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Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought 13: 53-77

Atheism and Pseudo-Atheism in the Psychoanalytic Paradigm

Gary Ahlskog, Ph.D.
Freud's penetrating critique of religion in The Future of an Illusion (1927) has become a seminal work in contemporary
theology. His persuasive observation that indoctrination into a religious heritage promotes a transference to the projected imago
of an all-sustaining object, fueled by infantile wishes, protected by the superego, is now an unexpected foundation for continuing
religious inquiry (Ulanov and Ulanov, 1975). The developmental importance of disrupting (analyzing) this infantile immersion in
order to promote differentiation between the self and the object (heritage) is an acknowledged component of religious as well as
psychological growth. Freud's critique, intended to eviscerate religion, has newly oriented religious thinkers to the task of
differentiating authentic religious consciousness from a facade of infantile wishes and social conventions.
The topic of religion retains its vexing vitality. The attack by psychoanalysis has not proven decisive, and religious themes,
unexplicated by available theories, continue to appear in contemporary

Dr. Ahlskog is a psychoanalyst in New York City.

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clinical work. This paper will suggest that interest in religion may continue, perhaps even grow, because the psychoanalytic
paradigm itself, notably its concept of the unconscious, is unexpectedly compatible with some basic religious precepts. Since
most psychoanalytic thought is overtly atheistic, the term pseudo-atheism will be used below as a means of clarifying this covert,
usually unacknowledged compatibility.

Disrupting the Religious Heritage

The disruption effected by Freud (1927)given that he stands in a long line of disruptors beginning with Eve and
Adamwas a psychodynamic tour de force deceptively simple in tone and focus. Religion serves a secondary compensatory
function by insulating people against the cruelty of nature, the privations of civilized life, and the fact of death. It promotes a
primary structuring of the psyche in which instinctual impulses are renounced and opposed under the influence of a superego that
promises a higher order of meanings and values. This structuring endures to the detriment of personally negotiated gratifications,
whether the person remains overtly religious or not, making the unanalyzed psyche vulnerable to interminable transferences to
meaning systems (Ahlskog, 1985). Freud's analysis of this universal obsessional neurosis of humanity (1927, p. 43) provides a
valuable case against the naivet of religion. Ironically, it is compatible with views emanating from major biblical scholarship
during the past one hundred years.
Near the end of the nineteenth century, biblical scholarship launched an unintentional isomorphic attack against the naivet
of childhood religion, similar to a Trojan Horse promising insightfulness, under the names of Form Criticism and Historical
Criticism. By Form Criticism was meant an approach to religious texts that unwittingly disrupted their religious integrity by
demonstrating within them the influence of disparate authors, imagery, language, and modes of thinking. By Historical Criticism
was meant a disruption based on analysis of cultural
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and political contexts, from which one was accidentally prone to diagnose religious content as an exaggeration of sociological
facts. Johannes Weiss (1863-1914) and Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932) were pioneers in these approaches, which entered the
mainstream of biblical criticism with the work of Dibelius (1936). In discussing Moses, Freud (1939) alludes to these procedures
and uses them to argue his case that the original Moses was Egyptian and that his saga is a composite of events pertaining to
several different historical figures. A method of critical inquiry superceding Form and Historical Criticism has been developed by
Wink (1973), elaborated by Tracy (1981), and will be discussed below.
Evidence that the religion to which one is devoted is not composed of a unified theme, voice, or concept, but is actually a
composite of disparate revisions, and possibly tamperings, disrupts naive allegiance to the timelessness or veracity of religious
content. Adherence to a religion known to be changed and changeable is a difficult, seemingly impossible assignment. The result
of this century of scholarship was a religious leadership, paralleling the psychological leadership of Freud, that took as its task an
iconoclastic, reputedly objective and scientific analysis of religion, revealing it to be suspicious in form, origin, and, by
implication, content.

Atheism and Pseudo-Atheism

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Imposition of distance between self and religious tradition, by whatever means accomplished, initially results in atheism.
Religious claims are diminished and obscured when attention becomes concentrated on the tradition's dubious forms, origins, and
psychic correlatives. Wink (1973) referred to this separation as negation of fusion through suspicion of the object (p. 19). The
perspective that results from attending to psychological, formal, or cultural correlatives pertaining to the object (the heritage) is
accompanied by the impression of the object's negation. This religion with which one is no longer fused must
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have been a mirage, never existed, or if it did exist no longer exists as anything identifiably religious. Religion is rendered
indistinguishable from information about the tradition. The ensuing atheism may take an aggressive or benign form.
Aggressive atheism asserts on the basis of compiled correlatives that a religious tradition is false. This is an inconclusive
assertion, however, since no supporting evidence can be given for this aggressive claim to knowledge other than correlatives as
compiled. The position becomes, by definition, reductionistic. Wittgenstein (1938, pp. 53-72) demonstrated that there is no
rational response to a question such as, Will there be a Judgment Day? since the replies, Of course, and, Of course not are equally
unsupportable. They are equivalent as prejudices, evangelist and iconoclast being cut from the same mold, thinking within the
same conceptual framework. Or, as Geoghegan (1985) wryly observed, if belief is to be attributed to infantile wishes, then it
follows that disbelief must be attributable to infantile rage. Vitz (1988) tried to argue that Freud's own theory makes atheism
suspicious as a neurotic symptom (e.g., a wishfulfilling oedipal victory). This argument is weak because, among other things,
conclusiveness either way is permanently foreclosed by the conceptual frame. (Atheism based on anger or disillusionment
involves other psychological and religious issues beyond the scope of this discussion.)
Benign atheism concludes on the basis of compiled correlatives that their weight justifies pursuit of further knowledge within
the correlatives themselves, since the negated tradition yields no recognizably religious information that has not already been
rendered suspicious. Without claiming to prove the falsity of a religious tradition, benign atheism (or agnosticism) proceeds on
the assumption that if there are gods, they do not intervene in the world's affairs (Wink, 1973, p. 38). This procedural
assumption is a cornerstone of rational inquiry. Benign atheism makes rationality possible, not because religion can be proven
false and irrational, but because nothing can be known about the world as long as divine intervention is a tenable
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explanation. In trying to understand the behavior of a patient, the stock market, or the weather, the weight of correlative
information (e.g., childhood, interest rates, or the jet stream) has a potential for reliability and validity that divine intervention
does not and finally cannot.
This benignly rational atheism is, for all its usefulness, unstable. The most comprehensive compilations of
correlativesknown as paradigmsare subject to anomalies, modifications, and sometimes outright collapse (Kuhn, 1970). The
realization that no theory or paradigm sufficiently explains the affairs of the world contains the unavoidable germ of
pseudo-atheism. This term will be defined psychodynamically in the concluding section of this paper. It is used here initially to
refer to an overtly atheistic cognitive stance that periodically accommodates, without acknowledgment, assumptions from the
religious domain. Having agreed that the gods do not intervene, one periodically assumes that something else does instead.
Pseudo-atheism is neither irrational nor indicative of cognitive error but acutally permits inquiry to proceed. In physics the term
Universe signifies the limit of known physical knowledge (paradigms) by permitting the possibility of discovering something
new, which is to say that what occurs in the next moment might confirm known paradigms or might not. Black holes intervene in
the behavior of objects, light, and electromagnetic fields and forces. When noticed, they altered understanding of the physical
world. The subject of chaos has appeared recently in mathematics (Gleick, 1987), thereby altering paradigms previously so
foundational that they were deemed fact. In the field of economics the limit term that acknowledges the possibility of intervention
into what occurs and (perhaps) what is known is Marketplace. In philosophy the term is Truth; in religion the term is God. In the
psychoanalytic paradigm this term is the Unconscious.
Atheism within psychoanalytic thinking refers to disallowing the authenticity of religion as pertinent to explaining human
experience. Pseudo-atheism refers to the theory's major premise,
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namely that the most valuable, durable, reliable explanation of human experience is precisely intervention from the unknown. An
aggressive psychoanalytic atheism might insist that this unknown (unconscious) can refer only to the warehouse of memory, to
the repressed, in which case intervention from the unknown would refer trivially to the lifting of repression and the recovery of
material unknown because for various reasons it had been forgotten, misapprehended, or disallowed. Although such a view
would be insulated against the possibility of interventions and the possibility of creeping pseudo-atheism, it would have to ignore
Freud's (1915) explicit understanding that the repressed does not cover everything that is unconscious (p. 166).

The Unconscious

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The indefinite structure of this key term in psychoanalytic thinking is illustrated by Freud's own discussion in his 1915 paper,
The Unconscious. He begins characteristically by justifying his subject matter to detractors. Then he sketches his topographical
view of the systems Cs, Pcs, and Ucs as they influence ideas and emotions. He goes on to describe the dynamic operation of
repression within these systems as it contributes to hysterical and obsessive syndromes. Midway through the essay he sums up the
features of the unconscious as those of primary process. After proceeding nearly two-thirds of the way through his discussion,
Freud declares a dissatisfaction with our results (p. 190) and embarks upon another approach, almost like another topic. He is
dissatisfied because he has achieved as yet no clear-cut distinction between the two psychical systems (p. 190), the unconscious
having been made to seem inert, too strongly identified with repression, and too similar to the structure of the preconscious. In his
subsequent discussion Freud reiterates the premise that the unconscious contains that which is repressed as well as some of the
impulses which dominate our egosomething, therefore, that forms the
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strongest functional antithesis to the repressed (p. 193). Then he determines that the main issue has to do with ascertaining the
differences between the preconscious and the unconscious (p. 193).
In the last three sections of this essay Freud is understandably concerned to present a clear description of his psychoanalytic
position while avoiding the idea of an indefinite layering of preconscious systems, an idea he understands from the outset (p. 170)
as a misrepresentation of his theory. The misrepresentation would consist of equating the unconscious with hidden logics that are
in principle discoverable, a position that would only repeat his definition of preconscious, in effect turning the unconscious into a
preconscious beneath the preconscious. He retreats from allowing the unconscious to be understood merely as the logic of
instinctual life or the logic of childhood experience. A theory to the effect that persons harbor disguised sexual and aggressive
needs as impulses seeking discharge, or that early experiences and relations shape later anxiety and response to anxiety is quite
straightforward. Since these logics, demonstrably present and recoverable during treatment, reflect Freud's theory of the
preconscious, they will not suffice to describe the unconscious as well. Thus Freud is in the position of attempting to make his
concept of the unconscious clear, that is, understandable and in some way thinkable, while retaining the fundamental claim that
no logics apply to this mental process. In pursuing this paradoxical assignment Freud displays in these final sections an elusive
array of thoughts.
In Section 5, where he discusses primary process, Freud describes the features of the unconscious as the absence of negation
or contradiction, timelessness, motility of cathexis, and substitution of psychic reality for external reality (p. 187). Not only are
these unconscious processes not independently recognizable, but in and of themselves are even incapable of carrying on their
existence (p. 187). The unconscious, as distinct from the preconscious, is nonexistent. It is the pure limit of the
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unknown, since anything knowable requires participation from some preconscious logic in order to become so. The paths leading
from the world (of perception and event) to the unconscious are usually open (p. 194). Censorship usually blocks paths leading
out from the unconscious. If one remembers the distinction in Section 7 between the subject of the unconscious and Freud's
detour to discuss psychosis, one encounters at the end of his essay the thought that an unconscious presentation is a presentation
of the thing alone and that such thing-cathexes, not bound by concrete or verbal imagery, are the first and true
object-cathexes (p. 201).
These thoughts are difficult to comprehend and all the more intriguing because Freud explicitly pressed forward into such an
obscure area. One is tempted to ignore them or to suppose that they are obviated by Freud's later revisions. Certainly, analysts
seem more professionally grounded during daily work when the subject matter of treatment can be limited to uncovering
knowable preconscious logics or demonstrating the operation of condensation and displacement (which, despite Freud's
discussion of primary process, are themselves logics and belong to preconscious, not unconscious, processes). The obscure notion
of the unconscious as nonexistent, an unknowable limit, is rendered more manageable if one supposes, as Giovacchini (1982) has
in discussing this essay, that Freud was referring merely to biological processes, for example, a metabolic process, such as a
chloride shift, which trivially and unremarkably cannot achieve mentation and consciousness (p. 4). The idea of direct
unconscious perception of the world (object) can be neutralized by calling it an impossible neurological error of Freud's, since
perception proceeds from the retina to the optic nerves, then to the optic radiation, [and] occipital cortex (via many intermediate
pathways) (Giovacchini, 1982, p. 28). The idea that the nonexistent unconscious yet contains the first true object cathexes is
sometimes understood backwards (following Freud's own misdirected attention to the topic of psychosis) and turned into the idea
that a lifting of repression
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and the subsequent appearance of unconscious material portends psychoticlike misconstruing of reality. (Freud's explicit position
was that the psychotic's bizarre productions in the areas of logic, concrete objects, and words represent an attempt to reinstate lost
cathexes; this cannot be equated with expression of the unconscious.) If one does not retreat from Freud's statements, however,

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then one may at least begin to think of ways to understand them that may turn out to be just as radical as when first proposed.

The Unconscious and the Psychoanalytic Paradigm

The differentiation of unconscious from preconscious contains one of the crucial yet obscure insights of psychoanalysis. It is
through preconscious and conscious logics, including censorship and secondary revision, that the bulk of experience is falsified.
Coherency, intelligibility, and rationality are outcomes of a distortion of the unconscious. When Freud set as his task the
differentiation of the two systems, he grasped the essentially irrational nature of the bulk of experience. Then, in order to
construct a comprehensible theory, he set about making it rational again. Roustang (1976) has traced this vascillation to an
incompatibility between Freud's commitment to the unconscious and his commitment to psychic determinism:
It is what escapes the desired, intentional coherence of consciousness that leads one to postulate the existence of the unconscious, and
more specifically, it is our unknown wishes that determine our words and behavior. Having said this, Freud's entire effort was to show
that the principle of determinism, which was for him indispensable to the development of science, also applies to inexplicable
behavior [p. 66].

More is at stake here than a philosophical notion. When

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a theory of the unconscious proposes to state the principles that govern the unintelligible, it negates the unforeseen, the atypical,
the irrational, and the unimagined, which thereby negates the unconscious by sealing it within the discourse of the theory.
Psychoanalytic treatment carried out within such a view makes the unintelligible intelligible by subjugating it to the principles of
psychoanalytic theory. Thus Freud is quite successful in subjugating jokes and slips to his theory, thereby making them logical;
he is unable to be so direct in the case of dreams, where the theory will not provide the meaning. Alternatively, to avoid
subjugating the unintelligible to rational discourse, including the rationality of psychoanalytic theory itself, is to venture into that
obscure but crucial psychoanalytic terrain in which the unconscious can never be understood because it intervenes into all logics
or understandings and changes them. In Freud's theory of the unconscious, irrationality intervenes into rationality and corrects it.
If one avoids the error of attempting to specify the nature of the unconscious and negating its irrationality in order to
substitute theoretical coherency, then it is possible to reread Freud's intriguing comments about the unconscious as a radical
intrusion into traditional assumptions about the nature of knowledge and experience. The theory of an open pathway from the
world to the unconscious that allows direct, unmediated perception of the world, implies that one's experience of the world cannot
be a contingent, transitory, or disputable event. It is impossible to negate, contradict, or otherwise interfere with experiencing,
whether or not consciously apprehended (and, psychoanalytically speaking, especially in this case). What can be known about
this experiencing in the sense of identified, thought, felt, ordered, remembered, stated, or understood, is subject to continual
misrepresentations, inadequacies, and falsifications. What is experienced can never be exactly known because the process of
knowing requires exactly those distortions referred to theoretically as censorship, in which what is experienced is divided into
partialities and disjunctions
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for the sake of coherency, and as secondary revision, in which these partialities are recombined to render service to the
procedures of thinking, feeling, acting, interacting, and all the functions of ego. Additional processes such as repression,
condensation, and displacement operate similarly to produce coherencywhich may now be referred to simultaneously as the
understanding and falsification of experience.
This coherency constitutes understanding in that it brings the ego into existence and makes operations possible. It constitutes
falsification in that all such understandings remain subject to the corrective intervention of unmediated experience, the corrective
intervention of the unconscious. Thus the psychoanalytic theory of the unconscious predicts a limitation to rationality and further
predicts the intrusion of the irrational into any current state of understanding. Here the term irrational refers to whatever could
exist in the realms of thought, feeling, action, and fantasy, whether it actually exists or not, and whether or not it has any
possibility of becoming known (understood), which could only come about if it should manage to survive or correct the
falsifications of existing (preconscious) logics. The unconscious, which is here synonymous with the unknown and the irrational,
becomes the basis for all growth and discovery (Roustang, 1976, pp. 63-65), since it prompts what has been experienced but
falsified to intervene into what is known and sometimes to modify it.

Clinical Considerations
The theory of the unconscious differentiates classical psychoanalytic treatment from other talking treatments. Freud's theory
of dream interpretation, for example, identifies the latent thoughts of the dreamer as manifestations of the desires of a person who
is unknown to consciousness but who may yet become conscious. This theory is incompatible with every other approach to
dreams that attempts to understand them through sensible deliberation (e.g., allegorically), decodes their symbols

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as if uncovering a message to waking life, or defers to a professional's knowledge of dream meanings. Whatever is already
thought by the patient, known about the patient, or known about psychoanalytic dream theory aids in producing mostly a falsified
interpretation of the dream. Neither analyst nor theory but the dreamer, dimly revealed through the dream and subsequent
associations, unconsciously corrects or expands what was known before.
I dreamed me and my buddy were flying over these fantastic mountain roads on our bicycles, going at incredible speeds. It went on
and on; I was so excited and feeling the exhilaration. Then the road headed back into town and started to level off, so I headed off the
road into these dunes and suddenly found that my bike had toppled over in the high grass. I was just sitting there in the grass laughing
when my buddy showed up and looked down and said, There isn't enough solid ground there for the bike, which we both knew was
his typical sort of joke. So I say, Oh; tell me about it, and we're still laughing as the dream ends.

The analyst is prepared to discern themes of masturbation, homosexuality, grandiosity, oedipal trauma, part-object
transferences, reaction formation, criticism of therapy, and faint clues to a possible transference resistance. The patient can
speculate about some of these themes too; they have been discussed before and are part of his conscious and preconscious
thinking. What actually emerged during his associations, however, was a slight peculiarity: The day before he had touched a
female colleague on the arm during one of their frequent arguments. That he should think in passing of this minor matter makes
no sense to him. Briefly he now wonders, based on conscious and preconscious self-knowledge, if he might be resisting some
insight into the episode. This reasonable speculation also seems benignly empty. Then he associates his present sense of benign
ease to the material of the dream and his untroubled enjoyment
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of riding and falling. This is similar to his feeling the day before. He now recognizes the peculiar absence, during and after the
argument, of his usual anxiety, the absence of his usual preoccupation with studying his feelings and actions, the absence of a
sense of concern for the usual issues of victory or defeat, strength or inadequacy. This patient, usually given to planned behaviors
and anxious self-scrutiny, had entered gleefully into an argument, relishing its nuances and actually prolonging the excitement of
the exchange, none of which had become distorted into a problem. According to his conscious logic and previous self-analyses,
he had become irrational, pursuing for no conventional reason an argumentative exchange that could have been curtailed. In
addition he was irrationally uninterested in being told about this feeling or experience, either by analyst or self.
This dream, which the patient in his newly created irrationality eventually entitled, Causing Trouble for Fun, was a
pictorial representation of an unconscious intrusion the day before into his usual ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. The dream
is not synonymous with his unconscious but a representation of its intrusion and effect. Aggregate themes discerned by the
analyst, which permit numerous interesting interpretations, would not necessarily aid emergence of the unconscious or expansion
of the person and may even undermine these. The joke in being told about his behavior, the falsification lurking within
professional interpretation, is that competent conscious and preconscious logics serve precisely to distort and negate his created
irrationality (in the argument and in the dream). To interpret, even with sensitive language and careful timing, such factors as
fused sexual and aggressive derivatives, preoedipal childhood memories, narcissistic injury, and the defensive use of disavowal,
isolation, and reaction formation is to conceptualize his psychodynamics in a theoretically correct manner; yet this falsifies his
irrational feeling by making it psychoanalytically logical.
Admittedly, the irrationality in this example does not approach
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monumental proportions, which is not to say that this is always the case or that lesser irrationalities are of lesser significance for
exploring the unconscious. Every irrationality portends the emergence of the unconscious and the birth (or growth) of the psyche.
Absent the irrational, treatment can proceed but only insofar as it removes obstacles so that the irrational may emerge. I got here
a half hour early, said a patient well versed in the literature of the field, and I think I should explain what I did during this time
because I'm sure it shows a lot about my anxieties somehow. Well, so I went to this coffee shop, and I thought here I was being so
voyeuristic about your neighborhood, which probably means I have hidden curiosity about you. Then this man talked to me
briefly, but I wasn't interested in him, which I think means I was anxious to keep my distance from you after all, which is my
problem with separation and intimacy.
As long as this rationality continues, the analyst's responses are essentially limited to keeping some associative process going
until the irrational emerges. These might include benign silences, encouraging mumblings, inquiry into the personal significance
of the stated significances, identifying or clarifying possible anxiety beneath the patient's unstated requirement to make sense,
identifying or clarifying possible anxiety in the need to take the analyst's role. The analyst may not suppose, however, that
rigorous scrutiny of this material will enunciate an expanded unconscious. Certaintly the attempt to clear some pathway through
the patient's resistances remains a crucial aspect of the psychoanalytic process. This is because it makes possible the emergence of
the personal, the idiosyncratic, and the irrational, not because an increasingly complete understanding of resistance could ever be

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equated with increasingly complete understanding of the life themes that treatment addresses. The analyst's commitment to the
eventual efficacy of interpreting resistances is a professional strategy that is nevertheless different from the purpose of treatment,
which is always the birth of the unknown and the expansion of the person.
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Failure to maintain this distinction tends to produce the lifelong analysand who understands multiple nuances of inner
conflict but has never irrationally, that is, personally and idiosyncratically, altered any of it.
In a similar vein, the possibility of interpreting and resolving transference depends heavily on retaining this uncompromising
theory of the unconscious. If the analyst uses psychoanalytic theory to supposedly understand the patient, treatment will consist of
waiting for the patient to fall into the trap of revealing something the analyst knows about and can use to demonstrate expertise.
Then, as the patient enters into the regression of treatment where increasingly unconventional wishes might begin to reveal
derivatives of a personal unconscious, the analyst as the knowing expert may inadvertently come to occupy the position of the
primordial mother-father in whose presence only masochistic submissiveness is possible. In other words, the trap of specifying
the unconscious according to the logic of psychoanalytic theory places the patient in a position within which the analyst's
interpretations annihilate the significance of the patient's own unconscious. This becomes reification of the transference and
precludes its resolution. An extensive discussion of this paradoxical problem in psychoanalysis has been provided by Roustang
(1980) and summarized by Ahlskog (1987).
One may loosely understand transference as an effect of the ubiquitous wish to locate the object (or recapture the imago) in
whom one's identity can be found and the validity of one's experience confirmed. Resistance would consist of attempts to protect
this wish by protecting this compromised relationship between self and object (imago). Freud identified these processes at the
core of psychic conflict. Psychoanalytic treatment is devoted to resolving transference and resistance through analysis because
together they are responsible for maintaining distortions and restrictions of the subjective self. Psychoanalytic theory, however,
cannot define this subjectivity without negating it. There is no limit definition of the undistorted human
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being. Thus, the concept of the unconscious as the unknown limit of experience, the unknown limit of the psyche, preserves a
fundamental respect for this impossibility of defining subjective experience and yet retains the possibility that persons may further
discover, create, or expand it.

Religion and the Psychoanalytic Paradigm

The psychoanalytic paradigm intersects religion at the point of conjoint insistence on the unknown as a corrective to
conventional rationality's falsification of experience. This does not mean that religion and psychoanalysis are equivalent
enterprises, theology and psychoanalysis share common content, God is synonymous with the unconscious, Freud was secretly
religious, or that the analyst who respects this intersection must be particularly religious. The common theme is limited to what
here has been called pseudo-athesim, an intellectually complicated position reached after one has rejected early naive or magical
explanations of experience only to discover that conventionally rational explanations must inevitably be corrected by intervention
from the unknown lest the scope of experience be misconstrued and minimized within rational or theoretical categories.
Thus, psychoanalytic inquiry and religious inquiry within the Judeo-Christian tradition are similarly paradoxical.1 The
attempt to guide self-understanding by relying on a theory or theology attributes to each an inclusive rationality that eventually
will be revealed as a misstatement, fragment, or oversimplification of experience. Yet without these (religious and
psychoanalytic) misstatements, the dimensions of personal experience cannot be explored at all. As acknowledged misstatements,
theology and psychoanalytic theory are similarly

1 The paradox does not arise in Buddhism or Islam, which are religions that promote a way of proceeding in the world in order to achieve religious
consciousness. I wish to thank Gerald J. Gargiulo for pointing out that the role of paradox reflects a significant difference among religions and, therefore, that
religion may not be construed as a monolithic enterprise.
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vulnerable to the criticism that each invokes concepts that cannot be pinned down by exactly equivalent referents, in which case
each is said to be period literature only, without empirical force. Each is simultaneously vulnerable to being mistranslated into
mechanistic formulas that then seem to lack reliability or validity, in which case empirical claims are attributed to each that are
then easily demolished.
This paradoxical vulnerability is an essential feature of the attempt to conceptualize the dimensions of personal experience
and is not resolvable. Aaron's golden calf was to be a symbol of deliverance from Egypt, a reminder of Hebrew identity, and an
altar to the Lord. In its forthright concreteness it became an infamous misstatement, since Aaron's otherwise reasonable

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theoretical purposes nonetheless distorted Israel's persistent monotheism. Similarly, a psychoanalytic assessment of ego functions
significantly increases one's understanding of the patient's psychic structure and major modes of functioning. The clearer this
assessment becomes, however, as in a thorough psychological testing report, the more distorted the picture of the person becomes.
A theoretically correct description of psychic mechanisms nevertheless suffocates understanding of another's personal dreams,
desires, and experiences.
Conversely, misstatements of the dimensions of experience, that is, approximate but insufficient attempts to delineate these
dimensions, are necessary lest experience evaporate into solipcism (or psychosis). There is no ready-made language, undistorted
by censorship and secondary revision, with which to express the indefinite limits of the psyche (defined above as the
unconscious). Yet persons do speak, partially defended against and partially expressing their experience. Considered in this light,
less conflicted psychic functioning would be reflected by pursuit and enjoyment of the personal albeit irrational, here to include
the tension between limitless thought, dream, and desire and one's inevitably distorted attempts to understand these. Well-known
examples of this tension include the contrast between participating in experiences of music, art, humor, or
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love and the vaguely dissatisfying logics through which one tries to discuss them. Further examples would include
conceptualizations of death, the Psalms, and the indefinite reversals and counterreversals contained within the teachings of Jesus.
Defending against this tension by subjugating the experience to its various rationalizations becomes a symptom.
The tenuous balance between unbridled (psychotic) subjectivism and self-abrogating rationality may otherwise be
conceptualized as the tension between self-understanding and cathexis of the object. On the one hand submissiveness to the facts
of the world, to social logics and conventions, abrogates the dimensions of personal desires and, through the process of (generic)
repression, distorts self-understanding. In religious language this might be referred to as being of the world. On the other hand
expansion of the self and intervention into the selfs routine projections, introjections, and imagos occurs through engagement
(and reengagement) with the object, that is, the other which the self is not. By way of illustration from the psychoanalytic domain,
Freud's insights into the nature of dreaming were the result of his scrutiny of dream material plus a scrutiny of his own responses
to his dreams (Bakan, cited in Wink, [1973, p. 33]). Without both processes, crucial features of psychoanalytic theory seem
inconceivable and undiscoverable. In the religious domain, alteration of self and self-understanding resulting from an encounter
with the separate object previously ignored or misconstrued was central to the contributions of Abraham, Moses, David, Jonah,
Job, John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, and Paul.
Certainly one must acknowledge that religious and psychoanalytic establishments are capable of fostering infantile
allegiances, the suppression of thought, and myths of absolute power that are as enticing as they are tyrannical and enslaving. One
may subsequently assert that the core of each is diametrically opposed to such minimizations of life and that each has so far
managed to survive complete cultural dilution. Each contends that the object (the categorical other), which is always in
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danger of being ignored, distorted, or reduced by the self's anxious representations, is nonetheless capable of being
cathectedand therefore that what eventually intervenes into the self's limited representations is this unmediated experience of
the other.
In keeping with Freud's (1915, pp. 201-203) discussion of the unconscious, unmediated experience would refer to direct
perception of the object, perception which lacks a verbal idea accompanying it, and which, for this reason, contains the building
blocks of dreams. It is, then, perception unindoctrinated by social discourse and undistorted by conventional claims and
explanations. Following Freud further, one notes that such a perception, as yet completely unconscious and devoid of quality,
gains the status of a thought by virtue of an investment of psychic energy in the perception which creates a relation between the
self and the object. This created relation is, by definition, a (hyper-) cathexis and makes the experience of the object accessible to
the preconscious, that is, knowable.
This relation (cathexis), which is essential in order to cause an experience of the object, cannot escape the risk of mistaking
the perception for the energic investment (introjection)or vice versa (projection). Yet without entering into this risk, that is,
without venturing to invest in the perception, one can experience neither the object nor the expanding (investing) self but only an
unrepresentable state of agitation full of energic charges that lack source or direction. (It is exactly this failure to invest, the
relinquishing of the object, that is cited by Freud in Section 7 of his 1915 essay as a central dynamic of psychosis.) Subsequent
psychoanalytic literature uses the term individuation to refer to this vulnerable investment, which amounts to formulating and
directing desire for the object and thereby becoming capable of experiencing it in its separateness.
Desire is partially experienced but partially distorted by cathexis of the object. Cathexes contain partial gratification and
partial misappropriation of desire. Thus, individuation is a fragile achievement because cathexis of the other will change
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it (Roustang, 1980; Ahlskog, 1987). The risk of annihilation by the other, annihilation by capitulation to manifest reality,
conventional rationality, and adaptation on alien terms, is mitigated by unconscious desire and its pull toward individuation.
Pseudo-atheism, discussed earlier as a cognitive stance, now may be understood psychodynamically as the interplay between the
fragility of individuation and the indefatigability of desire. Atheism knows that the manifest world is the only available object and
that one must live within it, submit to it, cathect it for better and for worse. The unconscious is limited by no such knowledge, no
such pseudo-insight, and persists in forming realities comprised of individuated desire and unmediated, unexplicated experiences
of otherness.
Concluding comments address the kinship between psychoanalysis, in its quest to permit expression of desire through
cathexis of the other, and the religious quest to cathect (i.e., enter into relationship to) a God-object wholly other than all possible
representations. If psychoanalysis deems such representations suspicious as projections (Freud, 1927), the Judeo-Christian
tradition deems them false (Exodus 20:4). An imago is a product of projective and introjective representations. An object, when
cathected, alters these representations.
Bypassing on religious grounds any attempt to define God, Tracy (1981) has recast by analogy this issue of religious
cathexes, apparently without intending or noticing parallels to psychoanalytic thought. In his recast schema, the object consists of
those public achievements deemed to contain religious authenticity, namely religious texts. Arguing by analogy from examples in
art and (religious) literature, Tracy defines The Classic (chapter 3) as those human achievements which survive as objects of
attention and investment because of an enduring consensus that they have neither been reduced by explanation into component
parts nor exhaustively captured by any subsequent commentary. Classics (e.g., the Decalogue, the Sermon on the Mount, the
Passion, Paradise Lost, the Koran) do not contain a rational truth, except in aberrant cases where they are mistaken
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for authority and used for indoctrination. They endure nonetheless because of their indefatigable (and for this reason inexplicable)
power to alter perception, understanding, and experience. Also a classic object endures because the attacks and reductions of
persons unaltered by the object have demonstrably little effect on its power over the long run.
Presumably the oedipal paradigm is a demonstrated Classic, specifically as regards its inexhaustability, its altering power,
and its indestructability. Wink2 has illustrated the similarly classic stature of the unpopular Christian text, if any one strikes you
on the right cheek, turn to him the other also (Matthew 5:39b). It is well documented that in the Middle East such a blow could
not be administered with the left hand. A person so struck on the right cheek would have to have received a backhanded slap
equivalent to an insult. Civil law expressly prohibited such a gesture between peers, limiting it to masters and slaves, superiors
and inferiors. Severe penalties would be imposed on the master for striking a slave (on the left cheek with the right hand) for
whimsical reasons. Therefore, this teaching of Jesus, recognized and recathected, is that an oppressed person who turns the left
cheek reclaims a personal dignity and renders the humiliator's conventional procedures empty.
The powerless are advised in this teaching not to resist on an aggressor's terms. Turning the other cheek contains neither an
act of submission nor defiance but a response to humiliation that changes the rules by which both parties now operate. Drawing
heavily upon this text, the nonviolent civil disobedience of the Southeran Christian Leadership Conference was instituted, not to
idealize masochism or stir pity, but to prompt legal proceedings that would in turn require humiliators to defend their rules in
Federal courts. This exegeted text is one example of the dismantling of a naive religious notion, corrected by an

2 Public Conference, Biblical Foundations for Pastoral Counseling, sponsored by the Pastoral Counseling Department, Postgraduate Center for Mental
Health, New York City, January 6, 1986.
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encounter with religious materials formerly ignored or misconstrued. As with all development, progress is not simply a product of
clear-headedness but requires reengagement with the object, the text.
The cathexis of a religious objectthat is, the interactive relation occurring between the self and the text which alters the
self's previous representationscannot be realistic or unrealistic. Cathexes create and recreate the nature of reality and thus they
can only be relatively gratifying, intense or weak, durable or malleable, as the Judeo-Christian scriptures attest with respect to the
connectedness of people to God. While the religious object is perpetually vulnerable to distortion, particularly the projective
distortion that misperceives the object as a compendium of personal wishes (Freud, 1927), the common assumption that religious
cathexes must contain this distortion simply does not hold up to empirical scrutiny. The most extensive critical review of research
to date concerning the interrelationship between religious belief and behavior (Bateson and Ventis, 1982) indicates that, when the
extrinsic factor of social desirability is controlled, the intrinsic religious quests of adulthood result in increased tolerance, mental
health, and sensitivity to the needs of others.
This research is cited here to keep the record clear, but that does not reduce a religious cathexis to a conventional social
value. Neither religion nor psychoanalysis fosters the sort of debilitating quietism or spurious contentment claimed by opponents.

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In fact, outcomes such as tolerance, mental health, and sensitivity to the needs of others continuously disrupt conventional
rationality and stability. Religious experience, like the psychoanalytic experience, subverts conventional order within persons,
relationships, families, and nations. The former analysand is an untrustworthy member of the realm as the intervention of
unconscious, unmediated experiences portends divorce, change of profession, the abandonment of religious or political
allegiances, and responses to daily living that are no longer predictable (Roustang, 1980, chapter 6). Religious cathexes
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erroneously thought to gratify infantile wishes are more often observed to be inconvenient and taxing as believers ignore class
distinctions, national boundaries, and the authority of officials. In some cathexes of self and object, believers may become
irrationally driven to oppose injustices that do not directly affect them. Like former analysands they may cease to live in terror of
death or any other established facts; they may no longer be surprised or disoriented by the shortcomings of the world; they may
minimize the overall importance of their possessions; they may desire and not fear the well-being of others.
Without doubt Freud (1927) predicted that such soundness and strength to redress the world's ills would emanate someday
from unindoctrinated, nonreligious, scientifically minded persons engaged in the grand experiment of reason (Logos). He simply
could not imagine that in the atheistic climate of the latter twentieth century, seminal leadership, funding, and strategy promoting
human rights and philanthropic commitments, opposing imperial wars, nuclear overkill, Apartheid, homelessness, and the like
would continue to come from the religious community. Such outcomes are not exactly commonplace among believers or
analysands, but they demonstrably do occur and thereby persist in altering the shape of reality.

This paper has attempted to show that the psychoanalytic paradigmspecifically the centrality of the unconsciousand the
literature of the Judeo-Christian tradition share an elusive kinship called pseudo-atheism. At the intellectual level pseudo-atheism
refers to the claim of each that rational understandings in the manifest world distort and falsify dimensions of human experience
and, further, that such rationality is altered by the intervention of unmediated experiences that cannot be unconditionally
specified. The same psychoanalytic theory which holds this view is, paradoxically, unable to define the unconscious of which it
speaks any more than the Judeo-Christian
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religion can define its God. Nevertheless, at the psychodynamic level each contends that the dimensions of experience expand as
a result of the cathexis of the distinctively separate object, undifferentiable from imagos, projections, and introjections, except for
the fact that cathexis of the object alters previous self-understandings, ideational representations, and behaviors. For analysands
and believers alike, such interventions demonstrably occur and lead to actions altering reality, despite the fact that these cannot be
rationally defended or explained.
No further congruity between religion and psychoanalysis is implied by this discussion. Where psychoanalysis is content to
affirm the limitlessness of individuated desire and imagination, religion ventures to speak of similarity of experience within and
among persons who cathect an unknowable God, and even speaks of valid or invalid cathexes. In this regard the viscissitudes of a
personal unconscious are easier to comprehend and analyze than the fact that religious heritage, common irrationality, exists at

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Kuhn, T. (1970), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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WARNING! This text is printed for the personal use of the owner of the PEP Archive CD and is copyright to the Journal in
which it originally appeared. It is illegal to copy, distribute or circulate it in any form whatsoever.
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Article Citation [Who Cited This?]

Ahlskog, G. (1990). Atheism and Pseudo-Atheism in the Psychoanalytic Paradigm. Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought
13: 53-77

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