The Freud Museum


Is Psychoanalysis a religion?

Many critics see psychoanalysis as a kind of religion, with its holy texts, its hierarchies and churches, disciples spreading the good news, promises of salvation, and claims to truth. Or they believe it is a bit like the Moonies, only worse. Even trainee psychotherapists may feel they are being initiated into a cult and imagine they are acquiring secret knowledge that will give them power over other people. To 'know everything' is surely one of our most cherished childhood wishes. Similarly, people outside the field might picture a group of adherents using magical procedures to read people's minds and take away their free will.

Other people think that psychoanalysis is not like a religion, but it ought to be. On the one side they see religion as a domain of caring, love, and the spiritual and moral aspects of life; on the other side they see psychoanalysis as a hard science and medical procedure that is unconcerned with these higher things. Psychoanalysis is not religion, they say, and it is all the poorer for it. We do not always want the 'higher' realms of life explained. It takes something away from us. As if knowing the recipe destroys the pleasure of eating.

A psychoanalyst might point out that there is a sharp opposition between psychoanalysis and any kind of fundamentalist religion, based on the literal reading of religious texts. Psychoanalysis is defined by the questioning of the literal meanings of things, and its own 'sacred texts' are continually modified and re-assessed.

Psychoanalysis and shamanism

But might psychoanalysis be akin to faith healing or shamanic ritual? In his paper 'The Effectivesness of Symbols' the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss examines a shamanic healing ritual from the Cuna population in Panama, and draws parallels with psychoanalysis. The purpose of the ritual is to facilitate difficult childbirth. It involves the elaborate rendition of a myth by the shaman, enlisting spirit forces onto the side of the woman in her struggle to restore her purba, or soul.

"The cure would consist, therefore, in making explicit a situation orginally existing on the emotional level and in redering acceptable to the mind pains which the body refuses to tolerate... The shaman provides the sick woman with a language, by means of which unexpressed, and otherwise inexpressible, psychic states can be immediately expressed" (Structural Anthroplogy p197-8)

The shaman's words - his rendition and enactment of the myth - reintegrate the woman's suffering within a whole cosmology where everything is meaningful, and in doing so, real changes occur. Does psychoanalysis, too, anchor people's lives in a new kind of individual mythology - of good and bad objects, Oedipal struggles, internal worlds, trauma and repression, which the patient uses to put together a fragmented psyche?

A psychoanalyst might smile at this description of her practice. Without wishing to disparage the shaman's art, or the efficacy of his interventions, she might nevertheless point out some crucial differences. The shaman speaks for his patient; the psychoanalyst tries to help the patient speak for himself. The shaman's work depends on the patient believing the myth and knowing the story; whereas belief and knowledge may function as an obstacle to change in the case of psychoanalysis. The shaman tries to guide the patient through a process which is predetermined and known beforehand; the psychoanalyst does not know where her work will lead.

A substitute for religion?

But could psychoanalysis be a substitute for religion? Did the changes which affected 19th century life - material, technological, social, cultural, scientific, ideological - result in a breakdown of traditional social bonds, social fragmentation and a loss of certainty, which was replaced by psychoanalysis? Urbanisation, changing family structures, feminism, the rise of consumerism and new kinds of work, industrialisation, railways, telephones, leisure, penny dreadfuls, prostitution, the working class, Darwin, Queen Victoria, 'Darkest England', the Eiffel Tower, science and sexology, the savage within. When Nietzsche declared 'God is dead' did psychoanalysis come in to fill the gap and declare 'God is unconscious'?

The ideas of psychoanalysis are used to offer a kind of religious consolation to the man who has lost his faith. A new kind of community of believers; new certainty about self and identity; a new kind of morality about sin and redemption; a new kind of God.

It has been said that the psychoanalyst has taken the place of the priest and that the process of analysis has taken the place of confession. However the person who comes to analysis does not know his 'sins' and in that respect the process is unlike a confession. The patient is not judged by the psychoanayst and relieved of his sins by performing a penitent ritual. He is relieved of them (say, guilt) by becoming a different person. That's why it takes a very long time! Nevertheless, psychoanalysis may have something in common with a spiritual quest. It leads to an acknowledgement of our dependence on an 'Other' outside ourselves, however that knowledge is reached, and however uniquely defined by different individuals. It leads to a greater tolerance of the inner demons of the unconscious - a process not unlike redemption for past 'sins'. It embodies a kind of moral pursuit for 'truth'. In recent years psychoanalysts and others have taken up Freud's enduring interest and suggested new approaches. No longer simply an object of study, they have turned to religion as a potential source of knowledge. What is spirituality? What is faith? What do we mean by 'God'? How do we achieve a sense of connection to a world beyond the self? What are the bases of our moral values and sense of community? And what can theological and psychoanalytic thinkers learn from each other about human nature, our needs and desires?

adapted from Introducing Psychoanalysis by Ivan Ward and Oscar Zarate

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