Sun | Dec 9, 2018

Religion & Culture | Religious persons projecting what they are lacking, or needing, on to a 'God' image

Published:Sunday | October 29, 2017 | 12:00 AMDr Glenville Ashby
Psychoanalysis pioneer Sigmund Freud.
Psychoanalysis pioneer Sigmund Freud


"God is nothing more than an exalted father."

- Sigmund Freud


They were the cries of a troubled soul. There was panic and desperation in these deafening howls. Paramedics swarmed around the hapless middle-age woman who was strapped on the gurney.

For the most part, she was incongruous and unintelligible, but still managed to spurt verses from the Book of Revelation in the Bible. Apoplectic and indomitable, she was determined to deliver her daunting message of impending global cataclysm.

Her message pierced the frenzied shuffle of medical personnel barking orders. She screamed: "The first trumpet sounded and there came hail and fire mixed with blood, and they were thrown to the earth; and a third of the earth was burnt up, and a third of the trees were burnt up, and all the green grass was burnt up."




Religious delusions and delusions of grandeur are attributed to medical, neurological and mental issues.

Interestingly, great religious leaders and personages of the past exhibited symptoms of the mentally troubled. Abraham heard God's command to kill his son. Joan of Arc was compelled to wage war based on her visions. Muhammad assumed the title 'The Prophet', thanks to angel Gabriel's visitations.

In the article, study finds link between brain damage and religious fundamentalism. Paul Ratner writes that lesions in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex reduced cognitive flexibility or the ability to challenge beliefs based on new evidence.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation's December 10, 2014 report, Finding God in Seizure: the link between temporal lobe epilepsy and mysticism, suggested that renowned religious figures were plagued with epilepsy.

This theory is again supported by a Daily Science article, the conclusion of which read, "A relationship between epilepsy and heightened religious experiences has been recognised since at least the 19th century," (that there is) "a neurological relationship exists between religiosity - a disposition for spiritual experience and religious activity - and epilepsy." (Researchers find neurological link between religious experiences and epilepsy, March 8, 2017).

In Christopher Charles Holland Cook's Religious psychopathology: The prevalence of Religious content of Delusions and Hallucinations in Mental Disorder, religious delusions are said to be associated with higher levels of grandiosity.

But religious obsessions, delusions and spiritual-based flights of grandeur can also be interpreted in psychological terms.

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, called belief in a single god "delusional" - an infantile yearning for a powerful father figure, and referred to religious beliefs as "illusions and insusceptible of proof".

Freudian psychoanalysis presents a compelling thesis on religious delusions. Freud structural theory of the mind comprises three compartments: the conscious (feelings and perceptions of which we are aware), the preconscious (memory that can be easily brought to the conscious level), and the unconscious (feelings, thoughts and urges of which the conscious is unaware).




Equally relevant to this discourse are his writings on personality. Our psyche is said to be comprised of the id, the ego, and the superego - all interrelated and dynamic aspects of the self.

The id or the unbridled, instinctive component seeks pleasure. Our personality or self - the ego, is shaped by parents, educators, religious values and society at large - the superego. This development tempers the self seeking pleasures of the id.

The ego, therefore, is prompted by the forces of the id and superego. According to Freud, the ego can struggle to rein in the impulses of the id, or can be overwhelmed by the restrictions and value system placed on it by the superego. This tug of war, if unresolved, can lead to anxiety and neurosis.

Religious obsessions and delusions can be attributed to the weighty expectations placed on the ego by the superego. For example, individuals who are raised with unbending religious rules could struggle when the pleasures of the id emerge. Lustful, lubricious thoughts, desires and the impulse towards self-pleasure could clash with the authoritarian edicts of religions (an aspect of the superego).

This struggle leads to repression and an overreach towards holiness that can lead to emotional overload. The likely results are episodic religious delusions and sexual deviance.

That many clerics and religious followers suffer from this pathology is a worthy hypothesis. In one intriguing example from a 295-subject study in Lithuania at the Vilnius Health Center (2008), women who suffered with religious obsessions played out the expectations of their religion and society. They assumed the identity of saints - pure, demure, and virgin-like.

Conversely, men assumed godlike attributes - all powerful and unyielding. Note the close connection between religious delusions and socio-religious teachings and expectations found in patriarchal societies.

On preventing religious neuroses, my mentor, Delphine Mascarene de Rayssac, psychoanalyst and head of the International School of Applied Psychoanalysis, said, "Spirituality needs to express itself but not necessarily through religion. [I] believe that we, as a society, have regressed to primitive, infantile processes and so has our representation of God making him that same tyrant that was our superego in the early stages of our psyche.

"The question is why? This begins with the regressive processes at work in our society. Because we have severely deconstructed our society (and have become) a group of individuals with weak identities, we then project what we are lacking or needing on to this God image who becomes keeper of our broken identities. The more our society deconstructs, the more religious faith becomes radical."

In Civilisation and Its Discontents, Freud delivered a near scathing view on religion.

He writes, "Religion restricts (the) play of choice and adaptation, since it imposes equally on everyone its own path to the acquisition of happiness and protection from suffering. Its technique consists ... of distorting the picture of the real world in a delusional manner which presupposes an intimidation of the intelligence."

And to which I must add that religion in its extreme form has succeeded in shattering the psyche of men.

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