Atheism, Jungianism, and the Jungian Problem of Religion (Part 1)

To proclaim religion is a "problem" for Jungianism to a Jungian audience is perhaps to assure the hackles of that audience are raised before any argument is even made.  That is a gamble I will take because this topic demands both provocation and intelligent consideration (the former will no doubt be inherent in my argument and the latter will hopefully emerge through and maybe even from my argument).

As I have asserted repeatedly over the last years, I am an atheist.  A Jungian atheist.  As a Jungian atheist I would make a nice case study or perhaps a specimen jar oddity.  I have stated briefly in previous writings that I feel Jungianism is actually fully compatible with atheism.  It is after all a psychology . . . intended as a scientific study of the psyche.  Jungianism is not a religion and should therefore have no conflict with secularism's refusals to believe in a literal God or in gods or other mystical of spiritual things.  But the study of psyche (as Jung often noted) is a study of phenomena without a declaration of what those phenomena literally are or are founded on.  That is, we cannot say what something like the anima is, but we can recognize this ordered phenomenon in many dreams, stories, and artistic creations.

Despite some desire to be provocative, I do not want to "cure" Jungianism of its tendency toward religiosity and even belief.  There has been a wave of secularist/atheistic writing in recent years (sometimes referred to as the "New Atheism", see also the "Brights movement") that has reinforced what I (and many others, even other atheists) feel is a very dated and at times even scientistic tribalist slandering of religion.  These arguments against the usefulness of religion do not treat religion as a complex psychological phenomenon, nor do they effectively and scientifically seek to study the mind that generates religion and religiosity.  That is, dismissive pseudo-theories have been given and dressed up in scientific garb (e.g., the theory that religion is a dangerous meme that takes over human brains and pushes the human species toward self-destruction . . . advocated by Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett).  But these are really only tribal arguments, propaganda pieces that are meant to sort Us and Them.  These scientific claims are very spurious and poorly thought out.  In fact, by disseminating these tribalistic dogmas, Dawkins, Dennett, and other atheists are simply engaging in the very same religious behavior as other religionists (albeit without an anthropomorphic godhead on their tribal seal).

I find myself being just as critical of this brand of atheistic tribalism as I am of other more conventional religions.  Of course, New Atheism doesn't have the significant history of mass atrocity behind it that the Western monotheisms do . . . and there is something to be said about that.  But the "problem" of religion in general is not an issue of irrationality or belief in things that are unreal or insubstantial.  The problem is that the tribalism surrounding religions can very easily negate a kind of universal or humanist ethics that the modern world and the human species are dependent on for their survival.  Tribalistic ideologies devalue otherness, and when otherness is devalued, the treatment of others is not governed by the same sense of ethics and empathy that governs the treatment of fellow tribe members.

The psychology of human religiosity is, far from being some sort of mistake or anomaly, one of the most fertile gateways into the understanding of the human psyche in general.  We are, as it has been so frequently stated in recent years, homo religioso.  But one of the critiques trumpeted by the new atheists is well worth considering.  Namely, that traditional views of and relationships to religion are no longer functional in the modern world.  That is, a literalizing view of religion and religiosity that remains intentionally ignorant of human psychology and human religious predisposition (not to mention human religious history) is not compatible with the demands modernism places upon us.  Simple belief is no longer the answer . . . and the (perhaps Catholic/Augustinian but probably much older and more intuitive)  idea that religiosity can be pursued in the modern world through "faith alone" is plagued by externalities.  Religiosity and the pursuit of knowledge are not incompatible.

The combination of religiosity and the pursuit of knowledge (small-g gnosis) in the modern world took an enormous leap forward in the theories and valuative attitudes of C.G. Jung, who was and still is seen as a "psychologizer" of sacred things by some, and a mystical prophet of a New Age religion by others.  For someone of my own persuasion, Jung's language was a clarion call proclaiming that religiosity could be pursued without the sacrifice of knowing or the abandonment of the pursuit of scientific methodology.  In this sense, perhaps he was a "modern prophet" . . . but a prophet of a modern religiosity, NOT of an ancient, tribal religion or mysticism.

One of my strongest continuing gripes with today's Jungianism is that it fails to be truly modern and to respond to the Problem of the Modern with which we are all presented.  Its doctrines and remedies have become regressive.  That is, it prescribes a romantic return to neo-primitive tribalism in the effort to "re-ensoul the world" . . . or rather, in the effort to bring a sense of the sacred back into the lives of disenfranchised modern humans.  And to be fair, this can, in fact, work . . . so long as we are able to find a safe tribal space, a kind of ideological "Tower in Bollingen" where we can be free of modernism's disenfranchisement and desacralization.

But I find this solution flawed and, for the majority of people in the world today, inadequate.  It does not treat the Problem of the Modern (one facet of which is the lack of the sacred in the modern system of existence) but rather fights to withdraw partially from it.  This solution strikes me as fairly selfish*.  It only works for the individual practicing the withdrawal (or for the withdrawing tribe, if the individual can attain membership).  It does not therapeutically treat the larger modern world and its construction of personality.  Sacredness is merely being horded into a kind of introversion or inwardness that exhibits no social responsibility . . . and that kind of anti-social inwardness is one of the major problems of the modern already.  It could be said, then, that this Jungian inrtoversion of sacredness is (albeit in a small way) contributing to the very Problem of the Modern it is supposed to present a remedy for.  Again, the issue of externalities of tribalism.

* in the Jungian paradigm, this period of introversion is supposed to be temporary, a necessary first step.  But the subsequent period or extraverting, or what I would consider taking responsibility for the maintenance of the sacred in the world, does not seem to ever develop.  There is, at least, very little Jungian writing that describes how such a process might work . . . and so the extraverting stage remains only as an abstract idealization, an intangible goal.

Many contemporary Jungians have recognized this tendency toward anti-social inwardness as a signature Jungian problem . . . and as a result we see both critiques of this trait in Jungian literature and propositions for "getting Jungianism out into the world".  I'm not sure we Jungians are ready to make any evangelical forays into the larger world at this point . . . and at the risk of appearing to contradict myself, I would recommend that we first spend some serious time and energy contemplating our relationship to modernism.  I wouldn't go so far as to call the attempts at "social theorizing" and interpretation of modern social trends in recent Jungian literature "embarrassing" (or rather, to the degree I find them embarrassing, I recognize the emotion as a product of my own at times uneasy relationship to my Jungianism), but they are not a very good representation of the best we Jungian have to offer the wider non-Jungian intellectual world.

And this is one of the arenas in which the conventional Jungian attitude toward religion and religiosity is a problem.  Even as we have inherited one of the most fertile valuative systems for the understanding and preservation of the sacred, our Jungian religiosity tends to strike the larger, modern, and much more secularly-influenced world as a rather cultic evangelizing.  We tell ourselves that we really don't care about this impression because we are "true believers" in the know about the soul . . . and because we are really only concerned with those who would answer the Call of the unconscious and be interested in such a return to religion.  But this attitude must be seen for its true immaturity, irresponsibility, and self-destructiveness if we Jungians are to every enter and eventually constructively influence the modern world (and the modernism in the patients our analysts treat).

Self-contentment with our "wisdom" and grasp or religion is at odds with our survivability . . . and we cannot sit back in an ideological stupor waiting (with utter certainty) for the big mothership to return and whisk us away to the paradise we so deeply deserve.  We have an intellectual and valuative legacy to uphold and perpetuate . . . and it is not merely a legacy of belief.  It is a scientific legacy of rigorous investigation, a legacy of "psychologization" (negative connotations be damned) . . . not metaphysics.  Perhaps we would rather be poets, crafting songs to the psychic Muse, wondrous odes to sanctity.  Yes that would be easier.  But this is a puer fantasy.  We are not the bards of the psyche.  That is a temptation that Jung himself decided to throw off . . . and although I feel he did so with a lack of refinement and full understanding, there is something to be said about his decision to pursue science instead of art.

Speaking as a poet who has put aside poetry to pursue Jungian psychology, I am well acquainted with the puer pitfalls lying in wait for those Jungians who would poeticize the psyche.  Even as a poet, I found this romanticism unacceptable.  Poetry today is no longer romantic in this sense . . . it is actually rather ruthless and embittered.  The kind of poeticism we Jungians have sought in our thinking and writing is a shoddily constructed fantasy that is neither good for our tribe or for larger human thought.  Poetry, real poetry, real art is a brutal enterprise, not a retreat into the childlike creative wonderland we have too often imagined it to be as we have reconceptualized it as art therapy and active imagination.  I am not criticizing the value of these creative expressions as therapy.  They help open the doors that must first be opened for healing to progress.  But speaking as an artist and not a hobbiest, the act of creation should involve the whole person, should be an ethical struggle, a painful labor mentally and spiritually . . . and not merely a revelation or mysterious vision.

Active imagination as Jungians so often conceive of it is a kind of tourism of the deep psyche . . . but real artists are locals who must live there in that economy.  If we would like to be artists, then I suggest we strive to be real artists and not tourists or analytical patients.  We have, perhaps, lost the paternal rigor and seriousness that Jung himself used as a guiding principle . . . and we are now caught up in the maternal fantasy of the puer, where everything seems possible and expansive, yet we only exist within the confines of a glass jar.

The pursuit or religion or spirituality, when genuine, is just as rigorous and dangerous as the creation of art.  By accepting a Catholic attitude toward faith in the numinous unconscious and its products, we indirectly cripple Jungian thinking, Jungian science.  I feel we should make greater efforts to keep separate the believer and the knower within ourselves . . . and not stifle our knower but allow it to pursue the psychology of religion and spirituality with all due skepticism.  Even as we might also choose belief.  I am not saying that we should ultimately settle for dissociation (as Jung himself seemed to) where on some level we "know" God, but on another level, we still seek to know.  Personally, I don't feel spiritually divided.  I see no contradiction between scientific naturalism and the devoted valuation of the sacred.  How I have resolved this personally is perhaps not universally prescribable.  Every individuation journey is by definition unique . . . and these journeys don't end in dogma, in belief, in the Holy Word unquestioningly accepted.  There is no One Truth awaiting us at a stage of "enlightenment".

The bitter irony of our problematic, dated, and simplistic Jungian relationship with religion is that we have not only failed to be adequate (and adequately modern) scientists in our brand of religiosity.  We have also failed spiritually to relate to and preserve the sacred.  Spiritually, we have been far too selfish and tried to hoard a "natural resource" of sanctity rather than use it to drive adaptation and progress in our existence and intellectual contributions.  We have, I would argue, misunderstood spirituality . . . which is not about providence.  It's about responsibility.  Spirituality isn't a declaration of dependence on a god but an acceptance of responsibility for the preservation and welfare of that god (or object or system of value).  This is fairly evident in the many spiritualities and mysticisms Jungians have studied and "Jungianized" . . . but this common knowledge is not very well put into practice in our Jungianizations of religion.

I am not proposing that we trade one god for another . . . say Jung for Freud or mysticism for materialism.  I am not advocating a tribalistic solution.  I am saying that we need to deepen and clarify our relationships to our gods.  It is in no way essential for Jungians to "become atheists", but there needs to be a greater awareness and acceptance of the perspective of a Jungian atheist in our thinking and investigating.  We cannot proceed merely with faith as our vehicle, not as psychologists.  Skepticism and self-criticism are also necessary . . . and not out of some ideological or tribal implementation of rationalism, but out of the instinctual necessities of survival and the ethics of valuation of the sacred.

We should, of course, continue the Jungian tradition of skepticism toward rationalistic materialism.  But we cannot merely hold science and rationalism in suspicion out of a tribal prejudice.  We need to turn a gnostic criticism both on modern science and on our own inclinations toward cultic and ancient religiosity.

Jung and Christianity

Although Jung's view of Christianity was certainly complex and at times somewhat blasphemous (e.g., in "Answer to Job"), he should be considered a "Christian thinker" perhaps at least as much as he should be seen as a "modern thinker" or a "neopagan thinker".  The imprint of Christianity is foundational for Jung, and this has gone underexamined by Jungians.  Much Jungian attention has been given to Jung's thinking on mysticism, Eastern philosophy, Gnosticism, occult and paranormal phenomena, etc. . . . but we seem to overlook the "less exciting" and New-Agey fact that Jung was writing largely within the Christian paradigm.  That is, in order to find value for these things that have become New Age staples, Jung had to contend with his Christianity and Christian mentality.  He addressed them as a "Westerner" . . . and that essentially meant (for Jung) "as a Christian" (or one who has grown up within the Christian symbol system).

There is no doubt that Jung stretched his Christianity very far (especially for a man of his time) . . . but it must be understood that he had a Christianity to stretch.  Christianity was a significant, fundamental factor in Jung's personality and thought.  What he created and proposed, he did in relation to Christianity.  When Jung wrote "Answer to Job", he was creating a personalized Christian theology.  It doesn't matter as much that it was "heretical" (by Catholic standards) as it does that this personal thinking about religion and God took place within the confines of Christian language and symbols, Christian imagination and fantasy.  In other words, Jung accepted the foundation of Christian symbolism in his psyche and (like the alchemists) sought to pursue his personal individuation journey within its boundaries (i.e., his use of Eastern and non-Christian symbols and ideas was made as a Christian thinker relating to these as "orientalisms").  He did not question the validity of that foundation.

Although Jung was critical of the Church in some ways (and especially of Protestantism), he was not truly a political critic or historian of Christianity.  For Jung, Christianity was largely a psychological phenomenon . . . not a social or institutional one.  He treated the Church and its symbols and dogmas as if they were spontaneous eruptions of the unconscious, as if they were dreams or myths.  He did not examine these texts as if they were constructions influenced by political and personal agendas.  But today, in the so called postmodern or post-constructionist era, this is how we examine texts.  We no longer accept that there are pure emanations of the unconscious that can be accepted as singular psychic artifacts.  We break things down to more quantum levels.

It is perhaps too much to ask of Jung that he should have done this, should have been more postmodern than modern (of course, psychoanalytic/Freudian analysis of texts is in the postmodern and Derridean DNA and prefigured literary deconstruction).  But for contemporary Jungians, the continued lack of sociopolitical scrutiny and deconstruction of religious and mythic texts is inexcusable and one of the many reasons we Jungians have failed the Call of the modern.  We have (unconsciously, for the most part) carried on Jung's tradition of viewing Christianity and Christian symbolism as pure/unconscious psychic artifacts and have not made any further attempts to deconstruct and scrutinize Christian ideas and symbols.

This is, I suspect, partly due to the fact that Christianity doesn't interest Jungians as much as neopagan, Eastern, and occult symbol systems do.  Therefore, we have largely ignored Christianity.  But such ignorance is dangerous, because Christianity is at the core of our Jungian DNA, driving the construction of many of the theories we have inherited from Jung and continue to advocate.  The attitude we have taken toward Christianity has served as the mold from which our attitude toward all religious ideas and texts has been coined.  Even as some postmodernism has slipped into the language of Jungians (most notably James Hillman and Wolfgang Giegerich and their advocates), we have still failed to turn the postmodern analysis these ideas connote on our own precious things and on the construction of our Jungianism.  Instead, we have used postmodern languaging merely for play and escapism (as it is also most frequently used in other academic areas, in my rather biased opinion).

I feel it's time to start deconstructing Jung's thinking (as well as our collective and personal Jungianisms) in relation to its cultural constructions and influences.  An excellent first step has been taken in this enterprise by Sonu Shamdasani (Jung and the Making of Modern Psychology: The Dream of a Science, 2004), whose scholarship has demonstrated that Jung's psychological thinking grew out of a specific intellectual milieu and context (and did not spring entirely from his own unique genius, as the Jungian myth has preferred to have it for decades now).  Still, to my knowledge, Jung's Christianity has not been so thoroughly analyzed.

Just as Shamdasani's contextualization of Jung's theory development has not rendered Jung entirely un-unique, I don't think a study and deconstruction of Jung's Christianity would entirely negate his  contributions to the study of religion and theology.  But it would, I suspect, be disruptive to Jungian tribalism, because it would help us look more squarely at our Jungian shadow.  A historical study of Christianity grants us a uniquely detailed peek into the construction of a world religion.  Yes, historical texts and artifacts relating to the construction of Christianity are scarce . . . but compared to any other major religion, there is a wealth of information from which we can draw general theories and make psychological observations.

Christianity (as we know it today and as Jung knew it) grew out a period of great turmoil and tribal splintering, a proto-modern collision of cultures and technologies.  Christianity can not be understood adequately within the cloak of its own myth and propaganda (as Jung and Jungians have typically sought to understand it).  What we consider Christian today is what survived and triumphed from a centuries-long, outrageously bloody battle among numerous pre-Christianities.  And the victor (eventually called the Roman Catholic Church) rose to its position not by the glory of truth and God's will, but by political intrigue and a willingness to ally itself with Roman military might, a willingness to allow this might to forcibly and physically wipe out its Christian competitors.  We still often react to such ideas as if they were ideological propaganda (an element of the preposterous "anti-Christian persecution" that many in the enormous Christian majority in Americ like to fantasize about and bemoan), but this is merely the product of our own desire to believe and an ignorance of the historical evidence that has long existed.  I recommend that anyone interested in the deconstruction and analysis of Christianity and its texts spend some time at the snarky (at times offensive) but thorough and well-annotated website JesusNever Existed.Com.  The author of this site, Kenneth Humphreys does have an agenda . . . but he has also managed to pull together a great deal of interesting and well-documented scholarship.  I must also admit that my own final step into self-branding as an atheist was due to my extensive reading of this site and the many books and articles it uses as sources.  Until that point (and in a very Jungian fashion), I had developed my own personal, very heretical Christianity.  But as I was able to historically deconstruct it, I realized that even that construction was problematic.

Most Jungians will not be able to stomach JesusNeverExisted.Com, and that is a shame, because the resistance  speaks to the problem of Jungianism as a religion rather than a science.  Still, we are, as Jungians, not obligated to be believers.  Our legacy is one of investigation and psychologization.  In our Jungianism, it is not faith that we must ultimately preserve, but truth or gnosis.  Our search for the soul is not one (collectively and professionally) that is meant to end in belief.  We have come to the soul not to worship but to observe, measure, contemplate.  And these things can be done in the name of also relating to the soul, valuating it.  Faith from a distance is not valuative, it is egoic and self-serving.  To experience a thing, we must seek to know it as it is in order not to colonize it and make it over into the image of our projection.

I would argue (in accord with Jungian thinking) that alchemy (a favorite Jungian subject) was a more spontaneous eruption of the Christianized unconscious (of the middle ages) than Christian doctrine was.  Alchemy was a reaction of the unconscious in an attempt to counterbalance Christianized consciousness.  This was, no doubt, the source of Jung's fascination with it.  Alchemy attempts to revivify the instinctual unconscious and the Self's organizing principle within (or at least not in direct opposition to) the Christian symbol system . . . and this is precisely why it is the most significant precedent of Jungian psychology.  The alchemical inheritance and the alchemical quest are the same as those in the Jungian paradigm.  We Jungians can no more ignore our Christian heritage than the alchemists could.

Jung saw alchemy as an intellectual heir of Gnosticism, and although this can be hard to establish at times, there is a very legitimate sense in which he was correct.  Gnosticisms were the main competitors with proto-Catholocism both before the Romanization of Christianity and for a century or so after.  These Gnosticisms should not, I think, be romanticized as the "great lost Christianity".  But what is extremely important to understand is that proto-Catholicism was powerfully influenced by these Gnosticisms.  Yet this influence was largely reactive and defensive.  Catholicism was constructed in relation to Gnosticism, and it was constructed intentionally as an "anti-Gnosticism".  As a result, many of the writings of the early Church fathers were devoted to developing anti-Gnostic dogmas and arguments.  The Catholicism we inherited was largely constructed, not as a "true Word from God", but as a system of arguments and propoaganda refuting and dispatching of Gnosticism and Gnostic ideas.

When Gnostic ideas disappeared (partially going underground and syncretizing with other deposed paganisms), it was not because "no one believed them or took them seriously anymore".  It was because the remaining Gnostics were persecuted and murdered and their texts burned (in fact, some of the "Christian Martyrs" adopted and sensationalized by the Church were essentially Gnostics).  That is, Catholicism went to a very severe political and military level to defeat its arch ideological nemesis.  The Gnostic texts we have today come from two general sources: either they were preserved by the Catholic Church fathers as objects for which Catholic counterarguments were made or they were hidden away by Gnostic-sympathizers and forgotten for over 1000 years only to be rediscovered in the 20th century.  Amazingly few texts survived the Catholic book burnings.  Gnosticism (and later, alchemy) are a part of the Christian shadow . . . and the Christian Shadow-Self.  They represent what the Christian consciousness most hates and fears.

Jung was a modern champion of the Christian unconscious who sought to do "shadow work" on the Christian shadow.  Jungian psychology of religion is significantly constructed by this position, but it has taken up the task without concern for the historical and cultural constructionism of Christian mythology.  As a result, the Jungian "hostility" toward and heresy for Christianity exists unconsciously.  To drive Jungianism toward the modern, we Jungians will need to begin taking a conscious approach toward our Christianity.  And to understand ourselves and our roots, we will have to look more closely at our own historical and unconscious relationship with Christian ideas and symbols.  We will need to analyze our own Christian construction.

I think we will find that, despite Jung's heretical positions toward Christian dogma, his limitations were Christian (or Catholic) limitations.  That is, when he failed to form an adequate (and adequately modern) psychological perspective on the phenomena of the unconscious, his failings were very much like the failings of the Christian consciousness as demonstrated by the dogmas of the Church.  I feel this Christian limitation is most notable in Jung's dualistic construction of the Self and other archetypes (as half light, half dark), his particular understanding and valuation of "faith", and in his treatment of alchemy.

Although many Jungians have continued the obsession with alchemy Jung initiated, they have regrettably approached alchemy entirely through Jung's own scholarship and perspectives.  As important as alchemy is to Jungian psychology (as both source and nuisance), Jung's psychologization of alchemy was significantly flawed.  I am not of the "purist" school (perhaps best represented by Adam McLean of the that holds that to psychologize alchemy is to misunderstand it.  This is, in my opinion, a religious attitude (and, of course, I am an atheist).  Everything can be psychologized.  There is no such thing as a pre-psychological artifact of the psyche.  We must be very careful not to reduce these psychic artifacts too severely and sloppily (as we see in many of the Freudian treatments of the contents of the unconscious), but psyche has structure and laws (albeit laws of systemic complexity that are hard to pin down).  Ideally, psychological language should be directed at knowing as much as possible about any psychic phenomena.  It is always under revision, never satisfied with totemism or the language of belief.  To assert that alchemy cannot be psychologized because it is pre-psychological and deals with mystical or spiritual truths is just another kind of reduction that limits the true complexity of alchemical symbolism.  That is, to "psychologize" something is to honor its inherent essence and complexity to the highest degree possible.  This is at least so, so long as the phenomenon being psychologized is given the benefit of the scientific method where the analysis of data is careful, thorough, "detached", and always under revision.

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  1. The day after I posted the first and second parts of this essay, I stumbled upon a paper of John P. Dourley: “THE FOUNDATIONAL ELEMENTS OF A JUNGIAN SPIRITUALITY“.

    This was originally presented at a conference on the Symbolic Way in Spirituality, Analytic Practice and Culture, AGAP Forum, July 16, 2006, Zurich, Switzerland.

    I highly recommend that anyone interested in the topic of Jungianism and religion/spirituality read this essay. In fact, it is better if you read this essay before reading Part 2 of my piece on the Jungian Problem of Religion. Dourley provides the scholarship behind my claim that there is a significant precedent for a Jungian atheism (which I, perhaps unwisely, took for granted was largely known by the well-read Jungian audience). As another service “to me”, Dourley goes on to construct a psychologized spirituality that (although interesting and compelling on some levels) demonstrates (somewhat unwillingly) a number of the pitfalls I described in any such imagination of a Jungian religion or spirituality (in Part 2 of my essay).

    In essence, my essay has begun to propose answers to some of the questions Dourley asked in 2006 . . . and has begun to provide analyses or deconstructions of some of the constructions he suggested for a kind of future Jungian “religion”. Of course, these are immensely complex topics, and what I have proposed is the roughest of rough outlines on what we need to consider in order to proceed and to understand our Jungian religiosity.

    Still, Dourley’s paper is a welcome synchronicity.

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