Skip to main content

Full text of "Psychoanalysis and Religion"

See other formats


Early Journal Content on JSTOR, Free to Anyone in the World 

This article is one of nearly 500,000 scholarly works digitized and made freely available to everyone in 
the world by JSTOR. 

Known as the Early Journal Content, this set of works include research articles, news, letters, and other 
writings published in more than 200 of the oldest leading academic journals. The works date from the 
mid-seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries. 

We encourage people to read and share the Early Journal Content openly and to tell others that this 
resource exists. People may post this content online or redistribute in any way for non-commercial 

Read more about Early Journal Content at 
journal-content . 

JSTOR is a digital library of academic journals, books, and primary source objects. JSTOR helps people 
discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content through a powerful research and teaching 
platform, and preserves this content for future generations. JSTOR is part of ITHAKA, a not-for-profit 
organization that also includes Ithaka S+R and Portico. For more information about JSTOR, please 


Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, Ohio 

Psychoanalysis leads to the real motives in behavior, in contrast with supposed or 
professed motives. It may thus serve to reveal a person's true self, and so reinforce 
religious self-searching. 

Psychoanalysis would clarify religious controversy by disclosing the actual motives 
lying behind religious attitudes. 

The real reasons for the success or the failure of devices in religious education would 
appear. Mixed or obscured motives in the teacher could be evaluated in the interests 
of a more sincere educational process. 

A suggested list of subconscious interests in religious belief and action is given to 
indicate the direction in which inquiry would be led. 

A new technique for religious development would be made possible by an under- 
standing of sublimation. 


The most valuable illumination that psychoanalysis has to 
offer is that touching the disparity between real motives on the 
one hand and alleged or avowed, professed or supposed, motives 
on the other. The problem of psychoanalysis may, with close 
approximation to exactness, be characterized as the ascertain- 
ment of the real motive, using the word "motive," of course, as 
interchangeable with the "wish" or the "desire" of the psycho- 
analytic writers. Whether in dreams or in neuroses or in ordi- 
nary waking experience, one motive is consciously professed 
while another is half-consciously or subconsciously or uncon- 
sciously entertained. In a dream, our apparent concern may 
be to escape a pursuing beast or foe, although our real concern 
may be something sexual. The neurotic may suffer from 
insomnia the underlying purport of which may be an Oedipus 
or Electra complex. A politician may believe himself devoted 
to social reform, yet, could he look deeply into himself, he 
might discover his real motive to be self-aggrandizement, while 
the expert analyst probing still deeper might discern who knows 
what infantile sadistic or exhibitionistic vestiges. 



There is such a thing as taking stock of one's self. Periods 
of self-examination for winnowing the true motives from the 
presumed are enjoined by all religions. "Search me, O God, 
and know my ways; try me and know my thoughts," said the 
Psalmist. Nor is the elaborate apparatus of psychoanalysis 
always necessary in order to expose the duality. "Ofttimes 
a work seemeth to be of charity," says Thomas a Kempis, " and 
it is rather a work of the flesh; because natural inclination, 
self-will, hope of reward, and desire of our own interest are 
motives seldom absent." The outbreaks of petulance on the 
part of persons engaged in public or charitable endeavors betray 
only too frequently the dominance of the amour propre in the 
background over the altruism in the foreground. 

In the domain of controversy and in the domain of education 
and consequently in the domain of religion embracing, as this 
does, controversial and educational tasks, these considerations 
are of overwhelming significance. 

The paramount theme in every contention is duplicity of 
motive. Where such is not suspected and insinuated, alterca- 
tion and its handmaid, sarcasm, have scant food for subsistence. 
"Wilson found it necessary to cancel the G.A.R. appointment 
but he did have leisure to address the Confederate veterans." 
"The church is solicitous for the salvation of your soul; of 
course, prayers and masses cost money." "He hasn't any 
money to pay his debts but he does have money for a trip to 
the coast." "Congress can appropriate billions for military 
purposes and millions for the study of hogs, fish, and chickens, 
but it takes years to get a small appropriation for child and 
maternity welfare." "He cannot attend church; he is too 
busy at the card table." All querulous censures seem to be 
directed not so much at the assumedly real motive of the person 
censured as at the presumed discrepancy between the real motive 
and the avowed. Hypocrisy is the most prolific of charges. 

The motive predicated of us by our antagonist is as likely to 
be false as the motive defensively avowed by ourselves. Never- 


theless, all controversy appears to move in the sphere of motives 
that are seldom real but nearly always assumed. Spinoza is 
probably right in his assertion that, could we glimpse the real 
motives of ourselves and of others, there would be no antip- 
athies and consequently no quarrels. The real motives on 
both sides of any quarrel are perhaps mutually more tolerable 
than the instinctive concealment of them would imply. 

Or take the matter of education. The application of psy- 
choanalysis to pedagogy is undoubtedly among the hopeful 
prospects of the future. Interest and sympathy are funda- 
mental in education, but where are interest and sympathy 
rooted if not in the individual's motives ? To awaken interest 
and sympathy is the problem of the school mistress and of the 
statesman alike. From the games of the nursery to the persua- 
sion of the world, success depends upon the effectiveness of the 
appeal to the desires by which human beings are actuated. 
Tact and diplomacy, indispensable in the kindergarten as on 
the rostrum are also akin to the perception of underlying moti- 
vations. One's own self-discipline requires such knowledge; 
speed or dilatoriness, achievement or failure, depending upon 
the connection established or not yet established between the 
subject of study on the one hand and our innermost proclivities 
on the other. 


Let us now apply these thoughts to the questions of religious 
controversy and religious education. 

The interminable disputations in the religious domain are 
due to misapprehension of motives. While tenets and cere- 
monies are the ostensible points at issue, motives are the actual 
factors involved. Yet each side is misinformed concerning its 
own no less than concerning its opponent's real motives. The 
flimsy logic and the conspicuous irritability characterizing these 
discussions evidence this; as also the fact that controversy 
ceases, although no other agreement is reached, the very mo- 
ment that one side recognizes the "sincerity," that is, the worthy 


motivation of the other. When controversy is at its bitterest, 
each side affirms its own motive to be justice and truth, with 
falsehood, greed, or arrogance as the motive of the other side. 
Even when the antagonism is mild, the intimations of error 
with which the opponent is charged carry with them the insinu- 
ation that there are volitional causes of the error, " wilful error," 
as the phrase goes. In this spirit "Homousion" has fought 
"Homoiusion," Atheist has been arrayed against Theist and 
Theist against Atheist, Trinitarian has contended with Unita- 
rian, Protestant with Catholic, Liberal with Conservative, 
Rabbinite with Karaite, Pharisee with Sadducee, and thus 
throughout the history of religious conflict. 

But what if investigation were to show family affection or 
self-preservation or "free exercise of personality" or even the 
sexual inexorabilities to be the true motives involved? Yes, 
what if behind the diversity of doctrine there should prove to 
be an identity of purpose ? What if it were to develop that 
"the objects on both sides are virtually the same," as President 
Wilson said of the belligerents in the Great War ? Obviously 
the course of the controversy would be profoundly affected. 
How much less sterile, in all events, religious discussion would 
become could we grapple with the real points at issue and cease 
to flounder among the spurious points! We would no longer 
reply to him who is inordinately attached to his social group, 
by proving that the earth revolves around the sun or to him 
who is enamored of his ancestry by demonstrating that the 
Pentateuch is of post-exilic origin. 

Relative to all of this we might then proceed to put to psy- 
choanalysis some further questions. We have observed that 
loyalty to truth can be a motive avowed although not actually 
cherished. Does it ever happen, however, that avowal and 
fact coincide? Is there such a thing as perfect objectivity, 
devotion to truth unalloyed ? 

Again, would a person completely devoted to truth be likely 
to engage in controversy ? Is the truth-seeking attitude com- 


patible with the controversial attitude ? The f amiliar psycho- 
analytic term for the truth-seeking attitude is "the reality 
principle." Can the susceptibility toward disputation harmon- 
ize with the reality principle? Is not perhaps the very soul 
of controversy non-reality, its very essence that misconstruc- 
tion of motives in one's self and in others already discussed ? 

Another possible query is this: The "reality principle" 
itself — may it not be a special manifestation of something more 
nearly fundamental such as "the instinct of self-preservation" 
or "the instinct of grappling with the world" or whatever else 
psychoanalysis may divulge ? One is reminded in this connec- 
tion of the pragmatic school in philosophy which regards truth 
as "that which works out in practice." Reality is, according 
to pragmatism, an attribute of man's handling of the universe 
rather than of the universe independent of human reaction. 
Were psychoanalysis to find the reality principle to be a phase 
of some deeper "self-preservation" or "world-confronting" 
principle, its conclusions would be, in a marked degree, ancillary 
to those of the pragmatic philosophy. 


We proceed now to the question of education in the religious 
domain, using "education" in a sense broad enough to include 
not merely preaching and instruction but all forms of propa- 
ganda, persuasion, inspiration, and edification. The problem, 
here as elsewhere, bifurcates into two questions: (i) What is 
the end in view ? (2) What are the means best adapted to the 

Before answering the first of these questions, it may be 
necessary to meet the preliminary question whether the end 
of religious endeavor is something that admits of verbal expres- 
sion. Language is fully capable of designating the subordinate 
ends of life such as health, food, shelter, order, recreation, law- 
fulness, etc., which are themselves but means toward higher and 
larger ends. Whether fife's ultimate end is amenable to fin- 


guistic designation is not easy to decide and yet, when religion 
is under consideration, we may not stop short of life's ultimate 
end. What is the measure of adequacy of such words as 
"God," "Salvation," "Love," "Personality," "Self-realiza- 
tion," "Life more abundant," "Heaven," etc., as denominatives 
of the final goal ? Even should we fail to justify these terms 
as nomenclature for life's ultimate, we may still find their use 
warrantable as indexes of the direction in which the ultimate 
lies. They may, in mathematical parlance, be variables though 
not constants. They may be signposts though not the destina- 

Outside of the religious domain, it does not require unusual 
introspection to disclose the ends that are sought. Where the 
object is to learn a science or a language, to amass wealth, to 
enact a law, to institute a social reform and the like, the end 
is some definite, clear-cut, objective state of affairs. With the 
religious ends, it is otherwise. In religious teleology, the entire 
human personality is involved and this includes of course the 
unconscious which is said to be the greater part of that person- 
ality. The more, therefore, that we understand the uncon- 
scious, the more we shall comprehend regarding the ends of 
human existence. The summum bonum must remain a mystery 
as long as the greater part of the personality seeking the sum- 
mum bonum abides in mystery. 

The same must be said about religious methodology. Not 
only for the sake of interest and sympathy already noted as 
essential in all education but for additional and unique reasons 
must religion disinter the motives underlying. Since the ends 
involve the entire personality, including the unconscious, the 
means must reckon with the unconscious. The unconscious 
belongs to the very raw material of religious education. It is 
that which is to receive the education. What, for instance, is 
the unconscious utility and effect of our customary religious 
equipment and resources, literary, musical, artistic, architec- 
tural, oratorical, financial, social ? For good or for ill what is 


the unconscious potency of our churches, songs, phrases, stories, 
creeds, paintings, sermons, classes, church receptions, and 
entertainments? That these often fail of their purpose — 
inspiration, consolation, moralization, or whatever that pur- 
pose may be — is patent to the friendliest. Why do they fail ? 
If these means fail, what means will succeed ? 

Moreover, what is the r61e, in this connection, of the reality 
principle just alluded to ? How shall we who are scientifically 
inclined substantiate our conviction that obscurantism, dogma- 
tism, and sentimentalism are wrong and that the scientific atti- 
tude of undeviating search for facts is ethically as well as 
physically imperative? Allied to this is the further inquiry: 
What religious aptitudes, if any, harmonize with the reality 
principle? Which violate the principle and which affront it 
most flagrantly ? 

Even more salient than the motives in the learner's psyche 
are those in the religious teacher's or leader's psyche. How 
often is the teacher's character as an individual and his effi- 
ciency as an instructor impaired by adulterated motivations. 
Ambition edges up against aspiration. The desire for prestige, 
admiration, or financial betterment breaks the singleness of 
purpose in the religious teacher's soul, perturbs and emasculates 
his efforts. Add to this the sectarian and the racial, the social 
and political complications of religious endeavor. Group 
interests of Catholics, Protestants, and Jews mingle with the 
true religious motivations in the minds of teachers and learners, 
leaders and followers alike hampering or preventing progress 
toward the "highest good." How shall these adulterations be 
detected and excluded ? If psychoanalysis can render assistance 
on this head, its religious value were inestimable. 


A tentative division of the field could offer the following lines 
of inquiry: (i) doctrines; (2) rituals; (3) phrases; (4) various 
combinations of doctrines, rituals, and phrases figuring in the 


preferences and aversions of various individuals. Opposition 
or aversion to certain doctrines, rituals, and phrases is as impor- 
tant, from our standpoint, as belief and acceptance. The mo- 
tivation behind the negative is as significant as the motivation 
behind the affirmative. Indeed, we are told by the psycho- 
analysts that the unconscious has no negative but that some 
latent affirmation is the counterpart of every conscious nega- 
tion. We must therefore probe to the unconscious bases, not 
only of the belief in God, immortality, miracles, etc., but also 
of the opposition to those beliefs. 

Anterior to any inquiry or real knowledge in the matter, let 
us, for purely illustrative purposes, venture a few guesses why 
a given individual or class of individuals may affirm belief in 
God. (1) Esteem for parents or elders who held and taught 
that belief. (2) Race or class loyalty. (3) Resentment of the 
non-believer's implied disrespect for the believer's parents, 
elders, race, class, or for the believer himself. (4) Unwillingness 
to "take chances." (5) The domineering instinct. (6) Reluc- 
tance to be troubled with doubts and questionings. (7) Dread 
of public opinion involving jeopardy of monetary, professional, 
or social prospects. (8) Gratification over escape from some 
pain or danger. (9) The experience of mystic satisfactions 
such as "the peace that passeth understanding." Would the 
psychoanalyst call this experience the sublimation of a dis- 
agreeable repression ? 

It will be noticed, in our conjectural analysis, that we have 
boldly ignored the "arguments" for belief in God. This is 
because we are concerned not with "arguments," but with the 
real reasons. Arguments are camouflage. We should pause 
for the arguments only long enough to spy out of them the 
traces of the actual motivations. 

Perhaps the expert analyst will find implicated in the God 
belief factors much different from those conjecturally enumer- 
ated above. Like the expert in chemistry, he may discover 
that what the layman regards as elementary is not an element 


but a compound. Esteem for parents, class consciousness, 
mystic raptures, etc., may in turn admit of analysis into ingre- 
dients more rudimentary. 

Every religious doctrine should be submitted to psycho- 
analytic scrutiny, including, as already stated, not only belief in 
God, immortality, revelation, miracles, atonement, resurrec- 
tion, transubstantiation, etc., but also the rejection of those 
beliefs. Curious questions are sure to arise. Here is one : How 
account for the ascendancy of the illogical in religion ? Why 
are men who are rigidly logical in other matters ready to relax 
their mental vigilance in matters of creed ? 

Rituals also should be studied. The recondite motivations 
behind prayer, genuflections, candles, communion, hymn sing- 
ing, benedictions, baptism, scripture reading, and the countless 
other rites should be exhumed. Professed and alleged reasons 
should speedily be abandoned and diligent search made for the 
real reasons. We may have to stand prepared for amazing 
revelations of masochism, sadism, exhibitionism, or of astound- 
ing struggles against these and other crudely primitive im- 
pulses at the root of the diverse attitudes manifested in ritual 

Still more extensive is the field of religious phraseology. 
What, for instance, was in the psyche of Tertullian when he said 
"credo quia absurdum" or of the modern conservative when he 
berates "infidel science" ? What is the unconscious import of 
" God bless you," "The glory of God," "Life everlasting, world 
without end," "Inner peace," "Inner light," and even the 
parallels, in real life, to the jest about "that blessed word 
Mesopotamia " ? The entire realm of religious literature would 
eventually fall within this section of the field. The unique 
religious potency of the unintelligible should especially receive 
attention. Why is it that the phrases and books that people 
understand least are those by which they are edified most? 
Like the illogical in doctrine, the unintelligible in phraseology 
is often the most compelling. Why ? 


Particular stress should be laid upon the emotional concom- 
mitants of the several preferences and aversions. In the entire 
scope of religious expression, there is hardly a doctrine, ritual, or 
phrase but evokes in diverse individuals or in the same indi- 
vidual at different times, diverse reactions ranging from indiffer- 
ence to martyrdom, from jocularity to tragedy. Why this 
diversity ? 

Finally, we encounter the striking combinations of tendencies 
in various individuals. Why will people accept certain doc- 
trines and rituals while rejecting others even at the cost of glar- 
ing inconsistency? There are Jews, for instance, who follow 
the dietary laws at home yet flout them outside of their homes 
or who will vehemently object to the holding of a religious ser- 
vice on any day except the traditional Sabbath although them- 
selves spending the traditional Sabbath at their customary 
occupations. Christians will accept the New Testament teach- 
ings about hell fire and about the end of the world yet ignore 
the New Testament teachings about poverty and meekness. 
Seventh Day Adventists evince extraordinary scruple about 
observing the Old Testament Sabbath yet would not dream of 
observing the Old Testament teachings about circumcision, 
fringes, and the Levirate marriage. Examples could be cited 
ad infinitum. The idiosyncracies of selection in religious 
matters would constitute a sphere of inquiry unusually fas- 


In seeking these psychoanalytic undercurrents, be it noted, 
we are entering upon an entirely new departure. Religious 
discussion has hitherto circled around the scientific or the his- 
torical or, at the lowest, the politic value of given creeds and 
rites. Our concern is the psychoanalytic value. A doctrine 
may be objectionable from a scientific or historical standpoint 
and yet, like a dream image, or better, like an excellent novel, 
epic, or drama, express or arouse something of value in the 
unconscious sphere. These considerations are closely akin to 


those involved in judging a work of art. The resurrection doc- 
trine, for instance, may have an artistic or psychoanalytic value 
even though, taken as a scientific or historical statement, the 
doctrine may be revolting. Suppose that the resurrection 
belief chanced to indicate hidden longings to aid those who are 
handicapped by poverty, or suppose that the ritual of baptism 
should be found to be somehow interwoven with a sense of com- 
passion for the aged, or suppose that a phrase like "the Holy 
Catholic Church" were to prove, upon analysis, to be linked 
with an unconscious resolve to live an orderly, systematic life; 
or suppose, conversely, that psychoanalysis were to detect at 
the unconscious foundations of a given doctrine, ritual, or 
phrase, or group of doctrines, rituals, and phrases, a sentiment 
of class pride, exclusiveness, and arrogance, or — as happens 
probably with regrettable frequency — an unwillingness to face 
the realities of life, a reluctance to discriminate between wish 
and fact. Is it not obvious that a psychoanalytic value may 
attach to a given doctrine ritual or phrase or group of such 
entirely different from the scientific or historical value ? 

Psychoanalysis has much to say about sublimation. Primi- 
tive tendencies, socially undesirable, such as promiscuity, can- 
nibalism, and the like are, we are told, either repressed, often 
with pathological consequences, or are, under happier circum- 
stances, sublimated by being discharged into channels of inno- 
cent diversion or of useful endeavor. Suppose that careful 
analysis were to show this benign process of sublimation 
expressed, assisted, or inspired by certain beliefs, rituals, and 
phrases. Since the days of Aristotle, a celebrated concept in 
art criticism has been that of the "Catharsis," "purification 
through pity and terror." Various religious beliefs, rituals, 
and phrases have undoubtedly voiced or exercised a similar 
cathartic propensity. Consider, for instance, the phrase about 
"the peace that passeth understanding." Does not some 
identity between the catharsis of Aristotle, the sublimation of 
psychotherapy and the "wonderful peace," "the healing grace" 


of religion seem highly probable ? Suppose now that certain 
properties of religion could be shown to aid (or to hinder) the 
work of sublimation. Is not this a feature requiring appraisal 
entirely independent of any scientific or historical estimate 
that the doctrine, ritual, or phrase may merit ? 


An appeal should be directed to all competent psychoana- 
lysts, both in America and abroad, to send to some duly 
interested, qualified, and responsible individual or committee 
whatever findings with regard to the problems above men- 
tioned they may encounter in the course of their psycho- 
analytic practice. The material should be collated, sifted, 
classified, and studied with a view to the ultimate publication 
or perhaps periodic publication of the results. Each stage of 
the research would probably produce new concepts, viewpoints, 
and bases of discrimination serviceable in subsequent research. 
It goes without saying that unusual caution will have to be 
exercised in dealing with the investigator's personal equation. 
Thoroughgoing objectivity is indispensable, any prejudice or 
bias, even unconscious, except with due allowance, being fatal 
to trustworthy results. Still it is not too much to hope that 
this procedure faithfully and consistently followed may either 
solve or at least throw new light upon the age-old problems 
of religious controversy and religious education.