Terror and Transformation
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Terror and Transformation

The Ambiguity of Religion in Psychoanalytic Perspective

James W. Jones

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eBook - ePub

Terror and Transformation

The Ambiguity of Religion in Psychoanalytic Perspective

James W. Jones

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Religion has been responsible for both horrific acts against humanity and some of humanity's most sublime teachings and experiences. How is this possible? From a contemporary psychoanalytic perspective, this book seeks to answer that question in terms of the psychological dynamic of idealisation.
At the heart of living religion is the idealisation of everyday objects. Such idealisations provide much of the transforming power of religious experience, which is one of the positive contributions of religion to the psychological life. However, idealisation can also lead to religious fanaticism which can be very destructive. Drawing on the work of various contemporary relational theorists within psychoanalysis, this book develops a psychoanalytically informed theory of the transforming and terror-producing effects of religious experience. It discusses the question of whether or not, if idealisation is the cause of many of the destructive acts done in the name of religion, there can be vital religion without idealisation.
This is the first book to address the nature of religion and its capacity to sponsor both terrorism and transformation in terms of contemporary relational psychoanalytic theory. It will be invaluable to students and practitioners of psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, psychology and religious studies, and to others interested in the role of religion in the lives of individuals and societies.

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Chapter 1

Religion and idealization

We begin with the question of what is religion. One characteristic of virtually all religions was pointed out by the young man I met in the basilica in Spain who said that the statue he had just kissed was “very sacred.” Almost every religion has a person or persons, a text or texts, a ritual or meditative practice, a tree or mountain or statue, that its adherents consider “very sacred.” To be religious is, in part, to be devoted to something that is experienced as sacred or holy.
Consider five texts from four religious traditions.
All the faithful of Christ must believe that the holy and Apostolic See and the Roman Pontiff possesses the primacy over the whole world, and that the Roman Pontiff … is the true vicar of Christ and the head of the whole church and the father and teacher of all Christians and that the full power was given to him in blessed Peter to rule, feed, and govern the universal church. Hence we teach and declare that by the appointment of our Lord the Roman Church possesses a superiority of ordinary power over all other churches and that this power of jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff … is immediate; to which all of whatever rite or dignity, both individually and collectively are bound by their duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, to submit not only in matters which belong to faith and morals, but also to those that appertain to the discipline and governance of the church throughout the world … this is the teaching of Catholic truth from which no one can deviate without loss of faith and salvation … we teach and define that the Roman Pontiff … is possessed of that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed … and that therefore such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of themselves … But if anyone … presume to contradict this our definition: let him be anathema.
(Dogmatic Decree of Pope Pius IX, 1870)
The Bodhisattva, bound to Transcendent Wisdom, lives with nothing clouding his mind. Lacking confusion, he is intrepid, and having passed beyond error, reaches nirvana. All Buddhas, of the past, present, or future, bound to irrefutable Transcendent Wisdom, reach completely full understanding and the highest awakening. Therefore Transcendent Wisdom should be known as the great mantra, the great knowledge mantra, the invincible mantra, the unsurpassable mantra, causing all suffering to cease. It is trustworthy because it is not in error.
(from the Heart Sutra)
It is the basic tenet of Judaism that the Torah, in its entirety with interpretations and rules of exegesis and codification was divinely given. It is unchangeable.
(quoted in Selengut, 1994: 250)
All those Boddhisattvas who in this assembly have heard well only a single stanza, a single verse, or who even by a single rising thought have joyfully accepted this Sutra, to all of them … I predict their destiny to supreme and perfect enlightenment … whoever shall hear this and after hearing, if only a single stanza, joyfully accept it, even with a single rising thought … I predict their destiny to supreme and perfect enlightenment.
(from the Lotus Sutra)
For you alone are the Holy One
you alone are the Lord
you alone are the Most High,
Jesus Christ
(from the Gloria from the new Episcopal liturgy)
Psychologically, what do these passages from different traditions – all of which evoke something sacred – have in common? One common theme is the dynamic of idealization; all idealize something. The first idealizes an institution – the Roman Catholic Church and its Papacy – as infallible and worthy of unquestioning obedience. The second idealizes a practice – reciting a mantra – as producing perfect Wisdom. The third idealizes a text. The fourth also idealizes a text which it says is so powerful that even a single verse is able to produce complete enlightenment. The last idealizes a Messianic figure as the only Lord and the only Holy Being. This dynamic of idealization is one, but certainly not the only, fundamental psychological element in the encounter with some object or experience that is considered sacred.
In this way religious experience parallels the experience of romantic love. In both cases some other, some object, is seen in idealized terms. Consider one of the earliest love poems in Western literature, the Song of Songs,
How beautiful are your sandalled feet …
The curves of your thighs are like jewels,
the work of a skilled craftsman …
Your breasts are like twin fawns
two fawns of a gazelle.
Your neck is like a tower of ivory …
How beautiful, how entrancing you are
my loved one, daughter of delights.
You are stately as a palm tree
and your breasts are the clusters of dates.
I said I will climb up the palm to grasp its leaves.
May I find your breasts like clusters of grapes on the vine,
the scent of your breath like apricots
and your whispers like spiced wine …
You are beautiful dearest …
Turn your eyes away from me
they dazzle me …
There may be sixty princesses,
eighty concubines, and young women beyond counting,
but there is one alone, my dove, my perfect one …
Who is this that looks out like the dawn,
beautiful as the moon, bright as the sun
majestic as the starry heavens …?
I did not know myself;
she made me feel more than a prince
reigning over the myriads of his people.
(Song of Songs 7:1–9; 6:4–12, NEB, slightly altered)
Partly because they have in common this psychological dynamic of idealization, religions have often used the imagery of love, and even romance and sexuality, to convey their most intense experiences. Under the inspiration of the Song of Songs, St John of the Cross wrote one of his most profound descriptions of mystical ecstasy, which contains erotic stanzas such as,
The Bride has entered
Into the pleasant garden of her desire,
And at her pleasure rests,
Her neck reclining on the gentle arms of the Beloved.
This, John says, describes the soul’s being betrothed to God and resting only on the power of the Almighty (St John of the Cross, 1961).
Evangelical Christians regularly sing of the love of Jesus in hymns that shout, “What wondrous love is this,” or speak of “Love divine, all loves excelling.” They exclaim, “How sweet is His love to me” and sing of the “Love that will not let me go.” Evangelicals want to “Tell the sweet story of love” and call for “More love to thee O Christ, more love to thee.”
In India the worshippers of Kali, like the nineteenth-century Bengali mystic Ramakrishna, picture the goddess as “the perfect erotic object” – naked with ample breasts and shapely thighs in a seductive pose – and worship her with sensual music and dance and a mantra which contains images of lust, fire, and sexual desire (Kripal, 1998: 89).
It is not coincidence that religious devotees write poems, sing songs, and use language that often parallels the secular language of romantic love. Deep psychological connections are at work here, including the dynamic of idealization. The beloved – whether that be the bride of the Song of Songs, Ramakrishna’s Kali, the latest woman in the life of any popular rock and roll singer, the Jesus of evangelical devotion – is inevitably idealized.
Ecstatic experience – whether in the honeymoon suite or the Pentecostal meeting hall – involves more than the release of emotion; it also involves an idealized object. Such ecstasies demand letting go of inhibitions and giving oneself over to another and to the powerful psychological currents that are thereby set free. And, as we shall see, one can only abandon oneself so completely, so unreservedly, to another who is highly idealized. So idealization becomes an important dynamic in many religious texts and practices, since devotion requires idealization, and it is also a crucial catalyst for the transforming ecstasies of the encounter with sacred objects.


One of the first to describe the dynamics of idealization was Sigmund Freud in his essay “On Narcissism” (1914), in which he discusses the dynamic of idealization in terms of what he calls “primary narcissism.” Primary narcissism refers to the way in which the infant loves itself and feels itself to be the center of the universe. In the process of loving another, the child (or the childish adult) projects a portion of this primary narcissism onto the beloved, seeing them as perfect and complete. This projection depletes the infant (or the adult) of a portion of its primary narcissism. Thus for Freud, there is always a trade-off between idealization and self-esteem. Idealization comes at a cost to self-love and self-affirmation. Since the amount of energy available is limited, if it is given to the beloved, it is taken from oneself.
Libidinal object-cathexis does not raise self-regard. The effect of dependence upon the love-object is to lower that feeling … A person who loves has, so to speak, forfeited a part of his narcissism and it can only be replaced by his being loved.
(Freud, 1914: 98)
For Freud, love and idealization walk hand in hand. He writes,
Being in love consists in a flowing-over of ego-libido on to the object. It has the power to remove repressions and re-instate perversions. It exalts the sexual object into the sexual ideal … [since] being in love occurs in virtue of the fulfillment of infantile conditions for loving, we may say that whatever fulfills that condition is idealized.
(Freud, 1914: 100)
Since it involves an “overvaluation,” romantic love, with its idealization, involves a break with reality-testing and so is always immature and dangerous. Attachment to a love-object, Freud writes
displays the marked sexual overvaluation which is doubtless derived from the child’s original narcissism and thus corresponds to a transference of that narcissism to the sexual object. This sexual overvaluation is the origin of that peculiar state of being in love, a state suggestive of a neurotic compulsion, which is thus traceable to an impoverishment of the ego as regards libido in favor of the love-object.
(Freud, 1914: 88)
Such an “impoverishment of the ego” is too costly for Freud. Maturity involves a journey from this primary narcissism to embracing the reality principle in which the other is seen objectively and realistically and such idealizations are left behind. The reality principle is subverted by the power of narcissistic wishes when either the self or a beloved other are granted powers and qualities beyond what is realistic.
In the course of normal development, according to Freud, the inevitable intrusions of reality gradually undercut the infant’s narcissism, eventually leading to the acceptance of the objective world. Narcissistic libido is thereby transformed into “object libido” in which the child ceases to experience reality as an extension of her infantile grandiosity. Proper development journeys from primary process to secondary process, outgrowing the pleasure principle and embracing the reality principle. The illusory and the infantile are gradually brought under the control of the real and the rational. Any remaining infantile illusions are a continuation of a primitive mental state and so represent the greatest danger to rationality and sanity. Such claims involve a retreat from reality into the seductive and gratifying but ultimately destructive world of illusion. If the reality principle is weak, one is left vulnerable to what Freud calls “a cure by love” which the neurotic, Freud writes sarcastically, “generally prefers to a cure by analysis” (1914: 101). While such a “cure” may be transformative, “it bring[s] with it all the dangers of a crippling dependence” (1914: 101). Psychoanalysis is not, for Freud, a cure through love. Or, more precisely, the love which Freud speaks about as a bulwark against illness is not romantic love with its extravagant idealizations (like those spilling forth from the Song of Songs) but rather, as Stephen Mitchell describes it, it is “realistic love tempered by secondary-process [which] often seems a sober dispassionate affair” (Mitchell, 1997: 24).
This sharp dichotomy between primary narcissism, which brings with it inevitable idealizations and dependencies, and the reality principle informs Freud’s analysis of religion in The Future of an Illusion. Illusions are defined by their appeal to infantile narcissism and to the wishes and fantasies it generates. “Not necessarily false,” rather “we call a belief an illusion when wish-fulfillment is a prominent factor” (1964: 49). The three functions which he ascribes to religion are all “derived from human wishes” (1964: 48).
First, civilization is a dominant source of human misery because of its imposition of instinctual controls. The rational person accepts this misery as the price paid for the advantages of culture. The immature demands to be rewarded in the imaginary, heavenly realm of eternal, narcissistic bliss that religion supplies. Second, science shows us that nature is impersonal, mechanical, uncaring. The adult accepts these objective facts and learns to live with the reality that his or her life, like all of nature, is meaningless and purposeless. The infantile flee from this assault on their narcissism into the illusion that a warm and caring God stands behind the impersonal façade of nature. Third, the greatest cruelty of fate is the finality of death. The realistic and rational person resigns him- or herself to life’s transitoriness. The narcissistically inclined cannot accept that life is temporary and so cling to the illusion of life after death. Religion, then, appeals to and reinforces our narcissistic inclinations. Religious claims cannot be “precipitates of experience or end results of thinking” but can only represent “fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind” (Freud, 1964: 47).
For Freud there was no middle ground between primary narcissism and the reality principle. Science was the bearer of the reality principle and so anything outside the ken of science was quickly assigned to the domain of narcissism and rejected on that account alone. For example, writing about claims to foretell the future, Freud says that such a claim “corresponds too closely to certain ancient and familiar human desires which criticism must reject as unjustifiable pretensions” (quoted in Merkur, 1992). Anything remotely analogous to primary narcissism must, of necessity, be discredited. No leniency is allowed when it comes to infantile wishes. Even more liberal or intellectual religious beliefs are impossible “so long as they try to preserve anything of the consolation of religion” (Freud, 1964: 89). Any hint of consolation must be denied.
Besides wish-fulfillment, another aspect of narcissism, which enters into Freud’s discussion of religion, is dependency. Freud continually draws a connection between objects of idealization and objects of dependency. This starts with the idealized father on whom the child is absolutely dependent. Again, if childish mental attitudes are not outgrown, the individual continues to look for an object to carry this need for idealization and dependency. In adulthood, of course, the parental figure will no longer do. Something of this need to idealize may be carried over into the experience of romantic love, in which (as we have seen) the beloved is idealized and autonomy and self-esteem are thereby forfeited and the individual becomes, in Freud’s eyes, neurotically dependent on the other.
For Freud, a more direct line can be drawn from the child’s dependency on his father to the worship of, and dependency upon, God.
The derivation of religious needs from the infant’s helplessness and the longing for the father aroused by it seems to me incontrovertible … I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection … The origins of the religious attitude can be traced back in clear outlines as far as the feeling of infantile helplessness.
(1962: 19)
The narcissistic elements in religion trouble Freud the most: its keeping adults in a state of infantile dependency and its denial of reality, especially by promises of consolation that mitigate the harsh truths about life discovered by the sciences, and its pandering to the infantile, narcissistic wish to feel special and live forever.
For Freud, religion consists entirely of these narcissistic, infantile wishes and dependencies. He writes of religion,
Only such a being [”an enormously exalted father”] can understand the needs of the children of men and be softened by their prayers and be placated by the signs of their remorse. The whole thing is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life.
(1962: 21)
Thus Freud was in no position to wonder if there could be a vital religion that was not simply derived from infantile narcissism. For Freud all neurotics, including religious devotees, are completely in the grip of infantile fantasies. Since acceptance of the reality principle is the sole criterion for mental health, there is no place for any accounts of religious motivation or its role in human development other than those that treat religion as infantile and neurotic.
In the past I have been critical, some have said too critical (Jonte- Pace, 1999; Miller-McLemore, 1999), of Freud for framing his argument against religion within...

Indice dei contenuti

  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Title Page
  4. Copyright Page
  5. Dedication
  6. Table of Contents
  7. Acknowledgments
  8. Introduction: Religion and its ambiguities
  9. 1 Religion and idealization
  10. 2 Clinical illustrations
  11. 3 A psychology of the sacred
  12. 4 Idealization and religious fanaticism
  13. 5 Idealization and transformation
  14. 6 Religion without idealization – is it possible?
  15. Epilogue
  16. References
  17. Index
Stili delle citazioni per Terror and Transformation

APA 6 Citation

Jones, J. (2014). Terror and Transformation (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1547714/terror-and-transformation-the-ambiguity-of-religion-in-psychoanalytic-perspective-pdf (Original work published 2014)

Chicago Citation

Jones, James. (2014) 2014. Terror and Transformation. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis. https://www.perlego.com/book/1547714/terror-and-transformation-the-ambiguity-of-religion-in-psychoanalytic-perspective-pdf.

Harvard Citation

Jones, J. (2014) Terror and Transformation. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1547714/terror-and-transformation-the-ambiguity-of-religion-in-psychoanalytic-perspective-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Jones, James. Terror and Transformation. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2014. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.