"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, January 31, 2020

On the God Concepts Even Atheists Have

It's been a lot of fun this semester to explore with my students something of the relationship between psychoanalysis and Christian faith.

We began with a brief exploration of Future of an Illusion, where all modern psychological and psychiatric suspicion of faith and belief seems to find its origins. This book marked Freud out as one of the three “masters of suspicion,” so called by the philosopher Paul Ricoeur: the other two being Marx and Nietzsche. All of them are thought to be enemies of something called “religion,” even though nobody can agree on what “religion” is.

But it falls to Freud to launch the modern suspicion of prayer, faith, and belief in God. For Freud the idea that you can pray to some being called God and get him to change the weather, or help you pass an exam, or heal Uncle Joe from cancer, or spring Grandma from purgatory, is what he called an illusion, that is a fantasy you entertain that may or may not be true or come true. But what an illusion really seeks to do is to give you a sense that your wishes, your hopes, your dreams, may well come true thanks to the great Father Protector in the Sky you feel you need based on your experience as a helpless infant in a chaotic and destructive world.

We know some of the problems with this claim--it's highly philosophically flabby and lazy, for one thing, and makes generalizations so sweeping that their refutation is child's play.

But there is another set of problems, perhaps the most fatal, with Freud's claim: its lack of clinical and empirical grounding. Freud, especially in his writings from 1920 to the end of his life in 1939, often blurred the boundaries between his work as an individual clinician, seeing individuals in his consulting room at Bergasse 19 in Vienna, and making universal generalizations about all of humanity at all times and in every place and culture. As a clinician he treated perhaps a couple hundred people over his lifetime of practicing psychoanalysis. As a theoretician and cultural critic, he claimed to speak for billions past and present. This is a major weakness in his writings.

But his criticism of “religion” as an infantile illusion was widely accepted by the mainstream of psychiatry, psychology, and psychoanalysis until very recently. It was never a serious, much less substantiated, criticism, but simply a professional prejudice. Clinicians have their prejudices and blind spots, their ideological hobby horses and fetishes, just like the rest of us. After 1927 began a widespread period of perceived opposition between psychology and theology.

Christians reciprocated by often dismissing Freud and psychology as a whole, disdaining their efforts as godless and dangerous nonsense and denying the need for any sort of therapy, sometimes saying that going to confession and praying more were all that was needed—a dangerous species of magical thinking which fails to help, and often actively harms, those who are suffering. I criticized that here.

But shortly after Freud’s death, a pediatrician and psychoanalyst in England, D.W. Winnicott, begins treating mothers and children suffering from effects of WWII. Many parents in and around London and the bigger cities made the decision to send their children to boarding schools or to live with others in the countryside (or overseas to Canada), to save them from being bombed in the cities. Mothers were often wracked with guilt over this, fearing they had done great harm to their children.

In response, when reunited after the war, some mothers went overboard, overcompensating for their absence out of a sense of guilt. Winnicott discovered, working with such kids and their mothers, that the ideal balance was between total neglect and an overzealous mother seeking to be perfect, to leave no need unmet, no desire unfulfilled on the part of her child. Such perfectionism, Winnicott realized, is actually quite harmful. The child needs the experience of feeling frustrated sometimes, of not always having every need/desire met immediately. Such experiences help the child with his/her reality-testing.

To mothers, Winnicott offered the famous counsel of being “good enough”—not neglecting the needs of their children, but not seeking to fulfill all of them every time. The best mother is the good enough mother—not neglectful, certainly, but not over-anxious to be and do every single thing, either. Frustration, after all, has its purposes, some of them positive.

In the child’s reality testing, Winnicott also famously realized, s/he makes use of objects to negotiate exploration of self and other. Some objects help the child understand him/herself and others around him. Some frustrate this purpose and end up as bad objects. But whether good or bad, these Winnicott called “transitional objects.” They facilitate the transition from the enclosed world of the infantile self to the outer world where others exist independent of the self.

These are transitional objects, and they are often very simple but very powerful. How many of you had—or still have!—a favored blanket or teddy bear or something similar? In Winnicott’s experience this was almost universal.

Winnicott, unlike Freud and a lot of early analysts, was neither Jewish nor atheist. He grew up Methodist and then became Anglican. For him belief in God posed no problem at all. (In turn, Winnicott's thought is a useful adjunct for Catholic theology, as I tried to show a little bit here.) In fact, his extensive clinical research led him to realize that Freud was wrong in seeing religious faith as an illusion or pathology. For Winnicott healthy development of infants included the development of illusions, which were then tested against reality to see which were true, which false.

Winnicott's use of object-relations and illusions, including those surrounding God, opened the door for Ana-Maria Rizzuto (some of whose thought was discussed previously in more details here). She was born and raised Catholic in Argentina, where she was a catechist in her early years, and taught a course on psychology and theology to seminarians before moving to Boston in 1965 and completing medical school and then psychoanalytic training.

That training and her early research led her to begin asking: so even if we accept Freud’s thesis that faith in and prayer to God is an infantile illusion, shouldn’t we as clinicians still investigate our patients’ beliefs about, and hopes and desires directed at, God? Aren’t we supposed to be interested in everything our patients hope for, desire, fear, love, are curious or anxious about? Why rule God out from the start—except out of professional prejudice? How helpful are we to be to people we are charged with helping if we tell almost all of them that any notion they have of God is off the table from the beginning? If you are supposed to be free to talk safely and openly to your therapist about anything, why are we saying you can talk about anything but if you talk about God we will call you crazy and clap you in a straight-jacket?

Her worldview, shaped by Catholic theology and Freudian as well as object-relations psychology, has five key components:

i) Object-related world in which we are never alone
ii) Symbolic understanding of reality
iii) Self-examination of hidden motives and agendas
iv) Transformational power of confessing my sins/struggles
v) Need to confront oneself and reality honestly: nothing can escape the ‘reality principle’ as Freud called it, or ‘God’ as Christians call Him.

She begins research projects (turning them into her first book) at Boston hospitals with patients, including psychotic and neurotic patients, to just listen to their God objects and ideas, tape-recording and then analyzing these discussions later. What she finds is that everybody has some kind of God object in mind, some kind of concept, some ideas about who or what God is or is not. These have developed very early on, and in ways that are often little understood and very undertheorized. As she puts it, “no child arrives at the ‘house of God’ without his pet God under his arm.”

And as she further showed, almost nobody develops without a God image, a God object, in mind. Even those who later as adults come to claim for themselves the status of “atheist” always have a particular God image or God object in mind that they hate or reject. Freud is the most famous example of this: he was a Jewish atheist. There are Catholic atheists, Protestant atheists, Orthodox atheists, Muslim atheists. As she puts it categorically, “there is no such thing as a person without a God representation.”

Everyone “believes” in a God object to a greater or lesser degree. This is not just a matter of intellectual reason but also of the heart, involving love and hate. But it is erroneous to think that these God representations are singularly paternal or maternal. They can and do vary from person to person.

The challenge for religious traditions then becomes: to put an “official” theology face-to-face with the child’s theology and work from there.

Both children and adult patients, in her experience, were divided into four types:

1) Believers: Those who believed in God without much problem
2) Agnostics: those wondering whether God exists, and whether to believe in Him
3) Those angry/dismayed that others believe in a God who does not interest them
4) Those struggling to get rid of objects and images of a harsh, demanding God of wrath and judgment

For Rizzuto, in sum, Freud is valuable in challenging us to examine what false illusions we might have about God while seeking to understand ourselves more deeply so that we may know whether the images, ideas, illusions, objects, representations we have about God are true and helpful, healthful, useful, or destructive and idolatrous.

Finally, and more recently, her work has been confirmed by the Catholic psychiatrist Robert Coles in The Spiritual Life of Children, about whom and whose work more another time. Suffice it to say that is an invaluable book of deep and fascinating insights.

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