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Being Human: Religion and Superstition in a Psychoanalytic Philosophy of Religion

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 April 2012

Beverley Clack
Oxford Brookes


At one place in his collection of essays The Crane Bag and Other Disputed Subjects, the novelist and mythographer Robert Graves makes the following claim that might sound rather shocking to the ears of an analytic philosopher:

I find myself far more at home with mildly superstitious people – sailors and miners, for instance – than with stark rationalists. They have more humanity.

Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy and the contributors 2012

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1 Graves, Rupert, The Crane Bag and Other Disputed Subjects (London: Cassell, 1969), 212Google Scholar.

2 Examples of this approach include Richard Swinburne's classic accounts (see The Coherence of Theism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977Google Scholar); The Existence of God (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979))Google ScholarPubMed, and, more recently, Tim Mawson's restatement of this approach (Belief in God (Oxford: OUP, 2005Google ScholarPubMed). There are notable exceptions: most significantly perhaps the ‘Wittgensteinian’ approach developed by D Z Phillips whose ideas on the relationship between superstition and religion will be considered in more detail later in this paper.

3 For important examples of this approach in the development of analytic philosophy of religion, see Roger Trigg, Rationality and Religion: Does Faith Need Reason? (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998)Google Scholar, and Flew, Antony, ‘Theology and Falsification’ Flew, A. (Ed.), New Essays in Philosophical Theology (New York, Macmillan, 1955)Google Scholar.

For recent examples, see Nagasawa, Yugin, ‘A New Defence of Anselmian Theism’, Philosophical Quarterly 58 (2008), 577596CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Timpe, Kevin, Arguing about Religion (London: Routledge, 2009)Google Scholar. Timpe provides a clear statement of the dominant approach to religion in Anglo-American philosophy of religion when he introduces his collection thus: “philosophy of religion approaches religion with an eye to logical analysis and rational consistency” (Timpe, Arguing about Religion, p. 1).

4 Hollywood, Amy, Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference and the Demands of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002)Google Scholar; Hollywood, Amy, ‘Practice, Belief and Feminist Philosophy of Religion’ in Anderson, Pamela Sue and Clack, Beverley (Eds.), Feminist Philosophy of Religion: Critical Readings (London: Routledge, 2004) 225240Google Scholar.

5 Wynn, Mark, Emotional Experience and Religious Understanding: Integrating Perception, Conception and Feeling (Cambridge: CUP, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Jantzen, Grace, Becoming Divine: Towards a Feminist Philosophy of Religion (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998)Google Scholar.

7 See Anderson, Pamela Sue, A Feminist Philosophy of Religion (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998) 103114Google Scholar; Cottingham, John, The Spiritual Dimension (Cambridge: CUP 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Joy, Morny et al. , Religion in French Feminist Thought: Critical Perspectives (London: Routledge, 2003)Google Scholar; Pattison, George, A Short Introduction to Philosophy of Religion (London: SCM, 2001)Google Scholar; Ward, Graham, The Post-Modern God, Oxford: Blackwell, 1997)Google Scholar.

8 See Young, Christopher and Brook, Andrew, ‘Schopenhauer and Freud,’ International Journal of Psychoanalysis 75 (1994), 101118Google ScholarPubMed.

9 See Lehrer, Ronald, Nietzsche's Presence in Freud's Life and Thought (New York: State University of New York Press, 1995)Google Scholar.

10 Hysteria is something of a contested illness (see Borossa, Julia, Hysteria (Cambridge: Icon, 2001)Google Scholar). It has, for example, been subjected to feminist criticism (Bernheimer, Charles and Kahane, Claire, In Dora's Case: Freud, Hysteria, Feminism (London: Virago, 1985)Google Scholar, and is no longer listed as a specific mental disorder in the DSM IV. However, according to Bollas, Christopher, Hysteria (London: Routledge, 2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, since the 1990s “psychoanalysis not only rediscovered hysteria, [it] may well also have recovered from its own forgetting” (178). Recognising that the symptoms that led to its diagnosis still exist, albeit it under alternative labels – for example anorexia or bulimia – Bollas argues that it remains a useful way of understanding the nexus of symptoms that define the sufferer's experience. Indeed, he offers his own definition, writing that the hysteric's experience is marked by the attempt to “perpetuate a child innocent as the core self” (162).

11 Breuer, Josef and Freud, Sigmund, ‘Studies in Hysteria’ in Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (hereafter ‘SE’) (London: Virago, [1893–95] 2001) Vol. 2, 101Google Scholar.

12 Some contemporary analysts go further in expressing the radical effect of accepting the unconscious on the notion of human personhood. According to Andre Green “the idea of a totalising unitary structure remains inconceivable for psychoanalytic thought. Which is why I believe it is necessary to remain cautious in regard of the psychoanalytic conceptions of the Self or identity which are phenomenologically inspired” (Green, Andre, ‘Anxiety and Narcissism,’ in Weller, A., Life Narcissism, Death Narcissism (London: Free Association Books 1979), 99; his emphasisGoogle ScholarPubMed.

13 See for example Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief (Oxford: Blackwell, 1966), 2227, 42–52Google Scholar; and Miles', T.R.Eliminating the Unconscious (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1966)Google Scholar.

14 Sartre, Jean-Paul, Being and Nothingness (London: Philosophical Library, 1957), 4752Google Scholar.

15 So Freud discusses the content of dreams (The Interpretation of Dreams, SE 4 and 5 (1900) and jokes (Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, SE 8 (1905)), the symptoms manifested by people suffering from a variety of neurotic illnesses (‘Studies in Hysteria’), as well as the examples of parapraxis that were noted earlier (Psychopathology of Everyday Life SE 6 (1901)).

16 See Sigmund Freud, ‘Delusions and Dreams in Jensen's Gradiva, SE 9 (1907), 1–95; ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’, SE 9 (1908), 141–153; ‘Leonardo Da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood, SE 11 (1910), 57–137.

17 And largely this conviction has defined the way in which Continental philosophers have understood the scope and practice of philosophy (see Jantzen, Grace ‘What's the Difference? Knowledge and Gender in (Post)Modern Philosophy of Religion, Religious Studies 32 (1996), 431–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 Kristeva, Julia, Strangers to Ourselves (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991)Google Scholar.

19 Gardner, Sebastian, Irrationality and the Philosophy of Psychoanalysis (Cambridge: CUP, 1993)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 Cavell, Marcia, Becoming a Subject (Oxford: OUP, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

21 See for example the contemporary criticisms of Dawkins, Richard, The God Delusion (New York: Random House, 2006)Google Scholar and Dennett, Daniel, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Allen Lane, 2006)Google Scholar.

22 The longevity of this approach is worth noting, not least in the struggle between different religious traditions. See the biblical ridicule of ‘pagan’ idols in contradistinction to the ‘living God’ of Israel; for example Isaiah 44: 6–23.

23 Phillips' rendition of Wittgenstein is not uncontroversial; see for example Clack, Brian R., ‘D.Z. Phillips, Wittgenstein and Religion,’ Religious Studies 31 (1995), 111120CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For an alternative understanding of what consideration of Wittgenstein might bring to the philosophy of religion, see also Clack, Brian's An Introduction to Wittgenstein's Philosophy (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999)Google Scholar.

24 Phillips, D.Z., ‘Philosophy, Theology and the Reality of God,’ in Wittgenstein and Religion (Basingstoke: Macmillan, [1963] 1993), 19Google Scholar.

25 Phillips, D.Z., Death and Immortality (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1970), 4160CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

26 Phillips, D.Z., The Concept of Prayer (London: RKP, 1965), 118; my emphasisGoogle Scholar.

27 Op. cit. 115.

28 Op. cit. 121; his emphasis. Phillips reiterates this point in a later paper: “the same form of words may be superstitious in one practical context, and not in another” (D.Z. Phillips, ‘Religion in Wittgenstein's Mirror’ in Wittgenstein and Religion, 237–255; 247).

29 For Phillips' comments on Bonhoeffer, see The Concept of Prayer, 115–116.

30 Tilley, Terrence, ‘The Philosophy of Religion and the Concept of Religion: D.Z. Phillips on Religion and Superstition’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 68 (2000), 345356CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

31 Ibid, 350. A similar point is made by Sami Pihlström, albeit it to reach a different conclusion: see Religion and Pseudo-Religion: An Elusive Boundary,’ International Journal of Philosophy of Religion, 62 (2007), 332CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Pihlström argues that “it is difficult to draw the religion vs. pseudo-religion boundary” (29); such a line can, he argues, only be drawn once one is ‘inside’ the religious life, grappling with all the experiences that life throws at us and the varying ways in which we seek to respond.


32 Tilley, ‘The Philosophy of Religion and the Concept of Religion’, 350.

33 Phillips, The Concept of Prayer, 40.

34 James, William, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (Harmondsworth: Penguin, [1902] 1985)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

35 Although after his falling out with Freud he was not allowed to use the term ‘psychoanalysis’ for his school of thought and was instead to use the term ‘analytical psychology’.

36 For the use of Winnicott in philosophy of religion, see John Cottingham, The Spiritual Dimension.

37 See Black, David, Psychoanalysis and Religion in the 21st Century: Competitors or Collaborators? (London: Routledge, 2006)Google Scholar; Sayers, Janet, Divine Therapy: Love, Mysticism and Psychoanalysis (Oxford: OUP, 2003)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

38 For discussion of the different foci of these attempts, see Sandler, Joseph et al. , Freud's Models of the Mind: An Introduction (London: Karnac, 1997)Google Scholar; Wollheim, Richard, Freud (London: Fontana, 1971)Google Scholar.

39 Sigmund Freud, ‘The Ego and the Id’, SE 19 (1923), 3–66.

40 This spelling reflects the distinction which is sometimes made by analysts between ‘conscious fantasy’ – day-dreaming and conscious creativity – and ‘unconscious phantasy’ – the fears and desires the child experiences as they engage with the external world, and which have, in adulthood, been long repressed. It should, however, be noted that some analysts challenge this distinction as too rigid – unconscious phantasy itself is seen as the root of conscious fantasising (see for example Laplanche, Jean and Pontalis, J-B, ‘Fantasy and the Origins of Sexuality’ in Unconscious Phantasy, edited by Steiner, Riccardo (London: Karnac, 2003), 107143Google Scholar.

41 Sigmund Freud, ‘Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning’, SE 12 (1911), 213–226.

42 Sigmund Freud, ‘The Future of an Illusion’, SE 21 (1927) 1–56; ‘Civilization and Its Discontents,’ SE 21 (1930) 57–145.

43 Sigmund Freud, ‘The Future of an Illusion’, 49.

44 Sigmund Freud, ‘Analysis Terminable and Interminable’, SE 23 (1937) 209–253.

45 DiCenso, James, The Other Freud: Religion, Culture and Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1999)Google Scholar.

46 It might be noted that the recent reappraisal of Freud in the wake of the 150th anniversary of his birth led the psychologist Michael Billig to suggest that this is where Freud's importance lies: in providing the basis for a “psychology of the irrational” (Billig, Michael, ‘The Persistance of Freud’ in The Psychologist, 19 (2006), 540541; 541)Google Scholar.

47 See also Perelberg, Rosine, Freud: A Modern Reader (London: Whurr, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar for examples of a not dissimilar approach. Perelberg is influenced by the kind of readings of Freud that shape French psychoanalysis and which emphasise the so-called ‘Metapsychological Papers’ written in the years around 1915.

48 Sigmund Freud, ‘Notes upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis’, SE 10 (1909), 155–318; 163.

49 Freud, Psychopathology of Everyday Life, 169.

50 Op. cit. 169.

51 Palmer, Michael, Freud and Jung on Religion (London: Routledge, 1997), 11CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

52 Letter to Jung, 16 April 1909; Gay, Peter, Freud: A Life for Our Times (London: Papermac, 1995), 58Google Scholar.

53 Freud, Future of an Illusion, 30.

54 Sigmund Freud, ‘Constructions in Analysis’, SE 23 (1937), 255–269; ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians’, SE 12 (1911), 342–344.

55 Some examples: Freud's stages of psychosexual development suggest significant shifts are needed between parts of the body which shape psychic attitudes (see ‘Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality’, SE 7 (1905), 135–243); while Anna Freud develops these stages into her theory of ‘developmental lines’ – an approach which suggests considerable overlap between the stages through which a child passes on the path to individuality (see Normality and Pathology in Childhood (Hogarth Press, 1965), 5982)Google ScholarPubMed. Melanie Klein's theory focuses on the shifts between two positions - the ‘paranoid-schizoid’ and ‘depressive’ – which define the child's experience (and, indeed, continue to operate in adulthood) as it develops (see ‘Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms’ in Envy and Gratitude and Other Works, 1946–1963 (London: Vintage) 1–24; ‘On the Theory of Anxiety and Guilt’ in Envy and Gratitude, 25–42).

56 The most important analysts in the period following Freud's death – Melanie Klein and Anna Freud – worked with mothers and babies and contributed to the development of child-analysis (see Klein, , The Psycho-Analysis of Children (London: Vintage, [1932] 1997)Google Scholar; and Freud, Anna, Normality and Pathology in Childhood (London: Hogarth Press, 1965)Google Scholar.

57 Bion, Wilfred, ‘A Theory of Thinking’ in Second Thoughts (London: Heinemann, 1967), 100120Google Scholar; Winnicott, D.W., Playing and Reality (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971)Google Scholar.

58 Winnicott, Playing and Reality, 13.

59 Winnicott, D.W., ‘Primary Maternal Preoccupation’ in Through Paediatrics to Psychoanalysis (London: Hogarth Press, [1956]), 300305Google Scholar.

60 Winnicott, D.W., ‘Primitive Emotional Development’ in Through Paediatrics to Psychoanalysis (London: Hogarth Press [1945]), 145156; 152Google Scholar.

61 D.W. Winnicott, ‘Communicating and Not Communicating Leading to a Study of Certain Opposites’ in Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment (New York: International Universities Press [1963]), 179–192; 180.

62 Winnicott, Playing and Reality, 14, 15.

63 For similarities between Winnicott and the kind of psychoanalytic theory informed by Lacan, see Green, André, Play and Reflection in Donald Winnicott's Writings (London: Karnac, 2005)Google Scholar.

64 See Ulanov, Ann Belford, Finding Space: Winnicott, God and Psychic Reality (Louisville: WJK Press, 2001)Google Scholar for one account of the way Winnicott's ideas might inform accounts of religion.

65 Winnicott, Playing and Reality, 20.

66 Op.cit. 5

67 Op.cit. 7.

68 Op. cit.

69 Op.cit. 18; my emphasis.

70 In ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’, SE 18 (1920) 1–64, Freud comments on the game his grandson play's when his mother is absent. Taking a cotton reel on a piece of thread he throws it away from himself, saying ‘fort’ (‘gone’), and brings it back, saying ‘da’ (‘there’) (14–17). Freud interprets the ‘fort/da’ game as an attempt to master the absence of his mother. The child is creating “a world of his own” where the absence of the mother is under his control.

71 For examples from Winnicott's practice see Winnicott, D W, The Piggle: An Account of the Psychoanalytic Treatment of a Little Girl (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977)Google Scholar and Sayers, Divine Therapy. Freud sounds similar when reflecting on the transference, although he tended to think that the playing out of past emotions into the analytic situation and onto the analyst was more likely to have negative consequences. Comments on the compulsion to repeat, however, suggest an approach closer to Winnicott's: “We render the compulsion harmless, and indeed useful, by giving it the right to assert itself in a definite field. We admit it into the transference as a playground in which it is allowed to expand in almost complete freedom and in which it is expected to display to us everything in the way of pathogenic instincts that are hidden in the patient's mind” (Freud, ‘Remembering, repeating and working through’, SE 12 (1914), 145–156; 154; my emphasis).

72 Kristeva, Julia, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia (New York: Columbia University of Press, 1986), 106138Google Scholar. A similar method is employed in her essay ‘Stabat Mater’ in Toril Moi, A Kristeva Reader (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 160–186, where the figure of Mary the Mother of Child is used to provide a mirror for reflecting on her own experience of motherhood.

73 Camporesi, Piero, The Fear of Hell: Images of Damnation and Salvation in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991)Google Scholar.

74 Sigmund Freud, ‘Repression’, SE 14 (1915), 141–158.

75 For Freud's own sustained reflections on pieces of art, see ‘Delusions and Dreams in Jensen's Gradiva’, SE 9 (1907), 1–95 and ‘The Moses of Michelangelo’, SE 13 (1914), 209–238.

76 Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, 140.

77 Freud, Future of an Illusion, 17.

78 'The German word “unheimlich” is obviously the opposite of “Heimlich” [homely], “heimisch” [“native”] – the opposite of familiar; and we are tempted to conclude that what is “uncanny” is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar' (Freud, ‘The Uncanny’, SE 17 (1919), 217–256; 220).

79 Freud, ‘Analysis Terminable and Interminable’, 229.

80 Blackburn, Thomas, Selected Poems (Manchester: Carcenet Press, 2001), 39Google Scholar.

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