The Freud Museum

Events Archive

1 June 1996

Religion and Psychoanalysis

Conference Report

Following the publication of Is Psychoanalysis Another Religion? (Freud Museum Publications, 1994) a conference was held in 1996 on a similar theme. In setting the intellectual scene in his introduction, our chairman David Black commented that such openness to religion from the side of psychoanalysis would have been unthinkable only a few short years before.

Three themes reverberated throughout the day. Firstly the concept of 'spiritual journey'; secondly the recognition of a human desire to go beyond the boundaries of the ego; and thirdly the quest for a sophisticated conception of 'God' which transcended the notion of a concrete 'personality'.

These themes were spelt out in Nina Coltart's memorable paper which opened the conference. She spoke about the teachings of Therevada Buddhism and drew close parallels with the practice of psychoanalysis as a kind of moral pursuit. The concept of inevitable 'suffering', for instance, one of the Three Signs of Being , has its echo in the ubiquity of anxiety and frustration in Freud's vision of human life. The Law of Dependent Origination focuses the mind on the detailed chains of causality which fashion (or 'by which we fashion') our being, reminding us perhaps of Freud's insistence on free association as the mainspring of analysis.
As opposed to either Hindu or Judeo-Christian religion, the Buddha taught that there is no self ('Annata'), and no 'supra-ordinate transcendent being' that we can be reunited to. A truly non-theistic religion which makes Buddhism unique amongst the great religions and perhaps difficult for the Western mind to attune to. Provocatively she argued that there is a 'fundamental incompatibility' between theistic and non-theistic religion, and made no secret of which one she felt was the most sensible choice! Nina Coltart's paper has been published in her book The Baby and the Bathwater (Karnac Books 1996).

After the morning break Fakhry Davids pursued the idea of god in all its complexity. As a concrete 'internal object' or an 'unknowable' one; as projected infantile omnipotence, or mature acknowledgment of 'otherness', there are different kinds of 'god' and different relationships to them. Using pertinent clinical material Fakhry introduced us to 'the facts of death'. He claimed that it was perhaps 'psychologically impossible' for human beings to deal with the truth of death - the realisation that our most 'precious gift' comes from elsewhere. It is this universal awareness which underlies the wish to turn to the objects of religion. To illustrate his idea he recounted the Muslim prayers he learnt as a child, before going to bed and on waking: 'Oh God, in thy name do I die and live', and 'All praise to God who has revived us back to life after giving us death, and to whom we shall all return'. The prayers articulated both the anxiety and the hope, recognising the fact that our lives are, in a sense, in the hands of another being and giving it a name. He asked "Can a 'realm of God' be said to exist in the mind?" and took us on a journey into the world of Sufi mysticism with its 'impossible task' of developing a relationship to a god defined as 'unknowable'. In accepting this 'great paradox', and the radical otherness of god, the seeker achieves a measure of spiritual maturity and transcends the essentially infantile wish to be reunited with and succoured by a parent-imago.

It was with the concept of transcendence that Bob Young began his talk 'The Search for Transcendent Values' in the afternoon. He said "I think of the search for the transcendent as an attempt to find a basis for believing in good, hopeful purposes, values and meanings. What, if anything, is the basis for believing in the meaning of life..?" To answer this question he took us on a journey through his own intellectual and spiritual development as it resonated with his work as a psychotherapist and academic. His studies in biology and philosophy taught him that values are intrinsic to the practice of science despite its claims to neutrality. If in the 'postmodern' age the certainties offered by religion and science are not rooted as securely as we hoped 'we must admit that we have always rooted our transcendent values in culture'. He argued that values and our painful relations with them lie at the deepest level of our unconscious mental processes. Using clinical material from the study of perversion he showed that at the most elementary level lies something about essentially moral values of good and bad, love and hate, as rooted in 'human nature'. He found evidence for hope in the recent work of Norman Geras who showed that many of those who helped victims of Nazi persecution gave universal principles as their reasons. 'Some were religious, some political, some humanitarian, but all invoked transcendent values..'. The transcendent, then, is that which takes us beyond the bounds of self and enables us to say (in the words of the poem Abou Ben Adhem by Leigh Hunt with which Bob Young finished his talk): '...write me as one who loved his fellow men'.

The conference ended with a long plenary session and discussion, expertly chaired by David Black. His essay 'What sort of thing is a religion?' is published in the International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, Vol 74, Part 3.

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