God(s) and the Superego

Last Saturday (October 20) was this year’s first lecture in the ongoing collaboration between the University of Bristol and the Lacanian Centre for Freudian Analysis and Research (CFAR), which I co-organize with the psychoanalyst Elizabeth O’Laughlin. The speaker was Anouchka Grose, and the topic was “Self-Hate and the Superego.” This reminded me of an idea I’ve been tossing around for a while, which is the difference it would make to Freudian analyses of religion if we stopped assuming religion always involving worshipping a unitary, usually paternal, god.


For Freud, paternal authority, religion, and problems with guilt and hatred often hang together. In Totem and TabooThe Future of an Illusion, and Civilization and its Discontents, Freud posits that religion is grounded in “longing for the father.” This father is, in Julia Kristeva’s words, an “absolute ideal”; in Freud’s words, he’s the “illusionary” object of a “collective psychosis,” who guarantees that correct action will receive commensurate reward. Yet the other face of this King of Justice is that of a Cruel Tyrant. In the mists of human prehistory, Freud claims in Totem and Taboo, tyrannical fathers dominated hordes of children and wives. One group of sons, jealous of their father’s monopoly on enjoyment, killed and ate him. Thus they obtained access to pleasure, but with it came guilt, which they assuaged by imposing strict moral rules on one another and ascribing those rules to their slain father. As Jacques Lacan explores in his seventeenth seminar, this myth recalls children’s Oedipal envy and enmity for their caregivers, which they resolve by “consuming” and integrating their rivals into their own psyches. Yet this resolution is incomplete; our internalized authorities retain the scars of our childish frustrations. That is why superegos can be cruel tyrants, as Anouchka reminded us on Saturday with her clinical vignettes.

But what if we looked away from patriarchal monotheism for a moment? If we focus instead on modern paganism, we must bracket the ideal-but-cruel father. First, many pagans cultivate an array of male, female, and androgynous deities with diverse stories, traits, and associations. These aren’t just multiple faces of the father, nor does it suffice to add maternal ideals and superegos to the mix. They’re just too diverse. Second, modern pagans are generally aware that each constructs his or her own pantheon eclectically, borrowing opportunistically from various traditions. So Freud’s statement that “no one who shares a delusion ever recognizes it as such” doesn’t apply here. Freud thinks followers of monotheism are deluded in a similar way to those who believe that many world leaders are “reptoids” from the constellation Draco. That’s why he calls religion a “collective psychosis.” That’s dubious for Christians, Jews, and Muslims, but outright wrong for most pagans: they simply don’t believe in that sense. Their faith states can’t be split into dogmatic binaries like certainty and disbelief. (This is the same reason, I’ve argued elsewhere, reductive neuropsychological explanations can’t account for modern paganism: not because neuropsychology isn’t important, but because it ignores how post-dogmatic religion works.)

The upshot is that, although Freud’s theories about psychological development remain insightful and important, yet his application of those theories to religion largely fails when it comes to pagan polytheism. The gods, spirits, and elemental powers modern pagans cultivate are doing something else psychologically. We can try spelling this out in various ways: we can talk about archetypal states of mind, internal objects and projective identifications, the mundus imaginalis and cosmic Consciousness, extended and enactive desire and feeling, and so on. But the key point is that there’s something importantly different here, which merits exploration by engaging carefully and in detail with not only the thoughts, feelings, and sensations of modern pagans, but also their artifacts, spaces, techniques, social structures, etc. Of course, all of this can be enriched by comparing this exploration with research on the ancient paganisms which inspire modern practitioners.

You can check out Anouchka Grose here. The various Freudian works I mentioned can of course be consulted in English in the old Standard Edition, but the emerging Penguin Freud Library is generally better. Lacan’s 17th seminar, which he delivered 1969-70, can be accessed as The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, ed. J.-A. Miller, trans. R. Grigg (Norton, 2007). Julia Kristeva is one of the most interesting psychoanalysts whom psychoanalysts habitually ignore, perhaps because nowhere in her books does she explain her original synthesis of British independent and Lacanian theory and clinical practice. So she’s more beloved by cultural critics. Her most accessible work and most sustained attention to religion is This Incredible Need to Believe, trans. B. B. Brahic (Columbia, 2009). Lastly, I can’t fail to mention again here the work of post-Jungian archetypal psychologists like Ginette Paris, Christine Downing, and James Hillman. Their work is important, and we need to engage with it much further. But it’s only one part of the pictures we should go on to paint.



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