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Lecture VI: Psychology and Religion

No branch of science has had a greater influence upon man’s religious outlook than psychology, and particularly the psycho-analytical branch of the Freudian school. The impact of this line of thought upon the philosophy of religion has been more powerful—and to many minds more destructive even—than the concept of Darwinian evolution. The force of the collision lies in the fact that many Freudians fully recognize the reality of the idea of, or the feeling that we have contact with, some higher element above the normal self, a personallike element which some may like to call God; they indeed point to it, but claim that it is something else—something not distinct from, but a part of, our own mental make up.

Not all followers of Freud accept his view that the concept of the super-ego, as he calls it, explains the whole of religious experience; there are both psychologists and theologians who stress the importance of his doctrines in the understanding of both human personality and the development of theology, without by any means swallowing all of his more speculative flights regarding the actual nature of religion. The psycho-analytical field is, of course, divided into rival schools: in addition to the Freudians there are, among others, the followers of Jung and Adler who were originally disciples of Freud but broke away in the early days to develop their own separate lines of interpreting the nature of the subconscious mind. The Jungians, in particular, are the more sympathetic to a religious outlook.

The concept of the subconscious or unconscious mind did not originate with Freud as many who are not psychologists seem inclined to imagine; before him there was much talk of what F. W. H. Myers and William James had called the subliminal mind. It is well, I think, that we should look for a moment at these earlier ideas; they may not altogether have lost their interest and perhaps their importance for us. Myers developed the idea of the subliminal mind during his consideration of the phenomena which he and the other pioneers were investigating in the early days of the Society for Psychical Research; he discusses it particularly in that large volume Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death (1906) which he had completed shortly before he died in 1901. He speaks of a threshold (limen) of consciousness, a level above which sensation or thought must rise before it can enter into our conscious life. He then says:

I propose to extend the meaning of the term, so as to make it cover all that takes place beneath the ordinary threshold, or say, if preferred, outside the ordinary margin of consciousness;—not only those faint stimulations, whose very faintness keeps them submerged, but much else, which psychology as yet scarcely recognises; sensations, thoughts, emotions, which may be strong, definite, and independent, but which, by the original constitution of our being, seldom emerge into that supraliminal current of consciousness which we habitually identify with ourselves. Perceiving (as this book will try to show) that these submerged thoughts and emotions possess the characteristics which we associate with conscious life, I feel bound to speak of a subliminal or ultra-marginal consciousness,—a consciousness which we shall see, for instance, uttering or writing sentences quite as complex and coherent as the supraliminal consciousness could make them. [He is here referring to cases of automatic writing.] Perceiving further, that this conscious life, beneath the threshold or beyond the margin, seems to be no discontinuous or intermittent thing; that not only are these isolated subliminal processes comparable with isolated supraliminal processes (as when a problem is solved by some unknown procedure in a dream), but that there also is a continuous subliminal chain of memory (or more chains than one) involving just that kind of individual and persistent revival of old impressions, and response to new ones, which we commonly call a Self,—I find it permissible and convenient to speak of subliminal Selves, or more briefly of a subliminal Self.

Myers, by analogy, likened the human mental faculty to the spectrum, comparing consciousness to the visible part of it although he warns us that we must not really think of it in linear form; it would be a spectrum, he said, “whose red rays begin where muscular control and organic sensation begin and whose violet rays fade away at a point where man’s highest strain of thought or imagination merges into reverie and ecstasy.”

The idea of the subconscious or the subliminal consciousness as used by William James was perhaps more widely known than that of Myers. Any discussion of the psychology of religion should begin with some account of the work of Starbuck and James; I have already, however, dealt at some length with their pioneer contributions to the natural history of religion in lecture iv. Let us see how James thought of this subliminal region and its possible relation to religion:

If the word “subliminal” is offensive to any of you, as smelling too much of psychical research or other aberrations, call it by any other name you please, to distinguish it from the level of full sunlit consciousness. Call this latter the A-region of personality, if you care to, and call the other the B-region. The B-region, then, is obviously the larger part of each of us, for it is the abode of everything that is latent and the reservoir of everything that passes unrecorded or unobserved. It contains, for example, such things as all our momentarily inactive memories, and it harbours the springs of all our obscurely motived passions, impulses, likes, dislikes, and prejudices. Our intuitions, hypotheses, fancies, superstitions, persuasions, convictions, and in general all our non-rational operations, come from it. It is the source of our dreams, and apparently they may return to it. In it arise whatever mystical experiences we may have, and our automatisms, sensory or motor; our life in hypnotic and “hypnoid” conditions, if we are subjects to such conditions; our delusions, fixed ideas, and hysterical accidents, if we are hysteric subjects; our supra-normal cognitions, if such there be, and if we are telepathic subjects. It is also the fountain-head of much that feeds our religion. In persons deep in the religious life, as we have now abundantly seen,—and this is my conclusion,—the door into this region seems unusually wide open; at any rate, experiences making their entrance through that door have had emphatic influence in shaping religious history.1

Whilst his ideas regarding the significance of the subconscious are very different from those of Freud, and he does not, as does Freud, discuss its origin, we see that he does realize its great extent and its immense importance in influencing our life. I will give one more quotation from James to show how, among his final conclusions, he relates the subconscious to religious experience:

Let me then propose, as an hypothesis, that whatever it may be on its farther side, the “more” with which in religious experience we feel ourselves connected is on its hither side the subconscious continuation of our conscious life. Starting thus with a recognized psychological fact as our basis, we seem to preserve a contact with “science” which the ordinary theologian lacks. At the same time the theologian’s contention that the religious man is moved by an external power is vindicated, for it is one of the peculiarities of invasions from the subconscious region to take on objective appearances, and to suggest to the Subject an external control. In the religious life the control is felt as “higher”; but since on our hypothesis it is primarily the higher faculties of our own hidden mind which are controlling, the sense of union with the power beyond us is a sense of something, not merely apparently, but literally true.2

The importance of James’s position in the psychology of religion in the pre-Freudian days is well summarised by the late Professor Grensted:

The theory of a “threshold of consciousness”, applied by James to the facts of religious conversion, with its pattern of conflict, crisis, and resultant integration, gave the first impetus to a possible explanation of the whole structure of religion, in its external and observed forms, on psychological lines. And for the time being the new explanation swept the field. It seemed a comparatively simple matter to explain the conversion of St. Paul or St. Augustine as the emergence into consciousness of the results of a period of “unconscious cerebration” or the maturation of a subliminal system of a strongly emotional character. Commentaries upon the Book of Acts were at once filled with explanations showing how the emotional influences associated with the martyrdom of St. Stephen had developed in the subconscious levels of St. Paul’s mind until they at last broke through violently to produce the sudden conversion experience on the Damascus road. It all seemed simple enough. The full complexity of the process, which the development of Freud’s analytic theories were to reveal, did not then appear3.

Freud’s conception of the subconscious is, indeed, very different from that of James and he is certainly the outstanding figure in the revelation of its importance for an understanding of our mental make up; he was the great explorer who discovered so much of its nature by the techniques he initiated. From the study of mental patients, particularly those suffering from hysteria, he developed his hypotheses, and then, by putting them to the test, effected cures which demonstrated their validity.

I am not a qualified psychologist and it would be quite wrong of me to appear to lay down the law as to which particular school of psycho-analysis is nearest the truth. The object of my course is to outline the scope of a future science of natural theology as I see it: looking at all the different aspects as a naturalist exploring a whole country. Here I am doing no more than stressing the importance of these psycho-analytical studies for our subject. It is for the more specialised, scientific theologians of the future to decide just which parts of the current theory are relevant to an understanding of religion. I shall presently explain, for what it is worth, just why I believe the equation of the Freudian super-ego with the idea of Divinity cannot be complete.

I have prepared these lectures, as I believe was Lord Gifford’s wish, for a general audience. In making my psychological review I must inevitably be going over ground well known to many of you, yet for others who have not followed the development of psycho-analytical theory it is essential that I should sketch such an outline. I must ask all those who will be familiar with what I shall say to bear with me for a little while.

In the mind we can distinguish the conscious, the preconscious and the unconscious (or subconscious). Whilst we are not normally conscious of the preconscious and so in that respect it is unconscious, it differs from the true unconscious in an important respect. Although we are not at the moment aware of the contents of the preconscious, we can at once call them to mind should we direct our attention to them; for example when we are reading we may be quite oblivious of the ticking of the clock or of the slight discomfort of some ill-fitting clothing, yet they can instantly come into full consciousness as soon as we want to notice them. With the true unconscious, or subconscious, it is different; we may know the name of an acquaintance quite well, yet, if we suddenly try to recall it, it may refuse to appear for us at once, but come into our mind perhaps an hour or so later.

It is with this subconscious and its divisions that we are largely concerned. However, before turning to these, I should say something of consciousness, for it is the tendency to experience different conscious states that determine a person’s disposition and so his character or personality, which in turn may have much to do with his religious outlook. The actual conscious process can, of course, be split into its three well-known aspects:

Cognition: our having knowledge or awareness of an object which may be either an actual material body or an abstract idea;

Feeling: such as a feeling, say, of pleasure or fear, which might be better called an affective state so as not to confuse it with an organic sensation such as “feeling” tired or hungry; and

Conation: the element of purposive action.

We continually see the three elements linked in a mental chain: for example we notice some evidence of say carelessness or cruelty, it makes us feel angry and we decide on some action, say, to remonstrate with the person concerned.

Our character or personality depends upon our sentiments, and our affective, or conative dispositions. We can define a disposition as a tendency to experience a particular type of conscious state in certain circumstances: for example that of being angry in the example just given. Our sentiments are our acquired affective dispositions in relation to particular objects or actions—as in being always made angry by carelessness or cruelty. We are not apparently born with distinct sentiments, they are not innate, like an instinct, but must be developed as a result of our experience. The late Professor Rex Knight and Mrs. Margaret Knight have, in their A Modern Introduction to Psychology, with their admirable economy of words, stressed the importance of sentiments in the formation of character:

Sentiments [they say] are, in McDougall’s phrase, the chief organizers of our affective and conative life. Without permanent sentiments, we should be at the mercy of every transient and momentary impulse. But the existence of firmly-established interests and attachments and loyalties often leads us to resist the immediate promptings of instinct for the sake of more permanent satisfactions.

Individual differences in character derive largely from the sentiments: at the instinctive level we are all very much alike. The growth of personality consists, to a considerable extent, in the growth of the dominant sentiments. Every adult has a variety of sentiments, but usually there is one, or a small number, of powerful dominant sentiments, which form, as it were, a nucleus round which the minor sentiments are organised. In one the dominant sentiment may be personal ambition; in another, love of home and family; in another, devotion to scientific research; in another, desire for social justice; in another, love of sport and country life—and the list could be prolonged indefinitely. When we know what a man’s dominant sentiments are, we know a great deal about his character.

They end their chapter on sentiments “by way of summary and conclusion” with a quotation from McDougall which I should like to recall:

The growth of the sentiments is of the utmost importance for the character and conduct of individuals and of societies; it is the organisation of the affective and conative life. In the absence of sentiments our emotional life would be a mere chaos, without order, consistency, or continuity of any kind; and all our social relations and conduct, being based on the emotions and their impulses, would be correspondingly chaotic, unpredictable and unstable. It is only through the systematic organisation of the emotional dispositions in sentiments that the volitional control of the immediate promptings of the emotions is rendered possible. Again, our judgments of value and of merit are rooted in our sentiments; and our moral principles have the same source, for they are formed by our judgments of moral value.

Thus we see that it is the difference in dispositions and sentiments that make the differences in personality. It is psycho-analysis, particularly the pioneer work of Jung, which has enabled us to study the basic differences between distinct types of personality. It is to him, of course, we owe the terms “extravert” and “introvert”. We may note, however, as was pointed out by Professor Grensted,4 that the distinction between these two types is very similar to that made much earlier by William James in his Varieties of Religious Experience when he contrasted the qualities found in the two markedly different kinds of religious person which he called the “healthy minded” and the “sick soul”, or the “once born” and the “twice born”. Jung, however, developed the study of the extravert and introvert types very much further than did James, and considered them not only in a religious context, but in all aspects of life. He has been followed by others who link these mental types with differences in bodily structure: such as Kretschmer and, upon a rather different basis, Sheldon. There are then the so-called “dimensions” of personality, discussed by Professor Eysenck and his co-workers, which carry us into further distinctions.

They are showing us that, whilst sentiments themselves are not innate, the tendencies towards this or that type of personality may perhaps be linked with inherited physical types.

But now let us turn back to the unconscious or the subconscious and the great contributions by Freud. By his study of mental patients he realized that our unconscious minds are full of instinctive impulses which we have repressed so that they no longer enter into our conscious thoughts; they do not usually disappear however but remain to influence our lives in unrecognized and unwelcome ways. Suppression, as we shall see in a moment, is different from repression, but the continued suppression of powerful impulses may lead to repression. We are, of course, continually suppressing impulses of a minor kind, which we feel are at variance with our social obligations; we may long to cut short a lengthy and boring story related by a friend, but feel it impolite to do so, or we are tempted to take the last peach off the plate but refrain when we know it is being kept for some invalid. Such suppression is harmless. There are, however, more serious impulses which we can only deal with in one of two ways: one beneficial and the other the reverse. We may sublimate the psychic energy concerned—say a sexual impulse—into new channels such as art, athletics, social work and so on. Freud believed that civilization is entirely the result of this very process: the conversion by sublimation of primitive impulses towards higher more socially valuable goals. We may well agree with him that this is indeed a large part of the process, but it is not all of it, I think, as I shall presently suggest. If we fail to sublimate an unwelcome impulse, and continue to suppress it by refusing to allow it to come into consciousness—refusing to admit its existence—then such continued suppression may lead to what Freud distinguished as repression: a state in which it is held in the unconscious without our being aware of it. Whilst it is held there unrealized it may yet continue to produce effects upon our life in giving rise to curious and apparently inadvertent behaviour. Such a repression, known as a complex, may give rise to feelings of guilt; it is usually covering up a feeling of shame or self reproach. Here Freud shows us the psychological explanation of the sense of sin that plays such an important part in the religion of many people.

The unconscious may reveal itself in two chief ways. It may influence our conduct by what are called rationalisations: chains of argument, often specious, invented by our minds to justify our performing an act, or holding a belief, which is actually motivated by some quite other, hidden, repressed and unconscious cause. Or the unconscious may appear to us in dreams, which Freud regarded as the disguised symbolic representations of its conflicting elements or neuroses. It must be obvious how likely it is that the rationalisation process may be at work when we frame our theological theories; we should recognize this and always be on our guard against it.

We may now turn to Freud’s views on the relation of psychoanalysis to religion. This essentially concerns the development of the subconscious mind in the life of the individual. He supposed that in earliest childhood there is no division into the conscious and the subconscious, but that the latter is quickly formed as the babe is forbidden to do this or that. The infant is looked upon as an out and out egoist, full of animal impulses which it strives to satisfy; one by one these are curbed by the discipline of training and driven by such repression into this hidden subconscious part of the mind. Originally Freud regarded the mind as made up essentially of these two elements, the conscious and the subconscious; and he thought that the repressing “censor”—keeping the more ugly impulses locked away in the subconscious—must be a part of the conscious mind. As his work progressed, however, he began to realize that this “censor” could hardly be considered entirely as a part of the adult conscious mind because when its action is revealed by psycho-analysis it is often proved to be of quite a childish kind. For example when some of these hidden impulses are brought back into consciousness, as by his method of dream interpretation, it is often found that they are really only shocking when judged by nursery standards, and that the adult mind may merely be amused at them.

Freud now revised his conception of the mind and divided it into three, instead of two, main elements; these he terms the Ego, the Super-ego and the Id. The Ego is the adult rational conscious mind—the self that we are aware of; the Id is the unconscious mass of repressed impulses, mainly infantile, but with subsequent additions, and the Super-ego, which, taking the place of the censor in his earlier formulation, is the new element in his revised scheme. The Super-ego is partly unconscious like the Id, and like it too, it is a survival from infancy. It is the ruthless repressor acting, not according to a reasoned system of morality thought out by the mind, but upon a crude and often highly irrational code which was laid down in childhood according to the discipline imposed by the parents or adults in charge; such a code was one simply accepted without being understood. In Freud’s words5:

It is in the course of our development that external compulsion is gradually internalized, in that a special mental function, man’s super-ego, takes it under its jurisdiction. Every child presents to us the model of this transformation; it is only by that means that it becomes a moral and social being. This strengthening of the super-ego is a highly valuable psychological possession of culture. Those people in whom it has taken place, from being the foes of culture, become its supporters.

It is here that Professor Waddington’s views developed in his book The Ethical Animal are so interesting. We discussed them in our second lecture in this series (p. 46). Not only does he suggest that in the development of culture the child has been turned into one who is inclined to believe what it is told by his elders, but that this superego of Freud’s has been incorporated into the mental make-up of man by the selective forces of the same evolutionary process. Some people seem to equate the Super-ego entirely with conscience, but, as we have just seen, it is not completely like our conscious conscience; it is in part an unconscious childish conscience.

The most crucial stage in a child’s psychological development is thought by many to be that of infancy—i.e. up to six or seven years of age—a period which ends according to Freud with the resolution of what he called the Oedipus complex upon which he lays so much stress. For those who have not studied the subject it comes as a surprise to learn how great a part sex is said to have been found to play in this early period; it, no doubt in part, appears surprising at first sight because these sexual impulses (if as strong as Freud and his followers suppose) pass into a period of latency and remain inactive until they emerge again at the onset of puberty as if they had appeared for the first time. The Freudian psychologists tell us that in this period of infancy there is a highly emotional erotic life with feelings of love, jealousy and hate as powerful almost as those of later adult life. For a time, they tell us, the child wants with a deep intensity the sole attention of the parent of the opposite sex: a boy wants his mother entirely to himself and wishes the father disposed of, and a girl similarly wants her father; and for a period, they say, the child will jealously hate the opposite parent, but then the mood will pass, and give way to fear of retaliation and a desire to propitiate the offended one. Such is the nature of what they call the Oedipus complex. As the child gets older, and the sexual impulse passes into latency, feelings of guilt and remorse are likely to develop with a wish for forgiveness. Now clearly this may be very important, but we must be on our guard lest this supposed extreme sexuality has been exaggerated; there is indeed evidence which I shall discuss presently that suggests that this may be so.

The Freudians, in their interpretation of this early phase of life, claim to discover an extraordinary development of ideas in the child mind which some of us may find almost incredible; particularly it is said that the boy commonly gets the idea that the father wants physically to destroy his power to love the mother, that is actually to castrate him. There are also said to be mixed up with it other strains, including narcissism or self-love, and more particularly those sexual phases which may form abnormal deviations in later life: sadism, i.e. obtaining of satisfaction in the infliction of pain, and its opposite masochism, the curious pleasure in experiencing pain. I must mention these ideas because it is from them that some would claim to derive a great deal of the subsequent religious feelings which develop in later life. For those who have not followed the trends of Freudian thought, and who may not have realized the emphasis which is placed on these alleged early sexual feelings, I will quote a brief summary of the supposed resolution of the Oedipus complex from Freud and Christianity by the Rev. Dr. R. S. Lee. It is appropriate that I should take the account from Dr. Lee because I shall presently be showing the importance he attaches to the Freudian ideas for the interpretation of certain theological doctrines:

The boy is placed in an unbearable situation. His love makes him desire the mother, but if he gets her he thereby encounters the destructive wrath of the father who will castrate him. He has to choose therefore between his sensual longing for the mother and his fear of castration. The self-love wins, and the boy renounces his desires for the mother. He is enabled to do this by a process of great importance. First of all he identifies himself with his father. This he is able to do because he loves him as well as hating him, and because the father does what he himself wants to do—sleeps with the mother. He then introjects the father image into himself, that is, he divides up his mind into two parts, one part being his own self and its desires, and the other the identification of himself with the father. He then accepts the commands which (he imagines) the father image gives him, and so he is enabled to renounce the sensual desires he feels towards the mother. He represses them and his love towards her loses its sensual quality, becomes “aim-inhibited” and so transformed into tender affection which does not conflict with the now recognised rights of the father, and so does not arouse his wrath.6

This, I think, can be regarded as a fair summary of the orthodox Freudian view of the resolution of the so-called Oedipus complex by the boy identifying himself with the father; it is held by the Freudians to be the main factor in bringing about the tripartite division of the mind we have briefly discussed. I will only remark, in passing, that we seem to hear a great deal about the boy and his father, but much less regarding a daughter (and the corresponding Electra complex). The father-identification appears as the source of the super-ego. It combines the authority of the father, now built into the mind as the censoring power, with the provision of an ideal to be striven for; the boy wants to be strong and wise like his father. The person’s reasoning ego, his real self, is between the super-ego and the id; on the one hand it is obedient to the super-ego and on the other seeks to carry out in the world such impulses from the id as will be allowed by the super-ego’s censorship. The authority of the super-ego provides what has been called the “categorical imperative”, the “right” of duty; it becomes the conscience. Now this super-ego, this authoritative conscience, becomes in part unconscious and in part conscious. As we have already seen, it has components derived from early childish nursery standards which lie buried only to be recalled by psycho-analysis; it has in addition, however, a whole collection of moral standards which are added to it in subsequent development, assimilated to the early ideal—new standards derived from the home, school, church, national patriotism and so forth.

Before we discuss the validity of these ideas any further we should see how Freud applied them to religion. He did so in two books: Totem and Taboo (1913) and The Future of an Illusion (1928). In the former, he sought to explain the idea of the internalised father image as an evolutionary product, arising in the beginnings of human culture. He envisages the beginnings of such tribal life as a group of women and young males ruled over by a despotic male—the father of the tribe. The males were killed or driven off by the father if they should attempt to possess the females. Those that remained did so only by repressing their desires towards the father’s wives and their desires were diverted into homosexual ties which bound them together into a unity; acting together they eventually attacked and killed the father—and ate him. The brothers now fought until one became the new leader and father of the next generation and so on. In time, however, they learned not to fight amongst themselves, but remained united by accepting the veto of the father so that the women of the tribe became taboo and they sought their wives from other groups. The dead father then became symbolized into an animal held sacred as the totem of the tribe; and the killing and eating of this animal, the primal father, was periodically renewed in the totem feast. Such is the merest sketch—a caricature many will say—of Freud’s early speculations on the origin of the idea of God, which depended much upon the writings of Sir James Frazer; we are, however, doing no more than just noting them here, because they have subsequently been severely criticized by social anthropologists7. I give, as a footnote8 a quotation from Totem and Taboo to show that my sketch is not, I think, too crudely drawn. Another reason for not going more fully into these particular ideas here is that, apart from anthropological falsity, they are based upon a biological fallacy. Freud’s comparison between what is supposed to have happened in primitive history and what occurs in the life of each individual reflects the one-time held, but now discredited, theory that the individual in the course of its development actually recapitulates in shortened form the ancestral line of evolution. What he appears to suggest is that there is an actual organic connection between what goes on in an individual’s mental development and what happened far back in racial history. He seems in fact to have an idea similar to that of Jung’s archetypes and shared subconscious. He actually admits towards the end of the book that it is a far-fetched idea:

No one can have failed to observe, in the first place, that I have taken as the basis of my whole position the existence of a collective mind, in which mental processes occur just as they do in the mind of an individual. In particular, I have supposed that the sense of guilt, for an action, has persisted for many thousands of years, and has remained operative in generations, which can have had no knowledge of that action. I have supposed that an emotional process, such as might have developed in generations of sons who were ill-treated by their father, has extended to new generations which were exempt from such treatment, for the very reason that their father had been eliminated. It must be admitted that these are grave difficulties; and any explanation that could avoid presumptions of such a kind would seem to be preferable.9

Freud’s later and more mature ideas regarding the nature of religion deserve more serious consideration. They are developed in his The Future of an Illusion in which he attempts to show that his later doctrine of the origin of the super-ego as a result of the resolution of the Oedipus complex, and the subsequent development of the child mind, is sufficient to explain all of man’s religious yearnings and beliefs. For him the whole idea of theism is a gigantic illusion. Without accepting the force of the Oedipus argument—for reasons I shall give—I do think it likely that there is a deal of truth in Freud’s conception of the nature of the super-ego and the way it has been built into our minds in early childhood by the process he calls the interialization of external authority. I would myself, however, think it more likely that this process came about in the early evolution of man’s cultural system in the manner outlined by Professor Waddington in his Ethical Animal which I have already discussed (p. 46). The formation of the id by repression must also be regarded as an important concept for us.

I may say at once, as I said at the end of my first series of lectures, that I am not a bit disturbed by the idea that our conception of God as a person—Our Father which art in Heaven—is based upon our early childhood-parent relationship. I think it likely that Freud has explained a great deal, but, as I have just implied, not through the Oedipus complex; and I do not believe, for reasons I shall enlarge upon later, that Freud has destroyed a reasonable belief in the spirit of man and his contact with a power beyond himself which, to my mind, provides the theism for a true natural theology. The illusion that Freud is showing us does not, I believe, destroy, as he imagines, the whole concept of Divinity, but changes our ideas from those formed over three thousand years ago, of a great, invisible potentate, Jehovah (Yahweh). It is indeed a change in our idea of God, but one no more, or no less, radical than that which substituted the Copernican solar system for the optical illusion that the sun went round a central earth.

As an illustration of this change of view I cannot do better than give another quotation from Dr. Lee’s book Freud and Christianity which will show how a modern Christian theologian can accept the influence of Freud. It is clear that such views are gaining ground in both Anglican and academic circles. Dr. Lee is Chaplain of both Nuffield and St. Catherine’s Colleges, Oxford, and he wrote the book, on which he was awarded the Doctor of Philosophy degree, when he was Vicar of St. Mary the Virgin, the University Church. The work is published in a series called “Theology for Modern Men” edited by Canon A. E. Baker who writes in the introduction, “A careful reading of this book will provoke both Christians and psycho-analysts to think again, if only because it provides criteria by which more healthy forms of Christian religion may be discriminated from less worthy varieties.” It was described in a Church Times review as a book “far more important than its size might suggest.” Dr. Lee writes:

In projecting the father upon the world and arriving at the idea of God, the unconscious does not carry over only the protecting father. We have seen that the father is also a source of danger to the infant. In the same way that the protective character of the father enters into the idea of God, so does the danger from the father. He first appears as frustrating the wishes of the infant and imposing an arbitrary authority upon him to which obedience is compelled by the absolute power… God is, as it were, the enemy … counting every transgression against us, even visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. In His eyes we are so bad that there would be no hope of escaping His everlasting wrath if it weren’t that His Son is on our side and, by accepting punishment for our sins while himself innocent, satisfies the demands of God and procures pardon for us. This is the religion of Hell fire, of everlasting damnation, of a God jealous of His rights and His honour, exacting every ounce of homage and obedience from worthless man; religion much more occupied with sin than with love.10

Or again:

There is a large section of Christian teaching which believes that the ideal Christian life is attained by having a dominating Super-ego strong enough to enforce all its demands on the Ego and to suppress the Id. This type of Christianity concentrates in its moral teaching on developing a sense of sin, which means, psychologically, sharpening the subservience of the Ego to the Super-ego at the expense of the Id. The Ego is made to feel its unworthiness, its failure to live up to its ideal, and is discouraged in every way from rebelling against the Super-ego. As an acknowledgement of its guilt all sorts of penances are encouraged—rigid discipline of life, fasting, acts of duty. Duty is the keynote of this moral system. The result of this training frequently is to develop a sort of vicious circle. By cultivating a sense of sin and strengthening the dominance of the Super-ego the Ego is made to feel its guilt and unworthiness more intensely. But the more guilty the Ego feels the more strongly the Super-ego attacks it, thereby further increasing the feeling of guilt. So the circle goes on until the Ego is almost paralysed from undertaking novel action. The only brake on the process is obtained through penances and mortification, even to the extent of self-inflicted pain.11

Whether or not we believe that the Oedipus complex is as important as the Freudians make out—or perhaps find Waddington’s view of the formation of the super-ego more reasonable, as I do—it does look as if Dr. Lee is right in seeing this cultivation of the sense of sin and guilt as an increasing domination of the super-ego. How then does he believe that Christianity can escape from this psychological nightmare? He believes that Jesus taught a different kind of religion, one in which the ego—the real self—must not be so dominated, but must judge by insight what is good. It is a religion in which the self, the ego, feels in touch with a God who is both loving and lovable, and one also seen in the beauty of nature. The God of the Pharisees, Dr. Lee says:

was simply a projection of the unconscious father-image, the core of the Super-ego, and because they gave supremacy to it, their God was not the real God with whom Jesus was concerned and Who could be seen in the lilies of the field, in the farmer sowing his crop, or a father welcoming home a long-lost son, that is, a God discoverable by the Ego.

Perhaps I am being unfair to Dr. Lee in picking out only a few questions without going further into his interesting and detailed reconciliation of the principles of Freudian psychology and those of Christian theology. I merely want to show what a change this new psychology may bring about in the consideration of theological problems. As I said before, not being a psychologist, I am not laying down any dogmatic view myself; I am only saying that these are ideas which, together with some of those of Jung, must be carefully examined in building our scientific Natural Theology. We must be careful not to be carried away in our enthusiasm for this or that hypothesis that appears at first sight to offer some solution to our problems; each must be weighed carefully, and as much evidence as possible sought, before we incorporate them into our scheme of thought. Whether we accept them fully or not, the ideas of Freud must make us always on the look out, lest the arguments we are putting forward in support of this or that belief, may not be false rationalizations invented by our minds to suggest a reasonable explanation for some view which is really based upon some deeper, hidden and quite different motive.

This psychology is certainly warning us against the subtlety of our hidden mental springs. I sometimes wonder if Freud himself and some of his followers have not in part been victims of their own subconscious ids. Most of their conclusions about the importance of sex in early childhood seem to me to be based much more upon the psychoanalysis of adults—from which they infer what they think must have been their very early sexual emotions—rather than upon careful observations of infant life. Again I do not pretend to be an authority; I will, however, point out that serious doubt has been thrown upon the very idea of the Oedipus complex forming an important part in the infant life of normal children by detailed observations such as those of Professor C. W. Valentine in his The Psychology of Early Childhood. I quote from his third edition (1945):

Freud has asserted that after the age of about 2 boys begin to be passionately devoted to their mother and to be jealous of and even to hate the father, thus revealing an “Oedipus complex”. Girls, on the other hand, develop a new devotion to the father and regard the mother as a rival. Two types of evidence of the Oedipus complex are offered: (a) one is the direct observation of children which Freud says reveals it; (b) the other is the result of psycho-analysis of adults. With this second one we shall deal later. As to (a), I can find no evidence whatever in the observations on my own children for such an Oedipus complex. Indeed, it will be seen that most of the evidence is directly contrary to it, especially the fact that the girls preferred their mother more than the boys did after the age of about 2 when, according to Freud, the boys should begin to turn against the father and the girls should favour him. The relations of the children to parents are exactly as might be expected on general grounds. First strong attachment, shown by boys and girls for the mother—the nurse and comforter. Later, some attraction after the second year towards the father who can enter into their play, and, if the more severe at times, can provide the most exciting delights. But this increased attraction of the father after 2 or 3 showed much more in the boys than in the girls; the tastes and interests of the girls being even at this early age more in line with the mother’s than with the father’s. (p. 316)

and later:

Summing up these parts of our inquiry, we may say that the preferences shown by boys and girls do not fit in with the supposed development of an Oedipus complex, but rather they support the ordinary explanation of affection based upon the usual greater devotion of the mother to all infants in the first four or five years. The facts as to discipline and its relation to preference also support this, as do the few facts about jealousy, (p. 328)

and regarding the development of sex:

The truth seems to be probably this: that any sexual sensations and impulses are only of a very mild kind in the great majority from early infancy at least until a year or two before puberty, but can be kept alive and stimulated by the influence and suggestion of others …

Having given such prominence to the Freudian theories I would like to quote the views of Sir Frederic Bartlett given in his Riddell Memorial Lectures on Religion as Experience, Belief, Action in 1950 when he was Professor of Experimental Psychology at Cambridge. In his introductory paragraphs he is discussing the nature of religious beliefs:

These issues, [he says] as many people have claimed, seem to be inevitably bound up with the assertion that in some way the truth and the worth of religion come from a contact of the natural order with some other order or world, not itself directly accessible to the common human senses.

So far as any final decision upon the validity or value of such a claim goes, the psychologist is in exactly the same position as that of any other human being who cares to consider the matter seriously. Being a psychologist gives him neither superior nor inferior authority.

I thought it necessary to say this at the very beginning of these lectures, because one of the most widely known and influential of modern psychological systems has applied itself to religion, and has, in certain of its developments, made two claims. The first is that all the forms and the original impulses of human religion can be given a complete and full causal explanation within what is called the natural order of events. The second is that there can be therefore no other explanation. Now even if the first claim were completely justified—and speaking for myself, as a psychologist, I am by no means satisfied that it has been—the second would still rest upon two further assumptions: that a “natural” explanation is truer, or better, or both, than any other; and that one explanation is better than two. These are assumptions. They demand some support, and it will be found that the support available very soon runs beyond the limits of psychology.

I have already given another quotation from this lecture by Professor Bartlett in lecture iv (p. 104).

I am conscious that in any discussion on the interrelation of psychology and religion the work of Jung should be given prominence. In the words of Professor Grensted: “In general Jung’s psychology has proved far more tractable in the study of religious behaviour than the more rigid and more dogmatic position taken up by Freud and his followers”, and again he says, “It is probably true to say that the most important developments of the psychology of religion in the last twenty years have been due to Jung.” Yet I must confess that I find it exceedingly difficult to understand his views as expounded in his works, especially those devoted to religion: Psychology and Religion and Modern Man in Search of a Soul. He speaks in riddles. Particularly do I find it almost impossible to find a consistent account of what he really means by his concept of the shared unconscious and the influence of the archetypes. One gathers that for him the individual is (again in the words of Grensted) “regarded as an outcropping of the collective impersonal unconscious.” Turning to his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections one finds it full of religious feeling, but again, at any rate for me, how intangible. From his chapter on “Late Thoughts” (p. 310) I take this example:

Therefore the validity of such terms as mana, daimon, or God can be neither disproved nor affirmed. We can, however, establish that the sense of strangeness connected with the experience of something objective, apparently outside the psyche, is indeed authentic.

We know that something unknown, alien, does come our way, just as we know that we do not ourselves make a dream or an inspiration, but that it somehow arises of its own accord. What does happen to us in this manner can be said to emanate from mana, from a daimon, a god, or the unconscious…

I prefer the term “the unconscious”, knowing that I might equally well speak of “God” or “daimon” if I wished to express myself in mythic language. When I do use such mythic language, I am aware that “mana,” “daimon,” and “God” are synonyms for the unconscious—that is to say, we know just as much or just as little about them as about the latter… The great advantage of the concepts “daimon” and “God” lies in making possible a much better objectification of the vis-à-vis, namely, a personification of it. Their emotional quality confers life and effectuality upon them. Hate and love, fear and reverence, enter the scene of the confrontation and raise it to a drama. What has merely been “displayed” becomes “acted”. The whole man is challenged and enters the fray with his total reality. Only then can he become whole and only then can “God be born”, that is, enter into human reality and associate with man in the form of “man”. By this act of incarnation man—that is, his ego—is inwardly replaced by “God”, and God becomes outwardly man, in keeping with the saying of Jesus: “Who sees me, sees the Father.”

I find this very obscure, but let me give one more quotation from Grensted which I think may make it clearer:

We have not progressed a step beyond the often criticized conjectures of William James when he stated as his “over-belief” the view that at the outer margin of the subliminal self we may be in direct touch with a “more of the same kind”, not ourselves, and that we may regard that meeting-place as the sphere of Divine action upon us. There is an obvious similarity between this view and the more elaborate hypotheses put forward by Jung12.

And now another from James:

But if you, being orthodox Christians, ask me as a psychologist, whether the reference of a phenomenon to a subliminal self does not exclude the notion of the direct presence of the Deity altogether, I have to say frankly that as a psychologist I do not see why it necessarily should. The lower manifestations of the Subliminal, indeed, fall within the resources of the personal subject: his ordinary sense-material, inattentively taken in and subconsciously remembered and combined, will account for all his usual automatisms. But just as our primary wide-awake consciousness throws open our senses to the touch of things material, so it is logically conceivable that if there be higher spiritual agencies that can directly touch us, the psychological condition of their doing so might be our possession of a subconscious region which alone should yield access to them. The hubbub of the waking life might close a door which, in the dreamy Subliminal, might remain ajar or open13.

You may remember that in lecture iv (p. 103) I quoted what he called his “over-belief” that “transmundane energies, God, if you will, produced immediate effects within the natural world” through the openness of this subliminal door. It is this—the lively sense of a Divine power beyond the self which we discussed in lectures iii, iv and v and to which I shall return in the last lecture—that gives one the conviction that the super-ego (although an important evolutionary addition to man’s mental life) is not the real explanation of Divinity. I agree that this is an over-belief and not a scientific certainty, but with it also goes the belief that it will be strengthened by our growing natural theology; it is further supported by the view that the psychical elements to be considered in lecture viii appear likely to be distinct from material ones and also by the growing conviction, to be discussed in the last lecture, that neither the mind nor the sense of awareness (consciousness) can be regarded as mere epiphenomena of the physico-chemical nervous system.

There is so much more that should be said on the relations of psychology and religion, but I have thought it important to devote the greater part of this one lecture to discussing the impact of psychoanalytical theory. In the next lecture I shall be saying more about one special aspect of the relationship: that of sex and religion. There are, of course, other matters that should be taken into account in our natural history of religion—influences that are partly psychological and partly sociological; it is sometimes maintained, for example, that religion is a response to frustration in that it supplies in fantasy a gratification of the needs of people who feel deprived either of worldly goods or of social status (or both). This and other problems are discussed, together with the psycho-analytical theories, by Dr. Michael Argyle in the book Religious Behaviour to which I have already referred (p. 93), and also in a more recent article.14

I will conclude the lecture by saying, with the late Professor Grensted, that I believe that our understanding of the nature of religion and Divinity will contain elements which derive in part from Freud, from Jung and also from William James; in addition however I think it likely that psychology’s greatest contribution will be a truer conception of the nature of consciousness and the body-mind relationship, and that in this it will be assisted by future developments in psychical research.

  • 1.

    The Varieties of Religious Experience, 1902, pp. 483–4.

  • 2.

    ibid., pp. 512–13.

  • 3.

    The Psychology of Religion, 1952, pp. 52–3.

  • 4.

    The Psychology of Religion (1952), p. 60.

  • 5.

    The Future of an Illusion, p. 18.

  • 6.

    Freud and Christianity, p. 71.

  • 7.

    For example by Emile Durkheim and E. E. Evans-Pritchard (see quotation from the latter on p. 63) and by Godfrey Lienhardt who writes in Social Anthropology, p. 141: “his [Freud’s] use of anthropological material in Totem and Taboo leaves much to be desired”.

  • 8.
    As an example of the highly speculative nature of Freud’s ideas concerning the origin of religion I quote a passage from his Totem and Taboo (p. 154 of the new translation by James Strachey) where he is linking Christian doctrine with totemism:

    “There can be no doubt that in the Christian myth the original sin was one against God the Father. If, however, Christ redeemed mankind from the burden of original sin by the sacrifice of his own life, we are driven to conclude that the sin was a murder. The law of talion, which is so deeply rooted in human feelings, lays it down that a murder can only be expiated by the sacrifice of another life: self-sacrifice points back to blood-guilt. And if this sacrifice of a life brought about atonement with God the Father, the crime to be expiated can only have been the murder of the father.

    “In the Christian doctrine, therefore, men were acknowledging in the most undisguised manner the guilty primaeval deed, since they found the fullest atonement for it in the sacrifice of this one son. Atonement with the father was all the more complete since the sacrifice was accompanied by a total renunciation of the women on whose account the rebellion against the father was started. But at that point the inexorable psychological law of ambivalence stepped in. The very deed in which the son offered the greatest possible atonement to the father brought him at the same time to the attainment of his wishes against the father. He himself became God, beside, or, more correctly, in place of, the father. A son-religion displaced the father-religion. As a sign of this substitution the ancient totem meal was revived in the form of communion, in which the company of brothers consumed the flesh and blood of the son—no longer the father—obtained sanctity thereby and identified themselves with him. Thus we can trace through the ages the identity of the totem meal with animal sacrifice, with the anthropic human sacrifice and with the Christian Eucharist, and we can recognize in all these rituals the effect of the crime by which men were so deeply weighed down but of which they must none the less feel so proud. The Christian communion, however, is essentially a fresh elimination of the father, a repetition of the guilty deed. We can see the full justice of Frazer’s pronouncement [The Golden Bough, part v, vol. 2, p. 51, 1912] that ‘the Christian communion has absorbed within itself a sacrament which is doubtless far older than Christianity’.” [Translator’s note: No one familiar with the literature of the subject will imagine that the derivation of Christian communion from the totem meal is an idea originating from the author of the present essay.]

  • 9.

    Totem and Taboo, new translation by James Strachey, pp. 157–8.

  • 10.

    Freud and Christianity, p. 137.

  • 11.

    ibid., p. 162.

  • 12.

    The Psychology of Religion, p. 83.

  • 13.

    The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 242.

  • 14.

    “Seven Psychological Roots of Religion”, Theology, vol. 67, pp. 333–9, 1964.

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