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Carl Jung's Interpretation of Religion

In: Religion Topics

Submitted By Connell123
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Carl Jung has a very broad interpretation of 'religion' and to understand it, one must first examine the concepts Jung puts forward to explain his theory- the collective unconscious and archetypes, as frameworks within the collective unconscious, and how they relate to the process of individuation, the process by which the conscious individual 'harmonises' their psyche (mind). Jung accounts for religion as an expression of the collective unconscious of the species (though Jung may not have agreed with speciation) - religion helps the individuation process. within Jung's concept of the psyche, a three tier system - the personal conscious, the personal unconscious (repressed memories) and the collective unconscious (the blueprint that 'religious' images emerge from, conditioned by the archetypes). The expression of this psyche is the 'libido' (desire), the 'life-force' or energy that is focused through the archetypes.
The archetypes are 'conceptual' frames that are shared by the entire species, they are 'functional dispositions' that innately generate images; the archetypes date back to pre-man evolutionary stages. Some examples of these archetypes are the persona - which manifests in dreams as images of masked parties, or suits of armour, the persona represents the 'outward facing' part of the psyche, the extrovert, which interacts with people; the shadow - this generates 'wilderness' or 'woodland' type images, and represents the 'dark', withdrawn 'inwards facing' part of the psyche - if the libido is focused through this archetype the individual may be diagnosed as schizophrenic, as the individual loses identity and may become catatonic. The two main archetypes that generate God as the 'complete object' or 'whole' are the God archetype, and the Self archetype. Jung said that the images generated by these archetypes are very similar and are dominant in the process of individuation.
The process of individuation is the process by which the individual's psyche is 'harmonised', the collective and personal unconscious, and the conscious parts are all integrated and happiness is achieved; a balanced psyche is religious according to Jung's interpretation of 'religious', and thus, religion to Jung is very important as it staves off neuroses caused by the blockage of desire (or over-flow of desire through one archetype) by allowing the harmony of the psyche to come to fruition. As mentioned earlier, Jung said that the God and the Self archetypes are near identical, and so an image of 'God' is also an image of 'Self', same for the other way around. This interpretation allows for nearly all experiences to be religious - as long as the conscious mind is affected by the desire (libido) being focused through an archetype, the experience is religious - Jung's conception of 'religious' is similar to that of the German theologian Rudolph Otto's 'numinous' - a divine power in control of the experience and originating outside the individual's conscious mind. It follows that any experience conditioned by an archetype is religious then, as archetypes are only in the collective unconscious of the species.
In his numerous works on religion, written over a span of nearly forty years, Freud produced a number of different but in many ways interconnected theories. Religion is a 'universal obsessional ritual' designed to avert imaginary misfortunes and control the unconscious impulses which lead us to feel we are causing them. The rituals attempt to control the outside world and our egoistic and aggressive wishes as well. Another theory by Freud is that religion is an attempt to master the Oedipus complex. According to this theory, everyone has to deal with the problems caused by the fact that we have complex childhood relationships to a mother and father. Love and hate, rivalry and dependence mark our relationships and can cause intense emotional turmoil. Freud also states that religion is a way of working though these problems in a socially acceptable manner so they become easier for each individual to bear. Religion protects people from individual neurosis by being a kind of social neurosis, and so sharing the problem. For instance, in the unconscious we might want our mothers to be virgins and our fathers to be all-powerful. These ideas might be 'mad' if expressed by an individual, but are allowed expression in religion.
Sigmund Freud believes that religion is the return of the repressed. This is similar to the theory above but in this case religion is repeating or working through traumatic events from the distant evolutionary past. Repressed traumas return like the symptoms or character traits of individuals as described in Moses and Monotheism (1939). The important events for Freud are associated with his theory of the primal horde and that religion is a reaction to infantile helplessness. In this theory we try to recreate in religion a feeling of being protected by unbounded 'love' which we yearned for in our state of infantile helplessness. Religious belief protects us from 'the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' (ultimately from the acknowledgment of death) and therefore protects our narcissism. Religion keeps us in the illusion of being at the centre of the universe once more.
Freud’s later claims include a claim that says religion echoes infantile states of 'bliss'. This theory is similar to the one above. Instead of a reaction to infantile helplessness, religion tunes into the sense of 'oneness' which the baby is thought to experience with the mother. The early loss of ego boundaries is reproduced in a feeling of the 'transcendent' in adult life. This theory implies a state of blissful fusion with an all-loving and all-forgiving parent. Freud also looked at this 'oceanic' or 'spiritual' feeling in Civilization and its Discontents (1930).
Freud claims religion is a mass delusion or paranoid wish-fulfilment. Freud had already analysed the 'private religions' of Daniel Schreber (Psychoanalytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia, 1911) and Christopher Haizman ('A Seventeenth Century Demonological Neurosis', 1923) and such delusions are typical of schizophrenia in general. In turning away from reality and putting a wishful reality in its place the person makes use of magical thinking as described in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901). In some ways this brings religion closer to science. Freud had often said that paranoid delusions are like philosophical systems or scientific theories - they are all trying to make sense of the world, and our place in it.
On of Freud’s major theories is that religion is a way to hold groups together. This is implied in the first view above, dealing with egoistic or 'anti-social' impulses. In his Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1920) Freud tries to describe the actual structure of groups as he sees it from the point of view of the emotional ties that bind them together. He returns to the theme in Civilization and its Discontents.
Each of these theories has been criticized for being over-simple. The main objection seems to be directed at the implication that religion is a neurosis. I am not sure this criticism carries much weight. Freud says explicitly that religion can save people from neurosis. He also asserts on more than one occassion that science - the highest achievement of human beings in his eyes - can also be described by using terms from psychopathology. That is to say, as a 'neurosis' in a dynamic sense. For Freud 'neurosis' is not necessarily a pejorative term, it is more or less a shorthand description for the human condition!

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