Religion and psychoanalysis make a volatile mix. Like bleach and ammonia, the combination can leave people gasping in irritation. I’m not interested in activating a burning sensation. I only want to apply some salve to blistering boils of unreason.
Are we strong enough emotionally to consider the application of some rationality, or have we become hopelessly defensive and hypersensitive?
As a psychotherapist, I’m here as a healer, not a critic. I see that fundamentalists of different religions are influenced by unconscious psychological characteristics that impede their objectivity. Psychology believes that our awareness, intelligence, and wisdom can all be enhanced through self-knowledge. This post explores some of that knowledge for the purpose of helping us all, not just fundamentalists, move toward the light.
Fundamentalists of different religions also have a big impact as voting blocs in democratic elections, so an exploration of the underlying issues that frame their political outlook is fair game for civil, intelligent discussion. In this post, I mostly narrow my discussion to Christian fundamentalists. (Of course, fundamentalism isn’t restricted solely to religious beliefs. Secularists, too, can be dogmatic, and they sometimes react with anger or malice when their pet theories or cherished beliefs are challenged.)
Writers and thinkers have identified four basic aspects of Christian fundamentalism. These big words—literalism, conversion, evangelism, and apocalypticism—will be whittled down to size. While reading about them, watch for evidence of inner fear and passivity lurking in the background. To begin:
Literalism means taking the words of the Bible as gospel truth. No nonsense like nuance is allowed. Let the Bible decide. This way the individual doesn’t have to think for himself. Trying to think for himself generates self-doubt and indecision, which in turn produce worry, procrastination, and anxiety.
Trying to think for oneself raises the question: Who’s at home to do the thinking? When people are inwardly conflicted, they can feel as if nobody is home who can be trusted to make good decisions and to know right from wrong. At this point, a deity or, for that matter, a righteous authority-figure can step in to issue commandments or directives.
Literalists are a bit like children who can’t think figuratively. If we think figuratively about God, then She might be a He, or even, good Heavens, an It. God might be the entire cosmos, with each of us contributors to the greatness. Figurative thinking bestows power upon us. It can envision our heroism, plot our destiny, and revise the Book of Life, while literal thinking ducks between its covers. With literal thinking, God is reduced to a certain font size and His words are frozen in time. In their passivity, fundamentalists pencil themselves in at the margins.
Why does their own sense of authority go missing? Inner passivity is the culprit. This passivity is the no-man’s-land of the psyche, and fundamentalists have not explored and claimed this inner territory as their own. They haven’t staked their claim at the heart of their being. As a result, they’re too shallow and fearful. Instead of feeling inner strength, they feel the symptoms of inner passivity, including fear, self-doubt, confusion, and righteousness. This creates a disconnect from self. Inner passivity is their home base, though they can’t see it. Still, they do identify with it, and then recycle and replay it.
Conversion, the second aspect of Christian fundamentalism, is the sense of being magically reborn in Christ. Conversion is an emotional surrender to a higher power. The person is bathed not in the warmth of God’s benevolence but in the conviction of being personally claimed, secured, and bonded by God. Psychologically, this is regression, something like climbing back into the womb. The fundamentalist has been rescued from the need to grow up. Such individuals are fleeing not the outer world but their inner world—the chaotic, unruly dynamics of their psyche. What especially terrifies such individuals is the overwhelming feeling of being identified with and trapped within a painful, sinful, unfathomable being. The heroic vision is nowhere in sight. Instead, a plaintive feeling arises: “God loves me; maybe I can love myself a little more.”
The inner fear, which is often unconscious, operates as an emotional attachment, a default position in the psyche, a primary sense of one’s own identity. The emotional surrender of conversion feels very good because this pleasure serves the purposes of the psychological defense. The individual who is reborn is saying, unconsciously: “No, no, I don’t want to live with this fear of my own deep unknown, helpless to transcend it. Look at how good I feel when I can rest assured that I have nothing to fear, nothing within that needs to be examined or resolved, now that I am now secure in the bosom of the Lord.”
Psychoanalysis has a term—splitting—that describes what occurs with conversion. According to Wikipedia, splitting is a common yet primitive psychological defense. It “is the failure in a person’s thinking to bring together the dichotomy of both positive and negative qualities of the self and others into a cohesive, realistic whole.” The person sees the world in extremes and black-and-white terms. Through splitting, the fundamentalist, in fear of the psyche’s perverse temptations, devilish impulses, and sexual longings, is frantic to make himself good. He splits from the “bad” to become the “good.” Yet this shift is only an illusion. He can strengthen the illusion and enhance his sense of being good when he condemns or feels superior to others who are deemed to be bad.
Evangelism, the third of the four aspects of fundamentalism, unfolds when the act of inner splitting is projected into the world. In projection, the split individual “sees” souls in sin and error who are deemed to be in need of salvation. But what he is “seeing” (doomed people in sin and error) is a denied, repressed sense of himself. He unconsciously identifies with the people upon whom he is projecting his own repressed and denied identification with a bad, sinful self.
This perception of other people as wayward sinners (or, at best, misguided blockheads) enables him, for the sake of rationalizing and maintaining his conversion, to produce an unconscious defense: “I don’t want to resonate with those sinners as flawed, bad, sinful creatures, and thereby recycle those painful feelings within myself. Look at how ardently I wish to convert these people. I want them also to see the light.” Or, in another defense, he says, “I don’t want to identify with them—Look at how vigorously I denounce them.”
This individual’s righteous mentality convinces him that he has broken through into truth and reality. But, again, this mentality is a defense: It serves to cover up his split from the messy, complicated wholeness of himself, which he’s so desperate to disown. In grandiose self-homage, he believes he’s in a position to save others. By feeling superior to those “blind” souls, he solidifies his conversion. As he converts others to his outlook, he feels more secure in his reborn identity. Still, he lives in disconnect from his own authentic self, blocked from achieving this union by his denial of the passivity and “badness” within. His disconnect from himself mirrors the disconnect he feels from the “bad” world and its “bad” people.
Apocalypticism, the fourth basic aspect, is an expression of an unconscious wish to die. Despite the fundamentalist’s claim or belief that he will be saved, he’s unconsciously embracing death as a final solution. He identifies with all that will be destroyed as insignificant, unworthy, and despicable, as he feels himself deep down to be.
His unwitting intention is also to wipe out all evidence of being the primary agent in his own misery and self-defeat. All evidence of any possibility of salvation by secular means must be destroyed. He can’t rest secure in the illusion of his goodness until that goodness is unequivocally affirmed through the destruction of its opposite, all that “otherness” that is flawed, sinful, or evil. He is so desperate to cover up his identification with sinfulness that even humanity itself must be sacrificed, as collateral damage.
The apocalyptic vision is not about prophecy: It’s a wish. Fundamentalists want it to happen. Islamic fundamentalists of terrorist stripe are currently hard at work trying to make it happen. Hatred toward others is at play in the wish that, outside the Chosen, everything and everyone is to be annihilated. Yet this hatred, the projection of one’s own self-rejection and self-hatred, is just another symptom. A deeper issue is involved.
The apocalyptic vision is a rendition of violent aggression. This aggression—an evil in itself, of course—arises as a death drive, where Thanatos triumphs over Eros in the form of a perverse pleasure that relishes its own righteous aggression. This malicious aggression is taking aim only at an illusion of evil, namely the despised objects of its own projections. Driving this misplaced aggression is underlying passivity. The individual is as passive on one end of the emotional spectrum as his reactive, apocalyptic aggressiveness is on the other end.
Suffice to say that fundamentalists, in feeling so disconnected from their inner self, are extremely passive. The surrender of their mind to dogma and belief is one example of this passivity; another is their allegiance to authoritarian systems. Passive people, to balance out their inner passivity, display self-defeating and inappropriate forms of aggression that include anger, blaming, intolerance, hatred, condemnation, violence, and war-like inclinations.
The passivity is also visible in the manner in which so many people are failing to rise to the challenge of living decent lives in a world beset by rapid social, economic, and technological changes. It’s true that genuine hardship exists because of the folly of many of West’s political and business leaders. Yet inner passivity makes it even more difficult for everyday people to meet the challenges head-on. Their unwillingness to address their inner life makes it harder to reform the outer situation and to lead decent, noble lives.
All four of these above aspects of fundamentalism are distortions of reality. People who are dysfunctional have a compulsion to distort reality to satisfy their unconscious aims. If one’s unconscious aim is to wallow in self-pity and feel weak, defeated, and victimized, then that person is likely to express pseudo-aggression in forms such as cynicism, malice, and bitterness, all intended to cover up his or her passive participation in failure.
In closing, I encourage readers to learn the principles of depth psychology. Inner passivity and inner fear are irrational elements of our psyche that can be transcended, providing they’re recognized and dealt with. We expose them as emotional attachments left over from childhood. In seeing and dealing with what’s irrational within, we become highly intelligent about the world.
Perhaps the best religion is the simplest: Stop complaining and looking for scapegoats. Minimize your negativity. Do your best; believe in your own goodness and that of others. Love your neighbor; love yourself; love the planet that supports your existence.