Lessons from Freud

The Viennese psychoanalyst, despite being an atheist himself, had some remarkable insights into the nature of religionMehru JafferI recently returned from a trek into the subconscious psychodynamics of the present political climate. Looking back, I find that the trip was filled with aggressive experiences encountered in almost every hill and valley traversed around the world.Led by Vamik Volkan, Emeritus professor of Psychiatry, “The Journey of the Mind” was organised as part of the 150th birth anniversary of Dr. Sigmund Freud, one of Vienna’s most famous citizens. According to Volkan, there are tell-tale signs everywhere to prove that contemporary society is on the verge of regression. This is because those fighting “terrorists” apply a political doctrine that is as regressive as the murderous idea of the “terrorists” themselves. The unfortunate fall-out is a world forced into a vicious circle of violence and counter-violence.Amidst loud cries from the extreme sides claiming closeness to God and being “very special” because each side feels the absolute truth is on their side, the voice of others trying to understand the cause of violence is drowned. Armed with little except decades of psychoanalytical experience, the Sigmund Freud Private Foundation is now concerned with making voices heard of all those who can provide a prescription to vaccinate a very sick world.Along with two diplomats, two psychiatrists were invited to a panel on “Psychoanalysis and Politics: Terror, Regression and Violence”, in an attempt to share views on the explosive growth of violence in present-day society and to together find possible solutions against the tremendous social threats and tensions faced by one and all.Since religion is the talk of all towns and Islamic militants the cause of every ill, the question revolves around the collaboration between psychoanalysts and diplomats, and whether it can offer fresh insights into terrorism and the world’s response to it?   The speakers began by expanding Freud’s theory of group psychology and to define group identity and regression. The last fifteen years of Freud’s life was devoted to analysing religion from a psychoanalytic point of view. Freud interprets the formation of religions in terms of a conflict between nature and culture. “Religions are remarkable compromise formations: they allow the human being to admit its extraordinary vulnerability and at the same time, to retain a sense of superiority in relation to the surrounding reality. The price for the compromise is the submission to an ‘illusion’.”In “Future of an Illusion”, Freud defines religion as compulsive neurosis. He is critical of religion and yet optimistic about the possibility to overcome it.Religious dogmas are not the result of experience or thinking, but they are refined fantasies and religion is defined as a response to the experience of utter helplessness or dependency of human beings on the forces of nature. Religion is fantasy that makes life tolerable despite hardships, and even negates death as the final end of human life. While those who refuse to think for themselves are engulfed in feelings aroused by their “chosen trauma”, the more clever ones invent an “oceanic feeling of connectedness” through ethnic, religious and national identities and myths of a common beginning, historical continuities, geographical realities and other shared events. Any threat to this shared life is followed by shared anxiety and regression follows when people preoccupy themselves with maintaining, repairing and redefining their group identity, converging to create prejudices, diplomatic difficulties and large scale violence. Freud wrote a decade before the start of the last World War, “The fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction.” Freud warned that cultures and civilisations are nurtured by human beings as means of protection against their own nature that is so capricious. But sometimes this way of protecting the self fails. So how do we survive in a world changing so rapidly and simultaneously maintain a sense of continuity, uniqueness and individuality?By treating other human beings, even those we have differences with, with dignity and respect perhaps? By fighting the instinct to create enemies, by empathising with the loss and humiliation felt by others and understanding the meaning and cause of those who resist us. Freud was an atheist but he saw psychoanalysis play a great role to explain the all-pervasiveness of religion and also its incredible resilience throughout years of critique against it. It is solace enough that psychoanalysts have overcome their initial hostility to religion and continue to dig into the mysterious strength of faith that is the backbone of all culture, and also its bane.