this urge, the greater the security of the Rational state.

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There are two fairly distinct trends in Freud’s analysis of religion, both of them hostile, but corresponding, respectively, to his earlier mood of moderate hope and his later mood of only faintly relieved gloom. The second is more important in what it tells us about the ultimate destiny of psychoanalysis. The first is important too, however, in that it provided a crucial supplement to the rationalist refutation of religion. Though rationalists of the 18th and 19th centuries spoke of the slow education of human reason from superstition upwards, from credulousness and helplessness to manly independence of spirit, it was Freud who came to show the psychological necessity of this evolutionary process. Freud’s attack on religion cut more deeply than even that of Voltaire or Marx, for while Voltaire could expose the unreasonableness of religious dogmas, and Marx could show how religion mirrored the inauthenticity of man in the preCommunist era, neither could satisfactorily explain the psychological mechanism by which human beings came to be so duped in the first place and why it lasted as long as it did.

According to Freud, religion is the price paid for the blind renunciation of inherent instincts. Religious prohibitions deprive sexuality of its due at the same time that religious creeds leave reason defenseless and feeble, so that sexuality is able to reappear in the disguise of neurotic behavior such as prayer, pilgrimage, theological speculation, and the like. Religions owe their obsessive character to “important happenings in the primeval history of the human family” and “derive their effect on mankind from the historical truth they contain”—a truth imprinted on the racial memory of every newborn child. The “happening” from which religion grew was the slaying and communal eating, in the primal horde, of the primal father by his sons, who had joined together in order to share the father’s sexual prerogatives—the original Oedipean revolt, and one which each individual recapitulates in his own mental experience. But the victorious sons were tormented by anxiety about their portentous deed, and by fear of continual, bloody sexual rivalry. So there came into being, in these “ages of ignorance and intellectual weakness,” the sense of guilt and sin, as well as moral codes and religious catechisms, to repress all sexual rivalry with the fathers, to appease the memory of the primal father who had been transformed into God, and to guarantee the existence of an orderly community. And each individual not only “remembers” the historic past, but in his own lifetime has to make some sort of adjustment to his own Oedipus complex, his impotence as a child to challenge the father for the mother’s favors, his jealousy, and the anxious repression of it.

The history of religion is analogical to the history of neurosis in the growing child, its strength gathered from childhood anxieties and frustrations, and this strength dissipated with natural growth into adult rationality. The history of humanity, like the life-history of every one of its members, is a process of maturation in which the instinctual renunciations necessary for the stability of the community are rationally comprehended and lose their malevolent potential. Freud writes:

“We know that the human child cannot well complete its development towards culture without passing through a more or less distinct phase of neurosis. This is because the child is unable to suppress by rational mental effort so many of those instinctual impulsions which cannot later be turned into account, but has to check them by acts of repression, behind which there stands as a rule an anxiety motive. Most of these child neuroses are overcome spontaneously as one grows up, and especially is this the fate of the obsessional neuroses of childhood. The remainder can be cleared up later by psychoanalytical treatment.” And in the same volume (The Future of an Illusion): “One might prophesy that the abandoning of religion must take place with the fateful inexorability of growth, and that we are just now in the middle of this phase of development.”

By virtue of science and psychoanalysis, mankind begins to see the approaches to the Kingdom of Reason. The false knowledge of a supernatural Other, which was only an evasion of true self-knowledge, will be sloughed off like an outworn garment, and God, together with bibles, saints, and churches, will be consigned to the museum of human infancy.

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What can religion reply to this? It is impossible to ask: what does religion reply to this, for religion in our time for the most part does not reply at all. It either gives up the ghost and tries to show its social and psychological utility in an imperfect world where the triumph of Reason is not yet complete; or it utters grave twaddle about incorporating “the enduring insights” of psychoanalysis in a “larger perspective,” as if its perspective were infinitely elastic. Religion is uncertain, does not know whether we were really on Sinai or whether it was only a dream.

Yet there are certain lines of argument, it seems to me, which religious thought, because it is religious, must take. Religion must agree with psychoanalysis that the world in which we live is sick, but where psychoanalysis asserts that religion is a symptom of this illness, religion must cling to its own diagnosis and see psychoanalysis itself as a symptom of a mind diseased. Religion has to deny the thesis of progressive human evolution, and must explain psychoanalysis, must explain it away, by tracing its genesis and showing that the error in which it is involved points to the truth which it denies.

Psychoanalysis, in the eyes of religion, is a historical passion of men obsessed with the death of God. Nietzsche proclaimed that God was dead, Freud followed with the news that we had eaten and devoured His human archetype, and that His spiritual existence had always been an illusion. Both were right, for the 19th and 20th centuries have regarded God as a corpse whose essence has been appropriated by man—the so-called divine attributes have been made over into human possibilities. Yet in this era of humanism and godlessness, man found himself more than ever alienated: his flight from God has also been a flight from his true self, which had been made in His image. So it was that Freud could build a theory of human nature on the basis of his experience with hysterics and neurotics, a unique and strange achievement which testifies to our modern psychic equilibrium, whose fulcrum is at the edge of an abyss.

Religion cannot deny that psychoanalysis has discovered the unconscious. It can only say that the unconscious as such is a new phenomenon, the toll paid to God and nature for the presumptive effort to have man’s conscious rationality prevail over all of existing reality—including divine reality; in the days when God’s face was turned to man, the unconscious was integrated with consciousness and did not whirl madly free through psychic space. The age of Reason, through a series of strenuous introjections, has attempted to press all of religious reality into the rational intellect and to imprison God, cowering and sullen, behind the forehead. The reward of this effort is psychic fragmentation, for divine reality is not within the rational mind of man but outside it, and the mind which would encompass it bursts. Instead of a divine reality that was a great chain of being, there is now, for each man, only a hall of mirrors. Since man has cut all ties with divine reality, has indeed denied to it reality, his psyche has been sentenced to follow upon itself in a dark and unending maze.

Psychoanalysis, religion might say, comes not to remove insanity, but to inaugurate it.

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It would seem that this debate between psychoanalysis and religion can continue indefinitely, until it is terminated by God speaking unequivocally or the Kingdom of Reason being attained. And since God is silent and the Kingdom of Reason unborn, the debate goes on, important but nonetheless wearisome. But it is not a debate without end—for that we have Freud’s word. Freud’s final and tragic message is that the truth is with Reason and against God, but it is a truth in which man probably cannot live. Rational self-consciousness is the avenue to perfect wisdom, which leads in most men to perfect despair. Though Reason still has the task of “reconciling men to civilization,” it is an authority entirely vitiated by the fact that “man is a creature of weak intelligence who is governed by his instinctual needs.”

This message is found in Freud’s later “meta psychological” works, such as Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Civilization and Its Discontents. Many contemporary psychoanalysts, exercising the privilege of little minds to “revise” greater ones, casually dismiss these writings as deviations from the pure principles of science. But Freud was no eccentric, and if he went beyond the conventional limits of psychological science in his later works (just as he did, incidentally, in his earlier ones), he must have been of the. serious opinion that the limits were too confining for the truth as he then saw it. In a letter to Einstein in 1932, in which he outlined his theory of the death instinct as the cause of war, Freud wrote: “All this may give you the impression that our theories amount to a species of mythology, and a gloomy one at that! But does not every natural science lead ultimately to this—a sort of mythology?”

Freud’s final “mythology” involves a modification of the earlier postulated contradiction between sexual instincts and ego instincts into one between Eros and Thanatos, the life instinct and the death instinct. The concept of instinct is redefined as “a tendency innate in living organic matter impelling it towards the reinstatement of an earlier condition.” What is this earlier condition? “It must be an ancient starting point, which the living being left long ago, and to which it harks back again by all the circuitous paths of development. If we may assume as an experience admitting of no exception that everything living dies from causes within itself, and returns to the inorganic, we can only say ‘The goal of all life is death.’ . . .” This drive toward extinction is countered by the sexual and reproductive instincts, which are the only ones which do not have as their aim the reinstatement of a previous condition, and which push to life, its extension and unification.3

Instead of being the evolution of Reason and its eventual enthronement, history is blind and its contradictions unresolvable: “And now, it seems to me, the meaning of the evolution of culture is no longer a riddle to us. It must present to us the struggle between Eros and Death, between the instincts of life and the instincts of destruction, as it works itself out in the human species.” The death instinct, under the influence of Eros, is extraverted and becomes aggression. Civilization is a huge detour constructed by Eros so as to make the death instinct take the long way home.

Civilization tries to disarm the aggressive instinct by directing it against the ego, by making it over into the “super-ego” whose aggression against the ego takes the form of “conscience.” This tension between the ego and the super-ego results in the sense of guilt, which while possibly neurotic by the absolute standard of Rational Man, is a normal quality of the human animal in the state of civilization. ‘The price of progress in civilization is paid in forfeiting happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt.”

Men who are loyal to the truths of Reason are doomed by their very natures to unhappiness. Happiness (but not true happiness, not happiness in the truth) is available only to those—the immense majority—who cannot face the truth of man’s condition, who live with and by illusions, illusions of God, salvation, and the world to come. Freud’s metapsychology concedes no more truth to religion than did his psychology. His “mythology” is a rational one. It is a mythology of rational despair.

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The present attempts to wed a vulgarized psychoanalysis to a vulgarized religiosity are certain to fail: between the two parties is stretched the sword of truth, and both are pledged to keep their backs to it. Sooner or later, the world will perceive the lineaments of frustration and will know that the union was never fully consummated. But this marital catastrophe is not inevitable—all the mates have to do is, acting together in full consciousness, stealthily to remove the sword of truth and hide it under the bed.

Oddly enough, it is only on the late-Freudian foundation of rational despair that psychoanalysis can be “reconciled” with religion—but at a price, a price that Freud, with his intense personal loyalty to the truth, could never pay. For there are a few men, very few, who are willing to look at life boldly as a bleak prelude to death, and at civilization as an enormous distraction from self-extinction. These men submit to the truths of Reason, because in them Reason is the master of the instincts and not its slave. But in the great mass of men, it is the opposite: Reason is the toy of instinct and happiness in untruth is preferred to truth.

If God does not exist, and if religion is an illusion that the majority of men cannot live without, then psychoanalysis and religion can be “reconciled”—if that is what one wishes—by the simple expedient of a double standard of truth. Let men believe in the lies of religion since they cannot do without them, and let the handful of sages, who know the truth and can live with it, keep it among themselves. Men are then divided into the wise and the foolish, the philosophers and the common men, and atheism becomes a guarded, esoteric doctrine—for if the illusions of religion were to be discredited, there is no telling with what madness men would be seized, with what uncontrollable anguish. It would indeed become the duty of the wise publicly to defend and support religion, even to call the police power to its aid, while reserving the truth for themselves and their chosen disciples.

Psychoanalysis itself, which assumes religion to be an illusion, would become a form of esoteric wisdom, and the psychoanalyst would, with regard to dreams, agree with Maimonides: “Persons whose mental capacity is not fully developed, and who have not attained intellectual perfection, must not take any notice of them.”

Such a program is bound to sound unpleasant in the ears of 20th-century Americans, though it does have the advantage of enabling many to do what they seem to want to do: to drive in two directions at once, in pursuit of peace-of-mind at any cost and in pursuit of rational truth. But, of course, there is always the further possibility that the truth is not with Freud and Reason, but with God, and that men can live in this truth and find their happiness—simply living in it, though it be a scandal to Reason. “Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men.”

_____________

 


Footnotes

1 That religion could claim a “therapeutic” value, Freud understood very well in his own way: “The true believer is in a high degree protected against the danger of certain neurotic affictions; by accepting the universal neurosis he is spared the task of forming a personal neurosis”; and further: “At such a cost—by the forcible imposition of mental infantilism and inducing a mass delusion—religion succeeds in saving many people from individual neuroses.”

2 The psychoanalytical theories of Jung, which accept the subjective religious experience as something ultimate, are an interesting deviation from this line. But Jung never commits himself as to whether God is, and therefore cannot genuinely decide whether the religious experience is normal or abnormal.

3 There are important variations in Freud’s formulations of his meta psychology. Thus, he seems to say at times that the sexual instinct too is conservative, and that it too aims at death. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle he makes use of the myth in Plato’s Symposium of an original hermaphroditic nature which split into male and female, so that living matter, through sex, seeks a primordial unity.

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