Psychoanalysis and Religion
16th January, 2010
This is an essay that seeks to discuss the hypothesis that Psychoanalysis is the greatest religion ever created and the saddest because it cannot offer real salvation.
Before looking at a detailed analysis of the hypothesis posed in the brief for this essay, it is necessary to first examine both religion and Psychoanalysis and to consider if psychoanalysis can reasonably be given the label religion.
It has to be said that a clear definition of religion is not easy to find. Indeed, it would seem to be all things to all men (and women, of course) in some ways. A few definitions are offered on the website All About Religion:
• A strong belief in a supernatural power or powers that control human destiny.
• An institution to express belief in a divine power.
• A belief concerning the supernatural, sacred, or divine, and the practices and institutions associated with such belief.
• The sum total of answers given to explain humankind’s relationship with the universe.
• A set of attitudes beliefs and practices pertaining to the recognition of a supernatural power.
Perhaps we can also consider each religion to be a set of rules passed down through generations that seek to explain, amplify and even justify a commonly held belief in a central truth: Where adherents to that religion constantly seek reassurance in the interpretation of occurrences that their truth is not only valid but is unique in it’s validity.
This would seem to explain both the fervour that some religions generate, even expect, and the constancy of religious intolerance throughout history. Using this definition it may also be seen why some people consider Atheism to be a religion as there is certainly a centrally held, and often passionate, belief in an unalterable truth for those people who choose to follow that philosophy. However, it is beyond the scope of this essay to debate such a point in any depth.
Many religions also pay homage and give special status to people who have ‘observed’ the truth directly and so have come to give that truth a form that can be understood by the followers who come after: perhaps even being regarded as those who have touched that which cannot be touched? Titles such as Oracle, Prophet and Guru have been used for such people although, for simplicity, the term Prophet will be used in the remainder of the text for this group.
Prophets are credited with observing phenomena which they have interpreted as the evidence that their deity (be that one or many) has communicated with the followers of that religion via the prophet, so passing on more of the truth. Of course, the majority of those followers have not been able to access the (deliberately?) vague and often coded message and so the interpretation of the prophet has confirmed for them that the deity is beyond the full understanding of mortal men and does indeed work in mysterious ways.
Then we have the religious leaders or practitioners. Those who bring the word of the deity into the everyday context and who maintain the traditions through the ages. These people are not the prophets but they follow the teachings of those prophets and strive towards an understanding of their individual religious philosophy. By so doing, these people may become viewed by the rank and file (or the aisle and pew) followers as having special status, perhaps even powers, because they have the understanding of the interpretation of the truth and so may enjoy an elevated position in the hierarchy of that philosophy. We may call those people priests, shamans, witch doctors, wise women, medicine men, druids, and so on – many names and definitions throughout history but all have a pivotal, and indeed powerful, role in the maintenance of the doctrine.
It seems quite common amongst the religions of the world today, and major religions written about in history, that those practitioners require to undergo some form of training or initiation. A process whereby the mantle of understanding is passed to them. This may take the form of training in a religious college or seminary or it may be in the form of a ritualistic passage to the spirit world or a discovery (revelation) and awakening of latent abilities through ritual and rigidly controlled ceremony.
It seems common to most, if not all, religions that there has to be some process where the baton of understanding, and therefore the permission of the followers to be a leader in that context, is handed over: Thus giving the practitioner the authority to act in the role of ‘Keeper of the Truth’ and to direct and control the rituals that allow followers and devotees to integrate with the doctrine at their own level.
And so, having examined some aspects of religion, we move on to a brief examination of the principle tenets of Psychoanalysis and the psychoanalytical movement. Although Freud himself did not make (published) links between his own religious upbringing in the Jewish faith, he was nevertheless acutely aware of the effect that his Jewish roots had on the way that his ideas were received and acclaimed. He is on record as being concerned that when Carl Jung, who at that time was the only non-Jew affiliated to the psychoanalytic movement, left Freud’s following in 1914 that psychoanalysis would then be considered as no more than a ‘Jewish national affair’. (Lemma, 2007, p27)
Furthermore, it is possible that had he been raised in a faith other than Judaism then he would not have made the move into medicine at all and then his onward professional development into psychiatry and psychology would not have occurred. His decision in that respect seems to have been made on the grounds that there were limited professional opportunities for intellectual Jews in Europe of the late 19th century because of institutional and collective-societal prejudice.
So, what is Psychoanalysis? Reber and Reber (2001) tell us that it is variously defined as:
1. A theory of human behaviour typically of the comprehensive theory due to Sigmund Freud (Freudian) although it may refer to any variety of related dynamic theories that are derivative of Freud’s work even when quite distinct from the orthodoxy of Classical Freudianism, e.g. Adler’s Individual Psychology, Jung’s Analytical Psychology although it should be noted that some psychologists prefer the term neopsychoanalysis for these to prevent muddying of the definitional waters.
2. A cultural and social movement that has had an impact upon a variety of endeavours – anthropological, political, aesthetic, literary and philosophical. It is a very loose doctrine that may or may not reflect Freudian purity; it’s application is detectable largely by the extensive use of interpretation, hypothesising of unconscious motives and a search for deep causes.
3. The basic methods Freud developed over a period of several decades and which have been elaborated and extended by many others. The core components here are Free Association, Rich Interpretation and Transference. In a nutshell, the subject (patient) free-associates while the analyst interprets the associations produced, the obstacles that bar others and the subject’s feelings towards the analyst.
4. An extension of these techniques in a systematic fashion to treat psycho-neuroses.
It would not be too much of stretch of one’s imagination to interpret definition 2, above, to be akin to a loose definition of religion. Indeed when Jung made the break from the intellectual leadership of Freud he compared that breakaway to the heresy of Gnosticism, the first great heresy in early Christian times (Casement, 2007, p98).
Is it reasonable to compare that breakaway with Heresy? Wikipedia informs us that Heresy is an introduced change to some system of belief, especially a religion, that conflicts with the previously established canon of that belief and for a heresy to exist there must be an authoritative system of dogma designated as orthodox. Today though, heresy can be without a religious context as the holding of ideas that are in fundamental disagreement with the status quo in any practice and branch of knowledge. Religion is not a necessary component of the term's definition. (Wikipedia).
In terms of how Jung viewed himself and psychoanalysis, Clarke (1992, p92) tells us that Jung was indeed a Gnostic in the sense that he saw the necessity of following the path which led out of one’s own individual experience, rather than a road laid down by some external authority for all to follow . But his interests in the Gnostics lay, not in their specific doctrines, but in the fact that they revealed themselves to be engaged in a work which in modern terms can be viewed as psychotherapy. He [Jung] spoke of “the astonishing parallelism between Gnostic symbolism and the findings of the psychology of the unconscious” claiming that “it is clear beyond doubt that the Gnostics were nothing other than psychologists”.
An overview of Psychoanalysis as a therapy
Gross (2007, p817) tells us that the goals of psychoanalysis can be stated in very broad, abstract terms, as a far reaching and radical restructuring of the personality and as attempts to provide the client with insight, self-knowledge and self-understanding. More specifically, the basic goal of psychoanalysis is to make the unconscious conscious, to undo unsatisfactory defences and, through a ‘therapeutic regression’ to re-experience repressed feelings and wishes, which have been frustrated in childhood, in a safe context and to express them, as an adult, in a more appropriate way, with a new ending. The term Intrapsychic Analysis (Corey, 2008, p87) has also been used in this context.
Some of the principle aspects of psychoanalytical therapy in practice:
1. The role and style of the analyst. The classical view of a Freudian analyst is of someone who says little during the session, preferring to remain faceless and anonymous in relationship terms. We see this in Freud’s methodology where he preferred to sit behind his patient such that they could not see him. However, Lemma (2007, p44) considers this to be one of the myths of psychoanalysis. Although some of the ‘classical’ Freudians may be identified at the silent end of the spectrum, ‘contemporary’ Freudians display much more variability in this and range across the full spectrum from silent/passive to very interactive. Hence the therapist may be seen as merely a catalyst that allows the patient [client] to start talking about their issues. Although the anonymity of the therapist may be important, Gross tells us (2007, p818) that the Working Alliance with the client is just as crucial and that it may be considered to be two adults cooperating to understand the ‘child’ in the client. This Working Alliance or Therapeutic Relationship evolved over the years to take centre-stage in psychoanalysis. Freud noted affective changes in the patient’s attachment to him in the course of treatment. These feelings were regarded as transference coming about as a consequence of a ‘false connection’. He came to see transferences as new editions of old impulses and fantasies aroused during the process of psychoanalysis, with the therapist replacing some earlier person. (Lemma, 2007, p42)
2. Free Association. One of the techniques that Freud pioneered was to let the patient start talking about their issues is an unfettered way with encouragement to say whatever popped into their heads thus getting around the internal censor . Freud called this Free Association and it remains an integral part of contemporary psychoanalysis and derivatives are evident in other therapies. Perhaps the most obvious being the Person Centred Therapy of Carl Rogers. This is sometimes referred to, disparagingly, as ‘uh huh’ therapy because the therapist may say very little other than the occasional paralinguistic confirmation that he has heard and understood the client.
3. Dream Interpretation. This is another of the cornerstones of classical psychoanalysis and it is widely known and written about that Freud considered dreams to be the royal road to the unconscious. Gross (2007, p746) also cites Freud in saying that ‘A dream is a disguised fulfilment of a suppressed or repressed wish’ therefore representing a compromise between forbidden urges and their expression. On the other hand, Lemma (2007, p46) considers that although dreams are still believed to be carriers of unconscious meaning, that aspect of analysis no longer holds the central position that Freud attributed to it.
4. Interpretation of defence. One of the roles of the analyst is to interpret what the client is saying in order to offer that client some form of mechanism by which they can then make their own, conscious, sense of the unconscious process that has resulted in their distress. This may then help the client to find some relief from a perceived fear of chaotic meaninglessness. This can be achieved by helping the client through the process whereby they are able to develop new concepts and information relating to their presenting issue. This then allows for meaningful connections between symptoms and experiences that may have been, up until that point, mysterious. (Lemma, 2007, p47)
A brief evaluation of psychoanalysis
Does psychoanalysis work? In other words: is this an effective therapy? Does it offer salvation? There have been a great many (possibly thousands) of empirical studies into Freudian psychoanalytic theory. Taking an overview of two major studies by Kline and Fisher & Greenberg, Gross (2007, p750) considers that psychoanalytic theory cannot be accepted or rejected as a total package. He also writes that Freud’s theory should be evaluated in terms of a series of specific hypotheses (or mini-theories) rather than as a whole (2007, p22). He goes on to quote Fisher & Greenberg as writing that “It is a complex structure consisting of many parts, some of which should be accepted, others rejected and the rest at least partially reshaped”. (2007, p750).
In terms of effectiveness as a therapy, it would seem that just as in any therapy it depends on many factors that are beyond the control of the therapist such as the socio-economic or socio-cultural group that the client belongs to. It is widely accepted that because psychoanalysis is a long term therapy it is likely to be expensive (unless one knows a truly altruistic analyst) and so, generally, is only accessible to those people in a socio-economic group that would not consider finance to be a barrier to therapy. Psychoanalytic Therapy is more concerned with long term personality reconstruction than with short term problem solving. In the USA the reluctance of some medical insurance companies to commit long term (possibly indeterminate term) funds for psychoanalysis may have contributed to the decline of psychoanalysis to it’s present position as a minority therapy.
In terms of socio-cultural factors: Corey (2008, p87) considers that the non-directive nature of psychoanalysis may be problematic for clients who [because of their socio-cultural background] expect direction from a professional. He uses the example of Asian-Americans to illustrate this point saying that many clients from that group may prefer a more structured, problem-orientated, approach to counselling and may not continue therapy if a non-directive approach is employed. Furthermore, Intrapsychic Analysis may be in direct conflict with the social-framework and environmental perspective of some clients.
Luborsky and Spence made some generalisations on Freudian psychoanalysis based on their interpretation of outcome research conducted with some degree of controlled observation. These generalisations are summarised by Davison and Neal (1994, p537) as:
1. Patients with severe psychopathology (e.g. schizophrenia) do not do as well as those with anxiety disorders. This is understandable in view of Freud’s admitted emphasis on neurosis rather than psychosis and in view of the heavy reliance [that] psychoanalysis places on rationality and verbal abilities.
2. The more education a patient has, the better he or she does in analysis, probably because of the heavy emphasis on verbal interaction.
3. There is conflicting evidence as to whether the outcome of psychoanalysis is any better than what would be achieved through the mere passage of time or by engaging in other professional help, such as a family doctor. This is not to say that psychoanalysis does no good, only that clear evidence is as yet lacking. Given the great diversity in both patients and therapists and in the severity of patients’ problems, the question is probably too complex to yield a single, scientifically acceptable, answer.
So is Psychoanalysis a religion? It certainly has many of the characteristics described above such as:
1. A central figure, Sigmund Freud, who may be considered by some to be a prophet or guru.
2. A central and unalterable truth discovered and interpreted by Freud in that all psychological disturbances in adults have their basis in suppressed childhood experiences.
3. Followers who have to go through rigorous training and the ritual of the psychoanalytical process themselves in order to have an understanding of the truth before they can hold the elevated position of practitioner.
4. The dogma of ritual in that patients seeking help from the practitioners must go through the process of revisiting and re-experiencing the traumatic (yet mysteriously suppressed) events of childhood and so confront their individual demons before they are able to work towards the ultimate salvation of a cure. Perhaps it is not unreasonable to draw a parallel with religious confession and penance here?
5. We even see a parallel of the great heresies and schisms of world religions. Freud’s disciples Jung and Adler formed their own breakaway philosophies of psychology following a rift with the great man. These new philosophies (some may say heresies) of Adlerian and Jungian Psychotherapy are both in the Psychodynamic sphere and have a basis in Freudian psychoanalysis but are sufficiently different to have developed their own fervent following over time.
Does it offer salvation? This is the crux of the matter. We can re-word that question to read: is it effective as a therapy? As has been seen in the various studies mentioned above there still seems to be great diversity of opinion amongst the movers and shakers of the psychotherapy world and no clear, unambiguous, answer to this question has yet been published.
Because that opinion is so divided and the evidence presented is disputed, I would like to conclude this essay by quoting the philosopher Bertrand Russell on a topic that, while different may be reasonably associated with the title of this essay. He was once asked what he would say if he were to come before God. Russell replied “Not enough evidence God. Not enough evidence.” (Clark, 2004, p9)
And so where does this debate go from here? Well, that may be in the laps of the small gods.
All About Religion [online]. (2002). [Accessed 30 Jan 2009]. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.allaboutreligion.org/definition-of-religion-faq.htm
Casement, A. (2007). Psychodynamic Therapy: The Jungian Approach. In: Dryden, W., (ed). Dryden's Handbook of Individual Therapy 5th ed, London: Sage, pp97 - 123.
Clark, K.J. and Lints, R. and Smith, J.K.A. (2004). 101 Key Terms in Philosophy and Their Importance for Theology. London: Westminster John Knox Press.
Clarke, J. J. (1992). In Search of Jung: Historical and Philosophical Enquiries. London: Routledge.
Corey, C. (2008). Theory and Practice of Counselling & Psychotherapy. London: Cengage Learning.
Davison, G.C. and Neale J.M. (1994). Abnormal Psychology. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc..
Gross, R. (2007). Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour, 5th ed.. London: Hodder Arnold.
Lemma, A. (2007). Psychodynamic Theory: The Freudian Approach. In: Dryden, W., (ed). Dryden's Handbook of Individual Therapy 5th ed., London: Sage, pp27 - 55.
Reber, A. S. and Reber, E. (2001). Dictionary of Psychology. London: Penguin Books Ltd.
Wikipedia. (2000). Heresy [online]. [Accessed 30 January 2009]. Available from World Wide Web: .
Sources containing articles and commentaries that contributed to the development of my thinking during research and to the general structure of the essay but which are not necessarily referenced in the body of the piece.
Davison, G. C. and Neal, J. M. (1994). Abnormal Psychology. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc..
Dryden, W (ed). (2007). Dryden's Handbook of Individual Therapy, 5th Ed. London: Sage.
Gross, R. (2008). Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour, 5th ed. London: Hodder Arnold.
Moser, P.K. (2004). Divine Hiddenness Does Not Justify Atheism. In: Peterson, M.L. and VanArragon, R.J., (eds). Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion, London: Blackwell Publishing, pp30 - 56.
Mullan, W.M.A. (2007) Harvard article reference list generator for theses, scientific articles and assignments. [On-line] UK: Available: http://www.dairyscience.info/reference-writer/harvard.asp. Accessed: 6 February 2009.
Reber, A. S.and Reber, E. S (eds). (2001). Dictionary of Psychology, 3rd ed. London: Penguin Books Ltd.
Skurnik, L. S. and George, F. (1967). Psychology for Everyman. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd.
Walker, J., Payne, S., Smith, P. and Jarret, N. (2004). Psychology for Nurses and the Caring Professions. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
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