In H. Newton Maloney & Bernard Spilka, eds. (1991). Religion in Psychodynamic Perspective: The Contributions of Paul Pruyser. Oxford. pp. 47-65.

The Seamy Side of Current Religious Beliefs1

Paul Pruyser2

When Freud3 pulled together his clinical experience with obsessional patients and his observations about religion, he ventured "to regard obsessional neurosis as a pathological counterpart of the formation of a religion" (p. 126) and coined the famous [or notorious] epigram describing "neurosis as an individual religiosity and religion as a universal obsessional neurosis." (pp. 126-27) Though the phrase proved to be offensive to believers and elicited much protest, the objections tended to be partisan: While defending their own religion against Freud's onslaught, many believers were ready to concede that Freud might well be right in regard to tenets and practices found in other religious groups or in ancient and so-called primitive religions. Such partisan attitudes--judging one's own religion as "healthy" and other religions as "sick"--seem sharpened today. Much current religious debate includes a conspicuous amount of acrimony, vilification, and backbiting. Among religious groups there is much contention about tenets and practices, litigation about forced methods of indoctrination, and accusations of brainwashing, followed by attempts at counterpurging their alleged victims. The immense psychological power of religion seems to have sprung into the public eye lately, with religion's propensity for thought control being increasingly recognized.

I find this present cantankerous time ideal for exploring in detail the pertinence of Freud's epigrammatic judgment about religion. I have always found his statement pungent as well as catty, acute and blunt, insightful and beclouding. The negative no less than the positive feelings which the statement elicits are an indication that it strikes several nerves. The statement's immediate plausibility is increased by its producing an alerting response. In my own case, it prompts the immediate profession "Hear, hear!" even though this reaction is sooner or later followed by qualifying afterthoughts. The question that suggests itself is: If we could adequately formulate the salient features of neurotic behavior and contrast them with healthy behavior, would we find clues for a reasoned assessment of neurotic versus healthy religion? This question undercuts the propensity for using neurosis and neurotic as euphemistic words of condemnation, disagreement, or opprobrium and lifts them out of their present vulgarization.

Psychoanalysis itself would raise a first caveat to the question I have formulated by pointing out that mental health and neurosis cannot be used as categorical rubrics with clear-cut boundaries. They are only loosely conceivable zones on a continuum, for there is much evidence of a "psychopathology of everyday life" as well as of sound coping and adaptation in neurotic lives. Psychoanalysis enters a second caveat in pointing out that neurosis is not a well-defined medical entity but, rather, is a psychological condition of diminished well-being and personal efficiency, born from certain types of intrapsychic and interpersonal conflict handled by compromise formations. These fated compromises impose a tax on the individual's share of the average expectable human happiness. Neurotic behaviors and many psychic mechanisms are part of the general human condition in a state of culture; and the culture itself, through its institutions, teems with neurotic features that have become corporate prescriptions and proscriptions. Therefore, even an otherwise healthy person is up against the neurotic features of his culture which he must sort out, if he can, from the culture's unmitigated goods and necessities. At any rate, he is asked to take into account in his adaptive response to his culture the multitude of messages coming his way from its various institutions, among which is religion or more precisely, a bewildering multitude of religions.

Sources and Functions of Religion

Mindful of these provisos in the psychoanalytic view of neurosis and their implications for religion I4 wrote an article on religion in the 1970s which I began by marshaling the psychological reasons for the continuance of religion. Unlike other observers, I foresaw no quantitative decline of religion; and I asserted that, precisely on the grounds laid out by psychoanalytic reasoning, religion would continue to be vigorously pursued by most people. These grounds include the awareness that religion, whatever else it may be, purports to deal with man's felt helplessness and is a gratifying activity which, despite its demands, offers many promises and consolations. Though often insisting that abstinence be practiced under particular conditions, religion is not very strict in demanding radical renunciation of infantile wishes; on the contrary, it condones them rather quickly by symbolic satisfactions. For this reason, religion per se is not a sublimation but, rather, a problem-solving effort sui generis, although certain sublimations, may be found in some gifted person's activities within the religious framework he espouses.

Religion is likely to be continued also on account of its pointed preoccupation with expunging or mitigating guilt feelings. Religion is psychologically speaking a kind of rescue operation in which people crying "Help!" find some palliative for their predicaments In a word, religion is an immensely relevant, useful, powerful too for ameliorating what man feels to be his lot in life. Apart from religion's astoundingly diverse traditions and institutional trappings, its rescue motif alone is enough to make it forever popular. But therein also lies its gravest danger: As we can see rather clearly today, being popular means being open to racketeering, profiteering, and fraudulence--all under a pious cloak. On account of these and other exploitations, religion not only has a seamy side but has such an extensive one that it needs to be pointed out again and again. "Thank God," we should say, "for the critics of religion."

The pitiful origins of religion in man's personal and collective histories of misery should not becloud the grandeur of themes and tasks to which the religious question might address itself. Since I am not impressed by personal salvation as a grand theme because of its almost inevitable contamination by self-aggrandizement, I [1971] suggested that the religious quest in the 1970s might concentrate on the reassessment of man's place in nature--that man be moved from his callous dominion over nature to a role of loving partnership with it. I advocated a concentration on realigning the relations between men and women. I urged an attitude of greater realism toward death and dying. I suggested that religion might seek to change the relations between clergy and laity and reassess the role of authority, power, obedience, and liberation in the light of Bonhoeffer's observation that the Gospel is an appeal to people to come of age and act accordingly. I find these themes grand precisely because they transcend the rather stereotyped polarizations between social action and evangelical piety, liberalism and conservatism, formalistic and charismatic penchants, quietism and activism. Indeed, they have the power to narrow the gap commonly assumed to exist between faith and reason.

Sacrifice of the Intellect

The phrase "faith and reason" leads me back to the question I raised about neurotic and healthy religion. Considering what I have said thus far, could we hold that neurotic beliefs characteristically separate and oppose faith and reason, leading to tenets and practices that demand the ultimate sacrifice of the intellect? Is credo quia absurdum, taken as a single proposition isolated from Tertullian's other writings, the acme of neurotic belief? I am inclined to answer "Yes" to these questions in light of the following observations. Numbers of people attest to a blind faith: formerly, blind faith in incubi, alchemy, or the messianic pretensions of a Sabbatai Zevi who, to save his life, had the gall to become a Muslim; currently, blind faith in such singularly undeserving persons as an obese adolescent from India and a right-wing agitator from South Korea, both of whom go blatantly to the pockets of their followers. Numbers of professing Christians see manifestations of the Holy Spirit in such unreasonable acts as babbling and having fits, as if the Third Person had no intelligence, no shrewdness, no reason. Others meditate on, of all things, nonsense syllables, plumbing their depths for revelations. Still others take single words, their translation from ancient languages fixed into the more recent archaisms of seventeenth century English, rather than sentences or paragraphs as carriers of scriptural truth. And I have recently seen a young man who in all seriousness professes that he himself is the Messiah whom the Almighty is bestowing upon the world; he takes the fact that the world is rejecting him as proof of his divine appointment.

Yes, the psychopathology of religion is most extensive and has many shadings. I intentionally have chosen examples that portray the range from corporate fantasies to private delusions, from a vague public numbing of judgment to an eagerness to be deceived, from the love of explosive abreaction that abolishes reason to a piously defended feigned dumbness that fears reason. Sacrifice of the intellect, demanded by a good many religious movements and blithely if not joyously made by a good many religious persons, is surely one of the ominous features of neurotic religion.

Wishful Compromises

Why should a great human asset, a glorious function of the human mind, a marvelous talent ever have to be curtailed, let alone sacrificed? The answer to this question lies not, I think, in pointing out the various alleged abuses of reasoning and intellect that have led to such deplorable phenomena as technocratic dominance, the backlash of insect control, the silliness of mass entertainment, and the current width of the generation gap. Reason itself can spot these hapless spin-offs from limited or shortsighted applications of the intellect and correct them. The answer must be sought elsewhere: namely, in the poor compromises some people make between their dearest, deepest, and earliest wishes and the fabric of reality. Some of these compromises, the neurotic ones, are mediated by an untutored fantasy and dominated by the pleasure principle. It is so easy to wish and to persist in wishing when the private fantasy stands always ready to provide a modicum of satisfaction, at least temporarily, in pleasurable daydreams. And it is so easy to bend the great myths of mankind to one's own pleasure purposes by selecting from them some thin fragments chat have a good ring, screening out their more challenging or demanding parts which represent reality and require intellectual work. Favorite fantasies are: an ornately furnished heaven, a tranquil paradise, a disembodied soul, a god who combines the nicest features of father and mother and has none of their nastiness, an ethereal state of pleasurable sameness without change. These pacific libidinal fantasies are sometimes buttressed by spiteful and aggressive ones: apocalyptic visions of slaughtered enemies, of exploiters hurled into the pit, of the rich condemned to gnashing their teeth. The wishfulness of apocalyptic fantasizing and its flaunting of reason are brought out by comparing apocalyptic with eschatological thought or hope. Eschatology spurns unbridled fantasy--it soberly acknowledges the unknown and leaves its content unspecified, affirming solely that the future is in the divine hand and, therefore, to be trusted.

I hasten to add at this point, however, that fantasy as such should not be condemned as a neurotic function. To do so would be to write off the arts, literature, music, charm, religion, and probably much of science as well. A distinction must be drawn between what I called the "untutored" fantasy which, entirely under the sway of the pleasure principle, is autistic, private, unspeakable, and infantile, and what I shall call the creative fantasy which is stimulated by curiosity, spurred by aesthetic, moral, or numinous feelings, makes active use of human talents, and respects the nature of reality. Following a formulation by Winnicott,5, 6 we may say that man does not have to make a forced choice between the solipsism of individual, private hankerings and the publicness of a verifiable outer world; there is another option. Between the inner and the outer world man finds a third world, which Winnicott calls the transitional sphere, containing transitional objects--the world of symbols, of novel constructions that transcend both infantile fantasy and the entities of nature. It is the world of play, of the creative imagination in which feelings are not antagonistic to thinking, in which skills and talents are used to the utmost, and where pleasure is found without categorical abrogation of the reality principle.

Thought Control and Freedom

And so we will have to transpose our search for criteria of neurotic religion to a new plane. Inasmuch as the transitional sphere not only generates culture but is at the same time the arena in which cultural goods and traditions are transmitted by the old to the young, should we not expect to find much corporate make-believe and nonsense handed down and reinforced (although formally they can no longer be called autistic, they nevertheless reach back to autistic sources)? The answer is "Yes." Freud7 addressed this point in "The Future of an Illusion." As many others before him had done, he exposed and assailed the imposition of and the readiness to accept religious doctrines. In his view, doctrinal religion is a form of thought control which capitalizes on the human penchant for accepting mellifluous or consoling promises to alleviate the distress of the helplessness he feels.

Freud's unmasking of the authoritarianism found in many religions should prompt us to ask whether the shedding of thought control, doctrinaire attitudes, and authoritarianism is a sign of health in religion. I, for one, tend to think so; but I would like to use Freud's critique differently by relating it to the transitional sphere. If an attitude of play is germane, nay essential, to the transitional sphere, the grim business of thought control and authoritarianism is ipso facto inimical to the viability of that sphere. Doctrinaire and authoritarian thought turns symbols into things, ideas into concrete entities, suggestions into decrees, leaving in the end nothing to the imagination--creating a closed system that holds people captive. In contrast, the transitional sphere, by its openness, liberates people from the fetters of autism and the strictures of reality.

At this point we should heed Fromm's8 ominous message. Is the inability to tolerate freedom a neurotic trait? Fromm thinks so, noting that freedom comes at a price: It demands hard mental and moral work, it isolates the individual in moments of personal decision making, and it may alienate him from the masses. While freedom is pleasant, it is also taxing, if only because it demands vigilance toward the outer world and a good deal of self-knowledge It requires renunciation of some impulses and the capacity to delay certain gratifications. And so freedom can be squandered away or sold for a mess of pottage. The biblical story of Esau's impulsivity and Jacob's deceit lucidly illustrates that pious blessings can be obtained by extortion if the victim is given a chance to gobble. The story conveys a low image of man--beset by lust and avarice, willing to degrade both himself and his brother--and prompts us to recognize the existence of religious shenanigans, perpetrated by both victors and victims, which frequently involve the surrender of personal freedom. I do not hesitate to suggest that reverence for and the fostering of personal freedom is a prime sign of healthy religion and to propose that religious neuroticism can be measured by the degree to which it holds people captive through some exploitative scheme or sadistic trick. Fromm sees neurosis as the misuse of freedom, which includes the impulsive act of surrendering what freedom one has.

Surrender of Agency

Retreat from freedom is not only played out on the stage of external relations but is often duplicated on the internal stage of the self, in which case it leads to hyperemotionalism. Accepting authoritarian impositions is frequently paired with succumbing to paroxysms of impulsive emotionality, variously rationalized as the "Spirit" or its bad counterpart, the "Devil." There is not much difference in psychological structure between feeling that "I've got the Spirit" and "the Devil made me do it"; in either case one surrenders the ego's controls and is temporarily swept away by a regression in which the self is no longer held accountable.

Lesser regressions may preserve some degree of accountability by making the self a slavishly obedient agent of the "Spirit," doing its work through compulsive rituals. I remember one day when I was the only customer in a bookstore. As I entered the store to browse, a shy, lethargic young man behind the counter promptly started to recite passages of biblical prophecy in a mechanical, affectless voice. Although my entrance had obviously elicited his recitation, he showed no concern for communication. I soon discovered that the store was stacked with pious tracts and third-rate books of folk religion that resembled the Whole Earth Catalogue in their nostalgia for the good old moral days; however, I remained longer than I ordinarily would have in order to watch and listen to the young man. In an experimental vein, I went out at one point and observed that he stopped his prattle. As I reentered a few moments later, he promptly resumed his mechanical, doomful prophesying, to cease only after I left for good. What struck me in this episode, besides the man's compulsivity, was the general atmosphere of literalism, traditionalism, and naive realism (in the sense of Piaget's observations on children's thought) that exuded from the works and the salesman on display; everything was tied to simple, indubitable canons that scorned both the intellect and freedom.

Renascence of Folk Religion

This passage on regression enables me to mention a feature of the contemporary religious scene that some people who are otherwise not stupid pursue with gusto. In an article entitled "The Lure of the Primitive," Woodcock9 points out that among many intellectuals there is a wholesale fascination with primitive culture, precisely at a time when fairly accurate information about the miserable conditions of life in primitive cultures is available. In former days, some intellectuals sought to construct or reconstruct an image of primitive humanity by idealizing and romanticizing, e.g., Rousseau's fiction of the noble savage. Today's intellectuals seem to admire a primitivity that we know was harsh, bleak, and in many ways offensive to human dignity.

It seems to me that Woodcock's observation can be extended to a "lure of the primitive" in the religious ambitions of otherwise intelligent and educated people. Some of these persons are ready to swap the intricate organ for a simple guitar in worship services; they substitute simpleminded versions of half-understood Eastern religions for articulate formulations of Western theologies; they turn to platitudinous folkways and lore in disdain of spiritual giants such as Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, Spinoza, Kierkegaard, or Teilhard de Chardin. Within Judaism, Hassidic lore and the Cabala are plumbed for their presumed depths, and suspicious eyes are ready again to see the Golem wandering through dilapidated cities. In these cases, the intellect is not wholly sacrificed but, rather, is frittered away in an enthralled dabbling with archaisms that are of no consequence to the modem world. Moreover, fascination with the primitive is frequently enhanced by ethnic consciousness, in which case there is an additional risk of ethnocentric narrowness.

Coping with Stress

To understand better the dire needs and fears involved in neurotic behavior patterns, I suggest that we view human life as a ceaseless attempt to maintain a vital balance between forces that emanate from a person's inner and outer environment. Both these environments are in flux and of great complexity. To the ego we ascribe the role of an executive whose tasks are to be in touch with both worlds, to settle conflicts, and to maintain an organismic balance as well and as long as possible in the face of death, which always lurks around the corner. The ego must be attuned to libidinal and aggressive drives that well up from within; it must pay heed to the prescriptions and proscriptions sounded by the superego and ego ideal; it must engage us with other persons for satisfaction of longings; it must foster a sense of competence in the person as a whole; and it must tackle the demands and opportunities coming its way from the outer worlds of nature as well as culture. As executive of the organism, the ego must cope with all the stresses and strains inherent in life, and to do so it is equipped with a great variety of coping devices built into life and perfected or acquired by learning. Most of us are fairly well outfitted to deal with the average upsets produced by average life situations; after the constant, innumerable small and moderate imbalances, we are able to restore our dynamic equilibrium. But from time to time we meet with emergencies in which our habitual tools for coping are taxed. Such emergencies are experienced as stress, and the awareness of stress is distress--a most unpleasant feeling which requires mitigation if not abolition by emergency reactions.

Since psychological stress is hard to define objectively, despite its patently subjective actuality, let me focus on one factor found in all emergency reactions to stress. It has to do with the question: What makes stress so distressing? The answer is that stress, however provoked, invariably upsets the often tenuous control we have learned to wield over our own aggressive impulses. Awareness of stress is coupled with upwellings of anger; and this increment of anger, contaminated by other negative feelings, now threatening to be unleashed and directed at some object, presents us with an inner emergency situation requiring some drastic means for reestablishing our equilibrium. All psychopathology can be seen as emergency coping behavior where drastic tools are applied which entail risks, produce boomerang effects, and demand outlays of energy disproportionate to the slim satisfactions they procure. Worse, they put the person at greater risk of ultimate destruction for they weaken his capacity for staving off death. Even if intended and used as salvaging maneuvers, the emergency coping devices of psychopathology are to a greater or lesser extent only bungling efforts at self-defense and reequilibration.

Prevalent Forms of Religions Pathology

By and large, neurotic styles of coping manage to keep aggression covert. The increased aggressive energies that constitute the subjective stress, frequently merged with libidinal ones, are dealt with in one of four ways: (1) by dissociation and disavowal; (2) by displacement of the body; (3) by magic, ritual, and symbolism; or (4) by reinforcing an already established undesirable character trait.10 Let me discuss how these neurotic ways of coping are manifest in and through certain religious beliefs and practices.

Dissociation and Disavowal

Dissociation and disavowal are no strangers to religious attitudes and practices. Not only are quite a few religious experiences attributed to transcendent origins and argued to come from beyond the self, but some may be felt as ego-alien, occurring without the person's agency or consent. They remain isolated episodes that cannot and should not be assimilated to the individual's consciousness. For instance, I know a person given to bouts of glossolalia who has not the slightest concern for finding out the significance of this experience to himself or for any role it may play in his life; all he knows is that "it happens" and that he has no power over it. It does not arouse his interest, and he is utterly blocked and becomes anxious when others raise questions about its meaning or implications. Since he acts as if it were of no concern to him, the episodes are clinically equal to a hysterical symptom.

Disavowal and denial are reflected in Pollyannaish attitudes of piety that entail blindness to evil and misery and that argue death away with a blase optimism. These attitudes go beyond a suggestion to look at the bright side of things; they are so flat-footedly cheery that they fly in the face of reality. People who cope in this way tend to feel that God is always on their side; they simply cannot conceive it to be otherwise. Their aggression leaks through, besides hortatory preachiness, in their inability to have any empathy with those who feel in a quandary. To others they often exude a forced niceness, overwhelming them with seemingly friendly and godly words that blatantly bypass not only these other person's feelings but actual situations as well.

Denial is, of course, a favorite way of coping, as long as one can, with the unpleasant fact of death. Tinkering with the status of death, seeking to modify its impact on the individual or at least give it an acceptable meaning, is a salient feature of most religions. But abject denial of death by giving it no ontological status at all and refusing even to think of it amount to a significant truncation of reality and a refusal to face up to unpleasant feelings. Various heresies in Christology, particularly Docetism, can be seen as historical, corporate uses of denial regarding Christ's death; their continued popularity suggests a penchant for using this mechanism.

Also included in this first type of neurotic religiosity is the conspicuous use of counterphobic mechanisms in some cults. A prime example is snake handling. In counterphobia, the fearsome object or condition that one would naturally seek to avoid is forcefully approached as if it were strongly enticing. It is a way of dealing with fright by a piecemeal, controlled confrontation with it: Each time the snake does not bite, the person is somewhat reassured by perceiving that he is unharmed after all and therefore need not fear it as much as he did before. Instead of the fear abating, however, the urge to confront the fearsome situation persists, giving rise to ritualistic repetitions under a compulsive impetus. One can observe this compulsive counterphobic maneuver in the prayers of people who loudly testify to their sinfulness and profess that they deserve to be smitten by the Almighty, only to settle at the end on a soothing note: They have proven to themselves that their barking God does not bite!

Displacement to the Body

Some religious activities and beliefs involve the second type of neurotic mechanism, namely, displacing conflict laden urges onto the body. Outstanding examples are those who actively seek martyrdom and self-punishing asceticism. It is one thing to accept torture as it comes, for the sake of principle; it is another thing to seek martyrdom as an end in itself and trap oneself into it. Undemanded and self-imposed, such suffering bespeaks a wish for self-destruction either by masochistic urges or as a necessary atonement for some real or imagined wrongdoing which an implacable conscience demands. In the latter case it is more than likely that the implacable conscience also reflects belief in an implacable god whose major attribute is vengeance. A milder, doctrinally reinforced form of asceticism is the refusal of some believers to seek or accept help when they are suffering, e.g., using viable and easily available medical interventions for pain, symptom relief, or cure.

Displacement to the body takes a special form in religious doctrines which hold that bodily existence is of no account and therefore should not be fostered and in those which espouse that the body or parts of the body are manifestations of evil and thus should be whipped, maimed, starved, or otherwise extinguished. Such Manichaean attitudes are today often coupled with the self-administration of toxic substances which numb, excite, or grossly alter consciousness--not only at a price to the body but to the detriment of consciousness itself, which loses its power of discrimination by becoming habituated to excessive fantasy material. Ecstatic phenomena such as fits and convulsions also involve displacement to the body; the level of consciousness is lowered to a point where motor automatisms and reflex actions are allowed to take over. The paroxysmal nature of these religious acts shows them to be a rupture of ego control, temporary to be sure, but with drastic regression. Exactly as in hysterical attacks, when these ecstatic motor discharges are over, the person typically disclaims agency or responsibility for them.

I think that the appeal of such regressive states is in the several short-term benefits they render. Not only do they provide release from excessive, hard-to-manage tensions, but they are stylized to appear less as acts than as conditions in which one is overcome by some superior, divine power. These rationalizations provide an ideal stage for acting out, under a pious cloak and with God allegedly on one's side, those conflictual impulses in behavior that are not usually tolerated either by the person himself or by his audience He can thus ventilate his anger and take revenge on hated persons, hated traditions, and hated religious institutions and precepts. He need not fear retaliation: With a "better than thou" smile, he can proclaim that he really takes religion more seriously than his hypocritical parents or teachers ever did.

Magic, Ritual, and Symbolism

Magic, ritual, and symbolism are the historical "stuff' of religion from which modem, developed religions have sought varying degrees of emancipation. Yet, despite refinements in ritual and symbolism and the abolition of the crassest forms of magic, these three retain a strong regressive pull even on modem minds. Witchcraft is thriving again; Satanism is practiced11; occultism is blooming; horoscopes are consulted; exorcism is advocated; and thousands of worthless pills and potions are sold to gullible people seeking to change their fate by swallowing some potent-looking substance. One theme underlying all these practices is that nature is full of diabolical forces which need to be detected, seized, and controlled--if need be through a partial identification with them, leading to a partial appropriation and reenactment of their power. To outsiders, at any rate, many religious practices appear to be patently in the service of controlling such agents of aggression.

Whenever a ritual connected with one of these practices becomes an end in itself and is performed repetitiously and compulsively, in fear that its imperfect enactment will bring disaster, it has deteriorated from a conventional ceremony into a symptom. To give a few examples: A ceremonial cleansing gesture is one thing; a hand-washing compulsion that leaves the hands feeling sullied is a symptom. Instead of combating evil, the witch and the Satanist identify themselves with a personified form of it and partially enact its intrusive horror without offering the hope of redemption. To stake one's life on horoscopes and anxiously put one's daily activities under their control is to indulge in avoidance mechanisms. Pharmacists know that for pills to look potent they should be small, spherical, and highly buffed like the popular image of a Gnostic microcosm. Such pills are ingested not only with exorbitant faith in their power but often ritualistically with a need for their perpetual readministration.

Just as compulsions do not really resolve anything but drive a person to exhaustion by depleting his energies, obsessional thinking is an unceasing preparatory activity that does not lead to a consummatory solution. Religious topics, particularly those related to sin and guilt feelings, are the choice fare of obsessions. Scrupulosity, acedia to the point of feeling guilty over one's lack of enthusiasm, hyperrepentance for minor errors, incessant acts of placation they all occur in people with rather circumspect behavior and moral disposition. Their thinking labors under severe moral apprehensions with a forbidding tenor. But when it is remembered that the strength of a taboo is commensurate with the intensity of the desire it seeks to curb, religious obsessions also point to the person's hidden wish to engage in the forbidden thing. He is very likely, indeed, to satisfy his evil wish covertly in fantasy.

Reinforcing Undesirable Character Traits—Fraudulence in Religion

In today's culture, neurotic dysfunctions do not always appear as discrete symptoms forming the basis for a complaint. Increasingly, clinicians find them interwoven with character patterns, having become rather fixed traits of an individual's personality. Such traits can be understood as frozen emergency reactions--as ways of coping that have become habitual long beyond the time they were originally needed in an erstwhile stressful situation. Traits of this order are often ego-syntonic: The person has not only come to accept them as part of himself and thus does not complain about them, but he may prize them as necessary or desirable features. From a welter of recognizable types, let me select a neurotic trait germane to my topic, namely, one that seizes upon religious content and contaminates religion.

Given the enormous psychological power of religion over the minds of men and the mounting presence of religious exploitation in today's world, it should come as no surprise that I focus on fraudulence and dishonesty. One can observe at a glance that some contemporary founders of religious movements and sects and some so-called evangelists live in conspicuous material comfort from the donations they demand--if not extort--from their followers, who apparently allow themselves to be duped. A statement attributed to one such leader is: "I am a thinker, and I am your brain." Its brutality is clear enough, but what makes it stick? Why do people accept self-appointed, grandiose leaders of sects and settle for a total, uncritical obedience? Why do they accept, and perhaps even enjoy, being manipulated; or why do they fail to see the difference between suggestion, exhortation, persuasion, and manipulation?

I suggest that the fraudulence of leaders, in religion as elsewhere, is tied to the fraudulent dispositions in their followers. Deception is not only an act perpetrated by one person upon a victim; it is also an intrapsychic defense mechanism that some persons apply habitually to themselves. Cheating on himself can momentarily spare a person some pain or discomfort. As Ibsen and Adler knew, lives can be organized around lies, and the sudden exposure of such lies can precipitate the personality's collapse. Hitler was a past master in the art--applied to himself and others--of concocting a myth and parading it as reality, especially myths of threatening content which he personified as a tangible enemy who was about to sap the moral fiber or the vital juices from good Aryan blond beasts. The best lie is the accusatory lie that allows us to project our own nastiness onto others and that justifies aggressive, retaliatory action. And when fraudulence becomes habitual or addictive, it forces us to practice it compulsively--each and every occasion tempts us to use it, each little triumph or manipulative efficacy reinforcing the character trait. As in malingering a person feigns to suffer from disease, the fraudulent character feigns to be oppressed, discriminated against, persecuted, overlooked (e.g., Nixon's "silent middle Americans"), misunderstood, or exploited.

One indirect test of a religion's proclivity for fostering characterological deceptiveness lies in what the various sects and movements make of sex. Extremes are telling. Severe restrictions on sexual behavior and horrified rejection of homosexual penchants are found in movements beset by suspiciousness and hypervigilance. In fact, these movements often make homosexuals the scapegoats, targeting them as the infiltrating enemy. To hallow such fearful rejection, these sects take recourse to Deuteronomic law and make frequent allusions to the "unnatural" and "unmentionable" qualities of this enemy. The enemy must remain collective, a cliché, for fear that encounter with a concrete specimen might persuasively expose the basic lie. The other extreme lies in the extolling of polymorphous, uninhibited sexual activity--even hyperactivity--pursued with cultist enthusiasm. In this feast of fools, intimacy, privacy, and the value of personhood are denied by a deception which equates sensory touch with depth of feeling and spermatozoic industry with affection. Both extreme positions are built on lies about the value of sex, which is vested in the ego's ability to exercise both freedom and restraint and to differentiate personal encounters from mere contact with the masses.

I need to add a few words about attempts to control intense anger by sudden flights into religious ideation and by taking recourse to mysticism. Some time ago, on the fringes of a university, I was accosted by a man in his early twenties who tried to solicit me into some local Jesus movement. Feeling at first irritated by his intrusive manner, I was curious enough to listen to him. While talking profusely about love and peace, his body was taut, his eyes glowered, and his voice was punctured with rage. His responses to a few questions and remarks I put to him showed him to be religiously illiterate, unperceptive, and ill-informed. He provides a good example of someone who has taken a flight into religion, for he was, no doubt, frantically clinging onto some small group or controlling leader whose strictness, coupled with a soothing promise, reinforced his failing self-control by impersonating some early phase of the nascent superego.

I find pill-induced instant mystical states ipso facto more tainted by magical means and expectations than those resulting from a slow and effortful ascent by systematic focusing and ascetic preparation. A paper by Hartocollis12 runs parallel with my own clinical encounters which indicate that, particularly in religiously naïve persons, such instant mysticism is often sought in order to control dangerous excesses of a fierce, chronic aggression that has become a character trait. Through this type of mysticism, the individual attempts to come to terms with a hated object imago by inducing a temporary regression to a developmental level which preceded the object's distinctness as a discrete entity. By merging with the imago in a lapse to a less differentiated mode of thought, the imago is robbed of its threatening features; its aggression is fused with the anger of a more primitive self-vestige and then turned into a feeling of triumphant omnipotence which knows neither victors nor victims but only raw magical power -momentarily! The aftermath is, of course, a letdown necessitating further trials at mystical states or a continuous dissolution of the personality.

Criteria of Neurotic Religion

And so, having sought to illustrate and describe prevalent forms of neurotic religion, I return to the task of finding criteria for spotting unhealthy, sick, or dysfunctional religious penchants. Be aware that members of a culture do not have to create their religious ideation and practices de novo but, rather, find their minds shaped by the culture's driving trends as well as its more sporadic and far-out options. These cultural features derive some of their potency from the fact that persons at very early stages in their lives, in the so-called transitional sphere, practice all kinds of operations with transitional objects, notably symbols. Symbols are therefore charged with affect, often approached by childish modes of thought, and sometimes poorly differentiated from autistic fantasy on the one hand and testable reality on the other hand. Individuals in the process of growing up cannot take their culture for granted but must learn to discern viable from spurious symbols. To lack such discernment is itself a psychological deficit or dysfunction, albeit an exceedingly common one.

Dysfunctional religion at the corporate level is therefore matched by religious dysfunctioning at the personal level. My course in this paper has been to elucidate the former by the latter. The religious coping styles, mechanisms, and ideational content which I have described participate fully in the structure and function of clinical neuroses and can thus be judged by the same criteria. Neurotic coping devices are:

  1. costly to the individual for the energy depletion they cause;
  2. coarse, heavy-handed interventions beset with boomerang effects;
  3. incommensurate in their psychic cost with the slim satisfactions they preserve or procure;
  4. ill-adaptive in that they tinker with and distort both the demands and opportunities of reality, i.e., the natural and cultural environment;
  5. growth stunting in that they impose a sacrifice of capacities and talents;
  6. regressive, fixating the person to an archaic mode of thought, attitude, or action;
  7. poor and costly compromises that only disguise but do not effectively neutralize aggression;
  8. bungling cries for help or SOS signals sent by an individual in distress;
  9. disguised ways of getting back, in anger, at some persons or groups who are forced to bend to the individual's excessive demands, dependency, immaturity, lack of efficiency, or cantankerousness.

To these psychodynamic and psychoeconomic criteria I should add the captivity and enslavement that neurotic coping styles entail: They shrink personal freedom, reduce the vision of the world's richness, and curb human potentialities. They turn an open system into a closed one.

Outspoken as I am on sick religion, I cannot be sanguine about healthy religion--not only because health in any sense is more difficult to define than illness and because deviancy of any kind is more eye-catching than the norm, but because of the enormous latitude that religion gives, and has wanted to give throughout the ages, to human hankerings and ambitions. Religion has much to do with the dream, in its pedestrian as well as its sublime sense. Religion has also to do with the cosmos, with the nature and scope of reality, ranging from the seen to the unseen. Using Tillich's parlance, I would hold that the religious circle is, above all else, vast; in Otto's phrase it is the sphere of the tremendum. But if pressed to state one criterion of healthy religion I submit that it lies in the biblical declaration that "the truth shall make you free." This statement implies that healthy religion is a search demanding the greatest curiosity, the full use of all human functions, talents, and gifts, and the belief that the search, long and arduous as it may be, holds a promise. The striking thing about this promise is that its approximation can be registered subjectively, experientially, existentially--in whatever form the truth may be revealed. I regard an enlarged sense of freedom as a sign of psychological, moral, and spiritual health.


  1. Presented in the Cole Lecture Series at Vanderbilt University's Divinity School, Nashville, Tennessee, on March 9, 1977.
  2. The author was Henry March Pfeiffer Professor, The Menninger Foundation. Topeka, Kansas.
  3. Freud, S. (1907) Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices. Standard Edition 9:117-127, 1959.
  4. Pruyser, P. W.: A Psychological View of Religion in the 1970s. Bull. Menninger Clin., 35(2):77-97, 197 1.
  5. Winnicott, D. W.: Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena. In Collected Papers: Through Paediatrics to Psycho-Analysis, pp. 229-242. New York: Basic Books, 1958.
  6. See also my use of Winnicott's ideas in Between Belief and Unbelief (Pruyser 1974).
  7. Freud, S. (1927) The Future of an Illusion. Standard Edition 21:5-56, 1961.
  8. Fromm, E. Escape from Freedom. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1941.
  9. Woodcock, G. The Lure of the Primitive. Am. Scholar 45(3):387-402, 1976.
  10. Menninger, K. A. et al.: The Vital Balance. The Life Process in Mental Health and Illness. New York: Viking Press, 1963.
  11. Nunn, C. Z.: The Rising Credibility of the Devil in America. Listening: Journal of Religion and Culture 9(3):84-100, 1974.
  12. Hartocollis, P. Aggression and Mysticism. Contemp. Psychoanal. 12(2):214-226,1976.

Healing Religion's Harm
Gary Pence, Ph.D.