Freud’s penetrating critique of religion in “The Future of an Illusion” (1927) has become a seminal work in contemporary theology. His persuasive observation that indoctrination into a religious heritage promotes a transference to the projected imago of an all-sustaining object, fueled by infantile wishes, protected by the superego, is now an unexpected foundation for continuing religious inquiry (Ulanov and Ulanov, 1975). The developmental importance of disrupting (analyzing) this infantile immersion in order to promote differentiation between the self and the object (heritage) is an acknowledged component of religious as well as psychological growth. Freud’s critique, intended to eviscerate religion, has newly oriented religious thinkers to the task of differentiating authentic religious consciousness from a facade of infantile wishes and social conventions.
Disrupting the Religious Heritage
The disruption effected by Freud (1927)—given that he stands in a long line of disruptors beginning with Eve and Adam—was a psychodynamic tour de force deceptively simple in tone and focus. Religion serves a secondary compensatory function by insulating people against the cruelty of nature, the privations of civilized life, and the fact of death. It promotes a primary structuring of the psyche in which instinctual impulses are renounced and opposed under the influence of a superego that promises a higher order of meanings and values. This structuring endures to the detriment of personally negotiated gratifications, whether the person remains overtly religious or not, making the unanalyzed psyche vulnerable to interminable transferences to meaning systems (Ahlskog, 1985). Freud’s analysis of this “universal obsessional neurosis of humanity” (1927, p. 43) provides a valuable case against the naiveté of religion. Ironically, it is compatible with views emanating from major biblical scholarship during the past one hundred years.
Near the end of the nineteenth century, biblical scholarship launched an unintentional isomorphic attack against the naiveté of childhood religion, similar to a Trojan Horse promising insightfulness, under the names of Form Criticism and Historical Criticism. By Form Criticism was meant an approach to religious texts that unwittingly disrupted their religious integrity by demonstrating within them the influence of disparate authors, imagery, language, and modes of thinking. By Historical Criticism was meant a disruption based on analysis of cultural and political contexts, from which one was accidentally prone to diagnose religious content as an exaggeration of sociological facts. Johannes Weiss (1863-1914) and Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932) were pioneers in these approaches, which entered the mainstream of biblical criticism with the work of Dibelius (1936). In discussing Moses, Freud (1939) alludes to these procedures and uses them to argue his case that the original Moses was Egyptian and that his saga is a composite of events pertaining to several different historical figures. A method of critical inquiry superceding Form and Historical Criticism has been developed by Wink (1973), elaborated by Tracy (1981), and will be discussed below.
Evidence that the religion to which one is devoted is not composed of a unified theme, voice, or concept, but is actually a composite of disparate revisions, and possibly tamperings, disrupts naive allegiance to the timelessness or veracity of religious content. Adherence to a religion known to be changed and changeable is a difficult, seemingly impossible assignment. The result of this century of scholarship was a religious leadership, paralleling the psychological leadership of Freud, that took as its task an iconoclastic, reputedly objective and scientific analysis of religion, revealing it to be suspicious in form, origin, and, by implication, content.
Atheism and Pseudo-Atheism
Imposition of distance between self and religious tradition, by whatever means accomplished, initially results in atheism. Religious claims are diminished and obscured when attention becomes concentrated on the tradition’s dubious forms, origins, and psychic correlatives. Wink (1973) referred to this separation as “negation of fusion through suspicion of the object” (p. 19). The perspective that results from attending to psychological, formal, or cultural correlatives pertaining to the object (the heritage) is accompanied by the impression of the object’s negation. This religion with which one is no longer fused must have been a mirage, never existed, or if it did exist no longer exists as anything identifiably religious. Religion is rendered indistinguishable from information about the tradition. The ensuing atheism may take an aggressive or benign form.
Aggressive atheism asserts on the basis of compiled correlatives that a religious tradition is false. This is an inconclusive assertion, however, since no supporting evidence can be given for this aggressive claim to knowledge other than correlatives as compiled. The position becomes, by definition, reductionistic. Wittgenstein (1938, pp. 53-72) demonstrated that there is no rational response to a question such as, Will there be a Judgment Day? since the replies, Of course, and, Of course not are equally unsupportable. They are equivalent as prejudices, evangelist and iconoclast being cut from the same mold, thinking within the same conceptual framework. Or, as Geoghegan (1985) wryly observed, if belief is to be attributed to infantile wishes, then it follows that disbelief must be attributable to infantile rage. Vitz (1988) tried to argue that Freud’s own theory makes atheism suspicious as a neurotic symptom (e.g., a wishfulfilling oedipal victory). This argument is weak because, among other things, conclusiveness either way is permanently foreclosed by the conceptual frame. (Atheism based on anger or disillusionment involves other psychological and religious issues beyond the scope of this discussion.)
Benign atheism concludes on the basis of compiled correlatives that their weight justifies pursuit of further knowledge within the correlatives themselves, since the negated tradition yields no recognizably religious information that has not already been rendered suspicious. Without claiming to prove the falsity of a religious tradition, benign atheism (or agnosticism) proceeds on the assumption that “if there are gods, they do not intervene in the world’s affairs” (Wink, 1973, p. 38). This procedural assumption is a cornerstone of rational inquiry. Benign atheism makes rationality possible, not because religion can be proven false and irrational, but because nothing can be known about the world as long as “divine intervention” is a tenable explanation. In trying to understand the behavior of a patient, the stock market, or the weather, the weight of correlative information (e.g., childhood, interest rates, or the jet stream) has a potential for reliability and validity that “divine intervention” does not and finally cannot.
This benignly rational atheism is, for all its usefulness, unstable. The most comprehensive compilations of correlatives—known as paradigms—are subject to anomalies, modifications, and sometimes outright collapse (Kuhn, 1970). The realization that no theory or paradigm sufficiently explains the affairs of the world contains the unavoidable germ of pseudo-atheism. This term will be defined psychodynamically in the concluding section of this paper. It is used here initially to refer to an overtly atheistic cognitive stance that periodically accommodates, without acknowledgment, assumptions from the religious domain. Having agreed that the gods do not intervene, one periodically assumes that something else does instead. Pseudo-atheism is neither irrational nor indicative of cognitive error but acutally permits inquiry to proceed. In physics the term Universe signifies the limit of known physical knowledge (paradigms) by permitting the possibility of discovering something new, which is to say that what occurs in the next moment might confirm known paradigms or might not. Black holes intervene in the behavior of objects, light, and electromagnetic fields and forces. When noticed, they altered understanding of the physical world. The subject of “chaos” has appeared recently in mathematics (Gleick, 1987), thereby altering paradigms previously so foundational that they were deemed fact. In the field of economics the limit term that acknowledges the possibility of intervention into what occurs and (perhaps) what is known is Marketplace. In philosophy the term is Truth; in religion the term is God. In the psychoanalytic paradigm this term is the Unconscious.
Atheism within psychoanalytic thinking refers to disallowing the authenticity of religion as pertinent to explaining human experience. Pseudo-atheism refers to the theory’s major premise,namely that the most valuable, durable, reliable explanation of human experience is precisely intervention from the unknown. An aggressive psychoanalytic atheism might insist that this unknown (unconscious) can refer only to the warehouse of memory, to the repressed, in which case “intervention from the unknown” would refer trivially to the lifting of repression and the recovery of material “unknown” because for various reasons it had been forgotten, misapprehended, or disallowed. Although such a view would be insulated against the possibility of interventions and the possibility of creeping pseudo-atheism, it would have to ignore Freud’s (1915) explicit understanding that “the repressed does not cover everything that is unconscious” (p. 166).
The indefinite structure of this key term in psychoanalytic thinking is illustrated by Freud’s own discussion in his 1915 paper, “The Unconscious.” He begins characteristically by justifying his subject matter to detractors. Then he sketches his topographical view of the systems Cs, Pcs, and Ucs as they influence ideas and emotions. He goes on to describe the dynamic operation of repression within these systems as it contributes to hysterical and obsessive syndromes. Midway through the essay he sums up the features of the unconscious as those of primary process. After proceeding nearly two-thirds of the way through his discussion, Freud declares a “dissatisfaction with our results” (p. 190) and embarks upon another approach, almost like another topic. He is dissatisfied because he has achieved as yet no “clear-cut distinction between the two psychical systems” (p. 190), the unconscious having been made to seem inert, too strongly identified with repression, and too similar to the structure of the preconscious. In his subsequent discussion Freud reiterates the premise that the unconscious contains that which is repressed as well as “some of the impulses which dominate our ego—something, therefore, that forms the strongest functional antithesis to the repressed” (p. 193). Then he determines that the main issue has to do with ascertaining the differences between the preconscious and the unconscious (p. 193).
In the last three sections of this essay Freud is understandably concerned to present a clear description of his psychoanalytic position while avoiding the idea of an indefinite layering of preconscious systems, an idea he understands from the outset (p. 170) as a misrepresentation of his theory. The misrepresentation would consist of equating the unconscious with hidden logics that are in principle discoverable, a position that would only repeat his definition of preconscious, in effect turning the unconscious into a preconscious beneath the preconscious. He retreats from allowing the unconscious to be understood merely as the logic of instinctual life or the logic of childhood experience. A theory to the effect that persons harbor disguised sexual and aggressive needs as impulses seeking discharge, or that early experiences and relations shape later anxiety and response to anxiety is quite straightforward. Since these logics, demonstrably present and recoverable during treatment, reflect Freud’s theory of the preconscious, they will not suffice to describe the unconscious as well. Thus Freud is in the position of attempting to make his concept of the unconscious clear, that is, understandable and in some way thinkable, while retaining the fundamental claim that no logics apply to this mental process. In pursuing this paradoxical assignment Freud displays in these final sections an elusive array of thoughts.
In Section 5, where he discusses primary process, Freud describes the features of the unconscious as the absence of negation or contradiction, timelessness, motility of cathexis, and substitution of psychic reality for external reality (p. 187). Not only are these unconscious processes not independently recognizable, but in and of themselves “are even incapable of carrying on their existence” (p. 187). The unconscious, as distinct from the preconscious, is nonexistent. It is the pure limit of the unknown, since anything knowable requires participation from some preconscious logic in order to become so. The paths leading from the world (of perception and event) to the unconscious are usually open (p. 194). Censorship usually blocks paths leading out from the unconscious. If one remembers the distinction in Section 7 between the subject of the unconscious and Freud’s detour to discuss psychosis, one encounters at the end of his essay the thought that an “unconscious presentation is a presentation of the thing alone” and that such “thing-cathexes,” not bound by concrete or verbal imagery, are “the first and true object-cathexes” (p. 201).
These thoughts are difficult to comprehend and all the more intriguing because Freud explicitly pressed forward into such an obscure area. One is tempted to ignore them or to suppose that they are obviated by Freud’s later revisions. Certainly, analysts seem more professionally grounded during daily work when the subject matter of treatment can be limited to uncovering knowable preconscious logics or demonstrating the operation of condensation and displacement (which, despite Freud’s discussion of primary process, are themselves logics and belong to preconscious, not unconscious, processes). The obscure notion of the unconscious as nonexistent, an unknowable limit, is rendered more manageable if one supposes, as Giovacchini (1982) has in discussing this essay, that Freud was referring merely to biological processes, “for example, a metabolic process, such as a chloride shift,” which trivially and unremarkably “cannot achieve mentation and consciousness” (p. 4). The idea of direct unconscious perception of the world (object) can be neutralized by calling it an “impossible” neurological error of Freud’s, since perception “proceeds from the retina to the optic nerves, then to the optic radiation, [and] occipital cortex (via many intermediate pathways)” (Giovacchini, 1982, p. 28). The idea that the nonexistent unconscious yet contains the first true object cathexes is sometimes understood backwards (following Freud’s own misdirected attention to the topic of psychosis) and turned into the idea that a lifting of repression and the subsequent appearance of unconscious material portends psychoticlike misconstruing of reality. (Freud’s explicit position was that the psychotic’s bizarre productions in the areas of logic, concrete objects, and words represent an attempt to reinstate lost cathexes; this cannot be equated with expression of the unconscious.) If one does not retreat from Freud’s statements, however, then one may at least begin to think of ways to understand them that may turn out to be just as radical as when first proposed.
The Unconscious and the Psychoanalytic Paradigm
The differentiation of unconscious from preconscious contains one of the crucial yet obscure insights of psychoanalysis. It is through preconscious and conscious logics, including censorship and secondary revision, that the bulk of experience is falsified. Coherency, intelligibility, and rationality are outcomes of a distortion of the unconscious. When Freud set as his task the differentiation of the two systems, he grasped the essentially irrational nature of the bulk of experience. Then, in order to construct a comprehensible theory, he set about making it rational again. Roustang (1976) has traced this vascillation to an incompatibility between Freud’s commitment to the unconscious and his commitment to psychic determinism:
It is what escapes the desired, intentional coherence of consciousness that leads one to postulate the existence of the unconscious, and more specifically, it is our unknown wishes that determine our words and behavior. Having said this, Freud’s entire effort was to show that the principle of determinism, which was for him indispensable to the development of science, also applies to inexplicable behavior [p. 66].
More is at stake here than a philosophical notion. When a theory of the unconscious proposes to state the principles that govern the unintelligible, it negates the unforeseen, the atypical, the irrational, and the unimagined, which thereby negates the unconscious by sealing it within the discourse of the theory. Psychoanalytic treatment carried out within such a view makes the unintelligible intelligible by subjugating it to the principles of psychoanalytic theory. Thus Freud is quite successful in subjugating jokes and slips to his theory, thereby making them logical; he is unable to be so direct in the case of dreams, where the theory will not provide the meaning. Alternatively, to avoid subjugating the unintelligible to rational discourse, including the rationality of psychoanalytic theory itself, is to venture into that obscure but crucial psychoanalytic terrain in which the unconscious can never be understood because it intervenes into all logics or understandings and changes them. In Freud’s theory of the unconscious, irrationality intervenes into rationality and corrects it.
If one avoids the error of attempting to specify the nature of the unconscious and negating its irrationality in order to substitute theoretical coherency, then it is possible to reread Freud’s intriguing comments about the unconscious as a radical intrusion into traditional assumptions about the nature of knowledge and experience. The theory of an open pathway from the world to the unconscious that allows direct, unmediated perception of the world, implies that one’s experience of the world cannot be a contingent, transitory, or disputable event. It is impossible to negate, contradict, or otherwise interfere with experiencing, whether or not consciously apprehended (and, psychoanalytically speaking, especially in this case). What can be known about this experiencing in the sense of identified, thought, felt, ordered, remembered, stated, or understood, is subject to continual misrepresentations, inadequacies, and falsifications. What is experienced can never be exactly known because the process of knowing requires exactly those distortions referred to theoretically as censorship, in which what is experienced is divided into partialities and disjunctions for the sake of coherency, and as secondary revision, in which these partialities are recombined to render service to the procedures of thinking, feeling, acting, interacting, and all the functions of ego. Additional processes such as repression, condensation, and displacement operate similarly to produce coherency—which may now be referred to simultaneously as the understanding and falsification of experience.
This coherency constitutes understanding in that it brings the ego into existence and makes operations possible. It constitutes falsification in that all such understandings remain subject to the corrective intervention of unmediated experience, the corrective intervention of the unconscious. Thus the psychoanalytic theory of the unconscious predicts a limitation to rationality and further predicts the intrusion of the irrational into any current state of understanding. Here the term irrational refers to whatever could exist in the realms of thought, feeling, action, and fantasy, whether it actually exists or not, and whether or not it has any possibility of becoming known (understood), which could only come about if it should manage to survive or correct the falsifications of existing (preconscious) logics. The unconscious, which is here synonymous with the unknown and the irrational, becomes the basis for all growth and discovery (Roustang, 1976, pp. 63-65), since it prompts what has been experienced but falsified to intervene into what is known and sometimes to modify it.
The theory of the unconscious differentiates classical psychoanalytic treatment from other talking treatments. Freud’s theory of dream interpretation, for example, identifies the latent thoughts of the dreamer as manifestations of the desires of a person who is unknown to consciousness but who may yet become conscious. This theory is incompatible with every other approach to dreams that attempts to understand them through sensible deliberation (e.g., allegorically), decodes their symbols as if uncovering a message to waking life, or defers to a professional’s knowledge of dream “meanings.” Whatever is already thought by the patient, known about the patient, or known about psychoanalytic dream theory aids in producing mostly a falsified interpretation of the dream. Neither analyst nor theory but the dreamer, dimly revealed through the dream and subsequent associations, unconsciously corrects or expands what was known before.
I dreamed me and my buddy were flying over these fantastic mountain roads on our bicycles, going at incredible speeds. It went on and on; I was so excited and feeling the exhilaration. Then the road headed back into town and started to level off, so I headed off the road into these dunes and suddenly found that my bike had toppled over in the high grass. I was just sitting there in the grass laughing when my buddy showed up and looked down and said, “There isn’t enough solid ground there for the bike,” which we both knew was his typical sort of joke. So I say, “Oh; tell me about it,” and we’re still laughing as the dream ends.
The analyst is prepared to discern themes of masturbation, homosexuality, grandiosity, oedipal trauma, part-object transferences, reaction formation, criticism of therapy, and faint clues to a possible transference resistance. The patient can speculate about some of these themes too; they have been discussed before and are part of his conscious and preconscious thinking. What actually emerged during his associations, however, was a slight peculiarity: The day before he had touched a female colleague on the arm during one of their frequent arguments. That he should think in passing of this minor matter makes no sense to him. Briefly he now wonders, based on conscious and preconscious self-knowledge, if he might be resisting some insight into the episode. This reasonable speculation also seems benignly empty. Then he associates his present sense of benign ease to the material of the dream and his untroubled enjoyment of “riding and falling.” This is similar to his feeling the day before. He now recognizes the peculiar absence, during and after the argument, of his usual anxiety, the absence of his usual preoccupation with studying his feelings and actions, the absence of a sense of concern for the usual issues of victory or defeat, strength or inadequacy. This patient, usually given to planned behaviors and anxious self-scrutiny, had entered gleefully into an argument, relishing its nuances and actually prolonging the excitement of the exchange, none of which had become distorted into a problem. According to his conscious logic and previous self-analyses, he had become “irrational,” pursuing for no conventional reason an argumentative exchange that could have been curtailed. In addition he was “irrationally” uninterested in being “told about” this feeling or experience, either by analyst or self.
This dream, which the patient in his newly created irrationality eventually entitled, “Causing Trouble for Fun,” was a pictorial representation of an unconscious intrusion the day before into his usual ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. The dream is not synonymous with his unconscious but a representation of its intrusion and effect. Aggregate themes discerned by the analyst, which permit numerous interesting interpretations, would not necessarily aid emergence of the unconscious or expansion of the person and may even undermine these. The joke in being “told about” his behavior, the falsification lurking within professional interpretation, is that competent conscious and preconscious logics serve precisely to distort and negate his created “irrationality” (in the argument and in the dream). To interpret, even with sensitive language and careful timing, such factors as fused sexual and aggressive derivatives, preoedipal childhood memories, narcissistic injury, and the defensive use of disavowal, isolation, and reaction formation is to conceptualize his psychodynamics in a theoretically correct manner; yet this falsifies his irrational feeling by making it psychoanalytically logical.
Admittedly, the irrationality in this example does not approach monumental proportions, which is not to say that this is always the case or that lesser irrationalities are of lesser significance for exploring the unconscious. Every irrationality portends the emergence of the unconscious and the birth (or growth) of the psyche. Absent the irrational, treatment can proceed but only insofar as it removes obstacles so that the irrational may emerge. “I got here a half hour early,” said a patient well versed in the literature of the field, “and I think I should explain what I did during this time because I’m sure it shows a lot about my anxieties somehow. Well, so I went to this coffee shop, and I thought here I was being so voyeuristic about your neighborhood, which probably means I have hidden curiosity about you. Then this man talked to me briefly, but I wasn’t interested in him, which I think means I was anxious to keep my distance from you after all, which is my problem with separation and intimacy.”
As long as this rationality continues, the analyst’s responses are essentially limited to keeping some associative process going until the irrational emerges. These might include benign silences, encouraging mumblings, inquiry into the personal significance of the stated significances, identifying or clarifying possible anxiety beneath the patient’s unstated requirement to make sense, identifying or clarifying possible anxiety in the need to take the analyst’s role. The analyst may not suppose, however, that rigorous scrutiny of this material will enunciate an expanded unconscious. Certaintly the attempt to clear some pathway through the patient’s resistances remains a crucial aspect of the psychoanalytic process. This is because it makes possible the emergence of the personal, the idiosyncratic, and the irrational, not because an increasingly complete understanding of resistance could ever be equated with increasingly complete understanding of the life themes that treatment addresses. The analyst’s commitment to the eventual efficacy of interpreting resistances is a professional strategy that is nevertheless different from the purpose of treatment, which is always the birth of the unknown and the expansion of the person.
Failure to maintain this distinction tends to produce the lifelong analysand who understands multiple nuances of inner conflict but has never irrationally, that is, personally and idiosyncratically, altered any of it.
In a similar vein, the possibility of interpreting and resolving transference depends heavily on retaining this uncompromising theory of the unconscious. If the analyst uses psychoanalytic theory to supposedly understand the patient, treatment will consist of waiting for the patient to fall into the trap of revealing something the analyst knows about and can use to demonstrate expertise. Then, as the patient enters into the regression of treatment where increasingly unconventional wishes might begin to reveal derivatives of a personal unconscious, the analyst as the knowing expert may inadvertently come to occupy the position of the primordial mother-father in whose presence only masochistic submissiveness is possible. In other words, the trap of specifying the unconscious according to the logic of psychoanalytic theory places the patient in a position within which the analyst’s interpretations annihilate the significance of the patient’s own unconscious. This becomes reification of the transference and precludes its resolution. An extensive discussion of this paradoxical problem in psychoanalysis has been provided by Roustang (1980) and summarized by Ahlskog (1987).
One may loosely understand transference as an effect of the ubiquitous wish to locate the object (or recapture the imago) in whom one’s identity can be found and the validity of one’s experience confirmed. Resistance would consist of attempts to protect this wish by protecting this compromised relationship between self and object (imago). Freud identified these processes at the core of psychic conflict. Psychoanalytic treatment is devoted to resolving transference and resistance through analysis because together they are responsible for maintaining distortions and restrictions of the subjective self. Psychoanalytic theory, however, cannot define this subjectivity without negating it. There is no limit definition of the undistorted human being. Thus, the concept of the unconscious as the unknown limit of experience, the unknown limit of the psyche, preserves a fundamental respect for this impossibility of defining subjective experience and yet retains the possibility that persons may further discover, create, or expand it.
Religion and the Psychoanalytic Paradigm
The psychoanalytic paradigm intersects religion at the point of conjoint insistence on the unknown as a corrective to conventional rationality’s falsification of experience. This does not mean that religion and psychoanalysis are equivalent enterprises, theology and psychoanalysis share common content, God is synonymous with the unconscious, Freud was secretly religious, or that the analyst who respects this intersection must be particularly religious. The common theme is limited to what here has been called pseudo-athesim, an intellectually complicated position reached after one has rejected early naive or magical explanations of experience only to discover that conventionally rational explanations must inevitably be corrected by intervention from the unknown lest the scope of experience be misconstrued and minimized within rational or theoretical categories.
Thus, psychoanalytic inquiry and religious inquiry within the Judeo-Christian tradition are similarly paradoxical.1 The attempt to guide self-understanding by relying on a theory or theology attributes to each an inclusive rationality that eventually will be revealed as a misstatement, fragment, or oversimplification of experience. Yet without these (religious and psychoanalytic) misstatements, the dimensions of personal experience cannot be explored at all. As acknowledged misstatements, theology and psychoanalytic theory are similarly vulnerable to the criticism that each invokes concepts that cannot be pinned down by exactly equivalent referents, in which case each is said to be period literature only, without empirical force. Each is simultaneously vulnerable to being mistranslated into mechanistic formulas that then seem to lack reliability or validity, in which case empirical claims are attributed to each that are then easily demolished.
This paradoxical vulnerability is an essential feature of the attempt to conceptualize the dimensions of personal experience and is not resolvable. Aaron’s golden calf was to be a symbol of deliverance from Egypt, a reminder of Hebrew identity, and an altar to the Lord. In its forthright concreteness it became an infamous misstatement, since Aaron’s otherwise reasonable theoretical purposes nonetheless distorted Israel’s persistent monotheism. Similarly, a psychoanalytic assessment of ego functions significantly increases one’s understanding of the patient’s psychic structure and major modes of functioning. The clearer this assessment becomes, however, as in a thorough psychological testing report, the more distorted the picture of the person becomes. A theoretically correct description of psychic mechanisms nevertheless suffocates understanding of another’s personal dreams, desires, and experiences.
Conversely, misstatements of the dimensions of experience, that is, approximate but insufficient attempts to delineate these dimensions, are necessary lest experience evaporate into solipcism (or psychosis). There is no ready-made language, undistorted by censorship and secondary revision, with which to express the indefinite limits of the psyche (defined above as the unconscious). Yet persons do speak, partially defended against and partially expressing their experience. Considered in this light, less conflicted psychic functioning would be reflected by pursuit and enjoyment of the personal albeit irrational, here to include the tension between limitless thought, dream, and desire and one’s inevitably distorted attempts to understand these. Well-known examples of this tension include the contrast between participating in experiences of music, art, humor, or love and the vaguely dissatisfying logics through which one tries to discuss them. Further examples would include conceptualizations of death, the Psalms, and the indefinite reversals and counterreversals contained within the teachings of Jesus. Defending against this tension by subjugating the experience to its various rationalizations becomes a symptom.
The tenuous balance between unbridled (psychotic) subjectivism and self-abrogating rationality may otherwise be conceptualized as the tension between self-understanding and cathexis of the object. On the one hand submissiveness to the facts of the world, to social logics and conventions, abrogates the dimensions of personal desires and, through the process of (generic) repression, distorts self-understanding. In religious language this might be referred to as “being of the world.” On the other hand expansion of the self and intervention into the selfs routine projections, introjections, and imagos occurs through engagement (and reengagement) with the object, that is, the other which the self is not. By way of illustration from the psychoanalytic domain, Freud’s insights into the nature of dreaming were the result of his scrutiny of dream material plus a scrutiny of his own responses to his dreams (Bakan, cited in Wink, [1973, p. 33]). Without both processes, crucial features of psychoanalytic theory seem inconceivable and undiscoverable. In the religious domain, alteration of self and self-understanding resulting from an encounter with the separate object previously ignored or misconstrued was central to the contributions of Abraham, Moses, David, Jonah, Job, John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, and Paul.
Certainly one must acknowledge that religious and psychoanalytic establishments are capable of fostering infantile allegiances, the suppression of thought, and myths of absolute power that are as enticing as they are tyrannical and enslaving. One may subsequently assert that the core of each is diametrically opposed to such minimizations of life and that each has so far managed to survive complete cultural dilution. Each contends that the object (the categorical other), which is always in danger of being ignored, distorted, or reduced by the self’s anxious representations, is nonetheless capable of being cathected—and therefore that what eventually intervenes into the self’s limited representations is this unmediated experience of the other.
In keeping with Freud’s (1915, pp. 201-203) discussion of the unconscious, unmediated experience would refer to direct perception of the object, perception which lacks a “verbal idea” accompanying it, and which, for this reason, contains the building blocks of dreams. It is, then, perception unindoctrinated by social discourse and undistorted by conventional claims and explanations. Following Freud further, one notes that such a perception, as yet completely unconscious and devoid of quality, gains the status of a thought by virtue of an investment of psychic energy in the perception which creates a relation between the self and the object. This created relation is, by definition, a (hyper-) cathexis and makes the experience of the object accessible to the preconscious, that is, knowable.
This relation (cathexis), which is essential in order to cause an experience of the object, cannot escape the risk of mistaking the perception for the energic investment (introjection)—or vice versa (projection). Yet without entering into this risk, that is, without venturing to invest in the perception, one can experience neither the object nor the expanding (investing) self but only an unrepresentable state of agitation full of energic charges that lack source or direction. (It is exactly this failure to invest, the relinquishing of the object, that is cited by Freud in Section 7 of his 1915 essay as a central dynamic of psychosis.) Subsequent psychoanalytic literature uses the term individuation to refer to this vulnerable investment, which amounts to formulating and directing desire for the object and thereby becoming capable of experiencing it in its separateness.
Desire is partially experienced but partially distorted by cathexis of the object. Cathexes contain partial gratification and partial misappropriation of desire. Thus, individuation is a fragile achievement because cathexis of the other will change it (Roustang, 1980; Ahlskog, 1987). The risk of annihilation by the other, annihilation by capitulation to manifest reality, conventional rationality, and adaptation on alien terms, is mitigated by unconscious desire and its pull toward individuation. Pseudo-atheism, discussed earlier as a cognitive stance, now may be understood psychodynamically as the interplay between the fragility of individuation and the indefatigability of desire. Atheism knows that the manifest world is the only available object and that one must live within it, submit to it, cathect it for better and for worse. The unconscious is limited by no such knowledge, no such pseudo-insight, and persists in forming realities comprised of individuated desire and unmediated, unexplicated experiences of otherness.
Concluding comments address the kinship between psychoanalysis, in its quest to permit expression of desire through cathexis of the other, and the religious quest to cathect (i.e., enter into relationship to) a God-object wholly other than all possible representations. If psychoanalysis deems such representations suspicious as projections (Freud, 1927), the Judeo-Christian tradition deems them false (Exodus 20:4). An imago is a product of projective and introjective representations. An object, when cathected, alters these representations.
Bypassing on religious grounds any attempt to define God, Tracy (1981) has recast by analogy this issue of religious cathexes, apparently without intending or noticing parallels to psychoanalytic thought. In his recast schema, the object consists of those public achievements deemed to contain religious authenticity, namely religious texts. Arguing by analogy from examples in art and (religious) literature, Tracy defines “The Classic” (chapter 3) as those human achievements which survive as objects of attention and investment because of an enduring consensus that they have neither been reduced by explanation into component parts nor exhaustively captured by any subsequent commentary. Classics (e.g., the Decalogue, the Sermon on the Mount, the Passion, Paradise Lost, the Koran) do not contain a rational truth, except in aberrant cases where they are mistaken for authority and used for indoctrination. They endure nonetheless because of their indefatigable (and for this reason inexplicable) power to alter perception, understanding, and experience. Also a classic object endures because the attacks and reductions of persons unaltered by the object have demonstrably little effect on its power over the long run.
Presumably the oedipal paradigm is a demonstrated Classic, specifically as regards its inexhaustability, its altering power, and its indestructability. Wink2 has illustrated the similarly classic stature of the unpopular Christian text, “if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39b). It is well documented that in the Middle East such a blow could not be administered with the left hand. A person so struck on the right cheek would have to have received a backhanded slap equivalent to an insult. Civil law expressly prohibited such a gesture between peers, limiting it to masters and slaves, superiors and inferiors. Severe penalties would be imposed on the master for striking a slave (on the left cheek with the right hand) for whimsical reasons. Therefore, this teaching of Jesus, recognized and recathected, is that an oppressed person who turns the left cheek reclaims a personal dignity and renders the humiliator’s conventional procedures empty.
The powerless are advised in this teaching not to resist on an aggressor’s terms. Turning the other cheek contains neither an act of submission nor defiance but a response to humiliation that changes the rules by which both parties now operate. Drawing heavily upon this text, the nonviolent civil disobedience of the Southeran Christian Leadership Conference was instituted, not to idealize masochism or stir pity, but to prompt legal proceedings that would in turn require humiliators to defend their rules in Federal courts. This exegeted text is one example of the dismantling of a naive religious notion, corrected by an encounter with religious materials formerly ignored or misconstrued. As with all development, progress is not simply a product of clear-headedness but requires reengagement with the object, the text.
The cathexis of a religious object—that is, the interactive relation occurring between the self and the text which alters the self’s previous representations—cannot be realistic or unrealistic. Cathexes create and recreate the nature of reality and thus they can only be relatively gratifying, intense or weak, durable or malleable, as the Judeo-Christian scriptures attest with respect to the connectedness of people to God. While the religious object is perpetually vulnerable to distortion, particularly the projective distortion that misperceives the object as a compendium of personal wishes (Freud, 1927), the common assumption that religious cathexes must contain this distortion simply does not hold up to empirical scrutiny. The most extensive critical review of research to date concerning the interrelationship between religious belief and behavior (Bateson and Ventis, 1982) indicates that, when the extrinsic factor of social desirability is controlled, the intrinsic religious quests of adulthood result in increased tolerance, mental health, and sensitivity to the needs of others.
This research is cited here to keep the record clear, but that does not reduce a religious cathexis to a conventional social value. Neither religion nor psychoanalysis fosters the sort of debilitating quietism or spurious contentment claimed by opponents. In fact, outcomes such as tolerance, mental health, and sensitivity to the needs of others continuously disrupt conventional rationality and stability. Religious experience, like the psychoanalytic experience, subverts conventional order within persons, relationships, families, and nations. The former analysand is an untrustworthy member of the realm as the intervention of unconscious, unmediated experiences portends divorce, change of profession, the abandonment of religious or political allegiances, and responses to daily living that are no longer predictable (Roustang, 1980, chapter 6). Religious cathexes erroneously thought to gratify infantile wishes are more often observed to be inconvenient and taxing as believers ignore class distinctions, national boundaries, and the authority of officials. In some cathexes of self and object, believers may become irrationally driven to oppose injustices that do not directly affect them. Like former analysands they may cease to live in terror of death or any other established facts; they may no longer be surprised or disoriented by the shortcomings of the world; they may minimize the overall importance of their possessions; they may desire and not fear the well-being of others.
Without doubt Freud (1927) predicted that such soundness and strength to redress the world’s ills would emanate someday from unindoctrinated, nonreligious, scientifically minded persons engaged in the grand experiment of reason (Logos). He simply could not imagine that in the atheistic climate of the latter twentieth century, seminal leadership, funding, and strategy promoting human rights and philanthropic commitments, opposing imperial wars, nuclear overkill, Apartheid, homelessness, and the like would continue to come from the religious community. Such outcomes are not exactly commonplace among believers or analysands, but they demonstrably do occur and thereby persist in altering the shape of reality.
This paper has attempted to show that the psychoanalytic paradigm—specifically the centrality of the unconscious—and the literature of the Judeo-Christian tradition share an elusive kinship called pseudo-atheism. At the intellectual level pseudo-atheism refers to the claim of each that rational understandings in the manifest world distort and falsify dimensions of human experience and, further, that such rationality is altered by the intervention of unmediated experiences that cannot be unconditionally specified. The same psychoanalytic theory which holds this view is, paradoxically, unable to define the unconscious of which it speaks any more than the Judeo-Christian religion can define its God. Nevertheless, at the psychodynamic level each contends that the dimensions of experience expand as a result of the cathexis of the distinctively separate object, undifferentiable from imagos, projections, and introjections, except for the fact that cathexis of the object alters previous self-understandings, ideational representations, and behaviors. For analysands and believers alike, such interventions demonstrably occur and lead to actions altering reality, despite the fact that these cannot be rationally defended or explained.
No further congruity between religion and psychoanalysis is implied by this discussion. Where psychoanalysis is content to affirm the limitlessness of individuated desire and imagination, religion ventures to speak of similarity of experience within and among persons who cathect an unknowable God, and even speaks of valid or invalid cathexes. In this regard the viscissitudes of a personal unconscious are easier to comprehend and analyze than the fact that religious heritage, common irrationality, exists at all.
Ahlskog, G. (1985), Latent theology: A clinical perspective on The Future of an Illusion. In: Psychotherapy and the Religiously Committed Patient, ed. E. M. Stern. New York: Haworth Press.
Ahlskog, G. (1987), The unanalyzable transference: A portrait of Roustang’s critique of classical technique. Psychoanal. Rev., 74(2): 179-200. [→]
Bateson, C. D., & Ventis, W. L. (1982), The Religious Experience. New York: Oxford University Press.
Dibelius, M. (1936), A Fresh Approach to the New Testament and Early Christian Literature. New York: Scribners.
Freud, S. (1915), The unconscious. Standard Edition, 14: 159-215. London: Hogarth Press, 1957. [→]
Freud, S. (1927), The future of an illusion. Standard Edition, 21: 1-56. London: Hogarth Press, 1961. [→]
Freud, S. (1939), Moses and monotheism. 23: 141-207. London: Hogarth Press, 1964.
Geoghegan, T. (1985), Confessions of a “practicing” Catholic. New Republic, September 30: 18-25.
Giovacchini, P. (1982), A Clinician’s Guide to Reading Freud. New York: Jason Aronson.
Gleick, J. (1987), Chaos. New York: Viking.
Kuhn, T. (1970), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Oxford Annotated Bible (1962), New York: Oxford University Press.
Roustang, F. (1976), Dire Mastery, trans. N. Lukacher. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Roustang, F. (1980), Psychoanalysis Never Lets Go, trans. N. Lukacher. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Tracy, D. (1981), The Analogical Imagination. New York: Crossroads.
Ulanov, A., & Ulanov, B. (1975), Religion and the Unconscious. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.
Vitz, P. (1988), Sigmund Freud’s Christian Unconscious. New York: Guilford Press.
Wink, W. (1973), The Bible in Human Transformation. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
Wittgenstein, L. (1938), Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology, and Religious Belief. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1967.